Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is a mental health condition caused by witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence. PTS in the first responder community affects hundreds of thousands first responders, as well as their family members and friends.
First responders are twice as likely to suffer from PTS. Someone experiencing PTS could have the following signs and symptoms; flashbacks, experience bad dreams, frightening thoughts, disrupted daily routines, lose interest in activities and hobbies, startles easy, feeling tense, angry outbursts, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, emotionally numb, suicidal thoughts, etc……
A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6% had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population. I’m a part of that 6.6%.
That’s right, I’ve attempted suicide before….. I was going through a severe bout of depression and it had gotten so bad that I didn’t eat very much for nearly a month. I lost an enormous amount of weight and became very secluded. None of my clothes fit and I was essentially waisting away. My mental health was following suit. It all came to a head on May 25, 2010. I was invited to go walk at a local park by a friend who was obviously concerned about me. We had a great talk and visit. For a brief moment I felt ok again, but as soon as I got home it hit my like a sledgehammer.
The last thing I remembered was walking through my front door. After that, I woke up the next day in the ER from an apparent drug overdose, but I still had no idea how I got there or why I was there. I had no idea that I had even attempted to take my own life. I was later transported to a mental hospital for an evaluation, where I stayed for 3 days. I was surrounded by concrete and felt completely out of place. I was confused and was trying to make sense of what was going on. I still didn’t know why I was there. On my exit interview they asked me “Do you feel suicidal? Do you want to harm yourself or others?” I answered “No! Why would I ever want to do either of those things?” That’s when I found out what had happened and why I was there…. That was my first warning sign that I narrowly escaped. And I still had no idea I was dealing with PTS.
Things got better for me for a little while. I still had the anger issues and would battle the seasonal depression, the anxiety had subsided some, but came back with intensity when me and my beautiful bride Ashley got married in 2013. We were building an addition on to our house and anything that could go wrong, did….. Mix the stresses of construction with the learning curve and troubles of blending a family together and you’re looking at a perfect storm for someone suffering from PTS. The stress was off the charts and my angry outbursts were equally as intense. I felt like I was effectively turning into the Incredible Hulk, but not in a good way. I was destroying my house with every outburst. Kicking in doors, punching walls, throwing furniture and being verbally ugly to every single member of my family. I would get so worked up, I’d have to leave and sleep in my truck. It would usually take about 24 to 48 hours for me to reset and be able to be around people again. I even slept in my truck on Christmas Eve one year. I hated life then, it was like a monster that I couldn’t control. I never knew when it would show up or even what was triggering it. I felt ashamed, unloveable and disgraced.
My beautiful bride and children suffered greatly during this time. They not only watched me going through this up close, but also had to walk on egg shells otherwise I would turn my anger and rage against them. I would say mean and ugly things to them, punish them unfairly and ground them for weeks. It’s almost like I wanted Ashley and my children to hate me as much as I hated myself.
But that didn’t happen. You see when God sent me Ashley (my beautiful bride), He knew I needed someone special. Someone that could see the big picture and someone that would help me even when I didn’t want it. She refused to leave, even when I would kick her and the kids out of the house. She prayed nonstop for me and for us as a family. She would write her prayers on pieces of paper and lay them on my pillow or somewhere I would see them. She never gave up on God or me. She knew He would heal me at least to the point that I could love again. She had no idea I was dealing with PTS. She just knew whatever it was, that God could heal it.
October 7-13, 2018 is Mental Health Awareness Week. Show your support for those battling mental illness and stop the stigma. You can wear a lime green or neon green ribbon, ring or bracelet which has been designated as the color associated with mental health awareness. Also if you know someone struggling with PTSD or mental illness, do everything in your power to get them help. And let them know they are loved and not alone.
Below are links to organizations dedicated to assisting first responders suffering from PTS. You can use these sites to educate and guide you through the process of getting help and understanding of this horrible mental illness.
Back on May 30th I kicked off a summer packed full of some of the best hiking the United States has to offer. And what better way to kick this adventure off than a thru-hike on the oldest long distance trail in the US, the 273 mile Long Trail in Vermont. Built between 1910 and 1930, the Long Trail follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont line to the Canadian border as it crosses Vermont’s highest peaks. This trail was the inspiration for Benton MacKaye’s Appalachian Trail.
McGee Tyson Airport Knoxville, TN
My journey began with a flight out of Knoxville, TN with a connector flight out of Charlotte, NC then on to Hartford, CT. Shortly after touching down Matt & Will from ZPacks and our friend Trystans flight arrived. We all picked up our packs and met up with our ride who generously took us to Walmart to get our food for the next 7 days.
The next morning we got a ride to the Appalachian Trail in North Adams, MA. where we geared up and began hiking the four miles in to the southern terminus of the Long Trail. Of course we signed the register and officially began our thru-hike.
Matt Favero and Will Wood of Zpacks, LLC
It was great to be on the trail again with the guys. We mesh well and honestly it’s good to hike with others that you are in sync with, same speed and mind set. Compatible hiking partners are hard to come by. And people change too. Someone you use to hike with my not match up we now. The more we hike, the more we evolve.
Over all our weather wasn’t bad. It was in the 40s to 50s at night and 60s to 70s in the day. We had quite a bit of rain a few days but we also had a good dry spell. Water was pretty easy to find on the trail. There seemed to be a beaver pond or stream every few miles.
