Day 17: Fontana Dam

Day 17. The best laid plans of mice and me often go awry. We thought we’d get up at 4am to beat the rain, pack up camp, and hike into Fontana Dam before sunrise. But when the alarm went off at 3:45, it was already raining. So … why fight it, back to sleep.

Around 8am, the rain slowed to a putter and I decided to get up. All in all, it was a great night’s sleep. Warm, quiet, and deep. I think it may be the first time I slept through the night with only one wake. It was fantastic.

We packed up camp, had a quick breakfast, and headed uphill for today’s short hike around 9am. It started raining more heavily almost immediately, but only lasted an hour. After that it was clear blue skies and temps in the 60s the rest of the day! Honestly, may have been one of our best weather days so far, after that short shower. It was gorgeous, and since it was a short mile day, we could take our time and really enjoy it.

After 5 miles, we reached the start of Fontana Dam. The first milestone in this village/resort is a road crossing and small marina to the lake. We dropped our packs and walked down to find a surprise … at the end of the marina was a small convenience store! Candy, chips, beer, sandwiches, and more. A hot dog, sleeve of pringles and can of Budweiser made for an amazing trail lunch. We ate it on the dock in the sun, and it … was … amazing. It’s the small things that really make this hike so enjoyable! When else would that be the highlight of my day?

From there, one could shuttle in to the lodge where we are staying tonight. But most of us opted to hike the final 1.7 miles to the dam and visitors center. As Nubs jokes, “it’s mostly just uphill and downhill anyways.” Which, is a great joke on the 17th day of a thruhike!

I’m very glad we did those extra 1.7 miles bough, because it a) makes tomorrow’s hike easier, and b) is an amazing sight to see. The Dam is an incredible structure and worth visiting on a beautiful day like today. Look at the panoramic pic below!

Fun Fact’s cousin, Lillian, met us at the marina and drove Huevos and Julia to the lodge, then hiked the last stretch with us. She lived close by and wanted to meet up to say hello. When we reached the Dam, she got a ride back up to her car and came back for us. We squeezed 6 people and packs into that tiny thing and had a nice ride up to the lodge. I’m very laid she joined us, as there was no cell service at the Dam and we would have been forced to hike multiple miles uphill to the lodge without her. Plus, she is totally nice and fun!

The Fontana Village Lodge is amazing. It’s a beautiful facility with a main hotel, cabins, pool, laundry, and multiple stores. Unlike the NOC, it’s actually well maintained and beautifully put together. It resembles a great ski or golf resort, and is a great stop for anyone planning to hike in the Smokies. It is a stand-alone oasis in this county (fun fact, where only they can sell beer), and has fun activities for the whole family. I bet this place is extremely popular during the summer, and I would definitely come back with the family some day.

We checked in around 3pm, and were happy to see we have a real hotel room. Shower, 2 beds, television … all the amenities of normal societal living. We split up in to two rooms this time so the girls could have their own place, and Culligan, Nubs, Ground Score and myself took the other. Huevos is currently working out which room he stays in, but his lovable personality is of course welcomed anywhere.

For the next 3 hours we showered, laid out gear (read: air dry the wet and smell), and did laundry. The laundry house was down the hill, but next to the general store with food and beer. So we stocked up on both and hung out with a dozen other hikers all trying to clean clothes in the 2 working machines. Also here are Happy Feet, Tarzan, Jack, and 6-8 other new hikers we’ve newly met. Dynasty, Sherpa, Sunshine, Trench-foot, Buckeye and others. Most of this group zero’d here today, but we are all headed out tomorrow.

There is no camp store here, but it sounds like Lillian will drive a couple of us in to town (or back to the NOC) for the cold weather gear we need. It is supposed to be nice tomorrow, so the start of the Smokies should be decent.

I picked up a resupply box here as well, so I’m good on food for 4-5 days. The whole Smokies section could take 5-10 days, depending on speed. We may stop in Gatlinburg halfway through to resupply and warm up, but it depends on the weather. For now, all looks good for a warm start and wet finish of these majestic blue ridge mountains.

