This is an exciting day, the most important prep day of all — travel day. By evening we’ll be in position to formally begin our AT hike the next morning. Clarence and I are meeting at Mary’s house for a final gear check that will center on our food for the first five days, personal needs for our midpoint overnight in Gatlinburg, and food/clothing resupply for the second portion of the hike. We need to have everything organized for efficiency.
Due to the size of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, some areas are more remotely located and thus require quite a bit of travel time to access. This is particularly true of southwestern sections in North Carolina. There is simply no easy way to get there from just about anywhere. Our northbound route on the AT, which is actually more eastbound through the park, will require a two hour drive over Hwy. 441 into Cherokee, then along Hwy. 19 through Bryson City to Hwy. 28 and our destination in Fontana.
Susan and Allen Sweetser will drive us. After a couple of last minute errands (for more ibuprofen and a belt at the NOC store in Gatlinburg), we stop at Sugarlands to turn in a backcountry camping permit with our shelter schedule and reservation number. At Newfound Gap we drop off my car, and everyone piles into the Sweetser’s vehicle. We are making good time and opt for a quick side trip to the original Nantahala Outdoor Center, now a sprawling complex featuring a restaurant, equipment rental, and retail goods. We walk around a bit before a thunderstorm drives us inside where I buy a Buff to use as a lightweight nightcap if needed.
We are spending the night at The Hike Inn, a quaint establishment that has accommodated hikers for 20 years. Owners Jeff and Nancy Hoch provide highly personalized service that includes shuttles to and from the trail, a trip to town for food and supplies, mail drops, laundry, and clean, comfortable private rooms with baths. Small details catch our attention: satellite TV tuned to the weather, coffee maker, big bottle of shampoo, shaving cream, assorted books for light reading, and most interesting of all — toenail clippers, what a through-hiker would really need on occasion but is not likely to carry. A hanging scale on the porch lets hapless hikers put a number on their back pain.
The Hochs take in animals as well as hikers owning five dogs and several cats, including Shasta, a friendly tortoiseshell kitty who hasn’t met a hiker she doesn’t like. Before and after our Mexican dinner in Robbinsville, we enjoy the mild evening on The Hike Inn’s front porch and chat at length with Nancy and Jeff. They have many entertaining anecdotes from their 20 years living on Highway 28 and a few horror stories about the motorcyclists that roar by all day on their way to the infamous Tail of the Dragon, Hwy. 129, nearby.
Darkness eases across the sky, and the mountain air cools. We retire for a restful night’s sleep.