Day 17: Wesser Bald Sheler to Nantahala Outdoor Center // 6.1 miles. In the morning it was threatening rain and we couldn’t decide whether to put on rain jackets or not. It’s a big decision. If you put them on, you’ll start getting really hot and sweaty because, despite what they claim, they are not breathable. If you don’t put it on, then you have to stop when it starts raining and put it on then, which doesn’t sound that bad but is somehow a big pain. We put them on. We went along narrow ridge for a bit before starting a steep downhill all the way into the NOC. Katherine and Brandon came in and we decided to all split a motel room because thunderstorms were predicted. It was the world’s tiniest motel room. Like, when we all stood in there we could barely turn around. But there were showers and we were warm and dry. When you’re warm and dry, you’re good. Eric and I shared a twin bed and it may have been roomier than our tent…we’re starting to wish it were a little bigger. We got burgers and beer and it did not thunderstorm. Oh well.
Day 18: NOC to Locust Cove Gap // 10.1 miles. Leaving the NOC was huge uphill, all day long climbing. But the weather was good, and Eric packed out two beers from the NOC, so we had those at lunch. We finally finished the climb and camped in a tiny gap with about fifteen other people, including Katherine and Brandon. It was a good crowd though, so I didn’t mind. There’s a group of guys hiking without shelter or stoves, so they showed up and immediately started making a big fire, then pulling out all these raw ingredients and doing, like, real cooking. The cook’s name is Chef, appropriately. He made a curry with rice, veggies, and roasted sultanas. We were a little jealous of someone else’s food for the first time!
Day 19: Locust Cove Gap to Cable Gap Shelter // 11.6 miles. Jacob’s Ladder was a pretty killer climb. Somewhere someone is laughing about convincing everyone else to put the trail there. Late in the afternoon we met up with Wired and hiked three miles with her that just flew by. When we got to the shelter Eric had to intervene with a hiker attempting to kill a harmless black rat snake that had been in the shelter. They’re actually good to have around because they eat mice. This one was wounded pretty badly. I don’t have fondness for snakes usually, but it was sad.
Day 20: Cable Gap Shelter to NC 28 (the road that goes into Fontana Village) // 5.5 miles. We caught our first hitch ever from the road into the village and it wasn’t scary. Two very nice older people on vacation let us get in their immaculate and perfumed car. I tried very hard not to move and get dirt and sweat on anything. Katherine, by the way, is now called Phoenix (Brandon is Johnny Appleseed). Phoenix’s dad came down and rented a cabin and invited us to join them. The “cabin” was very, very nice. The only thing cabin-y about it was that there was no cell signal. Phoenix’s dad, Dan, is currently our favorite person ever. He brought what he thought was a huge amount of food (and, to be sure, was) but we devoured all of it. He was laughing about that the whole time. Phoenix’s grandmother also came down, and she is a hilarious and lively old lady with lots of stories. We had dinner in the lodge and did laundry in the sink before bed.
Day 21: NC28 to Great Smoky Mountains National Park boundary // 2.4 miles. This hardly qualifies as a hiking day because mostly we just hung out at the cabin eating. But in the afternoon we walked from the road across Fontana Dam to GSMNP boundary so we could start there in the morning. While we were waiting for Dan to pick us up, we witnessed the most spontaneous patriotic scene ever: two fighter jets flew over an American flag while a bald eagle soared below. It looked like a staged scene before a football game or something.
Day 22: GSMNP boundary to Russell Field Shelter // 12.7 miles. We carried six days worth of food for the Smokies because we didn’t want to go into Gatlinburg halfway through. That much food is really heavy, and the first day going into the Smokies is all uphill. It was also really hot. But we had a lovely rest on top of a fire town with Inspector Gadget, who played his ukulele as we all sat there. We managed to secure the last two spots in the shelter, on the bottom level. Grateful, because it started to rain that night. I got a different kind of rain: dirt, from the sleeping platform above me. Ugh shelters.
Day 23: Russell Field Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter // 9.2 miles. Long climb up to Rocky Top, but the view was a surprise and worth it. Lots and lots of hard wind all day and we kept waiting for rain. It came once we went to bed, with lightning and thunder. Worried about Jeremiah and The Doctor who were sleeping outside in hammocks, but they seemed okay in the morning. Reconnected with a group we like: Aladdin, G-man, The Doctor, Jeremiah. Black Dog and Ronan are off trail now, maybe coming back maybe not. We’re still camping with Phoenix and Johnny Appleseed every night.
Day 24: Derrick Knob Shelter to Double Springs Gap Shelter // 7.2 miles. It was raining in the morning while we packed up, and during a brief interlude we tried to hop to the next shelter. We were rained on and soaked pretty thoroughly, but it wasn’t cold, so I could deal. The trail was really, really, muddy and that frustrated me because I kept slipping and getting my rain pants covered in mud. After we got to the shelter the sun came out for a little bit so we could dry some things out. I read some of the book Eric picked up for me from the hiker box in Fontana Village, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the evening hurricane winds and rain came back.
