Benton MacKaye Trail Thru-Hike 2019

The Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT) runs from Springer Mt Georgia to the Baxter Creek Trailhead in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That’s nearly 290 miles of trail and some road sections.
In 2018 me and my friend Will “”Redbeard” Wood attempted to through hike the BMT, but after both of us became injured we made the decision to call it. We bailed out at the halfway point. It was the single toughest decision I’ve had to make in a long time. But I had been dealing with my injuries since day 1 and I struggled with every step.
But when I got off trail I vowed to return and do the trail in it’s entirety. That would mean redo over 146 miles again. But my goal wasn’t just to hike the trail, I wanted to thru-hike it. There’s something very fulfilling about thru-hiking a trail. Knowing you hiked every step in a single trip.
Plus I get the added benefit of walking off some of my “mental junk”. Stress and all the mental baggage we carry with us throughout life. Not releasing this or decompressing can lead up to unhealthy levels of “mental junk”. Long distance hiking allows me to cope with my PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) and allows me to get rid of my mental junk and function without becoming a monster at home.

Mapping & Planning

Last time I attempted to thru-hike the BMT I was using the green guide book. It was good, but at times hard to figure out which direction to go at certain trail intersections which aren’t marked very well.
So this time I not only used that guide book, but I also used the new BMT Guthook App. It was spot on and very easy to use. The data seemed to be very accurate and detailed. And honestly it was what I used on trail. I used the guide book as part of my planning phase. I would highly recommend both to be used in that manner.

Georgia Section

Southern Terminus of the Benton MacKaye Trail on Springer Mountain,

I began my thru-hike on a soggy Sunday morning. My good friend Dewey Slusher gave me a ride down to Springer so I wouldn’t have to leave my truck unattended there. We arrived and took a few photos and I was on my way.
The Georgia section in general was in great shape. There were very few blow downs and the trail was generally well marked, but it could use a little better blazing near intersections.

Toccoa River Suspension Bridge is located 15.1 miles from the southern terminus at Springer Mountain, GA

Brawley Mountain Fire Tower locates 33.5 miles from the southern terminus.

Shallowford Rd iron bridge located 38 miles from the southern terminus.

Point of interest in near the Shallowford Rd Iron Bridge is the Iron Bridge Cafe. Located right across the road from the bridge, it offered fresh cooked meals with a southern flair along with snacks, ice cream and soft drinks. There’s also restrooms, water and electrical outlets at this location to use on your visit. Also as I was in the Cohutta Wildlife Management Area, I met another thru-hiker “U-Turn”. He thru-hiked the Pinhoti Trail and then proceeded NOBO on to the Smokies. But while I’m the Cohuttas, I was treated to some trail magic that a friend had left for me. Perfect timing too. I was pushing for miles and was mentally and physically spent.

Indian Rock Shelter is located 52.4 miles from the southern terminus. It is the only shelter in the Georgia section of the BMT.

Tennessee Section

Immediately crossing the Tennessee border you’re greeted with a steep climb with no switchbacks as you make your way up Big Frog Mountain. And to be honest, in my opinion I thought this was the toughest climb I did on the whole trail. But on the way down the mountain I was treated to some trail magic which came at a great time to lift my spirits.
Getting to Thunder Rock Campground makes it all worth it. It’s a great place to either camp or take a break and off load some trash. I spent 10 years on the Ocoee River teaching Swiftwater Rescue for the Tennessee Association of Rescue Squads. It’s where we taught our level 1 class. In that class we taught law enforcement, firefighters, ems and rescue personnel how to effectively and safely perform rescues in fast moving waters like ones experienced is flooding conditions.
The Little Frog Wilderness is pretty awesome too. Once again knowing you are about to enter the community of Reliance. It’s a great place to send a resupply shipment to and to take a zero. I stayed at Hiwassee Whitewater Co otherwise known as Flip Flop Burgers. They have amazing food, great atmosphere to relax in as well as a bunk house and shower house. Owners Bryan and Michele really make their guest feel right at home.
As you continue your hike north you get to hike along the Hiwassee River. We also taught a level 2 Swiftwater Rescue class on the Hiwassee. And being on the river banks really brought back some great memories.

