Happy Hiking In Tennessee and North Carolina
Tennessee/North Carolina (Oct. 21 to Nov. 10)
388 miles, 21 days
*The trail runs through this section in a complicated zig-zagging method between North Carolina and Tennessee as if only to mess up my blog post strategy, so NC and TN are now one.
This post would be encyclopedia-sized if I told you about each day, so I’m about to break it down into sections and try not to scramble you up too much. Coming up, I’ve got the hiking style I had going on, highlight sections, Halloween, and hostels in as much order as possible.
Actual Hiking-Related Material
I don’t recall exactly how much detail I’ve gone into with the hiking part of the hike, but resting up in Atkins and Damascus had me really crushing miles so I figure now is as good as any time to get into it.
I crossed the border with a renewed sense of energy and it may have been rumor of a homeless man camped just by the border crossing that led to the beginning of my fast pace, but I flew. I also ended up hiking past sundown quite often as the sun was setting earlier and earlier these days and I got pretty used to it. Dare I say I began to enjoy the feel of hiking in darkness? I was trying to hike faster than my own shadow usually and I think I just began to adapt that as my usual pace, so my sluggish walking was officially left behind in Virginia! My legs just kept moving uphill without slowing down. OK, so the terrain my have been a lot easier walking—that is true—but wow, I felt like a champ and felt the need to keep it up.
I really don’t know what an average pace is so it may not be fast at all, actually, but at the time it felt it. Three miles an hour was comfortable, and my miles per day hit numbers like 25, 32, 16, 27, 26, 27, 25, 25, 22, 29, 27, with a couple half days. Before I pretend to be some sort of machine I must confess I took quite a few zeros. It crushed me a little to take each zero because I wanted to continue the pace I was going. It’s addictive.
Since the end of Virginia I’d been walking alone and I camped and hiked alone for most of TN/NC. There were other people around but I was feeling solitary so for that reason I tried to keep solo. Every few days I would run into other hikers and each time I was happy to have done so because I got to enjoy their company before immersing myself again in that loner-like mode I had started craving.
I really felt free those days because I wasn’t expected to be anywhere besides where I felt like being. Hiking with other people has an almost feeling of being limited. If you plan to camp at a certain site then that’s kind of where you have to go without the potential of worrying those people if you choose to camp a mile before, or what if you want to keep going past that point, is it rude if you do? It’s just complete freedom hiking alone—but yes, it can probably get tiring. That’s why I was happy to have company throughout certain points, and great company it was.
The first day in I was looking at my AWOL guide walking fast and I wiped out hard. I tripped and did that thing when you’re trying to get your feet back under you, face nearing the ground, then you end up just propelling yourself straight into the oncoming dirt. I did the same thing the second day; both times I had bananas and bagged sandwiches flying everywhere like I was yard sale-ing down a ski hill. Weirdly enough, this was a highlight. Both times I rolled over and just laughed. No part of me was hurt, and nobody was around to see. It just makes me remember how resilient the body is. That’s all about that, and now for real highlights.
Laurel Falls: Located in Hampton, TN, it was the biggest waterfall I’ve seen on trail and it was just super nice to look at. Pretty easy to get to for day hikers so it wasn’t secluded, but it’s somewhere I’d love to go back to when it’s hot enough to appreciate the cold water.
The Roan Highlands: So, so, so many great views around here and it was the greatest surprise. You hear about the Smokies, and the Whites, and I think the Roan Highlands should be talked about with almost as much emphasis because it was beautiful. The climbing was fairly steep and the elevation made it cold but it was breathtaking.
Somewhere between Erwin and Hot Springs: There were these ledges, and I should know the names of things around it but I don’t. It was a giant rock/boulder scramble for about a mile that led up to a very thin ridge with incredible views. It was so good I video called my mom so she could see it too. It cleared the treeline so you could really take in the fall colors.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Known as the Smokies, this park took a few days to get through and I’m glad. I got to see fall colors as well as snow, which isn’t so uncommon due to the high elevation. The highest part of the AT is in the park, as well as Charlies Bunion, and the shelters are pretty nice with fireplaces inside each one. It was populated with day/weekend hikers and they were a hoot to share shelter space with. Fun fact: It’s the most visited park in the US, and for good reason.