Yellow Deli Hostel in Rutland, VT
One of the things I remember most about this trip was our resupply stops in Rutland and Waterbury. Those were two incredibly beautiful towns. The people were super friendly and it wasn’t too hard getting a hitch in and out of town.
We stayed at the Yellow Deli in downtown Rutland. It was centrally located to the grocery stores and post office. In Waterbury we stayed at the Best Western. It was close to the grocery store, restaurants and of course Ben & Jerry’s. It was the first time I had eaten any of their ice cream. It was pretty dang awesome. I would later have some in Burlington, VT.
I also remember the summits we made. Glastonbury, Stratton, Bromley, Mt Abraham, Burnt Rock, Camels Hump, Mt Mansfield and Jay Peak. Now don’t get me wrong, Glastonbury was cool, but Stratton to me meant more simply because of it’s history. Stratton Mountain was the sight where Benton McKaye envisioned the Appalachian Trail. So to stand on the same ground as Benton was very inspiring. Mt Abraham was our first alpine zone (above tree line). It was cool being able to see the Adirondacks in New York to our west and the Whites in New Hampshire to our east. We did Burnt Rock and Camels hump (both alpine zones) in perfect sunny weather. 360 degree views were amazing.
Summit of Mt Mansfield, VT (Highest Peak in Vermont)
But my favorite summits came on Mansfield and Jay Peak (also alpine zones). We did both of those during storms. They were completely socked in the clouds with rain and winds blowing in sideways. The most sketchy ascent was Mansfield. The rocks were wet and the wind was blowing us around. A Long Trail thru-hiker from Canada we met named Bulletproof nearly slid off the side of a boulder on the ascent. But in the end we all made it to the top completely soaked and exhausted, but safe. As if that wasn’t enough, it was time to descend off Vermont’s tallest peak and that’s were it got really sketchy….. There were some areas that you had to climb or in our case slide down the face of boulders with only a 2’ ledge to stand on near its bottom. Then traverse to the side just to drop another 20’ or 30’ between other boulders.
Stowe Mountain Resort in Stowe, VT
After this exhausting ascent and descent of Mt Mansfield, we all decided to go stay at Stowe Mountain Resort. We all needed to dry off, warm up, rest up and fill our bellies. It was at Stowe where the biggest impression was made on me. Us four dirty-smelly hikers showed up at a very high end resort. There were people pulling up in Porches, Lamborghinis, BMWs, Mercedes, etc. at the resort as the valet attendants would go and park their cars. At no time did the resort employees treat us less than the other guest. They were all polite and eager to help. In fact the next day the resort gave us a ride back to the trail in a Mercedes SUV. That is text book how you should run a business. Very impressive, some day I will have to take my beautiful bride there.
Jay Peak in Jay, VT
Summit of Jay Peak in Jay, VT
Near the end of our hike was the last summit, Jays Peak. When we got to the base of the mountain a pretty bad storm moved in. We found refuge in the emergency shelter that still standing. We were wet and cold once again, but we were determined to summit JP that day. Watching the weather closely on an app, we could see an opening about 2 hours long. That’s when we made a decision to make a run for it. Matt and my beardedself took off as fast as we could up the mountain. The trail was like a stream over flowing its banks, but we kept pushing forward. Before we knew it we were in the clouds and we started experiencing some of the highest winds we had ever hiked in. Once at the summit, the clouds were whipping by has if they were cars on a freeway. The visibility was down to about 40’to 50’ and the wind was so loud we couldn’t hardly hear ourselves yell at each other. After a few photos and videos, we began our descent off of Jay Peak. A short while after reaching our last shelter on this thru-hike, the storm quickly moved in for the night.
The next morning we were full of anticipation since we only had 8 miles to go to the northern terminus of the LT which was at the Canadian border. The trail was full of standing water and moose poop. Churned up by us walking through it creating a not so please soupy mix. But as the day went on it began to dry out and the sun actually came out to more less help us celebrate the completion of our thru-hike.
Time to “Lighten Up” and celebrate with Matt Favero and Will Wood
The border monument.
And just like that, the forest opened up into a clear cut area which looked like power lines would be there, but there were no power lines. It was the border. It was cut in a straight line as far as the eye could see. And then I noticed the monument, signifying the official borders of the United States and Canada. What a cool feeling knowing I just hiked 273 miles to the Canadian border. And to do this hike with my close friends made it even more awesome. I really appreciate Matt inviting me on this hike. It was absolutely awesome to hike the “oldest” long distance trail in the US. These are truly special friends that share the same passion for long distance hiking as I do and these guys get it done.
Journeys End sign, but we’re not done yet…
Once we were done at the border, we took the “Journeys End Trail”, a shuttle took us to Burlington where we stayed one night. Then it was off to Montreal, Quebec the next morning for a very quick tour of the city before heading home.
I honestly have to say that this was the toughest hike I’ve ever done. The LT is as rough as the Green Mountains are beautiful. This trip was filled with so many moments that I will never forget.
Here’s the video of our hike.
