Frozen camelbacks and Wiffle Ball bats: Hot Springs NC to Erwin TN.
Four Weeks In (and I’m really hungry)
At the time of this publication I have made it to Erwin TN, where I’m splitting a small cabin seven ways with Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Banana Boat, Houdini, Clif, and Roadside. Lots of milestones have passed in the last couple of days: my first 20+ mile day, crossing past the end of the fourth week, crossing 300 miles, and the onset of the famed hiker hunger that has begun to manifest itself. More on that at the end, if I get time, but first: day summaries!
Day 24: March 26th
Hot Springs, NC: 274.4 Miles
Miles Hiked: 0
This, my friends, is the almighty zero day. It is a day of rest, a day of relaxation, a day to be spent playing Wiffle Ball, eating gratuitous amounts of town food all throughout the day. This was what I thought the day would consist of, but in reality there was a lot more work than play to be done during my day off. I last left off in the library, typing desperately as the clock counted down to 6:00pm when the friendly library staff would kindly give me the boot out the door. I succeeded, despite a couple of wireless internet problems, but the blog ended up taking five hours to do. That’s more my own fault than anything else though – slow wireless internet and my misunderstanding of the online wordpress app made for a frustrating combination. Luckily that’s getting better and better! After leaving the library I headed over to the outfitter (closed), the coffee shop (closed), and the welcome center (closed). That’s small town America for you – which is neither a good or a bad thing. It’s a refreshing change from the 24/7 hustle that the urban New England Lifestyle seems to prioritize. I can’t say I dislike it however – I think about Boston almost every day – but life out here on the trail is different. Very different.
After discovering that everything was closed, I headed over to the Spring Creek Tavern, where I ordered the exact same burger as the night before (Pepperjack Cheeseburger with blue cheese crumbles and hot sauce) and hung out with a large assortment of Thru-Hikers throughout the evening. I even met some new Thru-Hikers: Blackbeard (whatever you do, don’t call her Veto!) Hot Pants, and Bisquit. I can’t remember Bisquits hiking partner that he was with, but if you’re out there let me know and I’ll be sure to get in and edit this. We spent the night eating and enjoying several of the excellent local NC brews that they had on tap – they had a great amber lager that really went well with the food and the evening. Roadside and I got into a high spirited debate with Blackbeard over our feelings about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit
atrocities movies. We were both huge LOTR trilogy fans, and huge Tolkein fans, but we were in the camp of those that believe that Peter Jackson way overdid it with The Hobbit trilogy. Some of the acting was great – Martin Freeman as Bilbo in particular, but aside from that it was devastating watching your favorite childhood story devolve into a serious of action movie tropes and crude and overblown CGI effects. Sorry to anyone out there that this offends – I know some (Balbert) might be mad at me as I have expressed a like of the films in the past, but as time has gone on I’ve grown a little bitter about it. We argued back and forth for an hour – friendly arguing of course – but we eventually reached a stalemate. Blackbeard enjoys the films because she sees them as films that stand on their own merit, separate from their adaptation of the novels. Roadside and I see them as adaptations, and evaluate them as such. To each their own, but I’ll take the 1977 The Hobbit cartoon film adaptation over the Peter Jackson CGI jumble any day.
Day 25: March 27th
Hot Springs, NC to Spring Mountain Shelter: 285.4 Miles
Miles Hiked: 11
Not quite a nero day, but with a cold front approaching I was a bit sluggish making my way out of a clean warm hostel and into the incoming abyss of the North Carolina trail. I left the hostel and did a quick resupply in order to add some more calories to my food stores. My hunger is really starting to take off – whereas before 3500 calories would have been an massive sum, it is now becoming inadequate to my daily needs. Luckily the Dollar General has lots of inexpensive pasta sides, tuna packets, pop tarts (6 pop tarts for a dollar, say whaaat?) and other goodies to help. Nutrition really goes out the window when you attempt a hike like this, but at the end of the day there are simply no other options – more than anything else you simply need enough to get by.
