Day 8, Mar. 16, 11.8 miles The shuttle back to Dicks Creek Gap leaves at 9:00 giving me time for a delicious breakfast at nearby South Side Cafe and a visit to Three Eagles Outfitter, a Franklin, NC, company with a small satellite store on The Budget Inn’s property. I need a fuel canister and want to send home a few redundant items I won’t need. They have flat rate USPS boxes on site.
The shuttle is crowded. Twelve hikers and their gear turn the van into a clown car. Ned, the guy from Wales, is one of them. His knee is better. “Maine-iac” is here too, and “Pain,” a stunningly handsome nurse who took two zero days for bad blisters. I’ll be lucky enough to see him the first couple of days as he eases back into the trail. Another passenger is “Son-Driven.” He’s had a few personal setbacks in life and decided the A.T. might be a good opportunity for a fresh start. He’s different, and everyone becomes familiar with him quickly. Despite his inexperience, he is holding his own quite well, maintaining a decent pace and the all-important positive attitude.
Today, I finish the trail in Georgia and cross into North Carolina. My pack is loaded with five days of food. I figured the hike would be hard, but it is tougher than I’d imagined. The day is sunny and warm which means sweaty. The trail is a roller coaster of knobs and gaps, some ridiculously steep, especially near the end.
About five miles in, I stop at the last Georgia shelter, Plumorchard Gap, for lunch. It’s 0.2 mile off the A.T. down a blue blazed trail to the water source and beyond on a small circuitous path across tiny streams with little footbridges through a rhododendron forest. I expect sprites and gnomes to greet me. This shelter is a triple decker. Two ladders lead from the bottom platform to an upper deck on the right and a loft over the porch and meal prep area on the left. There are windows on either end of the third level for light. The Army 5th Ranger Training Battalion helped build the shelter in 1992. A plaque shows a large helicopter airlifting the basic structure into place. That would have been fun to watch!
When we were dropped at the gap this morning, a Georgia Forest Service ranger warned us, “You’ll be able to tell from the trail and the shelters that you’ve left Georgia.” He is right. I often groused about Georgia’s lack of switchbacks, but the trails were in good shape and navigable. In North Carolina I encounter many downed trees. The trail is often little more than a grubbed slash across the flanks of mountains — narrow, slanted, rooty, muddy, eroded, and slippery — as if walking 2000 miles with a 35-pound pack isn’t challenging enough.
Just past the GA/NC border is Bly Gap and a beautifully twisted old tree standing alone along the trail just begging for people to sit a spell and take pictures. I let Humphrey indulge his bearly aptitude for climbing and get a photo. Past Bly Gap, the trail climbs Courthouse Bald in two very steep sections. In the middle of the first section, I take a snack break.
My feet are starting to ache, and I dread hoisting that pack again. The sun is warm, the sky is blue, and a few white, puffy clouds are floating by. I stretch out on the ground, lean against my pack, and relax for a change. Each day I’ve treated this trip like a job, head down, shoulder to the grindstone. It is amazing to simply stop and let my senses absorb the place. I watch one cloud change shape from a dragon to a griffin then a race horse and finally a lioness. I close my eyes and listen to the quiet for a bit. I vow to do this more often. Hiking the A.T. should be as relaxing and fun as it is tiring and hard.
I need to get moving. Once I painstakingly drag my butt up Courthouse Bald I still have to descend to Sassafras Gap (there seems to be at least one in every state) and climb some more to reach Muskrat Creek Shelter. The shelter is small, dingy, and pockmarked with carved initials and messages. There is no journal. “Welcome to North Carolina,” says Blue Deer, a hiker very familiar with the trail in the southern states.
I’ve already been converted to a tent-over-shelter devotee. There is room in the shelter, but I’m not interested at all. I walk the grounds looking for a good spot and find one close to the trail. Tonight will offer the heights of what Appalachian Trail life can be. I’ve got a level spot bordered by shrubs. There are ample branches within reach for draping sweaty socks and stubs for hanging gear like the clean water bag. I’ve got a log to lean my pack against and sit on for dinner. There is a privy in decent shape and a good water source close by. The sky is clear, the temperature is mild, and the wind is light.
There are numerous suitable tent and hammock sites around Muskrat and within a couple of hours they are all occupied. After dinner, Ned and I are chatting. Blue Deer walks by and says, “Wanna see the sunset?” Off we go…without my camera (darn it). “Maine-iac” and “Pain” come along too.
The shelter is located just downslope from Ravenrock Ridge. A few yards before the shelter is a sign “Ravenrock Trail” that works its way north along the ridge line about 0.3 mile to several rock outcroppings. About two-thirds of the way, the crumpled debris of a Cessna plane crash in the 1970s is scattered on the ground. Much of the tail is still intact. From here, the trail bears left through rhododendron leading to the rock outcrops.
The ridge faces southwest with an open 180-degree sight line to smaller summits in the Southern Appalachians southeast to northwest. Following a small opening through the rocks and shrub cover, you can reach a rocky crag jutting over the valley. The four guys step out there. It looks a bit small for so many people so I perch on another rock nearby. “Pain” uses his phone camera to take photos of us and one of the most subtly beautiful sunsets I’ve witnessed. A revolving palette of soft corals, pinks, and lavenders tint the yellow glow on the horizon.