My Beardedself with my BlackRock Skully on the bus to Montreal
The Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal
Montreal’s finest. Montreal PD
Time to go home for a few days……. Next hike the JMT in California
The Gear List:
•Zpacks Arc Haul Backpack
•Zpacks Trekking Poles
•Zpacks 20 Degree Sleeping Bag
•Zpacks Camo Duplex & Tent Stakes
•Zpacks Stuff Sacks & Dry Bags
•Zpacks Zip Pouches
•Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacket & Pants
•Zpacks Trucker Hat
•GooseFeet Gear Custom Down Jacket
•Black Rock Gear Skully Beanie
•North By North Handkerchief
•Patagonia Lightweight Capilene Long Sleeve
•Uderarmer Stretch Running Shorts
•Darn Tough 1/4 Hiking Socks
•Brooks Caldera Trail Runners
•Dirty Girl Gaiters
•Thermarest Neo Air XLite
•Thermarest ZLite Seat
•Sea To Summit Pillow
•Vargo Outdoors Dig Tool
•Hygeinna Portable Bidet
•Anker 13,000 mAh Battery Bank
•Anker Double Wall A/C Charger
•Gua Sha Orthopedics Tool
•GoPro Hero 5 Session
•Extra Mini SD Cards & Holder
•Southern Terminus to Congdon Shelter
•Miles Hiked: 10.0 (plus 4.1 of approach trail(AT))
•Total Miles Hiked: 10.0
•Remaining Miles: 263.0
•Total Elevation Change: 3,968.6’
•Congdon Shelter to Glastenbury Tower
•Miles Hiked: 14.7
•Total Miles Hiked: 24.7
•Remaining Miles: 248.3
•Total Elevation Change: 6,741’
•Glastenbury Tower to Stratton Mt. IF Road
•Miles Hiked: 18
•Total Miles Hiked: 42.7
•Remaining Miles: 230.3
•Total Elevation Change: 7,640.4’
•Stratton Mt. IF Road to Bromley Ski Patrol Shelter
•Miles Hiked: 14.7
•Total Miles Hiked: 57.4
•Remaining Miles: 215.6
•Total Elevation Change: 4,840.5’
•Bromley Ski Patrol Shelter to Little Rock Pond Shelter
•Miles Hiked: 16.8
•Total Miles Hiked: 74.3
•Remaining Miles: 198.8
•Total Elevation Change: 6,292.6’
•Little Rock Pond Shelter to Governor Clement Shelter
When Will “Red Beard” Wood and my Beardedself hiked the Benton MacKaye Trail, our first resupply was in Reliance, TN at a place called Hiwassee Waterwater Co./Flip Flop Burgers. That’s where we met Bryan Mayhew. Even though I didn’t know Bryan, I instantly felt we had more in common than we both realized. After spending 24 hours with Bryan I learned a lot about him. I learned that my initial feeling was absolutely correct. I learned that Bryan wasn’t only a veteran firefighter & paramedic, but he too was dealing with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). That’s when I asked him if he would be willing to share his store and be a guest blogger. Bryan instantly said yes and shortly sent me this article to post.
Here’s a short bio on Bryan;
Bryan Mayhew primarily grew up in Middle Tennessee from the beginning of high school on. He spent 27 years in public safety serving in the roles of paramedic, firefighter and instructor. Took an early retirement after being with Nashville Fire Department for 20 years and opened a business riverside on the Hiwassee River in Reliance, TN. Bryan and his wife now operate Hiwassee Whitewater Company an up and coming outfitters store with lodging and Flip-Flop Burgers. He has been married to his wife Mechell for 26 years having two children and two grandchildren.
“If you said you wanted to walk in my shoes, I would destroy them. If you said you wanted to see what I have seen through my eyes, I would close them. This is not to blind the truth, but to hide the pain that firefighters, ems and police feel every day. I am a veteran of public safety for over 27 years. I started out as a volunteer with countless hours doing what I thought was going to be exciting and glamorous. Over a career of responding to emergencies some of the calls never go away. Having a strong heart and solid soul with an upbringing of helping others, you slowly find yourself encompassed in an emotional battle that leaves no victor. I have continued the path of caring for the sick and injured by becoming and emergency medical technician. The educational process was progressive from E.M.T. to paramedic to firefighter and onto instructor. I went from volunteer through convalescent and into rural E.M.S. After leaving rural EMS I became employed with a large metropolitan department. I took an early retirement after 20 years of service. To add validity to my awareness I was stationed on the busiest ambulance in the United States 2000-2001 according to a national firehouse publication, four shifts doing 9000 calls. This is common to many departments across our nation. I don’t feel specific detail of calls are necessary, but a general knowledge allows more than enough information to protect you from vivid unnecessary mental images. If arriving on the scene of one horrific incident isn’t enough……add the progression of hundreds to your daily thoughts. This does not include the thousands of calls made since the start. Lives and families are ruined by the same need and care that we provide. Post-traumatic stress is real and relentless in it’s victims.
You never know what response will affect you the most. The response is an interpretation of actions from the individuals involved in any incident. This can be a victim, family, bystander, responder or organization. The stresses from a regular response are cumulative and have their own directional channel. Begin to add a personal attachment and empathy with the victims. When you turn towards a support mechanism that should be in place, you meet with employer resistance and political agendas. Time has changed society to the point of compromising its integrity. Being a responder now holds an incredible amount of liability and personal safety concern from violence to disease. A single novel could not portray most responder’s struggles in life, unfortunately a single moment has ended many by their own inability to cope.
