It’s a rainy zero day in Asheville and we’re eating a full All-Star meal at a booth in Waffle House while Eddie Vedder mumbles the lyrics of Yellow Ledbetter over a low-fidelity speaker. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more cozy, low-key atmosphere. Several hours later we are frantically hopping out of a Dodge Ram an hour past sunset in the middle of a downpour wondering what the hell we were doing. Harshly and suddenly we found ourselves back on the trail. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son plays in my mind’s imagination as we hurriedly set up our tents to keep some semblance of dryness in our gear, and as I throw a bear bag line over a large dead branch that comes crashing down inches from my face. It’s good to be back.

Friends & Angels in Erwin

We woke up to the miracle of the sun, drying out our recently saturated tents. We enjoyed 10 glorious rolling miles of dry ground and dry skies, but as soon as we got close to Erwin and glimpsed a view of the Nolichucky River the weather began to take a turn. Luckily, we were nearing Uncle Johnny’s Hostel right off the trail. We wouldn’t be staying the night, but we would enjoy a brief respite from the rain. Before we reached the hostel we passed by a white van splattered with stickers. A friendly woman’s voice asked us how we were doing and if we needed anything. We replied that we were all set, but had a nice short chat. She told us her name was Miss Janet before slowly driving away. Miss Janet is a trail angel who is a true legend within the AT community. We had heard much about her in the past, so I was a bit star-struck when I realized who we had just met.

The day just kept getting better when we rolled into Uncle Johnny’s. I saw a man in a bright red jacket lounging in an Adirondack chair and knew it had to be Quick on the Draw. All 3 of us lit up when we saw each other. Quick on the Draw is the only person I’ve met thus far who I would truly consider Tramily. After spending several days battling through the frigid and lowly populated Smokies, we’ve all bonded through shared hardship. Each meeting feels like a reunion of old friends. As me and Hotdog decided to push on for 10 more miles, Quick on the Draw mentioned this may be the last we see of each other on the trail. I sincerely hope it’s not the case, but it’s a good reminder to make use of every moment you have with friends, family, and tramily because you never know when an encounter could be your last.

A Foggy Beauty Spot

We set out across the Nolichucky River in a rainstorm with a fellow hiker, Bard, a man from Boston similar in age to us and currently attending school at Northeastern University. Hotdog and Bard seemed to hit it off immediately. I silently hiked in the rear, sometimes sticking close by and sometimes straggling off on my own. I’m an introverted person, but it doesn’t mean I’m disinterested in people. I’d like to think that my ears open a little wider when my lips decide to lie dormant. Bard seems like a gentle person, fascinated by the world around him and grateful for every experience he’s had on the trail. It’s a good energy to be in proximity to.

We left Bard at the top of Beauty Spot. A large bald and the place we had planned to camp out for the night. After attempting to set up our tents in extreme wind and nearly losing them in the ether, we realized what a terrible idea this was. It was quickly becoming dark, the fog was so intense you could only see a few feet ahead of you, and our shelter plans had just disintegrated. Logically I knew we’d be alright, but when you’re cold, can’t see, and don’t have a plan, the reptilian brain starts to send off panic signals and every little inconvenience feels devastating.

We did the only thing that made sense to us: get back on the trail and walk through the fog, trusting that the trail would provide. A couple miles later is when we saw what we would come to name, “The Mother Tree”, a large tree in the middle of a field that offered a clear flat space and drew us in like a lighthouse guiding two lost ships. We had safe shelter for the night, but stuck bear bags, huge black beatles, and spilled buldak ramen sauce were driving us mad. We laid our heads to rest, just looking forward to a fresh start tomorrow.

A Welcomed Weather Change

The morning sun penetrated our tents once again, and the weather forecast looked clear for the day. We dried our gear out in the morning while talking to new and familiar hikers who walked by on the trail, each one recharging my spirits bit by bit. I am not religious, but have always been envious of the deep community that comes with people in a shared faith. I’ve come to find that community on the trail. Stranger or not, we all have a shared practice, goal, and mindset. On a certain level, we all understand each other.

The day progressed rather uneventfully, which, after the literal and emotional windstorm of the day before, I was ok with. We climbed up Unaka Mountain and through an enchanted feeling forest of pine that was very reminiscent of the Smokies. We passed a very nice older hiker named Sparrow and her adorable Golden Doodle, “Micah”, adorably equipped with a backpack and seat pad of his very own. We enjoyed a few trail magic clementines; re-upping our vitamin C levels to fend off scurvy for at least a few more days. At one point we heard the faint sound of a horn off in the distance. The sound grew as we kept on hiking until we eventually found Bard taking a rest in a meadow and playing the trumpet. I never asked how he acquired his trail name, but I was starting to have a hunch.

Little Rock, Big Sunset

We ended our day relatively early, by our standards at least, an hour and a half before sunset. We found a perfect stealth site just past Little Rock Knob, set up our tents, and walked back to the knob with our Korean Ramen in tow to watch the sunset. Hotdog jokingly noted how romantic of a notion the pairing of dinner and sunset was. He was right, but slogging down 1,000+ calories of cheap packaged ramen in dirty clothes clearly demarcated this as a bromance. The sunset was the greatest I had seen yet on the AT and one of the best I have seen in my lifetime. I slept well that night, with a mind stilled by awe and gratitude.

