Starting in Hot Springs
Day One, June 6, Spring Mountain Shelter, 11.3 miles: Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser drop me at the A.T. trailhead in Hot Springs off Serpentine Road. At 9:00 a.m. I hoist a full pack and follow the trail on Hot Springs streets for several tenths of a mile, crossing the French Broad River before turning into the “green tunnel,” a term used to describe the A.T. for its lengthy runs through shady forests.
The trail parallels the river a short distance then ascends Lovers Leap Ridge 1200 feet, followed by a 500-foot ascent of Mill Ridge, a 1300-foot ascent of Rich Mountain, and a 600-foot ascent of Spring Mountain. It’s going to be a long and brutal first day! Despite dry, rocky terrain on the first ridges, the trail surface is surprisingly smooth and easy to walk.
Ninety minutes into the hike, I take a break at one of the many campsites along the trail. Resting on a log for a snack, I attempt to stand up and hear a ripping sound like Velcro. Pine sap oozing from the log is now on my pants. Anything with which I make contact immediately binds to my rear: leaves, dirt, sticks, small pebbles. I feel like one of those insects that cover themselves with detritus as camouflage.
Later, I adhere to a bench next to a dammed pond with small black fish. It marks the halfway point and a good spot for lunch. My pace has improved somewhat, but up to now, I’ve seen no one else on trail. At the pond, a young man scouts early mushrooms and shows me a lovely specimen of Suillus pictus. Back on trail, I meet a local woman exercising her dogs and a day-hiking couple. Thus begins a long and interesting list of personal encounters on the A.T.
Next up are two women, one from Chattanooga ‘Wallagirl,’ the other from Lynchburg, VA, ‘Heartsong.’ They are section hiking southbound (SoBo). ‘Wallagirl’ sees my bear Humphrey riding on my shoulder and shows me a tiny stuffed wallaby called “Wallaboy” given to her by her son.
Rich Mountain Lookout Tower
A young girl, ‘Hummingbird,’ with gorgeous blond hair in a French braid is northbound (NoBo) to Katahdin. She began at Springer Mountain May 18 and is making incredible time. I catch up with her again at the Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, where we both meet ‘Many Nights.’ Now in his mid 80s, ‘Many Nights’ thru-hiked the A.T. SoBo in 1998 at age 67. We share a delightful chat and enjoy views of the Smokies and Mt. Mitchell. By the way, the alleged “0.1 mile” side trail to the tower is at least twice if not three times that length.
After Rich Mountain, I’m dragging and not even Snickers can revive me. The final 2.7 miles are slow going. There’s no one at Spring Mountain Shelter when I arrive, and what a disappointment. It’s dingy and dirty with gaping holes in the sleeping platform. Rampant rodent references in the shelter’s journal sends me scouting a tent location. The only obvious place is a slanting patch of bare dirt to the right of the shelter. Unknown to me, more sites are located just over a small rise further up trail.
Large Yellow Wood Sorrell
Two men who have set up camp there come to the shelter to cook dinner. They are friends from childhood. It’s Glen’s first backpacking trip, and he’s just out for the weekend. ‘Stick’ has more experience and plans to continue hiking, though his struggles with a stove and water collection have me worried for both men. They tell me the higher sites are flatter and better. While debating a possible move uphill, a handsome young man from CT, ‘Bear Bell,’ arrives. He’s section hiking Damascus to Fontana before his brother’s wedding. There is another young couple upslope, one of them plays the recorder (not very well). I only see them when they come to filter water and hang their food bag.
Glen, ‘Stick,’ ‘Bear Bell,’ and I cook dinner and eat. As daylight fades, a troop of boy scouts from Tampa, FL, arrive. An undetermined number of boys head uphill to find tent/hammock sites, and five or six adults flatten foliage all around the shelter. Stowing my gear away from their mayhem, I hang my food bag on the cables and decide to stay put. Big mistake.
Turns out the middle-school-aged boys have more sense than the doofus adults. Reminiscent of a Three Stooges short, these men spend the next two hours shouting and tromping through the woods trying to hang their food bags. One idiot ties a rope to his knife and throws it over the food cables where it tangles with ‘Bear Bell’s food bag. The knife is stuck. It never dawns on the guy to simply lower the bag and retrieve it. They are oblivious to the rest of us trying to sleep. One lone female in the group walks around wringing her hands, “This is terrible…they can’t get the bags hung…this is terrible.” Yeah, terrible that these fools are trying to teach young boys how to survive in the wilderness!
