October 29 ~ Abington Gap Shelter, TN at milepoint 1722.5 south, 139 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – Day 137 AT miles hiked – 10 Miles left to go: 444.6 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: no one
Damascus, VA, was hard to leave. Our favorite stop was the Side Track Cafe, where Jake and I had brunch this morning. The Side Track is owned by a former thru-hiker, Mountain Man, who has hiked the Trail seven times. And that doesn’t count the thru-hike he did with his parents in the 1970’s when he was four years old. (He slacked the whole way on his mother’s back, while Dad carried the gear for all three of them!) Mountain Man looks like he got someone else’s Trail name – I was expecting a huge, burly guy. Instead he’s medium-size, with a dark, neatly trimmed beard, and a quiet, almost shy manner. A computer programmer by training, he hiked the Trail with his wife in 1986, and then she was killed in a car accident. He continued hiking the Trail for several years. He acquired the Cafe a few months ago when the previous owner threw in the towel. Mountain Man has converted it into a strikingly congenial place with first-rate coffee and a good menu. It’s possibly the only place in town where you can get a bagel, or anyone has even heard of a bagel.
After lingering over our brunch and making a few phone calls, Jake and I did eventually get back on the Trail. We climbed about 2,000 feet to get up on the 40-mile ridge that connects Damascus to Hampton, TN, out next stop. The sun was glowing today, and the leaves gave a sharp crunch underfoot. I felt totally energized by our ridge walk, with views through the leafless trees of the farms tot he east and west.
With the sun slanting low through the trees, I could see hundreds of spider web filaments stretching across the Trail – some high, some low, but all of them horizontal. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how even a very enterprising spider could erect these filaments. If I watched NOVA more often, I’d probably have the answer to this question. In the meantime, I am just awestruck.
When we reached the shelter Jake and I immediately noticed the long-handled shovel standing against the wall. The shovel reminded us that the shelters in Tennessee have no privies. And here I was, just getting used to privies. Actually, the folks in southern Virginia were easing us into this new, more Spartan style of camping because for the last 200 miles or so, the privies have become more and more minimal in design. First they became three-sided structures – great views but a little chilly. Then even the three walls shrank so that only the essential areas were shielded from view.
Now, with no privies at all, and no leaves on the trees, we have to wander quite a ways off the Trail to find some privacy. Fortunately, there are only a few scattered souls still hiking on the Trail, and they, like us, are probably keeping their heads down, trying to avoid tripping on the leaf-obscured rocks.
With the change back to Standard Time, it was completely dark at 7 p.m. this evening, and I surprised myself by calling it a night at that early hour. Of course, that was before the mice started gadding about. One of them was chewing on something next to my backpack, or maybe it was the pack itself. With the pack just next to my head, that mouse was too close for comfort. I sat up and reached for my flashlight – the mouse scurried away. Jake and I both had a tough time sleeping. But the miracle was that, with such annoyingly busy mice darting around, we were able to sleep at all.
October 30 ~ Iron Mountain Shelter, TN at milepoint 1738.8 south, 140 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – Day 138 AT miles hiked: 16.3 Miles left to go: 428.3 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: one day hiker, “T,” who came to clean the shelter
Today was not a happy time for Jake and me. We just got word from home that one of our two cats – Jake’s cat, to be specific – has an inoperable tumor and needs to be put to sleep. Jake was 6 years old when we got this cat, whom he named Superman, after his favorite superhero. Superman was not only a member of the family, he was Jacob’s friend and nearly constant companion at home. Superman curled up in Jake’s lap while he used his computer, and sprawled on his homework each night. So, we’re feeling glum about Superman.
Jake and I were planning to hike another 3.5 miles, but the news took all the energy out of us. We’ll try to make up the extra miles tomorrow.
Our goal for tomorrow is to reach the Kincora Hostel, a hiker’s haven we’ve been hearing about since New England. It’s not fancy but hikers get a warm welcome there.
Although we decided to go to Kincora, we were briefly tempted to try the more recently developed, nearby hostel called – I’m not making this up – LaurelCreekLodgecom (all one word). The owners of this new lodge have placed shiny laminated flyers in all the shelters near here. The flyers feature photos of hikers, with backpacks, hiking poles, and big smiles, and captions announcing “Happy Hikers arrive at LaurelCreekLodgecom.” Such nouveau features as veggie burgers and Internet access are available. And, says the flyer breathlessly, “New this season: our bunkhouse and fully equipped Hiker Kitchen open to all Hikers and includes DDS TV with HBO channels.” I’m so behind the times, I don’t even know what DDS TV is, but perhaps it has something to do with dentistry, in which case I’m glad we’re heading for Kincora. We will leave it to other hikers to try the new “$12 Hostel-Style Cabin,” where you get “free popcorn with your evening movie.” All that and a root canal.
But by far the strangest sight/site of the day was the monument to Nick Grindstaff. The monument is the stone chimney of the cabin where he lived as a hermit for 46 years. The Thru-Hikers Handbook comments that Nick’s “only friend was a rattlesnake that was killed by visitors trying to be helpful.” The chimney sits about 100 feet off the Trail and bears a sad epitaph: “Uncle Nick Grindstaff…lived alone, suffered alone, died alone.” I think it speaks well for East Tennessee that even its most eccentric residents are entitled to a little remembrance, even it it’s in an out-of-the-way location inhabited only by rattlesnakes and hikers.
Death is certainly no stranger in these woods. In fact, one of the deepest impressions of the AT, for me, has been the phenomenal extent of the death and decay that we are walking through daily. The contrast between the thin layer of life and the many layers of what used to be alive was even more stark before autumn turned nearly everything some shade of brown. Death has always been a frightening concept for me. Walking side by side with it daily has made me (slightly) more comfortable with my own mortality and has given me a keener sense of why death makes life meaningful.
October 31 ~ Hampton, TN at milepoint 1754.2 south, 141 days since start of hike, averaging 12.4 miles per day
Trail data – Day 138 AT miles hiked: 15.4 Miles left to go: 412.9 People we stayed with: Frog, Merlin, Rolling Stone People we saw on the Trail: no one
The purpose of today’s hike, as far as I can tell, was to teach us to appreciate drinking water, which was exceedingly scarce most of the day.
At the shelter last night there was no water. We used most of what we had to make dinner. This morning the spring 2/10 of a mile south was dry. There was also supposed to be water 3 miles south of the shelter, but when we got there this morning, all we found was another dry spring.
By this time, Jake and I were completely out of water. We had started the day with half a pint each. We hiked 4 more miles to the next shelter – again, no water. I had an apple in my food bag; we divided it, and got back on the Trail. My mouth was soon parched again. There were seven miles to go before the Trail descended from the 4,000-foot ridge we were on. I began wondering how far I could go without water. We could see Lake Watauga below us to the left – some 18 quadrillion gallons of water, a beautiful shade of azure in the noon-time sun, but completely inaccessible to us unless we wanted to bushwhack down 2 miles of steep embankment through the briars and brush. We plodded on down the Trail, dreaming of water.
Two miles farther and we finally found a small spring with a bit of leaf-covered water. I scooped out half a bottle’s worth and drank it on the spot. I managed to scoop out another quart and purified it with iodine – that means waiting 20 minutes for the iodine to work. (The water probably didn’t need the iodine, because it was from a spring. But the iodine doesn’t hurt and I’m getting used to the taste.) I tried to scoop out more but kept getting insects and debris with each effort. I draw the line at insects. I guess that means I’m still safely this side of dying from thirst.
But this was the closest we’ve come to feeling dangerously short of water. Part of the problem is that there are no northbounders to warn us about the conditions ahead. The weather reports say this has been the driest fall on record in East Tennessee, and therefore water sources are unreliable. We’ll be packing extra water in the days ahead. In the meantime, however, a lesson about our need for water has been indelibly etched in our brains.
When we got to Hampton, TN, this afternoon, we waited at the Texaco Foodmart for a ride to the Kincora Hostel. The proprietors, Bob and Pat Peoples, offered to pick us up after they finished their dinner. But Trail magic struck again – some very friendly folks with a big pick-up truck saw our packs and gave us a ride.