Some people might wonder why a simple action would trigger an unusual response. For a responder what most people would find uncommon becomes ordinary by repetitious mental imaging. I have always tried to help others, even when it has meant sacrificing a part of myself. I have tried to give a bedside manner that is comforting to my patient and their family regardless of the circumstances or their demaenor towards me. I have found myself distancing from my family in hopes of not having to feel the pain that I share with the victims that I respond to. Realizing some of the abrupt and horrific incidents and endings to life you never want to share with others. Some people ask what the worst thing you have ever seen, But I have never heard what is the worst you have ever felt. I wouldn’t answer that question because it’s beyond anything I have ever seen.
Supporting those suffering from post-traumatic stress can vary from a simple kind word when needed to others requiring prolonged intervention. Be supportive of your friends and family that serve and protect because you can be the difference in their life.”
I would like to thank Bryan and his wife Mechell for not only showing me the absolute warmest hospitality when I stayed at Hiwassee Whitewater Co., but also for their friendship. When I left their place after my resupply during my BMT hike, I felt like I was leaving my family behind. I’ve never felt that way about a hostel or resupply point. I felt that way cause they took me in and treated me like family. Bryan and I shared a special bond. We had both seen and done things during our public service carriers that we couldn’t talk about and things that haunted us. Plus it’s hard to put into words what we’ve experienced. But one thing is certain. We’ve both found ways to cope with it. We’ve both chosen to not be the monsters that PTS can turn you into. Our faith in God and our love for our families is what inspires us to chose better. Choose to not let PTS control us.
Thank you. Bryan Mayhew for sharing your incredible story with us.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to preview the latest documentary by Chris Smead at Outmersive Films (formally known as Chris is Productions) called “The High Sierra Trail”. I consider Chris as a friend of mine and when he reached out to me to asked if I’d be interested in watching the documentary and tell others what I thought about it, of course I said yes.
The documentary is captured with the essence that you are on this backpacking trip on the High Sierra Trail with Chris and his friend John, but at the same time you’re receiving a history lesson about the different areas you’re entering along the way. Historian William Tweed, a 30 year national park service veteran does an outstanding job both narrating and explaining the significance of each specific area that Chris and John entered as they hiked the High Sierra Trail. He explained the history of the trail is such great detail. Honestly I could sit and listen to William all day. The tone of his voice and his unending knowledge of the High Sierras grabbed my attention and had me hanging on for more.
I was also quite impressed with the animation in this documentary. Chris made it seem that the historical photos were coming to life as if it were videos instead of photographs. It brought each of these old photographs to life right before my eyes. Matching these up with Williams Tweeds historical knowledge was a perfect match.
Now Chis is a great videographer in is own right. I loved that he was able to capture the real essence of every situation. The humorous situations (which there were many) along with the reality of life on the trail, Chris captured it all. I also love that he wasn’t afraid to be real in front of the camera. It’s so easy to be fake or not be our true selves when we’re being filmed, not with Chris. He seems very comfortable and very much himself when in front of the camera.
After watching The High Sierra Trail I honestly wanted to cancel my up coming John Muir Trail hike and do the High Sierra Trail instead. It looked absolutely amazing. Even though both trails join together for about 15 miles and summit Mt Whitney ( the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states) together. The rest of each trail are very different from one another.
The Team Behind the Film:
Outmersive Films is a newly formed arts collective founded by Chris Smead. He had previously operated solo, under the name “Chris Is Awesome Productions” when the direction of his hobby was unclear. As things turned more serious and other collaborators began joining in, it became obvious that it needed to be reinvented.
Soon after shooting the film and making the trailer, Chris was approached by Bruce Goodman, a professional colorist who had worked on countless Hollywood films as well as Mile, Mile and A Half. Shortly after, Bill Meadows and Alex Knickerbocker (of Mr Robot, Fast and Furious) reached out and offered their post sound talents. Long time friend Jacen Spector joined the show to save Chris from his notoriously terrible marketing skills, and Emma Massick recently joined to help lead marketing and social media management. Gordon Gurley, an experienced videographer and audio engineer has provided a lot of guidance during the project and will be taking a much more active role for the next project. The Outmersive family is growing and we’re excited to see what we can create together.
Here’s another teaser trailer for Outmersive Films newest film, The High Sierra Trail! Be sure to check out his page for upcoming showings of the full film… it’s worth watching!!
Want to know where and when you can get a chance to see this film? Here is all of Outmersive Films social media accounts. You can follow them to keep up with what all is going on with the High Sierra Trail documentary.
View of Clingman’s Dome from Alum Cave Trail in GSMNP
The subject of PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in the emergency service field is something I’ve felt like I’ve needed to write about for a while now, but never knew what exactly to say. And to be honest, I’ve actually been running from it like the plague. Why?… Because it hits a little too close to home for me. And well let’s face it. By writing about it requires me to possibly have to revisit some memories that are painful and horrifying.
Benny Braden: 1st Lieutenant, Rescue Diver, EMT, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor, Vehicle Extrication Instructor, Water Rescue Team Leader and more…. 📷: Roane Co. Rescue Squad in Harriman, TN[[[[[[[[[[[[
You see I was in the fire, emergency and rescue fields combined for a little over a decade. I’ve been a first responder, EMT, volunteer firefighter, rescue diver, swiftwater rescue instructor, water rescue team leader, vehicle extrication and EVOC instructor, first lieutenant and more.