Side note, I can not express how upset I am that the pool/hot tub are closed right now. This place could have been perfect if we arrived a couple weeks later! Note to any future 2019 thruhikers, wait until at least March 15th and you’ll get to fully appreciate these destinations!

  • Start Mile: 158.8
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 165.9
  • End Time: 14:30
  • Miles Hiked: 7.1
  • Miles to Go: 2025.0
  • Lodging: Fontana Dam Lodge

Day 16: Cable Gap

Day 16. Yesterday’s leisurely 7 mile hike was nice, but today doubled the distance and seemed to never stop going up. It should not have been very difficult but we all agreed it was an unexpected rough day.

A good day, though, as we are now stopped just 6 miles from tomorrow’s destination of Fontana Dam. The rain is now expected to hit sometime around 4am and now looks like thunderstorms too. Being so close to tomorrow’s stopping point means (hopefully) minimal hiking in the rain. And if I’m lucky, I can pack up camp before it starts and keep everything dry. Fingers crossed.

The first half of today’s hike was extremely strenuous. A few miles in, we hit an infamous mountain climb called Jacob’s Ladder. My guess for this name is because of two reasons: 1) it was straight up, with steps that looked more like rungs of a ladder. And 2) it was nearly impossible to reach the top, just like the old carnival game of the same name.

The climb was very slow, very steep, and very painful. Our midday stop at Brown Fork shelter was a welcomed break as it meant fresh water, and the start of the downhill stretch.

We all felt the lingering effects of Jacob’s Ladder the rest of the day. It was a significantly easier 8 mile section, walking mostly ridge lines or small hills, but we were beaten so bad by Jacob that even those raiser miles hurt more than normal.

When we finally reached Cable Gap shelter, I quickly strung up the hammock, downed a double dinner, and prepared for bed. Culligan and Ground Score lit up another fire, which was a nice calming end to the day. But I only enjoyed a few minutes before crawling into bed to rest these tired feet. Tomorrow should be an easy Nero Day (all downhill), and then back up up up to the Smokies.

I wasn’t able to get a package sent in time from home, so I’ll need to buy some warm weather gear in Fontana Dam. Fun Facts has a cousin nearby, so we are going to see if we can convince her to take us to the REI in Knoxville. If that doesn’t work, I’ll figure something out.

I feel like this is a good time to give a medical update too. The good news is my knee, arches, and achilles are all doing really well. Arill pretty tight by the end of the day’s hike, but nothing like the first few days. I need to drink more water still though. Not only can I tell the lingering effects of last week’s dehydration, but I can tell I’m very close to waking up with a bad cramp. I used to get charley horses when I was younger, and it feels like a gun shot to the leg when it wakes you up. As I toss and turn at night, I feel like I’m walking a tightrope between stretching my calves and cramping them. For now though, I think I’m in as good of shape as I could hope (knock on wood) going into this next section.

The bad news is that the Smoky Mountains will test this daily, so I need to be well prepared and well healed. A friend just finished it and confirmed all the fears I heard and wrote about yesterday. He suggested micro-spikes should be acquired too, so I’ve added it to the list of needs.

One sad side note. Rumors are starting to spread among hikers of two deaths on the trail already this year. This is never something you want to hear, but is even more scary when in the middle of it. I have not confirmed any of this, but supposedly two older gentlemen may have passed away in the past couple days. One from a heart attack, and another from freezing/hypothermia. The latter was supposedly at Plumorchard Shelter which I stayed at back on Day 8.

I’m hopeful these are just rumors and nothing more, but it is very scary to hear nonetheless. I am thankful for every day I have on this great planet and grateful I get to spend these rare ones among the wild of this trail.

  • Start Mile: 143.6
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 158.8
  • End Time: 18:20
  • Miles Hiked: 15.2
  • Miles to Go: 2032.1
  • Lodging: Cable Gap Shelter

Day 15: Sassafras Gap

Day 15. After what was a surprisingly nice night of sleep in the tiny box of a room at the NOC, we had what can only be described as a very lazy morning. The facility is still mainly closed for the year, but they have a nice outfitter (new spoon!), general store of snacks, and a restaurant that opened at 11am.

