“Nate, look what the Franklins got us!” I cheered, waving a moldy salami in his face. He grabbed it out of my hands and secured it in his coat pocket. I could tell we’d have it eaten by bedtime.
“Alright, we need a group picture.” Mrs. Franklin waved her arms and five hikers fell into a line. The Franklins were kind enough to pick up Gator, Cliff, Nate and me and cart us and their daughter back to Winding Stair Gap.
We entered the woods as a group but quickly spread out. For most of the day, Nate led Eddy and me while Gator and Cliff were somewhere ahead of us. Sandwiched between Nate and Eddy, I glided along the trail, only half-listening to their chatter about movies and rock climbing. When we reached the bottom of Wayah Bald, Eddy decided to refuel before hitting the ascent. Nate and I trudged ahead.
“What’s this?” Nate panted at me when we reached a road partway up the mountain. “Almost there…” was etched into the snow, an encouraging note from Gator. Nate and I stopped for a snack break before continuing our climb.
After was seemed like hours and miles later, we still hadn’t reached the top. What started out as dry, powdery snow that we were happy to jaunt through became heavy, wet stuff that clung to our boots and pant bottoms and slid our feet sideways no matter where we stepped. We stumbled our way to the old stone bell tower at the summit and kept going. The day had turned dreary.
Spiraling ourselves around the mountain usually didn’t bother us as much as on this day. Again, we were in a cloud, but instead of amazing us, it frustrated us. We could not see what terrain lay ahead and we were becoming more cold and damp by the minute. To add to the fun, the slipping with every step had made Nate’s knee ache again.
We could not have been more ready for the day to end when we reached the shelter. I volunteered to get water while Nate turned toward our home for the night. As I approached the shelter with a full two liters of clean water, I was thankful that Nate had brightened up. He was talking to someone. It was Gator! Thirty minutes later, Eddy arrived! All of us felt defeated by the mountain that day, but after sharing a dinner of moldy salami, mashed potatoes and ramen noodles, our spirits had been lifted.
Joking and telling stories as we all crawled into our sleeping bags, our laughter was interrupted by a howl. Coyotes. There were fresh tracks strewn about the shelter. In an attempt to squash any of our worries, Nate assured us, “I’ve never heard of a coyote attack. I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
We did wake up to more coyote prints around our shelter, but nothing had been bothered. Knowing that both Gator and Eddy planned to hike 16.5 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (the NOC), Nate and I bid them adieu. We weren’t going to push with the way Nate’s knee felt the previous day.
Such a contrast to the day before, the sun was out, the sky was blue and the views were indescribable. Just one mile short of our destination, we creaked up the stairs of Wesser Bald tower and could not believe what we saw. Looking at the screen on his camera, Nate attempted to capture the vastness of our view, but it could not be done. He looked down just in time to avoid stepping through the massive hole in the snow-covered, wooden tower floor. In a trance from the view, I murmured something about sleeping here, but Nate pointed out the death-trap hole and I placed my feet more carefully.
It was a short time later that we made it to the shelter that we had chosen for the night, at 3:30. The entire day we had been debating about ending early or extending our hike another five miles, but with Nate’s knee I wanted to be conservative. At the fork to the shelter, he turned to me, “If I weren’t in the equation, would you keep hiking today?” Noting that his situation was irrelevant since he was half of the equation, I honestly confessed that I would keep going. That was all he needed to hear.
After a few more uphills, we made it to a section of straight downs. Always begging me to be careful and showing me the safest route down, Nate led the way, stopping each time he felt anything in his knee. The grade of the trail eventually lessened and we found ourselves winding through the mountains once again. We found the second shelter by six o’clock. It was empty.
With flickering cell phone service, we tried to learn the whereabouts of Eddy and Gator. We were sure Eddy had advanced to the NOC but we didn’t think Gator would want another night off the trail. We were wrong. Nate received a picture of Gator’s view: a burger and a beer. Attempting to justify trekking another mile into the NOC versus having a cost-free night in the woods, Nate was in a tizzy. I could tell he wanted “real” food and more time with friends, so I made the decision for him. “Let’s go!”
We rushed into the restaurant at the NOC, minutes before the posted closing time. We figured we would have to eat trail food, but at least we could ensure a room. To our surprise, they seated us at a table and didn’t rush us for our order. An hour later, when we and the other remaining guests waddled out the door with full bellies, the staff began their nightly cleaning routine. We were happy.
Check-out from the hostel at the NOC was ten o’clock and we used the entire morning to relax. I showered, Nate drank coffee, I wrote, Nate made a video. It was a welcome variation to the routine of waking up, packing up and climbing mountains. We were eager to hit the trail, but first we had to make a stop at the outfitter.
I was ready to leave when we discovered that the outfitter didn’t have super glue or hot hands, the only items I was willing to spend money on and haul up the trail, but Nate remembered one more thing. “Do you sell Big Agnes sleeping pads?” he asked the clerk. Indeed they did.
Since our first night on the AT, my sleeping pad has been slowly losing air and Nate has had to refill it multiple times in the middle of each night. I had been in contact with the company, but my assigned customer service representative and I could not connect in a timely manner. The folks at the NOC fixed that. They were willing to replace my leaky sleeping pad with a brand new one off the shelf, confident that their sales representative would credit them for the defective product.
