Goodbye, Smokies. Hello, sunshine (3/22, 3/23, 3/24)
Day 25, 3/22: Davenport Gap shelter -> Walnut shelter (10.5 miles)
I had a slow start this morning. I was only planning 10 miles so I didn’t feel rushed. Some of the others were planning on stopping at Standing Bear, but I need to get to Hot Springs in 2 days, so I’m moving on. I hiked the few miles and officially exited the Smokies! I was elated to be done with that section. It was not an enjoyable experience.
The morning hike was pretty. The trail wound down across a quickly flowing stream a couple times with a nice waterfall. I road walked a bit down an underpass under I-40.
Where the trail joined the woods again I passed a few guys with chainsaws who presumably were clearing the trail of downed trees (a hiker’s worst enemy). I was very grateful for those guys.
I started the slow, long climb with a bit of pessimism. Rash and Pinata were coming to Groundhog with me, but the rest of the crew was planning to stay at Standing Bear. They were goofy but I missed them already. I also missed Engine, Caboose, Captain, Earlybird, and the rest of the old crew.
The climb wasn’t terrible and the weather was nice. The trail went up through a meadow and the view was beautiful and worth the climb. I had my phone on, monitoring texts from my sister who was in labor, and a text came through from Engine and Caboose. They were going back to Standing Bear because Caboose hurt her shin. I was really bummed because I was excited to possibly see them in Hot Springs.
The trail plunged back into the woods and started the descent for the day. When I was only 0.2 miles from the shelter, I had to stop to pee. I thought I could hold it but the phenomenon of needing to go more the closer you get to a bathroom was real. I was on a large bend in the trail where I could see both ways pretty far, so I figured I was safe. I step off the trail, do my business, and hear what sounded like a cowbell in the distance. Then I see Beeline practically sprinting down the trail, huge pack in tow. I scramble to get everything in order before he arrives, and barely manage to get decent. We hiked to the shelter together, which was him speeding along and me practically jogging behind to keep up.
Beeline was just stopping in for a snack and was hiking on to Max Patch. I found 4 college spring breakers at the shelter when I arrived (Paintbrush, Cactus, Ash, and Griz). Rash and Pinata arrived shortly after. They said the crazy crew at the last shelter (T-Rex and Tiptoe) wasn’t stopping at Standing Bear after all, and decided to come here! We decided to make a fire for their arrival to show them we knew what we were doing. A few hours later, we had some semblance of a pathetic fire going.
I was constantly checking my phone to see if my niece had been born yet, and I finally convinced myself to put my phone down for a few minutes and make a snack. After my snack I checked my phone and sure enough, baby Olivia was born! I announced this to the shelter and we all shared in the excitement.
After dinner, Pinata was kind enough to show me her whole hammock setup. I got to sit in it and I was amazed how comfortable it is. I might consider hammocking once it warms up.
Half Price and a few others arrived, and then we see JAM coming down the trail but he’s alone. We’re confused since he was hiking with T-Rex and Tiptoe, but then we see the two goofballs coming down the trail wearing only hiking boots, socks, knee braces, boxers, and their packs! They had upgraded from shirtless hikers to pantless hikers. The knee braces really made the ensemble. With the sun going down and the temperature dropping fast, they were motivated to put their pants back on, but they still stayed shirtless.
The two shirtless hikers started a magnificent fire, which made our teasing them come down a few notches. We all hung out around the fire and chatted. It got cold very fast so we all climbed in our sleeping bags/hammocks/tents and called it a night.
Day 26, 3/23: Walnut shelter -> Groundhog shelter (13.1 miles)
I woke up in the middle of the night and really had to pee. Thank goodness this shelter had a privy. I was getting ready to get out of my sleeping bag when I heard howling in the distance and another howling answering the first. It sounded like coyotes. I was torn. I really needed to use the privy but in my sleepy state I couldn’t remember how big or dangerous coyotes were. The last thing I wanted was to be a headline: “Girl on AT gets mauled by coyotes on the way to privy”. I held my bladder and fell back asleep.
