A Much Needed Break …
I haven’t covered many miles since my last update but since I am at home and I can actually write this on a computer, I thought I would provide a quick update.
So after getting in to Gatlinburg – Ope, Hiker 109 and I had a nice layover where we ate well, resupplied, did our laundry and, most importantly, took advantage of the hot showers. The next morning we were ready to get back on the trail and, believe it or not, the road was open! That was the good news, the bad news was that we could not find a shuttle ride back to Newfound Gap. Just when I thought we might have to start trying to hitch a ride, the trail provided. A friendly through hiker from the class of 2022 pulled in to the NOC outfitter and offered to shuttle us the 18 miles back to the trail – for free. Note: I have had the pleasure of encountering many people thus far on my hike. Without a doubt, past thru hikers are the most encouraging and helpful people around.
Finishing the Smokies
After being dropped off at Newfound Gap, we had a little over 30 miles to cover to finish the Smoky Mountains. Ope knew it would not be that challenging to cover the distance in 2 days and push to Standing Bear Hostel which is a few miles past the GSMNP boundary. I thought it would be good to take 2.5 days and then instead of stopping at Standing Bear, push to cover half of the climb on the other side of I-40. Regardless of which option we took, we knew we would be spending at least one more night together at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. It was an uneventful night, with the exception of spending 1 or 2 hours trying to get a fire going in the shelter. Kudos to Hiker 109 – his perseverance eventually paid off, however, I think we all fell asleep before the fire really got going. The next morning we had either a 19 mile hike to reach Standing Bear Hostel, or a 16 mile hike to reach Davenport Shelter. I knew where Ope and Hiker 109 would be, I just didn’t know if I could survive another long day.
As it turned out, the Smoky mountains seemed to want to spit me out and I was happy to oblige. I went past the Shelter at 2:00 in the afternoon. While tired and sore, I knew I could press on to Standing Bear and rejoin my friends. Upon crossing I-40, I had officially put the Smoky Mountain National Park behind me. I was fine with that. Upon reaching Standing Bear, I was warmly greeted by Ope. I opted to sleep in the tree house (see pic). I highly recommend choosing the upper level if it’s available.
The Push to Max Patch
I left Standing Bear first as I didn’t want to wait for breakfast (which ultimately never materialized). Ope and Hiker 109, on the other hand, are always looking for food. Leaving Standing Bear brought back a flood of memories from the time my good friend Matt, “Downhill”, and I sectioned hiked this part of the AT. It was an eerily similar morning – overcast with bouts of wind and drizzle. So, I began my climb. As I powered up the hill, I replayed my past conversations with Downhill from 6 years prior in my mind as we made the climb then. “When is this hill going to end?”, “Did you put something in my pack?”, “I’m sure we will have a spectacular view when we get to the top”. I couldn’t stop reminiscing. I was filled with equal parts of sadness and excitement to reach Max Pax (arguably one of the best views the souther AT has to offer). Sadness, because the Max Patch section was one of the last days I spent on trail with Downhill prior to his passing (see the cover photo). It is also the site where we spread his ashes. Excitement because I was eager to spend some time with my friend and take in the glorious views.
There’s essentially 3 climbs that you have to make to get to Max Patch after leaving Standing Bear. As I was making my descent after the second climb I passed a sign in the woods that said “Trail Magic Ahead“. Those words are very empowering. I picked up my pace and started looking for the magic. My first sensory indication that I would soon be comforted was the smell of a fire. Next, I could see a car parked on a forest road in the distance. As I emerged into the gap, I was greeted by a gregarious section hiker, “Apple”, and some much needed food (remember – no breakfast, the trail provides). Apple calls Cincinnati home, but he made the trip to reward the early thru hikers with Coke, Hot Dogs, Chips and cookies. Thank You Apple! After taking a 20-30 minute break, I was ready to make the final climb to Max Patch.
Literally, as I summited Max Patch a billowing white cloud moving with remarkable speed enveloped me, reducing my visibility to 20 feet (another view missed because of the weather). I made my way over to where we had said goodbye to Downhill a little over 4 years ago and had a good chat with my dear friend.
While time may heal all wounds, the hole in my heart has never been filled. I am carrying some of Downhill’s ashes on my journey to Katahdin. Strangely enough, I have found at times on my journey, it has been Downhill that has carried me.
Public Service Announcement – If you have a friend or loved one that is struggling with depression, please ask them if they are ok or if they are thinking of hurting themselves. Let them know that they are loved. You might just save their life.
Hot Springs or Bust!
After leaving the Patch – it was a mere two miles to the shelter. The winds were high, it was certainly going to rain and the emotions of the day prepared me for sleep. The next morning I awoke with the single focus of covering the remaining distance to Hot Springs. It would be a long day of hiking but we only had two climbs of note before us. Ope, Hiker 109 and I set off early and kept a brisk pace. Ope always has a brisk pace, but 109 and I did our best to keep up. As it turned out, the weather did get ugly. I can now add hiking in Tornado Warnings to the resume. High winds caused trees to fall in the woods along the trail, one coming pretty close to Hiker 109. The sky grew darker and the winds continued to pick up. There was no question we would get to Hot Springs now, only how wet we would be when we got there. As is usually the case, you can see your destination from the trail long before you get there. The meandering path into Hot Springs seemed to go on forever. I arrived at Laughing Heart Hostel 15 minutes behind Hiker 109 and a good hour plus behind Ope. The important thing, however, is that I arrived about 10 minutes before the sky opened up and dumped buckets of rain!
The Much Needed Double Zero
The previous week has been pretty punishing on my body, especially my knees and feet. I had planned on reaching Hot Springs on the weekend and taking a zero at home. The fact that I made it a day early meant I could take my zero and hit the trail ahead of schedule. NOT! I fully committed to taking the extra day for much needed additional rest and recovery. A side bonus was that when I got home I was able to spend an evening with some of my friends and share a beer or two and some stories from the trail. I am so blessed to have a community of people supporting and taking an interest in my journey. I look forward to the next time we are together.
As I load my pack and prepare to get back on the trail I feel refreshed and the stiffness in the knees has abated. I don’t know how long this adventure will continue but I am excited to see what comes next. Thanks again to all those who are taking this journey with me.
Never Been Closer
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.
Great progress Bill. Wonderful that you have hooked up with fellows who can keep your spirits up and help with meeting daily objectives.
The weather will improve as it is already getting warmer here. Keep your feet dry!! Enjoy!
Your dream is one I also shared at some point. You are living your dream and I am with you every step. I love reading your updates and hope that they will keep coming.
Hi Bill. You are making good time, finding the beauty of the trail and suffering the physical/mental challenge. I have been following you from the start, lots of fine scenery. I am a section hiker in Virginia, the flat state, please note that it is not.
Best of trail luck to you Bill
Glad you are playing nice with the other kids! Sounds like you are experiencing some of the finer sides of humanity!
What Do You Think?