Hiking with Friends

There are days that the only sign of other hikers I see for hours is an occasional footprint or cluster of trekking pole holes where footing gets tricky. While I like the solitude and do some of my best hiking alone, the community and friendships I have made out here are what make this a special experience. Some hikers quickly form tramilies (trail families) that they will stay with throughout their hike. That’s not quite what I’ve been looking for but for about the next week I would hike with a couple guys that would be very close to it.

Day 9: Big Plans

Franklin, NC looked like it could be reached in either 2 or 3 days of hiking. I had enough food to skip going into another town already but with its good reputation among hikers so I wanted to make the stop. The weather forecast looked good I set out with no really stopping point in mind. There was going to be at least one big climb early in the day over Standing Indian Mountain and big miles would put Albert Mountain’s steep climb right at the end. My legs would decide when to stop.

It was one of the easiest starts to the day since I got on trail. There were no big climbs and I felt pretty good going up Standing Indian. I caught up with Russell and Jonas at the peak. They were also coming from Muskrat Shelter with similar plans so started putting Albert in our sights. It was almost noon and we would need to keep a good pace to have a chance.

For the first time since the Amicalola stairs I was walking with other hikers. Conversation would start or stop based on how strenuous the terrain was at the moment. Both of them are far more experienced outdoorsmen than I, despite being quite a bit younger and I am impressed with hikers who have the added complexity of international travel to contend with on their hike.

As we walked into the afternoon there was some discussion about eating dinner before Albert. I was pretty sure that would mark the end of our day instead of just a break. Anytime I take a break longer than catching my breath uphill, my feet and ankles started locking up. Even an unusual stance refilling at a water source can make restarting a real pain.

We reached Betty Creek Gap and chatted with the hikers who made camp already but didn’t want to deal with taking the spur trail to get water and hiked on a bit. Less than a mile down the trail we crossed a small stream with someone sleeping alongside. We told him about the tent sites at Betty Creek and I filled up enough water for dinner and more hiking. At Mooney Gap we found a perfect spot for dinner. We were less than 2 miles from the summit of Albert Mountain.

Jonas popped off his boots and socks while he and Russell sang some shanties around our stoves. I was pretty sure we were ending our day with dinner but I kept my shoes on just in case. Once my feet are free, there is no way they go back in my shoes that night. With good tent spots here and 4 miles to the next listed camp we started to settle in. We had a nice night with singing and getting to know each other. We didn’t have the 20+ mile day we were aiming for but at 17.1 it was my biggest day so far.

Day 10: Franklin

There was rain in the morning but fortunately I had enough cell service to get radar updates. Russell and Jonas were ready to get on with their hike but I stayed an extra 45 minutes to let more of the rain pass. It was nice to get warmed up on my hike alone again. I could huff and puff my way up Albert. There is a firetower at the top which is a traditional place to mark passing 100 miles on the AT. I had heard from other hikers that the tower was locked and with minimal visibility anyway, I didn’t bother climbing the stairs. On my way down the mountain I run into some hikers I know getting water who let me saw Jonas and Russell just minutes ahead of me. I skip the water, put my pack back on, and pick up my pace to catch them.

We all hike at about the same speed so even a small lead time is difficult to make up. I eventually catch them when they stop to take in a scenic point. We discuss plans to hike together to Franklin. There are two gaps into town and we stop at the first, Rock Gap.

Franklin offers a $5 shuttle to town which we expect in the next 20-30 minutes. There are bear resistant trash bins that I happily make use of and a few other people reach the parking area while we wait. There is a woman from Vermont with AT paintings and a local man with a fascination with swords. A few other hikers also come down from the trail. With what cell service I have, I try hostels looking for somewhere with vacancies to no avail until the shuttle arrives.

The shuttle is very nice and I appreciate the service offered by the town. As we get into Franklin our driver asks where everyone would like to be let off. Of course the three of us were rolling into town without anything reserved so I suggest we get off at Main Street to be within striking distance of a few place. I am hoping there is something at the Hilltop Inn which I have seen mentioned in FarOut comments.

We get a suite with 2 bedrooms and a shared bath. Of course neither room has 2 beds. Jonas and Russell are fine sharing the king size bed and I will take the queen alone for half the total cost. We quickly start showering and getting laundry together. We reached town fairly early in the day so we should have time for lunch, resupply, dinnner, and a visit to the Lazy Hiker, a local bar/brewery know to be good to hikers.

