Hiawassee: My Hiker Happy Place

I feel like I did a fair amount of complaining in my last post and I want to make sure it’s clear that being on the AT is an amazing experience that I am very grateful to be having. It is harder than I expected and comes with discomfort but it is an absolute privelage to be able to make a thru hike attempt. There are moments of homesickness and cursing at mountains for continuing to go up but they are dwarfed by great views, fresh air, pure water, welcoming communities, generous people, and a freedom that is difficult to imagine anywhere else.

Day 5: A New Name and Soon to be Familiar Faces

I’ve never been one for nicknames but at Baggs Creek Gap I finally settled into a trail name. Out here I am Bumble. Using it to introduce myself takes some getting used to and for a day or two I would use both Gabe and Bumble but writing this many days later it has become quite natural. It was a bit early to get a trail name but I am happy to have one that feels right.

After a great night, I woke up to a beautiful day and a bustling camp. A few people were planning to spend an easy morning waiting for friends to catch up on the trail but I was looking to get some miles in. I had been putting in about 11 miles a day so far but I was looking to do almost 15 today. After skipping a hotel in Atlanta and not staying overnight at Mountain Crossings, I wanted to get a hostel near Hiawassee and 15 miles would put me right on the doorstep.

It was a pretty warm day so I was planning to hike from water source to water source until I reached Blue Mountain Shelter. Water sources are usually small springs or streams that flow right on or very close to the trail. With all the recent rain and at this part of the trail they are only a few miles apart so there isn’t a need to carry a lot of water (thank goodness because water is HEAVY!).

Still getting used to identifying side trails and Farout, I walked right by the water source near Hog Pen Gap. I really didn’t to keep pushing on without water so I asked someone getting out of their truck near the trailhead. I couldn’t have been luckier because the man I asked, Daren, was actually out to do trail maintenance on the AT and whipped out his set of maps to help me out. He also offered some of his own water but I wasn’t in that great of need just yet. Keeping the Appalachian Trail in such great, well marked condition requires countless hours of work by many people who volunteer their time out of love for the trail and community.

I would end up seeing Daren as far out as Low Gap Shelter, nearly 5 miles away from his truck. He was hiking with a helmet and large rake like tool to help level a part of the trail that had only been routed that way for a year or two. After he passed through his assigned area he kept hiking to the shelter for a snack and ended up packing out a bag of trash someone had left on the bear hang. I am very lucky to have met Daren and we are all very lucky that people like him are out here.

I was only at Low Gap Shelter for a water refill but I would end up meeting 4 other people who would become familiar faces in the coming miles. There was a couple from New York who were settling in since they usually get up early to do their hiking who I would see everyday for at leadt the next 100 miles, Joan who I see at least every other day and brings a smile to everyone around her, and Russell from the UK with whom I would later spend considerable time with on and off trail. This was just a quick meeting with all of them though and I still had about 7 miles to go. 

By the end of the day I was feeling the extra miles and as I got close to Blue Mountain Shelter the trail didn’t make it any easier. What had been a soft and even surface became very rocky with each step leaving my ankles turned in one direction or another. The change in footing made each step more exhausting. About 0.2 miles before the shelter was my last water source and I was dead tired but the trail still had one more person for me to meet. Morainer is out doing the ECT which means in addition to the entire Appalachian Trail, he has hiked from the southern tip of Florida and will continue on into Canada! I will keep seeing him on the trail and it is always cool to get more stories from his trip so far.

I was seriously questioning the last stretch to camp but Morainer gave me the inspiration I needed. It was another busy shelter but I was just looking to get my tent up quickly and get horizontal. I didn’t want to look for a level spot in the crush of tents around the shelter so I setup on the other side of the trail. As soon as my tent was up and my pack unloaded, I heard someone throw up… Then throw up again, and again, and again. Norovirus was on my doorstep.

