I crossed the Tennessee line on a sunny Sunday morning. After a lovely few days with one of life’s great friends, Tory dropped me in Davenport Gap. She took a picture of me next to the AT sign, got a little teary eyed, and said, “I can’t just leave you out here in the woods!” I chuckled, pointed to a path of steps uphill, and said, “Well, you aren’t leaving me here, I am leaving too!”

With a refreshed spring in my step, my long walk began again. Maybe it is human nature, maybe it is my nature, but it doesn’t take long for life in the woods to revert me back to the blissful basics of humanity. It is simple, beautiful, peaceful. There is something fantastic about quietly waking up to the sun as it approaches the horizon, the birds chirping, the wind blowing through the trees. I have never felt the inward peace that comes with walking through the woods all day — listening to myself, listening to the world, in large part separated from the ugliness of civilization. All of this having become ‘normal,’ after nine days off the trail, I was more than anxious to get back to my walk.

I was walking alone, enjoying the the new signs of spring, weaving in-and-out along the North Carolina-Tennessee border. Pure contentment. I walked 17.8 miles that lovely Sunday. Greeted by a 4,000′ up to the summit of Snowbird Mountain, the trail quickly reminded me who is boss. The answer, not me. My knees were screaming, and before too long, I began to wonder if my years of soccer, boat accident induced knee damage, and a lifetime of spelling Gonzo with a capital ‘G,’ would get the best of me in this journey. Thankfully, every up must come down; self-doubt equalized.

In the end, it was neither the up, nor my knees that got me. Monday, began like any other day on the trail. I unzipped my bag and crawled out of my tent to a crisp spring morning. My feet and knees ached with my first steps, and I reminded myself that I really need to chill out with the speed and big miles. I ate a cold breakfast of strawberry Pop Tarts and went on my way. It looked to be a promising day — a rolling down out of Roaring Fork Shelter, a quick up, followed by a big-ish up to the top of Bluff Mountain, and a 3,000+ foot down into Hot Springs, North Carolina. I set out looking forward to meeting Paddy Cakes, Puddin’, and Sleeping Beauty in Hot Springs. Eighteen miles, no problem.

I set off at a cheetah’s pace. I felt good, and the weather was gorgeous. I was thrilled by sunshine and temps that required short sleeves, shorts, sunglasses, and a sweat-catching bandanna, a welcome change from the frostbite inducing weather of my last day on the trail. I made the first 7.3 miles in no time at all; all that stood between me and a happy reunion was 10.7 miles of downhill. These ‘short’ ten miles proved to be the longest ten miles that I have ever walked. Coming off Bluff Mountain, approximately one mile down from its summit, at my cheetah’s pace, I awkwardly stepped on a leaf-covered root. Crack. Broken foot. After said crack and break, I walked 10 miles to Hot Springs. I generally consider myself to be a tough kid, but I have never in my life experienced such intense, prolonged pain as I did on that wonderfully sunny day.

The details are mundane and frustrating, so I will spare you. This much I will tell you. I have seen two doctors and had six x-rays. Thanks to my fantastic father, I am once again in Ohio. I will be on crutches until it no longer hurts to put weight on my foot, and I will be in a boot cast until my foot no longer hurts. The doc estimates this to take 8 weeks. My thru-hiking journey of the Appalachian Trail is over.

I set out on this journey to learn about myself, life, and my place in the world. Spending only three weeks on the trail, I have learned more than I can say. In time, these things will become apparent. I know that all things happen for a reason, but I am still processing, analyzing, and thinking about what much of this means. Of course, I am frustrated, but I am doing my best to find positivity and peace in the moment. I find myself struggling to deal with the indoors and forced inactivity that this injury entails, but once healed, I look forward to the promise of a summer of AT section hikes with some fantastic people.

I have lost this match, but my adventure is far from over. My life has long been ones of ups and downs. Today, as I am in the low gap of a down, I am encouraged in knowing that the greatest successes in my life have come out of the must unexpected and seemingly negative turns.

