Last day on the trail

Tuesday started with a huge breakfast at Sunnybank.

While Elmer made omelets, Carter, the dog, watched closely from the sitting room across the hall from the kitchen.

When the chimes sounded we gathered together once more in the dinning room to feast.

After breakfast K2 and I packed up and settled up. Then we set out from the downtown trail heading north from Hot Springs for an out-and-back hike to mile 279.3 on the AT. This last trek of 9.6 miles would put me over 200 miles of hiking during my sabbatical.

Once the trail turned off the town road, it followed the French Broad River.

The trail left the river and took us up Lovers Leap Rock through some prime tent camping and through Pump Gap. Then the trail led us to a curious spring-fed pond, which also featured a helicopter pad.

We sat on a wooden bench to eat our last trail lunch before turning back to Hot Springs. The roughly ten-mile hike felt short compared to the 20+ mile hike the day before.

As we traveled southbound on the AT we handed the northbound thru-hikers heading to Maine fun-sized Snickers and Milkyway candy bars – a bit of trail magic. Here’s a pic of Caveman wearing his EMS pack in front of the pond…

The temps climbed into the upper 60sF as we headed back toward the Lovers Leap outcropping and the views of Hot Springs over the French Broad River.

From the trail we walked to the modest Hot Springs Resort and Spa. After we checked into our room, we promptly filled the heart-shaped hot tub with hot mineral water – from the springs that put Hot Springs on the map. Perfect end to 200 miles of hiking!

Slacking from Sunnybank

Sunday we rolled into Hot Springs, North Carolina, to stay with Elmer at the historic Sunnybank boardinghouse. Elmer, an 81-yr-old restauranteur, thru-hiker, and professor, has run Sunnybank for over forty years. Matt, trail name Zappy Tendrils, helped Elmer over these past couple seasons. Matt gave us a tour of this 1865 Italiante-revival style summer home that has welcomed boarders since 1912.

The aromas of the vegetarian feast permeated upstairs from the kitchen.

At seven o’clock a set of chimes at the foot of one of the staircases sounded to let guests know Elmer and Matt had dinner ready. We collected in a dinning room adjacent to the kitchen for a four-course meal. I ate seconds of soup, salad, main, and side – then excused myself from dessert. The dinner conversation enhanced the culinary experience. Not only a favorite meal during this sabbatical — one of the best meals of my life. If you are ever within 100 miles of Sunnybank, please call Elmer and ask him to cook for you. If you sign up over seven other people by 4pm-ish, then he probably will. Here’s a shot of the salad to tempt you…

After dinner Elmer and Matt served us mint tea to help us all sleep soundly. The peace of the place and the comfortable bed made a good night’s sleep very easy to find.

Monday K2 and I woke up early, skipped breakfast, and Matt shuttled us to the trail at Max Patch Road. Before we left, Matt made us coffee. I brought my cup out to the porch to sip coffee while I put on my gaiters and boots, but promptly sat down nearly on top of it, knocking it over. As I laughed at my own clumsiness, Matt asked the key question:

Did you spill coffee in your boots?

Luckily no, my boots remained dry and ready to go. I snagged myself another cup. Then we headed out in Sunnybank’s trusty Subaru.

K2 and I crested the summit of Max Patch by 8:30am. Sustained winds of at least 40-50 miles an hour greeted us as we crossed that high meadow (elevation 4,629′). According to AWOL’s Appalachian Trail guidebook, “‘Max Patch’ is a homophone that replaced the original name ‘Mack’s Patch’. The summit was cleared for cattle and is maintained as a bald.”

After about two miles we cleared the wind with the forest sheltering us once again. The trail zigzagged up and down over Walnut Mountain (4,252′) and Bluff Mountain (4,686′) through gaps and over creeks.

The last two miles of this 20.5 mile (33km) hike slid fairly steeply into Hot Springs, a true trail town, where the Appalachian Trail runs straight along the sidewalk of the tiny downtown. The view of Hot Springs teased us well before the trail delivered us back to Sunnybank. My strength and fitness certainly improved compared to the early days in this sabbatical back in Top o’ Georgia. Still I relished turning off the trail onto Walnut Street, returning to Sunnybank’s porch, and sitting to take my boots off.