Discovering this major drawback to summer A.T. hiking — big clueless groups, I determine to rise at dawn and put as much distance between them and me as possible.
Day Two, June 7, Campsite, 10.7 miles: Up at 5:40 and leaving before 7:00, my original destination Little Laurel Shelter 8.6 miles away is abandoned when I hear the scouts are headed there. My focus shifts two miles further to a campsite at Jones Meadow. It’s a lovely day, and I make good time passing through Allen Gap and crossing Log Cabin Drive, where a private home is visible mere yards from the trail. I plan to lunch at the shelter.
In June, two plant species found on trail appear so similar it is difficult to tell them apart. Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus, Rosaceae) and Astilbe (Astilbe biternata, Saxifragaceae, also called False Goatsbeard) are producing tall feathery panicles of fleecy flowers in rich, moist woodlands. There are several distinctions between them, but these differences are subtle and require close examination. In the field, I find it hard to remember which characteristics belong to which species.
The most significant difference requires a hand lens to confirm. Goatsbeard is dioecious — male flowers, each with 15-20 stamens, on one plant and female flowers on another. Two other traits may be used. Astilbe’s upper stems have glandular hairs, Goatsbeard is smooth. Astilbe’s foliage is twice or three-times ternate (divided into three leaflets) and the terminal leaflet is often lobed. Goatsbeard’s compound foliage is not restricted to divisions of three leaflets, the leaflets are double toothed, and the terminal leaflet is not lobed. Yet the challenge remains to recall which is which when both are flowering along the trail.
Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) can be found in dense stands on the A.T. Tall, coarse, and poisonous, it does not have the charm of other wildflowers. However, butterflies like Great Spangled Fritillary appreciate the nectar and wide landing pads its broad, flat heads of small white flowers provide.
The trail is busy in both directions. NoBos still carry dreams of Katahdin and hike with purpose. SoBos are usually fairly chatty, maybe because at this time of year they are certain to be section hikers less pushed by time constraints to finish the entire trail. They will stop for many minutes to exchange pleasantries, share destination goals, and provide valuable information on trail and shelter conditions north.
One unusual SoBo is actually a NoBo. Along with his regular vehicle, Gerard bought a cheap used car. He leaves one at a road crossing south and drives the other to a road crossing north. From there, he hikes south to the first car, spends the night in a hotel, and drives to another trail crossing the following morning, leapfrogging north after hiking each daily section south. He’s proud of this arrangement — no heavy pack, no shelters or tents, carrying only the immediate food and water he needs. He really tries to sell me on the idea, “You can buy a used car for under $1,000.” Ummm, no thanks. I wish him well and off he goes.
The next SoBo is an older woman. She began at Damascus and has decided to continue to Springer Mountain, estimating her arrival by mid-July. As we chat, something about her is naggingly familiar. When she references a broken ankle, it hits me. “Were you hiking southbound in Virginia two years ago?” I ask. She looks surprised. “Tip Toe?” I venture. “It’s G-Sprout.” Her face breaks into a big smile. We met on Day 19 of my hike through Central Virginia in 2013. She’s the one who thought Bloodroot leaves look like Batman.
Cow Parsnip with Great Spangled Fritillary
‘TipToe’ is taking her time, enjoying both the trail and its friendly hiker community. No hardship seems too great for her. On my agenda tomorrow is Firescald Bald, a strenuous stretch of rocky terrain that others have warned me against, advocating the bypass trail instead. Not ‘Tip Toe.’ She has her sights on New Hampshire one day, and Firescald was a test for her ankle. She made it easily and encourages me to tackle it, downplaying the A.T.C. caution regarding an eight-foot vertical scramble. “I could reach the top of it,” she says, “and there are good footholds.” ‘Tip Toe’ is 70 and my hero.
I lunch at Little Laurel and rest before climbing Camp Creek Bald, the crest of a 2500-foot climb from Allen Gap. The final 1100 feet in 1.3 miles are steep and require a slow and methodical approach. Near the top, thunder prompts me to cover my pack and sit down on trail, uncertain about crossing the peak in bad weather. The storm never comes my way, and I find that the trail remains under tree cover across the top. A short side trail leads to a lookout tower, but I’m ready to reach camp, and it’s still nearly a mile away.
