North Carolina Welcomes You, Week 3 On the Appalachian Trail

Unless it’s windy, there is no sound during midday on top of a bald. No cars, no planes, and even the birds are quiet. The other hikers are sitting there with you, red faced, munching on crackers and looking at… all of it.

You open your water bottle, and it hisses from the pressure change. There might not be a cloud in the sky, or it could be raining. Doesn’t matter. Sound doesn’t happen on top of the mountain. Proven scientific fact.

Sound comes back once you’re down the mountain. Water is pretty noisy, creeks or mossy springs. So are the flies in your ears. The noisiest part of the day will be evenings in the shelters. 

God, the evenings in the shelters. I’ve mentioned it before, but hiking the Appalachian Trail is foremost a social experience that happens to take place outside. My partner laughs when I tell her I go to town to get alone time. 

The Trail

Since entering North Carolina, the trail has been… hard. 

A special ring in Hell awaits whatever madman decided hikers ought to see the bottom of every gap and the top of every mountain in rapid, unending succession. (Thank you to the army of trail builders and planners who keep the AT looking pristine. It’s the prettiest torture device ever devised by humans.)

But everyone seems to have a different take on how hard it’s been, which leads me to believe the difficulty has as much to do with bodily exhaustion as trail design. Some say Georgia was harder, and some are convinced North Carolina will end them.

A phrase on trail goes, “North Carolina welcomes you.” Some people say it with sarcasm, and others in earnest. It all depends on the day, how much sleep you got on that unlevel tent site; whether you had two honey buns for breakfast or just oatmeal; and whether or not you filled up at the last water source 6 miles back. 

Each day in Week 3 was a roll of the dice. Making the climb out of Fontana Dam, I felt like a god. I crushed 4000 feet of elevation in 16 miles and sang while doing it. 

The next day I struggled with 7 miles. Performance at this point, as one’s legs are getting stronger but have a ways to go, seems to depend more on how well you’ve taken care of yourself.

But, Jesus, the trek has been neat. A woman I talked to at Around the Bend Hostel wanted to skip the Smokies. 

I would strongly recommend against that. 

Ragged peaks aside, the bright birch forests giving way to the deep, dark, dense pine groves are nothing short of revelatory to behold. Wildflowers perfume the air, and if there wasn’t a path scratched out in the dirt for me to follow, I’d probably just lay down there and die happy.

Campfire Conversation

Dear Reader, let me set it up for you. 

It’s cloudy and you’re dog-tired. A log cabin missing one wall has a half dozen strangers dressed in blue, green, orange puffy jackets sitting on logs around a cold fire pit. Nobody has time or energy to look for wood, and fires in the backcountry are overrated.

Someone’s lighting a cigarette instead, while another person stirs beef jerky into their instant potatoes. Nobody knows each other. They’re familiar, but at this stage they’re all straddling that line between friend, and friendly acquaintance. 

But everyone talks. Everyone needs to talk. Everyone’s been in their own head all day. Except for the one or two folks who don’t mind that kind of thing, we’re all a little crazed for interaction.

We see each other about as often as we would if we were neighbors at home. Not everyday, necessarily, but two or three times a week you see Tek pumping up a hill, or Poles will show up late to camp as you’re falling asleep.

For a few days you see each other everyday. Then suddenly you don’t. Friends are like smoke out here. 

In conversation the weather comes up, and folks compare to Apple Weather, to whatever forecast a Garmin inReach gives them. 

Bootleg Jack’s report has no rain for days. FireSloth’s has rain tonight at 7:00. Chris says it’ll rain on and off throughout tomorrow. 

Everyone stops talking about it because they know forecasts don’t really matter in the mountains and they’ll be walking in the rain sometime soon anyways.

The Camping

In Smoky Mountain National Park, backcountry hikers are required to camp at shelter sites. This is different from Forest Service land, where one can essentially camp wherever they fall. 

The effect is that it concentrates hikers at shelters even more than usual, and makes for crowded tent-sites. The mice are happy with it, lots of crumbs around the fire ring, lots of trash bags to scavenge. The bears haven’t made themselves seen, though I’ve seen scat on the trail.

It’s been cool this week, and temperatures in the higher elevations are even cooler, which means a few nights with frost on the rain fly, and water filters tucked in the bottom of our sleeping bags (if a Sawyer Squeeze freezes, it’s ruined). 

