Rain, rain, go away, come again…never.

Our first big milestone was leaving Georgia and entering North Carolina. Shortly after, we  reached our second milestone by hitting the
100 mile mark at Albert mountain fire tower, where the final quarter mile was so steep it was more like rock climbing. In some places I had to throw my trekking poles up and over waist-high boulders and hoist myself over them by using tree trunks for support.

The next day we stayed in Franklin, NC at the Sapphire Inn, which was booked with hikers who were all there for resupply, laundry, and a bed for the night, just like us. With one washing machine to share among many, we had to keep checking to see when it became available, and when it was empty, we literally ran to collect our dirty clothes in order to race other people to the machine, and as soon as we inserted our quarters, two other out of breath hikers entered the laundry room with arms full of clothes. Ha ha! Success! We took Ron Haven’s shuttle to the grocery store to resupply and ordered Chinese delivery to our hotel room, for the first time greatly overestimating how much we could eat. I briefly considered taking the leftovers with me, but decided against it when I imagined the possible consequences of eating two day-old lo mein in the backcountry and ended up leaving it instead.

Upon returning to the trail from Franklin, we entered a long rainy period which dampened our spirits for the next several days. We worked hard to hike uphill in the rain to get to our first bald (a mountaintop without tree cover, so you can get a 360 degree view), and when we got to Wayah bald it was so foggy we couldn’t see a thing. So much for our first bald view. 

One bright spot was reaching the NOC, Nantahala Outdoor Center, which was a bustling hiker haven in the middle of a dreary, wet day. I felt bad when I entered their store because my clothes were so wet that water was dripping steadily from my sleeves and pant legs onto the floor. The clientele seemed to be half tourists (one told me I ‘looked like I could use a hot cup of tea’) and half hikers as dirty and wet as I was, so I guessed it was ok. We perused their outfitter and ate a hot meal at their restaurant before bidding farewell to the other hikers who were staying at the NOC hostel for the night. We decided to save money and hike on, which we immediately regretted two miles later in rain pouring down so hard it was difficult to see to walk. We had to stop at an unnamed campsite to set up our tents in the downpour, and despite our efforts to set up quickly, our tent had half an inch of standing water inside by the time we attached the rain fly. What wasn’t totally soaked was damp, and it made for an uncomfortable night.

Unfortunately the next day was no better. Putting cold, wet clothes on in the morning when it’s already raining is no fun. By this time it had rained so much that the trail was mostly a river of flowing water and mud ankle deep in most places, which made for wet, blistery feet and the potential for developing trench foot, not to mention straining knees and leg muscles to avoid falling on the slippery surfaces. And avoid it I did not. On a section of large rocks coming downhill, my poles slipped and I pitched forward, the weight of my pack forcing me towards the ground at an alarming speed. My wrists were wrapped in the straps of my poles and so I was unable to put my hands out to brace my fall. Somehow I landed on my side and luckily did not smash my face on the rocks. Once down, I felt like a turtle on its back, writhing to get to a position in which I could gain some leverage to push myself back to a standing position beneath the weight of my pack, which seemed enormous now that it rested on top of me. Once I regained my footing, I moved as slowly and carefully as I could. At the end of the day, we reached Stecoah Gap, where we thought there were campsites but in fact there were signs saying ‘no camping allowed.’  We walked a little farther and camped on a gravel access road. And guess what? It rained all night.

We had planned to go another day into Fontana because Shane had a package to pick up, but when we called they were booked. We were grumpy from the rain, plus we’d been pushing higher miles for the last few days and we could feel every extra step in the form of new aches and pains. My toes had been pruny for three straight days. If we had to go into town a day earlier than we’d planned, I wasn’t going to complain. Just then, a lady pulled up to the gap and got out to empty the trash bins by the side of the road. Her name was Cynthia, and she belonged to several hiking clubs in the area and volunteered to do trail maintenance in her free time. She had a hostel, but hers was booked too. However, she said she had a friend who had a bed and breakfast, and she could drive us into town. What’s more, she was going to the grocery store, and she could wait for us while we resupplied! It was already shaping up to be a good day- and today was Travis’ birthday, so we planned to pick up some beer to celebrate… Well, just our luck, Robbinsville is in the only dry county in the entire state of North Carolina.

