Virginia is for lovers (of the AT)

Shane’s friend Anthony came to hike with us for awhile, but first we had to go to the infamous Trail Days in Damascus. Anthony’s parents picked us up in Elk Park, NC and drove us an hour away (five trail days, in our language) to the self-proclaimed “Friendliest Trail Town,” which hosts the annual hiker event. When we arrived, the festivities were already underway, with gear and food vendors lining the town park and hundreds of visitors camping out in Tent City for the weekend. 

Tent City, with our tents in the foreground

 

For 362 days of the year, Tent City is nothing more than a barren field and a bit of woods near the river and out past the ball fields on the outskirts of Damascus, but for the glorious weekend of Trail Days, the trees come alive with the sounds of hundreds of past and present hikers reuniting over campfire food, tambourine music, dancing around bonfires til the wee hours, and of course, copious amounts of booze. When we arrived, the shady spots along the river had already been claimed by the early birds, leaving us with a scorching spot in the middle of the field to place our tents. We strung up a rain fly for a bit of shade, and carried beer and half-melted ice from the nearest gas station back to our home base to enjoy in the lazy hot afternoons while we listened to roaming guitarists and watched dogs and kids chase frisbees across the field.
 

An amateur flame thrower/hiker, Trail Days entertainment

 
  
Back in town, we visited the gear vendors (I bought a Hennessy hammock setup) and perused the fried food vendors. The local fire department had a benefit lunch which featured a half chicken per person, as well as baked beans, cole slaw, a dinner roll, and sweet tea- a classic southern cookout, in which we obviously participated. I could go on with a list of the other foods we ate that day, or even over the course of the weekend, but you know by now that it is long and filled with embarrassing amounts carbs, and lots of meat. Suffice it to say that Anthony, who had not yet hiked, was mortified to be seen with us as we purchased fourth, fifth, and even sixth meals of the day. He just didn’t know yet what the insatiable hiker appetite is like after coming down from the mountains.
 

The 40-foot long charcoal grill at the Damascus fire station, where our chickens were cooked

 
After a long and restful weekend at Trail Days, we shuttled back to Elk Park to pick up where we left off, this time with a fourth person in tow. We hiked a short six miles in the rain for Anthony’s first day, and then a brisk fifteen the next day…hey, we’ve got miles to make! We hiked two miles into Hampton, TN to resupply, and he decided to stay for the night at a hostel owned by Bob Peoples, who is famous along the AT for his trail maintenance work and generosity to thru hikers. We agreed to meet up with him the next day further down the trail, where Bob would drop him off. The three of us were offered a ride by a nice couple at the Dollar General where we resupplied, so we gladly threw our packs into the bed of their pickup truck and hopped in after them, grateful to avoid walking the two miles back to the trail along the hot and dusty road.
The next day we hiked down to Watauga Lake, where we ate lunch by the water and once again got a great view of the mountains when we crossed over Watauga Dam. Here there was a shelter that was closed for the season due to bear activity last year. Because of the bears, hikers were not allowed to camp, picnic, or even loiter within four miles of the lake. We hightailed it through those four miles! We still have not seen any bears, although this time we did see some evidence of one right beside the trail.
 

Watauga Lake, no bears in sight!

We also saw the perhaps inaptly-named Hardcore Cascades

  
We did a couple more fifteen mile days, and finally our second-longest day yet, at seventeen miles, to get back into Damascus. We even had to climb over fences and hike right through a cow pasture! Although he had some blisters, Anthony kept up. We didn’t tell him that we only did eight-mile days during our whole first week! We also officially finished North Carolina and Tennessee this week, and finally crossed over into Virginia, where we will be for about the next 500 miles.
 

This is what a hiker looks like:

 
 

Baby cow!

  

Back in Damascus for the sunrise

Back in Damascus, we stayed at the Hikers Inn, where Travis and Anthony got to stay in a sweet vintage Airstream.
  