So as you can imagine, we visited all 3 and therefore did not get on trail until 12:30pm. Side note, GREAT french fries at the restaurant. We had brunch with the whole gang: Jack, Tarzan, Happy Feet, Culligan, Ground Score, The Flying Dutchman, Shirt-pants, pack-Pants, Life Aquatic, Mana Bear, Julia, Nubs, Huevos, Fun Facts, and more. Aren’t trail names great?

Today’s hike was ALL uphill. It was a short 7 miles, but steep as all hell. What happened to the North Carolina switchbacks we loved so much? About a mile in, we ran into a future trail angel, Miss Betty. Miss Betty was day-hiking the trail and told us that she hopes to retire soon and will move near the trail where she will give out trail magic every year. I hope she does, as she was such a wonderfully sweet lady and would make any future hiker’s day to meet her. After another mile, she headed back down to the NOC, but it was some great conversation for that short time. Thanks for walking with us Miss Betty!

After climbing for hours, we finally reached our destination of Sassafras Gap Shelter. Most of the same crew is here, as going further means 4 more miles of upward climb. No thanks.

I learned my lesson and won’t be sleeping in a shelter again, though this one is nice. It is a double decker loft with room for 12+. Ground Score even had enough room to set up his hammock inside without bothering others. Not a bad idea, but I prefer to give that space to others and hang my hammock in the trees.

After the usual ramen dinner, we built a fire and had a nice night chatting among the stars. Fun Facts impressed all (as usual) with her astronomy and star navigation knowledge, then we called it a night.

It’s only 2 days to Fontana Dam, but rain is expected tomorrow. If all goes well, we’ll get a late rain and only have to deal with one wet day before a dry bed.

But then the real fun starts. The current situation in the Smokey Mountains (immediately following Fontana Dam) is very bleak. Rumors have the winds at 25 mph, the snow at 18”, and temps in the minus double digits at night. That is simply not going to end well. Especially for me, since you are required to sleep in the shelters in that 90 mile stretch. I’m going to have Dr. D send some winter gear to me at Fontana tomorrow: mummy bag, quilt liner, crampons, and heavier gloves.

Hopefully the weather subsides before we arrive, but it not, we may need to wait out the cold for a day or two. Worst case scenario, we skip it for now, then come back and do it later. That isn’t ideal, but it is an option since we are thinking of driving back down to a trail festival in Damascus (the end of the Smokeys) in April anyways.

Tomorrow should be another easy day of 10ish miles, fingers crossed the rain holds off until after camp is made.

  • Start Mile: 136.7
  • Start Time: 12:30
  • End Mile: 143.6
  • End Time: 16:35
  • Miles Hiked: 6.9
  • Miles to Go: 2047.3
  • Lodging: Sassafras Gap Shelter

Day 14: Nantahala Outdoor Center

Day 14. Another week in the books! Looking back at the montage video, the common theme is definitely COLD. That and (mostly) incredible summit views, once again. As I say somewhere in this video, Georgia and North Carolina do not disappoint!

Besides today’s Week 2 Video (coming soon, need WiFi), here’s a quick recap of today and it’s difficult 16.7 mile hike to The NOC.

First of all, this was BY FAR the coldest night and day on the trail. For those with hammock quilts, do not ever attempt to sleep in a shelter in this weather. I did, against my better judgement, and spent the entire night awake. The problem with a hammock top quilt like I have, is that it does not fully zip you in like a mummy bag. That is great in warm nights but dreadful on cold ones. Every toss and turn opens up an air hole for bitter cold to sneak in. Jolting you awake. Also, my very small/flimsy Z-Lite pad, the ground is forever cold as well. It dropped to the teens last night, and I simply couldn’t do anything to stay warm and asleep.

But great news! It stayed cold all morning! Usually it warms up around 10am, but today it stayed freezing as we walked through snow and wind until at least 3pm. I had to keep my thermals on almost all day, which are my sleeping clothes, but had no other choice.