Day 25: Double Springs Gap Shelter to Icewater Springs Shelter // 13.8 miles. No rain all hiking day, such a relief. The clouds were in and we couldn’t see anything on Clingman’s Dome, but I’d expected that. It was cool just to experience how intense the wind was up there. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the AT (so it’s all downhill from here, har har) but it’s not very high compared to what I’m used to in Oregon. Just another reminder I’m in a different part of the country now. Pushed hard all afternoon as ominous clouds built, snagged the last top-level spots in the shelter and it immediately began pouring. Grateful.
Day 26: Icewater Springs Shelter to Tri Corner Knob Shelter // 12.6 miles. I do not like sleeping in shelters. Not one bit of it. The morning is sort of the worst part for me because that’s when I’m in my worst mood, and I just don’t dig trying to go through our morning routine in such close proximity to everyon else doing the same thing. Plus it makes it feel like a race to leave. Anyway, not long after leaving the shelter we came to Charlie’s Bunion, which cheered me up considerably. It was epic. Thick clouds were coming through so mostly it looked like we were hanging out on a sky island, then occasionally the clouds would roll back and we’d glimpse the valley and mountains below us. Hiked in and out of clouds all day getting hot and then cold, hot then cold, taking off layers and putting them back on. We ran into a group of men in their seventies who belong to the “800 Mile Club”, meaning they’ve hiked every mile of trail in the Smokies, including ones from CCC days that are no longer maintained. I love older people who have made sure to use it so they don’t lose it as they age. Got to yet another shelter in the afternoon. If we hike a big day tomorrow we can cross out of the park very late and camp wherever we want tomorrow evening! I am very motivated for this. I hate shelters.
Day 27: Tri Corner Knob Shelter to Stateline Branch campsite // 17.9 miles. Biggest day yet. We really wanted to get out of the park and camp on our own again. In the morning all the condensation from our breathing was frozen on the inside of the shelter roof, and as the sun rose it start to melt, so it was like a tiny rain storm was we packed up. We hiked all morning in our insulated jackets, which are usually way too warm for hiking and used for camp and night only. We were trying to get to the Mt. Cammerer side trail to a fire tower we’d heard was epic for lunch, but it was getting late and we were getting tired and thinking about just stopping to eat something. Then we came across Hob having lunch on the side of the trail and stopped to chat with him. He and his wife are both retired and spend their days adventuring. They’ve done the AT before but he wanted to do it again this year–she said she’ll join him in New England and doesn’t want to repeat the South. Hobb gave us each three cookies which gave us energy to get to the fire tower. Yay Hobb! While we were having lunch there, around the corner comes Phoenix and Johnny Appleseed AND her parents, who had surprised them earlier in the day at a gap. AND THEY HAD BEER FOR US. After lunch, feeling pretty good, we cruised down and out of the Smokies and found a lovely spot between two creeks to camp. No crowds, no bits of trash, no stale shelter smell. Beautiful. The Smokies are beautiful. But I can’t even say how relieved I am to get them behind me. Phoenix and Johnny Appleseed hiked past us to the road because they were getting picked up by friends to go into Ashland, NC. They texted us saying there was trail magic as a road crossing not far past where we were, and it was expected to be there in the morning too.
Day 28: Stateline Branch to Groundhog Creek Shelter // 8.6 miles. In the morning we packed up quickly hoping not to miss the trail magic. We hiked about a mile to the road and followed a sign down to a gravel parking lot by the river where a group of former hikers and their spouses had a grill and tent set up with a table full of food. They made us bacon and scrambled eggs and we drank sodas and snacked on junk food. A lot of people showed up and at one point they offered to drive some of us to Wal Mart to resupply. We decided to send me to take advantage of that because our other option was resupplying at a hostel up the road, which was expected to be expensive. So I squeezed into a car with as many other hikers as we could fit and suddenly found myself on a highway heading to Wal Mart. It was a little disconcerting to be going that fast! In the Wal Mart so many people looked overweight and unhappy, and that reminded me to be grateful I have the chance to do this trail. Wal Mart is not usually my favorite place, but I have to say it’s a really good resupply. When we got back to the trail magic they had started in grilling burgers, so we stayed for lunch too! We finally left late in the afternoon because we needed to get some miles done that day, but I think a lot of people just decided to stay there. It was hard walking with a fresh load of food and a full belly in the heat, but we got some ground covered and weren’t even that hungry for dinner!
Day 29: Groundhog Creek Shelter to Unnamed Gap // 15.2 miles. Found more trail magic just before Max Patch, piles of soda left on the side of the trail, so that was awesome. Max Patch was beautiful but so windy we could barely even take pictures. I don’t like hanging out in wind like that, so we went over the summit and stopped for lunch in some trees just below. The trail around here is lined with trilliums, and they were especially great today, in many different colors. We’ve even seen some Pink Lady’s Foot, which are wild orchids! Pretty cool. Camped beyond the last good water and had to backtrack.
Day 30: Unnamed Gap to Hot Springs, NC // ~11 miles. More beautiful trail coming down into town, and not too steep of a descent either. We passed some locals out flower-watching and they asked us where we’d seen the best ones. It was exciting to walk right into town without having to figure out transportation! We decided to get a room in the Sunnybank Inn. It’s this ancient house with really cool decorations. They don’t allow cell phones, and you can sign up to get an organic, local, etc., vegetarian breakfast. We showered there and then headed down the street to get dinner–giant hamburgers.