To North Carolina, And Beyond!
8:00 AM and zero degrees. Today was the day. Nate and I promised to each other and all of our fellow hikers that as long as there was no precipitation, we were returning to the trail today. Everyone willing to brave the cold climbed into Ultralight’s cargo van. Our first stop was Unicoi Gap where Attrition and Nemo said goodbye. Twenty miles further was Hogspen Gap, where we had left the trail four days earlier. But the van didn’t make it.
“Whoa!” Ben exclaimed as he turned the corner. We stretched our necks to peek through the windshield to see why we came to a sudden stop.
A road closed sign taunted us.
“Well you can come back to the motel with us,” Ben started offering as a Georgia Department of Transportation vehicle squeezed past us. Ben tooted his horn to get the driver’s attention then jumped out to talk to him. Nate followed.
“He says it’s seven miles to the top of the mountain and another mile to Hogspen Gap.” Nate was looking to me to make the decision. Before my brain could process the information, my mouth blurted out, “That’s exactly the training we did at home. Eight road miles is nothing. Let’s do it!” Tadpole and Wye Knot weren’t so decisive. When we hopped out of the van they were still debating whether or not the road miles were worth getting back on the trail. We figured we’d never see them again.
The sun warmed our backsides as we waved goodbye to Ben and Rooster. We’d probably never see them again either. Pulling on our gloves and bundling up our jackets, we started our hike up the mountain, grateful to be outside again. “This isn’t bad at all,” we agreed.
Two miles later we were gingerly creeping up the 2-inch-thick ice-covered road. Then another mile passed and we were hurdling over a tree that had fallen across the road. But it was beautiful.
We had an untouched, snow-covered road ahead of us, glistening icicles the size of cars on our right and frozen, bent trees on our left. The sky ahead of us was a deep, dark, but still bright, blue while behind us it was see-through blue. We were warm and cozy from hiking but chilled to the bone from the relentless wind. And, oh what the wind did to the trees! Their ice-encased branches wiggling with the wind made the most beautiful natural wind chimes!
The road miles passed slowly, but we were okay with that. It was a welcome surprise when we reached Hogspen Gap just after we saw the 7.0 mile marker sign on the side of the road. Huddled behind the fiberglass sign at the trailhead, we ate a snack before entering the woods.
“It’s very slippery here, please be careful,” Nate warned me, “If this keeps up we are going to put our YakTrax on.” Smack. My heart jumped out of my chest as I watched Nate’s feet slide out from under him and his shoulders careen towards the frozen ground. He caught himself before tumbling down the slope behind him. His fall made the decision; we sat down and stretched our YakTrax over our boots.
The trail was just as picturesque as the road miles but it was in ruins. There were trees whose ice-weighted branches bent over far enough to freeze to the ground and other branches that snapped off, all blocking the trail. We doubled over to get under the bent trees and lifted our feet to our hips to pass the fallen limbs. I couldn’t decide which obstacle I liked least. Our 4.6 miles on the trail that day took almost as long as our 7 road miles crawling up a mountain. With the wind threatening to throw us off of the mountain ridge, we hustled the last mile to the shelter. We had decided to set our tent up inside the shelter since the weather forecast predicted single digit temperatures with wind chills in the negatives.
Huddled inside the tent while Nate finished setting up outside of it, I heard, “My hands are so frozen!” We were shocked with amazement. Tadpole and Wye Knot had followed us into the frozen forest.
“Did the mice chew holes through your food bags?” Nate asked Wye Knot and Tadpole through the nylon of our tent. When they reported no damage, Nate glanced at me with an I-fixed-it smirk across his face. Before crawling into our tent the previous night Nate had warned them not to leave their food laying around in the shelter. When they didn’t want to crawl out of their sleeping bags to hang their food in a tree, Nate left a hefty pile of sunflower seeds as a “peace offering” for the mice, under the theory that if the mice have food readily available, they won’t go searching for it. And it worked! The sunflower seeds were gone.
The frigid temperatures kept us in our sleeping bags longer than we wanted and made packing up last a lifetime with unusable fingers and frozen toes. Stepping into his frost-covered, stiff boots, Nate pulled his foot back out in the same second. “Those little mice ate their seeds in my boots!” he explained as he turned his boot over and shook out the empty shells. “I guess they were looking for somewhere warm to enjoy their meal.” Little did they know, our boots were iceboxes.
Our feet warmed up within minutes once we hit the trail. We had only planned to move eight miles to the next shelter due to impending freezing rain. We took our time up and down the frozen mountains, but when faced with slick stairs, my feet flew out from under me and I flung my arms (with trekking poles attached) out to my sides. With nothing to catch my fall, the weight of my pack forced my body backwards and I slammed to the ground landing directly on my pack. Laughing into Nate’s worried face, I was glad I had a forty-pound pack to cushion my fall. I only hoped I hadn’t broken anything inside.