After shoveling a couple of breakfast sandwiches I stopped by the outfitter to pickup some more supplies and then made my way to the Hiking Ministries center, where we hung out for a couple hours having coffee and cookies and all sorts of food. We didn’t get out of there until well after 12:00pm, and the temptation to stay another day in town was great. Houdini wisely took up that opportunity, rather than freeze in the incoming cold. I elected to freeze, but more on that later.
The hike to the shelter actually wasn’t bad – we’re now reaching the point where 10-13 miles post lunch isn’t that big of a deal. I met Banana Boat a couple of times throughout the day, and we both were excited to see evidence of the controlled burn that the Forest Service had enacted. This is critical for the health of the forest – it helps burn away scattered brush and allow for new life to develop. More pictures on that below (out of order because of the mobile upload). Not long after that we reached Camp, and the cold was coming in quick. Temperatures were predicted to reach below twenty degrees by the time the sun went down. The evening chills linger in differently up in the mountains than they do back. You feel them in waves as you hike into camp in the evening. As the sun descends the dark side of the mountains begin to chill, with those areas left in darkness the longest becoming the coldest. This can make for an interesting end to your hike: hike 200 feet to the inside of a pass and you can feel a signficiant difference. The air is colder, the wind is brisker – it feels like night has already come. But if you hike up another couple hundred feet back into the sun, it’s feels like mid day all over again.
When I got in to set up camp I immediately put up my space blanket as a wind screen. This would help to stifle the roaring winds that would be coming in through the night, and although it helped it definitely wasn’t enough. Clif, Banana Boat and I set our tents up right in a line in order to minimize the wind impact up on the ridge (the only flat camping spots were on the ridge a couple of hundred feet beyond the shelter). I went back down to the shelter to cook dinner: a broccoli cheddar pasta and a black bean soup. Hunger persisted past the conclusion of the meal, but by that point it was too cold to stay outside. I got into my tent and was relatively warm, by it sounded like we were in the middle of a hurricane all night. Even with all of the guy lines on my tent pulled taught, the walls of my tent were ripping around and threatening to uproot and fly away. Of course this didn’t happen, thankfully, but it was a long night. This is why you spend the big bucks for a good lightweight tent – well worth it.
Day 26: March 28th
Spring Mountain Shelter to Jerry Cabin Shelter: 300.8 Miles
Miles Hiked: 15.4
Camping up on the ridge was an interesting experience. For one thing, I proved to myself that my tent system can withstand the cold and wind of a late season North Carolina cold front. It was a pretty restless night, but I remained warm… as long as I was in my sleeping bag. Leaving it, on the other hand, was nearly impossible. Since it was below freezing I slept with my sawyer mini filter in my sleeping bag, so thankfully that was still functional and in good shape. A lot of the rest of my gear was frozen though. Frozen socks, frozen boots, frozen water bottles. I was smart enough to empty my camelback bladder (this time around at least), but my other water container was completely frozen. It took me a while to get going with all this, and I didn’t end up leaving camp until 10:00am.
If there’s one reason why I’m looking forward to the warmer days of spring and summer, it’s becuause of the mornings. Back at home I’m a morning person, and I actually enjoy the cold – ask Amanda if you don’t believe me (she’ll be freezing in the car while I’m rolling down a window because I’m so warm). Out here it’s different – you can’t simply leave a warm house and jump out into the cold on the way to work. It started warming up when I finally got moving, but there was no early morning vigor like I had during the first two weeks of the hike. The cold will do that to you I guess.
After making it 8.6 miles forward to Little Laurel Shelter I ran into Banana Boat and Clif, who were enjoying some trail magic left by a man who lived near by. I think his name was Mark – again I forget these names a lot of the time. He hiked up a half mile from his home onto the trail to bring us bags of chips, pretzels, soda, beers, and fresh strawberrys. We demolished the chips and soda, and I hiked up the rest of the goods to everyone waiting at the Jerry Cabin Shelter. After hiking another two miles up hill from Little Laurel Shelter I got up to the Big Firescald Knob, which had one of the best views on the entire trail so far. The ridge toed the exact line between North Carolina and Tennessee. The northbound hiker would look out to see the mountanous North Carolina on the right, and the far off “plains” Tennessee on the left. Thankfully the weather had also let up by this point, so I was able to hike through this without worrying about a sudden wind coming me up and knocking me off the the mountain.
