Neels Gap to Fontana Dam: A Trip Report
This past Black Friday, I left behind the consumerism and leftover Turkey sandwiches of home and drove down to the Georgia/North Carolina border area to set out on a two week shakedown trip of the Appalachian Trail.
This was my second and final major shakedown trip before I embark on my thru on March 1st, the first being a trip in late May when I hiked from Amicalola to Neels Gap. This trip was planned as a total of two weeks with ten solid days of hiking, two zero days, and two days for travel. I’ve split this report into two sections covering each week as well as some valuable lessons I learned from my trip. Enjoy!
So It Begins…
On Black Friday, I drove down to Franklin, North Carolina and stayed in a hotel in town. The next day I set out for Rock Gap parking lot (mile 105.8) to meet my shuttle driver, Michelle of White Blaze Shuttle Services (706-300-8964). She took me down to Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap (31.3) and I set off right where I left off in May.
The first day was great weather with some great views but I knew colder, nastier weather was coming, so I savored every second of warmth. It was on that first day that I received my first bit of Trail Magic. Ron Brown found me eating lunch at Hogpen Gap (38.2) and pulled over to offer me anything he had. He had food, water, fuel, and gear and was willing to give me anything I needed. I was pretty squared away since it was my first day on trail but I gratefully took a Tootsie Roll Pop and some Gatorade powder and went on my way.
As I hiked on through that week the weather got significantly worse, from cold and windy to rainy and then finally it started to snow. Despite the weather I was still able to soak in some pretty amazing views with the reduction of tree cover.
The Weather Sours!
By the third day, the weather had soured significantly, and a long day ended with me at Plumorchard Gap Shelter (73.6) just before dark. A few SOBO thru hikers came through and stayed there as well and we slept through probably the coldest night I’ve experienced so far, with temperatures dropping into the low twenties and possibly the high teens.
By morning our water had frozen and would stay frozen for most of that day. Throughout the night it had dropped a good bit of snow and forecasts were calling for another freezing night, possibly dropping into the single digits up in the mountains. Because of this, the thru hikers decided it would best if they went into town and I decided if these guys were bailing out for the night, having hiked all the way from Maine, then I could bail out too. So I did.
Gettin’ Out of Dodge!
On the fourth day I set out to get off the trail early and take a night and extra day off in town. Though it was less than twelve miles to the Deep Gap parking lot (85) to get off trail, it felt like a particularly long day, mostly because of the snow.
The higher in elevation I went, the deeper the snow was. In some places, snowdrifts were a few inches deep. Everything was covered in ice and a cold wind and an oppressive fog kept me down for most of the day. Despite that I hit a major highlight of the trip by crossing the border from Georgia into North Carolina, finishing one whole state on the AT!
Well Deserved R & R
I booked a shuttle out of Deep Gap with a wonderfully entertaining guy so appropriately named Santa Mike. Mike took me to my car at Rock Gap while telling me stories of his time in the service and his experiences working along the trail. If you need a ride to Franklin, NC, Mike can be reached at (828) 200-9681. You won’t regret it!
In town, I took an extra day off to rest up and recover some, opting to skip a section of the trail rather than throw off my itinerary. I figured since I would be hiking this all again in March, it’s OK if I skip a small part now. The first day I did nothing but relax, recover, eat, and explore Franklin a little, which is a nice little town that reminds me of some of the little towns in my own state of Kentucky.
The next day I did all my chores. I cleaned and checked all my gear, prepared all my food and resupplied, and did some laundry. The laundry was the interesting experience.
To do my laundry, I found the Gooder Grove Hostel on Guthook’s and contacted the owner, Zen. And his name certainly fit his personality. Affecting a kind of Southern California surfer drawl, Zen graciously allowed me to do laundry and hang out in his hostel with his dog while he told stories of his Kung-Fu prowess and extolled the virtues of different Eastern philosophies. Finally, after laundry was done, he took me outside and taught me how to throw an axe! This activity is not something I am suited for apparently since I only managed to plant the handle of the axe into the target log. Though Zen assured me I could still do some damage with the handle, which is comforting!
Back in the Saddle!
Week two began with rain! After shuttling from my final end point at Fontana Dam to Winding Stair Gap (109.4) (thanks again, Michelle!), I hit the trail heading north to end up that night at the Wayah Shelter (120.4). Shortly after hitting the trail, the rain began to pour and continued for the rest of the day. It was cold, too!
Upon reaching the Wayah Bald tower (119.5), I met a group of what seemed to be Boy Scouts taking shelter within. They were about to get off the trail due to the weather but upon learning I was staying out they asked if there was anything I needed. This sense of generosity always seemed prevalent on the trail and even though I was just doing a section, I experienced many others who made similar offers. It warms the heart on a cold and rainy day to know it’s true that people really do look out for each other on the trail.
