Blood, Sweat & Tears: Hot Springs, NC to Damascus, VA
Hot Springs, NC
Hot Springs is one of the few towns along the Appalachian Trail where the AT runs through the main strip of the town. The sidewalks are decorated with Appalachian Trail signs and blazes and you walk past the post office, town outfitters, taverns, and diners. It’s pretty convenient since no hitchhiking is required to get there. All that said, we got a ride into town.
Mama Roub (our trail name for Roub’s wife) came to visit us in Hot Springs, but since we messed up our days somewhere along the way (the days of the week mean absolutely nothing on the trail, so it’s hard to keep track of them), we were miles behind our meeting point. Mama Roub picked us up at Lemon Gap instead, 15 miles before Hot Springs.
We stayed at Elmer’s Sunnybank Inn, a historic Victorian home from the mid-1800s. There were books everywhere. Elmer was constantly cooking every time I walked through the kitchen, and the delicious food aroma lifted my spirits in anticipation for that night’s dinner. He only uses local, organic ingredients for his vegetarian dishes, and it would be my first home-cooked meal since I left home.
In the meantime, it was time to do hiker chores.
Zero days are actually kind of stressful. Before the trail, I imagined zero/nero days to be days where you just rest and lounge around and watch TV all day.
Hahaha. Sooo not the case.
Zero/Nero Day To-do List:
- Eat food. Also, beer.
- Do laundry. Guard laundry. Wait for laundry. Fold laundry.
- Resupply food. Pray that the Dollar General isn’t out of Rice and/or Pasta Sides (which they usually are)
- Dig through every Hiker Box for golden finds like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, razors and unopened food.
- Visit nearest town outfitter and look through all the things you desperately want but probably don’t really need.
- Blog (sometimes)
- Write postcards
- Mail home a package full of clothes and/or items you really hope you don’t need anymore (but only if you’re lucky enough to be in town NOT during the weekend)
- Go back to outfitter and buy that thing you actually did need but totally forgot about.
- Eat food again.
This usually takes the whole day and usually means walking all over town, and sometimes feels more exhausting than hiking 15 miles uphill.
But having clean, dry clothes after taking a hot shower (I cut myself shaving my legs in the shower, resulting in my worse, bloody injury on the trail so far) made it all extremely worth it.
After checking off items on the list, it was time for Elmer’s trail-famous dinner. There were 12 of us around the table as we passed along Elmer’s home-cooked meal. Elmer had us introduce ourselves and answer the question: What human invention would you take back if you could?
One person said guns. Another talked about a very intricate, scientific process about food that I did not understand one bit. Another mentioned greed. Darwin and Snuggles said social media. I said reality TV.
I hate reality TV.
It was an amazing dinner. It’s so rare to have a home-style dinner like that with strangers and truly find the means to connect with one another. Also, the food was kick-ass.
Back On The Trail
We accomplished many more things while on our zero day in Hot Springs (like Mama Roub driving us to REI in Asheville where I returned half the items in my pack and bought a new sleeping bag that is literally the best sleeping bag ever), but it was time to start collecting miles again.
I wanted to do 20 miles that day because I wanted to walk past Hot Springs. Since we had to backtrack, I couldn’t mentally prep myself to camp before Hot Springs when we were just there. I had to get through it.
The rest of the group decided to camp in Hot Springs so I was on my own for the night. I walked 5 miles back into the mountains passed town and knew I would have to find a camping spot with water since the next shelter was still 11 miles away. It would be the first time I was completely alone at night on the trail. I found a decent-size camping spot near a boxed pond that was a little too close to the trail for my liking, but there was literally nowhere else to setup a tent. The sun was setting and I rushed to finish my camp chores so I could curl up in my tent.
It was weird not having anybody to talk to after spending a month always surrounded by other hikers at camp. Yet, at the same time, I needed some alone time too. I never thought I would have to actually try to find time to be alone on the Appalachian Trail. The trail is so populated (at least in the beginning) I don’t go a few hours without running into another hiker, and the shelters are still swarmed by at least ten people every night.
I like having the company, but sometimes I just need to be alone.
Finally, I got that alone time. And yeah, then I got lonely. It is strange to be camping all alone in the wilderness, but I had to keep reminding myself that this is what I wanted. It was lonely, but it was also relaxing. It was finally nice to be on my own schedule instead of feeling pressured to be with other hikers.
The next morning, I woke up to a slight drizzle and thick fog. I packed up my things, tied up my boots, and began hiking. I planned to do almost another 20 miles that day… Except I could barely walk. I was only a mile in when it felt like my pinky toe was being rubbed off my foot. It was so extremely painful any weight on that toe or stepping on a rock caused me to whimper in pain.
Oh no, I thought. My boots are too small.
For the past week and all throughout the Smokies, I kept telling Snuggles my suspicions that my boots were getting too small. I wanted to hold out on buying another pair as long as possible – I was only 300 miles on the trail! I didn’t expect my feet to expand already. Plus, the sooner I bought new shoes, the sooner I would have to then again replace them. So I didn’t even think to buy a new pair in Hot Springs.