Side note, the best piece of gear I own is by far my Patagonia M1 Hoodie fleece. This sweater has a 3/4 zip so it breathes really well when you get hot, but the hoodie secures tight around your head like a balaclava when it’s cold. It’s super versatile, very warm, and fast drying. I was originally going to send it home in Damascus, but not anymore! This baby is going to Maine.

During today’s hike, we had some fantastic views today from Wesser Bald and a place called “The Jumpoff”. In addition, we ran in to some great trail magic at Tellico Gap – Brooklyn and Bisquick, thruhikers from the class of 2017, were helping out on their drive to NY and had some great goodies for hikers: coffee, beer, donuts, water, fruit, chips, and more. By this point my frozen water bottles had turned to more of a slush, so I forced out the ice and refilled with their water which was thankfully in liquid form. A beer, a banana and some fruit also hit the spot. Thank you trail angels!

The climb down to the NOC was crazy steep, rocky, and dangerous. I almost kissed the hike goodbye when a misstep caused me to roll an ankle and jettison off the narrow ledge. Thankfully a tree 3 feet down the embankment saved me … but it was almost a very bad situation. Fun Facts and Heuvos witnessed and would have been forced to carry a very broken Sharkbait down the mountains, if not for that perfectly placed tree. The next few miles were taken veeeeery slowly and eventually our destination was reached.

What to say about The NOC? It’s the sole oasis at the US 19&74 road crossing, and resembles a poorly designed theme park at Wisconsin Dells or Dollywood. It is an outdoor recreation center, with a couple restaurants, white water rafting and kayaking area, ropes course, general store, and lodging and more. The cabins, though, are way up the hill and basically just wooden boxes with shelves built in as bunk beds. Each will sleep 4, but we squeezed in 5 anyways. The shower is 100 ft below us, making for a frustrating climb once clean. It’s hardly worth the $100 price tag, but it’s also the only option. It does have a heater, however, so we are all content.

We had a nice dinner with fellow hikers, about 12 total are here. Including Culligan, who has been leapfrogging with us all week, and Ground Score … a guy who was staff at Gooder Grove Hostel when we first arrived a few days ago. Apparently that place and it’s owner were even crazier than we thought, as he had to sneak out in the middle of the night for fear Zen would steal his gear and force him to work the whole season!

Side note, finally met up with Jack and Arnon (Tarzan) here as well. I know his parents were following my blog and asking if I met up with them yet, well I finally have! Great guys hiking with a young girl named Happy Feet. Looks like we may al be headed to Sassafras Gap Shelter tonight. A brisk 7 miles straight up 3,000 ft.

Culligan made his way to our cabin later at night with beer, and we enjoyed a recap of stories from the day. Everyone is doing well, though a bit beat up from the 15 mile day, so we will have a delayed start tomorrow. Besides, the general store opens at 10am and I need a spoon!

  • Start Mile: 120.2
  • Start Time: 09:40
  • End Mile: 136.7
  • End Time: 17:40
  • Miles Hiked: 16.7
  • Miles to Go: 2054.2
  • Lodging: Nantahala Outdoor Center

Day 13: Wayah Bald

Day 13. After some deliberation, I think I’ve finally come to accept a trail name. If you recall, I was given a possible name back on day 4, but I was not sure if it fit. Spoiler alert, it didn’t.

But first, a quick break down of today’s hike. Last night was .. yes, you guessed it … COLD! I slept well, but getting up was really hard. I stayed in my quilts as long as possible but finally submitted to morning around 8am. After a quick breakfast (and much needed hot coffee), we hit the trail to summit two of North Carolina’s famous Balds. A bald is exactly what you think it is, a mountain summit with no trees on the top.

First was Silah Bald, which was nice but underwhelming. Steve (now going by Nubs) and Julia attempted to sled down the snow packed hill with their butt pads. It didn’t work but was a fun adventure. Some other friends tried that once in Glacier Park years ago too, and ended just as poorly. Though also just as funny.

Next was Wayah Bald. This was significantly more beautiful. Atop Wayah Mountain is a lookout tower and view of the mountain landscape that rivaled Blood Mountain back at Neel Gap. We took a plethora of pictures (see above), and after a long break eventually made our way to Wayah Shelter a half mile down the trail.