The Peoples have hosted more than 4,000 hikers since they built this structure in 1997. It is constructed of logs they harvested here on their land, nestled in a wooded “holler.” Bob is a Trail maintainer and a retired military instructor, and he clearly loves hosting hikers.
Sitting by the woodstove this evening with a cup of tea, and a light to read by, I could see why Jake and I have been hearing glowing reports about Kincora for so long. It’s more than the creature comforts, though. We are enjoying the company of other hikers, the easy sharing of food and stories, and the mutual encouragement as we all make our way toward Georgia.
P.S. Happy Halloween! We didn’t encounter any housed where we could have done any trick-or-treating, but we wouldn’t have needed costumes. With our disheveled hair, grimy clothes, and wild aroma, we are already quite scary.
November 1 ~ Laurel Fork, TN at milepoint 1774.0 south, 142 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 139 AT miles hiked: 19.8 Miles left to go: 393.1 People we stayed with: Portugee (section hiker) People we saw on the Trail: -1 section hiker (John the Desperado) -2 car campers sitting by a stream
Staying at the Kincora Hostel this evening for a second night has made this a wonderful day on the Trail. The proprietor, Bob Peoples, gave Jake and me rides to the trailhead this morning and this afternoon so that we could slackpack. And the day began with a hiker breakfast that all five of the hikers staying here contributed to. Frog and Merlin bought a lot of the groceries; Rolling Stone and I did the cooking; Jake helped clean up. The menu included cheese omelets, hash browns, grits, and hot tea. But the camaraderie was more memorable than the food.
When Jake and I returned from the Trail this evening, we chatted with Bob’s wife Pat for a while. She is a retired lawyer – in fact, one of the first 100 women lawyers admitted to the Vermont bar. When she and Bob bought this land, they had searched from Pennsylvania to Georgia to find a spot close to the AT where they could create a hostel for hikers. Although they are both transplanted originally from Boston, they have found their neighbors in Tennessee to be accepting (mostly). But then, of course, there are the hikers, who adore Bob and Pat.
The register here is filled with effusive praise for their kindness and hospitality. “This place is awesome,” wrote Data, a northbound thru-hiker. “Bob and Pat are the nicest people I’ve met on the Trail.”
Straightjacket, another northbounder, wrote: “I have basked in the presence of two bodhisatras (Bob & Pat Peoples) who, having attained enlightenment, are holding the door open for all sentient beings.”
I, too, am struck by their decision to retire at a relatively early age (they look to be in their early 50’s, at most), live in a break-even hostel for AT hikers. To their credit, they have created clear boundaries between their life and ours, but they clearly enjoy hanging out with us and gladly share their knowledge of the Trail.
P.S. The trip-meter on our hike clicked twice today – first for the new month and then later when our “miles to go” dropped below 400 miles.
PPS I can’t resist recording the top ten reasons for hiking the AT, as listed on a kitchen cabinet here at Kincora: 10. You decided to take a break from your 8-hour-a day job, so you took a six-month vacation where you work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. 9. You really don’t need your toe nails anyway. 8. You wanted to go someplace where you wouldn’t have to hear any more about (pick one): Monica Lewinsky, O.J. Simpson, Elian Gonzales, Campaign 2000. 7. The thrill of victory, and the agony of the feet. 6. Lose weight without dieting. 5. It’s free! (food, clothing, equipment, hostels, and laundry not included.) 4. The simplicity of having everything you need on your back and everything you want in the next town. 3. If a blind guy can do it, then by God so can I. 2. Because it’s there. 1. Because I am simply out of my ever-loving mind!
November 2 ~ Apple House Shelter, TN at milepoint 1783.2 south, 143 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 140 AT miles hiked: 9.2 Miles left to go: 383.9 People we saw on the Trail: 1 section-hiker People we camped with: just us Critters: 3 horses in a pasture
Laziness overcame Jake and me today as we tried to bang out 17 miles. Our packs are loaded up with seven days worth of food but it feels like they are loaded with rocks. After hiking 20 miles yesterday with just day-packs, our legs buckled today under all the weight.
I could tell that both of us were having a hard day by the length of the breaks we were taking – the first only two miles from where we started. By lunch time, both of us were thinking the same thing, but were reluctant to say it: let’s give in to the laziness and make it a short day. Jake said casually: “You know it would be OK with me if we called it a day at Apple House,” the shelter located nine miles from where we started. I pounced on the suggestion. “OK by me too,” I said, trying not to sound too enthusiastic about the idea. And then we both rejoiced in our decision to be lazy. We basked in the afternoon sun, on a grassy spot next to Buck Mountain Road.
A car with three Jehovah’s Witnesses soon pulled up to our grassy spot. One of them approached us, gave is a leaflet and asked if we were lost. I don’t think he meant that metaphorically. “No we’re just resting,” I said. He told us about their current campaign to spread the Gospel. I guess the Jehovah’s Witnesses consider even us scruffy-looking hikers to be worth saving, or perhaps particularly in need of redemption.
Around 3:30 p.m. we summoned enough energy to press on – but just barely. When we came to a main road, we ate our curried rice and then headed toward a restaurant half a mile away to make some calls and supplement our dinner. A close friend of mine is about to lose his father to Alzheimer’s, and I wanted to talk with him.
Feeling lazy at this point in the hike surprises me. You would think that, with less than 400 miles to go, our feet would be flying. But the terrain for the last couple of days has been HARD. We got an explanation of this from Bob at Kincora: the trail club here in East Tennessee believes in a rugged Trail experience. Therefore no privies, no switchbacks (or at least very few). If the Trail needs to go over a mountain, it generally goes straight up and over. With dry, rock-hard soil and a thick covering of dry leaves, the downhills are slippery, almost like a ski slope.
So maybe being lazy saved us today from a skiing-type accident on these hills. I told Jake, as we lounged after lunch, that the Trail has definitely changed me – because I lay there for almost an hour this afternoon without reading or feeling the slightest urge to do anything productive. I am wondering if, with my chronically goal-oriented personality, I can sustain this level of laziness when the hike is over. I hope at least a bit of it lasts.
A final thought: the most interesting part of the day for me was the hour we spent with Bob Peoples as he drove us to the Trailhead. I asked him about his time in the military and got an earful of the most amazing stories. Bob was in a special operations unit and served in Vietnam. He was also involved in U.S. missions in Libya, Grenada, the Nicaraguan border, and other hot spots for 20 years. During several of these missions he was gone for months and could not even tell his wife where he was. Occasionally, he and his troops did not know where they were being sent until they arrived. The story that caused my jaw to drop the most involved the missions his unit was flying along the border with Nicaragua. The Reagan Administration was secretly trying to lure the Nicaraguans into shooting down one of our planes so as to create an excuse for invading that country. The Reagan Administration, of course, denied all of this at the time. I continue to be astonished by the number of interesting people with fascinating life stories that we encounter on the Trail – people whom we would likely never meet elsewhere, and occasionally people willing to tell strangers the stories that even their neighbors probably don’t know.
November 3 ~ Roan High Knob Shelter, TN at milepoint 1797.4 south, 144 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 141 AT miles hiked: 14.2 Miles to go: 369.7 People we camped with: 6 weekend hikers from Raleigh, NC People we saw on the Trail: -7 weekend hikers -2 section hikers Critters: mole (deceased), mice (hyperactive)
Climbing was the major focus today. We woke up at 3,000 feet at the Apple House Shelter and immediately climbed 2,500 feet to the top of aptly-named Hump Mountain. Before the day was over, we had ascended a total of 5,200 feet as the Trail meandered up and over the Roan Highlands. Tonight we are sleeping in the highest shelter on the AT – 6.285 feet, just three feet lower than Mt. Washington.
The usual pay off from all this climbing is the views. But the skies were hazy most of the day, and the distant views were just a whiter shade of pale. The nearer views, however, were stunning – rolling grassland balds, with a winding ribbon of Trail etched into the meadows.