Cynthia’s friends, Rob and Robin, did in fact have openings at their B&B, and drove us there from the grocery store. We drove farther up into the mountains for twenty miles, until we were on dirt roads which seemed to lead nowhere. Suddenly we arrived at Buffalo Creek B&B, which really was a little slice of heaven in the mountains. Their log cabin was only feet away from a babbling brook, and ringed by blooming flower bushes and potted plants. They had chickens for laying fresh eggs, and in the yard two young cats chased butterflies (seriously!). It was picturesque, and Rob and Robin only made it more welcoming by making us feel at home. They grilled burgers for dinner and we had cake for Travis’ birthday. Rob even had a brewing hobby, so we got to have beer after all! We were warm and fed and dry and today felt like such a turnaround  from the last few days of rain. The icing on the cake was getting to rest our sore muscles in the hot tub on their deck that faced the wandering brook, lit up with twinkling lights. It was the perfect end to the perfect day. 

Travis’ birthday celebration

In the morning, Robin cooked us a full country breakfast, complete with fresh eggs, bacon, grits, toast, and fruit. We were reluctant to leave, but they told us to call them to come pick us up if the weather got bad once we returned to the trail, because they were worried about dangerous storm conditions in the forecast. It turned out to be unnecessary because it was actually nice out for once, but it was a generous offer. We’ve been lucky to meet such nice people along the way! It’s people like Rob and Robin that make our families feel better knowing that there are kind strangers out there who will care for us in times of need. In a world in which we are often taught to be wary of strangers, it is refreshing to be reminded that there really are lots of good, neighborly people all around us.

P.S. I’ve been a bit delayed in posting because of some internet issues. We are currently halfway through the Smokies, so I’ll be posting about that next!


Lessons Learned in the First 10 Days

Pre-Approach Trail…not even sweaty yet!

The day before we officially began our trek, we stayed at the Amicalola Falls Lodge, which required a 3/4 mile steep uphill climb on a breezeless 80 degree day. We stumbled over rocks, wiped sweat from our eyes, and adjusted our too-heavy packs every couple hundred feet. We hadn’t even made it to the unofficial start of the trail and we already felt like we were being pushed to our limits. What had we gotten ourselves into?

The next day, Day 0 (since the trail doesn’t actually start until the summit of Springer Mountain) proved to be more strenuous, of course, since it was 8 miles of literally climbing to the top of a mountain. It was a tough day with a rewarding view from the summit (see above). We had finally made it to Mile 0! We set up our first camp near the summit and realized maybe we should’ve ‘practiced’ camping a bit more…We had a lot of logistical questions that we had never considered. Should one wash out a cooking pot with sterilized water? How far away should we walk to brush our teeth? Can bears smell Chapstick? Luckily we weren’t the only unseasoned hikers. In the end, we decided to put anything remotely scented into our bear bags.

We woke to a snow-covered ground. Travis’ thermometer read 18 degrees, for which we were unprepared. Packing up our gear in freezing temperatures is infinitely more difficult than in nice weather, but not quite as bad as packing up in the rain, which we would soon learn.

Our muscles were already sore from one day of hiking. We were later told by a park ranger that the approach trail is really just to weed out the early quitters, and I believe it! It certainly was not easy. We met our first Trail Angel, Mountain Squid, at the base of Springer, where he was giving out juice boxes. He said many people had already asked him if he would drive them into town because they were leaving the trail for good, before it even really began.

Day 1– We hiked through a section of a fairly populated park where we detoured a bit to see a Long Creek Falls. We stayed at Hawk Mountain shelter, where there were so many hikers that the bear bag lines hung so heavy with food bags that they were only suspended ten feet off the ground-I presume easily reachable by any bear who could stand on two legs. Lesson learned: if there are enough people camping to populate a small town, bears probably won’t come close.

Day 2– We hiked up and over Sassafras Mountain, and at the bottom were met by Courtesy, another Trail Angel who had set up a food station with snacks, hot drinks, and weather reports and maps for the few miles we were about to enter. We were quickly learning that Trail Angels can really make your day! We stayed at Gooch Mountain shelter, where it poured down rain overnight. Our stuff was dry, more or less, but Travis had lost his tent poles the day before and his makeshift shelter had proven itself unseaworthy.

Day 3– Woke up with one boot filled with nuts and shredded paper…maybe a mouse home for the night? Lesson learned: even forest critters need somewhere cozy to get in out of the rain. With wet gear and cold, damp clothes, we caught a ride into Suches, GA, where we stayed for the night at the hostel at Wolfpen Gap Country Store. We got to shower and do laundry and eat pizza and play with kittens, which of course made it a good day!

Day 4-We did a fairly easy 7 miles down to Lance Creek, where we had to bear bag our food without pre-assembled lines for the first time. Travis and I watched (and filmed) as Shane repeatedly attempted to suspend our likely 30 pounds of food on a one-inch wide branch, bending the tree itself down to nearly ground level-We must’ve been in the only section of Georgia without horizontal tree branches-but eventually he succeeded, and yet again we awoke to food bags unravaged by any critters. Hey, this camping thing’s not so hard!