The descent down from the ridge was a little rocky and difficult, but the rest the day was an easy descent to Jerry Cabin Shelter. Usually I would have taken my time enjoying the view at the end of a hike like this, but the clock was approaching 6:30 and I still hadn’t made it to the shelter yet. There’s the downside to getting a 10:00am start. I smelled camp before I found it – Rolling Thunder had got a fire going inside the shelter, since it was one of the old school stone types that had a stone fireplace built into it. I was greeted with Romeo yelling “about time you showed up!” and others asking where I had been. I’m not a particularly fast hiker, but I do like to be camp by 4 or 5 to relax and eat without feeling rushed. This was not one of these evenings. There were a couple of spots left in the shelter, and we even had a new animal friend “join” us – Doyle, a lost dog that we had coaxed over after we found him wimpering and shivering near the shelter. He had a collar with information on it, but we couldn’t get a phone call out to his owners, so our plan was to keep him warm with us and bring him to the road where we could get someone to come pick him up the next day. Rolling Thunder got the fire going again before we got to bed, which was a blessing as the temperature was in the teens before I even closed my eyes. At some point during the night he got into his wife’s (Brightside) sleeping bag so that Doyle could warm up in his. It was a cold night, but I was able to stay warm since we fit Ozzy, Happy Marine, Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Banana Boat, Clif, Romeo, and myself into a 6 person shelter.
Day 27: March 29th
Jerry Cabin Shelter to Hogback Ridge Shelter: 316.6 Miles
Miles Hiked: 15.2
The world was frozne when we woke up – you could tell just by looking at this old thermometer, which read 11 degrees when Rolling Thunder first got up.
Seriously – it was a cold, cold morning when we woke up. We got a fire going to warm up before we even started hiking, and almost everybody there waited until it warmed up before it started getting warm. You can see Happy Marine below, trying to warm himself by the fire before we got moving.
To be honest there wasn’t a whole lot that I had to write about today. It was a nice day, relatively warm as the sun came through, but all in all it was pretty uneventful for the majority of the day. The end of the day was rough for sure. We had a 1600 foot climb up to Lick Rock and Big Flat, and this was not an easy task to get through at the end of a long day. Thankfully there was a little space in the shelter left, and I settled in quickly after eating dinner and making the absurdly long walk to the water source to fill up. Around 1 in the morning Clif decided to wake up and get water as well, which scared the hell out of me as I only witnessed his return and not his departure. A single light shining ominously into the shelter in the middle of the night is not a sight you want to wake up and see.
Day 28: March 30th
Hogback Ridge Shelter to No Business Knob Shelter: 336.7 Miles
Miles Hiked: 20.7
I finally did it! After 28 days I attempted a 20+ mile day and actually succeeded! Our goal was to hike this distance so that the next day could be an easy 6 miles into Erwin, TN. Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Roadside, Banana Boat, and I all were attempting to make this distance so we could split a cabin at one of the hostel/outfitter set ups in town. I got a later start than I would have liked – 9am – but it wasn’t so detrimental as to derail any chancex of success. Besides – there wasn’t much of a view to slow me down anyway, at least in the morning. Take a look below for yourself to see:
After four miles I descended to Sams Gap, were I corssed over US 23, I-26 and was able to get a few phone calls and texts out. Having AT&T is very frustrating on the trail – there’s never any service down south, so it was nice to be able to get SOMETHING out for once.
The mediocrity of the first half of the day changed completely after we left the lowlands. The bald pictured below is called, simply: “Big Bald” and it was both very big and very bald. I felt like I was in a Tolkein universe, pursuing orcs across the Rohan Highlands. Both of the giant mounds you see below were over 5000 feet in elevation, and you could certainly feel the height. Winds were whipping – and I really mean whipping – to the point where I could barely walk and stand straight as I made my way over them.