Side note, around lunch time we met a crew of elementary school kids on a field trip from Alabama with their teacher and principal. They were very nice and (oddly) offered us each a beer to go with our lunches. I’m still a little confused why they had a cooler of beer, but did not refuse the kind trail magic. Makes me wonder what our teachers did on field trips back in the day…

Ok, so my trail name.

Back on day 4, Fun Facts tossed out the name “Oriole” because of how all my gear is orange and black, and because I sing while hiking (constantly). It was a cute idea, and was a nice throw back to my high school mascot, but failed for a couple reasons. One, it didn’t feel right. It was so early on and not really based on much at the time, so felt a bit forced. But two, and much worse … no one had any idea what an Oriole was. Seriously. “Did you say Oreo? Ariel from the Little Mermaid? L’Oréal??” Even after explaining, “no it’s Oriole, like the bird” … people STILL didn’t know what that was. Apparently no one on the AT community has ever been to Baltimore.

So I dropped it. Then a couple days ago a more appropriate name was realized. As the Tramily is well aware of by now, I tend to get lost a lot. I walked the wrong way out of our first night’s shelter for a few hundred feet, I overshot another shelter by half a mile, and found myself accidentally on a blue blaze trail more than once. I’m preoccupied by scanning the forest for animals or the trail for loose rocks. Also, we still do a lot of singing but for a few days it was a stretch of Disney songs (the 36 that Huevos had on his phone). So combining all that with the orange/black theme, the new name given was “Nemo”. An orange and black Disney character that gets lost. It fit great. Plus the whole surname familiarity thing was nice.

One problem though, apparently there is some big wig in the AT community already called Nemo. I really didn’t care, but it was made clear to me that if I want to continue involvement with this trail community in the future, it would behoove me to rethink using that name. If I write a book, expand my blog, open a hostel, etc. I don’t like giving up the name for such a silly reason, but fine. So we went back to discuss.

Then Nubs had an idea. Nemo has a nickname in the movie as well, a name given to him by new friends on his journey to get home. Sounds a lot like a trail name, right? Right. So that settles it. My trail name will be Nemo’s trail name … Sharkbait.

Here’s the best part. I told them if that is going to be my name, then any time it is mentioned, they need to respond with “hoo ha ha!” like in the movie. All agreed, and now I have a trail name that is clever, relative, and fun. So I guess from now on, I’ll be introducing myself to new people as Sharkbait.

Hoo ha ha!

  • Start Mile: 110.0
  • Start Time: 09:40
  • End Mile: 120.2
  • End Time: 16:50
  • Miles Hiked: 10.2
  • Miles to Go: 2070.7
  • Lodging: Wayah Bald Shelter

Day 12: Moore Creek

Day 12. The good need is, whatever was ailing me is gone. I woke up feeling 100% and ready for a great day of hiking. The bad need is, we didn’t get back to the trail until 3:30pm. It was an unplanned (and undesired) Nero day of only 4.6 miles but at least I’m back in the woods where I belong.

The first delay of the day was stopping in to discuss shoes with the experts at Outdoors 76, a Franklin outfitter with trained podiatry footwear experts. These guys may be the most skilled hiking shoe salesman on the planet, but it does take a long conversation to get there. When asking about arch support, I was answered with a 2 hour lecture on what thruhiking does to muscles, ligaments and tendons. I appreciate the thorough discussion but walked out with the same recommendation they give to everyone … hike less. “If you don’t hike anything more than 6-8 miles right now, you’ll be fine.”

They are right of course, but I was looking for something a bit more specific. One of us ended up getting new shoes, and he did say the Dr. Scholl’s I bought yesterday may help, but I likely don’t need them if I heed the common advise. Again, I appreciated the suggestion, but am not looking to slow down my pace that much. I believe I can still do 12-14 miles right now before I feel anything troublesome, so I’ll only slightly modify my hiking plan for the immediate future. Again, it’s a about knowing and listening to your body, and I think mine is capable of a bit more than what he tells hundreds of inexperienced hikers every year.