These Roan Highlands attract a lot of weekend hikers and are considered one of the most beautiful sections of the Trail in the South. Amidst the beauty, however, Jake and I have been noticing a lot more debris in the woods: old tires, abandoned stoves and refrigerators, a fractured porcelain toilet, and today a rotting car. This area was taken a number of years ago by eminent domain from subsistence farmers who evidently used these woods as a dump. Some of the local folk, we’ve been told, are none too happy about the AT taking their land, and the bitter memory of it has lasted into the current generations. So much so, that there’s a sign at the Trailhead near Apple House Shelter warning hikers not to leave cars there because of vandalism. We also saw a sign in one of the shelters warning hikers not to camp in the area north of here.
As we were climbing through these woods today, I found myself searching, every hour, for the motivation to continue this hike. Jake and I were loaded down with a lot of food and also a lot of extra water because so many of the springs up here are dry. I used to ask the northbounders for advice about hiking the Trail: “What does it take to complete a thru-hike?” I asked Wounded Knee in Monson, ME. He smiled quizzically and said: “Putting one foot in front of the other – that’s all it is.” I should have asked a follow-up question: what does it take to keep putting one foot in front of the other, especially on a 5-mile-long uphill grade like the one that started the day. I suppose it differs for each hiker, and the reasons may change as the hike progresses. For today I found myself climbing to keep up with Jake and complete the dream that he I and began dreaming when he was 9. We didn’t know then what this part of the adventure would look like – we had never hiked in the South. This makes every day on the Trail here a discovery and that carries me up and over each rise.
I got worried about Jake this evening when I arrived at the shelter and he was nowhere to be found. He had been ahead of me. It was almost dark, so I built a fire in the stone ring in front of the shelter. Perhaps, if he was lost and had overshot the side trail to the Shelter, he would see the light.
As the flames rose higher, sparks from the pine branches shot up, and I began thinking about the forest fires burning nearby. The woods remain ultra-dry, and fires are burning in NC (near Asheville), in TN (near the AT north of here), and in two parts of Shenandoahs in VA. It scared me to think that I might inadvertently cause yet another fire, so I tried to keep the flames under control, yet high enough for Jake to see.
Jake showed up about 45 minutes later. It’s amazing how long 45 minutes can seem when it’s dark, one of your kids is out in the woods, and you’re not sure exactly where.
After he showed up, a group of six weekend hikers from Raleigh, NC arrived. They were full of energy and questions about our hike. They made us feel a bit like celebrities, which I enjoyed. We all deserve to feel like celebrities now and then, so long as we don’t get caught up in thinking we actually are.
November 4 ~ Cherry Gap Shelter, TN at milepoint 1812.5 south, 145 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 142 AT miles hiked: 15.1 Miles left to go: 354.6 People we camped with: just us People we saw on the Trail: 4 weekenders Critters: two shrews (tiny); more mice
Low energy continues to be a problem for Jake and me. This evening we speculated as to why. Some possibilities we came up with: -Accumulated fatigue -Tough terrain (hills are too steep, not enough switchbacks) -Gray skies for several days in a row -Haven’t seen many thru-hikers -Sadness about the impending end of the hike (I’m feeling this; Jake says he is not)
I don’t think we’re physically ill. We’re eating enough, taking our vitamins, etc. It’s probably just in our heads. It took me ten hours to cover 15 miles today – that’s pathetically slow. I am definitely dragging my derriere. Jake thinks we need more sleep, but I’ve been getting 10 hours each night on average – double what I usually get at home.
I’ve noticed that the younger hikers (like Jake) sleep about 20% more than the old fogies on the Trail (like me). Back in the days when we slept with half a dozen other hikers each night – from Southern Maine through Massachusetts – the old fogies were the first ones up and out each morning.
Another age-related difference: the younger hikers can eat more or less unlimited amounts of food and just get thinner and thinner. We old fogies seem to retain a residue of our thick middles notwithstanding months of the most vigorous exercise we’ve ever experienced. So much for our dreams of middle-age buff-ness.
Our hike this morning took us up and over the grassy knob of Roan Mountain, the site of the old Cloudland Hotel. Erected in the late 19th century, Cloudland was a summer resort. For $2/night, or $30/month, visitors got a room and three big meals a day. Because the mountain stands on the NC/TN border, a line was painted on the floor of the dining room; on the TN side, liquor was served but not on the dry NC side. A NC sheriff reportedly visited the Hotel from time to time and arrested people who wandered with a drink across the line.
All day today, and for the last couple of days, we’ve been walking the NC/TN line. The Trail occasionally veers into one state or the other but then returns to the border, a wooded mountain ridge, with occasional evidence of settlement down in the “hollers” on either side of the line.
One of the high points today was tuning into a local radio station playing archive recordings of mountain music, sung by old-timers who grew up in these hills. Appalachian music provided fertile soil for much of the popular music that I grew up with. Even the Grateful Dead’s music can be traced rather directly to tunes that first reverberated in the mountains where Jake and I are hiking. Listening to that music while we climbed – however haltingly – over these hills was delightful.
Tonight we are staying, for our fourth night in a row, in a shelter with busy rodents rustling around through the night. I’ve just about had it with these critters. Last night, in the loft of the Roan Mountain Shelter, the critters were bigger than mice; I could hear their toe nails (claws?) clicking on the floor of the loft as they scurried about. Tonight I would sleep on the picnic tables in front of the shelter, but it’s raining. What these Shelters need is a few good predators. On the other hand, I wasn’t too happy when we had a black snake curled up in the corner of a shelter back in Virginia; there were no mice but going to sleep remained difficult. Jake doesn’t understand why these critters bother me so much; I wonder why they bother him so little. I’m going to try an experiment: drowning out the rodent noises with some mountain music from my radio headphones. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
November 5 ~ Erwin, TN at milepoint 1828.9 south, 146 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 143 AT miles hiked: 16.4 Miles left to go: 338.2 People we stayed with: Garbage Man, The Rooster People we saw on the Trail: two hunters
I’ve just about had it with mice. Jake and I have been sleeping in shelters most every night, unless we’re in a town. The mice don’t bother Jake – he sometimes hears them and goes back to sleep. I hear their every move. I’m afraid they’ll crawl into my sleeping bag, or climb over my face (as one did many weeks ago). If I were a mouse, and the temperature was in the 30’s, I would certainly find a down sleeping bag hard to resist. Last night my efforts to ignore the mice by listening to music on my Walkman were unsuccessful. The head phones eventually hurt my ears, and I exceeded my tolerance for mountain music at about 1:00 a.m.
While I’m griping, I may as well say something about sleeping in a 3-sided structure when the temperature is just above freezing. Actually, the sleeping part is not the worst of it – it’s the morning rituals that are the problem. Toothpaste turns just about solid. My protein bar nearly cracked my teeth. And washing last night’s dishes in icy cold water – well, I don’t even want to talk about it.
My mood lifted with the arrival of the sun – the first warm blast of it in the last few days. I’ve been wondering if SAD (seasonal affective disorder), which is often treated with light boxes, is just a more extreme version of a condition we all have. The sun beamed down this morning, and I marched right up the first climb of the day, Unaka Mountain, with a smile on my face and joy in my heart.
Unaka is covered with red spruce, and only red spruce. They were planted many years ago to stop erosion, and now they are so dense on the summit, that day turns to night as you pass through.
On the far side of Unaka is a bald known as Beauty Spot because of its gorgeous views. Before reaching it, however, the Trail passes through a smaller grassy spot, where I laid out my wet clothes to dry in the noontime sun. Jake soon joined me, and we enjoyed an early lunch basking on the hillside, looking back at Unaka.
The mountains here in the South are mostly round-top balds. When I think of mountains, the picture that comes to mind is something like Everest or Katahdin – a rocky, jagged peak. But as Jake and I have made our way along the Appalachians, we have learned that mountains come in many other shapes. In NJ, PA, and VA, the mountains are often long ridges, with no promontory at all. And here in NC and TN, eons of erosion have given the tops of once-jagged peaks a shape more like bowling balls. Scientists have not been able to agree on why some of them stay grassy on top while others grow trees. Among the theories: bedrock too close to the surface, overgrazing by early settlers’ livestock, lightning, too much wind.