The rest of the day was long and tiring, but good weather and clear skies made it possible for me to get there in time to set up my tent and eat at No Bussiness Knob Shelter before the sun went down. I think that part of the reason why I struggled is due to my diminishing food stores. My hiker hunger was really kicking in, and so what would have previously lasted me six days without an issue was now barely enough to get me through four. I made it into camp, exhausted, tired, but I made it, and that night I slept better than I have in weeks. It’s a shame I was so tired, really, because the moon was so bright that you could have done a night hike without even as much as a head lamp for guidence. Those days will come though – no sense in rushing them.
Day 29: March 31st
No Business Knob Shelter to Erwin, TN: 342.9 Miles
Miles Hiked: 6.2
After yesterdays difficult 20 miler, this morning was lightyears better on my feet. There’s not much that I remember to write about – I simply got up and started hiking, noticing that the miles passed beneath my feet much quicker than they did before. I got to the Uncle Johnnys Nolichucky Hostel and Outfiiter around 11. We checked out the cabin, which was really small but had enough bunks to fit all of us in without any difficulty. Brightside, Rolling Thunder, Banana Boat, Roadside, Clif and I ended up splitting it six ways, with Houdini rejoining us later on to make it 7. It was tight, but we all fit! Besides – for 12 dollars a shower and a cabin isn’t too bad (plus the free shuttles into town!) A
Around 12:30 we took a shuttle into town, where we went (and subsequently made great pillage of) an all you can eat pizza buffet, which was some of the best food I’ve had on the trail so far. After that we went back to the cabin and went swimming in the river nearby. Like everything else so far, it was cold, but at least the sun was warming up.
The rest of the afternoon was nice and relaxing – for real this time. I got a good resupply in, got to swim in a freezing river, and ALMOST finally got to play Wiffle Ball with everybody before we ran out of time. We’re heading to Fresh Grounds tomorrow and camping out with hnim so I’m realy hoping we can play there if there’s any daylight left. I’ve been carrying this thing since Hot Springs so hopefully it’ll get some use!
For Dinner a crowd of 14+ Thru-Hikers went to a Mexican restaurant, where Houdini and I split a pitcher of Margaritas and the entire crew ate dozend and dozens of 99 cent tacos. I made the horrid mistake of pouring hot sauce all over three of my Tacos, which was not the mild stuff I was used to…. it was Haberno based. The next hour was spent in agony, with my mouth so numb that even speaking became difficult. I followed the sacred and time honored Thru-Hiking tradition of finishing all of your food, but it was one hell of a trial. That’s the last time I’ll have hot sauce like that for sure.
I’ll leave it at this for now, as a whole bunch of us are going to move forward and try and meet Fresh Grounds to camp with him tonighjt. The first month out here has been nothing short of amazing – a completely different world from what I’m used to. The kindness of strangers and fellow hikers alike has been almost overwhelming, and if anything it’s making me ponder how I’ll be able to adjust to the rest of the world when I move back to Boston for Law School in the fall. For now, though, I’m trying to take things one day at a time, and to enjoy this incredible adventure that we fortunate few have somehow managed to stumble on to. The simplicity is amazing: you eat, you sleep, and you hike north. These are the only codes to which you are bound, the only responsibilities to which you much adhere. Beyond that, this trip is completely within your hands, and you can make of it whatever you want.
For my next challenge – and hopefully I’ll have it worked out by the time I get the next blog post out – I need to figure out how to get enough food. I’ve progressed past the point of regular hunger and food intake. At this point, there are states of hungry and not hungry… there is no full. I feel the food that I eat more as energy going into my body than actual food, and often before I feel hungry I feel my energy diminish. That’s the tell in this world that lets you know you need to eat again. The next challenge will be trying to follow that. I’m not sure when the next blog post will be out – Damascus, if not before, but there are several smaller hostels coming up so I will try to stay at those when I can. Until then, thanks for all the support, and here’s a picture of Brightside fumbling around with my phone.
Keep on keeping on,
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