“Maine-iac” is barefoot and “Pain” and I do not have our headlamps, so we return to camp before dark. A quarter moon rises and shines through the shrubs, casting shadows on my tent fly. Despite the number of campers, it is remarkably quiet. To the delight of my toes, I don’t need socks in my sleeping bag. This is one of the most comfortable and enjoyable nights I will spend on the A.T.
Day 9, Mar. 17, 12.5 miles I get up at first light and take Humphrey, my camera, and breakfast out to Ravenrock Ridge for sunrise. It is peaceful and lovely, but cannot compare to last night’s sunset. When I return, everyone is up at the shelter. Several of the guys are standing around and one calls my trail name. “Hey ‘G-Spout.’” “Blue Deer” turns around and says, “I’ve heard of you.” The Trail Magic guys “Panda” and “Fish Hook” told people of my enthusiastic chicken scarfing. I smile and warn them not to stand between me and bucket of fried chicken!
Today will be one of the easiest days thus far. Despite the distance, there are no steep sections. The main feature is Standing Indian Mountain (5,500 ft), and the trail is gently graded and easy on the feet. Another notable aspect is the junction with popular Chunky Gal Trail, likely corrupted from the Cherokee ‘chucky’ often used in place names.
The summit of Standing Indian is a small rocky and grassy bald. I eat lunch up there and rest a bit. The day is partly sunny, but clouds are gathering. Rain is predicted. A cell signal allows me to check the weather. Wednesday night is still set for a bone-chilling 19 degrees in Bryson City, 3,000 feet lower in elevation from where I’ll be. Temperature drops 3.5 degrees for every 1,000-foot gain when it is cloudy and 5.4 degrees when it’s clear. I could be looking at low single digits!! That is still a few days away, and I’m hopeful things will moderate.
Carter Gap Shelter appears to be everyone’s destination tonight. Again, the shelter itself is small, drab, and dark. Even though there may be showers tonight, I opt for my tent, setting up among large rhododendrons with many other hikers. The tiny spring is a distance away, and I’ve been warned to take a cup. (Smack myself in the forehead.) Of course! A cup is the best way to quickly and easily fill the ‘dirty’ bag. Hands can stay dry this way plus it really speeds the process. Eureka and Hooray!
There is another pretty sunset visible from the campfire. Ned, “Pain,” “Blue Deer,” “Maine-iac,” Scott, Josh (now called “Duffle Miner” for cribbing some spices from a duffle bag found under Blue Mountain Shelter), “Gutsty,” “Odometer,” and new acquaintances “Techie,” “Toast,” “Rusty,” “Lady Gray,” “Twisted,” “Marine,” “Logan,” “Fulsom” (Fulton for Now, I’d met him at Gooch my second night), and “Whiteout.” “Fulsom” is creating fictional hikers and encourages us to help promote the character “Cincinnati Spooner,” a hiker who spoons strangers in shelters at night.
It is another mild evening but not as quiet. There are snorers, and one person screams out about 11:00 p.m. It sounds like someone in the throes of night terrors calling for his mom, but I learn later it is a German hiker who sneezed!! Later, I hear the patter of rain on the tent. Light showers come and go throughout the night.
Day 10, Mar. 18, 12.1 miles It rains heavier toward morning and continues lightly as we get up and pack. I’ve gotten quite good at getting my gear ready the night before. Within the confines of my tent and its vestibule, I can load my backpack with everything but the tent and groundcloth, which are wet and go on the outside anyway. I’m ready with rain jacket, pants, and pack cover. The day is cool, foggy, and breezy, but not uncomfortably so. There is little rain, mostly just dripping trees. I put my camera in my pack due to the weather and upcoming adventure.
The highlight today is a 0.3 mile, near-vertical, boulder scramble to the top of Albert Mountain. Honestly, it is fun and beautiful. I have not faced this type of terrain before. “Blue Deer” said to put away trekking poles, but I shorten mine to their lowest level and find them very helpful. It is a slow zigzag up and over huge boulders past twisted trees and shrubs with lichens and rockcap ferns all shrouded in fog that one hiker likened to a tropical cloud forest. There is a locked fire tower at the summit but no view. It’s cold, wet, and very windy. I get out my camera to take a photo just to prove I hiked the trail (rather than take the 0.4 mile bypass trail). The wind knocks my pack off the concrete footing and dumps Humphrey into a rain puddle.
The trail going down is an old road. It isn’t steep, but it is rough. I stop at the newest shelter, Long Branch, which opened this year, for a late lunch. Shelter beams have already been scarred with various carvings. Rumor has it that rain is due to hit by late afternoon. I’m going to continue to Rock Gap Shelter 3.5 miles away. The profile looks easy, though it proves wet and mucky in places.
