Day 31: Erwin, TN

Woke up early today to quickly bang out 6 miles before 10am and meet the shuttle Chickapea reserved. Last night was cold, so I didn’t sleep too well, but I was on the trail by 7:30 and feet were walking. Timing was perfect however, as we got to Spivey Gap at 9:56 and the shuttle showed up 2 minutes later. Not bad for a Nero Day.

We checked in to a Super 8 motel and immediately exploded out packs. Gear was simply everywhere: hanging from curtain rods, draped over lamps, spread across chairs … anything to air and dry our stuff out. Then after throwing in a load of laundry, I showered to finish the job of attempting to look and smell somewhat presentable in public.

Side note, the Super 8 has great WiFi, so I was finally able to download the rest of my missing music (yes!) and upload last week’s Recap Video to YouTube (see above).

After getting adequately clean, I strolled into town. Like Hot Springs, the town was basically one main road, though there is also an offshoot section of fast food by the highway and a Walmart a bit further out of town. As any hiker would do, the first stop was to load up on hot food. I never had Bojangles before, so tried that chain out for lunch. Better than KFC, but still just eh.

Then I walked the town and shops. Or more appropriately, I tried to. On this Saturday afternoon, every store in town was either closed for the day, boarded up for good, or just an empty room. I walked into the only “open” store I could find, a Comic Book and Collectibles store. What I was greeted with was basically a scene from the Walking Dead – racks turned over, random leftover items sporadically collecting dust, trash and who knows what littering the rest of the place. Why it was unlocked is beyond me … but I backed away slowly in case any zombies were waiting to jump out.

The one shining oasis in the town, though, was the movie theater. For one, it wasn’t closed. But more importantly, it was actually very nice! A small 2 screen cinema that is only open on weekends and looks old school from the street, but easily compares to any big city theater on the inside. I caught the matinee of Ready Player One (in 3D), having the whole theater to myself, then stayed for a while afterwards to chat with the proprietors. Really nice people that put a lot of money into remodeling it recently and excited for big releases coming this summer. They explained that most people were likely at the local Easter egg hunt today, which is why the town was empty, but that I should return another weekend in the future to see it more bustling. I thanked them for the offer but apologetically explained this would be the only weekend in town. I also have my doubts it would ever “bustle” here.

We made arrangements for a ride back to Spivey Gap tomorrow, where I will get to hike with Fun Facts, Nubs and Culligan again. I gave them the heads up and promised I’d bring trail magic (breakfast) if they could meet at 10:30. They plan to camp close to that gap tonight, so agreed it should work out. I’m looking forward to meeting up again, though not sure I will stay at Uncle Johnny’s Hostel (the common stop for access to Erwin) that I imagine they will. If I go a few miles further, I can stay at a shelter and they could catch me again that next day at a common end point. We’ll just have to discuss such plans over McCafe Lattes in the morning.

Hello Sharkbait (Neiman)!

  • Start to Mile: 327.0
  • Start Time: 07:30
  • End Mile: 332.7
  • End Time: 10:00
  • Miles Hiked: 5.6
  • Miles to Go: 1858.2
  • Lodging: Super 8 in Erwin, TN

Day 30: Bald Mountain

Day 30. After 3 days of beautiful weather, today was absolutely brutal. I mentioned yesterday that it started raining late last night, and it hasn’t stopped yet. It converted to snow and hail at times, but never relented the whole day. And you know what else that means … mud. Lots and lots of gooey gloppy trail mud.

Needless to say, today was slow. I still finished my day’s plan, but only because there was nowhere else to camp for the last 4 miles during the climb up, across, and partially down Bald Mountain. I eventually rolled into Bald Mountain Shelter around 6:45pm and all I wanted was a hot dinner and a warm sleeping bag. Within 30 minutes I did both.

There would have been some beautiful views today at High Rock, Bald Mountain, and other small peaks in-between … but the fog covered anything out there. I did my best to capture the scene, but the photo above doesn’t nearly do it justice.

I hiked alone today and passed the time by listening to an ebook that Fun Facts recommended to Nubs, Culligan and me last week. It’s a fantasy story called “The Name of the Wind”, and although it is very long, I’m really enjoying it. I got through about 20% of it before the weather required me to switch to more motivational music in order to keep my feet moving. I’ll probably finish within the week. So far, I highly recommend it.

Side note, not sure if my mind was playing tricks with me, but the weirdest thing happened around 3pm. Right after crossing the highway at Sam’s Gap, I entered a gated section of the trail signifying the entrance to Cherokee National Forest. As soon as I closed the gate behind me, a tiny dog ran up barking it’s head off. Then it just as quickly disappeared up the trail. I walked up to where it disappeared (maybe 15ft away) and looked everywhere but saw no sign of the dog, it’s owner, or it’s annoying bark. I kept walking, looking, and listening, but … nothing. It must have been a ghost dog, protecting the forest border from vagrants. I’m convinced.