Usually when we do laundry at a hostel or a laundromat, we have to wear our rain gear until the laundry is done because we don’t have any other clothes to wear. When it’s hot out, it can be very uncomfortable to wear a rain jacket and rain pants with nothing underneath. However, the Hikers Inn cleverly bought thrifted scrubs for hikers to wear while they waited for laundry. We wore these outfits all day in town, and one person even asked us if we were in med school! We made the most ragtag bunch of doctors I’ve ever seen! And on that note, we’re off again to make our way further into this new state.
 

Drs. Crosby, Richmond, DeFraites, and Day, Hikers M.D.

 
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I’m feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot Springs

They told us it would be hard to leave Hot Springs, and they were right. We stayed for one night at Laughing Heart Hostel and just didn’t quite feel rested after a full day of running errands, so we decided to stay again, this time at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn. Elmer’s is an historic house dating back to the 1800s, and Elmer has furnished it with antiques and an eclectic mix of artwork, framed poetry, and an extensive library of books ranging in subjects from Buddhism to the Appalachian Trail to vegetarianism and cookbooks. Sunnybank has been hosting thru hikers since long before Elmer owned it, in fact hosting the very first thru hiker to ever complete the entire AT, Earl Shaffer, way back in 1947. The room Earl slept in was marked with a plaque, and happened to be Travis’ room while we were there, which is surely good luck.  

Sunnybank Inn

    

Smokin, one-eyed guard cat of Sunnybank


Guests could sign up for Elmer’s famous gourmet vegetarian meals, which of course, we did! He made a hearty squash and mushroom stew, a huge salad with vegetables we hadn’t even seen in weeks, let alone eaten, an enormous spinach and cheese lasagna, and lemon blueberry pie for dessert. Buffets may be tasty, but this meal was satisfying in a way four plates of biscuits and gravy never will be- it was real, homemade food with nutrients and vegetables we had been seriously lacking.

This day was also the last day of the music festival I mentioned before, so we made a trip down the railroad tracks to check out the bands and have a few beers with the hikers who were stealth camping at the festival grounds. Usually we’re in bed before dark when we’re hiking, so our 10:30 return to Elmer’s was a late night for us, and let’s just say we were not exactly feeling at 100% hiking capacity the next morning… So we decided to stay one more night at Elmer’s! His breakfast of fruit, granola, and homemade biscuits and mushroom gravy was just what we needed.
  

Shane found his dream van at the music festival!

  
Elmer has a few helpers at the inn, and two of them were guys our age who were starting a small farm on a piece of property Elmer owns out in the mountains. They offered to show us, so we hopped in the bed of their pickup and rode out to Elmer’s second piece of heaven in North Carolina. The boys lived in an off-the-grid cabin Elmer built long ago, and were working hard to clear the land and grow vegetables for the farmer’s market. It was a nice day trip that made me want to get my hands into the soil to grow something of my own again.
 

Elmer’s off-the-grid cabin

  

Their little farm

 

When we returned to town, we visited the hot springs of Hot Springs, since it was about the last thing in this town we hadn’t yet done. There was a spa that had secluded outdoor hot tubs that were fed by the natural hot water from the springs. For an hour you could sit in the tubs of warm water (supposedly with healing minerals) and look out over the river, which was a nice way to wrap up our time in Hot Springs.

