It was finally time to take a zero day. We finished our hike on a beautiful day up to Dick’s Creek, 11 miles outside of Haiwassee. At first, we were planning on just camping outside of town to save some money, but, yeah, that didn’t happen. After an 11 mile hike that day, a shower and a bed were sounding pretty nice.
At this point, we had a pretty solid trail family, or “tramily”. Darwin and Snuggles are a married couple in their late twenties who have a plethora of stories about their outdoor adventures. Roubaix, or Roub, is our military vet and classy southern gentlemen, and then there’s Hot Sauce. He’s our goofy companion that knows how to keep it real and will always make us laugh.
Finn was with us at that point, too. He hiked the AT last year and almost completed a Yo-Yo (a northbound and southbound hike back-to-back) until he got sick in Virginia because he never filtered his water (ALWAYS FILTER YOUR WATER). Regardless, we referred to him as our Elder because he always had bits of advice for our thru-hike.
Like, how to hitchhike.
Snuggles, Darwin, Hot Sauce and Roub were standing on the side of the highway trying to pick up a hitch to drive us into town. Finn and I were sitting on the edge of the parking lots sipping beer (graciously donated by Sir-Packs-a-Lot) and watched as car after car completely ignored them.
Finn turned to me and said, “Looks like they need some hitchhiking help.” I nodded in agreement. We both got up and joined them on the side of the road.
“Now look, you guys aren’t being silly enough,” Finn said in his Kentucky-bred southern twang. “You gotta act silly. More people will pick you up if you start to act silly.”
So now, six thru-hikers were trying their best to act silly on the side of the road to pick up a hitch. We got nothing.
“Actually I think it’s because we have too many people,” Finn decided. He was right. We split up a little bit down the road, and then finally a man and his pickup truck let us all hop in the back and we cruised down the road with the wind slapping our faces.
After a long debate on where to stay for the night, we hooked up with the best deal we could find: the Holiday Inn Express. We had to do a little bit of sweet-talking for them to allow all six of us in one room, but we made it work. For $20 a person, we got free breakfast, beds, unlimited showers, laundry and a HOT TUB.
That put every other motel and hostel to shame in the Haiwassee area. We were pretty pumped.
But first, food. The nearest restaurant just so happened to be a buffet.
Daniel’s Buffet was definitely the midday senior hangout spot. As soon as we walked in, we were bombarded with Gone With the Wind memorabilia covering every wall and corner in that restaurant. It seriously was the weirdest vibe. An Old Country Buffet for old people.
But man, was that food good. We ate until we couldn’t move and when we finally could move we walked back to the hotel. The hot tub was calling our name. It felt amazing to dip our sore feet in that bubbling hot water. And tomorrow, we would have a whole day to do absolutely nothing.
Except we had too much to do. Being a thru-hiker means… we have to walk everywhere. Even in town. So if we need a gear or grocery resupply, we have to walk there. Luckily, Haiwassee’s downtown area was pretty small so everything was close by. We walked to two gear shops and hit up the local Ingles for food. I somehow managed to only spend $20 for the next 4 days of food. $5 a day on food is something I can totally live with.
As we’re walking back from the store, Finn walks right up to me and says, “You’re going to make it.”
It took me awhile to realize what he meant.
“Well, I hope we all make it.” This trail isn’t a competition to me.
“Not everybody makes it,” he said.
He’s right. Not everybody does. But with the solid group we have right now, I couldn’t imagine any of us not making it to Katahdin.
With a productive zero day behind us and a belly full of Holiday Inn breakfast, it was time to sluggishly head back to the trail. There was 100% chance of crappy weather that morning, but we had no idea what we were in for that day. I was blinded by my excitement for crossing the border into North Carolina 8 miles into the trail.
We decided to split up into two groups for hitchhiking this time and managed to get a pickup truck to hitch Rube, Hot Sauce and me back to Dick’s Creek.