Norovirus is a very contagious stomach bug that can run rampant on the AT. Weeks before I started my hike I received alerts that it had started earlier on the trail than usual and some sick hikers even needed help getting off the trail for medical attention. All the thru hikers I have met are acutely aware of the threat of Norovirus and take steps to mitigate the risk. The only thing I could do at this point was hunker down in my tent and make sure I didn’t touch anything they might have touched. I wouldn’t unzip my tent to cook or even go to the bathroom until I heard them leave in the morning. Luckily I was less than 3 miles from Unicoi Gap where I would be picked up for my hostel stay.

Day 6: Tolkein a Nero

When I first pictured hiking the Appalachian Trail, I envisioned 6 months spent in a tent. I had no clue about hiker hostels and what a great part of the experience they can be. I could not have been luckier than to have my first one be the Green Dragon Hostel. It is run by Donna and Bill with the help of Nimrod and they are all top notch, beautiful, cool people. Donna and Bill are former teachers with a love for the trail (and Lord of the Rings) and Nimrod has more experience with the trail than most hikers have being alive.

The Green Dragon Hostel was absolutely perfect. Donna picked me up at Unicoi Gap and waiting in the car was the couple from New York! On the drive to the hostel, Donna offered to take us to breakfast and was coordinating a supply pickup for the couple. We opted to head straight to the hostel and the prospect of clean clothes and a shower. Donna gave us a tour of the facilities and got us everything we would need. The shower was amazing and all we had to do was put our (very) dirty and (very) smelly clothes into a laundry bag and they would come back clean and folded! The hostel has a wide range of loaner clothes and flipflops and there was also a whiteboard to signup for rides to town at different times depending on what you needed.

I had a couple hours before any scheduled outings so after my shower I had time to probe Nimrod for some stories and insights on what lay ahead. He is a wealth of knowledge about the people, places, and history of the AT. Anyone staying here should take some time to soak it in. I also had time to meet some of the other hostel guests. In the bunk across from me was Pizza Bastard from Vermont who had already done 6-700 miles of the trail. This year he started on the Pinhoti Trail before making his way to the AT with the goal of waking the rest of the miles. He and I would be one of the only guests spending 2 nights at the hostel so we got to know each other pretty well. Above me was poles who I would leap frog for the next week or so before he started pushing way ahead.

The first shuttle excursion was a hiker feed in Hiawassee where the mayor and about a half dozen other people from the town fed us hamburgers, hotdogs, deviled eggs, chips, salads, and cookies. I couldn’t believe the hospitality this town shows hikers. On the next block over was an outiftter for those who needed new or replacement gear and across the street was a grocery store to resupply on food. Donna left us to eat and take care of any shopping before she would collect us in time to go out to dinner.

Resupplying midhike was something new to me and I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I needed. I still had a decent amount of food since I hadn’t been eating much yet but I grabbed some typical hiker fixings: ramen, tuna packets, jerky, and honey buns. The real treat was having an employee keep us company while waiting for the shuttle. He showed us his “magic” smoking coin, gave us some trail magic in the form of brownies, and shared some of his life story. It is awesome how willing people are to open up when you are just passing through.

At dinner we got everyone staying at the Hostel around one big table. It gave me a chance to meet some of the people who were out hiking while I was enjoying my nero. A nero is a day when you hike very few miles, nearly zero. My end of the table was stacked with Midwesterners from Wisconsin, Ohio, and another hiker from Illinois with a section hiker from Maryland to provide a bit of contrast. Of particular note were Neat and On the Rocks, a couple who are back out on the trail after previously doing about 700 miles. They decided to start over from Springer and do it it straight through again and have plenty of good advice for those of us still figuring it out.