When it was finally time to head out, we packed up our things, said goodbye to Elmer and Smokin, made our last walk down the main street, and up out of town. Hikers always say leaving town is so hard because your pack is heavier from resupplying food, and it’s usually uphill since towns are generally located in valleys. Hot Springs was especially bad, partly because we’d taken three days off and mostly because the next ELEVEN miles were uphill, and it was hot out for the first time. My shirt was soaked through with sweat in less than half a mile, and all I wanted to do was go back to Elmer’s!
But as usual, we got back into the swing of things pretty quickly. The next few days were the warmest we’ve had thus far, and we had a scare one morning when we had camped with little water and were counting on hitting a spring within a mile of our campsite the next morning. Though it was listed in our guidebook, all of the springs on the mountain seemed to be dried up, and it was already more than 80 degrees at 8:00 am, with the sun rising higher and us with less than a liter of water between the three of us for six miles until the next shelter. We had begun to enter panic mode when we finally found the stream, much farther down the mountain than listed in the book. We learned then to fill up whenever possible at water sources, even if it means carrying the extra weight for most of the day, just in case.
The day before we reached Erwin, TN, we hiked our longest day so far, pulling in 19 miles…so close to the coveted 20 mile day! And we sort of did it by accident. We hiked 16 miles and only wanted to go a little farther, but it turned out the next three miles were nothing but ridge line, without a single flat spot to speak of. It ended up getting dark just before we reached a gap with a campsite, and by then we had gotten out our headlamps to continue on in the dark. It was a long and tiring day, and we just wanted to set up our tents as quickly as possible in the dark and sleep, but wouldn’t you know it, a very noisy bird was perched directly above us and decided that 2:00 am was a great time to practice its mating calls… FOR FOUR HOURS STRAIGHT. We later learned that it must have been a whippoorwill, which makes me understand that Randy Travis song much better. I guess he couldn’t think of any lyrics that rhymed with ‘incessant obnoxious chirping.’ I don’t know if whippoorwills are protected in this area, but if it was up to us, it would be open season all year long.
It was a relief to make it into Erwin after a sleepless night. We took a zero day at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, where we had a cabin with a VCR and a collection of VHS tapes. We spent the afternoon watching cinematic masterpieces of Men in Black, Terminator II, and Kindergarten Cop. We also met our new friend, Wolfy, the likes of which I’m glad I haven’t seen in the backcountry yet, even though I know they keep the pesky bugs away!

 

Our new buddy, Wolfy the wolf spider

  

Uncle Johnny’s also had a guard, but I think he would’ve lost in a fight with Smokin.

 

On our zero day we rented bikes from Uncle Johnny and took the bike path into town. We rode along the river and then took a little detour down a few backroads, over some railroad tracks, through a vacant lot of bushes, and voila! We were at the KFC Buffet! It’s funny how we always seem to end up at a buffet one way or another.

How adorable are they?

   

KFC at last

 

After the buffet, we rode down Main Street in town, where nearly everything was closed because it was Sunday. We went to the Capitol Theater, which is an historic movie theater maintained as it was when it was originally built- they only had two movies playing on the small screens, but it was a neat experience. We saw the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie, and it felt strange to be back in an air conditioned theater eating candy and reclining in leather seats when yesterday we had been hoofing it  up a mountainside.
  

The Capitol Theater

  

We also stopped by the post office to shed some unnecessary weight. Shane and I mailed home winter clothes, and Travis sent back 8.5 pounds of camera equipment that he wasn’t using often enough to justify carrying the extra weight. He’s practically skipping down the trail now that his pack is so much lighter! Even the 2.5 pounds that I sent home feels like a big difference in my pack weight. Speaking of weight loss, we have lost a combined total of over 60 pounds since we summited Springer seven weeks ago, and surely gained lots of muscle in its place. We’re just zipping along now!
It was so hot the next day that we decided to wait until the afternoon to leave Uncle Johnny’s. A few short thunderstorms rolled in and passed, and it cooled down a bit, so we left, thinking the weather would be nice for the rest of the evening. We were wrong. Only a couple miles out it stormed with torrential downpours, thunder, and lightning as we made our way up to the nearest shelter five miles away. My boots squished out water with every step, and it took them three whole days to dry out. I got some nasty blisters despite stopping every few miles to take my boots and socks off to let my feet air out… But nothing compared to Travis’ feet! He has had blisters since we began, and rather than callous over, they seem to be getting worse, growing smaller blisters on top of bigger ones. He officially lost his first toenail this week. During a break when we had our shoes off one day, a German hiker who hardly speaks any English leaned over Travis, snapped a picture of his feet with his camera, and said, ‘I take photo of that.’ If you’d like to see them for yourself, scroll at your own risk… It’s pretty graphic.
 