I keep my trail profile in my camera bag, which is normally on my pack hip belt for quick access. Today it is in my covered pack. In my mind Rock Gap Shelter is at Rock Gap, but it is just before the gap. Even though it is clearly visible from the trail. I don’t see it and walk past it into the gap. The signage there is confusing, and I assume a small trail leading down from the gap goes to the shelter. I follow a steep, narrow, slanted, slippery trail with downed trees for several tenths of a mile before pulling off my pack in exasperation to see just where this darn shelter is. I nearly cry when I realize I have to walk back up this sucker and retrace another tenth mile of the A.T. to get there. The good news — I arrive with one space left in the shelter just moments before the rain starts. It rains hard and even hails (pea-size) until dusk. My Go-Lite umbrella comes in handy for sloshing to the privy.
Many others are here. Scott and “Duffle Miner” set up their respective hammock and tent. “Twisted” and “Marine” are soaked but get their tent up and dry out inside. “Son-Driven” sops two cups of water out of his hammock. “Techie,” “Lady Gray,” “Infinity,” “Fulsom,” “Maine-iac,” and I are in the shelter. We snuggle in our bags and watch the rain and hail and crack bad jokes as wet hikers slip and slide down the steep shelter trail directly in front of us. It’s like watching TV. “Fulsom” compares it to car racing. We’re waiting for the wreck!
I make a disparaging comment on the weather, and “Maine-iac” delivers this pearl of wisdom from the depths of his Feathered Friends sleeping bag, “You have to embrace the suck.” That is the philosophy necessary to successfully hike the Appalachian Trail. Yes, indeed…you have to embrace the suck!
Day 11, Mar. 19, 8.4 miles The cold weather lurking behind yesterday’s rain has everyone spooked. The rush is on to get to Franklin, NC, and gear up or hunker down. My original plan was to hike 14.8 miles to Wayah Bald, but I’ve been struggling at the end of 12-mile days and don’t want to risk getting caught short at 5,000 feet. I briefly consider staying in Franklin. However, there is a third alternative. Siler Bald Shelter is eight miles away. It adds a day to my schedule and requires extra food, but it makes the most sense. I decide to hike four miles to Winding Stair Gap and catch an 11:00 shuttle into town. If I can acquire a sleeping bag liner and more food, I could return to the gap and hike to Siler Bald.
Everything goes without a hitch. The shuttle is at the gap when I arrive at 10:00. A worker at Three Eagles Outfitter picks me up in town and drives me to the store. They have a bag liner and food. I also buy a windproof pair of gloves to go over my current pair. Next door is Sonic. Across the street is Bojangles. I have three pieces of chicken and biscuit for lunch and buy a cheeseburger to take up to Siler Bald. The outfitter has a list of hiking club members willing to shuttle thru-hikers. I call Howard, a retired professor who now bakes bagels for area stores including Three Eagles and drives a rafting bus for NOC in season. He gives me a ride back to Winding Stair. At 1:15, I’m 4.6 miles from a cheeseburger dinner!
Right at the start is a pretty little waterfall. “Twister” and “Marine” are there headed for Siler Bald too. The day is sunny and cool. Everything is great…until I run out of water…just past the last spring…still tasting salty fried chicken. My mouth becomes a desert. It’s hard to explain the toll this takes. Four miles isn’t that much, and the climb is continuous but not too steep. Nonetheless, I’m spitting cotton and dying for a cool drink.
Siler Bald Shelter sits on a loop trail that hooks into the A.T. at two locations a half mile apart. The best approach is to hike to the upper junction and then down to the shelter. The three of us reach the grassy meadow over which the A.T. crosses, but it is not clear where the shelter is. We head down a blue-blazed trail. It is a steep old road, rutted and rocky. We come to another open area with no sign of the shelter. The blue trail continues to descend steeply to a great spring, and we stop for water. The shelter is supposed to be 0.3 mile in, yet it is not in sight, and we feel we’ve hiked nearly 0.5. “Marine” decides to climb back to the meadow and camp there.
I fill my water bladder with three liters and my clean water bag with four. Camping in the meadow sounds good to me too, but now I’ve got to climb about a half mile carrying 15 pounds of water and my pack. At least I can take long draughts of cold spring water on the way.
Once I get to the bald though, it is worth the trouble. The meadow is wide and open with low green and tan mounds of last year’s grass rumpled across the ground. The area to the right of the trail is relatively flat and there is a small fire ring near the tree line. This is where we make camp. To the left of the trail, the meadow slopes sharply uphill, then curves right continuing to the summit of Siler Bald, about 0.2 mile up. “Marine” sees some people up there.
The sun is still high enough in the sky to provide warmth and a wonderful opportunity to dry and air gear. I get out my wet tent and ground tarp from two days ago, unfold my sleeping pad, and turn my bag inside out. Shoes and socks and jackets and anything else that might be at all damp or stale are lined up in the sun. Then I lie back in soft mounds of grass, extend my arms, and lift my legs straight up in the air, spreading my toes in the breeze. A small gust of wind swirls audibly overhead. Tree branches dance against the blue sky. In this simple act of joy, there is a moment of clarity when the world and I are in perfect synch.
I wish I had time to just loll in the grass, but the sun is dipping lower, and there are chores to do. I get my tent up and pull out that cheeseburger. It’s cold but oh so awesome. “Marine” and “Twisted” offer me some of their stuffing dinner. It’s warm and tasty. I feel bad (but not too bad) that I don’t share my cheeseburger. They understand. “Marine” is hiking the trail in small bits as work and vacation time allow. His wife “Twisted” joined him for the week’s trip. She’s proven a hardy hiker easily covering 10 to 12 miles a day. I’ve seen them the past two days, but we’ll have a chance to become friends during the next two.
