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We are thrilled to share the eleventh update from Gerry and Rex Leonard who are hiking the Appalachian Trail to raise funds and awareness of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) and the disabled veterans we serve. In this travel log entry, they highlight the Great Smoky Mountains, passing mile mark 2000, the first snow of the season, trail angels, and their thoughts on nearing the end of the trail! 

Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.  

Read all their dispatches from the AT here:  Gerry and Rex Leonard Hike to Heal Veterans

Family & Friends,

Greetings from Fontana, North Carolina, the southern end of the Great Smoky Mountains! We are inching our way closer to Springer Mountain, Georgia…the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. Even though finishing the Smokies was a big deal for us, the bigger deal–which we’re excited to announce–is that we’ve passed the 2000-mile mark! As of today, we have 164 miles left in our journey! We can see the light at the end of the tunnel and while I hate to admit it, the romantic sense of adventure we shared for most of our journey has given way to a businesslike, “let’s get this done” mentality. The snow, howling winds, and sub-zero temperatures we dealt with in the Smokies may have brought about our changing attitudes. Since our last update from Damascus, Virginia, we’ve passed mile-markers 1800, 1900 and 2000, climbed 27 peaks, including Clingman’s Dome, the tallest mountain on the AT, hiked through the beautiful Roan Highlands, and enjoyed a zero in Hot Springs, NC. Here are a few highlights of our last 306 miles:

– Roan Highlands, Big Butt, and Max’s Patch. The Roan Highlands, a series of bald (or treeless) mountains which straddle the TN-NC border, were a definite highlight of our journey and they provided us with our first taste of snow of the season. The balds of Grayson Highlands were beautiful, but the Roan Highlands may have topped them in our book. From these grass-swept mountains we could see unforgettable panoramic views in every direction. One word…breathtaking. If you live nearby, visit them…they’ll inspire you. Just south of Roan, we crossed Big Butt Mountain, which was an amazing ridge that reminded us of Franconia Ridge in New Hampshire. Three miles long, the Big Butt ridgeline gave us magnificent views of mountains to the east and valleys to the west. This ridgeline is relatively easy to access and well worth the minimal effort to climb. And if you get lucky, like we did, you may find some trail angels atop the ridge eager to share a treat. The day we crossed the ridge, we met four wonderful women who called themselves the “Gourmet Hikers Club” enjoying a feast fit for a king or queen. As we passed by them, they offered us unbelievably great tasting guacamole, fresh salad, and cinnamon apples. Heaven! Another inspiring mountain in our trek from Damascus to Fontana was a 5K named Max’s Patch. This mountain, like the Roan Highlands, was a bald. The weather the day we crossed over it was picture perfect and, not surprisingly, the mountain was covered local photographers capturing panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, including the Smokies, which we were about to ascend.  

– Winter in the Smokies. The weather on our first day in the Smokies, Veteran’s Day, was awesome. The climb up into the Smokies was hard, but rewarding…we ascended over 4000 feet in less than five miles. The beating sun left us drenched in sweat and exhausted. After cresting the first summit, we spent the rest of the day hiking along a beautiful ridgeline. We ended the day after 18-miles in a shelter with “Steady”, a SOBO hiker who we first met in NY. The three of us hit the rack that night thinking we were ready (so we thought) for the cold front expected to hit the next day. Our physical and mental preparation for the cold front was in vain. While we were greeted in the morning with a beautiful blanket of snow, that beauty did not last long as the howling winds and cloud-covered sky began to bring our spirits down. As temps dropped below zero with the wind chill, our beards began to freeze and our bodies began to shiver. The miles seemed endless as we trudged slowly through the thickening snow. Our pace slowed considerably and our goal of hiking 20+ miles gave way to the need of finding shelter and reprieve from the wind and cold. After 12 miles, we stopped at the appropriately named Icewater Shelter for a late lunch. In the shelter, we found eight teenage boys and their teacher/mentor who had ended their hike early to escape the weather. Their offer to share the shelter for the night was an offer our shivering and tired bodies could not refuse. After a cup of hot chocolate, we unrolled our sleeping bags and curled up inside to hopefully gain some warmth back. We eventually drifted off to the only true escape…sleep! The good news is we learned that our gear (down sleeping bag, plus layering system) worked…we slept like two hibernating bears. We were greeted the next day with blue skies and our dear ol’ friend, the sun. The warmth of the sun, despite the still subfreezing temperatures, brightened our moods and gave us the motivation to move on. The next few days were worlds better than the bone-chilling day we experienced on 12 Nov, but the grind to get out of the 6,000-foot Smokies and into the warmer weather was ever present. We pray we make it to Springer before the next cold front hits!