Gatlinburg: This was an unplanned stop but I’m glad I went. This town is accessible from a road cutting through the Smoky Mountains and I had great hitches in and out. My water filter broke and I got a nice little case of probably Giardia, which is something nobody wants ever. I wasn’t feeling too hot so I took the day off so I could be near working toilets, and I became a tourist for the day. I fooled myself into thinking I could blend in, but of course I really didn’t. I went to the gear store and purchased a Sawyer (new water filter) and a new pair of shoes, then I hit up the Park Grill, which had the greatest salad bar ever. I filled up on that and took my actual meal to go, and I walked back through the crowded streets of fashionable people. I showered so I don’t think I smelled that bad, and because the dirt was washed off my legs I felt my leg hair blowing in the breeze. Such a weird feeling that I had to point it out no matter how gross it may seem; sorry. All in all, it was a great day under the sun. PS: Don’t let your water filter freeze.
2,000 miles: This is pretty self-explanatory but it was an awesome feeling of satisfaction to officially cross that 2,000-mile mark and become a 2,000-miler!
Max Patch: This is where Halloween took place, but I’ll get into that later…
People: I got to spend time by myself, giving me the confidence to label myself as a self-sufficient hiker, additionally privileged to meet all kinds of people. I ran into Diesel and Summit a couple times, who were out section hiking the AT, and they’re probably two of the most experienced hikers I’ve come across. I don’t like guessing at ages, and even more so when there’s a chance they read this, so I’ll settle with 50+ and hope I am somewhere in the ballpark. It’s fun to see banter between hiking buddies, and I could sure tell they’d known each other for a while in the good humor that took place. They had stories they told me and ones they withheld, I’m sure, in addition to just an impressive hiking resume. “You don’t get old and stop hiking. You stop hiking and then get old.” -A favorite quote of Diesel’s
High Water, Vito, Cheeto, Fire Cracker, Dreamer, Pretty Feet, Odie, Field Trip and Penny (dog), Tank, Crispy, Pine Apple, and Sugar Glider were those I ran into the most in TN/NC. Everyone was individually so great of a human being, which made an awesome combination of people and I’m crazy glad to have met them all.
Assassin: I credit this game to Odie, who pitched it to everyone I mentioned in the last paragraph, as we sat around the fire at Laughing Heart Lodge the night before Halloween. “All in favor of playing this game?” she asked and all hands went up. Reluctantly, I followed suit. Our names went in a hat and we drew one another’s name randomly and secretly. The name of the person you drew became your target to assassinate. The normal weapon of the game is a water gun, but the Dollar General in Hot Springs didn’t stock those, so instead we individually got rubber duckies. To replace shooting a water gun we would tag/throw duckies at our targets. So as long as your ducky was held in your hand you were safe. Putting down your ducky meant you were likely to die. Not knowing who was after you meant holding your ducky while hiking, holding your ducky while cooking, holding your ducky while setting up your tent, and so on. The game commenced at 8 a.m. Halloween morning and finished about five days later.
Just think. Pretty Feet won, and that meant carrying a rubber ducky for the duration. I killed Pineapple and Cheeto but was outed by Odie. Second place went to Dreamer. Such a fun game to play out there. Really, I only said yes to playing because everyone else did, but it was a blast. That’s really saying something because I lost and still had fun (I really like to win). I blame my brother for being the competitor I am. If you read this one though, Josh, I mean blame in a good way.
Except for High Water, who caught up the day after, the 11 others mentioned above (and me) made it to the top of Max Patch, where we camped on Halloween night, everyone with their rubber duckies in hand. Max Patch is bald (grassy patch) up at 4,600 feet. Most of the group had some sort of costume piece and everyone packed out a couple of drinks and too much candy. It was like a little tent city up top the patch, and we were joined by Hansel, whom I’d met the day before, also a SOBO. Thirteen up top a hill having a Halloween party was really cool, watching the sun in good company.
I slipped out a typical Canadian “sorry” as I assassinated Pineapple, watched as Tank got Field Trip and Pretty Feet got Crispy, while roasting marshmallows over a pocket rocket stove. It may have been a party but hiker midnight happened so by 9 p.m. I was asleep. I’m hoping that habit won’t break when I go home but, it probably 100% will.
I woke up early on because the wind was howling, blowing my tent nearly completely flat with the ceiling two inches from my face. I don’t really know wind protocol but I do know the hostel we all stayed at the night before had highly recommended we don’t stay up there exactly due to extreme wind. I poked my head out to validate everyone else was still there and I saw a headlamp of someone trying to peg their tent down better. There was no sleep after that and the self-doubt crept in thinking my tent was indeed going to fly away with me in it. Somehow I set up my tent securely with no issue aside from my paranoid worrying.
The sky became brilliant shades of pinks and purples as the sun rose for us on top of Max Patch in sleeping bag cocoons, waiting. I learned my alcohol limit out here is maxed out after two beverages, and I was happy at having no hangover symptoms while I packed up, trying to keep everything from blowing away. We all left Max Patch, stopping at a hostel to resupply before entering the Smokies.