The weather cooperates

Saturday K2 woke me at 6:30am determined to get an early lift off from Tri-Corner Knob shelter. We had a quick breakfast of coffee (of course) and oatmeal plus grits plus peanut butter. Then stuffed our gear in our packs, cinched up, clipped in, and trekked outta there at about quarter til eight o’clock. One of our best starts yet! Here’s what the morning looked like:

We started fairly high in the Smokies at an elevation of 5,895′. Then the trail skirted around Mount Guyot, the second highest mountain in the Smokies, taking us up to 6,302′ near the top of Guyot, which stands at 6,621′ (2,018m).

After Guyot the trail trended downhill for seven miles. The bitter cold of the past couple days relinquished its grip. Now a wet mist persisted – not cold enough to snow, not wet enough to rain – enough to keep everything damp. We did get a bit of sleet, but generally the weather cooperated. The melting snow slowly slumped off the fir trees. The snowy footprints in the trail turned to slippery slush.

The trail rose again to skirt Mt Cammerer. I love climbing uphill yet I tend to pace myself throughout each hike – especially these longer ones. Usually K2 and I hike very close together. Today, this last day in the Smoky Mountains, we chose not to take a 1.2 mile round trip to a lookout tower at the summit of Cammerer. Instead we would hike 15.9 miles today from Tri-Corner Knob shelter to Chestnut Branch Trail to our rental car parked at the ranger station. We would leave the AT today. As the trail came up out of Low Gap, K2 went ahead. He sprinted up the 704′ of elevation gain at Cammerer – the last uphill section before the long descent out of the Great Smokies.

We reconnected as we journeyed down Cammerer. Eventually the slush turned to mud then to rocky dirt. I removed my trail-given Yaktrax.

Chestnut Branch trail followed and crossed a rushing creek where trillium and other tiny flowers bloomed.

In the final stretch we put up our poles and walked hand-in-hand for the first time in four days. Once we reached the car the rain began.

Nothing like eating after hiking – we yelped for a nearby restaurant and landed on The Woodshed on Cosby Highway in Newport, Tennessee. We ordered too much food and brought a doggie bag to the mini fridge at our hotel. In another couple hours we ate second dinner. Hiker hunger is real, y’all!

A cold 12.6 miler

Even with the crowd at Ice Water Spring shelter our collective body heat succumbed to the frigid temps – probably a low around 9-11F (-12.8 to -11.7C). Cold may not compliment me, but it does make the Smokies even more fetching.

After our chilliest breakfast yet we left the shelter for Charlies Bunion Loop Trail – a tenth of a mile spur trail – to see this amazing rock outcropping that projects from the mountain side and its brilliant views.

After hiking 7.4 miles (11.9 km) we stopped on the snowy trail by a spring for lunch. With our packs off, we shifted our weight from one cold, damp foot to the other as we slurped hot coffee to wash down the last two bagels we had. The cold stiffened the peanut butter on those bagels making coffee a necessary lubricant to choke it all down. Sounds miserable and yet this lunch satisfied me so much. I felt very loved.

Then the caffeine kicked in and we found another gear to carry us the final 5.2 miles. That lunch pulled us out of Cooper Gap and fueled us for the climbs past Mt Sequoyah and Mt Chapman.

We made it to Tri-Corner Knob shelter before 5pm.

A few of the thru-hikers from the night before already settled in. As we fixed and ate our dinner more of that same crew rolled in until we had nearly a full house once again. A couple of the most hungover hikers complained and capitulated about hiking dehydrated.

I will never pack out a fifth again leaving town.

Oh, something tells me you will.

The cold and the distance – and perhaps the hangovers – subdued this merry clique of thru-hikers. The scene at Tri-Corner turned 180 degrees from the one at Icewater Spring. All hikers took to their bags by hiker midnight: 7:30pm. A very quiet night.

Our detour

Wednesday I woke up before the alarm and tiptoed to peak out the curtains of our hotel. Yes! Snow was falling downtown – an inch already iced the cars.

Highway 441 was closed. Getting back on the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap would mean a long hike via pavement.