Day 7: Losing my Purity

One reason I chose The Green Dragon was the option to spend a second night and slack pack about 17 miles from Unicoi Gap to Dicks Creek Gap. According to Nimrod it would include some of the toughest climbs in Georgia. Slack packing is hiking a section of the trail without your full pack and the most devout purists would scoff at such an idea. I decided it was the best way to keep my average miles up while testing my legs a bit (and I could have another good dinner and comfortable bed). A few other guests decided to slack pack the same section; the NY couple and Poles would slack pack but not spend another night while the section hiker from Maryland would come back to the hostel with me before heading home the next morning.

While I decided that slack packing was acceptable, I wanted to keep a continuous footpath NOBO so when Bill pulled into the parking lot at Unicoi Gap I made sure to walk to where I got in the car the previous day to make sure I didn’t skip a few dozen feet. Then I was on my way in pack that weighed around 5 lbs including water. I noticed the weight difference instantly and have been looking for ways to lighten my pack ever since.

The climbs up Tray Mountain and Kelly Knob were tough but manageable and I made especially good time on the decents. With the light pack I could almost run my way down without too much of a beating on my joints. Things felt so good I even broke out into the Business Hips emote from Fortnite along the way. I kept Bill and Donna updated on my progress throughout the day and despite feeling like I wasn’t nearly as fast as the others we all met up at Dick’s Creek Gap around the same time. I chatted with Poles and we shared pictures of our dogs while he made himself a trailside meal. When the last slack packer and a supplementary shuttle passenger reached us we headed back to the hostel to get showered for dinner.

I had heard really good things about Hiawassee Brew but they were closed my first night at the hostel so I was excited to try their smash burger after my biggest mileage day yet. Most of the hostel guests headed to dinner while we showered so the Maryland section hiker drove the two of us instead of making Bill or Donna make another trip (which they would have happily done). We decided to eat at the bar inside instead of joining the rest of the guests midmeal. Other than Pizza Bastard they were all people we hadn’t met and it gave us a chance to talk a bit more personally. I highly recommend Hiawassee Brew, their food and beer were incredible.

Day 8: Level 2

I think I was more nervous leaving the hostel than I was when I left home. It felt like this marked this difference between what could have been a weeklong camping vacation and a 6 months lifestyle choice. Me and my clothes were clean, I woke up in a comfortable bed and I didn’t know when any of those would happen again. I was the lone hiker going to Dick’s Creek Gap that morning and Donna did wonders at easing my mind. She assured me that I would quickly become accustomed to the daily patterns of setting up and taking down my camp and that my trail legs were sure to come soon.

After a quick stretch at the trailhead I was back on my way North. Today’s hike would cross the Georgia/North Carolina border and with this new state came new challenges. The ascents were much steeper and there wasn’t a switchback to be seen. It was quickly apparent why this sign simply said GA/NC and not “Welcome to North Carolina.” If this were a video game I had reached level 2 (or floor 2 for Dungeon Crawler Carl fans out there).

At the first water source in NC I met some familiar faces and we all seemed to feel the same way. Georgia wasn’t easy and this was going to get harder along the way. Morainer, Jonas the German, and I would hike on together for the most of the afternoon until the early evening brought another batch of rain. Jonas and I took cover under some Rhododendron while Morainer attached his umbrella and marched ahead. When the rain refused to let up we put on our pack covers and made our way to Muskrat Shelter for some real protection. Morainer was heating up some food barely covered by the roof while about a dozen of us did our best to stay covered.

Most of the shelter spaces were claimed and flat tent spaces weren’t abundant so when the rain seemed to relent slightly there was an exodus from the shelter. I was still getting used to the layout of my tent and had limited options due to its size but managed to grab something just good enough. The vibe in the shelter wasn’t quite for me so I cooked next to my tent and said hi to a few more familiar faces make camp wherever they could. I didn’t get quite as far as I wanted but I was happy I made the day’s tough climbs with my fully resupplied pack.


TLDR: Hiawassee is a great hiker town. I loved my time at The Green Dragon Hostel. Crossing into North Carolina increased the difficulty. Getting to know the hikers in my bubble.

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