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After a lovely post-cold weather encounter pause, I am headed back to North Carolina tomorrow. My feet stopped tingling on Tuesday. As of yesterday, my knees no longer feel like someone is ripping my legs from my body. With a warm forecast on the horizon and new knee braces in tow, I am ready to continue on my long walk. As always seems to be the case, the success of my life would not be possible without my people.

Never underestimate the greatness of great friends. The truth, the great ones never stop being great. Time passes, life get busy, contact is not so frequent, they never stop being great. Tomorrow, my fantastic friend and former study-abroad-in-Russia-in-2008-apartment-mate will greet me at the airport in Raleigh, North Carolina. On Saturday, she and I will have what is likely to be one of the greatest road-trips of all time to the ‘long wanted to visit’ Asheville, NC. After a few shenanigans and salutations to a couple of other ‘wish you were here’ great friends, she will drop me on the trail at Davenport Gap. From there, I will cross the border from North Carolina to Tennessee, the third state of my journey.

Sadly, Davenport Gap is 120 miles north of Wayah Bald, where I came off the trail. It is here that my long walk will become unconventional. I will continue my walk northbound to Maine. After I summit Mount Katahdin, I will return to the Smokies. If my knees hold out, my hike will end at the summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Hiking culture says, ‘hike your own hike,’ and so, that is what I will do. I have hiked 119.7 miles; I am more than a week behind ‘schedule;’ I suffered what is called ‘first degree frostbite,’ and my hike has become my own. As I continue, I will attempt to listen to my body more. I will go with my gut, and I will exist in the moment. I am thirty-years-old. My knees have long been a mess, and they will likely not improve, but I am far from finished. I can see my life before me on the trail, and I think that path will take me to the life that is somewhere in front of me on the other side. This is the journey that will lead to my future, and so, I will keep walking…

Thru-hiking the Appalachian trail has been a dream of mine since high school. I have loved hiking since I was a small child. I spent months training to begin this months long trek. Nothing could have prepared me for the physical and mental strain that the AT has been.

One of my reasons for taking this long walk has been to learn about myself, embrace unknown strengths and change known and unknown flaws. Very early on in this journey, I had to learn to let go of my need to follow a schedule, my firm plan. Yesterday, I had to learn that the weather is stronger than I.

Today, I am learning to listen to my body and mind. My feet and knees have been screaming at me for days. It has taken much of my mental strength and gumpsion to push myself past these problems. Yesterday’s weather took all of the mental charge I had left. My feet have been all tingles since the great thaw yesterday, and I am tired.

And so, I am taking a pause. Finishing this walk is my intent, but doing so in a healthy manner is my priority. The worst thing that could happen is that I push myself too far, I don’t listen to my mind and body, and in the end, I have to quit. Thus, I sit here at Fatz Cafe in Franklin, North Carolina, drinking an IPA from Nantahala Brewery, waiting for my mom to come and fetch me. She will take me to the mountains of West Virginia for a  few days to recover, then drop me back on the trail. I am leaving the mountains to go to the mountains. My crew has gone on ahead, but I am hopeful that our trails will meet again. If nothing else, I will forever be thankful that I met Paddy Cakes and Puddin’ in the mountains of Georgia. Through them, I learned more than I can say about myself, my interaction with others, and the importance of positive relationships and people that make you a better person.

I am taking a pause, but my walk will roll on soon enough…

Yesterday was much like any other on the AT. The A-Team woke up with the sun, rolled out of our cozy bags on the second floor of the new Long Branch Shelter in the Nanthahala National Forest, ate some Pop Tarts, packed our bags, and went on our merry way. A ways down the trail, we passed Sleeping Beauty, got to talking, and he decided to join our ‘crew’ (AT speak for friend group).