North Carolina Section

The North Carolina section seemed to be a little more remote. I really enjoyed the Citico Wilderness. It was very thick and rugged which reminded me of some of my favorite places in the Smokies. But North Carolina also had some places that were truly epic and a must see.
My campsite at Whigg Meadows was amazing! A grassy bald that offered up a beautiful sunset made for a great ending to my day. And the next morning I was treated to so trail magic at Mud Gap.
The Topaco Lodge is another must stop location. My buddy Sean Kamp met me and treated me to a pizza and beer at the lodge. It was absolutely amazing. The next day I pushed on to the Fontana Village Resort which was another great place to mail a resupply to.

Smokies Section

Entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was like going home. It was entering familiar territory. An area I knew like the back of my hand. Also knowing I was going to be hiking on Lakeshore Trail meant that my elevation change was going to be minor compared to what it had been. It was a great opportunity to put in some big miles without killing myself or my feet. After just 1.5 days I was in Bryon City taking a zero and spending sometime with my friends and sponsors Bryson City Outdoors. Definitely a great place to resupply at and replace any gear that might become damaged along your thru-hike.

Also while in Bryson City I spent some time at Horace Kephart‘s grave. It’s because of his efforts and others like him that we have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The land was protected and set aside for generations to come.
Other locations to checkout while in Bryson City is the Smoky Mountain Scenic Railroad, Anthony’s Pizza, Everett’s and the Relax Inn.

Once back on trail I kicked it into high gear and finished the Smokies in 2.25 days. I stayed at Smokemont Campground and at campsite 38 on top of Mount Sterling. The old fire tower gave me a 360 degree view and provided the perfect viewing point for the sunset the last evening and sunrise the last morning on trail.

With only 6 miles to finish my 289.7 mile thru-hike. I woke up early and proceeded down Baxter Creek Trail. While make my descent I ran into a couple of the Smokies Park Rangers Will and Nick. They were out checking trail conditions and picking up trash some irresponsible hikers had left behind. I certainly appreciate the Rangers and all they do for the park.
once at the bottom my friend Dana Parish met me with coffee and doughnuts!!!! She really loves me and understands what a bearded thru-hiker wants after a long hike…… FOOD!!!

But as much as I was excited to be done, I wasn’t quite finished……. Yes I finished my thru-hike of the Benton MacKaye Trail, but I had one more thing to do…..
A couple of days after I finished my thru-hike, I came back to the trailhead and picked up my friend Chris Smith aka U-Turn. The thru-hiker I met in Georgia. I gave hime a ride to Knoxville where he was able to rent a car and go back home to Florida. I really enjoyed my time with him and glad I was able to help him out the same way as Kristen and Clint from Vegas was able to help me out last year.

Final Thoughts

After completing my thru-hike of the BMT. I wanted to share my thoughts on this trail. Let you know what I liked and didn’t like about the trail. So here goes…….
Overall, I absolutely love this trail. It was tough and challenging, but then again I was doing low to mid twenties most days. I chose to go north bound simply because with me living about 1.5 hours from the northern terminus, it was sort of like I was hiking home. But this also created a few small issues for me. Number 1, the BMT has very few switchbacks. Therefore the trail usually goes straight up and then straight down the mountains. A lot of these are very steep which gave me very sore ankles. My feet, ankles, knees and achilles were extremely tender and sore the first few days.
I also was not too keen on the road walks, but sometimes that’s a necessary evil. Only problem spot I ran into was when I got on Boardtown Rd after the Indian Rock shelter in Georgia. I had a few dogs that were a bit aggressive…… as in a pit bull was literally nudging me with his muzzle on my calves to keep me moving down the road. Of course I didn’t give him any attention and just kept walking……
But I also liked the fact that I live roughly 1.5 to 2 hours from the entire trail. This allowed me to come home a couple of times to take zeros since I was moving so fast and was ahead of schedule.
If I could offer up any suggestions to make this trip any better. I would recommend more blazing at intersections. Some intersections were a little confusing and if it wasn’t for my Guthook App I probably would’ve made a wrong turn. So either more blazing or better signs at intersections (kind of the way the Smokies are).
Last but not least, I really appreciated the communication between me and the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. Anytime I ran into issues or seen areas on the trail that needed immediate attention. They were responsive and got it taken care of. Receiving this kind of response showed me the dedication they have to keeping the trail maintained and free of obstacles so hikers could have the best possible experience while hiking the trail. They also did follow ups insuring me those problems were being taken care of. Honestly that impressed me a lot. And made me proud to be a member of the BMT Association. You can become a member too. Here’s how.
You can also stay connected with the BMT Association through their social media.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Benton-MacKaye-Trail-Association-125189563051/
Instagram: https://instagram.com/bentonmackayetrail?utm_source=ig_profile_share&igshid=146m4ewynm59f
Twitter: https://twitter.com/BentonTrail

