May 10 – 24, 2017
My trail legs began to reveal themselves as we made our way up the North Carolina/Tennessee border. For about 150 miles, the trail indecisively followed the state line in its pursuit north, before leaving North Carolina for good and dedicating its path to Tennessee. After the temperamental weather we had endured the past few weeks, our exit out of the Smokies promised more optimistic returns. The morning after we left, a car, coated in Appalachian Trail stickers, stopped us while crossing Tobes Creek Road. A silver haired woman jumped out to reveal a trunk full of fruit snacks, Yoo-hoo chocolate drinks, and rice crispy treats.
“Take as much as you want!” she encouraged us. “I’m on my way to the trailhead to do some trail magic.”
We thanked her and I grabbed a few treats and a Yoo-hoo to go. Munching merrily on the snacks, we set off again to Standing Bear Hostel and our resupply, but once again we were stopped along the way. I was lagging behind Markus as usual, but I caught up with him rather quickly on the grassy slope of a small hill. He stood in the center of the trail, hunched over and gazing up the mountain.
“There was a bear,” he told me, not taking his eyes off the brush.
I looked up, but saw nothing. “Is it still here?”
“No, it ran off.”
“Okay… Well… it’s gone now. I don’t think you’ll need that bear spray.”
He made no move to return the canister to his hip. “What if it comes back?”
I laughed at his apparent apprehension and walked past him, continuing up the trail.
We did not encounter the bear again on our way up the road to Standing Bear Hostel, though the hostel attendants did tell us there was a bear in the yard last night.
“They’re all over,” said one. “They run off as soon you start hollerin’ at them.”
We collected our resupply boxes and while sorting our food we chatted with Lakes, a thru hiker we met in the Smokies. We hiked one of our longest days yet, nearly 17 miles, as we climbed to Max Patch. With a heavily laden pack, my earlier good mood soured as I lugged it up and over the bald. The sunset from the hilltop was nice, but there was no place for Markus to set up his tent, so we climbed down to the shelter for the night. At Roaring Forks, the company of Soop, Lakes, and Levi, a homeless drifter whose trail name came from the pair of Levi’s he hiked in, helped to lift my spirits.
We climbed up and over Bluff Mountain with Levi the next day, ending a few miles out of Hot Springs, North Carolina. The trail passes directly through town, and many hikers stop to stay at the Laughing Heart Hostel and take a dip in the local hot springs. In the morning, we nero’d into town and purchased a room for the next two nights. This would be our first zero day on trail and we were excited for it. In our rain-gear, we stocked up on snacks and refreshments for the evening as our clothes tumbled in the wash.
We had caught up with Gonzo again, who was traveling with G, Griz, Forrest, and Gilligan. Even Mr. Clean was there, who we hadn’t seen since the NOC. We all spent the night enjoying ourselves in true hiker fashion, chatting under the sheltered porch as it rained or getting a bit raucous with some drunk karaoke. Markus stayed up late chatting with a hiker called Not Sure, a trail name given to him when hikers kept asking him what his name was and he replied, “Not sure.”
It was a testament to how well I had been hydrating that I did not wake up with a hangover. The mood in the hostel was tempered as we mosied about our rest day. Pixie, later known as Pickles, Forrest, Markus, and I walked over to the Hot Springs Resort and shared one of the famous tubs filled with piping hot spring water. Despite us all being clean, by hiker standards at least, a significant amount of filth and dead skin peeled off our bodies as we soaked in the hot tub.
We were reluctant to leave the next morning and delayed our departure to get a hot breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner. It was rough getting started again, and we only made it 11 miles with Not Sure to Spring Mountain Shelter. Down to the road and then back up to the ridgeline became our daily repeat as we pushed forward through the southern heat. It was on the other side of Big Bald where we found Gonzo and his crew at Bald Mountain Shelter. The campsite was fairly overrun with hikers, so we decided to hike on in the coming darkness to a little stream just before Spivey Gap. It was cool and pleasant near the water and I read Lord of the Rings aloud for our entertainment.
