Days 31-35

Oops. So I’m still on the trail! I had two sets of updates ready to go as soon as I had a decent connection and then I did my best to assassinate my cell phone, more on that later. So as a result I’m 15 days behind, and have to dump three updates on you at once, sorry about that! Thanks for your patience and I hope you’re enjoying the stories!

Day 31: Spring Mountain Shelter to Jerry’s Cabin Shelter

I’m in my tent tonight right at the 300 mile mark! Only 1889 miles to go.

Okay, so today was hard. I am not eating enough for breakfast, I know that for sure. I don’t really like cooking in the morning but it’s time to add oatmeal back into the rotation, because by the time I get to lunch most days I am just dragging. And this morning was no joke. Lots of uphill, and I think by the time I got to Little Laurel Shelter for lunch I was going about a mile an hour. Ate with Shade and a man named Mule, who was at the shelter last night and who I’ve seen once or twice in the Smokies. I haven’t talked to him too much but he seems like a nice guy.

Shade and I took a long lunch. She’s not feeling too good again, and it was hard to resist a nap in the sunshine after being so tired. When we did finally get moving there was still another 1.3 miles of uphill to do. That was hard. There was nothing for it but grit my teeth and do it, but it was slow, sweaty work and every time I started breathing hard I got a coughing fit. Still, mountains can’t go up forever, and eventually I got there. At the top someone had written on a board, “Call the dogs away, piss on the fire. This hunt is over.” I know that’s supposed to be an old cowboy saying for “show’s over” and I couldn’t help but wonder if that was someone’s AT resignation letter, because that climb was tough.

Afterwards though, the trail got fun again. There were two great cliffs to get views from, Whiterock Cliff and Blacktower Cliff, and from there the trail wound up to Firescald Knob. There’s a note in AWOL’s guide about the trail there, “rocky and strenuous.” It made me curious, because lots of the AT so far seems like it could fall under that description. How bad does it have to be to merit special notice in the guide?

Starting to get a sense.

Starting to get a sense.

A note to future thru hikers if you are planning to go with a dog: unless your dog is tiny and can be zipped into your pack (don’t actually try that, obviously), you are going to want to take the bypass route around this section. At one point, as I stood on top of a six-foot vertical rock wall trying to gauge the best footholds down, I was very, very glad Noah was at home, because there is no way I could get my 65 pound dog over that stretch.

That being said, that mile and a half of trail was my jam! Favorite stretch of the AT so far. I just like climbing over big rock piles, I guess. And the views from the top were really breathtaking.

Seriously though.

Seriously though.

From where the ridge line mets the bypass trail again to the north it was another two miles to camp, and they were gorgeous, gentle, rolling miles, like the trail was apologizing for playing rough all day. Now I’m tucked in my sleeping bag, warm and full. Tomorrow is another long day, up and over Big Butt Mountain.


Day 32: Jerry’s Cabin Shelter to Hogback Ridge Shelter

Today was PERFECT. It was non-stop beautiful and even the tough parts were amazing. I couldn’t sleep this morning so I got up around six and got an early start. I was rewarded with the sun warming Bald Ridge, making some beautiful early morning scenery.

As soon as I went down this path I surprised a huge turkey strutting across the path. He made more noise crashing away than most bears do.

As soon as I went down this path I surprised a huge turkey strutting across the path. He made more noise crashing away than most bears do.

Big Butt Mountain was a fun climb, pretty easy with a big boulder tumble at the top, and the rest of the morning was more of my favorite kind of forest: tall deciduous trees with the sun streaming to the ground. It reminds me a lot of the woods in New Jersey that I spent so much time in as a kid. They were so beautiful I wanted to take pictures of everything, and instead took pictures of almost nothing. Funny how that works.

I did take one though!

I did take one though!

The afternoon featured a three mile uphill that turned out to not be that bad after the first stretch, and then I was up on Hogback Ridge. I walked for so long I almost convinced myself I had missed the shelter in some sort of hiking fugue state, in spite of the fact that I had my head up the whole time and there was no way that could be true. I was almost ready to turn around when the shelter sign popped up and I turned off the AT for the day.

I got into camp around four with some pain in my left foot. After letting my feet dry out in the sun for a while, I examined the issue, and the issue is definitely mud. The path still has some serious mud traps and my feet get wet a couple times a day. Hiking in wet socks is exacerbating the friction between the toes on my left foot, and over the last few days I have developed some bad blisters. One of them popped today (that was the pain) and I peeled the dead skin away to find another blister, fully formed underneath. It’s like Russian nesting dolls down there. I will have to do a really good job taping them tomorrow so they stop rubbing against each other.

Are you seeing what I’m writing here? Monster blisters, a cough that won’t quit…and today was perfect. I am the luckiest woman in the world.