‘Tip Toe’ advised me against Jones Meadow — too far off trail, no good sites, and barking dogs. However, 100 yards south of the side trail to Jones is a piped spring with a campsite next to the A.T. She stayed there last night. “It’s great,” she says. Arriving at 3:30, I concur with ‘Tip Toe.’ It’s a wonderful site at 4500 feet elevation with a local Veery patrolling the neighborhood.
My feet have been burning most of the day, and camp shoes are the first order of business. I’m shocked to find itchy red welts covering the tops of my feet and ankles. At Spring Mountain last night, these small black flies bit my feet leaving bright red spots of dried blood. Those bites are now swollen, causing significant discomfort. The pesky flies (I think related to the ones that drove me crazy in Virginia) are at this campsite too. To foil further bites, I wear my liner socks and start swatting them.
A few people walk by, mostly SoBos, but no one else stays for the night. There are no cables to hang food at A.T. campsites, and thinking back to my routine in Virginia, I elect to keep my food bag in my tent. In retrospect, a poor decision, and though I will not pay a price for it tonight, this will be the last time I risk it. Within a few hundred yards of the campsite heading north in the morning, several large bear tracks in the mud convince me it’s time to stop tempting fate and hang my food.
Preparing for sleep, I find those damn flies have flown up my pants legs and bitten my shins above the socks! Lying in the tent with nothing to distract me, my feet begin to itch like crazy. Scratching only makes them worse. Finally I remember Benadryl tablets in my first aid kit, unzip the tent to access my backpack, and discover hundreds of Blue Ghost Fireflies pursuing romance all around me. With an antihistamine dissolving in my tummy to calm the fire in my feet, I sit zipped in the tent with just my face exposed and watch tiny blue lanterns float through the darkness.
Firescald Bald Bypass
Day Three, June 8, Flint Mountain Shelter, 10.6 miles: From the campsite through Firescald Bald, the trail profile reads as nearly level. Thanks to the travails of Garden Mountain in Virginia, I’ve learned not to equate flat with easy. This caution more than applies to Firescald Bald.
Several side trails to the right and left can be confusing as you approach the actual bypass trail. Two go to cliffs, and one, the Jerry Miller Trail, is apparently an even more difficult passage than Firescald itself. The bypass trail, an old A.T. route, is recommended in bad weather. The weather this morning is good, and I plunge ahead ready for the challenge. The trail’s condition to this point has been excellent, and foreknowledge of rough terrain allows mental preparation for these rocky aberrations.
Following a forested ridge, the trail traces its way over boulders, often arranged in manageable steps seeming to climb a bit more than the nearly level profile would suggest. The forest ends, and the trail arches over a broad heath bald. The path remains rough and bouldery with walls of Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, and brambles clipping the lower half of views. Occasional Mountain Ash and Serviceberry trees overtop the heath shrubs. The best view comes at Howard’s Rock, a recently named boulder honoring trail builder Howard McDonald, overlooking Dry Creek with Greeneville and Tusculum, TN, in the distance.
The northern end of Firescald is a very rocky descent of 350 feet including that eight-foot vertical “scramble.” ‘Tip Toe’ was right, it’s probably not much over six feet, and the footholds are so well-positioned I am able to descend without having to turn around. If only the A.T.C. was as conscientious about alerting hikers to that perilous 20-foot drop at Dragon’s Tooth in Virginia. I sure needed a heads-up there! [Hint for anyone hiking NoBo over Cove Mountain at Dragon’s Tooth: Tie rope to your pack’s hand loop and lower it first, making it easier, safer and far less scary to descend. Wish I’d thought of that.]
Rocky descent of Firescald Bald
On the way down, I run into Gerard again. He’s sweating profusely during his climb of Firescald, terrain that has taken him by surprise. He planned an extra long day of hiking based on the trail profile alone and did not consider trail conditions. This strenuous section is taking far more time, energy, and water than he’d bargained. I tell him a good piped spring is about two miles and many boulders away. He questions if he’ll be able to reach his car by dark. Given his unique hiking plan, I figured I’d see him several times throughout my trip. I won’t see Gerard again. Don’t know if Firescald did him in or not, but I do hope he’s OK.
