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We are thrilled to share the 9th 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 share some highlights after they passed the symbolic halfway point; a special celebration in Troutville, VA; the Shenandoah National Park and a return to the mountains; inspiration they’ve encountered along the trail; and their deep appreciation for the support they’ve received on this great adventure. 

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

Friends and Family,

Greetings from Troutville, Virginia! Team Leonard continues to press into the heart of Virginia. Since our last update from Harper’s Ferry, we have hiked 293 miles, crossed the 1400-mile mark, climbed 25 mountains and peaks, passed through Shenandoah National Park, and enjoyed a wonderful cookout in Troutville with our partner, Project Healing Waters. Before expounding on our journey through northern Virginia and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, we want to thank you — our friends and family — for your generosity and support of our disabled veterans. So far, we have raised over $10,000 in support of PHW and the disabled veterans they serve. After meeting with a number of grateful veterans at the Troutville cookout, we are pleased to inform you that your generosity and support is changing, healing…and saving lives! We salute you.

Here are some highlights of our journey:

Virginia is for Hikers! After hiking through Pennsylvania and running through Maryland and West Virginia (Harper’s Ferry aside), we were thrilled to finally be hiking in Virginia, with its magnificent mountains and valleys, hiker-friendly towns, and immaculately groomed trails. For the first time in months, we found ourselves hiking with our heads up and enjoying the incredible views rather than staring at the ground and watching every step we took. We love hiking in Virginia! 

Blue Ridge Mountains. For the first time since we left Vermont’s Green Mountains, we are back to hiking in the land of 3K and 4K mountains with unforgettable names like, “Rollercoaster”, “The Priest”, “Three Ridges”, and “The Humpback”. Though we have our “trail legs”, we’d be lying if we said the climbs up the 4K’s were easy. The higher elevations, combined with an early October heatwave and an ongoing drought, made for some difficult climbing…but the views from the mountain tops were heavenly. On more than one occasion, we opted to end our hiking day early so we could set up camp on a cliff where we could enjoy dinner while watching the sunset over the Shenandoah Valley. We tried our best to capture some of those sunsets in the photos we posted (check them out), but I’m convinced even the great Ansel Adams could not replicate the inspiration and peace you feel while sitting on “The Priest” and watching the sunset in person.

Shenandoah National Park. The Appalachian Trail traverses through SNP for 101 miles and we loved hiking through all 101 miles of the park. The climbs were hard, but not backbreaking. General stores, which are called waysides in SNP, were available throughout the park for change-of-pace food breaks. And the scenery, the views, and the wildlife were incredible, particularly the bears. One morning, as we passed a 75-foot tree, we heard loud noises coming from the very top. While we could not see what was making the noises, we agreed it was probably not squirrels or birds…maybe a bear? I continued to hike. Rex decided to investigate. Next, he watched the limbs at the treetop start to bend…definitely not squirrels or birds. Curious, he cautiously walked under the tree and looked up…nothing, too many leaves. Wait…after staring into the dense, leaf-covered treetop for a few seconds…the leaves parted and a large bear poked its head through the hole in the vegetation. The bear stared at Rex and although he could only see the bear’s face, Rex decided he’d seen enough…with his curiosity satiated and his heart racing, he quickly left the area and caught up to me further down the trail. I wish he had his camera ready the moment the bear’s head poked through the leaves, but I’m glad he quickly (and wisely) left the bear to its own druthers. We assume the bear went back to eating hazelnuts. 

Confession. There is an old hiker tradition of making a confession in the logbook that sits in the shelter on top of “The Priest”. The confessions, as you might guess, are made in jest. For example, Baby Milkshake (You might remember him from an earlier post. A nurse, he earned his trail name when someone learned he mixed baby formula at the hospital.) confessed that he does not like milkshakes. Most confessions start the traditional way…”forgive me Father, for I have sinned”…but end with some absurd and often funny confession. It is great to read the confessions to see what old friends who passed by “The Priest” before us had to say. (The logbooks, which are in every shelter, are also a great way to catch up with old friends and measure your pace against theirs.) My confession, which made Rex laugh out loud, was…”forgive me Father for I have sinned, I intentionally hike slower than my son in order to make him feel better about himself.”

Inspirational Story. As we were starting our journey into Virginia, we met a hiker by the name of “Bandass and Blind”. He was about 60 years old and blind. He lost his vision four years earlier. He just finished hiking the Rollercoaster, alone without assistance from a human or an animal. He was in pain…possibly from some broken ribs he suffered as a result of a fall down a cliff. When I asked him how he stays on the trail, he told me he does get “off-trail” at times, but he always finds his way back to the trail because he can feel the worn rocks under his feet. I am not sure how he does it, but “Badass and Blind” inspired us…and his trail name fits. This man was a badass.

Hiking Gear. A few of you have asked us about our gear. What do we carry? What do we wear? I’d recommend you read a few books or hiker magazines and watch some Youtube videos (there are some good ones out there) before you take our advice…we’re still novices. That said, here’s what we carry and wear. Priority number one…take care of your feet. I wear Hoka One One boots because I need ankle support and padding under my feet. Rex wears lightweight, zero-drop Altra trailrunners. Be prepared to go through 2-4 pairs of hiking shoes if you are hiking the entire AT. Pennsylvania’s rocks will tear up the soles on the best hiking boots! Priority number two…decide how you want to travel…ultra lightweight or lightweight. There is a trade-off…comfort vs. weight. For example, I carry a heavier Thermarest sleeping pad because I wanted more comfort at night. Overall, my base weight (weight of your pack, minus food and water) is ~19 pounds; Rex’s is ~25 pounds. Depending on conditions, add 15-20 pounds for food and water. Priority number three…sleeping system. I use a one-man NEMO lightweight nylon tent (1.2 pounds); Rex uses a lightweight ENO tarp and hammock (less than a pound). We both use a 20-degree rated, 650-fill down sleeping bag. As I mentioned already, I did not skimp on the sleeping pad. My large Thermarest air mattress is rectangle in shape, weighs more than a mummy or half-size mattress, and comfortably fits my 6’2” frame. Rex carries a smaller and lighter foam pad in case we sleep in a shelter. Priority number four…carry a warming layer in your pack. We both carry lightweight merino wool long johns, socks, and a lightweight synthetic, puffy jacket. Invest in a few reliable, lightweight waterproof sacks to keep your warming layers and sleeping bag dry. We’ve been pleased with our Outdoor Research dry bags. Last priority…your backpack. This was our last purchase because we wanted to ensure our “stuff” would fit inside. We both started with Osprey Exos 58-liter packs. Rex’s pack blew out as we entered VA. He now uses a 58-liter Gregory pack, which he picked up at REI using their great return policy. Hope this helps those of you who are considering long-distance hiking. Feel free to shoot us any other questions you have.

Way Ahead. We leave Troutville today, headed for middle and southern VA. We expect to be in Virginia for the remainder of the month and we intend to post another update before we enter NC/TN. Let me end this post where I started…thank you for supporting us, our partner, Project Healing Waters, and the disabled veterans they serve through their phenomenal outdoor programs. Your generosity and support is making a difference!

Happy trails, 

Diesel and Pony Express   


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