Since my return home in May, I’ve been resting, eating, writing, taking art classes, studying fungi, and enjoying the wonderfully mild summer in Middle Tennessee. Nothing makes you appreciate the little things in life quite like hiking 300 miles in the mountains and living out of a pack on your back for a month. Other than aching feet, my body held up well on trail…until about three days after I got home, and my knees went nuts. I have treated them with tender care — no running, hiking, extra weight, unnecessary squats or lunges. My feet benefited from this pampering too. It was mid July before my knees settled down and felt somewhat normal, just in time to hit the trail again!
Once I made the decisions to abandon plans for a long northern section on the A.T. this year and not redo the trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it made sense to pick up those 33.9 miles I missed from Interstate 40 near Davenport Gap to Hot Springs, NC, due to winter storm Virgil last March. I plan an eight-day trip to cover that short stretch of the A.T and do a backpacking loop on six new trails in the Smokies.
Day 1, July 25, 7.7 miles: Friend and always dependable hiking partner Mary McCord agrees to join me for the A.T. and invites me to spend Wednesday evening at her house. This morning she and her husband follow me to Hot Springs where I leave my car, then Mike drops us at the Waterville Exit on I-40 to begin our hike.
The A.T. follows Green Corner Road, a gravel road on the north side of the interstate, for a few yards before turning into the woods and climbing a long, steep set of rock stairs. The trail, though out of sight, parallels the road for the first 0.8 mile then intersects it a short distance south of Standing Bear Farm, a popular hiker hostel.
Mary and I walk up the road for a quick visit. Midsummer and winter are the slow seasons here. Northbounders keep the place hopping in spring, and southbounders pass through in the fall. Today there are no guests, and owner Curtis is busy with chores. We say hello. He invites us to look around. Two cabins flank the drive entrance. One is a bunkhouse that accommodates several people. It is charming and rustic on the outside, plain on the inside. Old hiking boots planted with red impatiens flank the entrance. The other cabin, termed the “Presidential Suite,” is furnished with beds and a sleeping loft. It straddles a small stream and the front porch railing’s design incorporates the A.T. logo.
Behind the bunkhouse is a water well and pump, a fire ring with ample seating, the kitchen/dining/laundry building, and a small booth for phone and internet use. The kitchen features a microwave, gas stovetop, toaster, small refrigerator, sink, mini oven, pots, pans, utensils, mugs, spices, etc., almost everything a cook could want. Shelves of books line the dining area and bunkhouse back porch. For laundry, there is a top loading machine and a washtub with wringer. Standing Bear will take mail drops and carries a selection of food and fuel for purchase. It’s a cool place.
From the interstate, the trail climbs 2,763 feet to the top of Snowbird Mountain (4,263) in 5.2 miles. It is not a difficult climb. After Virginia, I’m amazed at the smooth nature of the trail, hardly any rocks! This time of year there are a few slightly overgrown areas, though nothing of significance. We relax and take our time.
Midsummer plants in flower along the trail are Tick Trefoil, Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Sweet Joe Pye-weed, Starry Campion (Silene stellata), Large Tickseed, Tall Phlox, and Turk’s Cap Lily (Lilium superbum). Sourwood trees are still dropping their flowers. Indian Pipes are in all stages — flowers, fresh fruit, and dried stems.
This has been a wet year thus far, and the fungi are loving it. We see the weird — Hot Lips stalked puffball (Calostoma cinnabarina), the colorful — Viscid Violet Cortinarius (Cortinarius iodes), the tiny — Pinwheel Marasmius (Marasmius rotula), the deadly — Destroying Angel (Amanita bisporigera), the toothed — (Hydnellum sp.), and the gelatinous — Jelly Babies (Leotia lubrica) along with various corals, fiber fans, boletes, and many others. Mushrooms are very humbling, every outing shows how much I don’t know!
Mary and I have a blast walking over Snowbird Mountain. In late March, it would have been a desolate winter landscape, but in July it is lush and alive with flowers, butterflies, and lizards. Large Tickseed (Coreopsis major) is beautiful up here among young oaks, fiercely thorned Black Locust shoots, Goldenrod in bud, and Mountain Mint. Blackberry and Blueberry fruits are ripening. Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana) threads among the riot of shrubs and saplings.
Past the fire ring, where we see a young fence lizard, the soil changes to a lichen covered crust, and the plants become sparse. One species stands out in this area, Yellow Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) also known by the unflattering common name Horseflyweed. Its distribution is mainly northern but slips south in the Appalachian Highlands. A member of the Pea Family, Horseflyweed fixes nitrogen in the soil allowing it to grow successfully in poor areas too lean for most plants.
There is a radar facility on Snowbird Mountain, looking nothing like the one on Apple Orchard Mountain in Virginia. It is tiny in comparison and shaped like the capsule of an Apollo space rocket rather than a giant soccer ball. We can hear it humming.