Shortly after leaving Gerard, I run into my own difficulties. A slight slip on a rock sends me tumbling into Mountain Laurel downslope. I’m not really off the trail, just wedged pack down in a shrub with all four limbs flailing like an overturned turtle trying to find some leverage to right myself. Amid bursts of laughter and a profanity or two, I manage to shift enough of the weight to resume an upright position.
Past Jerry Cabin Shelter, the trail ascends Bald Ridge and eventually Big Butt Mountain. While this just begs for a bad joke, I’ll simply say Big Butt is a rocky beast. I’m carrying David ‘AWOL’ Miller’s A.T. guide from 2013. I noticed a few errors and inconsistencies when it was new. Two years later, I know to take this old info with a grain of salt. On top of Big Butt, the A.T.’s path is very confusing. I can’t tell if I should turn left and climb tilting slabs of rock (which should lead to the summit, noted as “west of the trail” by Miller) or continue straight ahead (noted as a separate Squibb Creek Trail by Miller). The rock slabs are at angles greater than 45 degrees, and the trail ahead seems to have been recently renovated. Shunning the rocks, I go straight and soon find a reassuring white blaze.
This section of the trail is in superb condition — reasonable width, level surface, excellent grade. Again Miller’s profile shows a steep 1,000-foot descent in 1.3 miles, but the grade and time required to hike this part are not consistent with that data. I’m betting the recent work also rerouted the trail adding a bit more mileage but greatly improving the grade and surface condition. Only the tail end of the descent to Flint Gap through walls of rhododendron is steep and hard on knees.
Big Butt Mountain
For all the excellent trail work, one tiny area of fresh dirt is wet from recent precipitation and appears steeper with a tendency to tilt downslope. Gotta be carefu…”yaaaaaaah!” I land hard on my left side, right leg bent behind me, sliding down the trail at least four feet. If my baseball-loving husband could have seen this, he’d fling both arms out to the side and yell, “Safe!” I’m bruised and muddy but still functional, a slight twinge in my right ankle.
My fourth fall in three days, two simple mud slips to my butt, the Mountain Laurel tangle, and this big slide, has me doubting the wisdom of wearing boots with over 800 miles on them. These Lowas have carried me three years, and I plan to retire them at the end of this trek. Now I realize the sole tread might be well past its “sell by” date, enough to put me in jeopardy.
Distant thunder, scattered showers, and cloudy skies mark the afternoon, but things are looking a bit better when I arrive at Flint Mountain Shelter. I set up my tent in a fantastic spot that has only one drawback. It’s in a slight depression and water could collect there if it rains. I place my bet on a dry night. A note in the shelter says there is a toe-biting mouse in residence.
Excellent trail work!
I meet an older gentleman, ‘Boomerang,’ who got it in his head to go backpacking and put himself in the capable hands of REI staffers to outfit him appropriately. What he didn’t do was learn how to use his gear. Hikers have been giving him advice and aid. This evening, I help him with his Big Agnes tent and demonstrate the proper way to put a rain cover on his pack. Three other hikers stay at Flint Mountain. Methodist minister ‘Krispy Kreme,’ undeterred by the nibbling mouse, opts for the shelter, and a couple from Cleveland, TN, John and Susan, string their hammocks nearby.
During dinner we glimpse animals that look as big as groundhogs sneaking through the rhododendron. They’re rabbits, Appalachian Cottontails (Sylvilagus obscurus). Also during dinner, the wind picks up and the sky turns dark, bringing a light shower. I consider a last minute switch to the shelter but stick with my tent. Turning in for the night, another shower begins, then intensifies. It rains most of the night. Periodically, I place my hands to either side of my sleeping pad and push on the tent floor, displacing at least an inch of water underneath. I’m virtually floating in a pool. Thank heavens for bathtub floors. My Tarptent holds up beautifully and keeps me dry.
Day Four, June 9, Hogback Ridge Shelter, 8.8 miles: ‘Boomerang’ is eager for an early start to resupply at a nearby store on NC 212. In his rush, he leaves his tent rainfly on the shelter picnic table. He and I have the same destination today, so I put the fly in a discarded stuff sack and take it with me.
Cascade in Rocky Fork
The morning is foggy and cool, perfect hiking weather. As usual, the first miles pass easily and swiftly. Sunshine burns through the fog, yet wonderful breezes keep the day cool. So cool I become chilled during my lunch break.
