A 196 Mile Appalachian Trail Section Hike in May: Damascus to Hot Springs, Part 2
This is part 2 of a 196 mile Appalachian Trail section hike. You can read part 1 here.
Day 5: Boots Off Hostel & Campground to some stealth campsite somewhere
Some hostels in towns along the Appalachian Trail require a ride to and from the trailhead, unless you want to walk several miles along a road in each direction. Boots Off Hostel was one of my favorite types of places to stay, where the trail was within walking distance through a neighborhood. This meant that I took a leisurely pace in the morning to have some coffee and cereal that was offered before saying bye to the hikers I met there and heading back to the trail.
I always feel a little groggy leaving a hostel or town after a resupply/laundry/shower stop, and from what I’ve heard, I’m far from the only one. Hikers like to call this the “town vortex”, and it’s often when I notice how tired I really am. Being able to start the morning at my own pace really helped the process, vs. having to be ready at a specific time for a ride out of town and back to the trail.
There wasn’t much time to settle into the hiking day after that, however. I stopped to poke my head around a cemetery right as the trail left Hampton, TN. I always think it’s fascinating to look around cemeteries and see how long some of the headstones have been there. I was also just stalling a little bit. It was already getting hot despite being mid-morning, and I was about to hike uphill for the next three miles, only to come back down the other side three miles after that.
This was the first time the trail came back with a punch, this nice little 1,500 something foot climb after the leisurely rolling slopes from the previous days since I’d started in Damascus. By the time I got to the top, an area called “Pond Flats”, I was drenched in sweat and thankful that I didn’t have any more than a couple days’ food in my pack, which meant that my fresh resupply wasn’t weighing me down too much.
There was no pond, and thank goodness. I sat down on a log in the little clearing in the trees where several tents could fit, and all of the flying insects immediately announced to all of their friends in the area that I was there and they should come say hi. I wasn’t even sitting next to any type of water.
“I guess I’ll rest on the way down,” I thought to myself.
After making it down the switchbacking trail on the other side, which was a much more pleasant experience, the trail had a reward. For about a mile, I walked on a shady, relatively flat path along a river called Laurel Fork. I wish I could have stayed there all day, and it seemed like that type of place where I’d come with some camp chairs and a cooler to hang out with friends or a book on a sunny afternoon.
I really could have set up there along the river after hiking six miles so far, but there was one downfall. It looked like an area of trail where there would be a lot of local day-hikers, and there wasn’t really any place to dig a decent hole to use the restroom without having to somehow make way through thick trees and brush, or do it within plain view.
I moved along from thoughts of calling it done, and decided I’d stop to get some water at Laurel Fork Shelter that was coming up soon. Although I had ample opportunities to refill my bottles from Laurel Fork, it’s generally cleaner to fill up from a smaller water source that runs into the bigger source, so if a smaller source is easily available, that’s what I try to drink from.
Except that this was not a great decision, and I wouldn’t call the water source at Laurel Fork Shelter “easily available”. If you’re thinking about hiking this section, be warned. Just get your water from the river.
The side trail up to the shelter was 100 yards steeply uphill, and halfway up I heavily felt the heat of the day and already knew it wasn’t worth it, but I wasn’t going to walk halfway up just to go back down. I dropped my pack at the shelter and headed down another side-trail to the water, which was so unmaintained that I’d call it a borderline dangerous risk of hikers slipping down the slope it was on, had it been raining. It brought me to a beautiful, peaceful waterfall, which I would have really enjoyed had my purpose not been to drink from it.
I tried to distort my body in such a position that I could get my bottle to fill without having to step onto the smooth rocks that the water was gently cascading over, to little avail. I tried placing my foot carefully, but the mossy smooth rock sheet was as slippery as ice and I did a half split before retreating back to the side and realizing it wasn’t worth the risk. I settled for holding my bottle up under a tiny, slowly dripping area that I could reach, which gave me plenty of time to contemplate how I passed up so many easy opportunities to get water and was also lacking in the holding-up-water bottle strength department. But I was there, so gosh darnit I was going to leave with full water bottles.
I feared I might get caught in a cycle where I had to drink all of the water to recover from the energy I just expended to go get it, which would cause me to have to go back and get more, and be stuck at that hot, sticky shelter area walking back and forth to the water source for eternity. Fortunately, a group of day hikers strolled up to the shelter and distracted me with a chat about their interest in the trail.
Back down to the AT, and river, I went, and then understood why the side trail to the shelter was part of the “high water bypass”. The Appalachian Trail crawled right along a rock wall next to the river, and if the river flooded even just a little bit, there would be no trail. I was barely halfway into my day and felt like my day was so full of mini-adventures.