It was still another 70 miles to Erwin, the next town. I could barely walk. How in the hell was I going to hike 70 miles like this? I truly thought I was fucked.
I limped to the next shelter which was six miles from my morning campsite. It took me almost five hours to hike what I could normally do in less than three. I was extremely frustrated, in pain, it was thunder-storming, and had to think about what I was going to do.
And then I met Firefly, an eccentric, short-haired girl who hiked with a pet Madagascar Hissing Cockroach.
She was making tea at the shelter and I told her my dilemma. Then, I noticed she was wearing sandals – almost identical to the pair that I owned as camp shoes.
“Hey,” I asked her. “Do you hike in those?”
“Yeah! I only hike in these sandals,” she said. “Every body spends so much time looking for the perfect shoe to hike in, but I don’t think the perfect shoe exists. I think your feet will adapt to whatever you’re hiking in, so I just hike in these.”
Huh. That makes a lot of sense, and it solved my painful dilemma on how I was going to get to Erwin.
I could hike the next 70 miles in my sandals. It was that, or find a way to prematurely get off the trail to get new shoes.
I could do it. I could totally do it.
Except, the hiking would have to wait until the morning. The thunderstorm was still going strong, my pinky toe was so swollen I was afraid it might fall off, and the day was covered in such an ominous fog I really didn’t feel like continuing that day.
But at least now I knew I could make it to Erwin.
The next morning, I hiked out with Darwin, Snuggles, and Roub (they caught up to me at that shelter), and we stopped at a hostel that was a little ways off the trail to eat lunch.
So far, my sandals were holding up pretty well. I decided to dump my too-small hiking boots at the hostel so I wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight. It was admittedly sort of emotional for me. Those boots carried me through a previous section hike of the Appalachian Trail a few years back and 300 miles from Springer Mountain without a single blister. They were a good pair of faithful boots until they turned into a nightmare. But, I would never be able to wear them again, and I was more than willing to drop the weight. So I said goodbye to my boots and hiked on, never forgetting the miles I hiked in them.
Tears and Big Butts
Even though I solved my boot disaster and hiking in my sandals proved better than what I could possibly hope, my mood started to turn sour. I was waking up grumpy every morning and felt the desire to be alone more than ever. Every shelter and camping spot was always so full of people, and even though I didn’t mind the people I was around, my emotions kept turning for the worse. I couldn’t pinpoint why I was feeling so awful. My hike was turning into an emotional nightmare that I couldn’t escape, and I had no desire to try and force myself to stay positive.
One morning, about 30 miles from Erwin, I completely broke down.
You’re so weak, I kept telling myself. You are weak and you can’t do anything right. You’d never be able to do this trail alone. You could never rely on yourself. You are weak and you’ll never be the strong person you desire to be.
For the first time on trail, I started to cry. Bawling, actually, would be more accurate.
I was hiking through the middle of a rock scramble when my eyes were so full of tears I could barely see where I was going.
Oh shit, I thought. Wait, no, this is dangerous.
I felt so pathetic I couldn’t even cry appropriately. I wiped off as many tears as I could, focused on not tripping on a rock and cracking my skull open, and finally found a huge boulder that I could climb and sit on and just cry.
I allowed myself just that. I just cried. I cried and cried with the occasional sniffle as I looked out upon a beautiful valley. After I was done crying, I just sat there. And then I became distracted by how well my DEET spray was working. I mean, I was literally sitting in a cloud of mosquitoes and flies and not ONE of them dared touch me. Ha. I felt invisible.
And you know, feeling invisible and small on top of that rock felt pretty nice. It was a beautiful, warm, and sunny day. The perfect hiking day. I could see the bottoms of valleys and the mountain ridges I would soon be hiking, and I began to think how amazing it was that I was out here. I felt invisible, and small, and I also felt on top of the world.
I took out my guide book to see what I would be hiking that day when I realized I was sitting on top of Big Butt Summit.
I was bawling my eyes out on top of a rock that was called Big Butt. My life might have reached new lows, but hell, that was kind of hilarious.
I started to feel better. I felt like I received a hugged from a longtime friend. I began to realize how harsh I had been towards myself – I was knocking down the only person out here who could help me back up. This trail is extremely difficult, and I was running away from the one person I needed most by my side.
I was treating myself as my worst enemy when I needed to become my best friend.
The trail will tear you apart, and if you can’t respect what you are doing out here, it’s going to be a long, miserable journey.
I hopped off that rock like a new person. I finally accepted that I am going to have moments of weakness, that these moments are the raw moments that shape my life. The bad days, the terrible emotions, the stupid, unforgiving words were just as important as the wonderful, happy and inspiring moments, and it wasn’t my place to deny any of them, regardless of what anybody else thought, including myself.
Not ready for another zero day, Roub, Supermoon, Darwin, Snuggles and I decided to take a nero (kind of like a zero day, only you still hike some miles) day in town. While hiking in my sandals got me to Erwin, I was ready to buy a new pair of shoes. Getting the shoes would be the hardest part, however. There was no outfitter that was in walking distance from the trail, so I figured I may just have to buy some online and have them shipped to the next town.