When we finally got to Beauty Spot today – it’s a broad-topped, grassy bald – we could see how it earned its name. The views were gorgeous. To the west lay the town of Erwin, TN, winding its way along several miles of the Nolichucky River. To the east we could see long ribbons of blue-gray mountain ridge, each distant line a slightly paler shade than the nearer one.
As we continued on our 14-mile descent into Erwin, Jake and I passed two hunters. Instead of carrying guns, they were armed with a radio transmitter – an odd-shaped gizmo that looked like the off-spring of a metal detector and TV antenna. With a small red flashing light, this contraption enabled them to find their dogs within a 20-mile radius. The dogs are trained to chase raccoons, and some go after bears. The hunters then follow the signal with their guns and make short work of killing their prey. This seems to me like a grim perversion of the “sport” of hunting. Occasionally a bear turns on one of the dogs, and leaves its mangled corpse behind, with its collar still beeping at the “ hunters.”
So much for ranting about hunting. (What else would you expect from a vegetarian?) Jake and I were greeted by a cheerful sight today when we reached the Nolichucky River. There, at the far end of the Chestoa Bridge, a spot once frequented by Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson, stands Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, with a small archway and porch welcoming hikers.
Uncle Johnny (John Shores) was a newspaper editor who hiked part of the AT several years ago. He decided to open a hostel when he crossed the Nolichucky River and was invited for a cup of coffee by an older man who lived in the house at the end of the bridge. As he sat on the porch, he decided that it would be an ideal location for a hostel, and a few days later he bought the home. He has added rooms and several out-buildings to accommodate as many as 50 hikers, some in bunks and others tenting on the lawn. With his tiny outfitter’s shop and supply store, Johnny has created a hiker haven that feels a bit like a frontier outpost.
It was starting to get dark, so Jake and I borrowed one of the many bikes Johnny provides for hikers and pedaled a few miles into town for groceries and pizza. The ride back to the hostel was a bit of an adventure. With our tiny LED flashlights fastened to the bikes, we had to trust the motorists to be careful as they passed us on the dark roads.
Inside the hostel we met Garbage Man, a southbounder whose register entries we have been reading for many weeks. Like many of the southbounders we’ve met, he graduated from college just before beginning his hike at Katahdin.
Jake, Garbage Man, and I enjoyed a few Simpsons episodes (Johnny has a collection of videotapes at the hostel) and traded news of the Trail. And the biggest joy for me, after calling home, was climbing into a bunk and sleeping in warm, mouse-free comfort.
November 6 ~ Bald Mountain Shelter at milepoint 1845.7 south, 147 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 144 AT miles hiked: 16.8 Miles left to go: 321.4 People we camped with: Garbage Man People we saw on the Trail: no one
Today’s hike up the steep sides of the Nolichucky River valley, was a race against the rain. We could feel it coming, as strong winds whipped through the fog clinging to the mountain ridges. As we crossed Little Bald Mountain (at 5,200 feet) I had to hold onto my hat. A light rain, coming at me sideways, turned heavy just after I reached the shelter.
The mercury this evening plunged into the 30’s. I decided that this would be the right time to try an experiment: borrowing Jake’s one-person tent and setting it up inside the shelter. The tent would keep me a little warmer, but more importantly it would keep the mice away. I could still hear them through the night, now and then, but it was only a minor annoyance because I knew they would not be joining me in my sleeping bag.
The most interesting part of the day, for me, was talking with a Trail angel named Miss Janet. She had stopped by the hostel last night and offered to help out with rides or other assistance. She works at the Holiday Inn, about a mile from the hostel, and she has had approximately 2,000 hikers in her van this year alone. She enjoys shuttling, and getting to know, the hikers so much that she quits her job for a few months every summer to be a full-time Trail angel. The hikers help out with contributions.
I asked Miss Janet about Erwin, a town I thought about avoiding because it has been described as inhospitable to African-Americans. There are no Blacks living in Erwin or anywhere in Unicoi County. This is also true of several surrounding counties. Erwin is known as a town in which an elephant was once hanged. The elephant, part of a traveling circus, had trampled and killed a local boy – apparently an accident. The locals, however, wanted to make an example of the elephant. There have been no elephants in Erwin ever since. Perhaps it is the citizenry’s propensity for direct action that has kept Blacks away.
But Miss Janet, who knows the local area, confirmed that the residents are gradually becoming more open-minded. Several African-American hikers have stayed at the hostel and eaten at the local restaurants. There is a growing Mexican-American community in town. No one has been hanged. Indeed, the popularity of the Trail and the growing number of hikers who pass through Erwin may be contributing to the town’s gradual acceptance of diversity.
November 7 ~ Flint Mountain Shelter, TN at milepoint 1864.5 south, 148 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 145 AT miles hiked: 18.8 Miles left to go: 302.6 People we camped with: Garbage Man People we saw on the Trail: -1 section hiker -1 flip-flop hiker -1 Northbounder (Grizzly Adam)
Today was Election Day, and all day I listened impatiently to my Walkman, wanting to know the outcome of the various races as soon as possible. Jake and I had sent in our absentee ballots a couple of weeks ago.
Of course there would be no news for many hours. (Little did I know how many hours.)
Jake and I took a break from hiking at lunch time when the Trail crossed a highway. There was a Cafe 2.8 miles east of the Trail, and I wanted to use their phone to call my daughter Jessica who will turn 30 tomorrow. We hitched a ride with a local guy who seemed intensely curious about our hike. After each of his questions, he would repeat our answers with a question mark and big eyes. Q: So, where did you start from? A: Maine Q: You started in Maine? A: Yup Q: How far you headed? A: We’re trying to get to Georgia Q: You’re trying to get to Georgia? A: Yup And so on.
When we walked into the Cafe, a popular blue-collar lunch spot, every head in the place turned. I have never felt more conspicuous. I felt like I had a flashing neon sign on my head reading: “I AM A HIKER – AND A YANKEE TO BOOT.” When I got up to use the bathroom, three of the patrons – three guys who looked like locals – glanced my way and made no effort to contain their mirth as they apparently made jokes about us. I thought about how a person of color might feel in this cafe where every face was white and where a sense of physical danger might be added to the ridicule.
The food, however, was good and I was able to reach Jessica. The owner, a single mom, was friendly and told us about her hiking expeditions on the Trail with her sons. Jake and I thumbed a ride back to the Trail with a former section-hiker who completed the Trail with his wife in 1998. They called themselves “Two Left Feet.”
As we returned to the Trail, I was surprised to still hear campaign advertising on the radio. Most of the ads I’ve heard here in Tennessee have been from the NRA. Gun ownership seems to be the major concern around here, to judge by the ads. But this as was different: it was Tommy Lee Jones explaining that (a) he is a hunter and loves to hunt, (b) he was once Al Gore’s roommate and knows Al very well, and (c) he knows that Al would not outlaw hunting by law-abiding sportsmen. Evidently this two-fisted appeal to the Tennessee electorate wasn’t enough to carry Al’s home state.
When I reached the shelter, Jake and Garbage Man were already there. Garbage Man was listening to his Walkman as was I, even though there were no ballot results yet. Jake said he didn’t want to hear the news until we reached Hot Springs, NC (probably on November 9) because he’s trying to insulate himself from what’s going on back in the World. We said OK, but it was hard to keep from talking about the results as they unfolded.
I set up Jake’s tent, which is becoming a nightly ritual for me, and insulated myself from the mice in the shelter while I listened to the NPR account of the election. It was a bizarre evening, of course, and at times I wondered if I had drifted off to sleep in the dark and dreamed the strange scenario about Florida. By 5 a.m. there was no longer any news and I turned off the radio in a state of limbo, like everyone else following the election. At least I wouldn’t have any trouble keeping the news from Jake about who won the Presidency.