After 7.3 miles we hitched a ride 10 miles in the back of Eric’s work truck to Franklin, North Carolina. We did a quick resupply, downed some burgers and sweet tea (the north has failed miserably on this one), and hitched a ride back to the trail in the back of Hill’s truck. We planned to camp 0.3 miles from the road, but as is our style, we hiked another 4+ miles to Siler Bald Shelter. Our tents went up as usual, and we had a lovely evening.

The rain was forecast to begin around 9am this morning. It showed up at 3am instead. Breaking down camp in the rain is no problem (with a bit of efficient strategizing), but it seemed quite colder than it should have been. After a slow start, we were off. Despite our slow pace (rainy muck) all was well… until we started to up our elevation and the wet just kept getting wetter. The rain began freezing to the trees, then it started freezing to us. I had icicles hanging from the hood of my rain jacket, and we all had a centimeter of ice covering our packs.

The ice had set in by 10am, the rain continued, the wind was cold and strong, and trees began to fall. Before to long, hands were cold and wet, feet were cold and wet, and the strenuous up hills were not enough to keep the core of our bodies warm. This is when the risk for hypothermia becomes a problem. It quickly became apparent that we needed to get off the mountain.

Our cell phones had no service. So… we walked on… shivering. From the top of Wayah Bald, at 5,342 feet, we desperately began calling for a shuttle to get us down. The lovely Larry of Larry’s Taxi Service came to our rescue! Sadly, he was 45 minutes from us, so we slowly, burning feet, and blue lipped walked down USFS 96 towards Larry’s route uphill.

Larry found us cold, wet, and very happy to see him, a total stranger. The four of us are at the Microtel back in Franklin. Our faces are bright red and burned, our stuff is strewn about the room dripping, and we are all relieved to be warm.

I have been hiking since I was a small child. I have traveled all around the world. I have done many things. I am a pretty tough kid. I have never existed in such a survival mode as I did today. My hands and feet burned, my face tingled, and my entire body was shaking. We could not stop walking because the cold was so unbearable. It was scary. As I sit here now, I am proud of how the situation was handled. We got off the mountain rather than trying to achieve our milage goal, and hypothermia was averted. Others had to be rescued by ambulance, some had to leave their tents on the trail because of more than an inch of ice cover. Today, without question, I gained a real understanding that weather is not to be crossed. I am safe, warm, and will be happy to get back on the the trail tomorrow… in the bright sun.

I crossed into North Carolina yesterday. I was greeted by a twisted tree and the hardest uphill yet. Today, I walked my 100th mile. It was completed at the top of a 5000+ foot peak with a fire tower. From that tower, I looked back on the peaks that my feet crossed. I look forward to the peaks to I will walk. These milestones are the little things that make the journey. I will never forget that fire tower or the wall of rock (500′ in .02 miles) that I climbed to cross my first 100 miles. I will never forget how hard my first week was.

This is without question the hardest thing that I have ever done. Going without life’s usual luxuries has been fine. Being outside has been amazing. The people I have encountered have been lovely. The physical pain has been relentless. The mental struggle that has come out of the physical pain is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I knew that this was going to be hard, but I had no idea just how excruciating that hard would be.

In the midst of all this, there are moments of greatness. It is in these moments that I feel more alive than I ever have. It is in these moments that I have no doubt that I am in the right place. I am taking a long walk on the Appalachian Trail. In 7 days, I have learned things about myself that I never knew. Over the next months, I will keep learning, and if I am lucky, I will grow to become a bit of a better person.

I am 8.9 miles from the Georgia-North Carolina border. After a long and hilly 19.4 mile day yesterday, the ‘A Team’ (me, Paddy Cakes, and MC) trudged 13 miles to US 76 and a ride into Hiawasee, Georgia with Sally. Town time!

I cannot begin to explain to you the stink that I had become. You see, carrying all of one’s possessions on one’s back demands a minimalist approach to life. Two pairs of socks, two pairs of underwears, one wool T-shirt, one wool long sleeve shirt, and one pair of pants. Now, imagine this setup after miles of sweaty ups and downs for days. Gross.