When I finally arrived at the shelter, Chickapea was already there and he had a brilliant plan to share. He really wants to get to Erwin (16 miles away) in time to watch a Final Four game, so booked a shuttle to pick him up 6 miles from here at 10am tomorrow. He’ll spend the day/night in Erwin, then get shuttled back in the morning to hike the 12 miles he skipped. Since a full 16 mile day would get me in around 6pm, I jumped on that idea too. This way I can get cleaned up and try to get to a possible Seder dinner after-all. I’m feeling good about this plan, so tomorrow will be a short and easy hike.

And as a bonus, this way I’ll meet back up with Fun Facts, Nubs, and Culligan on their way into Erwin.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start to Mile: 308.1
  • Start Time: 08:30
  • End Mile: 327.0
  • End Time: 18:45
  • Miles Hiked: 18.9
  • Miles to Go: 1863.9
  • Lodging: Bald Mountain Shelter

Day 29: Flint Mountain

Day 29. I thought I’d catch up to Leap Frog today, given she was a half day ahead of me and I did a 15 miler yesterday followed by today’s 19, but no dice. When I finally stopped at the Flint Mountain Shelter, I noticed she scribed in the registry book that she only stopped here for lunch today. Our original Tramily is all over the place now, but I am pretty confident we’ll all see each other in Erwin.

Chickapea and I hiked together again today, and probably will the next couple as well. It wasn’t a terribly difficult 19 miles, and had some amazing views on this warm and clear day. We stopped for lunch at Whiterock Cliff and let the wind cool us down in the sun while we dangled our feet over the 50 ft cliff ledge. It was scenic, it was breathtaking, and it was perfect. Especially since it ended a tough 6 mile leg straight up to that lookout in 60 degree heat.

After that, we were met with a brutal 1 mile stretch of rock climbing that took nearly a full hour to complete. From Whiterock Cliff to Big Firescald Bald, there is an incredible ridge line walk with consistent 360 views of 100 miles in every direction. The problem, however, is that the trail is very narrow and all boulders. The whole ridge was about 3 feet wide, before the drop-off on each side, requiring lots of very cautious footwork to keep from sliding of the 45 degree angled rock slabs that someone decided could be called a trail. With the combined danger and beauty involved, that 1 mile stretch was both the most difficult and most scenic mile I’ve hiked thus far. Probably not possible to day hike too, but worth a weekend excursion to experience it.

That section ends right before Jerry’s Cabin shelter, a very well put together campsite. The shelter was big and clean, and even had a fireplace. Outside the shelter is a large fire pit with logs surrounding it for 4 sides of seating. The best part though, was no wind. It was pretty windy today, but down in that little cove was barely a gust. It is supposedly where Fun Facts, Nubs, and Culligan stopped tonight, so I hope they enjoy it. Culligan is big in to the evening fires, so I’m sure they made use of that pit.

After that, the next 12 miles were pretty easy going, but long lasting. Not too much up and down, except for a climb up the silliest named summit I’ve seen … Big Butt Mountain. And before you try to come up with a sensical reason Forest it has that name, don’t. It’s named that because at the top are two giant stone slabs that look like a giant rocky rear end. Not sure how someone got away with naming it as such, but you have to respect them for it anyway. I know my young nephews would love this one, so of course I took many photos. See pic above.

Side note, speaking of children, I listened to 3 episodes of Minnesota’s morning sports radio show podcast today. For those familiar, I download the “KFAN PowerTrip Morning Show” every day. Both before and during this hike. I am often found laughing out loud on the trail from their silly nonsensical ramblings, which confuses other hikers. But I love it, as it gives me 2.5 hours of humorous entertainment while sort of providing current news-like updates. Great fun and passes the time well.

I finished today’s hike around 7pm, and immediately took up space in the shelter to sleep, being too tired to put up the hammock for the night. To be honest though, this shelter didn’t have the best hanging trees anyway – too small and far apart. Instead, I used what little daylight remained to make dinner and take a trail bath using a cup of soapy water and a bandana. It’s not perfect, but it gets the sweat and grime off pretty well.

Side note, this week’s dinner is pretty amazing. My homemade “Fancy Mac and Cheese” consists of dehydrated pasta, freeze dried chicken, freeze dried peas, freeze dried cheddar cheese, and cheese powder. Cooked in a bag for 10 minutes, then sprinkled with olive oil and breadcrumbs on top. It is a gourmet trail treat, if I dare say so myself!

I crossed paths with mainly new hikers throughout the day, and they are all at this shelter tonight. Besides Chickapea, there is: The German (German man in his early 30s who speaks broken English), Dente (man is his 20s who Fun Facts and I ate dinner with in Hot Springs), Apollo and Shurk (a man and woman hiking 20+ miles daily), and a SoBo flip flipper with her dog (didn’t get her name). All are nice, and the adorable yellow lab has me missing my own dog, Pippa, back home. They even have the same cute yip-inducing dreams.

