Just Get Me Out of Tennessee
I camped at Doll Flats at the edge of the Roan Highlands, looking across the meadow on the side of North Carolina. Two states down in a hike of 14. I had no idea that the next 70 some odd miles were going to throw some surprises at me.
Waterfalls and Creek Baths
There is an abundance of water in the Tennessee section. Jones Falls on a short blue blaze was a spectacular sight. I learned that the Jones Branch empties into the Elk River with trail access just north of the falls.
I came around a bend to see a crystal clear pool only to discover it was a wide river. On the first warm day in recent memory, I was stripped to my underwear and neck deep in the cool water before I realized it.
While I can’t recall any other swimmable streams up to this point, it was such a refreshing experience taking a dip, drying in the sun, and watching a pair of dogs swim across the river while paying me no mind whatsoever.
Within the next day, I crossed Mountaineer Falls and the hyperbolic Hardcore Cascades. All the smaller and no less spectacular waterfalls finally culminated in Laurel Falls.
I sat with the day hikers, watching people awkwardly descend the stone steps to the roaring water, and sat bathed in the mist drifting in the air.
Turn of Luck, or a Shot in the Foot
Despite the fair weather and riding high on the cool mist of falling water, I stopped at a hostel with no way to pick up a mail drop with the food I needed to get me to Damascus. I waited for hours with no luck getting my hands on my things. I cut my losses and hiked on.
I was able to raid the hiker box for nearly enough food to get me through the next stretch and figured I could hike a side trail into Hampton, Tenn., a short, albeit unplanned, departure from the trail. The evening prior to Hampton, I learned of the Dunkin’ Donuts and became obsessive with the idea. In my fixation I missed the cues for reconsidering my priorities.
I can become obsessive and stubborn once an idea enters my mind, and my trip to Dunkin’ Donuts in the morning was a perfect example of this fact for me. Later in the morning it was forecast to begin raining, a rain that was to last all day long. Moreover, the rain would turn to snow overnight and continue well into the next day.
I figured I’d buy some candy bars to supplement my hiker box fare, eat doughnuts, and drink coffee until I could feel the sugar and caffeine pulsing through my veins. After that it would be an easy and quick hike over Pond Flats to the next hostel.
So what if it was raining? I’d knock out a couple of miles and surely get to the hostel with enough time to snag their last bunk. It was all perfect. Then I remembered what happens when you try to plan anything on trail.
Wet and Rejected
I hiked through a deluge that lasted for hours, just laughing at myself for going into town in the morning when surely the hostel would have done so later in the day. When you are soaked to the bone climbing over a mountain just because, it’s the AT after all, all you can do is laugh.
I walked into the hiker hangout outside the hostel, dripping on the bare floor. The look of pity on the proprietor’s face told me everything. All the bunks were full, of course, but I could wait for a no show. I was also offered the opportunity of camping on the property. I weighed my options, munching on a block of Colby cheese. If I was to camp in the rain I might as well put some miles behind me.
I voiced to the room my decision to hike out. One guy warned of the rain, the snow, the wind… what to my ears rang of fear for both my safety and sanity. Then another said, “You’ll be alright. You’ve already got your rain skirt on. You’re halfway there.” With that positive reassurance I donned my pack.
I walked on with the others wringing their hands with looks of desperate concern, but I wasn’t about to hang out watching the others drink hootch from mason jars that mysteriously appeared out of clothes hampers.
There Is Beauty Everywhere
It’s easy to appreciate the warm sunny days, but it takes something more to see the virtues of braving the uncomfortable, and sometimes downright miserable moments.
I walked past Watauga Lake, where I saw a snake the size of my forearm swimming down a rivulet. The rain ceased for a moment as I crossed the dam and the view back across the water was stunning, and the view into the river gorge was radiant in the fresh fallen rain.
Ascending the ridge I passed a southbound slack packer who nodded in acknowledgement but was also on the phone. All I heard her say was, “That’s so messed up.” Still within earshot of her I narrowly missed being impaled by a widow-maker blown out of a tree near the dam road. As I stood staring at the branch at my feet thinking about this strange moment a truck came out of the fog. Had I not been standing in brief contemplation I could have easily been run over.
How do these things align? I thought again of the words of caution from the hikers near Hampton and questioned my sanity.
I made it to Vandeventer Shelter and nestled into the corner while the wind blew the mist and rain in through the open end, soaking everything. I felt the dampness on my sleeping bag and restrained myself from voicing my concern, as if in doing so might materialize a fateful consequence.
I awoke relatively warm with snow on the ground and went into the mental motivational talk to get me to put on my wet shirt and half frozen socks for yet another day of winter suck.
Eyes on the State Line
I bundled up and pulled my buff over my mouth and nose up to my eyes and charged into the blowing snow. Ice against my face in the wind, wet and soggy shoes, fingertips alternating between sweaty and numb, all this suffering is momentarily suspended when I see a familiar face still bundled up in the next shelter and we get to chat for half an hour.
Everything unpleasant slips away when the wind stops for a moment and the blue sky appears from behind the gray clouds. Everything becomes worth it when the dark silhouette of still leaveless trees are highlighted by the clinging ice. Everything becomes worth it after a night of below freezing temperatures, with ice in my water bottles, when the winter storm breaks and the snow melts off in the sunshine.
It’s worth it when I cross yet another state line, walk into Virginia and down the hill into Damascus, a huge milestone for me on my hike on the Appalachian Trail.
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