To our great delight, the lovely Holiday Inn Express has cozy beds, hot breakfast, laundry machines, and a hot tub. Bliss. The 1/2 pound cheese burger for lunch and pizza buffet for dinner weren’t so bad either. Constant hunger is another trail reality that I cannot begin to explain.

Hiawasee is the first of a handful of town stops that will be made along the trail. Laundry, resupply, shower, etc. There is a chance that tomorrow will be what we call a ‘zero day.’

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Thunder storms are on the horizon, my feet are a mess, and Patty Cakes’ and my knees are having woes. The rain will decide.

Thus far, my journey has been sweaty, difficult, satisfying, cold, and filled with people that have taken a liking to yelling, “crankin!” When they see me. I am currently working on learning to listen to my body, being in the moment, and getting past the (now) seemingly unnecessary need to “stay on schedule.”

My long walk began in the snow. Today, a lovely day 2, began with sunshine. I cannot describe to you how gorgeous and scenic this Georgia section of the trail has been. Flowing streams, tall pines, mountain laurel, and rugged tree covered peaks as far as the eye can see.

The ups and downs (up hill followed by downhill) have been far more intense than I imagined for Georgia, but my trekking poles have kept me crankin right along. As always seems to be the case, my backpack is far heavier than I want it to be, and the ups and downs make it seem all the heavier. I look forward to a few days from now when I will having eaten some of the weight.

After starting the trail at Springer Mountain with my parents, and hiking a terrific day with my mom yesterday, they dropped me off on the this morning. As I walked up Justus Mountain right out of the gate, I was feeling very alone, wondering if maybe I had overestimated myself on this whole 2,185 miles alone idea. Once I got my walking legs on, these feelings of doubt passed. I decided that my goal for the day was going to be to catch up to Buckeye Cornelius and Caboose (thru hikes from Ohio that I met yesterday). This was going to be a feat because I didn’t start until 10 this
morning, and they were planning on overnighting four miles north of where I started. I caught them at just before 2pm. It was at that point that the reality that I am solo but not alone registered.

The comradery and support out here is amazing. This evening, I have found a lovely hiking family. Tomorrow, I will find another. These people will make my journey. Hopefully, I will play a small part in making there’s too.

I am not going ‘Back to the U.S.S.R.,’ but this week I will begin a new journey. This blog has been a forum for me to share stories of my travels, experiences, and insights into Russia, Ukraine, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Despite the disconnect that I will attempt to find in my next life adventure, I am going to attempt to continue sharing with you as I have in the past. This time around, we will stay Stateside.

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On Tuesday, I will begin a northbound thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I will walk through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee  Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. I will walk twenty miles a day for four months. Sound crazy? Why am I doing this? Let me give you an idea of who I am, an insight into my mind, and an attempt at sharing ‘the point.’

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Who am I?

I want to make the world a little bit better by bringing positive change to the lives of individuals, the poor, the suffering, the little guy. I believe that change, real change, on a global level is possible, and I believe that one person can make a difference. In a modest attempt to be one of those people that can make the world a better place, I have done a handful of small things. I worked as a long-term expatriate intern for HOPE International. Working to alleviate poverty, HOPE International is a United States based microlending organization with offices is over a dozen lesser developed and economically struggling countries. During my time with the organization I worked with with HOPE Russia,and lived in both Volgodonsk, Russia and Zaporozhe, Ukraine. Just as I hoped to change the lives of a few, this time changed me.

I graduated summa cum laude from Kent State University in May 2009. Following my passion for all things Russian and my meager dreams to change the world, I moved to Volgodonsk, Russia, aka ‘Middle of nowhere, it’s impossible to get to, Russia,’ in October of 2009. Because of Russian Visa restrictions, I had to leave for 90 days after I had been there for 90 days. This brought me to Zaporozhe, Ukraine. On 12 April 2010, I headed back to the fantastic Volgodonsk, where I will remained until mid-July. After wrapping up with HOPE Russia, I began a long journey in the pursuit of my Master of Arts in Slavic and East European Studies at the Ohio State University. My research focus was on Russian  and East European Area Studies, specifically examining development and human rights/social justice issues in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Serbia.