Groundhog Creek Shelter is 2.5 miles down from Snowbird. Mary and I are relieved to have the climbing behind us. Neither of us has done much in recent weeks, and even though the trail up is not hard, the effort has tired us.
We are the only hikers at the shelter, a stone structure with an extended roof. The sleeping platform is warped and uneven, the grounds are dirty, and the privy is rather foul. The spring is a good one, though, down a trail to the left. We eat dinner and prepare for bed. I work in my journal while Mary reads the shelter log. The long roof overhang makes the interior quite dim. One person noted, “You could develop film in this shelter, it’s so dark.”
As with most shelters, mice rule the night. They are very noisy this evening and roust both of us in the wee hours chewing heartily on something. We grab headlamps to make sure it isn’t our packs!
Day 2, July 26, 13.1 miles: Thanks to the rodents, I awake more tired than when I went to sleep. Mary is snoozing peacefully, and I do not want to get up yet. We’ve got a long day ahead even if nothing appears too taxing. More rest will do us good, or so I tell myself…repeatedly…over the next two hours. At 8:30, I can’t put it off any longer and wake Mary. We aren’t ready to leave until 9:40, a delay I will pay for later.
Our first task is a gradual, 900-foot climb (tough in a few places) followed by a short descent over 2.9 miles to Brown Gap. We rest a few minutes on logs at the junction with a gravel forest service road and eat a snack before starting the next section — a steep climb to a relatively level ridge line leading to Max Patch.
The trail along the ridge is lined with plants chest to head high. We see Summer Phlox, Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana), Black Cohosh, Pale Jewelweed, a species of Agrimony, and Tall Meadow Rue (Thalictrum pubescens). Bees are busily working the flowers. Many plants are setting fruit too. Nodding Mandarin, Speckled Wood Lily, Indian Cucumber-root, and Blue Cohosh fruits are still green and unripe. Huckleberry, Solomon’s Plume, and Painted Trillium fruits are brightly colored and ready to do their job.
At the end of the ridge, we cross Max Patch Road SR 1182 and rest for lunch before our climb to the summit. I drop my peanut butter tortilla face down in the dirt and wind up consuming quite a bit of grit. We meet other summer hikers enjoying a mountain vacation.
The forest opens and the trail steepens as we near the top. Max Patch is a grassy bald with mown strips for the A.T. and a short approach trail from a parking area near the road. The views are spectacular. At the crest, a geodetic marker is set in a small concrete square in the center of the trail. Mary and I meet a friendly couple out for the day at the crest, and the lady offers to take our picture.
Max Patch isn’t as interesting botanically as Snowbird Mountain. The first plants to greet us are Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and the nonnatives Butter & Eggs (Linaria vulgaris) and Queen Anne’s Lace. The last is Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium).
A short distance from the summit, the trail reenters the woods. Here, my normally keen sense of the trail fails, and I lead us past a campsite for several minutes, before the rough surroundings raise enough flags to make me turn back. At the campsite, I can see an obvious path that makes a sharp right turn the instant the trail leaves the bald and hits the woods. In my defense, the wide campsite path continues straight ahead, and the trail blazes are not well placed to avoid confusion.
The dirt sandwich I ate for lunch is expanding uncomfortably in my tummy. A foot is giving me some trouble, and my right hip is hurting. I’m hot and sweaty. These physical woes combined with the wrong turn, extra steps, and wasted time darken my mood dramatically. The afternoon does what it often did in Virginia, slow to a miserable crawl. Fortunately, I have a secret weapon with me today, a hiking partner. Mary’s mood rarely shifts from upbeat and happy. She stays close and talks me down. The rest of the day is still very hard, just not as emotional and upsetting. The miles, the weight, and the terrain take their usual toll, but with a companion to talk to, it is easier to bear. We stop briefly at Roaring Fork Shelter for a snack.
From Max Patch to Lemon Gap the trail descends gradually 1100 feet over 5.4 miles. We roll into the gap at 5:30. A van is parked there, and the name painted on the side suggests a group of teenagers on a wilderness weekend. The shelter is 1.3 miles up Walnut Mountain. We have not brought tents with us, and fear of a crowded shelter ignites what little energy we have left to tackle the final climb.
On the way up, it begins to thunder uncomfortably close. I pull out all the stops to reach the shelter and claim two spots for us. Walnut Mountain has a small open summit. Amid black clouds and loud thunder, I bolt across without looking at a thing. Once the trail reenters the woods, the shelter is visible a short distance down.
There are no teenagers, just two young men hiking the A.T. for a month and another young man hiking with his mother for the weekend. The mother and son are in a tent. The two guys move to one side of the shelter, giving Mary and me the other side. I drop my gear and race to filter water before the rain.
The spring is located at the end of a long trail to the left of the shelter. Two-thirds of the way down, the path slices through a gauntlet of weeds and brambles towering overhead snagging skin and clothing. The spring is a meager trickle of water into a pool barely big enough to dip cupped hands. There is a length of pipe there, but no water flows through it. Without the aid of the pipe, I cannot get water in the “dirty” bladder of my Platypus GravityWorks filter system.
