On The Trail: Week 3 and 4
Thursday, March 17th
Nantahala Outdoor Center to Sassafras Gap Shelter
We have a late start getting out this morning. After a long day yesterday and a day filled with uphills ahead, neither of us are feeling too ambitious. Thankfully, the weather is beautiful today. Sore and stiff, we make slow miles out of the NOC. It’s only about 7 miles to the next shelter, and nearly another 16 to the one after that. We get to the first shelter in Sassafras Gap around 2:00pm and decide on taking a hero to relax in the sunshine. We take our time setting up camp as a few others roll in. After dinner we all sit by the fire. We brought a bag of marshmallows to roast, and for a moment it feels like summer in Maine. It feels nice to be outside this early in the season, when the temperature I’m used to this time of year is usually parka worthy. Although the Smokies in a few days will most likely be a drastic change from this 70 degree weather. Everyone is looking forward to our stay in Fontana Village, although there’s been a rumor about Norovirus in the Fontana Hilton. We’re all on high alert, not wanting to get sick before such a crucial portion of our thru-hike.
Friday, March 18th
Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cody Gap
It’s another beautiful day when we wake up, and we feel refreshed after taking yesterday afternoon to kick back a little. We still have a lot of good food from our resupply in Franklin, so we’re content eating honey buns for breakfast. I think they’re quickly becoming a staple in my diet that I will never get sick of. We decide to get to Cody Gap tonight with Ron Jon and Mambo to camp, putting us all in a good hiking distance into Fontana Village tomorrow. They’re running a hiker special at the Fontana Lodge that allows 4 people to sleep in a double room for $80. I call to reserve a room, and knowing we have beds waiting for us tomorrow only builds the excitement. The water source at Cody Gap is a small stream running a few hundred yards off the trail, and there are some great flat spots to set up camp around a small fire ring. The nights before town are always filled with great spirits and early sleep, so we all say goodnight and hit the hay.
Saturday, March 19th
Cody Gap to Fontana Lodge
We wake up early to the sound of rain. It’s only sprinkling, and we know everything will dry off in the hotel anyway. We pack up quickly and get out just as the rain stops. The clouds remain gray for the rest of the day, but we race the rain until getting to the Fontana Dam Visitor’s Center 12 miles out. The Visitor’s Center is closed for the season, and the payphone outside is broken – an uncomfortable position to be in when there’s also no cell phone service in this particular spot. Thankfully Ron Jon and Mambo caught the grace of a Trail Angel named Stick Chick, who followed them from the marina in her truck to shuttle us all into the village. She tells us on the way to Fontana Village that the Norovirus breakout wasn’t as bad as everyone made it out to be, and that the Fontana Hilton has since been sanitized. She also warns us of a few thru-hikers staying around town that we should avoid, since they’ve been targeted as bad news. We heed her advice, and thank her for the trail news. I realize for a moment that I’m less than caught up on societal news, then dismiss the thought in ignorant bliss. The trail really warps your perception on what is important and what isn’t, and right now the only thing we all cared about was a soft bed and warm food. We arrive in Fontana Village, and Stick Chick informs us that it’s really just a destination town. There are only 33 people living there year round, and the town essentially consists of the Lodge, the general store (also the laundrymat), and a small gas station down the road. The Lodge is much more extravagant than we all had thought – a serious upgrade from our Budget Inn experiences. We unload our stuff across the room, hanging things and draping them over just about every surface we can find. It immediately looks like an REI exploded in there. We all take turns with the shower, and once again the hot water melts away the lingering smell of thru-hiker. Fontana Dam is a popular place to get a mail drop since the resupply can be spotty at best for such a small town, so we all grab our packages from the front desk and open them in the room like kids on Christmas. Mambo’s mom sent her bunny ears to wear for Easter, and we all laugh at how adorably ridiculous they are. My parents sent some Easter candy and other delicious goodies, including some of their homemade dehydrated recipes like herbed pasta and Mexican quinoa. After sorting everything into meals per day, we calculate out exactly what we’ll need to get at the general store in order to successfully get us through the Smokies with enough food. Next course of action is laundry, so we gather a bag of stinky clothes and walk down to the store clad in our rain gear. There are lots of people in town for the evening, many of which we know at this point. While we wait for our load to be switched, we grab some beer and snacks before relaxing on the porch of the general store in rocking chairs. Sipping canned Budweiser rocking back and forth on the porch of a podunk town in North Carolina is a new experience for me. The word “redneck” comes to mind, but to all of us it doesn’t feel strange at all. It’s funny how being a thru-hiker makes you look at the world in a different, less judgmental way. I think the logic is that what we’re doing is so not normal, that everything else in contrast seems fairly ordinary. We gather a few others in our group and discuss plans to head into the Smokies tomorrow. A few mention that the weather for tomorrow night is calling for a snow storm, a miserable prospect at elevation. We keep an eye on it throughout the evening. When our laundry is done we head back to the restaurant in the Lodge to have a homestyle meal. I’ve been craving barbecue since we got to the south, and I order a pulled pork plate that is to die for. My pallet has been tainted by ramen and instant mashed potatoes, so I’m sure anything in comparison would have tasted like a five star meal. When we’re all full and tired, we make our way back to the room to relax. Although we still have tentative plans to head back out tomorrow, the impending weather is looking worse and worse. By the time we go to sleep, we’ve all pretty much made up our mind on taking a full zero in town tomorrow.