It was pretty chilly when we woke up so no one really wanted to get out of their sleeping bags, except me, to use the coyoteless privy. We started packing up. T-Rex, who slept in a hammock last night without an underquilt, was first to pack up and leave. He looked like he had a really cold night. Tiptoe slept on the picnic table last night with his head hanging off the edge. It did not look comfortable. He stayed asleep as we moseyed around him, making breakfast. Half Price made a joke about this being the kind of joint where we eat food off his body since it was taking up the length of the picnic table.
We looked at the elevation for the day and we had a big climb in the morning, then relatively flat/down, then a smaller climb right before the shelter. I hate steep climbs so I was hoping for switchbacks.
I started out with Rash and Pinata up the long climb. There were quite a few downed trees we had to navigate around which are a hiker’s worst enemy. We took a break at what we thought was 1 mile from the top and checked our maps, which told us we were actually 3 miles from the top. I channeled my inner “Curses At Mountains” (Earlybird’s original trailname) and trudged on.
I passed Rash and Pinata on a downhill and met up with Lumberjill, who was at our shelter last night. She was taking a break so I passed her. She then followed behind me, and I asked if she wanted to pass, but she said no, that I was pacing her. That gave me enough motivation to get us the last couple miles up to Max Patch.
Max Patch is a big open field on top of a mountain with an incredible unobstructed 360 degree view. Lumberjill and I chatted with a lesbian couple who had hiked the PCT 8 years ago. They checked their pockets for any snacks they could give us as trail magic but came up empty handed, and were disappointed they couldn’t be trail angels today. The kindness of complete strangers on the trail is remarkable.
Strider joined us on Max Patch, but it was windy and cold so we said goodbye to the PCTers and headed down the mountain. Strider and Lumberjill stopped off at a shelter to eat lunch and I continued on.
The terrain was flat now and the weather was beautiful and sunny. I ran into a group of 6 day hikers, all women and one man, with 3 awesome dogs. I talked to them for 10-15 minutes about the trail, being a woman on the trail, and my experiences so far. One of them was peeling an orange and insisted I take half. I ate it segment by segment as I was talking to them and had to very consciously not shove the whole thing in my mouth at once. I think eating as quickly as possible is a part of “hiker hunger”, but it’s not a good look in front of normal folks. The orange was so sweet and juicy. Another one of them gave me a bag of fresh veggies and a small packet of ranch dressing! I was really excited to eat fresh veggies tonight.
I said thank you for the snacks and they said they’d be cheering me on. Having complete strangers be this kind and encouraging gave me a pep in my step. I hiked on until I ran into Dirtbag eating lunch on a big rock! I told him I thought he was dead for hiking in the Smokies during the blizzard and I was glad to see him alive. We chatted and I let him finish his lunch while I hiked on.
The rest of the flat part was easy breezy, but the last mile was straight uphill and truly awful. My legs were sore from pushing so hard this morning so every step was torture. Luckily it went by quickly. On the map it showed the shelter after the mountain summit slightly on the downslope. When I reached the summit I prepared myself for a little more hiking, but the shelter was only 100 feet down from the summit. I jogged down to it, so grateful to be finished with hills for the day.
T-Rex was the first one at the shelter with some day hikers. As a thru hiker, day hikers are easy to spot. They’re clean, a little reserved, and polite. These guys ended up moving on to another shelter after talking with us for a while. I half wondered if we scared them off.
The rest of our little crew started trickling in: Rash, Pinata, Tiptoe, Lumberjill, Strider, Oz, Truck, Winter, JAM, Half Price, and Beaker. The shelter was ridiculously tiny and barely held 5 people, so most people set up their tents. I was fortunate to get a spot which meant less set up/take down.
I had first dinner (instant grits with cubes of cheddar cheese) and second dinner (lasagna mountainhouse), and chatted with Lumberjill, Winter, Oz, and Truck, who are all girls. This was the first shelter I’d been at with a substantial girl presence and I was loving every second of it.