Ah! The Horror!

  

Now you’ve seen what the German saw.


While our feet were horrendous this week, the views from Round Bald and Jane Bald made up for the pain. The wildflowers continue to bloom and fill the air with their sweet aroma, which is nearly enough to make you forget about the skin peeling off of your heels and toes with each step. The Highlands of Roan were as majestic as their name implies, with views of the surrounding mountains stretching for miles into the horizon in every direction. It felt like being on top of the world, which is how I usually feel out here, even when there aren’t any views.
 

 

The Good, The Bad, and The Great Smoky Mountains

Let’s see…where did we leave off? We left the B&B in Robbinsville and finally had a beautiful day to hike, starting with a six hundred foot climb in less than half a mile called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (think the bipedal version of Lombard Street in San Fransisco). The next day was rainy and we needed to catch the shuttle to Fontana Lodge to check for Shane’s package, which had not yet arrived. Well we were already there, and they had a restaurant, so of course we stayed for lunch. And then we overheard some other hikers discussing an upcoming storm with supposed gale force winds and golf ball-sized hail. Well we were already there, and they had cheap rates for thru hikers! We got a room in the lodge, which was fancy by our standards, and waited out the storm.

Fontana Dam behind Travis and me

 

The next day we crossed Fontana Dam and officially entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which includes a 75 mile section of the AT that requires a permit and must be completed within 8 days. There’s only one official camp site within this area, and otherwise hikers are required to stay in shelters. You are only allowed to set up your tent if the shelter is full, which it always was, with one exception. At Spence Field Shelter we arrived before the shelter was full, and slept in it with about ten other people, side by side in our sleeping bags on two levels of wooden bunks like we were kids at summer camp.

Back when the AT was less popular than it is today, I imagine most people slept in the shelters along the way. I’ve read that some hikers did not even carry tents because they could always rely on sleeping in a shelter. These days that is no longer the case. Every shelter we’ve been to has been full, with many people setting up tents where there didn’t used to be campsites. Sleeping in shelters is more convenient than tenting because you don’t have to pack up much in the mornings, and if it rains, you don’t get wet! Some shelters, especially in the smokies where it’s usually cold, even have fireplaces built in and tarps hung as a fourth wall, which is cozy. It’s a more social atmosphere than tenting, which some people enjoy. However, more people in a tight space also means more noise, which is why I prefer to sleep in my tent. During our one night in the shelter I woke up every time someone snored, rolled over, or got up in the middle of the night. Plus, shelters have a reputation for attracting mice that may chew on your gear, and we even passed one infested with five- to six-foot long black snakes writhing beneath the floor of the shelter, presumably feeding on those very mice.

Hikers seem to be divided into two camps (pun intended): those who prefer tenting and those who prefer shelters, if they can get into a site early enough to claim a place in one. Regardless of preference, hikers this year are acknowledging one thing in common: shelters and campsites are consistently filled beyond capacity. Bear bag lines are weighed down with hundreds of pounds of food, likely putting them within reach of most bears. Privies are filling too quickly to compost properly. When good tent spaces are taken, tents are put up in new, virgin areas, mashing down grasses and wildflowers to make room for more people. Even in the backcountry, there is still overcrowding. There are many volunteers who work hard to make these sites and the trail safe and comfortable places for hikers, and I’m sure they too are perplexed by this dilemma. Of course it’s great that so many people are showing an increased interest in the parks, the trail, and in appreciating nature in general, but when does the influx of visitors impede the wildness of the wilderness?

GSMNP is the most visited of all national parks, so it makes sense that there are more regulations here than for any other portion of the AT. Shelters had signs saying bears had caused injuries and death in this area, so we made sure to follow all of the guidelines designating where we could cook and eat, so as not to leave any traces or smells of food near our tent. We also saw lots of signs saying ‘keep bears wild’ because the issue with bear attacks is not that black bears are vicious human-seeking creatures by nature. Rather, humans have entered their habitats so often and left so much trash and food waste that the bears have learned that humans are a source of food. I learned a lot about the parks system and about the effects of human interference while in the smokies, which has made me really appreciate Leave No Trace practices and efforts by park employees and volunteers to keep the parks wild.
 