– The Birdcage. During our journey, we’ve met a number of wonderful trail angels who we will never forget. Their generosity and support enabled and inspired us. But of all the trail angels we’ve met, Robert Bird is a first among equals. He is also the most unique and most exceptional. This seventy-plus year old man sports a mohawk haircut (he’s part Mohawk), chain smokes cigarettes, pounds Mello-Yello, and drives a white van with a Casper the Friendly Ghost logo on the side (the inscription under the logo reads: “The AT Friendly Van”). He’s never hiked a day in his life and he is probably the last person you’d envision providing trail magic. We met Robert in Dalton, MA on a hot summer day. He offered us a well-needed cold drink and snack. He also offered to “slack pack” us for four-days and eighty miles (for free) when we reached his home in Tennessee. (Slack-packing is hiker lingo for hiking with a small, lightweight day pack instead of your full kit. Then, after so many miles of slack-packing, you marry up with your full pack and continue hiking or return to a hiker hostel for the night.) After reaching Robert’s home turf, we and three other hikers took him up on his offer…and it was well worth it! We hiked twenty-plus miles every day and ate like kings at the local diner or AYCE (All You Can Eat) Golden Corral for dinner. At night, we took turns enjoying a hot shower while Robert washed our clothes. We crashed in his apartment and repeated the cycle the next day. We are not sure how he affords to do what he does, but each year he provides trail magic and free slack packing services to over 400-hundred worn out hikers in Massachusetts (where he rents a cabin during July/August) and Tennessee. He calls his base in Massachusetts, “Birdcage North”, and his apartment Tennessee, “Birdcage South”. For us, he was an angel sent from heaven…he took me to a podiatrist to treat a corn and he gave my knees a four-day reprieve from hiking with a 45lb pack. Thanks Rob…we are going to finish strong! If you’re interested, we recommend watching the recently released thirteen-minute, critically acclaimed documentary about Robert, titled, “One Wing in the Fire”. You can find it at: https://ripepearproductions.com/        

– Hot Springs. Another great trail town worth mentioning…Hot Springs, NC. We zero’ed in Hot Springs and enjoyed a hot mineral bath, cold beer and a steak. Much like Damascus, this quaint town is nestled in the mountains and it provides a number of outdoor activities for adventure-seekers. It is most famous for its hot mineral springs, which get pumped into a number of outdoor jacuzzis that line the local river at the Hot Springs Resort. If you live in NC or TN and you want a weekend getaway…visit Hot Springs. You can hike during the day, rent a jacuzzi in the afternoon, and grab a great meal at the town’s fancy restaurant or a great burger the local tavern. Wish we visited when we were stationed at Camp Lejeune!  

– Way Ahead. As we mentioned up front, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Barring injury or more unseasonably cold weather, we believe we’ll climb Springer Mountain somewhere between 23 and 26 November. More importantly, we’ll be able to keep a promise we made Rex’s mom…be home by Thanksgiving! With that said, we do not expect to post our final update until after we finish our journey. Until then, thank you for supporting us and for your generosity in supporting the efforts of our partner, Project Healing Waters. Your support is helping to heal our disabled veterans.

Let’s show our support and wish Team Leonard our best as they continue with this courageous feat in support of the many disabled veterans whose lives will be changed as a result of their sacrifice.