My Appalachian Trail adventures continue as the snow returns whilst I trudge from Hot Springs along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee.
Before we begin, here’s the video of my first two weeks on the trail!
I survived my first night alone in the woods. No bears ate me and no trees fell on me. The forecasted rain never seemed to materialize so I had a warm descent into Hot Springs, NC. It was really neat to see the town so supportive of AT hikers. AT symbols were implanted in the sidewalk every so often.
Hot Springs is a small town that seems to survive off AT hikers passing through. I got a room at the Laughing Heart Lodge. It was $25 for a bunk or $35 for my own room. I splurged because I earned it! At the hostel I was informed that the town’s fiber optic line got cut accidentally so all the internet in town was down as well as cell service, credit card machines, and ATMs. So much for my productive afternoon sitting on my phone all day.
I unpacked and set off into town. I was told the Dollar General had satellite service so it was the only place in town that offered get cash-back. I bought a box of Cheez-Its to obtain $40, the maximum amount the store would let me withdraw. They were going to run out of cash with everyone trying to get cash back due to the lack of working credit card terminals. Next I hit up the Smoky Mountain Diner where I heard they serve giant burgers to hikers.
And I heard correctly; the diner serves 8oz, 16oz, and 20oz burgers. I opted for the 16; I think a pound of beef is enough for lunch. I still had dinner ahead, after all. The burger did not disappoint and the homemade chips and ranch were even better.
Like any sensible millennial, I had planned to spend the entire afternoon on my phone, but without internet I decided to explore the town. The welcome center explained the history of Warm Springs and how they discovered a hot spring in 1800 and thus change the name of the town.
When it started to sprinkle I headed back to the diner for an early dinner of chicken Parmesan, garlic bread, salad, and banana bread pudding. It was too early to be eating dinner after my one-pound burger. I should have spaced my meals out a bit more. I couldn’t finish everything and hobbled back to the hostel with a painfully full stomach.
Day’s Mileage: 12.4
Total Miles Hiked: 283.3
Remaining Miles: 1,916.4
I hustled out of the hostel as it began to snow. I passed the diner and was tempted to stop for some pancakes. I decided to skip it; I’d rather eat miles for breakfast!
It was a flat, pleasant walk through the quaint town and along the French Broad River. The French Broad River is thought to be one of the oldest rivers in the world and probably predated the Appalachian Mountains, being lifted up as the mountains formed.
Across the river it was up to Lover’s Leap, a high rock outcropping with a great view of the town. Onward and upwards I climbed as the blizzard began. Thanks to another Nor’easter dumping snow on me, it was like climbing Mount Everest with gusting winds of up to 50mph; I almost lost the trail in the snow. The trees rattled against each other making me wonder if I might become victim to the storm.
I stopped at a shelter halfway through the day and ran into Tom, Willow, and Nomad. They were hoping Gazelle would catch up with them today and rejoin their tramily as they call it (trail family). I also met John, Nightmare, Jenky, and Diablo. Everyone was planning on staying at the next shelter, though the guidebook said it was small. With the prospect of tenting in the snow, I headed for a hostel just five miles away.
I trudged on and ate a semi-frozen granola bar. To my frustration, I chipped a tooth. Oh well, less weight to carry, I suppose. I bet you can’t even see the chip.
When I reached the hostel, I found Tom, Willow, and Nomad had decided to follow my plan as well. It was warm and dry inside…and they sold pizza! I met some other cool hikers and more importantly, dogs.
Day’s Mileage: 16.3
Total Miles Hiked: 299.6
Remaining Miles: 1,900.1
It sounded like the entire hostel was planning to hike to the same shelter 17 miles away. I got an early start with Nomad, Willow, and Transformer (formerly Tom; he finally earned a trail name). I shot ahead of them and never looked back. There was another shelter ten miles after my planned shelter and I thought I could make it to the next if I pushed.
It would seem the snow had other plans. Though it had stopped snowing, huge drifts over a foot deep lay across the trail. No one had hiked since the snowfall so I was breaking trail. It was tough work but I had a lot of energy from the previous night’s pizza.
I trudged through the deep snow like a locomotive, never stopping, always pushing harder. Maybe my trail name should be Snow Blazer or Iron Horse. After four miles I arrived at the first shelter. Jenky, Diablo, John, and Nightmare were there and hadn’t left yet. It was already 9am and they still hadn’t hit the trail?! I barely paused and continued breaking trail for miles.
A fork in the trail presented a choice: an easy path for bad weather or up on the ridge for the normal AT. I took the latter; it wasn’t snowing or windy today. In hind sight, I think all this snow was what they mean by bad weather. Without anyone having broken trail in the snow, the ridge was quite difficult. The snow covered the rocks so I couldn’t see where there were steps or hidden drops. It was steep and slippery. I was hiking the border of Tennessee and North Carolina; too bad the view was foggy.
Eventually I reached another shelter where tracks showed about four people ahead of me. Finally someone else had cleared the trail with their footsteps! No more exhausting trail breaking! The trail took me across some beautiful meadows as the sun came out. I also hiked Big Butt Mountain. Yes, you read that correctly!
For some reason the last two miles are always the longest. After 17.3 miles I arrived at Flint Mountain Shelter. It was 3pm and I had ten miles to go to the next shelter if I really wanted to push it. Though the sun was melting the snow, I was tired from the earlier trail breaking. Ten more miles would mean I wouldn’t arrive until 8pm at the next shelter which is after sundown. I would not be guaranteed space in the shelter and I didn’t want to tent in the snow. Thus, I stayed put and ate lunch, dried my socks and boots, and relaxed.
