A 196 Mile Appalachian Trail Section Hike in May: Damascus to Hot Springs, Part 5
This is part 5 of a 196 mile Appalachian Trail Section Hike. Need to catch up? Click on:
Day 10: Some tentsite a mile past Clyde Smith Shelter to Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel
The way I acted waking up in my tent that morning, you’d think I was a teenager who was working on every excuse imaginable not to get up for school. My eyes drifted open sometime around 6:00 a.m. It was still on and off rainy, and everything felt damp. Same as it had been throughout the night. And the previous day. And the previous night. And the previous afternoon before that. And it was supposed to continue later that day, potentially with some thunderstorms.
I stared at my tent walls for a while. Then I did some drifting in and out of sleep before emerging from my tent to get my food bag. Being camped alone, there were no other hikers for me to compare to and make me internally reprimand myself for being unable to figure out how to be a morning person, so I got right back into my sleeping bag and stared at the guide for a good while. I was keenly aware that there was a hostel a mile away, but I was trying to pretend it wasn’t there, even though I knew that if I passed it up, I might not have an opportunity to feel dry for a few more days.
I tend to beat myself up for stopping in a town or hostel earlier than planned for any reason other than a resupply stop, because my goal is to stay “on” the trail as much as possible. I still had at least two days’ worth of food with me, I didn’t need to stop. But I wanted to, so bad. The “everything is damp and will never ever dry” feeling was getting to me. I had passed the 100-mile mark of my section hike the day before, so I was a little over halfway through. I hadn’t planned on taking any zero days during this hike.
Well, technically speaking, this wouldn’t be a zero day, right? I was still going to pack up camp and do a mile of hiking. Then a mental justification hit that made the decision to try to stay at the hostel that night all ok. I could stop there, but then skip the next planned town stop in Erwin and go on for a couple more days. Perfect! I wouldn’t actually be making an extra hostel stop, just switching which day I was choosing to do it.
So with that, after several hours of being awake and having done nothing, I felt motivation to start packing up.
This paragraphs-long interaction within my own mind, while seemingly boring and a bit ridiculous over a small decision, is a reality of multi-day hiking. It’s not always drinking coffee around a morning campfire staring off into the distance and listening to the birds chirp. It’s a lot of planning and decision-making during downtime, with thoughts like “There are several different plans I could follow today, how will each option affect the next several days?”
Having made the decision to try to stop at Greasy Creek Friendly, I realized there was potential I could have done myself a mental disservice as I began the one-mile hike for the day. I was so excited to rest a little and be dry. But I didn’t have cell service, and I didn’t know if I would have it at all between my campsite and the turnoff to the side-trail to the hostel.
Based on some of the comments in the guide, I wasn’t going to just go wandering down the side-trail to find my way there and show up at the back door without reaching anyone first. If they weren’t home or they didn’t have any availability, the rest of the day would feel that much harder after mentally committing to a break day.
My spirits were crushed for a second as I could barely muster a bar once I reached the turnoff and my call wouldn’t go through, but then someone called me back. I think Connie, the owner, figured I was a hiker trying to call and spared me, rather than just ignoring an unknown number that must have somehow reached her. They had space that night, and I was just in time, because they were going to be closing the hostel the next day for a few days while they went to trail days!
I followed her directions from what I had understood through that crackly phone call, taking a little trail down to a creek, and then staying on another trail along the creek until I reached the back of her house, downhill the whole way.
Her boyfriend, trail name “Gadget”, greeted me along with a dog who he said I could call “Road Block”. After tripping over Road Block more than once throughout my stay, I understood where the nickname came from.
It would turn out that there would only be two of us hikers staying that night, once “Jon Without An H” showed up. Since I was there earlier in the day than he was, I had the coveted experience that any hiker hopes for at a hostel. I got to shower right away while no one was waiting in line for it, had first dibs on laundry, and was able to take over all of the clotheslines on the front porch overlooking the wooded-in yard to dry out every wet piece of hiking gear (which I kept apologizing for until Gadget jokingly reminded me that this is a hiker hostel).