We were getting ready the following morning when Gonzo arrived, ahead of the group. They were on their way to Erwin, TN and the trail-famous Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, and we had plans to stop there as well. Markus, who loved to watch new movies, was hoping to catch a viewing of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 at the local theater, so we planned to stay in town for the night.
Gonzo quickly left to forge on ahead, and Markus and I decided for a little trail entertainment. I was not necessarily considered a fast thru hiker. I kept pace with the others because I was consistent. I was willing to wake up early and end late to make the same journey others did in nearly twice the time. Today, though, Markus and I agreed to hustle together to catch the speedy Gonzo.
Sweat was pouring down my face when we finally caught up to him on a section of trail cut into the side of a cliff. He looked surprised seeing us, and we explained our quest to catch him. We then learned he was suffering from a bit of chafing, which had slowed him down, but I took it for a win regardless.
At No Business Knob Shelter, we stopped to eat lunch with Gonzo and Gilligan. When we got ready to leave, Gilligan stayed behind, quietly mentioning she wasn’t feeling well while simultaneously insisting she was okay. The descent to the Nolichucky River was pretty, as the ridgeline opened into steep cliffs that gave wide views of the river valley. We checked into Uncle Johnny’s and nabbed two bunks from some departing hikers. We had missed the last shuttle and ended up walking into Erwin to catch an evening showing at the local theater. As we were at the last show of the night, the theater owner gave us a ride back to the hostel to save us a road walk in the dark. Tired after a long day, we both tucked in for a good night’s sleep…
…which ended much too soon for me. The sun had just risen when I was violently awoken. I laid there for a moment, unsure what had pulled me from sleep, and then the feeling hit me. As quietly as I could, I crawled off my bunk and hurried to the bathroom. A few hikers were packing up in the early morning mist as I rushed past them, half walking, half running. I honestly didn’t think I would make it in time. From one end and then the other, sick poured out of me with a vengeance. I was drenched in a cold sweat when I finally stopped heaving, shaking on the bathroom floor. I was afraid to leave the stall in case it swept over me again. My thoughts turned to Gilligan, who had stayed behind at the shelter. Norovirus is one of the most common illness hikers faced on trail and it seemed I had caught the bug.
Weakly, I managed to drag myself back to my bunk, where I promptly buried my face in my pillow, too exhausted to do anything else. I slept fitfully, slipping in and out of consciousness as the fever passed. It wasn’t until afternoon when I felt well enough to venture out of bed. Outside, Gonzo, G, and a big group of other hikers were shuttling up to Trail Days in Damascus, but there was a small group of us staying behind. I found Markus chatting with Moonpie and Griz, who both decided to skip out on the trip. Instead, they planned to tube down the Nolichucky, a service offered by the hostel. When they asked me to come, I initially said no, as another wave of nausea had hit me, but upon returning from the bathroom, I found a second wind and agreed to go.
The float down the river was calm and cool. Moonpie and I had little trouble navigating the small rapids, but both Markus and Griz flipped their tubes, losing hats and shoes down the river. Laughing at the game, Moonpie and I paddled our tubes frantically in an effort to catch their lost items before the river swallowed them. Despite arriving at Uncle Johnny’s with a renewed fever, I was glad I went, but was ready to return to bed.
I woke early the next morning, fever abated and feeling well again. During my sickness the day before, Canada and Bald Eagle had arrived. My happiness to see them was cut short, however, as I learned Canada was getting off trail. A cut had gotten infected and, being a Canadian citizen, he was returning home to seek treatment. We had seen the pair intermittently since the end of Georgia and I was sad to see Canada go. It was worse yet for Bald Eagle, who was losing his hiking companion. Gilligan had also made it down the mountain while I was recovering, but she too was departing after her section hike.
When I found Markus, he said he wasn’t feeling well, either from sickness or too much indulgence the night before, so we stayed a second zero day at Uncle Johnny’s. Though there wasn’t much to do at the isolated hostel, leaving the next day was a challenge. The comforts of town had ensnared us and it took all our willpower to make an effort to leave. We pitched up our tents just on the other side of the Nolichucky, resisting the urge to remain at the hostel for another night. As if mirroring our despair, it rained the following morning. With our heads downcast, we set off up the trail.