Only 35 miles to Erwin, but I’ll try to do 18-20 tomorrow to get in to town as early on Saturday as possible …

Just as I finish typing this, it started raining. Now I’m very glad I stayed in the shelter. It doesn’t sound too rough but it’s nice not to have to worry about wet gear tonight, or drying it midday tomorrow. Off to bed now with the gentle pitter patter of rain to lull me to sleep…

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start to Mile: 289.3
  • Start Time: 09:10
  • End Mile: 308.1
  • End Time: 19:05
  • Miles Hiked: 18.8
  • Miles to Go: 1882.8
  • Lodging: Flint Mountain Shelter

Day 28: Allen Gap

Day 28. Not sure if I’ve written about this yet, so apologies if it’s a repeat, but it is significantly more difficult hiking out from a town. There are the mental reasons, of course, like the comfort of a warm bed, the connection to the real world, good food, flowing drinks, etc. But the physical reasons are much worse. Such as the fact your pack weighs 10-15 pounds more because you have a full 4-5 days of food and water. Or because it is always a significant uphill climb to get back in the mountains.

Carrying a 20 pound pack for 15 miles downhill into town is a breeze. The motivation of a warm bed (or Hot Tub) is fueling your adrenaline, and you are carrying close to no food or water for the last few miles. Easy.

Coming out though, deferent story. Your motivation is lacking since you left the comforts of life behind. And your pack now weighs 30-35 pounds. And you have to climb 2,500 feet before you get any semblance of flat or downhill. It could be very easy to call it quits within the first mile and turn around. It’s not a bad day by any means, just a difficult one. After all, as the slogan goes, “the worst day on the trail is better than the best day in the office” … (sorry work friends).

Today was no different. We were all very sluggish for the first 3 miles. Very. My normal hiking speed is about 2.5 miles per hour, but it took a good 2 hours just to get up those first 3 miles … and there was still 5 more to go before we reached the top of the up, at Rich Mountain summit.

Fun Facts, Nubs, and Culligan started out in front of me as I ran last minute errands in town, but I caught up after about a mile and then slowly slipped ahead. They had a big 2nd dinner late last night that I skipped to work on my blog, so I’m guessing the steak dinner they enjoyed felt like a rock in the stomach this morning.

I got a text a couple hours later saying they were going to stealth camp at Rich Mountain and catch up tomorrow. Originally we had discussed going to Spring Mountain Shelter (10.9 miles) or Allen Gap (14.4 miles), depending on time. I arrived at the Shelter around 4pm and still felt good, so continued on to the gap. It was mostly downhill at that point (finally) anyways.

Allen Gap is just a road crossing, but there are definitive campsites about 200 feet inward. It’s flat, has a fire pit, and a water source. The road is loud when a car passes every 5-10 minutes, but nothing earplugs can’t solve.

After passing the others early in the day, I got in stride with Chickapea, a hiker I walked with in the Smokies for a day or two. The pic above is at the Rich Mountain Fire Tower … which was closed and lacked the whole bottom flight of stairs … but could be scaled if you climbed up the outer struts instead. A note below said “Good view at top, only for the brave.” I was not that brave, Chickapea was.

Side note, Chickapea got his name because he thought that is how you spell/pronounce the word back in Georgia. Chick-a-pea. He had never seen the ingredient before when reading the nutrition facts in hummus. I wasn’t there but he tells the story like it was a hoot.

He and I had a good pace going today and chatted a bit about his life growing up in southern Illinois. I am always intrigued by people’s backstories out here, and enjoy learning about the people I’m on this adventure with, and Chickapea was happy to share.

Chickapea grew up in a very rural part of Illinois, was a nationally ranked bowler in high school, and now owns a small bit of property in his home town where he does auto body and painting work out of. He loves fishing, hunting, wild mushroom collecting, gigging and more. What’s gigging you ask? Well, I asked too, and apparently it is the art of spear-hunting frogs. Using a 12 foot pole with prongs in the end, you walk the edge of lakes and ponds at night, stabbing and collecting your feast. He cooks them up and eats them, body head and all. It sounds odd to a city boy like me, but his passion and skill for it was still something to admire.

Last year, Chickapea’s brother passed away, and he honored him by raising money and hiking across America. From Virginia Beach to San Diego, he Forest Gunp’ed it in 7 months, pushing a cart of supplies. He worked with local police departments to find legal accommodations for his tent at night, and declined any free handouts or money (to avoid the perception of just being a homeless wanderer). The trip inspired him to look at other long-distance trips and felt the AT was a good next challenge.