First up is lunch at JR Chophouse. It has a very upscale vibe and we would feel out of place if not for the very warm reception from everyone working there. Russell and I order burgers while Jonas eats quite a bit healthier with a salad and fish. It was exactly what I was looking for, the food was great and the staff was better. They even got us cups of water to go. Next was a quick stop at the outfitter, Outdoor 76, to pick up fuel for my stove and we each got a free buff. After the outfitter we sign a large banner already filled by 2024 thru hikers coming through Franklin before us. We just missed the town’s festival/celebration of the AT by a couple of days but it is clear they are very proud to be part of the trail community. We walk through town to Ingles (grocery store)  for the bulk of our resupply before making our way back to the motel. I see Jorgin is also staying at the motel and I’m glad to see that we have both made it this far.

We spend some time repacking our food and making use of the motel wifi. I got some orange cream sodas that aren’t coming back on trail with me so I get them chilling in the fridge asap. There is also time for a bit of blogging and enjoying the chance to lounge on a soft surface.

It doesn’t take hikers long to be ready for another town meal and we make our way back up Main Street. There is a 50’s style diner that looks fun and is on the way to the Lazy Hiker. We all get burgers this time and an order of fried pickles which is a first for both of them.

Jonas brews beer and mead in Germany so he is excited to visit the Lazy Hiker. There a good mix of hikers and who I assume to be locals enjoying the live music. Many hikers get cravings for beer but I’m just not there yet. I do enjoy a few of their offerings and we stay out much later than we would on trail which is still much earlier than we would in the “real world.”

Day 11: Planatar Falseitis

Before we leave the motel I notice that my Achilles feels a bit tight but don’t think too much of it. We aren’t planning to do many miles coming out of town so there isn’t a big hurry to get on trail and we still need to figure out a shuttle since the town shuttle doesn’t run on Saturday or Sunday.  Our best bet will be finding something downtown; we grab our packs and walk back to the now familiar area. I get one of the best chai lattes I can remember and sit on a bench to find us a shuttle.

The town keeps a list of local people who offer rides back to the trail so I start texting. Gail gets back to me immediatley and picks us up almost as quickly. She could not be friendlier and is interested in getting to know all of us. We get some good advice about the acustics at Wayah Tower where Gail and her choir has sung. We won’t have a choir but do get Jonas to sing a song from Lord of the Rings for us and it resonates with every note. On the way to our dropoff at Deep Gap we see there is some trail magic being setup at Winding Stairs Gap a few miles ahead.

We make good time knowing there is trail magic in our future. We arrive to find an impressive spread and more than enough chairs for all the hikers that come spend some time. The trail magic is provided once a year by the men’s group from a nearby church. Soda and a hotdog first catch my eye but there is everything from dehydrated meals to fresh fruit. Even though we just had town food this is quite a treat. We take a much longer break than we normally would before setting off again.

As expected my ankles and feet protest when I ask them to starting moving again but eventually relent when I ignore the pain. We would take more, longer breaks than I am used to and each time the pain increases and lingers longer. Eventually one of my Achilles never stops hurting. We see Morainer and he says it might be Plantar Fasciitis, which is not something I want to deal with.

With our planned campsite only a few miles away I limp forward unsure if I will make it that far. At the next water source I fill both my 1L smart water bottle and 2L CNOC so I have enough water to setup camp whenever I feel it’s too much. Of course this means I am now carrying nearly 7 pounds of water. The last stretch to camp is a fairly steep ascent starting at a fairly busy forest road. I consider trying to find a shuttle back to Franklin to rest in town but really don’t want to spend the extra money.

After sending Morainer, Jonas, and Russell ahead to camp I start up the hill. My eyes scan the sides of the trail for campsites but it is too steep all around. The forest road winds along near the trail and I’m a bit worried at the number of cars heading towards what could be the campsite we planned to stop at. I also feel self conscious about how I must look pulling myself up the trail using my trekking poles like crutches or canes. Eventually the trail becomes a long rocky uphill with little room on either side so I put my head down, ignore the pain, and force my legs to move like nothing was wrong.

If I stop I know the pain will shoot up and my day will have to end. I charge past Morainer who stopped to talk to some section hikers midway up with little more than a grunt of acknowledgement. Camp is just over the top of the hill and I just keep telling myself “only forward” until I see Jonas and Russell picking out their tentsites. I find one for myself and get setup for the night.

After changing into my camp clothes I find I am able to hobble around painlessly as long as I don’t put pressure on my Achilles. This means I am at least able to spend some time with the guys eating dinner. The weather for the morning  looks like a pretty cold rain and I’m not sure how my foot and ankle will react overnight. I know I won’t leave in the morning and will decide if I need a trail zero when I know how bad it is.