It just felt so much more like someone was taking me into their home, rather than a hostel. And that’s because this was their home. Their bedroom and bathroom were in one corner of the house. The second bedroom had three twin beds in it, the hiker room. The kitchen, family room, and bathroom where they lived their lives served as the common area for whoever was staying that day. This was a stark difference from my stay a few nights ago at Mountain Harbour B&B, and I loved it. Places like Greasy Creek Friendly are what make the Appalachian Trail what it is.
I finally met Connie when she got home from grocery shopping, and she took me to the Dollar General so that I could supplement my resupply to last me a few extra days so I wouldn’t have to stop in the next town. This was definitely quaint, small-town Appalachia, and I was able to take it in as we drove down the country road and talked about the book “Devil in the White City”, which she was reading and I had recently finished.
When northbound thru-hiker Jon Without An H arrived, Connie cooked us mouthwatering hamburgers for no extra charge. We transitioned our hangout from the kitchen table to the front porch as the rain started up again. It turned out to be a much more peaceful downpour than the menacing clouds earlier in the evening had chalked it up to be, yet I was still so thankful to be there.
John Without An H suggested we all pause our conversation and take a minute of silence, and hearing the pouring rain break up the darkness of the front yard from the comforts of a covered porch with a beer in my hand was, while the best thing ever in itself, a blissful experience compared to having been riding the rain out in the dampness of my tent for another night in a row.
That night was the first and only time I slept in a bed during this section hike, and the depth of that sleep rivaled that of the ocean floor.
Day 11: Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel to tentsite on top of Unaka Mountain
Jon Without an H’s alarm woke me up promptly around 6:30 a.m., as I had been warned, and this time I had to hold back my teenager-like “I don’t want to go to school today” wakeup routine. It was easy, though. When I walked into the kitchen, Connie was making us fancy fruit cups, complete with cute glass parfait bowls. I have the best picture of her smiling, standing in her kitchen wearing her comfy robe as she put the finishing touches of whipped cream on top, but I feel like I’d be breaking some sort of code if I put that early morning picture on the internet without asking her first.
She also asked us if we had ever tried “real” southern grits, to which I realized that I probably hadn’t unless she was referring to the side order you can get at Denny’s. The bowl of salt and butter grits with a slice of turkey bacon on top led directly to me buying my first ever box of grits when I got home in an attempt to recapture what eating that bowl at her kitchen table was like.
I felt like I was saying goodbye to family when it was time to leave, with Connie and Gadget being in that age-range somewhere older than my dad but younger than my Grandma.
The hiking day wasn’t full of trail landmarks anymore like the previous days had been, the highlight just being that there was no water falling from the sky. I had that sluggish, “just having left town” feeling over several miles of repetitive hiking, but could tell that the rest day did something good for me at the same time.
My plan was to camp on top of Unaka Mountain (pronounced Une-aye-ka). Connie was very familiar with this section of the trail and had said it would be a great spot to camp, and the comments in the FarOut guide seemed to second this. Considering the fact that there was no water source at the top, I was very optimistic that if I loaded up on water later in the day and then carried it the three or so trail miles from the base to the top, I had a fair chance of finding some relative solitude.
The farther up the mountain I went, the woods turned to squishy, mossy pine forest just like the other day. Once again, I was transported back to New Hampshire, both by the mystical, breathtaking woodsy scenery and the fact that it felt like the climb would never end.
I knew I finally made it when I saw some other people setting up camp among the towering pine trees.
Wait…people? Silly me. I had in my head that I’d be pretty much alone up there, and I don’t know why. This was the Appalachian Trail during hiker bubble season, and despite no water, this was a mystical, piney change of scenery from what most of the woods look like in the south. Of course other people were going to seek this place out too.
It turned out to be perfect, though. There were around ten of us camped there when all was said and done that night, but there was so much space among the vast flat area of pine trees that everyone could spread out, and unlike some of the very wooded-in shelters, it didn’t feel like there was any pressure to socialize.
Some people were thru-hikers, some section hikers, and there seemed to be this energy in the air that while friendly, everyone was tired and sort of just doing their own thing. The woods were cool and dim, I felt safe, and there were so many places to find a bathroom spot that I didn’t feel like I’d have to walk over an underground minefield. It was the perfect campsite.
Part 6 coming soon!
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