Nomad, Willow, and Transformer showed up followed by Nightmare, John, Diablo, Jenky, and Footloose. Later, we were all surprised to see Gazelle arrive! She finally caught up with her tramily. We all squeezed into the shelter with a few tenting and hammocking in the snow. 28 degrees was the forecasted low. Seems warm compared to the Smokies!
Unfortunately everyone was planning to hike to the same shelter tomorrow. The shelters are spaced far apart in this section so not too many options. I planned to trek ahead of everyone else if I got up early enough. I don’t like jostling for shelter space or tenting in inclement weather.
Day’s Mileage: 17.3
Total Miles Hiked: 316.9
Remaining Miles: 1,882.8
What a day. I woke up around first light. Others were stirring in the shelter so I hopped to it and got ready. I was the first one out the door (the shelters don’t have doors) and hit the ground running. Once this train leaves the station there’s no stopping it.
It was a nice, easy day for the first half. Any snowdrifts had already been trudged through so there was no trail breaking today. I sang a lot of songs to myself; my trail name should be Jukebox, I thought. Several section hikers passed me but I was the lone north-bounder (NOBO). No one from my shelter caught up to me.
I crossed under I-26 just south of the Tennessee border. A trail angel had left some jugs of water and food for hikers but the only thing left was a can of baked beans. I grabbed it; I heard canned goods are left frequently but most hikers don’t have can-openers! I had purposefully packed a tiny can-opener for just such an occasion and was excited to use it later.
Now this is where my day started getting rough. The last four miles were all uphill, over 2,000 feet up. My feet were suspiciously soaked in my waterproof boots. The forecast said rain but instead it had been sunny and I was realizing the snow had been reflecting damaging UV rays onto my skin all day. To top it off, the slushy snow was heavy and tedious to hike through, not to mention slippery. Several slips had brought about a resurgence in knee pain I hadn’t experienced since Day 3.
The trail was arduous and wound all over the place as I ascended Big Bald, elevation 5,516 feet. Finally I summited the bald. I quickly took in the view as day hikers walked their dogs (you can drive to the top). They had no idea how I labored to reach the same summit they traipsed across. It was extremely windy and cold at the high elevation so I rushed to get down. The shelter was a mile away.
The snowdrifts on the way down were big and it was hard to see the trail. I noticed footprints heading off across a meadow but it looked like a shortcut. I checked my app and the GPS said the trail switch-backed. I followed the map on my phone and found myself breaking trail in waist deep snow. After rolling around and attempting to swim through the snowdrifts, I reunited with the shortcut. If only someone could have caught me on film, rolling around in that snow.
By this point, with less than a mile to go, I was feeling lightheaded…dehydration. I was out of water with a general air of malaise. I calmed myself and sucked it up. At the shelter I filtered some water from some trickle of a stream and took a pill for my knee pain. If only I could dry my socks. I stuffed my face with food but it was so cold at this high elevation. I was just as high as I was in the Smokies. There was a hostel 5.5 miles farther that could pick me up but I figured I wouldn’t make it to the road until 8:30pm. With my knee pain, wet socks, and fatigue, I decided not to risk it, despite the rain and snow in the forecast for the next day.
Eventually the hikers from my shelter this morning trickled in. We all had had a long, rough day. In fact, I was told that Nomad, a 50-year old hiker who started the same day as me, had dropped out and went to a hostel to regain his strength. I also asked everyone if they took the shortcut down Big Bald and they all answered affirmatively. I scolded them and joked that I’m the only one who will have actually completed the entire trail; they all skipped a section! With a full house of ten, we all retired to bed, hoping that the morrow wouldn’t be as wet and cold as predicted.
Day’s Mileage: 18.9
Total Miles Hiked: 335.8
Remaining Miles: 1,863.9
Daily Average: 14.0
On a side note, it’s interesting to see how many solo hikers group up into these “tramilies” of four or more. They plan their days together and when they’ll stop in town for resupply. At first I felt I was missing out, but as I hike I’ve realized I enjoy my freedom and autonomy. I don’t like being tied down by others’ plans or waiting or feeling rushed by someone. So far I like the solo life and I’m able to tag along with others when it suits me. It may surprise those that know me but I’m more introverted than extroverted.
It’s also interesting to note that Transformer mentioned to me his desire to break away from his tramily. On the AT a popular mantra is “hike your own hike” and you can’t do that if you’re being held back by others.
Lastly, Gazelle told me if I don’t get a trail name soon, she wants to call me Fancy Pants on account of my American flag pajama bottoms I brought as camp pants (many of you may have seen me wear these over the years). I was going to let my trail name come naturally rather than pick one for myself; people do either.
Gazelle called Michael ‘Big Bowl’ because he had this ridiculously huge collapsible bowl to cook with (which also caused our Jet Boil stove to catch on fire). He never embraced the name by introducing himself as such to other hikers. I can’t decide if I should choose my own name or see if something better than Fancy Pants comes along.
I felt like a locomotive plowing through the snow, breaking trail. Nothing could stop me as I trudged up and down the mountains. Dolly Parton’s song “Blue Smoke” playing in my head as I chugged along.