It was a good day of walking and talking, so we agreed to keep hiking together for at least another day or two. I’d like to meet up with the others again also, but don’t want to necessarily slow down. I’m sure they’ll catch me by Erwin, since we all plan to spend a night there. Until then though, it’s good to have some walking company still.

Tomorrow is a much easier elevation day, so I am hoping to get to Flint Mountain Shelter 19 miles away. It sounds like Fun Facts, Culligan and Nubs are shooting for Jerry’s Cabin Shelter about 5 miles short of that. If the legs aren’t up for a long day, that’s a good backup plan. As usual, I’ll let the day unwind and feet decide.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

Side note, there was no WiFi strong enough in town to upload my week 4 video, so that will have to unfortunately wait a few days. Sorry YouTube subscribers…

  • Start Mile: 274.9
  • Start Time: 11:15
  • End Mile: 289.3
  • End Time: 5:25
  • Miles Hiked: 14.4
  • Miles to Go: 1901.6
  • Lodging: Unofficial Campsite at Allen Gap

Day 27: Hot Springs Zero Day

Day 27. Camping by the river was nice, though very rocky and windy. I felt bad for the others in tents as I swayed blissfully off to sleep in my hammock. In the morning, I woke around 8am ready to see what else the town of Hot Springs has to offer. Spoiler alert, it did not disappoint.

The one issue in town, though, is the lack of cell service. Not too surprising, given the entire town id just 4 blocks long on one main road. The restaurants and other typical hiker options didn’t offer WiFi, and the hostels only give it out to guests. I raised this dilemma with Cinco (Ian) who was camped next to me and packing up to hike out of town. He suggested we go hang out at the Hiker’s Ridge Ministries, a small building near the tavern that is setup specifically for hikers to come relax, enjoy snacks/coffee, and use free WiFi. It was exactly what I needed to get yesterday’s blog posted, call family, and attempt to download the rest of my missing music/podcasts.

The Ministry was amazing, and does not appear to have any true religious purpose, except to help hikers on their journey to Maine. I jokingly told them I am also a Minister, ordained by the Universal Life Church of Modesto California … which got a laugh. It’s a real thing, and allowed me to officiate 2 close friends’ weddings, but is a complete joke. Google it.

The people at the Ministry allowed me to use the WiFi while chatting with them to learn about the town. They also were happy to watch my pack the rest of the day, and gave out a plethora of fresh baked cookies. Any future thru-hiked should stop in to say hello, they were the kindest people! Actually, this whole town is full of kind people. Really a great place to visit.

Around 11, I collected everyone’s dirty clothes and headed back uphill to the Laughing Heart Hostel to do laundry. They allow non-guests to do it for $5, which is a great deal … especially since the laundromat in town had no working dryers. When I walked in, guess who was sitting in the kitchen? It was Leap Frog (Julia)! We hadn’t seen her since before Gatlinburg, so it was great to reconnect again. After asking begging the staff to do our laundry for us (admitting, we were supposed to do it ourselves), Leap Frog and I headed back in to town to locate the others.

We found them at the outfitter, Bluff Mountain, which is a GREAT store. Tons of high quality gear and the staff are very knowledgeable. They helped Fun Facts, Nubs, and Culligan get sized for new shoes, and aided me in some small odds and ends. The hip belt on my pack is getting too small as I lose weight (can’t tighten it much more), so they found an old hip belt from another bag and gave it to me to create some extra cushion. Not sure if it will work but it was free and a good idea to try out. I’ll try lashing the foam pieces to my pack’s hip belt and see if it works. I could just keep using the patented “Neiman Wrap” of my fleece sweatshirt, but would like another option if possible. For those unaware, the Neiman Wrap is a way to secure a sweatshirt around your waist without tying a knot – perfect for some hip belt cushion. It’s a Tom Neiman original design. 🙂

Side note, I almost bought a spoon today, but was sent a surprise. Fun Facts’ parents have been following our journey and knew of my spoon woes his far. They sent two sporks for me in her resupply box! One orange and one black, of course. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Fun Facts! I will try very hard not to break/lose this one.

After we were all squared away, all 5 of us headed to the hot tubs. What can I say … It. Was. Magical. Three hours of soaking in natural mineral spas of hot springs was heavenly beyond explanation. We ate lunch in there, we drank wine in there, we ran down and jumped in the river, then back in to the spa … we slowly boiled ourselves into what Culligan lovingly called “hiker stew” … and loved every minute of it. It may sound gross, but it was divine.

After 3 hours we bid farewell to Leap Frog, who was hiking out that afternoon, and checked in to our cabin. The spa resort cabins are along the river and nothing too special. Fir $60 you get a heater and 3 beds that sleep up to 5 people … and nothing else. Showers and bathrooms are nearby, but it’s pretty much a place to sleep and that’s it. Some other hikers in town upgraded to the cabins that have full kitchens and bathrooms, but that was over $100 more. We opted for the option that lets us spend more money on food and drink.