I spend many precious minutes positioning the pipe for flowing water. Once in place, the bag’s angle is so flat, I can’t even get a liter before it overflows. The process is painstakingly slow. It begins to rain. The rain is light, and I’m sheltered under a dense canopy of trees. Knowing Mary will need water too, I keep filtering to fill my pack bladder and the clean water bag (4 L). The weather worsens, and I’m forced to leave with just two liters of clean water. It will at least get us through dinner. As I plunge into the weeds, the rain falls in buckets! I struggle uphill and arrive drenched.
A lousy spring is not Walnut Mountain’s worst feature. The shelter is a dilapidated dump. It is small, cramped, dark, and dirty. The sleeping platform is missing several planks allowing gear to fall down and various critters to crawl up. The roof leaks in three places. During the hour-long torrential rain, we set out cookware to catch what water we can. The privy is so full of s**t, users must lean forward and hold their butts in the air. Three of the four food cables are broken. Walnut Mountain is a prime candidate for replacement or arson.
Day 3, July 27, 13.1 miles: Despite the misery of the weather and shelter, I sleep fairly well. Exhaustion pays. Mary and I rise at 6:30 to the sound of thunder. Rain delays our start until 7:50. While packing this morning, the pains in my foot and hip resurface. I suck it up and hope movement will work them out.
The trail descends Walnut Mountain less than a mile to Kale Gap then climbs nearly 1,000 feet to the summit of Bluff Mountain in 1.7 miles. These are not difficult sections unless a hip flexor muscle starts screaming. I barely manage a slow pace downhill, and any step up with my right leg proves excruciating. At Kale Gap, I ask Mary to pull my first aid kit from my pack and take an Aleve. Every forward swing of my leg is torturous until the medication takes effect. By the time we hit Bluff Mountain at 9:40, I’m feeling much better physically, which is also a tremendous relief mentally.
From Bluff Mountain, it is an elevation drop of 3,300 feet to Hot Springs, NC. It takes us a little over two hours to reach Garenflo Gap (four miles), nearly two-thirds of that drop, at the mountain’s base. We lunch at a small footbridge in Taylor Hollow Gap.
There are more cool mushrooms in the forest. Painted Bolete (Suillus pictus) has fibrous reddish scales on its cap. Numerous attempts to capture a sharp Green-headed Jelly Club (Leotia viscosa) in pixels fails. A baby Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia), minus its yellow patches, sits brightly among pine needles.
The final six miles continue the downward trend but include some short uphills giving a bit of a roller coaster look to the profile. The morning has been cool and cloudy. Sunshine breaks through in the afternoon, and coupled with lower elevation, the temperature begins to rise. The young men from Walnut Mountain Shelter pass us, looking forward to the simple pleasure of a long soak in a hot spring while sipping a cold beer.
Three miles from the end, Mary and I eat a snack at the side trail junction to Deer Park Mountain Shelter. The young man and his mother catch up to us here. Mom and son high five her achievement for the day. They are staying at the shelter tonight and will enjoy an easy afternoon.
We face a final short climb of Deer Park Mountain followed by a steady descent into town. Hot Springs is audible and visible long before we reach the parking lot on Serpentine Road. At 4:20 I unlock my car, remove my pack, and change shoes. It’s wonderful to sit in plush car seats.
There is a sign at the trailhead telling hikers about the spread of nonnative invasive plant species like Japanese Stiltgrass, Garlic Mustard, Chinese Silvergrass, Kudzu, Oriental Bittersweet, and Japanese Spiraea. Sponsored and built by the Southern Appalachian Cooperative Weed Management Partnership, the signs have a boot brush installed at the base, so hikers can scrape mud and debris, often containing weed seeds, from their boots before entering the trail. It’s a great education tool, and one small, easy way to slow the spread of these pest plants.
On the drive to Cosby, TN, we run into a thunderstorm. The original plan was to take Mary home, pick up some gear left there, and drive to Cataloochee Campground for the night. The storms, body aches, and fatigue combined with the lateness of the day, prompt me to seek another overnight invitation at Mary’s. She’s more than willing and such a great hostess. It is far preferable to bathe, methodically prepare my gear for the park loop, and sleep soundly (through more storms overnight) in a cool, dry bed.
A.T. Postscript: My Appalachian Trail hiking for this year is at an end. For 2014, I’m leaning toward 300 miles through Shenandoah to Duncannon, PA, in late spring with the possibility of New Hampshire in midsummer, provided all goes well and there isn’t something else I’d rather do. My rigid approach to hiking the A.T. has relaxed considerably after 589 miles. I’ll do what feels good when it feels right. Meanwhile, I’ve still got a third of the Smokies’ trails calling my name. It’s time to get back to the place I love.