It was rainy. And it was cold.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. It was rainy, foggy and misty, but that wasn’t anything I hadn’t trekked through before.
I had to pee a few miles in so I decided to take off my pack and find a good tree to hide behind. Not two steps later did I slip and fall on a muddy rock (of course I can hike 95 miles with my pack on and not fall once, but the second my pack comes off I eat some dirt). I stumbled to my feet and noticed my rain pants… Three big holes were ripped at the knee.
Well. Those are no longer waterproof.
Also, nothing is completely waterproof. After a few miles hiking in rain, it is the sad truth to know that you WILL get wet. The rain gear protects your under layers from becoming a sopping mess, but really, it doesn’t matter.
You’re still a sopping mess.
And then I got miserable. The sky grew darker and the fog grew thicker. I couldn’t even tell I was on a mountain because I could barely see five feet around me. My feet were sore and it felt like my heels were being hammered at the bone, but I had to cross that state line, dammit, even if I had to crawl there.
At an excruciatingly 8 miles from Dicks Creek, I almost walked right past the damn thing. The imaginary state line is marked by this wee little sign hammered into a tree.
Where were the fireworks? The confetti? The cake? It was extremely anti-climatic. Or it may have just been the weather.
I snapped a quick selfie and continued on with my hike. Shelter, dry clothes and food were now only four miles away.
Those four miles were the most hellish miles I have ever experienced in my entire life.
As soon as you step into North Carolina, it presents you with these fun little mountains.
I noticed the incline but didn’t think much of it until the wind picked up at 30-35 mph. The wind pierced through my hands like a hundred blades, and reinforced the wet clothes on my skin. My gloves were already cold and sopping wet, but at least putting them on guarded my hands against the wind. While I was wet, my body heat could warm the water in my clothes and gloves. As long as I didn’t take the gloves off, my hands could stay warm, though pruney.
I can’t even tell you how strong those winds were, but I can tell you they terrified me enough where I started to keep an eye out for any flying tree branches. I did NOT want to be whacked in the face and then thrown off a 4,500 foot peak (not that I could see how high I was because of all the fog).
And then the mountain turned into a steep climb. Rocks. Upon rocks. Every time I thought I made it to the top, another switchback would tell me I’m only kidding myself. I couldn’t see how far I had to go, and my body was beginning to break down.
It all became too much. I wanted to cry. My face became stiff with the preparation for tears.
“I’m not going to cry,” I told myself. I’m saving those tears for Katahdin.
Plus, I was already so wet. I didn’t need a sopping face, too.
My face still held stiff, but I knew the only way this was all going to end was to put one foot in front of the other. I don’t care if a snail got to the shelter faster than me. If I kept putting one foot in front of the other, I WOULD make it.
In the outside world, I’m normally a pretty positive, optimistic, see the good side of things kind of person.
On the trail, I wanted to fucking murder that mountain.
Positive thinking was not going to help me. I don’t even think I could possibly come up with anything remotely positive at that moment. So I decided on a different approach: realistic negativity.
Or, fuck everything. All my respects to nature, but I laid down the misery.
I tripped over a tree root? Go fuck yourself.
I slipped on a rock? Go fuck yourself you stupid rock.
Another switchback on the mountain? What is this shit?
I was very unpleasantly vocal with my thoughts. But you know what? It made me feel a little bit better. It didn’t make the situation suck any less, but all I needed to do was put one foot in front of the other. And swear a lot.
And then finally, after the worst day on the trail yet, I made it to the shelter – there was one spot left. And it was mine. I was never so happy to snag a shelter spot. I made dinner, changed into dry clothes, and slipped into my sleeping bag trying to stay still so I could warm up my bag.
I felt bad when Snuggles, Darwin and Hot Sauce rolled in because they had to pitch their tent in the frigid, windy temps and the rain. I was extremely grateful that I didn’t have to set up my tent. I think I stayed in my sleeping bag for a total of 15 hours before we got up the next morning.