If the alarm went off, I went. No matter where I was or what I was doing. One year I served over 2000 volunteer hours. That was on top of my normal day job. I sacrificed my time, my family’s time and my body. But little did I know then I was sacrificing my mental health too.
Some days we wouldn’t have many calls, but on other days it was nonstop. I will spare you of the details because I don’t want to put images in your head. But I will say I’ve see a person die nearly every way someone can. Those images stay with me day and night, 24 hours a day.
When I did that work I tried to block it out after the call. And initially it worked, but there comes a time that you see too much. So much that attempting to block it out no longer works. And back then we didn’t routinely practice debriefings. When the call was over, we would go home or go do the next call. It was never discussed of talked about.
I didn’t start noticing something was wrong till three years after I left the emergency services. I started battling depression that grew pretty severe. I was put on medication to help with the depression, but it still didn’t hit me that something was wrong. All the warning signs were there, but I wasn’t paying attention.
After a couple failed marriages and relationships. Four years later I married my beautiful bride. She and her two beautiful daughters moved in. We began remodeling on our house. Adding more space for everyone. At the same time my brother passed away due to long term use of narcotics. And it wasn’t long then that we adopted my two nieces. Making my family of two (me and my son) into a family of seven.
It wasn’t till then that I became a monster. The high stresses of remodeling a house mixed with getting to know new people that were not only living with me, but also depending on me was overwhelming. It was triggering anxiety attacks. It seemed as if we were fighting all the time and it was getting worse by the day. Put all of that on top of the hidden wounds from the years of emergency service. It was then that I started experiencing the severe anxiety attacks.
After a few years of dealing with depression and anxiety attacks which made life an absolute living hell. I rediscovered hiking again. I use to hike a lot when I was younger, but slowly gravitated away from it. But this time I was backpacking. Loading everything on my back and going into the woods for days.
I began to do longer hikes. Instead of being out for days, I was staying out longer. It was then that I began to notice something. I was starting to feel different afterwards. I was less stressed. I could handle the high stress without becoming a monster. The anxiety attacks and depression seemed to lessen. My beautiful bride began see the results which opened up opportunities for us to talk about what was going on.
The best way I can describe it is this way. It’s like I have a huge desk in my head and it’s a complete mess with piles of images of things I’ve seen and done. When I’m out on the trail it’s like I can pull one of the images out of the pile, pray about it, make some sense of it and then file it way where it belongs. This requires lots of pray and sometimes painfully revisiting those moments or events, but the end result is that I’m able to finally have peace from a memory that has haunted me for over a decade.
Honestly, that is why I hike so much. It brings me peace and helps me come to terms with my past. It also gives me that one on one time with my Creator. I give God all the glory for revealing this to me and helping me slowly overcome this. Now my battle with PTS is far from over, but I now have a coping mechanism to help me deal with it. The down side to being gone so much is the loss of time with my beautiful bride and kids. But the time we now have together is quality time. More time is spent laughing, loving and enjoying each other’s company. Instead of everyone having to walk on egg shells, worried about setting me off and sending me into another anxiety attack.
This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be ran monthly here on Plug-it In Hikes blog. I will have guest bloggers who were once or currently in the EMS, fire, rescue or law enforcement field sharing their story about their battle with PTS and how they are coping with it. My hope is that these posts will help someone who is also dealing with PTS. As you can see I refuse to call it PTSD. Let’s drop the D (disorder). No one wants to be labled with having a disorder. In the meantime keep my beardedself and the other future bloggers in your prayers.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 NIV
Me and my good friend Will “Red Beard” Wood from Zpacks had been planning to thru-hike the 286 mile long Benton McKaye Trail (BMT) for a few months now. And in the end, we settled on a late February/early March hike. We felt like that would be a great time of year to do the hike. So we decided to start on 2/28 and go North Bound (NOBO).
Back in December I picked each of us up a BMT guide book from a local outfitter and started planning my daily mileages and food drops.
But I also chose to drop two days worth of food at the bear bin at Smokemont Campground. I checked with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) Backcountry office if it was ok.. and it was. I also went on ahead and reserved our campsites in GSMNP. They don’t have a thru-hiker permit for the BMT like they do for the Appalachian Trail (AT). So you need to reserve your campsites in advance, but not more than 30 days out. That’s the earliest you can reserve them.
When selecting my gear, I wanted to try some things that I hadn’t tried before since it was just a 286 mile long hike. I also was using this hike as a “shakedown” hike for the 220 mile John Muir Trail (JMT) that I’ll be doing in July with my buddy Chad “Stick” Poindexter of Stick’s Blog. I was also using this hike to prep for the 272 mile Long Trail in Vermont in June with my buddies Matt Favero and Will Wood from Zpacks.
I got my Zpacks “black on black” grid stop Arc Haul Backpack out. It’s a one of a kind pack that my buddy Will used for a year or so. It had about 300 to 500 miles on it when I got it. I stitched up a couple of rips in the back mesh pocket. I’ve since put 72 miles on it from our Florida Trail hike back in December. This was going to be a true real test for this pack though. How would it hold up, carry and would it keep my stuff dry.
I decided to NOT bring my umbrella on this trip and instead rely souly on my Zpacks Vertice Rain Jacketand Pants. It was going to be a big risk especially since they were forecasting heavy rain the first two days. I also chose NOT to bring a pack towel… Those decisions would come back to haunt me later..