Hiking the Roan Highlands

Hotdog has made it a goal to attend Catholic Mass every week, so he had already left to catch his shuttle when I awoke the next morning. We don’t spend much time apart on the trail, so I set out to make the most of some solitary miles, embracing the independence and attempting to be comfortable in my head. Climbing out of Hughes gap the forest slowly began to change from dull leafless trees to a mossy space filled with spruce-fir trees. It was an unexpected and welcomed change of scenery. The feeling of climbing over large rocks amidst the evergreens pleasantly reminded me of my home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. After climbing over the 6,000-foot mark, I found a beautiful spot amongst the remains of an old 19th-century hotel called The Cloudland. It was a warm and sunny day, so I decided to plop down for a snack and stretch while I waited for Hotdog to catch up.

Reunion of Hotdog and Tomcat

When I met back up with Hotdog, he generously arrived bearing gifts. I gratefully gobbled down blackberry pastries, cinnamon rolls, and mini donuts. It felt good to set out with a full stomach for the rest of the day’s hiking. We descended to Carver’s Gap and found a large open climb ahead of us. We were finally arriving at the much-awaited Roan Highlands. As we waded through tourists, expansive views of Tennessee and North Carolina opened up all around us. The trees became sparse and patches of green grass, dried yellow grass, and low leafless bushes became the main vegetation of the landscape. The hiking feels a bit more dangerous because you are too busy taking in the scenery to look at the ground in front of you.

We briefly descended back into the forest and pushed on later into the day to reach little hump and hump mountain. Most hikers seem to stop at least a couple of hours before sunset, but we find that Golden Hour is one of our favorite times to hike. The intense glow makes the landscape more dramatic and rejuvenates your spirits when the legs are at their most tired. We reached the base of hump mountain, imposingly standing before us, shortly before sunset.

The mountain glowed in yellow and we found ourselves racing onward in an attempt to view a summit sunset. Each footstep could have been a snapshot from a National Geographic magazine. Words and photos simply can’t encapsulate the grandeur of the Highlands. The summit was the icing on the cake as we made it just in time to watch the glowing ball of fire in the sky descend beneath the mountains and fill the clear sky with a gradient of red, yellow, and orange.

A Beautifully Rough Sleep

Filled with excitement, we descended slightly down the summit and decided to set up camp in the open air along the ridge. With clear skies and warm temps, we figured there couldn’t have been a better time to do so. Shortly after setting up, I began making my evening ramen when a tent stake flew out in a strong gust of wind, blowing my tent inward on me and knocking over my pot. We hit our stakes into the ground a little harder, and I frustratingly decided to forgo the ramen for a granola bar. The wind raged on all night, violently hitting our tents in all different directions. We didn’t sleep well that night; paranoid about our trekking pole-supported tents collapsing in on us at every big gust of wind. In hindsight, it was a very poorly chosen campsite, but I’m glad we went through with it. Dumb ideas often make for the best memories and stories to tell down the line.

The next morning we woke up to a gorgeous sunrise, only rivaled in beauty by the sunset from the night before. As I started hiking further down hump mountain a deer bounded across the trail in the morning light. I instinctively reached for my phone camera, but the moment was gone too quickly, and better enjoyed in the present. Sometime soon I will fully return to the high-speed pace of modern life, but for now, I’ll try to be more like the wild and free deer, and hopefully bring some lessons back with me at the end of all this.

The Gluttony of Town

In the afternoon we took a road walk up 19E to a hostel and pub called The Station. In a setting shared solely with other hikers, we enjoyed baskets of fries, Mac and cheese, and a couple of craft brews. We were hypnotized by the calories in front of us, enjoying every last bite and sip, but we paid for it shortly after when we stepped back onto the trail on our hottest day to date with 16 miles still left ahead of us.  With the sun beating down on us we pushed onward through meadows and rhododendron surrounded trail, stopping to dunk our hats in each creek and waterfall we passed. Aside from another devastating case of spilled ramen, the rest of the day was smooth and uneventful as we hiked into the night to beat the heat.

With a plan to stay at Boots Off Hostel 17 miles ahead the next day, we were motivated to wake up early and crush some miles to enjoy half a day of rest. We cruised on through Pond Mountain Wilderness, a beautiful area I hadn’t expected to come across. Towering walls of stone made up the Laurel Fork Gorge and we hiked flat along the flowing Laurel Fork for a few miles. The area felt alive, with much more green foliage in the surrounding trees compared to what we found higher up in the mountains. Unfortunately, this abundance of life also came with an abundance of snakes. After a short Fika break at the spectacularly large and flowing Laurel Fork Falls, we headed on for our last big climb of the day drenched in sweat from the recent spike in humidity.

Resting our Feet

We arrived at Boots Off Hostel ready to relax. The hostel had a lot of thought and care put into it, from the unique bucket waterfall showers to the welcoming staff that made you feel at home. I was even lucky enough to spot their hostel cat, but he didn’t have much time for me. He too had his own agenda, on the hunt in the surrounding woods protecting our food from mice. Hotdog and I ate two subway foot longs and enjoyed a couple of Heineikens that night. The hiker hunger was starting to get to us. Tomorrow we start walking North to Damascus, VA, entering the longest state on the trail and putting our first 3 states behind us.