Cold mornings are great for pre-dawn coffee, and clear sunrises. I’ve had a few breakfasts on those silent, treeless balds. 

Killing Time

Around the cold fire pit, Rob peels off to brush his teeth. Steph and Bootleg Jack are still chatting. She just ran out of gas and wants to know about cold soaking. The rest of us are just killing time. 

The rhododendrons are a solid green wall hemming us in. The clouds have cleared and the sun is blowing up all sorts of color— though the mountains all around stay blue. 

“We were thinking Russell Gap Shelter tomorrow, Double Spring Gap the next day.”

”I wanna to see how my ankles do. That climb out of Fontana fucking killed me.”

”How much does your pack weigh?

”The bear canister is so convenient. Plus it’s mouse proof. Worth the 2 pounds.”

“In the Shenandoah you have to hang all your food too, including bear cans.”

”The guy with titanium knees just stopped to eat then kept going. I thought he was going to stay but he just ate and left.”

”Not sure if he’ll make it tonight. Not before dark. Next shelter is what, 4 miles?”

”Have you ever tried cold soaking?”

The People

Everyone ahead of you is making excellent mileage. Everyone behind you is going slow. 

In reality, we’re all stretched out in a 20 mile span or so. By Friday, those ahead will have fallen behind. That same day, I’ll wake up at 4:30am to start hiking, only to find the “slowpokes”— who were supposedly days behind me— camping 7 miles ahead. 

Pace doesn’t matter. Just keep moving forward. It’s literally the only rule of the game. 

Those categories in my Week 1 post have remained the same, but I can no longer report on the ultra athletes or the partiers. The former have all gone ahead (as far as I know), and the latter have dropped out. 

Those I’m left with are a very excellent group of individuals. 

We’re not a trail family, though a few of us have grown close. Bootleg Jack, Maddie, Chris, FireSloth. I’ll be hoping to run into them again soon. 

What we have are better described as trail neighbors: Steph and Rob from Ontario who teach in prisons; Steadfast, who always ends the day behind me and begins the next day ahead of me; Tek, who reps NYC better than most; Skyline who insists beer is bad for making gains; Devon from PA, who I am actually convinced is not a hiker at all and just an avatar of the southern Appalachian woods.

The Truth

The sun has set. You’ve dehydrated yourself enough to be assured you won’t have to wake up and pee in the middle of the night. 

It’s 8 something and you’re excited for bed— exhausted and a little bored. Ready to go again.

Standing up your muscles feel tight, your ankles throb, but Bootleg Jack has one more question:

“Hey. So ya’ll have lived on your own for a while, so this might not apply, but does anyone else miss their family?”



“It’s the hardest thing out here.”

”That’s a good thing, it means you have a good home. Very lucky.”

And that’s the truth.

My partner, Annie, has an ongoing series about home’s perspective on loved ones going for a long walk. From the months leading up to departure, to dropping a partner off at Amicalola Falls, Windholz reflects on the complex emotions around this whole adventure for all involved.

The Week Ahead

My shuttle driver to Gatlinburg said Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, also marks the transition to (comparatively) smoother terrain. There will still be hours of climbing each day, but hopefully at a more gradual incline. 

With that said, two lessons I’ve learned so far are 1) if shuttle driver tells you it’s going to get easier, they’re not necessarily lying, but they’re probably wrong. 2) Planning is a fool’s errand. Instead what I have are a list of place names to look forward to. Davenport, Max Patch, Hot Springs, and eventually Damascus are in the cards the next few weeks. I’ll be sure to keep ya’ll in the loop

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 6

  • Jenny : Apr 27th

    Ben, you write so well and from an interesting perspective. Thanks, I’m enjoying your blogs.

  • Rushmore : Apr 27th

    Nice post!
    Keep on keepin’ on!

  • Al K : Apr 28th

    Excellent writing! Hike on!

  • Stephen M : Apr 28th

    Nice post…saunter on!

  • Liver Brook : Apr 28th

    Welcome to North Carolina, Ben! You’re a wonderful writer; I look forward to all your posts. You’ll never be this young again; enjoy the journey!

  • Laney : May 3rd

    This is Bootleg Jack’s mom. I love reading your posts and seeing the different perspectives on the trail of those crossing paths with my son. Happy Hiking!


What Do You Think?