Here is a run down of the gear I started out with for this hike.
Since Will and I had decided to go NOBO. He met me at the trails northern terminus at Big Creek in GSMNP to drop his vehicle off. We loaded all the gear up in my truck and headed south to Springer Mt. But on our way we made a quick stop at Smokemont to drop my food box off and in Franklin to pick up some stove fuel Will was needing.
We finally made it to Springer around 4 PM where Will’s dad and brother was waiting on us. His dad was going to take my truck to his house instead of leaving it on top of the mountain unattended.
Will and I had talked it over and had decided to stay at the Springer Mt Shelter that night and get a fresh start the next morning. When we got to the shelter there were two AT thru-hikers there. So we spent the evening getting to know them and shared a few beers we packed in.
Day 1 / Feb. 28, 2018
Mile 0 (Georgia Monsoon)
When I woke up and heard the rain hitting the metal roof of the Springer Mountain shelter, I knew then it was going to be a wet day. I just didn’t realize how bad that was actually going to be. We only had 14.8 miles to do that day, but it was going to be done in heavy rain and it didn’t let up. Lunch and breaks were out of the question. There wasn’t a dry place to be found. I had also rolled my left ankle about 4 different times through out the day. By the final 2 hours of hiking that day, I was getting leg cramps bad. I had only drank 60 ozs of water. I hadn’t used any of my Skratch Labs hydration supplements yet….. Which I know would have completely prevented that. I contributed the leg cramps to me being on a new medication for my Type 2 Diabetes that I was diagnosed with just the day before I got on the trail. But after 6 hours of hiking in the heaviest rain imaginable, we finally made to to our campsite which was at the Toccoa Bridge.
We were both soaked to the bone. Our rain suits had wetted out, which I was very surprised. But mine did have a lot of miles on it. It had worked perfectly in the many rains storms in the Smokies I was in during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. But what I didn’t realize is that after a while, you need to reapply the DWR coating on the fabric….. I’ll not make that mistake twice.
We set up our tents as quickly as we could, being mindful not to set up too close to the river. With all the rain we had gotten, we were certain it would be rising out of its banks by morning.
With all cloths and gear piled up in the corner, I crawled into my dry slepping bag and went to sleep without eating. I was both physically and mentally exhausted.
I woke up during the night to the sound of heavy rain hitting the DCF material of my tent. I was thirsty and wanted to get a drink of water, but I realized I had drunk all of my water earlier. So I grabbed my Vargo Outdoors Titanium mug and a couple of YeeHaw Brewing cans that I had brought with me and sat them under the corner on my tent to collect the rain water. I collected enough to fill up 80 ozs of water which I drank half of it. Then went back to sleep.
Day 2 / Mar. 01
Mile 14.8 (The Nero)
That morning we woke to a very saturated forest and a very sore ankle. The river we had camped next to had risen 2′ overnight. And where our tents were set up was now a pond, but the rain had temporarily stopped. The air was very moist. The condensation on the inside of our tents was bad. Everything inside the tent was wet from the day before or very damp from the condensation.
The weather forecast for the next few days was going to be sunny and cold. But we still had more rain to come today. So we decided to hike to the next road crossing and hitch into either Blue Ridge or Blairsville, get a motel room and start drying all of our gear. I was slow getting going due to my ankle, But finally got up to speed…. somewhat..
We packed up and headed out. The road was still 3.7 miles from us so we hiked with a determination to beat the rain, but as we got to road, the rain started up again. We quickly set our tents up to temporarily get out of the rain till it died down enough so we could try to hitch into town.
About 30 minutes later a nice man and woman stopped and picked us up and took us to Blairsville. It felt so good knowing we were about to be able to get all dried off soon. They dropped Will and my beardedself off at the Best Western Hotel where we split the cost of the room. With the thru-hiker discount the room only cost $68. With the cost split, it was only $34 each person. That’s just a hair more than what you would pay at a hostel.
Once there I immediately began to try to line us up a ride back to the trail. So I announced it on my social media. Later that night one of my Instagram followers Kris Stancil responded and said he would be glad to take us back to the trail…… That was an answered prayer.
While in town we went and had us a burger and a couple of beers at Copeland’s. The burger was absolutely delicious. I also had a couple of Yuenglings with my meal. Beer always goes great with a great burger. I also went to the grocery store to pick up a few Zip Lock baggies as extra insurance for some of my gear. I also got online and ordered another umbrella from Zpacks and had them ship it to our first resupply location in Reliance. I chose to just order another one vs having my beautiful bride mail mine to me.
Day 3 / Mar. 02
Mile 18.5 (Back To The Trail)
Will and my beardedself woke up with breakfast on our minds, so we got dressed and headed over to the Country Cafe’ for some home cooked breakfast. It was a cute little mom and pop restaurant. The food was delicious and it was great being able to have a cup of coffee too.
Afterwards we headed back to the hotel to get all of our gear packed up. We had it scattered all over the room drying it out. Kris was set to pick us up at 11:30 so we wanted to make sure we would be ready to go when he got there.
Like clock work, Kris showed up and picked us up. He offered to take us out to lunch, but we were still stuffed from the late breakfast we ate. We deeply appreciate Kris’s generosity and his willingness to help a couple of hikers out. It was really great getting to know him a little. Kris saved the day.