K2 and Lost and Found had other plans. The snow created vacancy at a popular and historic wilderness lodge atop Mount Le Conte. Jack Huff, the lodge founder, began building the lodge in 1926 before the Smoky Mountain Nation Park existed. After two subsequent changes in ownership the lodge still remains open to guests willing to hike up to stay there. Willing we were!

Stefan, another guest at our Gatlinburg hotel who approached us at breakfast the day of our zero to discuss hiking, brought us to the head of Rainbow Falls trail about 3.5 miles from downtown Gatlinburg. He helped us out tremendously. We also enjoyed talking with him about our hike and K2’s thru-hike. [Stephan, do it, man!]

We hiked 6.5 miles to LeConte Lodge via Rainbow Falls trail with snowfall the whole way as we gained 3,820 feet of elevation. That trail winds back and forth across a creek and by a 75′ waterfall (nearly 23m), the namesake of the trail.

For the last third of the trek we hiked with a ranger, Nick, who had 35 pounds of CPR gear in his backpack so that he could train the LeConte Lodge staff in CPR. He happily let us go ahead on the trail to make first tracks in the snow. Our boots sank nearly ankle deep as we marched up to the lodge.

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At dinner one of the staff announced the temperature stood at 11F, the lodge had received 6 inches of snow so far, and snow continued.

After dinner we gathered in the lodge office sitting with other guests in rocking chairs, which circled a big gas stove.

After the CPR class, Ranger Nick joined us. He had the best stories. He told one from this past Valentine’s Day….

As Nick hiked on a less-used perimeter trail, he hadn’t seen anyone else. He was in the zone. Suddenly he rounded a bend in the trail and he saw another hiker wearing only a fanny pack and a smile. He insisted to Nick, “I’m not crazy. I’m not crazy.” And Nick figured the jury was still out on that one. He let the hiker have that back-to-nature experience, but the ranger did radio in the unusual incident. Apparently one is free hike in the buff in national parks as long as others are not offended.

Don’t ask me what kinda shoes he had on. I kept eye contact. I didn’t look down.

Over Clingmans

Monday we hiked 17.9 miles (28.8 km) from Derrick Knob shelter to Newfound Gap where the trail spits out at Highway 441.

We left Derrick Knob relatively early. Brett and Skittles had not stirred. All the other hikers collected their packs, made their breakfast and hit the trail about the same time we did.

We stopped at Double Spring Gap shelter at about 1pm for lunch – 7.4 miles (12km) into our day. The temperature had climbed to reach nearly 40F (4.4C) and we’d gained 604′ of elevation.

Rain threatened but mostly held off. The variety of the ferns, lichens, and mosses of the spruce-fir forest transfixed me. I thought, “Faeries of my childhood imagination live here!” However the fallen red spruce and Fraser fir trees – beautifully blanketed in various shades of green – demonstrated the tenuous ecology of this International Biosphere Reserve under threat from climate change, woolly adelgids, and air pollution.

Clingmans Dome (elevation 6,643′) lays claim to both the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains. We spiraled up the walkway to Clingmans Dome Tower (elevation 6,658′) before 3pm. We gained 1,774′ of elevation in 10.3 miles.

We had the observation tower all to ourselves. The park road would not open until April 1st. Between December and March visitors must access the tower by hiking.

From Clingmans the trail trended downhill. My knees appreciated the short rises of Mt Collins and Mingus Ridge as the trail slanted toward Newfound Gap. We dropped 1,613′ of elevation in 7.6 miles.

At Newfound Gap the trail meets Highway 441 near Gatlinburg, TN. We waited a minute and four cars wizzed by – the fourth one stopped! Hitchhiking still works ~ at least along the Appalachian Trail. A grandfather on his way home to Sevierville took us right to a hotel in downtown Gatlinburg. During the fifteen minute drive, he told us about his family and mentioned he’d come from making his “donation to the Cherokee Nation” at the nearby casino earlier that day.

We left our gear at the hotel and walked across the street to feast on Italian food. This set up the perfect equation – full bellies, plus hot showers, plus comfy bed… equals lights out for K2 and Lost and Found.

A real trail name

We woke Sunday morning to no sign of hail. Temps hung around 34F – chilly, but not bad. By 11am we climbed around 600′ as the sun burned away the mist and the chill of the night.