Coming off Locust Ridge, the A.T. crosses Devil Fork Road (NC 212) and Rector Laurel Road to rise through a 10,000 acre tract called Rocky Fork or “the little Smokies,” preserved for its biological diversity and beauty, featuring a cascade and rich understory of herbaceous plants. The 1600-foot climb to Lick Rock is interrupted by Sugarloaf Gap. Somewhere north of the gap and south of the peak, I stop for lunch having passed a SoBo. Twenty minutes later, near the end of my meal, a second SoBo shows inquiring about the first, his hiking partner. He tells me there’s a great meadow clearing about a half mile away where they had spent an hour drying gear in the sun.
Say no more. The thought of warm sun and a chance to dry both my tent and ‘Boomerang’s rainfly is ample motivation. This meadow-like opening occurs in a sag between two high points, the second being Lick Rock. There is a good campsite here, and another hiker, ‘Gnome,’ is preparing to continue his journey SoBo. We chat a bit as I lay out wet items. He doesn’t have far to go, finishing at NC 212, and is reluctant to leave the trail. On a day like today, I can certainly understand why.
No matter how wet or cold or rough the conditions on trail, there will always be a gorgeous day to warm up or dry out and a beautiful place to rest and recuperate. This opening offers both, plus a view of distant ridges. A snippet of I-26 is visible with its massive rock cliffs carved into the mountains.
While I’m relaxing at the campsite, ‘Boomerang’ arrives grinning from ear to ear. He’s heard through the hiker grapevine (‘Gnome’) that I have his rainfly. Stretching his tent and footprint in the sun, he pops open a fresh can of Vienna sausages, but not before giving me a big bear hug as thanks. Unsure if the afternoon’s clouds portend more rain, we soon pack up and head for the shelter about three miles away.
After summiting Lick Rock, the trail descends 750 feet to Rice Gap and climbs Hogback Ridge to its shelter. Sitting off trail about 0.1 mile, the shelter faces southwest with good campsites behind it and several more a short distance away. There isn’t a view as such, but the environs are open and airy, and the shelter is decent. The water source, a good spring, is 0.2 mile from the shelter yet a relatively easy and pleasant walk. Unfortunately the privy is disgusting, but most of them thus far have been close to or well past the need for switching pits.
Four young NoBos join us at Hogback, all bound for Maine. One recently finished a stint in the Navy working aboard nuclear submarines. They talk until dark and turn in. It’s a lovely night. I sleep well.
A “Nature Trail” off the A.T.??
Day Five, June 10, Whistling Gap camp, 13.6 miles: Bidding ‘Boomerang’ adieu this morning, I start early for a campsite that will put me within striking distance of Erwin, TN, and my first resupply the following day. Upon reaching Sam’s Gap at I-26, I power up my phone and pray for an AT&T signal to call Uncle Johnny’s hostel and reserve a room. Business done, I take the opportunity in Sam’s Gap to call my son Sam. He lives in Arizona where it is 5:30 a.m. I leave him a message.
The trail climbs a small rise to an irregular patchwork of meadows and woods then descends to Street Gap. From there, it is mostly uphill (and thankfully mostly gradual) to Big Bald, a wide, grassy summit with 360-degree views. The northbound approach is not a piece of cake, however. The trail is narrow and twisty, squeezing by trees and rocks in a forest of thick vegetation. My pack often bumps against tree trunks as I snake my way along. Trail rocks and roots add to the fun.
As the forest relaxes a bit, I come across a side path leading to a ridge and a sign that stops me cold, “Nature Trail” with an arrow pointing upslope. The irony is just too much. It isn’t noted on Miller’s profile, but the A.T. map and Google Earth show a large-scaled housing development with equally massive homes just over the ridge. Might it be part of that? Who in their right mind would leave the Appalachian Trail to hike a faux “nature trail” on developed property?
There is a bypass trail for Big Bald, advisable in stormy weather or dense fog. It’s possible to lose the trail on these open summits in low visibility, particularly when additional side trails crisscross the summit. If you need the bypass, look carefully for a thin brown post with tiny lettering “AT ALT” and a blue circle a few yards off the trail on the right. It isn’t easy to spot.
Yellow fields of Big Bald
On a good day, though, the bald’s lush sward inspires a Julie Andrews moment, twirling to “The Sound of Music” across the rich green grasses with blue mountains lining the horizon. One of the ragworts (Packera sp.) and a non-native hawkweed called King Devil (Hieracium caespitosum) paint some of the meads yellow.