To make up for lost time, we pulled some bigger miles the next few days, ending our hikes late in the evening. The third day out from Uncle Johnny’s, the sun was setting red on our backs as we climbed the trail up to Roan High Bluff. The worn path gave way to a large rock staircase, each step coming as high as my thigh. Breathing heavily, I clambered up the last few to find myself gazing down a dark, misty trail leading deep into the mountain. I paused to catch my breath and gazed back at the bloody sunset, which painted the rolling hills in a fiery orange glow. Markus arrived beside me, his headlamp illuminating the shadows before us. Determined to make it to the shelter, we left the fading sunlight behind and pressed on into the darkness of the pines.
The higher we climbed to the bluff, the deeper the fog became. The sharp, spiny branches of the trees reached out like bony fingers, catching our packs as we passed. The silence was unnerving and not even our footsteps, muffled by a bed of needles, could be heard in the gloom. We hurried down the misty trail and it soon opened into an overgrown service road. The crunching of our feet on the gravel was painfully loud in the quiet. Goosebumps raised on my arms when the dim headlamp illuminated the remnants of old stone structures. We hastened our pace, anxious to reach our destination.
The side trail to the shelter emerged to the right, and we followed it twisting through the pines to find an old wooden structure, two stories high, in a small clearing on the slope of the bluff. We hurried to the door to find it locked. I knocked quietly.
Within came shuffling footsteps.
“Are you a bear?” asked the voice on the other side of the door.
“No,” we replied.
We heard the latch disengage, and the door creaked open to reveal a small room with no furnishings. On the floor laid two sleeping mats, one unoccupied. The voice belonged to a young man with a round face and short brown hair.
“There’s bears about. Can never be too careful,” he joked quietly, returning to his mat.
We latched the door behind us. Through the floorboards, the flickering light of a phone screen could be seen accompanied by a soft murmur of voices. We set up as quietly as we could in the darkness, hanging our food bags from the rafters, trusting the rickety door to keep animals at bay.
The morning gloom revealed the landscape less eerie than night had portrayed it. Rain trickled down through the pines, darkening the bark black, before opening up to rolling fields. The wet persisted in a heavy mist, clinging to the grass, which then saturated our legs and shoes. Markus was lagging behind and he told me he wasn’t feeling well. I worried he had caught Noro as well. We stopped to take lunch in the shelter of a shallow dirt cave and I checked our guidebook. Overmountain Shelter wasn’t too far ahead and we agreed to end there for the day. We took a saturated two track down to the red barn, converted for use by the hikers. A small group of them still occupied it, eating an unhurried breakfast to prolong entering the rain. We climbed the worn staircase and set up our mats in the far corner. Wind blew through the gaps in the wood planks, so I took out Markus’s tarp and my rainfly and strung them up to block some of the chill.
Markus fell asleep quickly, but I sat making paracord bracelets as the shelter emptied and began to refill. At first, it was just one or two hikers trickling in, but soon large groups were clambering up the stairs to claim a spot. Black Mamba, who we had met just outside of Hot Springs, joined us in our corner. The shelter was nearly full when a white muzzle poked over the edge of the wood steps. A small white pit bull emerged, closely followed by a stocky hiker with a large backpack. Daisy followed Bubba obediently, ignoring the general ruckus around her, and curled up on the mat he placed on the floor.
“My entire sleeping bag is soaked,” he complained, pulling out the damp bag. “These pack covers don’t keep the rain out well.”
“You need a pack liner,” I told him, showing him my own black contractor bag. “I lost my pack cover ages ago.”
One hour and an entire fuel canister later, his sleeping bag was dry enough to sleep in. His efforts seemed in vain, however, as the wet dog quickly slipped inside to settle at the foot at the bag.
The upper loft and lower tent platforms were full by evening. We slept soundly in the collective warmth of the many bodies and by morning Markus was feeling better. A dense fog covered Hump Mountain as we clambered over it that morning, but, by the time we reached the North Carolina border, the sky had cleared and the sun returned.