After a quick dinner as beverages at a pop-up Taco Restaurant (in the place of Dory’s BBQ that the Guidebook mentions but has since already closed), we did a last resupply run at Dollar General. I picked up my resupply box yesterday so only needed a few additional items to supplement. The others were still hungry so grabbed a second dinner, but I opted to return to the cabin and organize my food/gear.

Tomorrow we hike out (up), but unsure how far. The shelters are either 11 or 21 miles away, so we’ll likely look for a usable campsite somewhere in the middle. Assuming the shins stay good, it sounds like a doable plan. The next town of Erwin is 65 miles away, which we think we’ll get to in 4 days. I didn’t get a chance to look into synagogues or Seder-hosting family options today, so not thinking that will work out, but that’s ok. I’ll find a way to have my own mini celebration on the trail. Stranger things have happened.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 274.9
  • Start Time: 00:00
  • End Mile: 274.9
  • End Time: 00:00
  • Miles Hiked: 0.0
  • Miles to Go: 1916.0
  • Lodging: Hot Springs Resort and Spa

Day 26: Hot Springs

Day 26. Well, I lied. I didn’t mean to hike this far but damnit if that KT Tape isn’t miraculous. I did a double round of stretches this morning and then Fun Facts worked her expertise on the tape … and wow. It may be a false sense of security, but I hiked 17+ miles today to Hot Springs and all felt great. It’s 9pm now and I barely feel any pain, simply amazing. Buy stock in whatever company makes this tape (3M?), it’s going to change the world!

It was a cold night, so it was a late morning. When I finally packed up and left at 10:15, Nubs and Culligan we’re still in bed. Because of the fear of rain, I slept in the shelter again, but it ended up being a dry night. Damn you mountain weather! I slept well enough, but I’m eager for the comfort of my hammock again. Fortunately, we are stealth camping tonight by the river in Hot Springs, so I’m in for a great night’s sleep. I just miss my hammock, what can I say.

I took it slow this morning, to keep any unnecessary pressure off the shins, so it wasn’t long before the guys and Fun Facts caught up. Around noon at Walnut Mountain they caught me and we agreed on the plan … get to Hot Springs if possible and stealth camp tonight in town, then Zero tomorrow. That will give us a full day to do laundry, resupply, enjoy the mineral spa hot tubs, and revitalize the body.

I hiked mostly alone today, so I banged out a podcast I’ve been meaning to listen to. For anyone else waiting to check out “Dirty John”, my recommendation is to skip it. The 8 episode series could be done in 2 but they dragged it out with overly telling foreshadowing and too many unnecessary filler episodes. Great if you have 4 hours of hiking to kill, but bad if you have anything else going on in your life. It’s no Serial…

At 14 miles, we arrived at the final shelter before town and were greeted by 3 section hikers working out their day’s plan. It turns out their leader is a young lady named Puddin’ who hiked the AT in 2015 and the PCT this past year. She now is a trail guide taking others on short hikes in the area. She was very knowledgeable and fun to chat with during our brief rest. Interestingly, she did both hikes southbound, going against the norm, because she likes the solitude. We chatted for a bit before moving on, comparing itineraries, gear and adventures, then headed down the final 3 miles to Hot Springs. Interesting tidbit, she said the PCT was significantly easier than the AT. Maybe someday I’ll consider that adventure too … ?

Hot Springs is the first town that the AT actually cuts straight through. The trail literally goes down Main Street, with AT emblems engraved into the sidewalk (see photo). It’s a small town but very hiker-friendly. I picked up the resupply box Dr. D sent last week to the Laughing Heart Hostel, then quickly made my way to the 1 tavern in town for dinner.

Side note, Leap Frog is here! We finally caught up with her, but it sounds like she is headed out tomorrow. Oh well, good to see she made it through there the snowy Smokies unscathed.

At the tavern (1 of only 2 places in town that sells alcohol), we met up with all the other hikers that arrived in town today town (not shocked to see this be our communal hangout spot): Zoltan, Trenchfoot, Caveman, Babyface, Chickapea, and us four enjoyed dinner together. We hiked with these guys for the first couple days in the Smokies so it was a fun mini reunion over drinks. The hiker hunger must be starting, after a full day of food I downed 12 wings, a burger and fries, and my fair share of beer.

After dinner, the group made its collective way to the “stealth” campsite we are all staying at. Not very stealth with a dozen tents/hammocks set up, but apparently it’s a common campsite and completely legal in this town. As we starting setting up, we heard a familiar voice. Culligan’s original hiking partner Ian (now “Cinco”) was here too! I hiked with Ian at the beginning as well for a few days on and off, so it was a nice to catch up. We last saw him coming in to Franklin as we were leaving, but he’s been busy. He hiked straight through the winter storm also so is a day ahead of us and heading out in the morning with some new friends.