November 8 ~ Spring Mountain Shelter, TN at milepoint 1885.6 south, 149 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data – Day 146 AT miles hiked: 21.1 Miles left to go: 281.5 People we camped with: Crazy Girl, Shaker, Fluffhead, Batteries Included, Garbage Man, Rolling Stone, Huckleberry, Big Guy People we saw on the Trail: 1 section-hiker (Pappy)
Before leaving the Flint Mountain Shelter this morning, I opened the Shelter register and read through it. Hikers usually try to write something useful, witty, or profound, but sometimes we settle for just recording the fact that we were there. The entries make us easier to find is we are dragged off into the bushes by bears or simply get lost.
This particular Register was left by a southbounder named Just Call Me Dave, who posed the following question: What have you learned, if anything, from your hike thus far? Here are a few excerpts from the responses. - Double Zero: “I have a much better handle on who I am and what I want – saved lots of bucks on therapy.” - Nightmare: “I learned that I am the same idiot I always was.” - Garbage Man: “I am a bigger idiot than I thought I was.” - Gollum: “Day hikers are an excellent source of protein.”
The Trail today continued along the ridge separating NC from TN. Along much of that line there’s a barbed wire fence, even though the land on either side of the fence is unsuitable for pasture. I have been trying to figure out whether the fence is designed to keep Tennesseeans out of North Carolina or North Carolinians out of Tennessee. Whichever is the case, it seems to be effective – we’ve seem practically no one on the ridge.
Jake and I have seen several gravesites along the Trail in recent days. Most are decorated with plastic flowers. Today we passed an engraved stone for Howard Bassett, the 50th person to hike the entire Trail. His hike was in 1968, when he was 64 years old. His ashes were spread on a grassy spot along the Trail in 1988. The Forest Service has now changed its policy and no longer permits such markers to be erected. The Service was apparently concerned that the Trail experience would be marred by lining the Trail from end-to-end with gravestones.
By the time I reached this Shelter, it was dark and all I could see was a group of tiny flashlights pointed in my direction. There were nine southbounders, jammed into a shelter built for 4 or 5. Jake was under a tarp fastened to the side of the shelter. Rain is expected, possibly very soon. It was great to see so many SoBo’s, including some we had not met before because they were ahead of us. I set up a tent next to the shelter and listened to the laughter and conversation on the other side of the log wall. The Trail forges a strong sense of community out here. Having crossed the 300-miles-to-go line today, Jake and I are already beginning to sense how much we will miss that community.
November 9 ~ Hot Springs, NC at milepoint 1896.6 south, 150 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 147 AT miles hiked: 11.0 Miles left to go: 270.5 People we stayed with: Gizmo, Leap, Frog, Frog, Merlin, Shaker, Fluffhead, Crazy Girl, Banjo Bill, Huckleberry, Big Guy People we saw on the Trail: two day hikers
Rain poured through the night and all morning. I sat in my tent and watched as my more energetic colleagues headed down the Trail. With Hot Springs only 11 miles away, we all expected to see each other in town. When Jake and all the other hikers had gone, I moved my gear into the shelter to wait out the rain. I enjoyed the solitude and the protection from the weather.
By lunch time I realized the rain had outlasted me. My food and water supplies were low, and Jake would be wondering about me if I didn’t leave soon. I packed up and trudged along, over the wet leaves and through the puddles and tried to think about how badly the woods need this rain. Jake and I have seen the smoke from fires burning the woods near the Trail. All day yesterday, I could smell smoke from forest fires. The Trail south of Hot Springs had been closed; now it would re-open.
Hiking in the rain demands an even more intent focus on the path than usual. I looked into the fog-filled woods only on short breaks, when I paused to catch my breath. The view of Hot Springs caught my attention, however, about three miles before reaching the town. A series of high, cliff-like switch-backs on the Trail kept the small town, with its gentle bend around the French Broad River, constantly in view. At three miles away, the town felt so near and yet so far.
Jake and I rendezvoused, as planned, at a hostel owned by Elmer Hall. Elmer’s is a Victorian-era guest house, with period furniture and rugs that wear their years with dignity but not much polish. There is an elegant music room, a sitting room, and a green house; bookcases line the halls. Elmer was a professor and chaplain at Duke before he hiked the AT in 1976. He opened this hostel two years later. He is known for cooking excellent vegetarian meals.
Dinner was more than delicious, however – it was a congenial gathering. There were ten of us, including Elmer, at the table. Before we ate, Elmer asked us to introduce ourselves, say a few words about where we’re from, what we do, and answer the question of the evening: whom would we choose to paint a portrait of us if we could have any artist, living or dead. (I chose Rembrandt; Jake chose Escher). Conversation kept all of us at the table long after the food was gone.
After dinner I found a book written by a thru-hiker, one of Elmer’s previous guests, in which the author quotes a newsletter Elmer used to send out: “We will continue to offer the hospitality of the Inn based on the fundamental vision we have followed here since 1978. These goals are simple: create a warm environment that is sane, safe, and supportive; serve the best and healthiest vegetarian food as graciously as we can; charge as little as we can while still being able to cover our bills;…know that leisurely meals with animated, engaging conversation are a saving grace; be aware and care about what is happening in the larger world; be an active part of an ongoing personal, social, and spiritual transformation.”
Elmer’s statement is, to me, striking in its clarity and about as unusual as anything I’ve seen a business-owner aspire to. Having experienced the animated conversation at dinner, I can understand why Leap and Frog have been here for 4 days, and other southbounders for 2 or 3 days. It will be a challenge for Jake and me to leave here tomorrow.
November 10 ~ Hot Springs, NC at milepoint 1896.6 south, 151 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data: Day 148 AT miles hiked: 0 Miles left to go: 270.5 People we stayed with: just us
Well we never made it out of Hot Springs today, and the reason is somewhat embarrassing. I got a splinter in my foot. It wasn’t even a Trail-related injury. I was walking across the oak floors at Elmer’s hostel in my socks, and my foot picked up a one-inch splinter. I got part of it out myself, but ¾ of it remained deep under the skin.
After limping around on it last night and this morning, I decided to swallow my pride and see a doctor. This seemed like a trivial injury to take to a clinic, but I couldn’t hike this way. The doctor didn’t laugh at me – at least not audibly. He and his wife had done a thru-hike in 1980, just after they finished medical school. He understood about feet, although he did find it ironic that, after hiking 1,900 miles, I was sidelined by a splinter from a guest house.
The doctor injected my foot with Novacaine – by far, the worst part of the whole procedure. I clenched my teeth and tried to act like a grown-up, but inside there was a six-year-old with tears in his eyes. Once my foot was numb, he cut through the skin and dug out the splinter. A nurse gave me a Tetanus shot, and I was done. But with a tender foot and sore arm from the shot, I decided to take a zero day in Hot Springs.
And I’m glad I did. Jake and I spent a relaxing day reading, hanging out with other hikers in town, checking our email, and, of course, eating. Elmer let me use his kitchen, so I cooked dinner for Jake and me. In the evening, Elmer and his staff rented a movie – “The Fight Club” – which seemed an odd choice at an inn owned by a pacifist. Elmer was a conscientious objector and antiwar activist in the 1960’s, but he watched the film along with the rest of us. Elmer and I were simultaneously fascinated and repulsed; his young staff members seemed unfazed by the violence.
One of the joys of staying at Elmer’s is the abundance of neat stuff tucked into every corner of the house. Little Buddhas sit on ornate Victorian mantles in the prim, tattered elegance of the music room. The walls are covered with art in a range of styles from Maxfield Parrish to Asian brushwork landscapes. And on the bedtables in every guest room are books and magazines reflecting Elmer’s broad interests. Next to my bed this evening are Gibbon’s “Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire,” the Utne Reader, and a Buddhist journal with an article on walking as a form of meditation. The article contains comments from Jon Kobat-Zinn, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Boorstein and the following thoughts from Vietnamese poet and monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Walk straight ahead with dignity, calm, and comfort. Consciously make an imprint on the ground as you step….I suggest that you should walk like a Buddha, taking steps as the Buddha did. Each step leaves its imprint on the surface of the earth, and the earth becomes the Pure Land.”
Tomorrow, if my foot is well, I will try walking this way.