The really cold night is still 24 hours away, but at 5,000 feet a clear night could bring temps to 20 degrees or lower. “Marine” gathers wood and kindling with swift precision. I try to help. Sticks are broken into uniform lengths and segregated by diameter into four piles. He places a fluffy mound of dry grass in the center of the fire ring then creates a teepee of sticks encircling the grass, beginning with the smallest diameter, working out to the largest, and leaving a small hole to insert a lighter. This sturdy structure will warm us in the morning.
A half moon shines brightly illuminating the inside of my tent. I hear a coyote yipping in the distance. The night does get very chilly, but thanks to my bag liner, I’m quite cosy. It’s another great night on the A.T. with one exception, I’ve got a small case of poison ivy. A few days ago, I was visiting the “ladies room” and started to fall forward. I stuck out my hands to steady myself on a tree and realized in horror it was covered with two large vines of poison ivy. I diverted them quickly and barely brushed one vine with my left pinkie knuckle. It is now blistered and itching, but this isn’t my problem. I must have tucked my hair behind my left ear shortly after hitting the vine and rubbed urushiol on top of my ear. It’s not itchy so much as red, irritated, and very sore. If anything touches it, it hurts. Sleeping on my left side requires awkward positioning to protect it. Other than that, it really is a great night.
Day 12, Mar. 20, 11.4 miles It’s a cold, cold morning. I hear “Marine” walk to the fire ring, and within minutes there’s a bright orange glow visible through my tent wall. Just hearing the crackling of the fire warms me. “Twisted” and I roast ourselves near it as we eat breakfast, while “Marine” methodically packs their gear. I’m still a long way from being ready when they start for the day. We are both planning on Cold Spring Shelter tonight.
I take my time to insure the fire won’t be a hazard in the breezy conditions. Since my trail notes say the top of Siler Bald is worth a visit, I leave my pack near the fire and walk up with my camera and Humphrey. Just over the first rise is a tent where “Marine” had seen people last night. The occupants must still be asleep. The summit does offer spectacular views, nearly 360 degrees. Trees to the east impinge slightly on that aspect. The fire is virtually out when I retrieve my pack and descend the trail to Wayah Gap.
In a mile or so, I hear people talking and see a sign “Trail Majic” (sic) taped to a tree. Something is going on in a small clearing several yards off the trail. I pass four smiling trail maintenance workers. In the clearing is a large white tent over a picnic table loaded with food. Another hiker is there, at least one dog, and “Fresh Ground,” a talkative friend of A.T. thru-hikers. He sets up these lavish stations for several days at a time and moves up the trail each week. Last week he was in Georgia; next week he’ll be at I-40 past the Smokies. This week, he’s at Wayah Gap. He’s got hot coffee, hot chocolate, hot chicken soup, hotdogs, salad, fruit, candy bars, chips…it’s almost too much to take in. He has a scale to weigh packs, a trail register book, and a full length mirror. He’s pushing everything at me, and it takes me a moment to sort through the big spread. I select a hot dog and hot chocolate. He’s got ketchup, mustard and onions to put on the hotdog. I use all three and eat some chips too. I could easily eat a second dog and should have. He cheerfully tells us about his visitors including a weight lifting couple that came through yesterday. The man ate 10 hot dogs!! “Fresh Ground” doesn’t require payment but accepts donations. I give him two dollars and hope I’ll get to see him again near the Pigeon River!
The day is cool and sunny. It’s five more miles, mostly up, to Wayah Bald (“Wayah” means wolf), and the trail is fairly smooth and easy to walk. At the summit, the trail follows a wide paved road to the stone John B. Byrne Memorial tower. Named for a Nantahala Forest Supervisor who died at a young age of lung problems from his exposure to poisonous gas in World War I, the current tower is a truncated version of the taller fire tower built by the CCC in 1935 and used until 1945. The Smokies are clearly visible on the horizon. A view of the open meadows on Siler Bald shows how far I’ve walked this morning.
Yellow-blazed Bartram Trail, a multi-state trail tracing the path of 18th century botanical explorer William Bartram, merges with the A.T. for 2.5 miles crossing the summit of Wayah Bald, and these junctures provide opportunities for mistakes. I nearly head in the wrong direction at the first junction two miles before the tower, and learn later “Marine” and “Twisted” hiked a half mile down Bartram just past the tower before realizing their error.
The remaining five-plus miles are as smooth as the first, following easy grades. Cold Spring Shelter sits right on the trail at 5,000 feet. It has received some upgrades. Workers have enclosed the foundation, sealing what must have been a very breezy and chilly sleeping platform. I’m quite pleased (and relieved) to see this. Tonight is to be very frigid. I’m the only person here. “Marine” and “Twisted” must have kept going. I sweep out the shelter and survey the site.