Day 33: Hogback Ridge Shelter to Bald Mountain Shelter

Today should have been an easy day, only ten miles, but it was a struggle. I woke up pretty early, coughing, and was out of the camp by 7:30. I think I like getting out before anyone else, because the first couple hours of hiking are my favorite time of day, and I like having them to myself. It’s a joyful time for me, and I get a lot of good thinking done then. This morning was no exception: the air was cool and breezy, and the light, which was already strong in the leaves up high, was just starting to reach down the trunks.

The trail was mostly downhill to Sam’s Gap, and there it wound under I-26, up through a meadow (where Moose passed me on one of my breaks) and started the long, gentle uphill to the peak of Bald Mountain. Well, most of it was long and gentle. The last half a mile was fairly steep, and my energy was still really low so I took it very slowly and stopped a fair amount. On my last stop, a hiker named Jailbird caught up to me right as I succumbed to a really bad coughing fit: it took almost five minutes to get through, with tears streaming down my face and barely an opportunity to catch my breath. I think he was pretty concerned. When I got to Big Bald (the big open summit of Bald Mountain), Jailbird and Moose were both up there, and when Jailbird took off I heard him ask Moose to look after me. Not necessary but it was a nice gesture.

Big Bald is amazing. The views were hazy, but I could still see a long way, and the meadow itself was lovely. I could have spent hours up there. On the walk out, at the fringe of the big meadow, I was walking through stands of stunted trees. They were the same size as apple trees, so you know what I was thinking about for the last mile. Apple pie, apple slices and cheddar, caramel apples, apples and Nutella…hunger has settled in as a near constant by now. I could talk about food for hours. It’s a bit alarming.


Looking down the bald.

I got to the shelter by 2:00. It is nice to spend an afternoon just lounging every once in a while.

Day 34: Bald Mountain Shelter to No Business Knob Shelter

Another short day! I’m spoiling myself. Ten more miles and in camp by 2pm. No Business Knob Shelter is a nice campsite, and we set our tents up under the pines and went to bed really, really early (like, 6:30 early. Is that bad? I don’t know, I felt pretty okay with it). The hiking was not hard, either. I was coming down the far side of Little Bald, which is not bald at all, and startled a white-tailed doe in the middle of the trail. She didn’t go far, and I got some great shots of her with my camera, but only one distant one with my phone. I’ve blown it up for you, but it will probably be a little blurry. I’ll have to do a “Xena’s favorite photos” post when all this is over.

Definitely hard to see, on my phone anyway.

Definitely hard to see, on my phone anyway.

I’ll be in Erwin tomorrow. Silver and Robyn are staying overnight to celebrate their anniversary, but Shade and I are doing a hero, which is sort of the opposite of a zero (no mile day) or a nero (nearly zero). Instead it means we are going in, resupplying, showering, doing laundry, and getting out again before we get sucked into the town’s gravitational pull. We’ll see how that goes!

Day 35: No Business Knob Shelter to Nolichucky Gorge Campground

Okay. Almost a successful hero. Shade and I did the six miles into town, got a ride to the Super 8 right away to see Silver and Robyn, but ran into some unpleasantness with the manager there, who took exception to our going up to their room to say hello, and implied that we might use our packs to remove items from the hotel. I guess he must have had a bad experience in the past, but it seems like that isn’t really the best option for hikers in Erwin. We were as polite as possible and left at his request, but he was pretty rude during the whole affair. I don’t think we did anything to set off his attitude, so I wonder if he was having a bad day or there was something else going on there we couldn’t see from our position. Anyway, it’s not my plan to give hikers a bad name so we tried to be cooperative.

Anyway! That done, we made plans to meet Silver and Robyn a bit later for lunch, and walked down to Main Street, to the Steel Rail Coffee Shop for some excellent coffee. I had too much. Maybe close to a gallon, and I’m not exaggerating, as well as a delicious muffin and apple fritter. I highly recommend stopping here! Then we walked to Subway, where I got two foot-long subs (one for lunch, one for dinner) and picked up resupply at the grocery store. We saw Baloo and Tao there and tried to trade phone numbers for later, but I realized later that the call Baloo made to my phone never went through. They told us they were staying at the Nolichucky Gorge Campground that night and we parted ways.

We hitched a ride back to the trailhead and stopped at Uncle Johnny’s hostel for a shower and laundry, and that’s where we really got bogged down. The shower was so very needed, but by the time we were ready to do laundry there was quite a wait to get a load done, since everyone was trying to do theirs at the same time and there was only one washer and dryer available. We didn’t get out of there until close to six.

The Nolichucky Gorge Campground was only about a mile and a half on, so we decided to head down and meet up with Tao and Baloo. It was gorgeous there. We spent a nice night next to the river hanging out, and then went to bed. We didn’t get as far out of Erwin as we had hoped, but we will do better next time.

The view down the river at Nolichucky Gorge.

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