November 11 ~ Max Patch Mountain, NC at milepoint 1916.8 south, 152 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 149 AT miles hiked today: 20.2 Miles left to go: 250.3 People we camped with: Fluffhead, Shaker, Jeremy (their friend) People we saw on the Trail: too many dayhikers and weekend hikers to count
Jake and I were very lucky today. We were able to slack-pack the 20 miles that brought us to Max Patch. More importantly, we arrived at this gorgeous, high bald on a day when the skies were clear and the moon was full.
I have been looking forward to seeing Max Patch, with its 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains, for a long time. The authors of the various books I read about the AT before our hike speak glowingly of this spot. The northbounders we’ve met also mentioned Max Patch as a favorite peak. I now understand why.
A cold front pushed into this region last night and has given us better-than-usual views. The Smoky Mountains have the worst air pollution of any national park in the U.S. But today we got a photo-perfect view of the Smokies, where we will be hiking soon. In every direction, rolling mountains – in receding bands of ever-lighter shades of steel blue-gray – presented stunning vistas, like a surrounding sea of waves churning around us.
I had pushed hard to get here before the sun set because I knew the views would be good. Southbounders Fluffhead and Shaker have a friend, Jeremy, who drove our gear to a parking area near the summit. Fluffhead and Shaker rode with him and – God bless them – carried our gear about .3 mile up to the top. What a luxury to arrive at a campsite and find our gear already there!
Hiking with only a day pack’s worth of equipment also enabled me to try the walking meditation described in Elmer’s Buddhist journal. Counting my breaths from one to ten, focusing on each step, helped me experience the here-and-now in a different, more profound way.
As a result, I arrived at the summit already elated. The warmth of the setting sun greeted us after a climb through dark woods with lingering traces of snow and ice. Then the sun put on a show as beautiful as any sunset I’ve seen. Light bands of clouds lit on in oranges, reds, and purples over the sharp peaks of the Smoky Mountains. We watched all of this with a small handful of hikers, scattered across the 1,000 grassy acres of Max Patch, our jaws agape. Then the moon began rising over the ridge behind us. The first sign of it was an eruption of orange light over dark blue mountains. Instead of a round ball, the moon appeared as a strangely misshapen glob of orange light, distorted by the dense air over the horizon. As it rose, it became rounder and the intense, rich orange faded to ivory.
Jake and I found ourselves turning from one horizon to the other, spellbound. Even though the wind picked up and the temperature dropped precipitously, I felt extraordinarily lucky, blessed. I have not seen anything more beautiful, more peaceful, or more inspiring anywhere on the AT.
November 12 ~ Max Patch Mountain, NC at milepoint 1916.8 south, 153 days since start of hike, averaging 12.5 miles per day
Trail data – Day 150 AT miles hiked: 0 Miles left to go: 250.3 People we camped with: Rolling Stone, Big Guy, Huckleberry, Crazy Girl
This morning, having fallen in love with Max Patch, I suggested to Jake that we take a zero day here. In the past we’ve taken zero days in towns; this would be our first on top of a mountain. I could think of no place on the Trail where I would rather spend the day. With a nearly full moon coming up in the evening, and mostly clear skies expected all day, I knew this was where I wanted to be.
In addition to enjoying the big views from this mountain, I also had a practical reason for wanting to use the last of our planned zero days, rather than saving it for miserable weather we’re bound to get for at least a day or two in the Smokies. Jake and I had mailed five days worth of food forward to a hiker stop called Mountain Moma’s Kuntry Store (yes, it’s actually spelled that way). Unfortunately, we forgot that we would be arriving there on Sunday, while the mail would get there on Monday. I figured: why spend a day at Mountain Moma ’s, no matter how quaint a venue it may be, when we could spend it on Max Patch?
Jake wanted to press on. But after some hemming and hawing, he dropped his pack and decided to stay. We had a wonderful, relaxing day. In the morning we chatted with some of the other hikers camped on the bald: three 1999 thru-hikers and two sisters in their twenties planning to hike the Trail in 2001.
The radio reception was excellent, and so I got to hear not only the latest reports on our zany Presidential election but also my two favorite radio shows: Prairie Home Companion and This American Life. The best line from Garrison Keilor’s monologue on Prairie Home Companion was: nothing bad ever happens to writers – it’s all just material. Perhaps this is true for AT journalists as well.
Four of our fellow southbounders arrived – Big Guy, Huckleberry, Crazy Girl, and Rolling Stone. We persuaded them to camp for the night on the bald with us. The midday sun warmed us and soon there was a SoBo chess game going, and later SoBo gymnastics, with headstands, handstands, and cartwheels. I gathered firewood downhill from the bald summit, and we found a spot where previous hikers’ fires had etched a small, bare circle in the grass.
The fire became the focal point of our attention after the sun set. With the six of us SoBo’s gathered around, the fire gave us at least a little warmth. The wind picked up, sending sparks flying past Jacob’s tent at an alarmingly close range. As the sky darkened, the six of us sat, our faces illuminated by the fires, and talked about our experiences on the Trail and how we felt about our hikes nearing their end.
The sunset – almost as dramatic as last night’s – was over by 7 and the moon was up by 8, glowing silver through puffy clouds. By 8:30 all of us weary SoBo’ s were bundled up in our sleeping bags – heads fully covered against the wind. I was wearing 5 layers on top, everything I have – short-sleeve shirt, long-sleeve shirt, fleece shirt, fleece vest, and rain jacket – and I was fully enclosed in a zero-degree down bag. I was protected from the wind whipping across the top of the mountain by my Silshelter tarp, and even so I was just barely warm enough to sleep. I began to wonder why I thought it would be fun to sleep on top of a 5,000-foot mountain in late fall for a second chilly night. With temperatures in the 30’s, the wind chill factor was probably in the teens, if that.
But it WAS worth it, even if it means sleeping with gloves on and a fleece hat on my head. There is no place I’ve been on the AT where the moon shines brighter, or lifts chilled spirits to a higher plane.
November 13 ~ Davenport Gap Shelter, TN at milepoint 1933.3 south, 154 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 151 AT miles hiked: 16.5 Miles left to go: 233.8 People we camped with: Shaker, Fluffhead
One of the problems with shorter days and going to bed with the sun is that, if you don’t empty your bladder just before retiring, you’re going to wake up around 3 a.m. and wish that you had. At 3 a.m. this morning, I climbed out of my sleeping bag and made an interesting discovery: even with the frigid night air that descended on the mountain, the grass on this bald was completely dry, probably thanks to a relentless wind. I walked out to the edge of the grassy bald, softly illuminated by a round, silver moon, in my socks and came back with dry feet. It seemed almost magical.
Around 5 a.m., even before the sun started glowing on the horizon, three of our fellow southbounders began packing their gear and quietly headed out. They barely needed their headlamps with the moon so bright. Embers still glowed in our campfire. The entire encampment – circled by dark mountain ridges on every side – looked eerily like a lunar landscape.
With the weather forecast warning of scattered showers, I wanted to leave camp early too. At 6:30 a.m., I headed out, stopping at Jake’s tent to wake him and set our rendezvous point: Mountain Moma’s Kuntry Store.
The Trail – mostly open woods today – led up and over a peak topped by a strange, white building that serves as a homing antenna for FAA air controllers. It looks a bit like a gigantic, spinning top, protected by a fence and signs warning of dire consequences for both air traffic and any trespasser who ventures beyond the fence.
The Trail also passed under I-40, whose roaring 18-wheelers are audible for about 3 miles on either side of the highway. Then, the Trail plunged back into the woods and presented two sharply contrasting sights. First, the Trail meanders along a glen, with a series of small waterfalls cascading beside rhododendrons – a picturesque scene. Just beyond the falls, however, we passed through a burned-over section of woods – probably part of the recent forest fires we had heard about. The soil was blackened, trees were either singed or destroyed. In some areas, the rhododendrons survived; in others they did not, and brown leaves hung limply from branches that seemed ready to topple. An acrid odor rose from the charred remains of fallen trees.
What are we to make of such fires? Was this a forest overdue for such a blaze? Was the fire environmentally desirable? Was it set by arsonists, as some fires in this region were? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but without answers, I could not help feeling sad – even a bit shocked – by the devastation.