Video Series

Day 1: https://youtu.be/8cyagLdbEWw
The video series for this thru-hike will be released later in April 2019. A link will be placed here to my YouTube channel when those are ready.

Heartache, Perseverance and Healing (Ashley’s PTS Story)

 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

‭‭John‬ ‭14:27‬

A truth I will learn through heartache, perseverance, and healing.

Written By: Ashley Braden

Ashely and Benny at their wedding Nov. 24, 2013

     I’m standing in front of him, blocking the door, trying to keep him from leaving…again. He’s yelling at me to move. Cursing me for standing in his way. All I want is a hug, a kiss, and a simple “I love you” before he leaves. I beg. I’m crying harder than ever. He looks at me and it appears that he feels zero sympathy. It feels as though he doesn’t love me or our kids, even though I know he really and truly does. A scenario that we’d played out before and would continue to play out off and on for months to come. 

Phot Courtesy of : Outmersive Films


I’d never had to “deal” with anyone suffering from PTS before. We didn’t even realize that’s what was going on. All I knew was that my new husband acted like he hated me every single time we would disagree over anything, even the small stuff or when the kids would get too loud or argue or make a mistake. “That’s it, GET OUT OF MY HOUSE!” were words I heard too many times… my response? “No. We are married, this is my house now too and we have 3 kids. I’m not leaving.” So he left. Every. Single. Time. I would text and call over and over. Each and every time he left, I would go to the safe and count our handguns to make sure they were all there. I prayed he would not be found somewhere in his truck with a self inflicted gunshot. I worried myself sick sometimes and cried myself to sleep most times. He would leave and stay gone until the next day and when he would come home it would be as if nothing had ever happened. I would try to talk to him but he would not discuss anything. It was during this time that I really learned to pray.. when I learned how to spill my heart to God, trust him, and wait… wait very patiently. 

My Beardedself and my Beautiful Bride Ashley


One time when we were arguing, most likely over something small and unimportant, he decided to throw a bunch of my belongings outside… this included the wedding dress that I married him in. I picked my things up as he once again told me to get out and that he wanted a divorce. I left this time. I drove approximately 10 minutes away to my aunt and uncles. I pulled up and after my uncle made sure that the children or I had not been physically hurt, I asked him to please go check on Benny. I knew something was not right. He was dealing with a demon much bigger than I had ever had to face. I had some trouble with depression a couple of times as a younger adult and I knew this was not depression. I had also dealt with anxiety and this was like an anxiety attack on the largest dose of steroids you could imagine. After my uncle left I contacted a couple of our friends, Mike and Jonathan. They also headed towards our house. Benny was still there, in the back yard, digging. Digging. Digging. We were in the middle of a major addition project on our house. More stress for him. They talked to him, calmed him down. But it did not end the fits he had. 