I made a few phone calls since I had service, planning for Louis’s arrival tomorrow. I set up a shuttle to take me and Louis from Devil’s Fork Gap to Hot Springs. We’ll leave his car at Devil’s Fork and hike to it over the course of a few days. I also tried setting up a hotel room but the one hotel I wanted told me to call back at 8am. I can’t wait to see Louis after almost a month apart. Just like hiking, it seems like the longest part of the trek is the last few miles. These last few days have seemed like an eternity.
The walk down to get water was treacherous and very long. The water flowing from the pipe was pathetic. The wind started picking up and the temperature dropped substantially over the course of an hour well before sunset, so we all put on our puffies. T-Rex had initially collected wood for a fire but it got so cold that he huddled in his sleeping bag instead.
The wind was strong and biting. I was wearing my down puffy over my synthetic puffy and barely staying warm. Pinata had the brillant idea to stretch her hammock tarp across the large exposed entrance to the shelter to deflect some of the wind. It was instant relief from the cold when she did that. I think the night would have been much more miserable without her quick thinking.
Day 27, 3/24: Groundhog shelter -> Hot Springs, NC (13.1 miles)
I had a really restless night. I was initially in my down sleeping bag with my synthetic bag overtop, which is my usual setup for really chilly nights. However, I think the temperature without the wind wasn’t too bad (it was calling for a low of 40), it was just the wind that made it feel like it was in the teens. Without the wind, I got very hot. A few hours in I had to take both jackets off, unclip my down quilt from my sleeping pad and shove it to one side, and just sleep with the synthetic 35 degree bag to be comfortable.
The temperature wasn’t the only problem. Since I was second pick to the shelter, I picked the prime real estate of the wall spot. This is also the mice’s favorite place to scurry along. They kept me up all night long, scurrying back and forth what felt like inches from my head. I was terrified one would come into my sleeping bag after Rash told us at the last shelter he felt one crawling up his leg. I heard rustling around my pack in the middle of the night so I got up and hung my pack on a hook. Hopefully I’ll learn to care less about the little critters and just accept it as part of the outdoors, or I’ll just get used to tenting every night.
We woke up to relatively warm temperatures compared to the night before. I packed up and watched the clock, waiting for 8:00. I tried calling the hotel back right at 8:00, but no one answered. I tried to be patient and started hiking to pass the time.
I stopped a few miles in and thankfully got through to the hotel and booked a room. With the weekend it seems like all the places are filled up so I was thankful to finally get a place secured. It made the rest of my hiking much more enjoyable and less stressful. JAM caught up to me and I was happy to have his company. We talked about wedding videography, him being half Asian, and life in general. He hung back and I hiked on.
It was an easy day without many climbs and it was passing quickly. A lot of the flats were exposed to the sun, and I started heating up. I had my fleece leggings under my hiking pants and I felt like I was boiling. I stopped and took off my hiking pants and just hiked in the leggings which made a big difference. It was a beautiful day and the birds were out in full chirping force. I saw a little rust colored lizard scurry out of my way on the trail. Part of the trail smelled like honeysuckle which was delightful.
I got into town and as I was walking to the hotel, I hear someone call my trailname. It was Earlybird and Sitting Bull! They were playing beer pong in the parking lot with a huge group of hikers, most of whom I’ve seen at one point or another. They gave me a warm welcome and it felt great to be part of this huge extended trail family. Someone thrust a can of cold PBR into my hands which I tried to refuse but they told me to either drink it now or pack it out on the trail. I hung out with them for a few minutes before continuing onto my hotel and my long awaited shower.
I arrived at Magnolia Manor, which is a big old house turned into hotel and was shown to my room. It was spacious and luxurious. I got the surprise of my life when I went into the bathroom and found every hiker’s dream: a jacuzzi tub! I promptly dropped my pack and took a hot bath until my fingers were prunes. I love the amazing feeling that simple day-to-day activities bring to a hiker who’s been in the woods for days.
After my luxury bath, I took a nap. I’ve been hiking fairly big miles for the past few days and without a zero I’m starting to feel the aches catch up. After my nap I got a burger to go and ate it on the porch of my room. I felt like a true southern doing some front-porch sitting.
Louis arrived late after running into lots of traffic. It was wonderful seeing him after being apart for so long.
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