We arrived at the shelter in the early afternoon and were torn between pushing for the next shelter, more than seven miles away, or setting up camp. We chose the latter and were later rewarded. Not only did Wye Knot and Tadpole show up, so did Gator, a fellow thru-hiker and YouTube sensation who we had met through the internet before we started. Another young and eager hiker, Cliff, made it to the shelter just before sunset. That night, the shelter was full, both of hikers and laughter.
I screamed. Nate spun around to face me. Gator laughed. “That was so good!” I admitted. Leaving the shelter first, we were sure someone would catch us. Gator snuck up on us, quiet as a mouse, then let out a violent shout. He was recording the whole scene.
As the three of us descended Blue Mountain, we noticed two red trucks parked at Unicoi Gap. Prepared to smile, nod and head back into the woods after crossing the parking lot, we were blessed with trail magic when the driver of one truck asked us if we’d enjoy a cup of coffee. The boys dug right in, and we all shared stories with Sherpa, the coffee provider and local trail magic extraordinaire.
Thinking that we would be staying at Tray Mountain shelter that night, Nate and I were cold, tired and out of breath when we reached the blue-blazed trail leading us to the shelter. We could tell that Gator and Cliff had turned down that path. Following in their footsteps, we barely saw the shelter before we were met by the two of them headed back to the AT. “There’s snow inside the shelter,” they reported. Having been told that the weather on Tray Mountain cannot be trusted, I did not want to stay inside a snowy shelter. Not fully comprehending what we were getting ourselves into, Nate and I followed Gator and Cliff away from the building and down the mountain, committing ourselves to our first fifteen mile day.
And the day was long. We had climbed and descended three mountains, plus a “knob” that was as tall as our highest peak that day. We were exhausted, but proud when we arrived at Deep Gap shelter for the night. Within an hour we had assembled our tent and eaten dinner. Laying down for a well-earned rest, we were astonished once again when Tadpole and Wye Knot stumbled into the shelter. They were soon followed by a pair of first time hikers who had started their day at Unicoi Gap, from one of the two red trucks we had seen. It was another night of a shelter full of guys and me. It may have been the exhaustion, but I felt like I had gotten more than enough guy time lately.
The Top of Georgia Hostel at Dick’s Creek Gap is not one to be missed. Noticing that our snack supply was running low, Nate and I walked the half mile from the trail to the hostel expecting the overpriced, hiker-dirtied hut that I imagined all hostels to be. It was quite the contrary.
Upon reaching the crest of the hilly driveway we were greeted by former thru-hiker and hostel-owner, Sir-Packs-A-Lot himself. He kindly asked us to leave our muddy boots outside and invited us in for coffee and hot chocolate. Of course we obliged. Having planned to spend less than an hour, including travel time, at the Top of Georgia, Nate and I found the place hard to leave. We talked to every staff member, learning their stories and gaining tips about future parts of the trail and when a few fellow hikers pulled in, we talked to them, too. While at the hostel we were also able to order ourselves new crampons, as three days of use had destroyed our YakTrax. As we pulled on our coats to walk back to the trailhead we were offered a ride by Sir-Packs-A-Lot. He sure knows how to run a hiker hostel.
Not sure of where we’d end up that night, we relished the freedom of hiking until we wanted to plop our tent down. This kind of liberation from everyday worries is what brought us out here. Deciding to push past a shelter or two, we hiked right out of Georgia, crossing our first state border on the Appalachian Trail. Though it took us a little longer than we had anticipated, we enjoyed the milestone and celebrated by camping one tenth of a mile inside of North Carolina.
I was disappointed when I felt a wet drop hit my face as I laid down for bed that night. Our tent had kept us dry in a day-long thunderstorm in the Adirondacks, I couldn’t fathom why it would be leaking now. Nate couldn’t figure it out either. He was proud of how well he had set up our home that night. It wasn’t until he returned from hanging our food that we learned where the dripping was coming from.
“That was creepy,” Nate sighed as he plopped down on his sleeping pad. “I kept having the feeling that something was watching me, but when I turned to check behind me, I couldn’t calm myself because I could not see more than five feet in front of me!” The fog was so dense that Nate finding the tree he used for our bear hang was a miracle. I lifted my gaze from my journal on my lap to his panting face. Then I saw it. “Look at the light from your head lamp,” I ordered him, “It’s misting inside of our tent!” Indeed it was. We were sleeping inside of a cloud and nothing could have protected us from the moisture in the air. It was going to be a long, damp night. But how often would we get to sleep in a cloud?!
“This is the highest we’ve ever been,” I let Nate know on the top of Standing Indian Mountain. It was a relaxed, steady climb to the top, too. On the way up we had passed our first shelter option for the night and we had over five miles left to hike to the next one. Even though Nate is carrying our tent, we decided to shelter hop in hopes of staying dry for the next few days. We started down the mountain.
“Today is such a beautiful day, I doubt those guys limited themselves to the next shelter,” Nate guessed, talking about Gator and Cliff. He was correct.