Post-graduate school, I am jobless, and wandering in a way I never have before. Applying for multiple jobs a day, struggling to become part of the rat race, I have lost sight of many of the things I have pushed to change. I am turning to my inner self. In an attempt to rediscover that passion, to find the person that academia buried, I am turning to my wild child. I will begin my ultralight, thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail on 26 March — 2,185 miles from Georgia to Maine. Four months in the wilderness. I will never be the same. I will find the person that is going to change the world.

Besides all of that, I am a swell kid (at least some people seem to think so). I am rather on the tall side, I have an uncanny ability to injure myself, and I have far too much gray hair for my age. I like good beer, good whiskey, good music, good books, good people. I like to play outside. I like adventure, and above all, I am game.

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I am transitioning. The Expat Kid will become the Wilderness Kid. Sore feet, achy knees, long miles, and 125 days carrying my possessions on my back, I will have an amazing adventure. It is just a long walk in the woods…

The language that is called Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, Serbian (BCMS) is commonly referred to and was once known as Serbo-Croatian. After the Dayton Accords and the development and strengthening of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Yugoslav wars, Serbo-Croatian became Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian (BCS). Montenegro gained independence from Serbia in 2006. Last year, as Montenegro is attempting to pull itself onto the world stage, the Montenegrin language threw itself into the BCS combo. Thus, we are now calling it BCMS. The Montenegrin government has been working to reform the language and get the peoples of the world to recognize that the language of Crna Gora is not like the others. In an attempt to tip their hat to Montenegro (and possibly throw Serbia the bird), the U.S. government tells us students that we should recognize the M in BCMS.

This recognition is easier said than done for us students. Despite each of us choosing a language within the mix to focus on, we essentially learning a hodge-podge of one language that has become four distinct dialects with particular grammatical and vocabulary nuances over more than a decade. Hence, one might argue that I am learning four languages. The jury is still out; there are many elements to consider.

the bombing ridge...

I went to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina this weekend. As I hope you know, Sarajevo was heavily bombed and nearly destroyed during the Bosnian War of the Yugoslav Wars. The Dayton Peace Accords were signed in 1995. The twenty year anniversary of a devastating war approaches and signs of the damage suffered remain. The bulk of the city has been rebuilt or resurfaced, but markers remain. Buildings are still riddled with bullet holes; bomb crevices remain in the pavement as ‘Sarajevo Roses,’ construction continues, and many buildings are left to ruin.

Sarajevo Rose -- a shell fell here

Citizens take pride in their resilience and ability to rebuild their city and their lives. However, some still hold on to the past. As buses approach the city from the southeast, passengers will see a factory in shambles. Half the roof is bombed out, fire damage is pervasive, and shell remnants can be see across the entirety of its structure. Why does such a vast structure at such a vital and visible place in the city sit untouched? A young Bosnian-Croat college student said, “You wonder why it still exists like that? The people of Bosnia want you to remember. They want the world and anyone that enters Sarajevo to remember how they suffered.”

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I have never walked through the streets of such a place. Land mines are still buried all around the city. An ancient Jewish cemetery will sits as the bombs left it; people afraid to step foot in it because of the land mines that remain. Monuments were constructed to remember the fathers, mothers, and children that died. Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs continue to live side by side, many of them holding on to bitter hatred, others attempting to live in peaceful and reconciled unity. A generation of young adults grew up without fathers.

Attempting to argue that these people do not have their own uniqueness, culture, social customs, and existence seems absurd to me. Having studied it, heard it, and existed in this place, not recognizing Bosnian as its own distinct language is baffling to me. These people, this place, their language is not Serbian; it is not Croatian; it is not Montenegrin.

