Hot Springs, Cool Rains, & Grassy Balds

We have officially adopted a set of trail names. “Tomcat” is my new trail name, given to me by Joe thanks to my recent disdain and history with torturous mice, much akin to the beloved cartoon, Tom & Jerry. Given my love for cats, I find it especially fitting. After a short stint as “Nickname Joe,” a trail name originating from our time hiking at Isle Royale National Park, Joe has settled on the name “Hot Dog,” a catchphrase he’s been saying for as long as I’ve known him. It also creates a harmonious dynamic between our two names, strengthening our duo. Going forward we can ditch our real names and excitedly write our trail names out on the AT Class of 2024 posters as “Tomcat & Hotdog.” I think it has a ring to it.

Hiking On to Hot Springs 

Leaving Standing Bear Farm isn’t easy. The vibe is so cozy, and the communal space is set in a way where you are always running into someone to talk to. I spent a good time talking to Lightning Jack, a 2012 AT thru-hiker, who was staying at the hostel while out on a section hike. He was very warm and friendly, and in the best way possible he reminded me of Seth Rogen. He reminisced about how special the experience is, from the people you meet to the beautiful places you get to see, and he offered some great insight into foraging. He’s a baker living in Northwest Georgia and gave me a beautiful bag of fresh gorp to take on the trail. He even left me with his number in case we want any bread shipped down the line.

We eventually pulled ourselves out of the hostel vortex and got back onto the trail toward Hot Springs. Beautiful bluebird skies with cold temperatures made for the perfect hiking weather on a day with 6,300 feet of ascent over 20 miles. The trail was smooth and easy, and as we made our way up toward Snowbird Peak, the sun and wind blew the frost off of the treetops to simulate a temporary snowfall. We found a strange, spaceship-like structure on the peak. We attempted communication but were unsuccessful.

Max Patch Peacefulness 

We pushed on towards the famous Max Patch, a large grassy bald with beautiful panoramic views of mountains in every direction. When we got there, we laid out in the grass for an early dinner. Joe mentioned that he felt like a true thru-hiker in that moment, and I had to agree. Plopping down whenever and wherever we pleased and for as long as we wanted; the only schedule we were on was the Earth’s rotation around its axis.

We picked up some much-appreciated trail magic to fuel us for our last bit of hiking in the twilight. After many quiet miles, we got to chatting as the orange glow faded on the horizon. Something about the evening and the world quieting down for the night opens up the space for deeper conversation.

Hanging out in Hot Springs 

When we awoke the next morning, we realized we were camped right next to our buddy Salamander, who was anointed his trail name only a few nights before when we were still in the Smokies. When the rest of us were huddled in the shelter on a freezing night we heard him exclaim, “What the f**k!” and then walked in to show us a salamander swimming in his water bottle. In a one in a million chance, a salamander popped right out of the mountain spring pipe he was collecting water at, and it squeezed right into his bottle. With that, “Salamander” was born. We all now headed down a steady 13-mile descent directly into the town of Hot Springs. It was a much-needed sunny and warm day, and an AT first for us as the trail would eventually take us directly down the main street of town. 

Despite some convenient hostel locations, we didn’t plan to spend the night in Hot Springs. This doesn’t mean we didn’t get caught in the vortex, though. We felt a magnetic pull to the local coffee shop, Artisun, where I ordered the largest black coffee possible and a blueberry banana smoothie. After resupplying at Dollar General, we shared a large serving of fries from the local tavern and finished off an entire six pack of cinnamon rolls while lying out in the sun on the lawn of the welcome center. Our bellies were full and we felt giddy. The luxuries of town were intoxicating. We ran into our friends and hostel mates from a few days prior and they were all staying in the same hostel, but with a planned trip back to Asheville in a few days, we decided to push onward, loosening our hip belts after a few hours of indulgence. 