We emerged from the fire zone, after a mile or so, and reached the road leading to Mountain Moma’s. She had just received our forwarded food package, thank God. The idea of staying there, while we waited for our mail, was unappealing. Mountain Moma’s is tucked into the woods on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. It sells cigarettes, candy, a few groceries, and burgers from their grill. Signs around the store poke misspelled, tongue-in-cheek fun at the hillbilly origins of the proprietors, beginning with the sign on the front door listing the “store ours” for each day of the week.
Jake and I stocked up on a few essentials (bread, Snickers), and Mountain Moma shuttled us back to the Trailhead in her van for a modest fee: $1.00 per hiker. The shelter, located only a mile up the Trail, is our first stop in the Smokies. Here the shelters have a chain-link fence across the open side of the lean-to. This is to keep the bears out – an odd reversal of the zoo. Someone wrote “Smokies Sheraton” on the front of this shelter, perhaps because it has a fireplace and a loft. But it’s dusty and dark, and the only cheerful thing about the place is that it’s keeping us dry while a light rain is falling outside. We have good cause to celebrate, however – today is the five month anniversary of the beginning of our hike (June 13).
November 14 ~ Peck's Corner Shelter, NC at milepoint 1953.3 south, 155 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 152 AT miles hiked: 20 Miles left to go: 213.8 People we camped with: Crazy Girl, Big Guy, Huckleberry, Rolling Stone, and 4 section hikers
This morning we began climbing the Smoky Mountains. Northbounders have told us how beautiful they are, but all we could see this morning was fog. With temperatures in the 30’s and no views, I decided that Jake and I should hike the 70 miles of Trail through the Smokies as quickly as possible just to get it over with. I put my head down and began climbing the 3,600 feet that would get us from the shelter to our high point for the day (Guyot Spring at 6,200 feet).
Half way up the climb, though, the skies cleared – we were finally above the clouds. But it was even colder. The thermometer on my pack registered 28 degrees. Snow started falling, just a few light flakes. But with completely blue skies, where was it coming from? I finally figured it out: the tops of the trees were frosted with ice crystals, and as the crystals broke up in the mid-day sun, they floated down.
As the Trail rose farther up into the mountains, we began getting the big views we had been told about. To be sure, they used to be bigger – 100-mile vistas, according to the Thru-Hikers Handbook. Nowadays, because of air pollution, 30 miles is considered quite good. I think we could see at least 30 miles today. Several of the peaks were beautifully frosted with ice. Along the Trail, we turned a corner and found ourselves surrounded by trees and bushes covered with gorgeous, broad “feathers” of ice. It looked like a scene from a winter fairy tale.
One of the big disadvantages of such cold weather is that the ground is frozen, and there are no privies at most of the shelters. That means ever greater reliance on my little orange plastic shovel. It takes some ingenuity to dig a cat hole in the ice-encrusted soil, as I learned several times today. This is one heckuva time to develop gastro-intestinal problems. (I think that’s all I care to say on this subject.)
Despite the cold air, it was possible to get warm for brief periods when the Trail opened up to the sun, which it did all too infrequently. I stopped and basked in the sunlight here and there. Plus, climbing 3,600 feet creates a good deal of body heat, so I was hiking in short sleeves for part of the day, notwithstanding the sub-freezing temperatures. I say this not because of bravado. Quite the contrary – I am a complete wimp when it comes to dealing with cold weather. I hate being cold. And it’s quite a logistical challenge to peel down from 5 layers of clothing to one in such a way that none of the layers get soaked, and you don’t freeze your buns. You need good timing.
I was elated when I arrived at the shelter this evening and saw that some other hikers, having arrived earlier, had built a fire that was blazing in the stone fireplace. It was nearly dark and my nose was just recovering from what felt like a close encounter with frostbite. I tried to get a drink from my water bottles – they were frozen. I cooked some dinner and spent the rest of the evening sitting as close to the fire as I could without singeing my clothes. The rest of the hikers were all in their sleeping bags by 7 p.m., stacked like cordwood, on the sleeping platform and the low-slung loft just above it.
Jake and I have 50 miles of Trail along the high ridges of the Smokies standing between us and our next re-supply point, Fontana Dam. We have 3 or 4 days worth of food. That should be enough. But the weather forecasts give us only one more day of decent weather – then 2 days of rain and a day of snow. Lingering in the back of my mind, as I go to sleep this evening, is the fear that we will have to hike through some nasty weather in order to stay on schedule and avoid running out of food. None of these options seems very appealing.
November 15 ~ Mt. Collins Shelter, TN at milepoint 1968.2 south, 156 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 153 AT miles hiked: 14.9 Miles left to go: 198.9 People we camped with: Big Guy, Huck, Rolling Stone, Sol Dancer, and 6 section hikers
This morning at 4:30 a.m. it was too cold to sleep. Outside my sleeping bag, it was 15 degrees. Inside, it seemed only a little bit warmer. I was beginning to question the sanity of my decision to stay on the Trail, when the weather was clearly trying to persuade us to take a break. My sleeping bag was damp from condensation – moisture from my clothes, migrating through the goose down, and then hitting the sub-freezing air inside my tent. The water bottles I had laid beside me – naively thinking my body heat would keep them from freezing – were lined with ice.
It was too early to start hiking – daylight was two hours away. I tried meditating, but my mind kept wandering to a powerful mental image: my warm, dry bed at home, where I will be at this hour two weeks from today.
Two weeks! That’s all that’s left of this wonderful adventure. Two weeks – can I take that much ridiculously cold weather?
At 6:30 a.m. I ventured out of my tent and headed down to the piped spring, which was still flowing. I knew that once I started hiking, I would be warm again – at least warm enough so that my bones would stop aching. The trick is to steel yourself for the painful interval between the time you get up and the time you get going.
Once we were on the Trail, with clear skies, Jake and I got a blast of sun every now and then. By noon, the sun created enough warmth that I could sit in a sunny spot in my short sleeves. Along a ridge with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains, Rolling Stones, Sol Dancer, Jake and I stopped together. Rolling Stone took off his shoes and socks, and with air temperatures in the 30 ’s, we all silently worshipped the sun.
The cold weather has given Jake and me even more voracious appetites. So much so that we wondered whether we could make it to Fontana Dam without going hungry. We decided to make an unscheduled detour into Gatlinburg, TN, for groceries. With more food in our packs, we could face the risk of being snowed in at a shelter with somewhat less panic.
Getting into Gatlinburg –a 14-mile trip – was relatively painless. There were lots of hikers today, coming and going on the four miles of Trail leading to Charlie’s Bunion, a huge rock outcropping with scenic views over a drop of several thousand feet. Two hikers drove us to a supermarket.
Flagging a ride back to the Trail was much more difficult. Gatlinburg is a tourist mecca – it’s been described as the Las Vegas of the South. There’s no gambling, but there’s no end of motels, shows, restaurants, drinking establishments, and commercial wedding chapels. From the mountains, Gatlinburg is noticeable at night because it has more lights per square mile than any town we’ve seen.
The tourists, however, are not much interested in picking up scruffy-looking guys with backpacks. One police officer in a squad car grumbled at us “you gotta keep hiking” when he saw our outstretched thumbs. We walked about a mile to the edge of town and resumed hitching.
Finally, a teacher who had just biked up and down the Parkway into the mountains took pity on us. He had hiked the Trail in the Smokies a few years ago, and knew we were running out of daylight.
On the way back to the Trail, the Parkway through the mountains brought us to my first bear sighting. It’s a little embarrassing to admit that I was sitting in a car when we saw the bear but there it is. Six or seven cars had pulled over to see a cub on one side of the road. Six or seven more cars pulled over to see mama bear on the other side. She looked calm, even benign. On the other hand, she probably looked no different than the mama bear who killed and partially ate a hiker in May of this year – the first such incident ever in the Smoky Mountains.
Jake and I still had five miles to hike to the next shelter when we got dropped off at the Trail. It was 5:30 p.m., and there were 30 minutes of daylight left. Jake and I are accustomed to hiking by flashlight, but this was a little different. Ice covered parts of the Trail, and the temperatures were dropping quickly. Despite the treacherous footing, however, we both made it to the shelter. (I got there just ahead of Jake, because he stopped to talk with Shaker and Fluffhead, who have decided to leave the Trail for a few days until the cold spell breaks.)