The weather was just as crappy as the day before, and we all decided we wanted to stay in a shelter that night. The closest shelter was only 5 miles away, and while we hated the idea of hiking such a short day, we hated hiking another 11 miles to the next shelter even more.
By 12:00, we were at the shelter and staked our claim on the only spots that were left. Martha Stewart, a former cop and high school teacher, and his son, Dr. Pepper, were at the shelter the night before, too. They didn’t much want to hike in this weather, either. It was another long day in our sleeping bags, but we were happy to stay dry.
Later that afternoon, another thru-hiker walked in.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Craynip,” he said.
“I have a tattoo of a crayfish around my nipple,” he replied.
Seriously. The people of the trail never cease to amaze me.
There wasn’t room in the shelter, so he decided to sleep under the shelter. Not a few moments later did the smell of pot rise above through the floorboards.
“Somebody is getting safe down there,” I said. Smoking pot is a very common recreational activity along the trail, and nobody ever seems to mind. He packed us a bowl and we felt safe for the night. Someone in our group was having trouble with the light when Martha Stewart told him how it’s supposed to be done.
“Yeah, let the cop show you how it’s done,” said Darwin. We couldn’t stop laughing.
Finally! Dry weather! Today was the day we decided to hike to Mt. Albert where there was a water tower on the top of the mountain. It was a clear and beautiful day. You could not ask for better weather after all the crap we had been through the past few days.
It was 14 miles to Mt. Albert, and the miles just flew by. It was our biggest day yet. And for the first time, our tramily hiked together the entire time. Nobody got left behind.
When we dipped down into the gap before Mt. Albert, all of our mouths dropped. We thought we were climbing Mt. Albert this entire time when we realized how very, awfully wrong we were.
All you had to do was look up. We had a steep climb ahead of us.
The night before, Hot Sauce mentioned that Mt. Albert had some hand-over-hand climbing. The mountains just started to get real.
There was nothing else to do but to keep going, but a few steps in and my calves BURNED. The climbs were so incredibly steep I felt like I would fall backwards if it weren’t for my trekking poles keeping me up! And then the rocks sprang up. There were moments when we had to throw our poles ahead just to use our hands to pull ourselves up over the rocks.
It hurt. It hurt bad. But 30 minutes later, we reached the top of Mt. Albert, and when we saw that view… any climb in the world is worth the reward of seeing all the mountains you hiked, and all the mountains you will hike.
I felt on top of the world. There is nothing more breathtaking than seeing the world from a mountain you put every ounce of energy into climbing.
This day was our next resupply day. We had to make it into Franklin to buy some more food. At first, we decided we weren’t going to stay in town. We were just going to camp at the gap. But the more we talked about showers and laundry, the more we knew we were booking a motel room.
And so we did.
The one great thing about hiking with 5-6 people is that staying in town actually stays pretty cheap – more opportunity to split up the cost. And after showers and laundry, it’s totally worth it.
We did our chores, got some food, and slept good for night. The next morning, we were banking on a free breakfast from a local church. They offered to shuttle us from the motel and back, all for free!
When we got to the church the next morning at 7 AM, I almost had tears in my eyes. The kindness from trail angels is something that I don’t think I can ever get used to. The church made us all the pancakes we wanted, had homemade jam, juice, and coffee, and took our picture so we can mail it home to whomever we wanted.
They were so incredibly nice. People will go out of their way to help thru-hikers just because they believe in our goal just as much as we do. I’ve noticed this again and again on the trail. Every day, even on the worst days, people will do anything they can to make sure we feel safe and get anything we need. The trail brings people together. It turns strangers into friends without having to say a word.
The trail reminds me that the world is a beautiful place. It should not be forgotten that there are wonderful people in the world.
I’ve never felt safer in my entire life than I have on the trail. And this is something I hope to never forget.
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