The Smokies in View
After a freezing cold morning where the rain had turned to snow, I set out to do a long day to make it to the N.O.C. (136.7) for a warm bed and a hot meal. This day was all type-1 fun! Though cold in the morning, the day warmed up and the weather was perfect, allowing for some stunning views along the mountain ridges north of Tellico Gap (128.8).
The best view was from atop Wesser Bald (130.2) fire tower where you’re entranced by a stunning 180º view of the surrounding mountains! From there, I could see all the way to Lake Fontana and beyond I could see the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains looming on the horizon. Clingman’s Dome (200) was visible there, taunting me like a forbidden fruit! Nothing else on this trip inspired me more to start my thru hike.
That evening I made it to the N.O.C. and decided to take a room and stuff my face at the restaurant there! After my longest distance hiked in one day on the AT, I felt I deserved a treat to myself and it really did cap off a great day! I was able to do laundry and take a shower and set off in the morning feeling fresh and rejuvenated! With just three more days of hiking ahead of me, I was ready to push on to Fontana Dam (166.3)!
The Final Stretch
The next few days were cold and snowy but I was pushing on, making good time to Fontana and my final destination for this trip. I think what surprised me the most was that I was so quickly getting into that thru hiker rhythm of wake up, eat, pack up, hike, eat, sleep, repeat. Despite only being on a section, and almost being done with that section, I was starting to feel like a thru hiker. I had really nailed down my gear and was using valuable tips and tricks to get through some of the worst conditions. During my final night on trail, and the only night I had a shelter to myself, I was thinking about my future thru hike and wondering what it would be like being away from home and doing this every single day for five months.
With this trip, I now had a good, solid idea of what thru hiking is about. With the exception of features of the trail unique to each state, like the Smokies or the Whites, I now had experienced almost every general aspect of an AT thru hike. From hot weather to cold weather, rain to snow, the social experience and the solitude, I had experienced almost everything I will experience when I thru hike next year.
The only thing left is time. I don’t know how I will take doing this for months. I know I can do two weeks and right now I’m eager to get back on trail so I assume I can do more but five months of hiking every day is a whole different monster. And while I know I can handle the physical struggle, Zach says in Appalachian Trials, “…the psychological and emotional struggle is what drives people off the Appalachian Trail.” (11)
This is the End…?
On that final day, I reached Fontana Dam! I couldn’t have picked a better point to end my trip as the great enormity of that dam serves as a fitting monument to the end of the first major section of the AT, which I had now (almost) completely done. I victoriously walked out to the halfway point in the dam and looked up at the Smokies looming just ahead of me, as if they are calling out my very name. All I wanted to do was hike on and climb up into those mountains but I knew that day would be coming soon and I vowed to return in March to conquer them on my way to Maine.
Major Lessons for Thru
This trip taught me so many valuable lessons, but these are the biggest take-aways for my March 1st thru hike:
Since I was just doing a section hike, I had a pretty set itinerary I was going by. But when the weather turned worse than initially expected, I decided to jump off trail or change my plans to keep myself safe and relatively comfortable. I have to be willing to be flexible on my thru as conditions can change in an instant and so many aspects of a thru hike are unpredictable and require a great degree of flexibility.
Leaving My Comfort Zone
Before this trip, I always said I would probably rarely sleep in shelters and would never use privies. I had heard too many mice stories for the shelters and bad memories from Boy Scout summer camps has shied me away from privy style toilets, but this trip I did both.
With the exception of two nights I always slept in the shelters and with one exception I always used the privies. The reason I went against myself and did both of these things? The weather. When it was really cold and supposed to snow, or I was super tired from a long hiking day, the last thing I wanted to do was deal with my hammock and rain fly. It was so much easier to sweep a corner of the shelter, throw down my pad and bag and go to sleep. The same thing with the privies; I just didn’t want to be out in the elements doing my business! The walls and roof of the privies looked really nice when it was cold, snowy, and windy.
I usually don’t carry camp or sleeping clothes, choosing instead to just deal with dirty, sweaty clothes in camp. While this may work in the summer months, winter is a different story. On days when it rained or there was wet snow, I was happy to know I had dry and warm camp clothes stowed away in my pack. While other people were getting off trail because they were soaked and wouldn’t be able to get dry, I knew I could just strip off my wet clothes and be fine at the end of the day. I’ll never hike without some kind of camp clothes again!
It’s All Mental/Emotional/Psychological!
As I said earlier, I now have a good taste of almost every aspect of thru hiking the AT. There’s nothing left for me to prepare. All I can do now is be ready to deal with the mental, emotional, and psychological struggles of the trail as they come, knowing that I have a good firm grasp on all the other elements.
Total Mileage: 110.5 miles over 9 days of hiking
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