Grassy balds look deceptively smooth, but the footing here can be as tricky as any root-filled forest. Eroded ruts, clumpy grasses, and occasional rocks often make the ground very uneven and require vigilance. In wet weather, hikers will avoid the muddy puddles in ruts and strike a parallel path through the grass inflicting greater damage to the community. The challenge for trail crews is shunting water flow to minimize erosion and the need for hikers to step off-trail. There is fresh evidence of this type of volunteer work on Big Bald.
The A.T. in general and landscapes such as Big Bald in particular often bring out the playful side in hikers. It’s such a pleasure to come upon evidence of someone else’s joy. Examples of hiker humor may be bizarre, sweet, funny, or profane. Those that manifest a light spirit are my favorites. Within a rectangular plot of bare dirt on top of Big Bald offering breathtaking views, someone arranged rocks to convey the simple message, “Hi.” Reentering woods past the bald, a white-blazed post has been modified into a smiling, mustachioed face complete with a pushpin nose. Gotta love it.
The lighter side of hiking
The descent from Big Bald is easy and smooth, passing Bald Mountain Shelter and a campsite 0.3 mile beyond. I pause here to get off my feet and eat, going so far as to spread my ground cloth and lie down. I have 3.2 miles left including the short but steep rocky summit of now-forested Little Bald and a long descent to Whistling Gap. I’m amazed at how revitalizing the prone position can be! Longer rests totally off my feet and a more relaxed attitude toward the day’s final miles are proving a successful combination for me.
Whistling Gap’s camp is excellent with many level tent sites. The spring, a short distance away, has a low flow this evening. It trickles across the ground to a tree limb, pools about a half inch deep, and overtops the limb in a flat sheet with no clear fall for collection. I find a large sturdy leaf, push one end into the shallow pool and balance the other over the log, creating a little waterfall under which I can place my cup. It takes a while to collect enough water, but I’m pleased. There is something very satisfying in self-sufficient problem solving!
To my knowledge, no hikers pass by and no one stops for the night. When I’m ready for bed, the last chore is to hang the food bag. I have a long, thin rope with one end threaded through a small drawstring sack made by Anti-Gravity Gear. I tied a carabiner at the rope’s midpoint with a trucker’s hitch. Placing a small rock in the sack, I toss it over a limb of suitable height, hook my food bag to the carabiner, hoist it in the air, and tie the ends around a nearby tree. Take that, Florida boy scout dads!!
When it’s fully dark, I peer out of the tent and see Blue Ghost Fireflies drifting through the campsite. Flashes of lightning and thunder to the west bring my second meditation among the fireflies to a close, and I zip the fly shut. That’s when I notice little globes of light swimming past my tent. Lying in the midst of their world feels like a warm embrace. The storm moves north; the forest sleeps.
The Green Tunnel
Day Six, June 11, Uncle Johnny’s hostel, 12.9 miles: The forest sleeps well, but I don’t. Despite my success hanging the food bag, I worry that something might still get it. The bag is untouched, and I wasted a good night for nothing. I do think there was a mouse scuffling around my tent though. At any rate, poor rest will haunt me today.
A steep uphill to High Rocks and climb along one end of Flattop Mountain prove slow and torturous. These high points occur on either side of Spivey Gap, and trail conditions here are as rocky and rooty as I’ve seen. To be weary in mid-morning is unusual, so I sit on a large log for a bit. It supports my pack lifting its weight from my shoulders and hips, yet allows the pack to serve as a tilted chair. It is surprisingly comfortable leaning back, and I let my gaze lift to the mosaic of sunny and shady leaves overhead.
My Zen Fowler’s Toad
Though a little warmer and more humid, it is a lovely day. The stillness of the forest reminds me why I come out here and lifts my spirits. In a while, I am refreshed and ready to continue.
The trail crosses Devil’s Creek Gap and runs a zig-zag course down one flank of No Business Ridge and No Business Knob. I’m looking for a good lunch site and wind up walking all the way to No Business Shelter. It occupies a large, flat area facing east, and no one is here. Since the picnic table is in full sun, I choose another great log in the shade and drop my trekking poles against it. At that moment, I notice a very large Fowler’s Toad sitting placidly at one end near a rotted crevice that must be its home. My rudeness does not faze it, neither do my curious stares, pack removal, and incessant photographs. I quietly sit on the other end, leaning comfortably against a cross log, and eat lunch. The toad does not shift, flinch, twitch, or even blink that I can detect. Only the skin below its chin undulates. I tell it about my day.