I finally passed the pinnacle of Laurel Fork, which was Laurel Fork Falls, a massive cascading waterfall. I admired it from a distance, as I didn’t need any side-ventures after the unnecessary one I had just taken.
Then up I went. This would have been a great day to be hiking in the other direction, but there are always two sides to the trail. The experience at Laurel Fork Falls would probably be a lot different if I ever hike it again going north, and hence, the downhill version of this little area. Over the course of the trail though, the ups and downs even out no matter which direction you choose to take it.
A couple miles later, the water bottle-filling side quest behind me and out of my memory, I decided it was time for another. I decided to follow a turnoff from the trail two tenths of a mile down a small dirt road to Kincora Hiking Hostel, the home of Bob Peoples. I didn’t get to meet Bob, but I heard he’s a legend, a long-time trail maintainer who is now in his 90’s. Although I didn’t see him anywhere, it was still worth the walk to sit on the porch and eat some peanut butter while petting one of the cats that was hanging around. It was just so hot out that any chance for a break was worth it from this point forward, well, as long as it didn’t involve any extra uphill climbs.
Upon walking back down the dirt road to the trail, I’d continue the next uphill miles as far as I could and then begin looking for a camp spot. The guide mentioned that there might be one in a few miles, so I made this a tentative goal. By the time I reached it, I didn’t even question going any further. My body had to stop for the day.
Wow, what a peaceful little tent spot. But with that peace came emptiness. My tent was set up, small fire crackling, couscous cold soaking for dinner, and the sun visible through the trees as it began to set. All the sudden, I felt this little, unexplainable selfish pang, something along the lines of wondering what the point was if I couldn’t share this with anyone. So I took a little video to do just that. It was a feeling that I didn’t expect. But that’s what camping alone does. There is no hiding from whatever thoughts and feelings come up.
I settled into my tent when it got dark and began my nightly journal entry, but this already eventful day had a little bit more in store for me.
I’m not generally completely calm and relaxed when I camp alone. Even if I mostly feel at peace, there can be this little anxious edge that lingers there, a subconscious awareness that I am by myself and despite having the hills around me to deter anyone from a casual decision to somehow reach the exact spot I’m in, there are no walls around me. But I can always say to myself, “How many times have you done this where something has actually happened, such as a bear coming up to your tent or something? None.”
So I was writing about seeing Laurel Falls that day when a huge crashing sound made my pen freeze. It was like someone tossed a giant boulder from the top of a hill and it cascaded through the leaves of the woods until being stopped by a thick tree. Something just sprinted a short distance, and it was big, and fast.
I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening.”
It could have been a deer, or any number of things, but my mind immediately thought “bear”. What else would sound that big crashing through the woods?
Then, silence, before it happened one more time.
I grabbed my phone with trembling hands and hit play on my spotify playlist, hoping to begin alerting any animal of my presence and deter it from coming any closer.
All the sudden, I saw the bouncing motions of a headlamp light hitting my tent.
“Hello?” I said.
Thank you, thank you, another hiker. I couldn’t see him, but I talked to him through my tent. I told him I was so glad that it was just him because the big crashing sound scared the crap out of me.
“Oh, it wasn’t me!” he said. “I rounded a corner and something big ran off.”
His friendly voice was comforting, and I half-jokingly and half-serious said that I was thinking about packing up because I didn’t know how I’d sleep after that. He said he had actually been looking for a camp spot himself and asked if he could camp at this area too, on the other little flat tent spot.
“Of course!” I said, my ego trying to hide my enthusiasm. But I knew he was unsettled by the sounds too.
Here comes the strange part. I heard a few minutes of rustling accompanied by the sounds of clinking tent stakes and a person settling in. Then, nothing. Truly nothing. I never heard anyone breath, snore, toss and turn, eat anything. Just… nothing. A little too quiet.
I figured he was a tired thru-hiker and very quiet sleeper, and conscious of any tosses and turns I made that broke the silence of the night, I eventually fell asleep.
In the morning, I unzipped my tent thinking I’d meet this hiker. But again… nothing. No one.
“Did I imagine that whole thing?” I thought to myself.
It’s common for me to sleep through the sounds of other hikers packing up and heading out early. But it was still pretty early when I woke up, and it just didn’t look like anyone had been there. I couldn’t even figure out where he had camped, because the direction I heard the sounds coming from where he set up was rather grown-in, and not the other flat tent spot.
I’ll never know who he was. I don’t think I actually imagined it. But part of me still lets it feel that way. It’s like I had a little angel, never seen, but was there to comfort me to a sound sleep. What a day and night that was.
You can read part 3 here!
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