The chinked-log shelter sits just below a ridge line on one side and above a small, steeply sloping valley on the other. It features a shallow overhang, mini picnic table, and fire ring. A small spring flows across the trail a few feet in front. The privy is downslope in the back.There are no campsites next to the shelter, but several are located a short walk further up the trail.
A couple of hikers stop by but elect to continue, including “JP” who tells me “Twisted” has hurt her hip and “Marine” has tied her pack onto the back of his. The three of them had taken that wrong turn on the Bartram Trail. That’s when I must have passed them. “JP” thinks they will make it to Cold Spring.
In the meantime, Scott and Josh “Duffle Miner” show up and stake out their corner of the shelter. Scott has a trail name now. Contrary to all wisdom, he hikes in blue jeans. Forest Service personnel have warned him, “you’ll die,” but he’s managed to stay dry wearing waterproof pants in inclement weather. “Fulsom” called him “Jean Genie,” because he keeps “popping up in those jeans.”
“Marine” and “Twisted” arrive, and he is nearly bent double balancing two packs on his back. Her hip began to hurt on downhills, an overuse-type injury. Rest and Advil (Vitamin I) will help. We eat dinner, and “Marine” builds another incredible fire. It is getting very cold. No one else comes, and the guys use a tent fly and tarp to cover the shelter’s entrance. Thus far the wind has been light, but as the sun sets that beast starts to moan. I am so thankful for the enclosed foundation, tarp curtain, bag liner, and four warm, friendly people to get me through this night.
Around 11:00 p.m., I awaken to a crinkling sound. I think it is the tarps blowing in the wind, until something falls on me near my face and scares me senseless. I frantically grab my headlamp and find an old greasy food wrapper. It must have come from the shelf above me. Did it blow down or did something knock it down? Now that I’m awake I have to pee. I put it off as long as I can, then get up quietly and slip out between the tarps. I place a hand on the picnic table for support. Surprise! It’s covered with snow! There’s a half inch of snow on the ground. This is not what I had expected for the first day of spring!
Tucked back in my sleeping bag, I wonder if I should put the food wrapper outside. I don’t. Big mistake. I’m awakened again, this time a large gray mouse is right by my head going after that wrapper. I shove the wrapper deep into a crevice. Minutes later, it’s “crinkle, crinkle” as the mouse tries to pull it out. This time I come out of my sleeping bag to put that darn wrapper outside in the snow. All night I think I hear scurrying and worry that the little guy is getting revenge chewing everything in my pack.
Day 13, Mar. 21, 11.7 miles Like Blue Mountain the week before, this morning is brutal and painful. My pack thermometer, which has been sitting inside the protected shelter says 12 degrees. Mostly likely it’s single digits, and the windchill is definitely subzero. Hot oatmeal sounds heavenly for breakfast. I light my stove successfully only to have it run out of fuel. I pull out the new canister but cannot get my thumb to make a sharp enough snap of the lighter to create a second spark. “Marine’s” hand holding a lighter with orange flame suddenly appears. A few minutes later, I’m struggling to open the ziplock pouch and eat. “Marine’s” hands pop in and snap it open — they have become for me the ‘hands of God.’
After much fumbling, I get packed and start walking. I’m wearing my heavy capilene sleeping clothes under two tops and pants, a Buff skull cap and ball cap, two pairs of gloves, two jackets, two pairs of socks, boots, and long gaiters. I do not overheat all day. My hands are hurting so badly, I have to slip them in my pockets and let the trekking poles drag. The sky is clear, sunshine is glaring off the snow, and breezes are cold, particularly in the shade.
I start out with a small set of cleats called “Slide Stoppers.” Each has a big four-pronged cleat that sits under the instep. It feels like a big rock is stuck to the bottom of each boot. They collect packed snow, leaves, and other debris then slip sideways, rolling ineffectively to the side of my boots. After a while, I take them off in disgust.
The trail after Cold Spring Shelter remains at 5,000 feet undulating over Copper Ridge Bald and Rocky Bald before descending steeply 1,200 feet to Tellico Gap. This is where “Marine” and “Twisted” will finish their hike. From here the trail climbs 800 feet to Wesser Bald, which has an open observation platform with a good view of snow covered Clingman’s Dome.
I blew out my water bladder drinking tube last night as a precaution, but the bite valve still froze and has been inoperable all morning. It does not thaw until noon when I set it in the sun on top of Wesser Bald. Finally, I can take a long drink. A short time later I try to take another drink and find that the bite valve and tube are both frozen solid from the air temperatures and wind at this elevation! It does not thaw until I’m below 2500 feet — another three hours.
Climbing Wesser Bald from the south is easy, descending Wesser Bald to the north is a bear! I cannot imagine going up what I am going down. Parts of it are reminiscent of Albert Mountain in reverse, just a lot longer. One section is fairly level traversing a narrow ridge. The upper portion is extremely rocky, and ridiculously steep in places, but the trail (again reminiscent of Albert Mountain) is also very picturesque — narrowly snaking among lichen encrusted boulders and gnarled, corkscrewed shrubs. It feels like an adventure, looking for treasure, Tolkienian. One reward is The Jumpoff, where the trail switchbacks at a cluster of rocks jutting off the ridge line with a spectacular view.