We pulled into an empty shelter on sore feet and threw our packs down. The shelter wasn’t very big but it was littered with graffiti warning about the mice, causing us to set up our tent under the shelter roof once again. Usually setting up our tent is our first order of business when arriving at camp but today we couldn’t wait to take off our boots. Water-logged, our soggy feet looked more like water-saturated raisins that had spent ten hours in a hot bath than part of the human body. We slipped them into our camp shoes to allow them to air out while we set up camp.
Just as we were getting ready to cook dinner I saw a man approaching our shelter. “There is someone here!” I announced to Nate, knowing that we might need to rearrange our tent to provide him room to sleep hidden behind it, away from the wind. As he got closer, the hiker informed me that I had already met him. He was Splitter, another fellow from Neel Gap. He had passed by Gator, Cliff and another hiker we knew, Sasquatch (formerly known as Rescue), who all said they were aiming for a shelter twelve miles up the trail. That would have put them at almost 25 miles that day! Splitter also gave us the trail conditions up ahead and told us a quick weather forecast. “The snow is supposed to start tomorrow,” he warned, “Then in three days it’ll be beautiful again.” The forecast I had seen said light snow overnight until ten o’clock the next morning, but either way we were ready for it. Growing up in the snow belt in Pennsylvania, we were not afraid of a little bit of the white stuff.
We were both wrong about the weather. It snowed five inches overnight and it was still snowing at ten in the morning. Thinking that we would only do 12.1 miles we lazed around. Then, the cold temperatures caused unusable fingers that prolonged our packing up. We didn’t start hiking until 10:20.
By our water stop, less than a half mile down the trail, I wasn’t sure if twelve miles through the snow was possible. Trudging through inches of snow every step, searching for the trail amidst a snow-blanketed forest and imagining the white blazes of the AT on snow-spotted trees was not easy, even though the snow was powdery and dry.
Albert Mountain was our half-way marker. It had a tower on top with a parking lot nearby. Those were good signs that we might have cell phone service and could check in with family. However, Albert Mountain was straight up. We were flipping our bodies over boulders and squirming ourselves (packs still attached!) between rocks. When we finally got to the top, gray, foggy skies blocked any view, the steps up the tower were lost underneath sheets of ice and we had one beep of service.
One was enough.
I had a voicemail from the family of a thru-hiker we had met at Neel Gap. They offered us a ride and a place to stay when we stumbled into Franklin the next day. But given this incentive our plans had changed. We wanted to be in Franklin today.
Through a choppy phone call we made arrangements to be picked up in five hours at Winding Stair Gap. We ran off of the mountain, covering the first 2.4 miles in forty minutes! Eventually, Nate’s knee felt the effects of our quick descent. As we wound down the steps at Winding Stair Gap he was limping. But his exhausted face turned into a smile when he was invited to a dinner of pizza and beer.
“The Franklins,” who are really the Suminskis who live in Franklin, were more giving to us than we ever would have imagined. Before starting our hike we had heard of trail angels and invitations to a stranger’s home and we always thought we’d be wary. But not so with The Franklins. When we first met hiker Jamy Beth (trail name Eddy) and her father, Joe (Badger), at Neel Gap, they told us her mother, Claire, was the nicest person ever. I can attest that they were right. Not only did she hug us the second we walked in her door, she sat us down and brought us drinks and food and even had our dessert plates ready before we knew what was happening. And the conversation we had with the Franklins was like we were friends for centuries. Opening their hearts to others is an everyday thing for the Franklins and we were so lucky and so grateful to have met them.
Our zero day in Franklin was both relaxing and productive. We did laundry, bought enough food for the next five days, retrieved our packages (new crampons!), sent back a destroyed pair of gloves to Amazon and dried out all of our wet gear. Nate was able to rest his knee and I was able to schedule classes for my final eight months of school.
By the time we were ready for dinner, we had met up with Gator and the three of us decided to walk over to a cheap, all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. We turned the corner into the parking lot and noticed a few vehicles, a good sign since most businesses were closing early due to impending snow. Reaching forward to pull open the door, a paper sign caught my eye. “We will be closing early due to weather,” it read. There was a family leaving the restaurant. “They’re closing now,” they sadly let us know, “We were the last customers.” Bummer. With no warning, Gator asked them for a ride back to his hotel. They said sure.
Nate and I walked back to our hotel, thinking we may have to settle for fast food for the first time in years. As we dragged our feet over the asphalt, I looked up towards the sky. A Shoney’s sign beamed back at me. We were walking through the parking lot of a sit-down restaurant that was still open! And they had a buffet! Though it was a tad more expensive than the pizza, it was much more satisfying.
We bought ice cream from the drugstore to enjoy that night in the hotel. Planning to hit the trail early the next morning, no matter how much snow the city got, we didn’t know when our next opportunity for ice cream would be. It was delicious.
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