Better Than Fun
When we last met, I was taking a zero in Franklin, NC, one week in and just shy of the hundred-mile mark. Today, I’m writing to you from a bunk bed at the Laughing Heart Hostel in Hot Springs, NC, at Appalachian Trail mile 273 (for those who are curious, I’m at an average of exactly 13 miles a day, which includes one zero and several “near-os”). Hot Springs is the first true “Trail Town” northbound hikers come to- the trail literally pops out of the woods and wanders down Main Street, past restaurants and motels and houses, past the post office, over a bridge, and back into the woods. It’s a great stop for some hot (non-Ramen) food, groceries, and R&R (or B&B: beer and bed). It’s been oddly cold the last few days, dipping into the 30s at night, and mostly I just wanted a warm nights’ sleep.
Yesterday was my three-week trailiversary! I was concerned during the first few days – Zach talks about the first six-ish weeks of your hike being the honeymoon period, when you wake up grinning every morning and skip down the trail all day. My friend Audrey, for example, seems to exist in a constant state of trail bliss. But for me, it’s more quiet and subtle. I don’t wake up every morning like it’s Christmas, and I thought that was a bad sign for my future success. “I’m not happy enough,” I was thinking. “Maybe I’m not cut out to hike the AT. I should feel happier.” But I realized what I have is more like deep contentment. At the risk of obnoxious cliche, I feel like I’m cultivating this ever-growing core of inner peace and unflappable determination. The Jen Pharr Davis quotation keeps coming back to me. When asked during her record-setting thru-hike if she was having fun, she said, “No. I am not having fun….I may not be having fun, but I find a sense of joy and purpose….It is fulfilling, and increasingly rewarding. I guess, in the end, it is better than fun.” Now, I’m not setting any records, and I AM having fun along the way, but it’s also nice to know I’m in good company when I admit that some days are hard and it’s not all rainbows and sunshine.
Sadly, my “Trail Family” is being shuffled. Mike left us at the NOC with horrible knee pain, and now Daniel, after 4 zeros with no improvement, has pulled the trigger and booked a flight tonight from Asheville back to Vermont. He also has knee issues. By far the biggest problem I’ve heard of out here is knees- IT band, ACL, MCL. People swap knee braces, KT tape technique, pain pills, and ice packs. Everyone dreads long descents. Knees are followed distantly by blisters and other foot wounds. Supposedly by this point, at least 20% of everyone who started in Georgia has quit. Take care of those knees, people.
The highlight and major milestone so far has been Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Hikers hear about the Smokies from the day they start: how tough the landscape is, how hard the climbs, how aggressive the bears, how crowded the shelters. The AT is in the Smokies for about 70 miles, bouncing back and forth along the NC/TN border for most of it. Most people take 6-8 days there; my group did it in 4. To be fair, this could be part of the reason we have aches and pains. We know.
We hit the highest point on the whole AT, Clingman’s Dome, at 6,667 feet. We did our two longest days yet, 19.4 and 19.6 miles. At an unmarked place called Copper Ridge, at mile 218.9, we were suddenly 10% done with the trail. We enjoyed stunning 360-degree views from Clingman’s, from firetowers, and from geologic trail features with names like Charlie’s Bunion and the Sawteeth. The Smokies were gorgeous. They were lush green, filled with wildflowers and drifting mist and rolling blue mountains everywhere I looked.
Now, 30 miles after leaving the Smokies, those of us continuing onward feel strong (even when limping at the end of a long day or slapping duct tape on a new blister), and we feel confident. We feel like real hikers- and we smell like it, too. We have our sights set on leaving North Carolina for good, conquering Tennessee, and entering Virginia, where rumors say the landscape flattens out and hikers routinely knock out 25 or 30 miles a day. But between now and then, I’m just trying to take it all in, rest my feet when I can, stay hydrated, and enjoy the journey.
PS- I keep forgetting to tell people that I have a trail name. I’m Karma!
Continue to follow along on Instagram, @nicholeyoung1.
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