Wesser’s descent is also very tiring and trying on the knees. I cannot wait to reach Nantahala Outdoor Center in the gorge where I hope to rent a room for the night, pick up a small resupply, and eat pizza at River’s End restaurant. At 3:30, I walk through the doors of the outfitter nearly numb with fatigue. The first people I see are “Twisted” and “Marine.” They are clean and fresh from their hotel in Franklin. “Twisted” has two Snickers bars for me!! They are going to the restaurant, and I will meet them there once I’ve secured a room.
The process of getting a room at NOC is rather convoluted. You must check in at the market across the street first. The man there determines that there is a bunkhouse room available and sends me to a small house on the backside of their campus across the river to register and pay. Then I walk to my bunkhouse up the hill to drop off my pack and return across the river to the restaurant for pizza. I’ve just added another mile to my total for the day!
“Jean Genie,” “Duffle Miner,” “Twisted,”and “Marine” are finishing their meals. I order a large pizza, and manage to eat only three pieces. Two hikers come in — “Gare Bear” (for Garrett) and his girlfriend “Bear Snack.” They are amateur weight lifters. He’s the guy who ate 10 hotdogs from “Fresh Ground!” Today is “Bear Snack’s” birthday. I offer them two pieces of pizza and let “Marine” and “Twisted” take the rest. I just want to shower and go to bed. That stupid mouse kept me up nearly all night.
I’m sharing a room with Anita (“Turtle”) from Florida. She’s tired of being cold and is going home. She loves day hiking in Colorado and is no slouch on the trail. The A.T. was her first effort at backpacking, and she faced a fear of the dark to do it. This hike didn’t work out, but she is looking forward to trying her new backpacking skills in Colorado.
My knees don’t hurt, but they are achy. I take two ibuprofen before bed — my first and only for this section — and nod off immediately. It is incredibly wonderful to stretch out and sleep uninterrupted.
Day 14, Mar. 22, 10.3 miles For a distance hiker, your backpack is your home. Everything you need to survive must go in it. I experimented with several gear arrangements before I began the A.T. to find one that utilized the space well and balanced the weight. I wanted a simple scheme that I could reproduce daily. Ha! My previous backpacking experiences have not been long enough for me to fully appreciate just how volatile packs can be. They have their own personalities and moods, cooperative and friendly one day, crabby and mean the next. Gear that fit easily yesterday, simply will not go in today. Packs with five days of food are often slimmer than packs ready for a resupply. It’s maddening.
The last few days my pack has often bothered me physically, hurting my shoulders or hips at various times. When it feels comfortable, I hesitate taking it off for fear it will hurt when I put it back on. I decide to consult with NOC staff to see if there is something I’m doing wrong. Steve measures me, checks the fit, and makes a length adjustment. It seems a bit better.
It’s a six-mile climb out of the Nantahala Gorge to Swim Bald and two more miles to Cheoah Bald. A decent night’s rest helps me hike stronger today despite the 3,300-foot elevation gain. I’m feeling more energetic which positively effects my mood. There are a few steep, rocky sections, but nothing compared to the descent from Wesser yesterday.
Shortly after leaving NOC, I spot the first spring wildflower of this trip, a tiny Rue Anemone. The whole point of leapfrogging up the trail over two years is to follow the trail through the seasons. Well, I can definitely check winter off the list. However, I’m now worried that I won’t get to experience spring! Monotone browns of leaf litter and pockets of evergreens (Galax, Ground Cedar, Shining Club Moss, Appalachian Rockcap Fern, Mountain Fetterbush, etc.) are all I’ve seen. Winter is still in full control along the trail. The only interesting ‘new’ plant is what I believe to be Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris) in and around the streams near Low Gap Shelter in Georgia. The little Rue Anemone is encouraging, but once I get above 2,000 feet, it’s back to the same old bare winter blahs.
I’ve been hiking alone every day, but today I hike for a while with “JP” from Philly. It’s pleasant to chat with someone on trail for a change. I also meet “Roman” and his sweet black lab Carly. Some hikers complain “Roman” is not taking good care of her. She is thin, and he left her tied outside NOC in the cold while he drank beer in the restaurant. He’s having ankle problems and is looking to leave the trail for a week or two to recover. It might be a good break for both of them.
I got a late start due to my pack adjustment and arrive at Locust Cove Gap campsite around 4:00. I still have energy, but not enough to cover 4.5 miles including the infamously steep Jacob’s Ladder to reach Brown Fork Gap Shelter. It’s been cloudy, breezy, and chilly all day. There is a good chance of rain tonight.
One other couple, “Dragonfly” and “Onyx” are here. I set up my tent a short distance behind theirs. The spring is down a short, steep trail on the opposite side. A length of garden hose runs from a shallow pool upstream over a rock to create an effective outlet for collecting water. What a great idea; it is quite convenient.
More hikers arrive, and the gap is soon home to seven tents. At dusk, little snow pellets begin to fall making a “pic, pic” sound on the rainfly. One couple has a weather radio, the forecast is not encouraging with more rain and temperatures well below average. Snow is expected in the Smokies. Where is spring?!?
