Days 37-42 To Erwin and Back Again… and Again
We left Laughing Heart in steady rain and walked over to the Smoky Mt Diner for the best breakfast in Hot Springs. Our bellies full of biscuits & gravy, home fries and grits we headed out with more than a little anxiety about hiking our first 15 mile day in a cold rain. It was not the most fun day but it was one to be proud of.
We ate a cold cold lunch squeezed into the tiniest shelter we’ve ever seen and resisted the urge to stay. By 5:30 we’d made it to our intended campsite, right next to a road. We set up the tent, got water as fast as we could, then hopped in, stripped off all our freezing wet clothes and snuggled up in our dry, warm sleeping bags. We did not get out again until morning. It was probably our most challenging day in terms of weather and mileage but we felt really good about it and slept so well.
The next morning we woke up to sunshine and a clear blue sky, as if the day before hadn’t even happened. I felt so strong that I accidentally ripped the air valve off my sleeping pad… we decided to worry about it later, figuring we could find a way to patch it up with some duct tape.
16 miles on the heels of a 15 mile day was once again pretty tough on us. The temperature never got very high and we froze at lunch. We rock scrambled over an exposed rocky ridge line and hit the 300 mile mark!!
The last climb up and over Big Butt just about did us in (doesn’t even have a view, disappointing). We camped in one of our favorite places so far, on a wide, flat, grassy ridge near a gravesite for a massacred family of Union sympathizers.
Leaving the sleeping pad problem for later turned out to be the wrong choice. We were tired and cranky and the duct tape did not do what we had hoped. We finagled what seemed to be a bit of a solution but by the time we were getting into bed after dinner the pad was almost completely flat. It had been chilly all day and temps were supposed to get close to freezing over night. I tried to stick it out on the ground but after about 45 mins I took Bryce up on his offer to share his sleeping pad. It was a tight squeeze but very cozy. I will never talk shit about his massive sleeping pad again, it saved me from a very cold night.
The next morning, we woke to the sounds of some extremely talkative owls. Once on the trail we worked on executing plan New Sleeping Pad. We decided to try to call a shuttle to take us to an outfitter in Erwin and back. We got lucky, we got service pretty quickly and the first driver we called, Mr Maps, the “safest” shuttle on the AT, was available and charged us a generous rate. We booked it down to Devil’s Fork Gap. On the way we passed a sweet day hiker and her very cute dog. She asked if we were thru hikers and then pulled out trail magic goody bags with a tiny bottle of wine, a piece of Hersheys, a clementine and a wet one! What a treat!
Mr Maps was a delightful man, he thru hiked in 18-19 and had lots of stories to share. He drove us first to the outfitter where they didn’t have what I wanted but did call Uncle Johnnys for me to verify that they had it before we drove over. They also had free beers for hikers!
Without complaint Mr. Maps took us over to Uncle Johnnys where I got the narrower version of Bryce’s sleeping pad. Barely an hour and a half after he picked us up we were getting back on trail. We only had 6 miles to go… but those 6 miles took forever! It was all uphill and we were Tired from a bad night of sleep.
When we got to the shelter we were rewarded with the longest walk to water ever. Softening the blow, another hiker positively identified ramps! I thought I knew what they looked like but needed this confirmation. Everyone dug some up to add to our dinners, what a treat!!
I slept so well on my new sleeping pad! In the morning, we appreciated using the privy with a *view,* ate a leisurely breakfast in front of the shelter with our neighbors, and headed out. As we were cresting the ridge it started sprinkling on us! It was not forecasted to rain but the sprinkles were persistent, they came back several times over the day.
We had another long 15 mile day, this one was probably our hardest. The climb up Big Bald was long and grueling, it kicked our butts. We took an hour long break halfway up to compose ourselves.
Boy oh boy was it worth it once we got to the top!! Big Bald truly is huge and has amazing views. The climb down was beautiful, too, with lots of snowy ground flowers and spindly trees.
We camped in a lovely campsite, again near a road but this one quieter, with rhododendron and water close by. In the morning we immediately hit trail magic! Trail Angel Marlene was there with her car chock full of goodies. We drank coffee and soda and ate clementines (the best clementine I’ve evah had) and little Debbie lemon cakes (these came back around later…) Fortified by Marlene’s snacks and a lovely conversation, we took off to make it the 11 remaining miles to Erwin.
We made it to Erwin in the midafternoon in high spirits. Along the way we decided to call another audible and slack pack the next day. We looked at the map and found that we could get dropped off at a road 20 miles north and walk back to Uncle Johnny’s. We’d avoid a big long climb and it felt like a good way to ease into our first 20 mile day. We felt great about this plan and were able to arrange it very easily.
After showers, laundry, and a few phone calls with friends and family, we hopped on the hostel community bikes and rode over to the Mexican restaurant about a mile away. We had some really bad Mexican food in Gatlinburg and kept our expectations low… but that place was amazing! After we stuffed ourselves we made the 20 min bike ride through Erwin to the Food City for a resupply. The ride there and back was quite tiring (though enjoyable, Erwin is cute!) but we did it! And made it back to the hostel just before dark.
In the morning we had the pleasure of being shuttled out to Iron Mountain Gap by Cheetah, the new owner of Uncle Johnny’s. He thru hiked last year, fell in love with the hostels, and bought this one just a few months ago. He had a lot of great trail stories, mostly about hiking 25-30, and once 55, miles in a day! WOW.
Our slack pack day was great. We love slack packing. We still didn’t break any time records but dang it feels good to walk without a backpack. Our first climb was over Unaka Mountain, probably our favorite mountain so far- it’s a spruce and fir forest, it’s dark and beautiful and smells good and the ground is soft.
We hit Beauty Spot on the next mountain. It’s another bald with expansive views of Erwin and the surrounding mountains. We had a completely clear day up there and could see for miles. We ate a delicious lunch of fried chicken and *lemon cakes, another perk of slack packing.
While we were eating we realized we’d missed the only water source on the way up and wouldn’t pass another on the way down for 5 miles. We were almost out of water and it was dang near 80 degrees so we decided to back track to the closer water source. Luckily the road took us there a little easier than the trail, so it didn’t take up too much time.
Since we were SOBO slack packing we got to pass a lot of friends going the opposite direction. We used this as an opportunity to “beta test” a new trail name idea… After several positive reactions, the names have stuck! You can now call us Pinky and The Brain! Why is that our name, you ask? Because we are going to take over the world!!
When we were nearing the end of our day two hikers told us we should definitely check out the festival at the rafting company, we’d pass right by it, and there was good food and beer. We’d been hearing a lot of gossip about this festival for a few days and could certainly go for a beer and easy food access, so we decided to check it out.
Unfortunately, when we got there the one food truck that was open was out of food. The beer we had only somewhat dampened our disappointment. We finished the last mile and made it to Uncle Johnny’s with relief. We took very refreshing showers and ordered consolation pizza. We slept like rocks. 20 miles is a tough day but we were so proud of ourselves for doing it!
This week really upped our confidence in ourselves. We know now that we can consistently put down bigger days. We’ll never be hikers who do 20-30 miles all the time but we can settle into the high teens. Our trail legs are kicking in, we are problem solving gear failures (the sleeping pad was not our first..), and we are still loving every day, even the hard ones.
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