My skepticism aside, it is an amazing outfitter and worth any hiker’s time to visit. Great staff, great gear selections, and great expertise. They also have an attached brewery with a really good blueberry wheat ale. Yum.

Side note, I almost bought a new spoon because if looked cool. Karma is a b*tch because I decided not to and then found mine was missing at dinner tonight. Damn! So I will be eating with a stick until I reach the NOC in a couple days.

The second delay was Zen, our uber chill hostel owner at Gooder Grove. Not to his fault, but when we finally got back around 1, he was out running errands and shuttling hikers. So we waited until he was back and ready to go out again at 3pm. I really enjoyed his hostel, but after spending nearly 48 straight hours there, I wanted out real bad.

Hostels are a bit stressful, in that you can’t really do much, everything costs money, and every minute there is another minute you feel “normal”. You know, watching tv, checking social media, snacking on junk food … as a thfuhiker, I want that at first, but then just want to get moving again. Sitting idle just doesn’t feel right and, even in a fun town like Franklin. I look at hostels as a necessity for a shower, laundry, and good night sleep. After that is done, I’m ready to get going again and be back on the trail. That may change once this hiker honeymoon stage wears off, but I don’t think I’ll take another Zero Day until Damascus if I can help it.

So today’s hike finally started at 3:30pm from Rock Gap where we left off two days ago. After a couple hours we arrived at a small campsite by a creek. It was only a few more miles to the next shelter but sunlight was running out fast. So we set up camp, cooked dinner (damn stick!!), and hopped into bed.

It’s going to be a rough week, weather wise. Temps at night will drop below 20 for the next few days, and it is supposed to rain Friday through Tuesday. The plan is to get to the NOC in two days, but pass through quickly and then get to Fontana Dam by Saturday. It is 55 miles away and will be the next warm bed. If all goes well, that will do a good job to break up the rain days. Also, we heard it is real bad in the Smokies right now. Cold, snow, wind, etc. Many hikers are waiting out that weather at Fontana Dam. I hope it warms up by the time we get there, I prefer not to have too many more delays this early in the hike. I’m not sure how the tramily feels, but I don’t have concern hiking in cold. I’ve done winter hiking/camping before and my hammock setup is warm.

  • Start Mile: 105.4
  • Start Time: 15:30
  • End Mile: 110.0
  • End Time: 17:40
  • Miles Hiked: 4.6
  • Miles to Go: 2080.9
  • Lodging: Moore Creek Campsite

Day 11: Zero Day

Day 11. I did not intend to take a Zero Day until I reached Virginia, but I’m really glad I took today off. This trail has many teachings, and I learned two big ones today while spending a day in Franklin, NC.

First, this is a really neat trail town. It reminds me a lot of Stillwater back home in Minnesota, but with majestic mountains hugging the border of it instead of a tranquil river. We walked down Main Street and window shopped all the boutique shops and restaurants for most of the morning. Since we are in the south, pretty much everything was closed today, but I imagine it’s a bustling business center for tourists hikers and locals alike during the week.

There are a couple great outfitters, but since both were closed, we did a resupply of food/gear at Walmart instead. Having worked for Target HQ in the past, going into Wally World is a bit sacrilege to me, but it was our only option today. So I swallowed my Bullseye pride for one day.

Besides food, I picked up a bottle of Heet for my alcohol stove, a trash compactor bag to line my backpack, some insoles with arch support, ibuprofen, TP, new smart water bottles and other nick-nacks. I desperately need the insoles so I hope Dr. Scholl’s doesn’t disappoint.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the other local establishment that was open today. And wouldn’t you know it, it was a brewery. Funny how that is the place open on a Sunday in the Bible Belt. The Lazy Hiker Brewery had great beer, a food truck, and incredibly nice people to schmooze with. It should definitely be a stop for every AT hiker. They even have a huge banner that thruhikers sign each year. We penned our names and enjoyed the camaraderie with other hikers over drinks. Pro tip, try the Twenty Miler … it’s now the only IPA I can say I like.