It was quite the Halloween! Side note: I rarely ate chocolate/candy again throughout TN/NC, and fewer people continued on alive, duckies in hand.
My TN/NC Hostels
Before I get into all the places I stayed and have you questioning my money, which I’ve been complaining is dwindling, there is some justification here. I hit extremes in TN/NC that went from high-mileage days and feeling indomitable to days when I couldn’t move and had no choice but to lie in bed and barely exist. At the first shelter in the Smokies I had to take a zero, beginning uncomfortably in the middle of the night and lasting throughout the entire day. There wasn’t even a privy at the shelter, which was devastating.
It’s incredible how I could bounce back after a bad day and cover 27 miles but that’s what life dealt me through this section and I think I managed it. I don’t have medical evidence of anything because I didn’t get checked out, but the symptoms seem to coincide with those who have Giardia. I’m prone to migraines brought on by exercise as well, which weren’t uncommon to get after a cross-country race or an intense basketball game, so they didn’t surprise me. Apparently I’m not so invulnerable as I’d like to believe. But don’t tell anyone. As for the hostels…
Boots Off, Hampton: I didn’t stay here but I wish I timed it better so I could’ve. My hip belt buckle on my pack broke and I couldn’t figure out a way to fix it on the trail, so I walked 30 miles down the trail with my pack weight blowing out the space between my vertebrae each step I took. 50,000 steps later I arrived at this hostel just off trail in hopes they’d have a fix, which they did! Owner Jim is awesome. He has a property with everything going on; bunk rooms, tiny cabins, a bus with a cool interior, trendy patterns everywhere, and a nice hangout area. A tree house is being built, and the vibe is just cool. Too bad I arrived at noon and still had miles I wanted to walk. Definitely a place that should be on your list of stops. One look at my gloves (socks cut into homeless person looking gloves) had them throwing me a pair left behind by a previous NOBO. Such a kind place.
Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel: I didn’t mean to stay here. I was in the SOBO bubble at the time and it rained all morning so when we got to the hostel (right on trail) we stayed. It was just a basic bunk room without linens, nothing really going on so I didn’t miss much when the migraine kicked in. Everyone packed up and left the next morning while I stayed in bed with my pillow over my face, reaching a total of 200 steps that day, all taking place between the bathroom and the bunk room. It was a fun game to play catch-up with those I’d been hiking around, and I managed to push enough miles in the next two days to meet back up. The hostel is run by Johnny’s wife—great lady—and shuttled us the first night to resupply at Walmart.
Laughing Heart Lodge: I had my last resupply package sent here, so I fully intended on staying the night. Everyone else did too, so as a group we took over the hostel. This is where Odie explained the rules of assassin around the roaring fire; everyone was excited for Halloween. The manager was quite the character and seemed to enjoy the lively bunch, and he even made a large batch of chili for everyone. The karaoke machine is impressive so if you like karaoke, Laughing Heart Lodge is for you.
The NOC: I didn’t stay here overnight, but throughout the day I spent an hour on their computer and three hours ordering dishes at the restaurant there on trail. It was really good food and exactly what I needed, looking out the window at the scenic river below. I ate with a lady I met and she had some good stories to tell, which wasn’t surprising as she was in the process of completing the trail for her fourth time. Mind-blowing… the fact that anyone would thru-hike this trail more than once. Power to you, but I’m confident in saying it’s not for me!
Gooder Grove: Zen is the owner here and he’s such a key part of the stay. The hostel is actually his house, so he shares the common areas with everyone and is the most accommodating guy. Zen brought us to resupply at Walmart, then to a little Thai restaurant in Franklin, NC, where I had the best Thai food I’ve had in my life. Everything tastes good when you’re hungry and a hiker but I’m pretty certain that didn’t matter. I don’t actually know the name of it so you’ll have to go to Gooder Grove or ask Zen. Sorry. I’m excited to see what happens in future hiking seasons because he has like, million dollar ideas.
Bye TN/NC and Hello Georgia
I had some of my best days here, where I felt wild and free and like I was the only person out there, half animal, half human. Then I had days when I was surrounded by fellow SOBOs and their camaraderie and I loved it, as well as parts of the day I’d run into day/section hikers. I basically loved everything about Tennessee and North Carolina, sick or not. The fall colors were at their prime and the snow lasted three pretty days at high elevation. I couldn’t have asked for a better time to get through it, except maybe if it happened to be summer months because my hands would have maintained feeling the entire way. But really, I had a blast here. Go hike here. That’s it, that’s all folks! Onto Georgia… the 14th and final state!
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