The trail delivered amazing views at Rocky Top (elevation 5,440′).

Then the trail peaked at Thunderhead Mountain at an elevation of 5,527′ – our highest yet on this Appalachian Trail adventure. At the top of Thunderhead we found no views, but did have a bit of fun with the two white blazes we found…

That pic goes out to all my hike club buddies: FUGOWIES FAHEVAH! That pic also foreshadows the trail name I would receive later that night.

After nine miles of up and down hiking over Thunderhead and through a couple gaps, the trail rose up and dropped us at Derrick Knob Shelter. When we arrived we found only to hikers sheltering there: Bret, retired Airborne, and his twenty-one-year-old step-son, Skittles. We swapped hiking stories including our post-tinkle rescue before the hailstorm.

You know what her trail name is now, right? She’s Lost and Found. – Bret

As we relaxed and slowly began our supper, more and more hikers showed up until the shelter filled up with about 12 hikers. Derrick Knob–and any AT shelter really–felt a bit like an open-house party with no host and no invite list. You know people will come and bring fun – you don’t know who, what, or when. We reconnected with Mel, the Australian who doesn’t want a trail name, and her hiking buddies, Finn and Happy Feet. Happy Feet looked like she wanted happier feet when she dragged into Derrick Knob, but she perked up as she ate. We also caught up with Twinkle, who we first met at Wiggy and Maggie’s. She had connected with two other hikers – James, an arborist hiking between jobs and Sparkle, who said she was from Jamaica. We also met Dente, a strong hiker in spite of a sore knee. He was motivated to make it to Gatlinburg to get more Advil and bandaids. And Stacker – from the Hike Inn – came in no worse for wear.

I settled in moments after the sun went down. After the adventures of the prior night, sleep came easily. I put my ear plugs in, pulled my neck gaiter over my eyes, and BOOM! Lights out for Lost and Found.

We’re smokin’

From Wesser Bald we saw the Smoky Mountains – distant, snowy, and taller than all the rest of the Appalachian chain. Saturday we entered the Smokies.

We spent Friday moving our car up the trail past the Smoky Mountains and shuttling back with Steve Claxton, trail name Mustard Seed, who thru-hiked in 2016 and survived open heart surgery and two strokes this year. He and his wife are in the local 900-miler hike club where members aim to hike 900 miles of trails in the Smoky Mountain National Park. His wife hikes 30 miles a day. He’s not quite there yet – what with his body still a bit sore from the sternal fracture and all.

Friday night we stayed at Nancy’s place, The Hike Inn, the longest continually running hiker motel under one owner. Nancy’s loving energy permeates the property. If you are hiking (or motorcycling or angling) nearby, don’t miss staying here. She and husband Jeff ran the place for decades. Then cancer took Jeff. The Trail has a sense of romance though. A hiker named Tom, trail name High Loon, came through recently and stayed in room 5. Later while hiking down in Florida, Tom planned a trip back to the AT and emailed Nancy signing off with “PS: May I take you to breakfast sometime?” Now the Tom helps Nancy run the place, shuttling hikers into nearby Robbinsville for resupply trips and dinner of the trail.

Saturday morning we hugged Nancy goodbye and (L to R in pic below) K2, High Loon, Stacker, Doo, and Spirit Man headed to Fontana Dam.

Tom dropped K2 and I off across Fontana Dam at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park southern boundary.

We deposited half of our park registration papers into the box by the Trail and began climbing from an elevation of 1,862′ around 9am.

A mist clung to the trail enlivening the lichen, somehow quite suitable for this Saint Patrick’s Day hike.

We reached the Shuckstack fire tower (elevation 3,889′) at about 11am – not a bad pace considering K2’s pack had enough food for five days. Chivalry lives.

I learned from my first 60-odd miles in Georgia and managed to lighten my pack from 27 pounds down to 24 (a reduction of 0.21 stones or 1.36 kilograms). I cast away the insect repellent, the muscle rub, the Desitin, and all the Leukotape and moleskin. Zero insects bothered me on the Appalachian Trail so far. I have only seen a handful of them – mostly flies and ants, one ladybug, no mosquitoes. While my muscles would love a rubdown after every hike, the logistics of that make no sense on the trail. Save the salves and ointments for off trail. As to foot care… certainly everyone’s feet are unique. My feet do not want anything adhering to them. I tried Leukotape and specialty blister bandaids (plasters) and they ended up gumming up my socks, making them unwearable.