But I didn’t drink much, because of the second lesson today … don’t take a healthy immune system for granted. I’ve been hit with some sort of bug, and I feel down right sh*tty. Not sure if it’s one of the nasty ones, but I’ve been dealing with a massive headache and nausea all day. Fingers crossed it’s not Noro Virus. Julia is feeling it too, so unfortunately, it’s not dehydration like I originally thought/hoped.

I spent the rest of the evening in bed fighting the urge to be sick and catching up on TV. God bless Netflix.

If I wake up feeling the same way, I may take another day off. I don’t want to lose another day of hiking (and honestly, I’m eager to get back to it), but being anywhere but in a bed right now seems like a bad idea. As usual, I’ll assess as the day progresses, but for now … back to Jessica Jones season 2.

  • Start Mile: 105.5
  • Start Time: 00:00
  • End Mile: 105.5
  • End Time: 00:00
  • Miles Hiked: 0.0
  • Miles to Go: 2085.4
  • Lodging: Franklin / Gooder Grove Hostel

Day 10: Rock Gap / Franklin

Day 10. Rain is a reeeeally great motivator. With impending showers today and tomorrow, we woke up early to get on the trail by 8am and see how far we could go before the rain hits. My hammock setup is pretty good in the rain, but the others were not as confident, so we looked at the upcoming shelter options. There were shelters after 7.5 and 16 miles, so we decided to press for the latter, but also willing to settle for a short day if needed.

At first the rain was supposed to hit at 9am, then 1pm, then 4pm … but it never opened up and we stayed dry all day. A very light sprinkle just before lunch, but that was it. So we just kept hiking and hiking and hiking. Before long, we made it all the way to Rock Gap just shy of 20 miles away! I did not expect to record a 20 mile day so soon, but the body was feeling great, and my feet stayed the path. This is officially the longest day of hiking I’ve ever done … by far.

Getting to Rock Gap meant we could shuttle in to a Hostel in Franklin for the night. After strategizing (and realizing how beat up we all were), we decided the push was worth a reward. Tomorrow we will take a full day off, called a Zero Day, and let our bodies recover while exploring this tiny trail town. Since it is supposed to rain all day, it’s definitely a win win. We are staying dry at the Gooder Grove AT Hostel … more on that later.

The hike today was pretty easy, all things considered. Standing Indian proved to be a gentle giant, as the high elevation was balanced with a long trail of switchbacks. It was clear early in the day, so we had great line of sight to Clingman’s Dome. This is the highest peak on the AT, nestled in the forthcoming Great Smokey Mountains. It is still 100 miles away but stands like a monolith above everything else. That will be one helluva climb. You can see it in the distance in the photo below. It looks a bit like El Capitan in Yosemite or Chief Mountain in Glacier.

Side note, as I climbed up Standing Indian, I found myself praising the good people of North Carolina for knowing how to design a trail with switchbacks … something Georgia is apparently still waiting to discover.

The real beast today was Albert Mountain. After hiking 14 miles already, we rose 600 ft steadily over the next two miles. Then, we faced an insane hiking challenge to get the top. No, not hiking. Rock climbing. We climbed 400 ft through a cloud of fog on an incline so steep, I had to use all 4 appendages to scale it. The view at the top was supposed to be great but the fog rendered it nonexistent. Instead, we celebrated a different landmark … 100 miles complete! Someone laid out sticks to signify the achievement and milestone on the way back down, so we stopped for photos (above).

Our lodging tonight is the Gooder Grove AT Hostel. The proprietor is a very chill guy aptly named Zen, and the accommodations are nice. He converted his home to this hostel 3 years ago and welcomes up to 20 people per night. The main level bedrooms are converted to private rooms and the basement is a bunk house at $20 a bed. We see a couple familiar faces here, though it is mostly hikers we’ve yet to meet.

Two hikers are staying here for free, doing a “work for stay” contract with Zen while they heal from trail injuries. Work for stay is common on the AT and can alleviate some of the costs if you are willing to spend your day off running errands and cleaning up after other messy guests. I appreciate that it’s an option, but would much rather relax and recuperate. They also do our laundry as well, so after showering we are all cozied up in hostel loaner clothes (t-shirts and scrub/flannel pants).