Day 5-“Hiker Appetite” starting to set in. For breakfast, Shane made a concoction consisting of a 12-inch flour tortilla stuffed with Nutella, peanut butter, and a two-pack of mashed up chocolate fudge Pop Tarts neatly rolled into one diabetic nightmare burrito, later claiming it “might’ve been a little much.” We hiked up Blood Mountain, which had a beautiful view, and back down to Neel’s Gap, which is the only section of entire AT where the trail actually runs through a building. They have an outfitter, a hostel, lots of friendly thru-hiker employees to give you advice, and of course, food. As we stocked up on candy bars for the evening, someone told us that the ‘hiker appetite’ doesn’t really set in for another week or so on the trail. Uh-oh.

The hostel was booked, but they were nice and let us camp on the edge of their property with lots of other hikers, and we had nice bonfire and sat around talking for the night. It had been a full day of hiking, but it still felt like a day off when we got to relax for a while.

Day 6– We did our longest day yet-nearly twelve miles-into Low Gap. It was a dreary day of not-quite rain, since we were so high in the mountains that we were actually just in the clouds. Wetness permeated through every layer in a dense fog, rather than actual droplets falling. It was beautiful and eerie, as I couldn’t see more than fifty feet or so in any direction, and even when I could hear voices of other hikers nearby, I would turn around and see no one. The day was broken up by more Trail Magic, this time from King Tut, who had hot drinks and knitted hats made by local church ladies. They’re ‘breathable yet warm,’ and since then I’ve seen lots of hikers with these identical hand-made hats in many colors.

We got into camp later than usual, and fell asleep immediately after getting out tents set up, sleeping from 7pm to 8am. Nothing like a full day of backpacking to ensure a good night’s sleep, even when you’re soaked through!

Our shantytown setup to dry out our wet gear

Day 7– A warm and buggy day, we hiked our 7 miles to the shelter quickly so that we could start a fire to smoke out the gnats that clung to our faces when we stopped to catch our breath. We spent the afternoon hanging out our wet gear to dry, looking forward to going into town the next day.

Day 8– We took the shuttle to the Budget Inn in Hiawassee from Unicoi Gap, and showered for the first time in 6 days…lukewarm water never felt so heavenly! I watched bits of leaves wash down the shower drain, wondering how much extra weight in dirt I’d been carrying on my person all week. We had meant for this day to be a rest day…but we saw that there was a pizza buffet a little over a mile and a half away from our motel. It was hot, we were already famished, and we got sunburned on the walk to the restaurant, but it was totally worth it. After eating our weight in pizza we nearly fell asleep at the table from our calorie-coma, then dragged our tired bodies back to the motel with our bellies full. Lesson learned: Let’s be real, there was no lesson here. We will always walk miles out of our way for a buffet.

Day 9– Shuttled back to Unicoi Gap and hiked over ten miles, which was relatively easy since we were still coasting on yesterday’s calories for energy. The forecast predicted rain, and sure enough, when we awoke on Day 10 all of our stuff was wet again. (We do keep our clothes and gear in dry sacks, but when it’s damp out everything seems to get wet no matter how hard you try to keep it dry.)

Day 10– Less than half a mile out of our campsite, we stumbled upon the biggest Trail Magic we’ve seen yet. At Addis Gap we were greeted by a host of jolly and boozed-up campers known as ‘The Home Team,’ who had camped there for the whole weekend and traveled from states as far away as Wisconsin. They had a roaring fire and an entire kitchen tent, where they were frying up eggs and pancakes, and brewing coffee for anyone who wandered down the half-mile trail to their site. Some hikers had camped there the night before and enjoyed homemade stew and whole roasted turkeys and hams for dinner! If only we had continued a little farther last night, we could’ve joined in on the fun! Lesson learned: if you stick it out long enough, something good will come your way, even in the rain.

We continued on down into Dick’s Creek. Somewhere along the way I brushed against a tree branch hanging in the path, and absent-mindedly said to it, ‘excuse me,’ which made me chuckle. Lesson learned: If you stay out here long enough, you really do become one with nature-either that or you start to go a little crazy.

Has it really only been a little over a week since we began? It feels like a lifetime. I really do learn new things every day, some small things and some more profound. Overall, I try to remember that the rainy days will eventually give way to sunny ones, and all uphills must eventually come back down. I can feel myself getting stronger (or at least my pack doesn’t feel quite as heavy, hopefully it doesn’t have a hole in it) and I’m always excited to see what’s around the next bend.