Benny Braden


The fits continued…like a toddler version of the Hulk who hadn’t slept in days and all they wanted was for you to buy them a new toy…having a major meltdown with every toy you passed in the toy aisle at Walmart. And every time he left, I got stronger. I started praying like never before. I started loving Benny harder and loving God more. Each time he’d leave, I’d write a note and leave it on his pillow. Or I’d write down my prayers and leave them out for him to read. I prayed and I prayed and I prayed. And when I thought I couldn’t pray anymore, I prayed again. I KNEW God would fix him. I praised God for answering my prayers before he ever answered them. 

Ashley Braden in Frozen Head State Park

He kept saying he was broken. And I kept reminding him that God mends all things. I knew this because God had mended me. Many many times. He healed me of depression and anxiety when I was 18 and had lost my great-grandmother. He healed me of depression, anxiety, and self harm when I was going through separation and divorce with my ex-husband. I KNEW God could heal him. And that’s when he started backpacking. 

My Beardedself on top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park


With every backpacking trip, he had fewer meltdowns. With every backpacking trip, we grew closer. With every backpacking trip, I saw sparkle come back into his eyes. He would share with me the beauty of Gods creation that he saw. He would explain how close he felt to God while he was hiking.

My husband was being mended. God was answering my prayers just as I knew he would. We both grew closer to God and as we grew closer to God, we grew closer to each other. Our family was happier. Less stressed. Over time it got better and better and we all no longer felt like we had to walk on eggshells around him. There came a point where I could no longer remember the last time he left in anger. I could no longer remember when we’d had our last argument. We could disagree and it not turn into an atomic bomb exploding in our house. Our kids could argue like siblings do or be loud like kids are and it would not send him into hysterics. He finally figured out what was causing the anxiety attacks and the outbursts.. Post Traumatic Stress. 

My Beardedself as 1st Lieutenant, Head Rescue Diver, EMT, Water Rescue Team Leader, Swiftwater Rescue Instructor and Vehicle Extrications Instructor at Roane Co Rescue Squad.


Before we met, Benny had been an EMT worker, a rescue diver, a rescue squad member, etc. He’d seen too many things in this life that stuck with him long after the job was over. It took a toll on him and led to PTS. Finally we could put a name to what had caused his explosions. It made perfect sense now. My husband had suffered from Post Traumatic Stress. He still gets anxious occasionally but that’s when I say, “Honey..it’s time for a hike.” And even if he just takes a few hours on the trail…he doesn’t explode. He has left home since the hard times in moments of anxiety and frustration.. But I understand now that sometimes he just needs space. I don’t stop him if he needs to go and he has not stayed gone all night in years. He comes home and climbs in bed beside me and wakes up feeling refreshed again. He wakes up to face another day. To hike another hike. To live another moment. To be free. 

Always thinking of my beautiful bride while I’m out on the trail.

——-Highline ——-

My Beardedself standing on the summit of Kings Peak. Tallest point in Utah. Photo by: Will Wood

This past summer (2018) I had the incredible opportunity to join my buddies over at Zpacks (an ultralight outdoor gear company) and my good friend Chris Smead of Outmersive Films on a backpacking trip out in Utah. The plan was to not only hike the Uinta Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains, but to also film it for a documentary.

This wasn’t going to be your normal everyday type of hiking documentary. We were going to take you on a journey. A journey of five friends as they take a 10 day human journey, sharing the stories of each hiker as they explore a historic path with a history that none of them ever really realize. Some of their stories are tragic and some are triumphant. You’ll hear stories that are not only shocking, but also stories of redemption.

My Beardedself “Plug-it In”, Matt “Details” Favero, Joe “Samurai” Valesko, Will “Redbeard” Wood & Steve “Cannonball” Kaiser. Photo by: Outmersive Films

Not only did we learn about each other, but also the unique history of the Uinta Mountains and the Uinta Highline Trail. You’ll watch as the ancient history of this fabulously beautiful trail is woven together with the personal stories of each of us hikers as we get back in touch with the world around us and each other.