We actually will stay here 2 nights and then hit the trail Monday morning. That will give us a full day of rest, and a chance for Fun Facts to pick up her resupply box at the post office. There are a few outfitters in town to check out also, though Steve is very eager to visit Walmart. He has this crazy idea of buying us all onesies to wear around town tomorrow … and you know what? It would not be the craziest thing I did this week. Hello Neiman!

  • Start Mile: 85.6
  • Start Time: 08:00
  • End Mile: 105.5
  • End Time: 18:05
  • Miles Hiked: 19.9
  • Miles to Go: 2085.4
  • Lodging: Franklin / Gooder Grove Hostel

Day 9: Standing Indian Mt

Day 9. It was 15 degrees last night. That is not a typo. Because of the impending cold, we decided to all huddle together in the loft of Plumorchard shelter. Our thinking was that our joint body heat and elevated loft with a wind break would keep us warm. We were wrong.

My extra sleeping pad is about 1/2 inch thick, and my 20 degree quilt did its best, but even with all my clothes on and inching a little too close to Huevos for either of our comfort … it was bitter cold. By the next morning any water bottle left out was frozen, and snow had collected on the ground along the trail. See Steve with evidence below…

As we headed back out on the AT, I found myself wondering why I decided to do this so early. Most (sane) people wait until April to begin their hike, in order to avoid harsh winter weather. I know my schedule doesn’t give me that freedom, seeing that I need to finish by August 1, but I’m certainly questioning my sanity all the same.

The good news is that it warmed up almost immediately. Hiking has a way of warming you anyways, but the sun was shining just enough to bring the temperature up to 40 degrees. I even stripped down to a t-shirt for a few miles! But quickly layered up again because today’s magic word was … UP.

Pretty much the entire day was spent hiking uphill, as we climbed from 3,000 ft up to 4,800 by day’s end. The higher elevations brought more wind and with it more cold. Layers were put on again quickly and stayed there on the rest of the day.

Hiking uphill is actually easier on the body than downhill, though only minimally. On the ups, my Achilles’ tendons take the pressure and pain, whereas it is my knees and ankles on the downs. I find myself longing for ups when going down, and then downs again when going up. Really, just anything to alleviate whichever pain is most prevalent at the time. But ups are also better because there is less risk of rolling an ankle (which I do often) or slipping. I’ve had one bad wipeout already, landing hard on my right hip, and staying upright is significantly easier going uphill … given that it is at a much slower pace.

Good news, this trail pretty much goes up and down nonstop, so I have plenty of opportunity to do both. Yay?

Today’s hike had some great moments too! We officially crossed the border into North Carolina, as signified by the cover photo. We also crossed into the Southern Nantahala Wilderness, and climbed part of the way up tomorrow’s monster Standing Indian Mountain. At 5,500 ft, this is the largest mountain on the trail before the Great Smokies. By name and height, it has be reminiscing back to climbing Stoney Indian Mountain in Glacier Park…

I had hoped to get to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (The NOC) 3 days from now, but the Tramily wants to go resupply in the town of Franklin first, so The NOC may be pushed to 4 days out. It was going to be a tough 3 days of 16+ miles each, so I don’t mind the extension. Also it is supposed to rain/snow the next 3 days. Long days in the rain suck.

Side note, speaking of long hiking days. My body is definitely capable of more miles, but my feet start to get drunk around 12 or 13. I slip more, roll more, and overall just hike clumsily. This should change in a few weeks when I develop stronger “trail legs” but for now, it’s probably a good idea to play it safe. You have to listen to your body, it is a marathon not a sprint, etc. and right now, my body says take your time. So I will. Hello Neiman!

  • Start Mile: 73.5
  • Start Time: 08:45
  • End Mile: 85.7
  • End Time: 16:15
  • Miles Hiked: 12.2
  • Miles to Go: 2105.2
  • Lodging: Standing Indian Shelter