We were all exhausted by this time (waaaaay past my hiker bedtime of 8pm), so all retreated to bed. Tomorrow will be a heavenly day off and then the hike goes on.

Side note, Passover starts Friday and I’m thinking it would be nice to find a family to possibly celebrate with. I am going to the town Library tomorrow and may look up if there is any synagogue near Erwin, which should be roughly where I am by Saturday. It’s a long shot, but if there is, they may know families in the area willing to host a wandering nomad for Seder dinner. If anyone reading this knows any welcoming Jewish families in the vicinity, feel free to send them my way!

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 256.6
  • Start Time: 10:15
  • End Mile: 274.9
  • End Time: 18:15
  • Miles Hiked: 18.3
  • Miles to Go: 1916.0
  • Lodging: Stealth Camp on French Broad River in Hot Springs, NC

Day 25: Roaring Fork

Day 25. A friend asked yesterday how I was holding up mentally, since it appears I am doing well physically. As it relates to the former, I’m doing great. A couple cruddy days in snow/cold, but nothing I wasn’t expecting (though did hope to avoid). I listen to music or podcasts, chat with fellow hikers, and take in the beauty of these mountains … while desperately trying not to trip over myself.

The physical challenge, however, has been a daily struggle lately. I’ve been fortunate in the toes/blisters front, but it seems every day I am dealing with a different lower body ailment: arches, calves, ankles, hamstrings, and today … shins.

After the 18 miler yesterday, I woke up in pain. Actually, to be more accurate, I woke up over and over throughout the night in pain. From the top of my foot to halfway up my shin was just shooting pain. When I finally woke this morning, I hobbled over to the main house at Standing Bear to access the WiFi and lookup symptoms. It sounds like this could be early signs of shin splints, so I’m going to be very careful for the next few weeks. That injury would be no joke.

Side note, I heard sad news about Ground Score yesterday, who we hiked the first half of the Smokies with. Apparently he had a bad fall a couple days ago from the snow and dislocated his hip. We are all sending positive vibes and healing thoughts your way Score! That is a serious injury and has me evaluating every step I take very carefully today. My own ailments are worrisome but not yet hike-ending like for Score the next few weeks. I have no doubt he’ll be back eventually, hopefully this year (but not too soon).

As for me, I promised I would evaluate my legs every couple miles, but still wanted to shoot for Roaring Fork Shelter 15 miles away. In retrospect, I should not have come this far, but I felt fine until about mile 11 before anything noticeable started hurting. I could have set up the hammock anywhere, as stealth camping is legal in Tennessee, but knew it was only 2 more miles uphill. That would get me to Max Patch, a beautiful clear summit and highlight of this section of the AT.

So I suffered and moved on. I learned a bunch of new stretches to help with the shins, and practiced them all day, so it wasn’t too bad when we finally stopped. Now I’m resting comfortably in the shelter, hopped up on ibuprofen, and ready for tomorrow. Fun Facts is proving her pre-med qualities as well, learning how to tape up the shin for best support tomorrow. Thanks Fun Facts!

Side note, we had some really neat views today, including a giant radar tower that looked like a spaceship. We ate lunch there before moving on. Another neat view was on the ground … mile 250! Someone set up sticks again to recognize the accomplishment, so we honored it with some photos.

Another side note, folks talk often about “false summits” on this trail. Where you think you are at the top, only to find there is more up to be done. I think it’s a matter of expectation management though. If the guide says 3 miles to the top, you won’t get there in 30 minutes. If you see more trees above the possible summit, it isn’t one. Keeping your expectations in check helps to ensure you keep the spirits up.

It’s 17 more miles to Hot Springs, but I will NOT do it all in one day. The new plan is to go 12-15 tomorrow, camp, and Nero into Hot Springs for a full day of hot tub recovery.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 241.4
  • Start Time: 10:00
  • End Mile: 256.6
  • End Time: 18:15
  • Miles Hiked: 15.2
  • Miles to Go: 1934.3
  • Lodging: Roaring Fork Shelter

Day 24: Standing Bear Farm

Day 24. And with that, I’m done. The first-they-were-beautiful-then-they-were-deadly-then-they-were-beautiful-again Smoky Mountains are officially behind me. After yesterday’s rough day, we all agreed that we had to make the 18 mile hike to Standing Bear Farm Hostel today, or die trying. No matter what.

Well, I’m happy to report that the long march did not kill anyone and we are safe and warm at the most peculiar hostel to date. How to describe this place? The hostel consists of a few dilapidated buildings that are organized into a tiny hiker haven: bunkhouse, kitchen, washroom, general store, shower, and privy. Each looks like it was built in the 1940s, decorated with the leave-behinds from thousands of hikers since, but never really updated. It likely violates every fire, housing, and food safety code known to man … but is surprisingly comforting. Also, they have the cutest dogs and cats running around – including 2 French Bulldogs that are beyond adorable to play catch with.