Once back on trail, we were glad it was sunny and cooler. It was a long day but we finally made it to Tipton Mt where we set up camp for the night. We had barely missed the sunset, but we could still see some beautiful colors in the clear sky above. But it was just dark enough that we needed our head lamps to set our tents up. It felt good to be back on the trail again…… and dry.
Day 4 / Mar. 03
Mile 31.2 (Toast & Jammz)
We woke up to a very frosty world. The temps had dropped to the mid 20s during the night, but we had miles to do and a restaurant along the way that had some warm food waiting on us. So we got packed up and got on trail pretty quick. A hiker will always be motivated by food…
We made it down to the Shallowford Rd which started our first road walk of this hike. After crossing the Shallowford iron bridge, the Iron Bridge Store & Cafe’ was right across the road. We couldn’t resist the urge to drop our packs at the door and go in and order a good warm meal. I had 2 bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches, a salad with grilled chicken and coffee. I’m surprised I didnt order a milk. For whatever reason I always crave milk when I’m on the trail.
As bad as we hated to, we got back on the road and headed north. The power poles had blazes on them so we knew we were headed in the right direction. After about a 3 mile road walk, we were back on the trail.
We were excited to reach camp because our friends Eric and Jessica aka Toast and Jammz were going to meet up and camp with us. So we hiked as fast as we could. I was still banged up from the first day. I rolled my ankle on some wet rocks on the first day and my ankle had been very sore ever since. In fact, it was steadily getting worse. But I simply was trying to go slow and steady so I wouldn’t damage it any worse. My average speed was just over 2 mph.
Later I finally made it to camp where Toast greeted me with a nice cold beer and Jammz had a big hug for me. Jammz is pregnant and the baby aka Jelly Belly is due in around 5 weeks. That night we sat around the fire telling stories, laughing, making future hiking plans and simply enjoying each other’s company. This is what great hiking trips are made of.
Before we knew it, it was time for bed. It had been a long day. After we all made our way to our tents for the night, I laid in mine as I was editing photos and working on this blog post. My eyes would get heavy and I’d close them for a few minutes. As I did so, a bright light was shining in my face. I thought either someone wanted something or a ranger was checking on us. I opened my eyes and seen it was neither. It was a meteor shooting through the sky then breaking into many pieces. The whole forest was lit up. A few seconds later I heard a few loud booms from the meteor as it entered the atmosphere.
Now that was cool!!!!!!
Day 5 / Mar 04
Mile 47 (Trail Magic)
That morning when everyone woke up I asked them if they had seen or heard the meteor, but they all said no. So with excitement, I told them about what I had seen.
What made that so much cooler is when Toast and Jammz came and hiked with me in the Smokies last fall during my #fastestgsmnp900miler2 hike. We camped in the front yard of Ben King, one of the owners of Bryson City Outdoors. There was a major meteor shower that night so we all stayed up to watch it. As we were All sitting there watching the meteor shower. All of a sudden we seen a bright flash in the sky. It was like a camera flash. Then it flashed again, then dimmed. It pulsed bright and dimmed once again. Then it began to move in a short circular pattern, all while pulsing bright to dim. Then began to move to the side then angled off and faded out. We all just sat there and looked at each other afterwards not saying a word for a moment, knowing we all just seen something that none of us could explain.
Back to our thru-hike.. We all got packed up and headed out to the car. Toast drove us into Blue Ridge and we grabbed a bite at The Fry Shop. It was delicious! It’s located in the downtown area of Blue Ridge where all the shops and restaurants are. Afterwards we walked around checking out the shops and went to the grocery story to grab a few items we were needing for the trail. Toast and Jammz also treated us to some trail magic. They bought us a few beers and gave us a ride to the trail head so we wouldn’t have to do all of the road walk. (We ended up skipping an 8 mile section, taking us around Cherry Log and Blue Ridge. It wasn’t all road walk as we once believed. I am actually planning to come back in the fall and redo all of the BMT). Toast, Will and my beardedself shared a couple of beers before we got back on trail. We said our goodbyes and entered the woods once again. I’m very thankful for friends like Toast and Jammz. They are good people and I can’t wait till Jelly Belly gets here.
Once back on trail, both Will and my beardedself weren’t feeling this whole hiking thing. So we made it 5 miles and set up camp at Hatley Gap which had a excellent campsite. We enjoyed a good campfire (which I was able to start with my new firestarter that my friends Scott and Beth White got me for my birthday) and great conversation till it was time for bed.
Day 6 / Mar. 05
Mile 61 (Easier Day)
We had a few tough climbs that morning, but nothing too difficult. Once on top of the ridge we pretty much just cruised along. There’s nothing better than a good ridge walk. I was still nursing my foot, but it felt like it was slowly getting better as the day went along. My goal was to just be easy with it and make it last through this hike.
We made it to the intersection where the northern terminus of the Pinhoti Trail connects with the BMT. It’s really very remote and just seemed odd to have a major trailhead there. No thrills, views or epic finish point……. But it was pretty awesome to see the terminus. I plan to thru hike it in the next few years.