Day 15, Mar. 23, 11.6 miles It rains overnight but stops by 7 a.m. The morning is foggy and chilly; clouds hang around all day. I’m on the trail at 8:30 for a difficult day bouncing up and down like a yo-yo. The trail often follows ridge lines up and over small knobs. At most points, the ‘end’ of the climb is in sight until I crest the knob and find another short climb in front of me. Around the seventh crest, I’m ready to scream if there is no downhill relief.
At Stecoah Gap, I see “Organic” (we talked briefly yesterday) and his friend “Tree Trunk” who is trying finish the A.T. this year, plugging two section ‘holes’ including the Smokies from his 2012 thru-hike attempt. He had his mother’s dog with him and did not want to kennel her while he hiked the park. I stop to eat one of “Twisted’s” Snickers. “Organic” offers me a fresh organic banana and even disposes of the peel for me.
I’m moving much slower today and become cranky. My pack is hurting me again, pulling down hard on my shoulders. I see no other hikers. Long sections of the trail have no blaze, making me wonder if I’ve erred. Other sections cross big boulder fields. Then there is “Jacob’s Ladder.” This part of the trail rises 600 feet in 0.6 mile. Since it has a cool name, I imagine rocks and boulders to scramble, something like Albert Mountain, hard but interesting. No. It’s just a regular leaf-covered trail, slogging one agonizingly tedious footstep after another up an incredibly steep slope.
It levels out on top along a narrow, bouldery ridge full of Mountain Fetterbush (Pieris floribunda). Many of the shrubs are so cloaked in lichens, just tufts of green leaves on branch tips are visible.
Despite the drudgery and damp chill, I find a few interesting things to photograph. An old Hygrometer Earthstar still spews spores into the air when tapped. A leaf caught in branches is bleached white, its tissue thin and nearly translucent patterned with netted veins. Shiny maroon Galax leaves complement apple green Fern Moss. Trout Lily leaves hold beads of rain and remind me that spring is still coming…at some point!
After 7.5 long hours, I make it to Cable Gap Shelter next to the trail in an open valley. All amenities — stream and privy — are close by. “Dragonfly” and “Onyx” are here. It is supposed to rain again tonight, and I opt to sleep in the shelter. I do spread out my tent. It nearly dries by evening. “Gare Bear” and “Bear Snack” stop here (and join us in the shelter) as do several others in tents and hammocks. It is chilly but not cold. It does, however, rain most of the night.
Day 16, Mar. 24, 6.9 miles For all the bad weather these past two weeks, I can hardly believe the luck I’ve had with rain. Not once have I been caught in anything more than sprinkles and dripping trees. It has rained mostly at night and stopped just after light. This is exactly what happens today. Rain ends by 7 a.m. I’m up at 7:15 and ready to go by 8:00. It’s a short day with The Hike Inn in Fontana at the end. I’m more than ready for a break.
I have no legitimate breakfast to eat this morning and wolf down my second Snickers bar from “Twisted” on the trail. There is a one mile climb out of the gap, but most of the profile for today trends downward, or at least that is the way it appears. Exasperating little uphills insinuate themselves continually. It is all I can do to drag myself up them.
My first view of fog-choked Fontana Lake is heartening, and I am nearly giddy with delight when I see my first Trillium. There are a number of them near the bottom of Bee Cove Lead. Most are still shut tight, but a few are open enough to reveal both Toadshade (Trillium cuneatum) and Yellow Trillium (T. luteum).
These happy moments are very short lived. To be honest, I’m a bit rattled by the fragility of my mental and emotional state. A pair of short climbs after crossing Fontana 28 with less than two miles to go, sends me into a tailspin. During one of these near breakdowns, a young hiker comes up behind me, scaring me half to death. When I reach the dam, I look for the public phone Nancy Hoch (The Hike Inn) told me to use since cell service is not reliable. I don’t see it and check my notes. In utter despair, I realize the phone was two miles back at Highway 28. Powering up my cell, I alternately pray for a signal and hurl such profanities at AT&T (“Searching…”) that I drive off two dam visitors. I manage to piece together enough bits of three phone calls to let Nancy know I’m here.
“Dragonfly,” “Onyx,” and the young hiker who passed me are also going to The Hike Inn. Ensconced in my room, I can relax and empty my pack to prepare for laundry and a shower. That’s when I get a good look at myself in the mirror. Suddenly, many things start to make sense. I haven’t looked this thin since the aftermath of my husband’s death. There is not an ounce of body fat on me. Collarbones, ribs, and hip bones are prominent. It wasn’t my pack’s fit that was off, it was my flesh! Struggles to meet daily mileages, slowing pace, excruciating uphills, fragile mental state — the reason is now clear. I am quite literally exhausted, depleted, there is nothing left in the tank. I’m lucky I had enough fumes to get me here!
What to do next becomes an important question. The weather forecast predicts snow the next two days with low temperatures hovering around 30 degrees. It doesn’t look like a big deal here, though the Weather Channel is frothing at the mouth over Winter Storm Virgil. More snow and colder conditions are likely in the Smokies. I’ve already added one day and had reconsidered my earlier plan for the Smokies adding another day there. I’ve got a pad of at least two more days. Taking a zero day to rest and eat here would be wise.