The word on the street in Podgorica says that I am wrong. Five middle-aged gents in a bar in Podgorica tell me that the only languages of my BCMS claims that actually exist are Croatian and Serbian. Five Montenegrin men, all of whom were born in Podgorica, informed me that the Montenegrin language doesn’t actually exist, but rather, they and the citizenry of Montenegro actually speak Serbian. I am told that Bosnian is not a language. Further, they tell me that no genocide actually happened during the Yugoslav wars. The victims of atrocities were actually the people of Serbia and Montenegro. Serbs were the victims.

As we were leaving the bar, Ranko asked us if we would return again tomorrow. Interestingly, rather than saying ‘sutra,’ the Serbian variant of ‘tomorrow’, he said ‘šutra,’ the Montenegrin variant of ‘tomorrow.’  The people of Montenegro speak Serbian and Bosnian is not a language. I rest my case.

I always forget how the Slavs love meat. I learned this years ago; however, I always seem to forget. Russians love meat. It is rather absurd really. As much as I missed leafy greens while living in Russia, I never noticed that some sort of veggie based salad always accompanied the meat. I thought the meat consumption in Russia is high. They have nothing on these folks in Montenegro! I have never seen anything like it. Meat for every meal. Breakfast. Lunch. Dinner. My life here in the Black Mountains has taken veggie starved to a whole new level. Don’t get me wrong, I love meat, but I am desperate for a giant salad. In fact, write this down, I want a giant salad for dinner when I get home. The first meal shall have no meat. Greens and veggies only. Corn on the cob and a massive ceasar (sp?) salad sounds amazing. I would rather not each cheese for a while if that is alright.

Thankfully, the meat is good. There are several dishes in particular that are lovely. These are all things that you should look into sampling. Čevapčići, Burek, and Pljeskavica. Čevap are these little mini sausage like things that are often eaten with a soft cheese product, known as kaymak, and onions. They are a mix of beef, pork, and lamb (there might be some veal in there too). I am told that Sarajevo has the best Čevap; I will let you know if this rumor is indeed true. Burek comes in all sorts of varieties. Regardless of the form, it is a pastry like product that consists of meat, cheese, potatoes with mushrooms, or spinach with cheese wrapped in phyllo dough. It is amazing… and heavy. Pljeskavica might be produced in the US by making a mini-meat loaf, squishing it into a patty, and grilling it. Very tasty, but often on the salty side. The reality is that most things here are very salty. These folks are running right down the artery clogging fast lane. I hope that I make it out alive!

Have you ever had a peanut flavored puffed Cheeto-like product? I have; they are called, ‘Smoki,’ and they are very very interesting. I tried really hard to love them; I just don’t seem to be a lover of non-cheese puffs that taste like peanut butter. There are pizza and sour cream with basil flavored potato chips here though, and they are both lovely. Also fantastic, the deserts! I suppose that Montenegro and Russia are very comparable in this regard. Cookies, cakes, chocolate, waffley, etc.

Sadly, I still don’t love Turkish coffee. My pallet likes it far more than it once did, but I find myself constantly wishing that I was sipping from a mug of Intelligentia that was just poured from my Technivorm. Even the coffee with whipped cream from Masha doesn’t compare. Despite my yearning, don’t think that I am complaining! Coffee, any kind of coffee, is wonderful for me. In fact, every morning, I wake up and enjoy drinking a steaming cup of Jacob’s instant coffee more than you can even imagine. I am happy as a clam.

Montenegro has not let me down in the beer department. The selection pales in comparison to the alcohol producing abilities of Russia or the States, but this little country does all right with the few that they brew. The winner in my world, no question, hands down, is Nikšičko Tamno. This is the dark version of Montenegro’s famous Nikšičko beer. It is beyond satisfactory. I am not sure if I am content with it because I successfully found a beer darker than Stella Artois within days of my arrival, or if it actually is a fantastic beer. Regardless, it has one me over.

The reality is that this little Crna Gora is a lovely place. I am lettuce starved, and my general vegetable consumption is unfortunately low, but really, I am not suffering.