Warning signs in the shelters

 

We really did have a wonderful time in the Smokies. The park is actually considered a temperate rainforest and averages 55 inches of rain annually, but fortunately we did not see any! We had great weather the entire time, cold but bright and sunny, which allowed us to experience the best views of the mountains. We hiked through pine forests and grassy balds, and experienced the peak of wildflower season. At first glance it appeared as though a light dusting of snow covered the forest floor, but upon closer examination, one could see that thousands of tiny white and pink striped wild flowers, called spring beauties, were blooming in unison. There were trillium in varying shades of pink, white, and wine red, yellow buttercups, violet dwarf irises, pink lady slippers, and tiny bluets everywhere, blanketing the ground. Spring had sprung in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Spring Beauties everywhere!

 

Shortly after entering the park, we summited Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in elevation on the entire trail, at 6,655 feet. We arrived from the trail while tourists walked the paved approach from the parking lot huffing and puffing about how steep it was. If only they knew!

At Newfound Gap we were greeted with trail magic in the form of sandwiches and a ride into Gatlinburg from some very kind ladies from Noah’s Ark Widow’s Ministry. The town was much different than I recalled from my childhood. It was almost as if the boardwalk from Myrtle Beach had been plucked from the beach and nestled between the Smokies instead. It was the antithesis of the trail: swarms of tourists crowding the sidewalks, t-shirt shops, bars blaring country music, candy stores, moonshine tasting tours, putt-putt courses, and about two hundred places where you could have your photo taken while wearing old-fashioned clothes and poised with a plastic revolver in front of a saloon backdrop. It was overwhelming after having been in the woods for so long. The only trees visible from the main strip were miles off in the distance. Where were the chipmunks and the wildflowers? Didn’t people visit this area to see the scenery? The raw beauty of the mountains seemed to be lost on the tourists.

The one thing we could not find in Gatlinburg  was a grocery store to resupply. We ended up having to take the last trolley of the evening (yes, they also have trolleys) to a store miles away and walking back to our hotel after dark and carrying arm loads of food for the upcoming week of hiking. When all was said and done, we’d probably walked over ten miles throughout the day. So much for our Nero day. We were more exhausted than when we’d arrived in town, and decided to stay another night for only our second actual zero day of the entire trip.

The second day was much more relaxing than the first. We showed a breakfast buffet who was boss (is four plates of biscuits and gravy too many?) and even caved in to the tourist atmosphere and played mini golf alongside the visitors. We only got a few sideways glances at our hobo-esque baggy, permanently dirt-stained hiking clothes.
 

Shane and Travis enjoy a bit of beer in Gatlinburg. Also, Shane’s beard has a mind of its own now.

  

Time for some tourist activities!

Making time for what’s truly important: Big Buck Hunter

    

Oh did I mention the giant donuts? This was after the breakfast buffet.

Back on the trail, we prepared to amp up our mileage, traveling out of the smokies and nearly 70 miles in the next five days. We had increased our daily average to 14 miles per day, which was a big improvement from the 8 we averaged in our first couple of weeks.

On our way to Max Patch we ran into trail magic from a blues band called The Accomplices, comprised of some thru hikers from 2008. They were visiting the upcoming trail town of Hot Springs, NC for a music festival and had food and beer from their hometown of Savannah. It was a grand party, where we stayed for over an hour catching up with hikers, eating, drinking, and listening to the band play. Then on to Max Patch, which is a grassy bald with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.  It would’ve been a beautiful place to camp for the night, but we decided to push onward a few more miles so that we could make it into Hot Springs a day ahead of schedule.

And here we are! We were lucky to get a room at Laughing Heart Hostel, considering most every place was booked on account of the music festival. For those of you keeping track, we’ve now hiked 274.4 miles, which leaves only 1914.8 to go!