A bee joins us. It shifts a lot, waggling in front of me, waggling in front of the toad, investigating the toad’s log crevice, warming in a sunlit patch of leaf litter, cooling on a shady leaf, and chasing off another bee (different species, different pitch to the buzz) that also wants to check out the toad and me. So there we are, the three of us, enjoying one fine afternoon. The earth rotates enough to put the toad’s end of the log in the sun. With the patience of Job, that unflappable toad simply waited for what it knew would come. Its Zen demeanor is an inspiration to me. It has shared things without a sound, without flicking a toe, just the silent flutter of its breathing and calm certainty of its presence.
Glimpse of Erwin, TN
Before leaving, I take a quick restroom break a short distance away. Pulling up my pants, I see a man standing by the shelter. There’s nothing in the understory here, and any casual glance from him would have spotted me in a compromised state quite easily. Deciding the direct approach is best, I walk toward my pack and him and call, “Hello.” He looks up, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone was here.” (A true gentleman!) He is ‘Posey Picker,’ a PhD botanist who loves his teaching job and visits the A.T. each summer to relax and renew.
After a little botanical talk, I continue the trail. The next 2.4 miles don’t vary much in elevation before dropping into Temple Hill Gap. The sun now hides behind thick clouds, and thunder lets me know that the remaining 3.4 miles could be wet ones. I eat a snack, put on my pack cover, and climb Temple Hill. It’s a short climb, just a few tenths of a mile. Near the top the trail hits a ridge line, following it over the crest and all the way down to the Nolichucky River and Uncle Johnny’s hostel.
As far as trails go, this ridge line isn’t a problem, fairly smooth going. However, there is a persistent storm with very dark clouds and thunder hovering to my left (north) in no particular hurry to move or dissipate. The ridge is thinly forested, and save for the occasional rhododendron thicket, I can’t help feeling a bit exposed. I dash from thicket to thicket constantly bracing for a torrent. Thunder fades, and just as I think I’ll make it, the rain comes in sheets.
I pull out my umbrella and sit down. It gets breezy, the temperature drops, the rain shows no signs of letting up. Soon my butt is getting wet, so I start hiking again. The descent takes longer than I like, but at least the rain finally stops.
The trail follows a ridge line with the apropos name Cliff Ridge perched high above the Nolichucky with a precipitous drop. From there, views of the river and Erwin, TN, pop through at switchbacks. Coming upon one sharp turn, I notice a strange looking shrub straight ahead. It’s Pirate Bush (Buckleya distichophylla), a rare plant in Tennessee, and it is in flower! Snapping photos, I remember it is often associated in a hemi-parasitic relationship with hemlock and look around. Sure enough there are hemlocks here, but they too look a bit strange…it’s another rare plant, Carolina Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana). I’m in heaven! Pirate Bush isn’t very plentiful, but Carolina Hemlock continues down the ridge for quite some distance.
At last, I reach the road and the river. Uncle Johnny’s is at an intersection a few yards left of the trail. Checking in at 4:50, they tell me the van ride for dinner and shopping leaves at 5:30 and won’t return until 7:30. I have to unpack, shower, and get my laundry started in a half hour. I make it thanks to ‘Giggles.’ Running to the hostel’s one clothes washer, I find someone else’s laundry and detergent in the basket. A tall blonde girl walks in. She offers to share the load. I’m game and add my clothes and detergent to hers. ‘Giggles’ ate in town earlier and isn’t going anywhere. “I’ll do your laundry.” ‘Giggles’ is my new friend.
The dinner choices in town are mediocre Mexican or iffy Italian — clean out the insides or belch garlic all night…decisions, decisions. Joining me for Mexican is the young ex-Navy hiker, who plans to study physics after the A.T. His dream job: working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Last stop of the night is Wal-Mart. I’m not a fan of this chain, but I do buy a bag of Mini Oreos which should get me most of the way to Damascus.
Upon return, ‘Giggles’ is folding our clothes. I help her with what’s left and turn in to sort my resupply and call my children, the cat-sitter, and the Sweetsers. Under the soothing whir of a window fan, I sleep like a baby.