I really enjoyed the South Fork Trail. It has the same feel as the Smokies. The Cohutta Wilderness is a pretty rugged and remote section of forest. Definitely a beautiful area. The intersection with Jacks River Trail was a little confusing. It took us a minute or two and a little back tracking, but we finally figured it out. After a long day of hiking, we made it to Spanish Gap and the Hemp Top Trail intersection.
I noticed that I would get a second wind at the end of the day to where I would want to push for more mileage. Which my speed was slow and steady due to my ankle injury from the first day and I took less breaks. By the end of the day I still had enough energy to keep pushing for more. Will was really the opposite of me. He was much faster and took longer breaks (waiting on me), but by the end of the day he was ready to camp.
First and foremost I want to thank all of our Great Smoky Mountains National Park employees and volunteers for all of their hard work to keep all of our facilities, trails and roads open.
As someone who absolutely loves our Smokies, and sharing the gander and beauty that these mountains reveal. I spend days and at a time and sometimes weeks in the backcountry of the park. In 2017 I hiked over 2,200 miles in the park and completed 2- GSMNP 900-Milers. If I seen trails in bad shape or something that wasn’t right, I would alert employees and park officials so they could take care of the issues.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had an opportunity to communicate through email with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Management Assistant/Public Affairs Dana Soehn. I wanted to get a better understanding as to why the park was taking such an aggressive stance on road closures during bad weather. So at my request Dana sent me this email explaining why the park is closing roads so much now days. This is the email she sent me.
“Over the last year, our park staff has worked hard to develop protocols for road closures that best protect our visitors, park rangers, and emergency equipment operators. Our goal is to prevent people from traveling on a roadway that, based on forecasts and experience, we expect to become hazardous due to ice, snow, flooding, or falling trees. In order to meet this objective, our park rangers work hard to safely close roads before weather events occur so that we are not not placing visitors or emergency personnel in harm’s way during an active storm event. With our current ranger staffing levels, we are challenged to provide coverage across the parks’ 380 miles of roadways. Rangers perform safety sweeps along the roads to alert visitors to the closures. Depending on how widespread the weather event is expected to be, it can take several hours to safely effect a closure. We are trying to provide more timely notices to visitors by posting messages on our SmokiesRoadsNPS Twitter account about planned closures. Of course, sudden storms still pop up and our rangers respond as efficiently and safely as possible. With well-forecasted storms, we have an opportunity to implement closures in a manner that we feel is safer for all.
We understand that some would prefer that we only close roadways when conditions have left roads impassable. Unfortunately, this practice can unduly put our staff in hazardous situations when they are called to respond to wrecks and stranded motorists. Occasionally, we have implemented closures that became unnecessary when weather events did not materialize. We do work hard to reopen roadways efficiently, but this also takes time with our current staffing levels. We recognize that this is an inconvenience to our visitors and we work hard to balance the risks; however, our position is that we will always place safety first for our visitors and employees. We appreciate this opportunity to share our approach with you.”
I just want to thank Dana for sharing this information with us. It goes a long way to help clear things up and helps give us a little understanding to the parks new protocols. But I’ve also made a couple of suggestions that may help with a couple problems associated with the road closures. I feel there are a couple more things that the park could improve on that would definitely make these road closures less of an inconvenience.
So these 2 issues need to be addressed;
⚫Issue #1: If the park service closes roads or plans to close roads due to weather or a government shut down; ▪ List and post ALL roads and access points that are or will be closed on the website and the Smokies Roads Twitter page. Even the little side roads like Greenbrier, Cataloochie, Cosby Campground and Mt Sterling Road. Any access point to the park that is closed needs to be posted so the public will know. ▪ Notify those that have active & current backcountry permits that their access point will be closed via email or by phone. The park has the contact info for the permit holder. This needs to be a standard procedure in bad weather situations. The park service already sends emails to the permit holder advising them of approaching bad weather. Adding road closure information pertaining to the permit holders hike intenary needs to be apart of that system.
______________________ When camping in the backcountry, a backcountry permit is required. It costs $4 per person, per campsite/shelter. Currently the park service does not issue refunds on backcountry permits. They only offer to reschedule the permit, but no more than 30 days out. The average person typically can’t take additional days off from work within 30 days, especially week long trips. It’s like planning your vacation, making the reservations, traveling to there just to find out they are closed. Oh, and you don’t get a refund on top of that. They just offer to let you come back within 30 days…….. Who can take off additional time from work in the same month?…. There’s a better way…..
Here’s the a couple of suggested solutions to that issue:
⚫Issue #2: ◾If the park service closes roads due to a weather situation or government shut down, then the park service should offer; ▪ Option #1: Give a full refund to the backcountry permit holder. (It’s NOT the permit holders fault the roads are being closed. Therefore why should the permit holder pay the price and lose out) ▪ Option #2: Offer a credit in the backcountry permit holders name. The credit would be good towards future backcountry permits equal to the amount of the current permit. The credit can be good for the length of 6 months to 2 years.
These suggested solutions are small steps in improving the experience and the interactions the public will have with the park. As someone who loves the Smokies and appreciates the park service employees. To stand by and do or say nothing wouldn’t be good for our park or it’s visitors. There is always room for improvement and we can work together to fix things to improve the experience our park visitors have with our beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The level of concern the park has for the safety of it’s visitors and staff can’t be questioned. When you see a park employee or volunteer out, stop and say THANK YOU for all they do for our beautiful park and it’s visitors.