Tons of planning and preparation went in to making this hike happen. Outmersive shot film over 18 days in later July and early August 2018. Each of us hikers helped carry extra batteries, cameras, lens and other gear. This extra gear added up to about 2 to 3 extra lbs each hiker would have to carry. I guess it’s a good thing we were all carrying ultralight gear……

Steve “Cannonball” Kaiser taking in the view of the Uinta Mountains. Photo by Chris Smead of Outmersive Films

TRAILER

Highline is scheduled to release in Summer of 2019

With great anticipation the trailer is finally completed and ready to be viewed. Here it is, the official trailer for the documentary Highline. Give it a watch and tell us what you think.

https://youtu.be/dbkE6UbIiAU

CURRENT PHASE

It’s now in post production and is targeted to release Summer of 2019. But we need your help. Professional coloring, audio finishing in 5.1 surround sound, and mastering including a digital cinema package for theaters is not cheap. Not to mention distribution fees for online platforms like iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Join us, and help bring this film to life.

YOU CAN HELP

You can help us bring this film to life by joining a Kickstarter campaign to help with funding. This funding is needed in order to bring this film to market. If you enjoyed the trailer, we ask that you consider joining. You can do so HERE.

STAY UPDATED:

You can stay up to date on this Films progress by following Outmersive Films. Here is a link to all of their social media platforms including their website and the website for Highline.

Outmersive website: https://www.outmersivefilms.com/

Highline website: https://highlinefilm.com

Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/outmersivefilms/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/outmersivefilms/

Twitter: https://mobile.twitter.com/outmersive

YouTube: https://m.youtube.com/channel/UC0kG0TatR77VrpWnllo6zHQ

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/outmersivefilms

Synopsis

Photo by: Outmersive Films

 

Five friends embark on a ten day journey on the incredible Uinta Highline Trail in northern Utah. Together they discover adventure, and explore the history of the area. Along the way you learn more about these hikers, and how they succeeded in life even when the odds were stacked against them.

STAFF & CAST

Produced & directed by outdoor film maker Chris Smead of Outmersive Films and co-directed by experienced cinematographer Gordon Gurley. Armed with cameras and backpacks, they followed 5 experienced long distance hikers to tell their stories:

Joe Valesko (aka Samurai Joe)- Inventor and founder of a well known outdoor gear company.

Matt Favero (aka Details) – Brand manager of a well known outdoor gear company.

Will Wood (aka Redbeard) – Well known Youtuber and blogger

Benny Braden (aka Plug-it-in) – Outdoor blogger that holds the record for hiking all 924 miles in the Smokies in only 43 days.

Steve Kaiser (aka Cannonball)- Larger than life experienced thru hiker.

To help tell the stories behind this amazing place we teamed up with local experts:

Tom Flanigan – Archeologist

Ryan Buerkle – Of the Ashley National Forest

Gordon Hirschi – Of the Uinta Basin Backcountry Horsemen

THE TRAIL

Photo by: Benny Braden for Outmersive Films

 

Experienced hikers have called the Uinta Highline Trail superior to the John Muir Trail. Yet few people know about it. The John Muir Trail started with a single vision and was well marketed. It was also located near heavily populated areas in California. Utah’s Uinta Highline Trail has a very different history. It snuck on to the map piece by piece. Even local experts could not pinpoint the exact year the trail was completed. Furthermore, the trail is distanced from heavily populated areas. The result is a beautiful and pristine 104 mile trail with no crowds.

THE MISSION

In America, we’re great at concentrating ourselves into well known national parks. Overcrowding is a problem. We hope this film encourages responsible hikers to venture off the beaten path and to experience the Uinta Highline Trail and feel a connection to it. That connection can create a sense of stewardship that is vital to preserving our wild lands.

MY UHT GEAR LIST

Here is a link for my gear list for the UHT.

plug-it in’s 2018 uht gear list – benny’s gear list

The Toughest Story To Tell….. (Living With PTSD, The Ugly Truth)

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.

•Code Green Campaign: http://codegreencampaign.org/

•First Responders First: http://www.firstrespondersfirst.ca/prevention-2/

•Fire Rescue 1: https://www.firerescue1.com/ptsd/

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