From the shack general store You can resupply any food, clothing, or knick-knack item you need, though you are probably better off not. Most “gear” is generic, used or ancient. The food looks like a 1950s bomb-shelter pantry (and likely is from that era as well). You can get some fresh or frozen items to cook in the kitchen for dinner/breakfast, but be sure to check the expiration dates. Seriously, I haven’t seen some of these packaging designs in years.

But the bunkhouse is warm and cozy. Clothes lines are strung up everywhere to dry wet gear, reminding me of a summer camp cabin from, again, the 1950s. It has a large oil drum wood stove that keeps the inhabitants of its 14 beds warm in the 15×20 foot building. Each bed has a mattress and pillow, but you are better off tossing them on the ground and using your own. Sitting on mine, I felt nothing but the wooden plank beneath me. But for $20 a night, one can’t complain too much … especially while hearing the rain currently hit the thin roof.

Today’s hike was a tale of two walks. The first 8 miles were pretty rough. Remember yesterday’s post? Well, add hail, sleet and slush. Within 10 minutes, every thing was soaking wet and freezing. My boots were a swimming pool of ice water, and every step was through more of the same … truly the worst walking environment to date.

We again saw no one but the 11 of us from last night’s shelter, and whenever we leapfrogged one another, we’d swap curse words and loud woeful cries. I know many others are close behind us, but since we were the first ones up after the road at Newfound Gap opened, we were unlikely to see anyone new no matter how fast we hiked.

After lunch at Crosby Knob Shelter, it finally cleared up. Both the skies and the trail, as we were now low enough in elevation for the snow to have melted. At 5,500 feet, the trail was snow and ice … but at 2,500 feet it is a slick mud pit instead. Leveraging my poles and some good trail hopscotch, I kept myself mostly clean from.

We quickly came to a nice rock outcropping where we took some fun photos before continuing on our way. There was a short side trail to a lookout tower on Mt. Cammerer as well, but with the still clouded skies, any view was nonexistent so we skipped it and moved on down the trail. These 8 miles to Davenport Gap went by very quickly.

At the Gap we were treated to a great surprise … trail magic! Two trail angels by the names of David and Janet were hosting hikers all day with hot eats and treats. I had the most amazing cup 2 cups of chicken noodle soup ever made, accompanied by chips, bananas, fruit snacks, soda and more. After that cold 2-day stretch, it was heaven on earth.

We thanked our angels (see above) and headed out to finish the last 3 miles to the hostel. This stretch of the trail followed a beautiful spring with mini waterfalls, then crossed a busy highway with some road walking. People got very creative with the painted blazes for this section which was fun to navigate with: stop signs, guard rails, bridge struts, etc. easy to stay in track but goofy for sure.

Before long, we were within reach of our destination. It started raining just as the hostel came into view, so you better believe I ran the last couple hundred yards to dry safety. After dinner of hot dogs and frozen pizza, I hung my clothes, put my boots under the stove, and readied for bed. But not before a guitar was found and a mini song-session was had. It had been a while since I got to play, so I enjoyed being able to strum snd sing some tunes. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain again, and our options are either 7 or 15 miles. I’d like to get to Hot Springs (30 miles away) in 2 days, so 15 it is. The hike does has a couple big mountains to scale, but what else is new?

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 223.0
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 241.4
  • End Time: 18:15
  • Miles Hiked: 18.4
  • Miles to Go: 1949.5
  • Lodging: Standing Bear Farm

Day 23: Tri-Corner Knob

Day 23. Last night was damn cold, today was damn cold and damn wet. The water pipe at Icewater Spring Shelter was doing it’s best impression of its name and froze over, as did my water bottles last night, so there was very little water consumption today. We hit a trickling stream about 6 miles later and finally got a bottle filled and downed, but it was too cold to wait and do it again, I know that is dangerous, but I had to keep moving.

We hiked a total of 12.6 miles in the snow as fast as possible and then all ate double dinners at the shelter, which we reached in 6 hours. Given how hard it is to hike speedy and safely in the snow, I’d say that was darn good time.

After a couple hours, the rest of last night’s shelter-mates arrived, but no one else. I think most hikers behind us are waiting it out in Gatlinburg. Smart people.

I really enjoyed the first half of the Smokies, but doing this back half in these conditions is just not that fun. It’s a beautiful hike during the day, sure, but mornings and nights are just miserable. The second you stop walking, you begin to freeze. With temps in the teens at best, it’s a very hard to do anything at camp besides eat (fast) and crawl in bed. I had done some winter camping in the past, but it’s a bit rougher up here at 6,000 feet.