I left my pair of micro spikes behind after accidentally carrying those heavy things from Amicalola to Unicoi – oops. We intended only to carry spikes if necessary for the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail, Clingmans Dome. Due to the warmer weather neither of us opted to carry them into the Smokies.

I also started trusting the abundance of water on the Appalachian Trail. Rather than set out with 1.5 liters of the Hike Inn’s tap water, I felt secure setting out with 1 liter, which saved me over a pound in pack weight.

Just before 1pm we had climbed 2,658′ of elevation in 7 miles – the grade suits horses, which rangers use for rescue missions as well as trail and shelter maintenance. With a sense of accomplishment stopped for tea and a micronap. The mist cleared giving us a glorious day in the upper fifties (13-14C).

After 10 miles we reached Mollies Ridge shelter. We both felt energetic and we had the weather on our side. We took a another break, rehydrated, and chatted with Black Dog. Then K2 and I headed for the next shelter 3.1 miles up the trail making it a 13.3 mile (21.4 km) day.

When we arrived at Russell Field shelter we met only two other hikers – newlyweds from Sevierville, TN, thru-hiking on their honeymoon. Black Dog had already come and gone signing the log book, “Where’s the pool?”

Surprisingly no other hikers came along. The four of us had the shelter to ourselves.

After sunset K2 and I sat together on the narrow wooden table bracing the columns made of tree trunks to listen to our Bruins play the Tampa Bay Lightening. We each wore a down jacket (otherwise known as a puffy, a must-have piece of gear for backpacking in March). I unzipped the down blanket out of my North Face One sleeping bag and we both curled under it. While we listened to Tuukka and Torey shut out the Lightning on the ice, we watched a lightning storm roll closer to the Smokies. We decided to turn in at the end of the second period.

I headed to the “toilet area” – that’s right most of the shelters in the Smokies have no privies – to tinkle before crawling into my bag. Mini trails crisscross through this hill down from the shelter with some trails terminating into underbrush. I got turned around and lost my sense of direction, but I could see K2’s headlamp shining through the shelter’s polycarbonate roofing material. These Smoky Mountain shelters usually have corrugated roofs of tin and plastic. I headed that way and then… I was lost again! I could not see any light from the shelter. I could see lights from my own headlamp, from a distant town, and from the lightening storm, which seemed like it was getting closer. Then it started to sprinkle. I kept moving up hill, came to a trail, then lost it somehow, and completely missed the shelter. I came to a clearing where K2 and I had initially considered tenting. How could I be so lost and still be this close to the shelter? It stopped sprinkling, but the wind came up. After at least 20 minutes, I had to admit it.

Hello HELLO HELLOOOOO!

I’m wicked lost!

After calling for over five minutes and flashing my light, eventually I heard K2 calling back to me and saw his headlamp. I yelled at him to stay on the trail and crashed through brambles to meet him. We embraced and I burst into laughter and tears at the same time.

“It was a rescue not a recovery.” – K2 announced to the honeymooners once we made it back to Russell Field

Not twenty minutes after finally tucking into my bag, the storm came over us. Lots of lightning and thunder with hard driving rain. Then the soundtrack changed from storm to freight train. Nickel-sized hail. We screamed to gauge how loud the storm was. We couldn’t hear ourselves against that din.

The storm passed after about forty-five minutes, but I stayed awake fueled from adrenaline of the unplanned night hike and the unexpected hail.

Up and down the ladder

Thursday – my ninth day on the trail and K2’s 10th – we hiked Jacob’s Ladder, which honestly sounds more ominous than it turned out to be. It is steep – sure, it is. The Appalachian Trail guide book, commonly known as the AWOL after the hiker who initially wrote it, mentions a cliff here. I envisioned more technical hiking involving a rock face or least some rock hopping. The AT gave us a leaf-covered trail with minimal switchbacks and a few muddy spots. We started at Stecoah Gap where a cold wind whipped through steadily. Then we dropped to Sweetwater Gap where the trail turned straight up to ascend Jacob’s Ladder: 598′ of elevation in only 0.6 of a mile. According to my Fitbit the climb pushed my heart into the cardio zone as I neared the top.