We got a warm greeting at the shelter; ten hikers were already there, most of them sitting around a campfire, under the starry skies. One of the section-hikers, Peregrine, hiked the AT in 1973; his son, Optimus Prime, hiked it this year. Both of them, by coincidence, hiked it in 140 days – very fast. There was space for 12 on the sleeping platforms, and my sleeping bag was next to Peregrine’s; I felt like I was sleeping next to a celebrity.
The thermometer dropped only to 30 degrees this evening. Sleeping will be a little easier. I won't need to count sheep, but I am counting the days til we’ re home.
P.S. We crossed the 200-miles-left-to-go line today!
November 16 ~ Derrick Knob Shelter, TN at milepoint 1983.7 south, 157 days since start of hike, averaging 12.6 miles per day
Trail data – Day 154 AT miles hiked: 13.4 Miles left to go: 185.4 People we camped with: Sol Dance, Big Guy, Huck, Rolling Stone, and four section hikers
Call me crazy, but I agreed last night to join Huck and Rolling Stone on an early-morning hike to see the sun rise at Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak on the AT (6,643 feet). Clingman’s Dome is not a striking peak, It stands only a few hundred feet above the surrounding peaks – a bump along a very high ridge line in the Smokies. But it does have a 360-degree view and a tower that allowed us to see over the trees.
To get there before the sun came up meant waking at 4:30, packing up very quietly, and hiking 3 miles by flashlight until the reddening sky lit our way. Gatlinburg glowed to the west, and on the east side of the ridge was one of the reddest skies I’ve ever seen.
I climbed the tower just before the sun popped up and then disappeared in a gray, cloud-filled sky. The tower is a strange, gangly looking structure: a cement disk atop a tall cement spindle, with a cement ramp spiraling in a wide loop up to the top. It looks like a futuristic exhibit from the 1964 World’s Fair – i.e., entirely out of place in these woods.
I loved the view, though. The sea of surrounding peaks was intriguing. The Blue Ridge Parkway, Mt. Mitchell (the tallest mountain in NC), and Cherokee (the center of an Indian reservation) lay below. I could only withstand the icy winds, however, for about 15 minutes. My plan had been to cook breakfast up there, but with the wind-chill factor, it was 3 degrees. I needed to get hiking while there was still enough blood flowing in my brain to get me off the mountain.
At the next shelter, Huck, Rolling Stone, and I cooked some food and built a fire with coals left by last night’s inhabitants. I went off into the woods for more firewood.
Finding firewood near a shelter is not easy. With several thousand hikers passing through each year, the nearby woods have been picked clean. I hiked a few hundred yards up the Trail before plunging into the woods. Within five minutes I had an arm load of wood but only a vague sense of where I left the Trail. I circled this way and that until I was quite lost, but still carrying my precious branches and twigs. The first soft waves of panic washed over me. I did a quick mental inventory: my compass is safely packed with my gear back at the shelter (i.e., useless to me now); I have my emergency whistle and a flashlight; it’s only 8 a.m.; I should be able to find the Trail before dark.
I decided to use the technique that worked for me back in Maine, when I got lost while digging a cat hole out in the woods. I picked a landmark and began walking in a growing spiral around it. To my surprise, this quickly landed me on the Trail. I had ditched the firewood, so I had to start from scratch.
The landmark, by the way, was interesting: a chain-link fence enclosure in the middle of the woods. There was a small sign explaining that the fenced-in area was a “wild boar exclusion zone.” Apparently the wild boar, who are active in the Smokies, do so much environmental damage that scientists are cordoning off sections of the Park for comparison.
Huck and Rolling Stone were happy to see my hard-won arm load of wood, when I finally returned to the shelter, and we took turns sitting by the fireplace. We warmed up and, with more than a little concern about the cold, gray skies, got back on the Trail.
Then the rain began. Very lightly at first – barely noticeable. With each passing mile the icy rain got a tiny bit stronger. By the time Jake and I reached Derrick Knob, we were COLD and WET. I had picked up an armload of wood on the way to the shelter and other hikers – there were 10 of us in all – gathered more. As the rain got heavier, everyone settled in for the night, even though it was only slightly past lunch time. Food was shared, Jake did a reading of “The Raven,” and other Poe tales were read aloud; Huck played the harmonica. I sat by the fire, and by 8 p.m. my clothes and I were dry.
The rain is pattering on the tin rook this evening, tapering off occasionally. My hopes soar when I think the rain is ending, and then a new, stronger blast of wind and rain dashes them. I am hoping that the weather clears long enough tomorrow for Jake and me to do an intensive 22-mile hike to Fontana Dam, where the Hike Inn and our maildrop are located. But we’re not moving until the weather lets us. We’ve got enough food to stay a while.
November 17 ~ Fontana Dam, NC at milepoint 2003.9 south, 158 days since start of hike, averaging 12.7 miles per day
Trail data – Day 155 AT miles hiked: 22.2 Miles left to go: 163.2 People we stayed with: Crazy Girl People we saw on the Trail: Snow Bird (a Canadian section hiker)
A cold wind-blown rain continued through the night and into this morning. At about 12:30 a.m. I discovered the roof was leaking. A small puddle lay next to my feet and the bottom end of my sleeping bag was wet. With temperatures in the 30s both inside and outside the Shelter, I began thinking about hypothermia.
Lying next to me on the loft was a hiker named Jim, blissfully snoring away in a dry sleeping bag. The loft was filled with sleeping hikers. The bottom level was full too. I decided to curl up into a ball, in the top half of my sleeping bag, and tough it out. The rain was letting up. The leak was abating. I just had to hold on til 6:30 when it would be light enough to leave.
I was the first one up. Shelter etiquette requires quiet in the morning, at least until all of the hikers are awake. So I dragged my gear out of the shelter and packed up outside. I left a note for Jake, and I was off. 22 miles into Fontana was our goal. There we would find a warm bed, maybe even a good dinner. How my ambitions have shrunk!
By the end of the day, Jake caught up to me, and we arrived at the Dam together. What a fascinating sight! Fontana Dam was the TVA’s flagship project – one of its first. It stands 480 feet high – the largest dam east of the Mississippi. This year, and every five years, Fontana Lake is drawn down so that the Dam can be inspected by engineers. We met one of them on the approach road next to the dam. His specialty is looking at the underwater sections with a robotic submarine. He said the Dam is in good shape.
The Trail crosses over the top of the Dam, and Jake and I marveled at the scale of what we were seeing. Fontana Lake had been drawn down 200 feet, exposing meticulously carved slopes in the rock embankments – like an elaborate Pueblo hillside of brown-orange stone seeping down in small increments to the water.
We called The Hike Inn from the visitor center at the far end of the Dam. Jeff and Nancy Hoch, the proprietors, purchased the Inn in 1993, and now cater primarily to hikers. When they bought the place, a tiny 6-unit motel, they knew little about the AT. “I couldn’t understand why people would want to walk that far,” Nancy said as she drove Crazy Girl, Jake and me to a pizza shop and a grocery store. Now, the Hochs are well known along the Trail for their hospitality.
Jeff and Nancy both say that their life becomes slightly insane when wave upon wave of northbound thru-hikers arrive in the spring. But there’s a sparkle in their eye when they talk about their role in helping hundred of pilgrims make their way through this part of North Carolina.
Our room is spartan: no phone and a TV that brings in one and a half channels that are mostly static. Jake and I can discern just enough information through the gray snow on the screen this evening to know that snow is on its way in the next day or two.
P.S. Our arrival at Fontana, NC, brings us to the end of Smoky Mountains National Park. There is an interesting symmetry in the Trail, with 70 miles of White Mountains and 70 miles of the Smokies near either end. And at the extreme ends of the Trail (Maine and Georgia), the conditions become increasingly rough – there are fewer outposts of civilization, fewer roads, and very challenging terrain.
Last modified Thursday July 25, 2002