As a nice distraction, Jonas plays the music he and Russell were singing our first night as a group. There is a bit more singing before we head to bed. When I get to my tent I immediately start stretching my Achilles and don’t stop until I fall asleep.

Day 12: Cold Day, Cold Night

The weather report wasn’t wrong and it is pretty crappy out. I stumble out to get my food so I can cook breakfast in my tent and do my best to keep stretching. I’m surprised how little pain I feel but I’m unsure how I’ll respond to the weight of my pack on ascents or descents. Eventually the rain begins to let up a little and I hear Jonas and Russell packing up. I plan to wait a bit longer and make sure I’m warmed up before starting out.

I don’t get on the trail until 1:30pm but it’s a short hike to Cold Spring Shelter. I am shocked at how little pain I feel. There is the usual stiffness when I get started but nothing more. I see Jonas and Russell on the trail but with the cold weather I continue on when they stop for a longer break. We are headed to the shelter and it isn’t too far ahead.

I am surprised that the shelter and water source are located directly on the trail. There is a pretty big group of hikers around a fire with a banjo and guitar being played. I get water but don’t stay much beyond a quick hello to thehikers I recognize. In addition to the full shelter there are about 10 tents already up so I climb up to the ridge where there are more sites available. This is probably the most hikers I have seen since I started.

Jonas and Russell come in not long after me and find their way up to the ridge. There is a great view where we start a small fire with what dry tinder we can find. It is still pretty cold so dinner is a quick affair and I’m happy the fire peters out so we don’t have to tend it very long. We expect the temperarure will dip near or below freezing so everyone sleeps with their water filters in their sleeping bags. (If the residual water inside a filter freezes it will expand and rupture the membrane making it useless)

Day 13: The NOC

Overnight I hear a mouse trying to chew its way into my tent. I don’t know if I had anything that smelled like food with me or if it was just looking for a warm bed. I never saw it but slapped at the tent walls until it stops. While putting away my tent in the morning I find a small hole about a foot up the side. I don’t know if it climbed my trekking pole or clawed up side to reach the netting but I’m impressed. I decide I will put some duct tape over the hole when I put it back up. (Spoiler Alert: writing this weeks later I still haven’t bothered taping it up)

As has become our custom, Jonas and Russell leave camp before me but I am far from the last person to leave the busy camping area. It is still cold when I start hiking and there ice pushing up from the ground next to the trail. The cold doesn’t linger too long and I will be sweating before too long. After hiking for about 2 hours I see them atop Wesser Bald next to another tower. This one is much taller than the one at Wayah and is made of wood instead of stone. They have already been to the top so I leave them to start up the stairs.

I’m not afraid of heights but the exposed steep stairs have me very cautious with each step. The views from the top are worth it and clear skies give me 360 degrees of the expansive landscape to take in. I snap a few pictures but don’t stay long. I want to keep moving down the trail.

Today will take us to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) which is a popular stop for hikers. We are planning to spend the night and the earlier we arrive the better chance at scoring accomodations. We have been hearing a lot of hikers have similar plans and we haven’t made reservations. Our backup plan would have us hiking about 7 miles back out of the NOC, we would much prefer a bunk, shower, and real food. The NOC is located along the Nantahala River so is at the bottom of a valley. It is known to be a destination for white water paddlers but also has ziplining, an outfitter, and bunk houses. I have been seeing mixed reviews about the stay online but it’s something I want to check out for myself.

The hike down from Wesser Bald is very steep at times and takes us down some rocky sections that slow us down. The promise of a hot shower and real food has me impatient with the slower pace. I try to remind myself that I usually enjoy hiking terrain like this with little success. Even my memory of this hike is tainted by the frustration of moving slower than expected.

Despite what felt like a slow hike we reached the NOC too early to check in but reserve a private bunk room for the 3 of us. The main bunk room was full but the private room is about the same price split 3 ways. I get some candy and soda at the general store and walk through the outfitter while we wait to get our room. Neat and On the Rocks are also waiting to get checked in and we chat a bit about our hikes since the Green Dragon.

They give us our keys and towels ($5 each) about 15 minutes early but the walk to our room takes about that long. Crossing over the Natahala River we see a number of hikers relaxing along the bank. The trail runs right through the NOC but it is apparent that their main clientele is paddlers not thru hikers. I still feel welcome but we are in someway outsiders here.