Trees obscured the view somewhat – although leaves will obliterate any view once spring arrives.

We waltzed over to Brown Fork Gap shelter less than a mile away for a break. Three thru-hikers rested inside eating lunch: a young couple from Pennsylvania and a woman in her late thirties from Australia. This meant at least for those few moments while we all sat and ate our lunch the shelter had more women than men – something I had not seen yet at any shelter thus far. Anecdotally, it appears men outnumber women on the trail 3 to 1 – officially it might be 4 to 1. After our refreshments we set off to descend the ladder. The wind had dried many of the slick spots making the downhill trek easier. As we dropped elevation the wind felt warm. When we got to the car the wind still howled through Stecoah Gap, but the temperature had risen to 45 or 50F. K2 had striped down to one layer.

Later in the day we toured the famous AT shelter at the historic Fontana Dam known as the Fontana Hilton due to its filtered water, hot showers, and overall civility of the place.

Still, I don’t think I’d receive Hilton Honors points for staying there.

Here the Appalachian Trail crosses the Fontana Dam to enter the Smoky Mountains.

Not sure when this plaque at Fontana Dam was installed, but by now the average number of hikers to complete the trail has to be more than 100. About 2 million people use the trail annually. When K2 thru-hiked the AT in 2015 he registered at Amicalola State Park as number 44. In the subsequent years the trail’s popularity has really grown and so has the drive to register hikers. We were registered as hikers 608 and 609 this year. Last year about 4,200 people attempted thru-hiking. However as the popularity of the trail climbs year after year, the completion rate in 2016 for thru-hikes fell from a norm of 25% to a new low of 20%. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is still crunching the latest numbers for 2017 and 2018 to see if this is a trend or an anomaly.

Ups and downs abound. The uptick in usage has downsides for the ecology of the forest as well as for the tiny towns along the trail. Personally for the wannabe thru-hiker, attempting a thru-hike and then aborting it due to illness or injury or some other emergency must be an emotional downer. Think of the thousands of emotional rollercoasters playing out in the woods – those ups and downs within all those hiker psyches.

Will I make it?

When will it end?

Why do I like backpacking?

Is it too late to choose beach?

K2 rocks the NOC

Wednesday – uh-oh, another zero for Doo! K2 took the trail to represent our team.

I shuttled him as he slack packed from the Nantahala Outdoor Center at mile 136.7 of the AT…

…to Stacoah Gap at mile 150.3. The 13.6 mile (~21.9km) hike involved an elevation gain of 2,978′ in the first six miles coming out of the NOC at the river and climbing up Swim Bald. The real high point was Cheoah Bald at 5,062′ for a total elevation gain of 3,330′ in 8.1 miles. And after all that uphill there’s still 5.5 miles left!

Wiggy said that most hikers take two days to hike out of the NOC choosing to stay at Sassafras Gap Shelter after about a 7 mile hike rather than continue over Cheoah Bald. The next shelter with tent camping is another 15.2 miles from Sassafras so choosing to call it a day after cresting Swim makes sense for thru-hikers. For slackpacking wildmen like K2 though? Hike on!

I dropped him off at about 9:30am and he called me to pick him up at 3pm. The guy can hike.

I spent my time checking out the NOC’s outfitter, putting air in one of our tires, catching up on blog posts, and nursing my knees and my blister.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center hosts whitewater sporting competitions and other events in the spring and summer. People come from all over to race and to attend their highly acclaimed paddling school too. Early March is quiet at NOC, however, the AT goes right through the complex and many hikers stay at their hostel.

For noisy knees my mom always said, “RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation” and for blisters…. Well, I did a lot of reading before this hike about blister care while backpacking, but I can’t say much of it has helped me. I am NOT a fan of putting Leukotape over hot spots because at the end of the hike my socks are stuck to my skin. Ouch! I will admit Desitin (yes, the diaper rash stuff) seems to dry out hot spots, which I think has help avoid additional blisters. So far my best bet has been liberal use of Gold Bond foot power. Love that stuff.