It was after eleven when Nate and I finally started the seven mile, uphill climb out of the NOC. Taking our time to mosey up the trail, we relished the fact that we knew we’d arrive at the shelter with plenty of daylight left and longed for the days that that would be an everyday occurrence. The hike up the hill was not stressful at all, and before I was even hallucinating shelters among the fallen trees, Nate announced that we had made it.
Sitting up in our sleeping bags and gazing into the mountainside through the shelter’s open face, Nate and I were right where we needed to be. Surrounded by nature, we inhaled our trail mix, planned the next few days of hiking, documented what we had experienced so far and digested the fact that we were doing exactly what we had set out to do. We were very happy.
The day began with a mountain for breakfast. Nate skipped to the top and I made my way behind him, slow and steady. At the top, he was elated to be so mountain-hungry and I was just happy that the uphill had ended. That quickly reversed. I two-stepped up the next mountain while Nate crawled behind me. But the next bump took the wind out of both of our sails. It was called Jacob’s Ladder, but I rechristened it The Mountain that Never Ends.
Jacob’s Ladder was full of twists and turns that might have made the trail less steep, but for us it just added in more distance and more opportunities to slide sideways down the mountain. We had been climbing for at least a half hour before I looked up. I shouldn’t have. What seemed like hours passed before we had made it to flatter terrain, but that wasn’t the top yet. The trail got even more steep and with more potential for slipping off of the beaten path. I don’t know when or how we reached the summit, I must have blacked out.
“I just don’t get these mountains today,” Nate sighed as we were trudging through what we thought was a flat stretch but felt more like an incline. The trail had morphed into slush and we were struggling for every step. The experience was akin to pushing a cart full of groceries through a messy, half-plowed, partially frozen-partially thawing parking lot. Time was passing but it felt like we were getting nowhere.
The trail curved around a steep hill just before giving us a peek at the shelter and what we saw inspired us to run the last tenth of a mile. Eddy was there. She cheered as we pulled up, as happy to see us as we were to have caught her.
In an attempt to lighten our packs, Nate and I had planned to eat more than our standard dinner that night. The next day we would be picking up a 26-pound mail drop for the Smokey Mountains and that would be more than enough weight to jam into our packs. Eddy had already had her “megafeast,” eating Swedish Fish, salami, cheese and potatoes. Nate and I had coffee, hot chocolate, spoonfuls of peanut butter (I dipped mine into my hot chocolate!), Hershey Kisses, chocolate squares and an average dinner of stuffing, spam and Ramen noodles. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more.
At this time of year, Fontana Dam and Fontana Village are ghost towns. Nate, Eddy and I pranced along the trail for over nine miles and arrived at the dam by early afternoon. We were quite pleased with ourselves and thought we’d skip over to the village where Nate and I had planned to stay at the hotel for our last night before entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Easier thought than done.
When we got to the dam, the visitors’ center was closed. There were few tourists driving by, gaping at the three weirdos with larger-than-life packs strapped to their backs, Nate sporting his Viking hat. Eddy’s phone had malfunctioned and neither Nate or I had cell phone service in the area. We were stuck. Hoping the dam construction workers could offer us a hand, Eddy and I watched as Nate slid out of his pack, leapt over the stone wall separating us from the construction zone and trotted toward the dam. Our glimmer of hope faded away when we saw Nate approach three workers and instantly turn around, as if they were escorting him out of the area.
“They say the closest phone is in the village. I told them that’s where we’re headed and it looked like we would be forced to walk there,” Nate reported after scaling the stone barrier once again. “This is a lesson: Never send the stinky guy with a beard when asking for a ride!” Eddy and I laughed at Nate’s point, but we were disappointed that we would have to walk over two miles to get to the village (yet we had each chosen to walk over 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine!). We made our way back up the hill when we heard the roar of a truck behind us. Eddy flagged it down.
“Y’all need a ride?” the driver asked. We threw our packs into the bed of the truck and squeezed into the already-full cab. For the entire five minute trip to the village the construction workers who had picked us up picked our brains about the trail and we asked them about their lives.
We waved good bye as they drove away after dropping us off at the hotel. “You just picked the wrong construction workers to talk to,” I teased Nate. “No I didn’t,” he surprised me, “those were the same guys!” It was a true lesson learned: Don’t send the stinky, bearded guy to ask for a ride; send the girl.
“You again?!” Nate exclaimed the moment we entered the hotel lobby. It took my eyes seconds to adjust but when they did, I was just as baffled as Nate. Tadpole stood in the lobby, unshaven and a few pounds lighter than the last time we had seen him. He and Nate shared trail stories while I reserved a room and retrieved our packages.
We spent the afternoon having another megafeast with Eddy, who was waiting for her father to pick her up. She was spending one last day at home before hitting the Smokies. Before we knew it he was knocking on the door, handing us another salami and pulling up a chair to join in on the conversation. It was bittersweet seeing The Franklins walk out of our hotel room an hour later. We are so lucky and so grateful to have met such wonderful friends that saying goodbye was so hard, but we look forward to the day that we catch up with them again.
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