With at least 15 hours until tomorrow’s wake and hike, I strongly considered going another 8 miles to Cosby Knob Shelter. But now there is rain on the horizon too, and the fatigue of hiking uphill in snow is wearing on me. I felt some strain in my left hamstring late in the day, and I do not want to press my luck with it. No need to push on now, better to just get warm.

So tomorrow’s hike will be 18 miles if possible to close out the Smokies. We will drop 2000 feet in the first 14 miles to the last Shelter, but at the point I’ll probably just go the last few miles (and another 1000 feet down) to the end. In the snow, going downhill is much faster and easier than normal, due to the soft landing for your feet. If all goes well, I’ll update again from Standing Bear Farm.

One last note, we had a great side trail to Charlie’s Bunyan, a beautiful boulder outcropping with incredible views to the north. We took a bunch of photos, while trying not to fall off the cliff to an icy death. It would be a great day hike to do from Newfound Gap again in the future, I’ll add it to the list of reasons to come back this way with the family in the summer.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 210.4
  • Start Time: 09:10
  • End Mile: 223.0
  • End Time: 15:15
  • Miles Hiked: 12.6
  • Miles to Go: 1967.9
  • Lodging: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter

Day 22: Icewater Spring

Day 22. Well, it certainly heated up fast in the valley. After two days of the snowy frigid conditions in Gatlinburg, today it was 45 degrees and felt like summer in the city. The road up to the mountains opened around noon, so we collected our stuff and shuttled back up to Newfound Gap and to the Appalachian Trail.

Talking to our shuttle driver (Sherpa Matt, who is helping his girlfriend Sparkles to slack-pack), they supposedly got 12” of snow at the pass over the past 48 hours. Spoiler alert, it was more.

Before going up, we still had a half-day to kill, so I asked Sherpa Matt for a ride to the nearest Verizon store. I’ve had issues with my old iPhone and needed to replace it with a more reliable model. Not sure if rain on the trail caused it or something else, but it was having trouble taking a charge. There was a store about 15 miles away and he was happy to oblige for a small fee. A few minutes later I was upgraded to an iPhone 8 and ready to roll.

Side note, with the bigger phone now, I’m sending my Kindle home. Although it’s nice to read on the e-paper screen, it is now a pound of unnecessary luxury weight I need to rid myself of. Doing so also helps me offset the weight of my new Thermarest pad. Space is tight in the backpack, and it already got a crack in the screen from tight packing anyways. Long story short for future thruhikers … get a bigger phone, leave any other screen device behind.

On the way back to Gatlinburg, I was able to fully witness the expansive theme park cities of Tennessee. Pigeon Forge is a massive highway of amusement parks, kiddie adventures, and family activities. On the drive I saw gigantic sized replicas of an upside down plantation house, the Titanic, Empire State Building (with hanging King King), and more. Each one was a museum, fun house, or adventure activity to be seen. You could spend a year (and a year’s salary) visiting them all and still only scratch the surface. And yes, we got a sneak peak at Dollywood too.

After all was done, we finally got shuttled back up to Newfound Gap. We arrived around 3:30pm and hiked the minimum distance (3 miles) to the first shelter. Everyone we were hiking with before has since moved on, but there are a few familiar faces with us … mainly those who shacked up in Gatlinburg next to us. So me, Nubs, Fun Facts, Culligan, Chickapea, Espresso, Chapstick, Packout, and Clover are doing our best to stay warm.

Why is that, you say? Didn’t you just say it felt like summer in the city? Yeah, it was, BELOW the mountains. Up here back at 5000+ feet it is a winter wonderland. The 3 mile hike was slow and monotonous, as every step was atop snow atop ice atop frozen ground. The temperature up here is 20 degrees colder, and the snow along the trail is anywhere from 6 to 24 inches deep. Some of it is packed down by other hikers, but not enough to keep it out of your boots. Especially if you were dumb like me and forgot to put on your gaiters. A stupid rookie mistake that I was too cold to remedy.

At the shelter, we did our best to get a fire started and stay warm. Nubs and Culligan disappeared for a while and came back with a 30 foot fallen tree that they then proceeded to hack and splinter into manageably sized pieces to burn. With the help of some fire starter logs, they and Espresso were able to get a fire lit … but keeping it going proved near impossible. With all the wood being water logged and frozen, it required constant care. I have to hand I to those guys though, they made it work as best they could. And even cooked up some s’mores … which Nubs has never had before.

It is 6:30 now and I’m wrapped tight in my quilts above my new (and very loved) sleeping pad. I don’t plan to move again for at least 12 hours, when we will enter the frozen tundra once again. It’s going to be slow moving, but we will get to the next town of Hot Springs eventually.

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 207.3
  • Start Time: 15:15
  • End Mile: 210.4
  • End Time: 16:50
  • Miles Hiked: 3.1
  • Miles to Go: 1980.5
  • Lodging: Icewater Spring Shelter