Bear Scare 

We crossed over the French Broad River and started a rocky and steep ascent back into the mountains. We were treated to gorgeous views of the river, town, and mountains all bathed in the light of golden hour as we climbed the switchbacks up higher and higher. Still embracing the carefree mood of being in town, we dropped our goal of hiking an additional eight miles into the night and decided to plop down to stealth camp at the next flat spot we could find. A great feeling of freedom and excitement bubbles up when you stray off plan and give in to spontaneity and chance a bit. After we set up camp we heard an animal lurking nearby in the woods, which we of course had to obsessively fear was a bear. After scaring the forest dweller off with loud noises, we timidly returned to our tents, ready for a long paranoid night wrapped up in our quilts.

Have You Ever Seen the Rain? 

Part of what makes me and Hotdog compatible hiking partners is that we are equally not morning people. We had a slow start to the day, which the AT gods above punished us for by sending a small, unexpected rain spurt to wet out our tent flys. We hiked most of the day with ongoing bouts of intermittent light rain and sparse views. It was what we would call a grind day. One of the moments we were most excited about was an afternoon cup of coffee around mile 12 to give us a boost up the long, extended climb of the day. Dissatisfaction runs deep in the world, so I feel lucky and grateful that I can find happiness in filtering water from a littered creek to make instant Folgers coffee with on a rainy day while sitting on the dirt at a highway crossing. It’s the hiker trash version of the Swede’s Fika. 

An Evening on Big Firescald Knob 

Our caffeinated bodies shot us up the mountain in the direction of Big Firescald Knob. Shuffling up with one rhythmic step and pole plant after the other, the AT accepted our sweaty sacrifice and rewarded us with fantastic views and a hint of sun at Whiterock Cliff. Despite the daylight running thin, we enjoyed the ridge line hike to the Knob. Mossy-covered rock steps, enclosing rhododendrons, and tight squeezes through rock outcroppings felt as if we had hiked into an expedition through a tropical rainforest. The views at the top of the knob, however, were beautiful and undeniably Appalachian. 

We continued to finish our largest day yet, 24 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation gain. As we hiked into the night, we crossed mile 300 and enjoyed viewing the lighted landscape of Greenville far below the mountains. There is something supremely special about night hiking. Despite your sight being heavily impaired, a deeper feeling of oneness with the trail and surrounding landscape emerges. You are not selectively choosing to only experience the views and the conventional idea of natural beauty. Instead, you are accepting whatever the trail provides you with, focusing on the one light beam of trail ahead of you at a time. Feeling the rhythm of your body moving in the night, instead of hunkering down in a shelter or tent, you feel less like an outsider and more akin to the rest of the creatures sharing the mountains and forest with you.

Teachings of the Trail 

We woke up to the sound of rain deflecting off our tent flys. I see rain as a Zen master, constantly teaching us the same lesson. The moment you stoke the flames of struggle and aversion toward the rain, you are losing the battle. Let the reactions go, accept the circumstances, and be present with what is, and then you start to feel some peace and equanimity amongst the rain. 

It continued to rain most of the day and ended up being a relatively forgettable one. No consistently jaw-dropping views, no towns, and a minimal amount of hikers. I frame these types of days as a form of training. We were zoned in, experimenting with gear combinations and testing methods to stay warm and dry while developing our mental resiliency. You do still have to find ways to sneak in some fun though, so we had to have a cheeky laugh while reaching the summit of Big Butt Peak. The butt karma would come back around to me a few hours later when I experienced a comical cartoon slip in the mud and landed squarely on my behind. Our saving grace for the day was finding a pleasant grassy patch to set up camp at and enjoying beautiful views of Big Bald and the lights of Wolf Laurel in the evening.

We woke up to more rain and fog once again, but with a short 11-mile day and a ride into Asheville with Joe’s buddy Mike on the day’s schedule, we could hardly be bothered. I could already feel the comfort of a warm hot shower penetrating my skin and pizza, beer, and honey buns filling my belly. It’s life’s little pleasures that grip your mind after hiking 20+ mile days in the rain. No fancy cars or luxuries are needed for me; I’ll do just fine with a dry place to sleep and a clean shirt.


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Comments 1

  • Forest : Apr 12th

    Well written post. Nice mix of facts and feelibs/philosophy, but not too deep.

    Well done!


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