As usual when off trail hot showers are high priority. There is usually days of sweat and dirt to wash away and hot running water is quite a luxury. We were one of the first to check in so the bunk area is still very quiet and showers are open. I don’t feel like putting my sweaty hiking clothes back on after my shower so I walk back in my underwear with the towel over my shoulder. Walking out the door I am greeted by a busload of kids carrying their stuff to the bunkhouse. I am as clothed as I would be wearing a small swimsuit but still feel a bit uncomfortable.

Finally feeling more human than sasquatch after our showers we head towards the restaurant to fulfill the next off trail need, town food. Again, the vibe is very much geared towards paddlers but we are still welcome. Prices are high and the waitstaff seem puzzled and amused by our appetites. We each order 16″ pizzas which shocks our waiter whose failed efforts to convince Jonas and Russell they were too big ended up convincing me to get one too. When they were delivered to the table I knew there would be nothing left of mine. Jonas also finished his and Russell saved a couple slices for a snack later or maybe breakfast.

While we were on this side of the NOC we went back to the general store to get information about laundry and to get some supplies. I still had some food but wanted to pick up a few things. I ended up with a couple knor sides, honeybuns, cliff bars, a pint of ice cream, another soda, and a can of chocolate stout. Russell was looking for his resupply package so I found a bench and started on my soda and ice cream. They were gone before we made it back over the river. We decided to sit by the bank of the river while laundry was going and I sipped on my beer, finally starting to feel satiated.

Day 14: Climbing Out Again

We are slow leaving the NOC as we wait for the general store to open so we can get coffee and more food before heading back on trail. I expect our hike out of the NOC to be at least as steep and slow as the hike in. Breaking from our usual routine, we are all starting our day together and are joined by another hiker from Texas that Russell met in his first few days of his hike. Animal is much faster than us and he waits for us at the top of a few long ascents before eventually moving too far ahead and we lose him altogether.

It is a busy day on trail and we meet a group of hikers relaxing at a rocky viewpoint. Most of the group seem even younger than Jonas and Russell. I know I have been seeing them here and there on trail so it is good to finally get to meet each other. We are all heading to the same campsite tonight, which I correctly suspect means there will be slim pickings by the time we arrive.

MacGuyver and Windy also make their way to the scenic point and I no longer feel out of place because of my age. Windy is on the last leg of his triple crown. The triple crown of thru hiking completing the Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and the Pacific Crest Trail. A very impressive feat and hard to imagine sitting barely 100 miles into my first. We will see Windy again at Locust Cove Gap where we have setup our tents. He stops where we camp to eat dinner with us but will hike on, possible into the night before making camp himself.

Day 15: Fontana

As a complete contrast to the hike down to the NOC, the hike down to Fontana is one of my favorite days so far. After shorter mile days this will be another big day, we are 18 miles out. The day started with a little rain but by the afternoon the sun would make its way out. Overall we were losing elevation throughout the day but we would pass through a couple gaps that would require ascents on the way.

I would hike almost the entire day on my own. I knew I could do the mileage if I was solo during the hike.

The whole day was pretty good but without question my favorite section was the last few miles into the marina. The trail was comfortable and downhill at an easy pace. On both sides of the trail there were flowers in full bloom. It is the first time I recall my sense of smell being the most prominent. There have been days where the views or sounds of the forest have been very memorable but they are special moments when even my nose gets in on the action. I hope it isn’t just the contrast with my hiker funk that makes it so intense but either way I’m happy.

I reach the Marina first and use my time washing up in the bathroom and signing the 2024 hiker banner. It doesn’t take long for Jonas and Russell to come down, they don’t seem quite as enamored with the hike as I was. I don’t want to break their spirits with word that the shelter is still over a mile away and just lead the way up the trail. The mileage does feel a bit gratuitous after the already long day but we push through fairly quickly and see a lot of familiar faces when we arrive.

When we cross Fontana Dam we will enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. First, we need a resupply and I need to print my permit for the National Park so we plan to stay at the Fontana Dam Shelter (aka the Fontana Hilton). It is probably the nicest shelter on the AT with a bathroom complete with hot shower, charging station, water fountain, plenty of shelter space and tent pads, and an amazing view of the lake.

Unfortunately, the tent pads are concrete so my Durston won’t work but I find a strip of grass with some section hikers and Jonas to fit our tents. In the morning there is a $5 (each way) shuttle to Fontana Village where we will take care of permits and resupply. It is a resort so we know to expect high prices even for our staples. I am looking forward to getting started (and finished) with the Smoky Mountains. My plan is to get the first shuttle in the morning and shuttle right back to the shelter so I can make decent miles even though I will only have half the day to hike.

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