We walked to the nearest hotel when my hopes and desires were answered in the form of an angel.
MISSJANET!!! The legendary trail angel I’ve heard so much about was parked right out front of the hotel in her big, green, stickered van.
“Hop in!” She waved us in. We told her that we needed to get into town, and that we wanted two things – an outfitter and a Chinese food buffet.
“I know just where to go.” She drove us to Johnson City and pulled up to a Chinese buffet. Stepping into that restaurant was like stepping into heaven – there was food EVERYWHERE. And we could eat as much as we wanted. Needless to say, we picked up our plates before we even sat down.
While eating, I wondered about how MissJanet got into helping hikers on the Appalachian Trail. After hearing so much about her from AT books, memoirs and websites, I was so happy to finally meet her.
“MissJanet,” I asked her. “How did you get into helping on the Appalachian Trail?”
“Do you want the short version or the long version?” she asked. I looked at our massive plates of food.
“Definitely the long version,” I said. MissJanet talked about growing up in Tennessee and since she is the oldest out of all her siblings, would always run into the mountains to get away from having to do chores or watch her family. She would talk to the thru-hikers and find out about what they were doing out in the mountains and grew more and more attached to the Trail. Her love for the trail and the mountains never faded, and she decided she wanted to help. And ever since, Janet became MissJanet and the beloved trail angel as we know her today.
After we ate half the restaurant’s food buffet (or at least it felt like it), we left and headed to the nearest outfitter where I finally was able to buy some new shoes, and from there we headed to Wal-Mart to resupply.
MissJanet drove us back to the hotel after we spent 8 hours with her driving through town and singing in her van and just having some fun. It was a really good day and we left MissJanet with hugs as we hobbled out of her van and back to the hotel to prepare for our next week of hiking.
The next week of hiking was wet, to say the least. It rained. And it kept raining. Every day. It seemed like we could never escape it. Every morning I put on wet socks, clothes, and shoes. My feet felt like they were deteriorating in my soggy shoes. The trail turned into a muddy river during our hike and there was no way to not get soaked.
One night in a shelter, I took off my socks, and my pinky toenail on my left foot came off with it. My feet were so consistently soggy, I started to lose toenails. Funnnnn.
One morning, we decided we had to get out of the rain. The nearest hostel was a 9-mile hike and I was having a package sent there, and since the weather was still a 100% chance of dripping skies, I wanted to stay the night.
Or, at least that was the plan. After hiking 9-miles in the rain (again) and having another miserable day on the trail, I finally reached the hostel. I saw Darwin in the hostel lounge where he broke the bad news:
“There’s no more room left,” he said. Again. Why is it every time I reach a hostel in the rain, it is always full? I barely had time to think about my miserable situation before Darwin spoke again.
“Buuuut we were able to sweet talk the owners into letting you stay in our room with me and Snuggles.” I could’ve hugged Darwin right then, if I wasn’t sopping wet. I was so relieved I could stay inside. All I wanted was to change into dry clothes, do laundry, and lie on the floor and do nothing.
Later that night, one of our neighbors in the next room had clippers, and Snuggles was talking all week about shaving her head. I started to think about it, too. I’ve always wanted to shave my head, but didn’t know if I could actually ever do it.
Roub wanted a haircut too, so he was the first to go. Darwin gave him a signature mohawk, and then it was Snuggles’ turn. Her hair is a little bit shorter, so Darwin shaved a mohawk into her hair, too. Then, Darwin looked at me.
“So, you wanna do it?”
I couldn’t decide. I was talking all week about how I thought about shaving my head, but could I actually do it? I really love my hair. I finished drinking my beer and headed to the bathroom before I could give my final answer. I looked in the mirror and combed my fingers through my thick, curly hair.
It’s just hair. I could learn to love myself no matter how I looked.
I walked out of the bathroom and turned to face the chair Darwin was standing over. We could do half my head, and there would be no turning back.
“Alright,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
Damascus was our next stop just a few days away, after resupplying in Hampton. We crossed into Virginia the day before and camped just a few miles from town so we could easily stroll into the hostel we were going to stay at the next day.
I was so ready for a zero day. I just wanted to do absolutely nothing. I wanted to get all my chores done on the day we walked into Damascus so that the next day, which would be our official zero day, I could just lounge around and actually relax.
For once, everything pretty much held to plan. We stayed at Woodchuck Hostel, and it was the nicest hostel I’ve stayed at on the trail so far. We had the whole upstairs to ourselves – Roub, Darwin, Snuggles, Supermoon and me all stayed together as we did all our chores for the day and then settled the night with a huge, 28″ monster pizza from the nearest pizza place. The pizza was so big, we had to tilt the pizza sideways to even get it through the door.
And we devoured it.
On the next day, I asked Darwin to shave the other side of my head. While I liked having my hair the way that it was, I also wanted my hair to all grow out at the same time and the same length. Plus, with the weather warming up, it would be nice to not have to worry about my hair anymore. So, finding another set of clippers in the house, Darwin finished the job we started a week before.
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