About 4 p.m. there is a knock at the door. It is Susan Sweetser! She, Allen, Allen’s father Clark, and their new dog, Lacy, have come to take me to dinner and brought me two drumsticks, two thighs, and two biscuits from Bojangles! I eat three pieces of chicken and a biscuit as an appetizer. Less than two hours later, we’re sitting in the Mexican restaurant in Robbinsville. I manage to down over half my dinner and two large glasses of milk. The rest of my dinner, a Bojangles thigh, and biscuit, plus a quart of milk and two Snickers bars from the store will be my lunch tomorrow.
The next day (March 25) I wait till midmorning to request my food. It snowed overnight, and The Hike Inn’s phone has been ringing nonstop. Nancy’s husband Jeff just returned from shuttling some hikers and has three breakfast biscuits with bacon, egg and cheese from Bojangles. He offers me one. It smells so good and warm, I cannot resist and sit down to eat with them. Later in the day, Nancy warms my lunch on a plate. It flurries throughout the afternoon, though there is little accumulation.
The following day’s weather forecast has worsened a bit. It is soon clear that a second zero day will be needed to get on the back side of this snow. Jeff takes me to town that afternoon, and I buy a Wendy’s quarter-pound cheeseburger and medium fries for dinner and two more cheeseburgers for lunch tomorrow, plus a half gallon of whole milk, cheese sticks, beef jerky, two cinnamon buns, bananas, and six Snickers bars at the store. It snows more this evening and overnight. This morning, (March 25) it is snowing heavily and accumulating 4 to 6 inches. When I pick up my burgers from Nancy’s refrigerator, the three of us decide that it might be best for me call the Sweetsers and go home. The snow in the mountains is probably deep. This would surely slow me down if it didn’t stop me altogether. I call Susan, and she takes on the Dragon’s Tail (the roads are fairly clear despite the snow) to pick me up.
I spend the night at the Sweetsers sitting around a vintage wood-burning stove with good friends. The next morning (March 26), I have a flat tire (picked up a screw) and a few frustrating moments when the car wouldn’t start but finally get on the road.
Driving home, I can’t help but feel disappointed and wonder if I’d given up too soon. The Smokies are like my second home. I was looking forward to a comparison of what I’d just completed with the park’s trail. From my A.T. hike in the park last May, I recall a trail in much better condition, both surface and grade, than what I’d been struggling on this last week. Was it just because the weather was warm and I was rested and hiking shorter days or might the park’s A.T. really be better? Was North Carolina really that bad or was I just exhausted with no energy for even a simple uphill? I had been hoping I’d get my old form back in the Smokies, a very unlikely outcome. I probably would have found myself struggling just as much or more given the snow.
When I get home, I learn there was 18” of snow measured on Mt. LeConte and 15” at Newfound Gap. Deeper drifts, particularly on the North Carolina side, were quite likely. Mary told me later that park rangers had to assist several hikers who fell or got bogged down up there. Regardless of my physical condition, I made the right call, and given that condition, there is no question I did not belong in the snow-covered Smokies.
Looking back over the entire event, though, I can say without hesitation that I can hike the Appalachian Trail. There wasn’t a trail condition that I could not handle. My hikes in the park prepared me completely for the A.T. Physically, my body was well prepared too. Feet, knees, hips, and shoulders all performed admirably day in and day out. My pack was heavier than I’d wanted (upper 30s depending on food quantity, water, and wet gear), but that weight posed no problems on the trail. Endurance and stamina in general were not issues either.
There was only one notable weakness — flagging energy from depleted fat stores and deficient caloric intake. The severely cold weather really worked against me here. Precious resources were diverted to simply staying warm. I was in great shape the first week, meeting my daily schedule and hiking stronger than most around me. That changed after the first cold snap. Week two, I tired more easily and became irritated with the trail by mid-afternoon, needing an additional day. By the time I reached Fontana, the toll was complete.
It has taken nearly two weeks of very hearty consumption of high fat and calorie foods — fried chicken, 2% milk, cookies, steak & baked potatoes, ice cream, pastas, and bread — to relieve my craving for fats and finally feel ‘full.’ I plan to continue, with a bit of moderation, to prepare for the next section in a few weeks.
While the cold weather was a significant factor, it probably doesn’t account for everything. Regardless of temperatures, I will need more fat and calories to sustain daily mileages on the A.T. If I expect to reach my trail goals for the year, I cannot risk depleting myself again and am reworking my food plan accordingly. Grit and tenacity alone won’t cut it. More peanut butter, olive oil, and yes, more Snickers should help. I also plan more town stops to “grease up” on all the bad (now good) things I would normally shun.
Finally, I love all parts of the Appalachian Trail experience from the morning and evening ‘chores’ to the slow, steady progression of miles. I enjoy the simplicity of the routine and the satisfaction it brings each day. I wonder how the hikers I met in Georgia and North Carolina are faring and if I might find some of them in Virginia or further north later this summer. Each is hiking individually for his or her own reason, going it alone. Collectively, however, we are a community, and I miss that heartening sense of solidarity — the understanding that a complete stranger is my partner now and forever. I wish my partners well and look forward to seeing them on the trail very soon.