Sunday, March 20th
Zero Day in Fontana Village
It’s nice to sleep in and then wake up knowing you have absolutely no responsibilities for the day. I’ve been out of work for alomost a month now, and I keep finding the idea of coping with non-hiker life too unbearable to even think of. The general consensus at breakfast confirms our decision to stay, as many others are also taking today off to avoid the inclement weather. I think our legs could all use a good rest too before the inevitable elevation gain we’re going to experience in the Smokies. The rest of the day consists of showering, lounging around the room watching TV, playing cards in the lobby, and walking to the gas station for pizza. The thru-hiker community has officially taken over the resort, and it’s funny to be part of such a ragtag group. People we’ve only known for a matter of days become like long lost friends when you see their familiar face in a strange town. Towards the evening, the clouds get dark and the temperature drops significantly. Just before bed, big clumps of slushy snow start to fall, and we’re all thankful to be inside tonight.
Monday, March 21st
Fontana Lodge to Russel Field Shelter
This morning is not as pleasant as the one before, knowing that not only do we have a strenuous day of hiking ahead, but that we have to do it in the fresh snow that is covering the ground outside. The lobby is filled with thru-hikers and all their gear ready to go. Craig, now Spielberg, is in the lobby having just arrived last night and staying until tomorrow. It’s good to see him again, even if only briefly before the shuttle arrives. We manage to pack 14 in a van to get dropped off at the Fontana Dam. It’s definitely chilly this morning, and we’re all wearing most of our layers. We get dropped off and cross the bridge, a grand experience that I’ve envisioned doing almost a hundred times by now. The snow is quickly melting as we hit the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however after we drop our permits off and begin the ascent, it’s evident there is an abundance of lingering snow. It’s anywhere from 5 to 10 inches in spots depending on the wind drift, and I am once again thankful we were inside last night. We keep moving all day, too afraid to stop and get cold. After a long and wet 14+ miles we settle into Russel Field Shelter for the evening. The shelters in the Smokies are all built with stone, and have a hearth and chimney for making a fire. A few people collect some deadfall protruding from the snow and get one going in attempt to keep us warm while we sleep. It’s at least 25 degrees by 7:00pm, so we all get cozy in our sleeping bags and fall asleep in no time – praying tomorrow is a warmer day.
Tuesday, March 22nd
Russel Field Shelter to Siler Bald Shelter
We wake up and try to get moving as soon as possible to keep warm. It’s still cold, and what was snow yesterday is now hard ice on the ground. We restocked our honey bun supply in Fontana Village, so I’m thankful for a calorie packed and tasty breakfast before we leave the shelter. We have another 14+ mile day, although since we’re on the ridgeline now it should be a little less strenuous than yesterday’s climb. The ice melts around midday, creating spots of cold slush that we are wading in by the end of the day. My shoes are soaked through, and my feet are cold inside them. I daydream of the 70 degree weather we were in only four days ago. We’re the first to arrive at the shelter except for two guys out on spring break. The group we had in the shelter last night has dispersed between the three shelter options today. Some went ahead to the 17+ mile shelter, and others stayed behind at the 10+ mile shelter. We are joined by Ron Jon, Mambo, and Walnut tonight. Thankfully the snow has melted enough to gather a good amount of deadfall, which we use to keep a large fire going all night again. As the night creeps up, it gets windy outside and is cold again when you stop moving. We go to bed early for the second night hoping that tomorrow will be warmer.
Wednesday, March 23rd
Silers Bald Shelter to Icewater Spring Shelter
Today will be our biggest day so far in the Smokies. Not only will we hit our 200 mile marker since Springer, but we will also summit Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the entire AT. The wind is whipping like crazy outside when we wake up, and we wait it out in our sleeping bags for it to die down a bit before hiking again. Walnut slept on the floor of the shelter last night to keep the fire going all night – what a saint. With a bit of a late start and a big day we set our pace to cruise until we hit Clingman’s. It’s still very windy, but that’s to be expected at 6,667 feet. The skies are clear though, and we get immaculate views at the top of the viewing tower. We take a moment to rejoice that we’ve managed to make it this far already. The climb down is treacherous with all the ice, and the way down to Newfound Gap is strenuous. When we get there, the parking lot is filled with tourists. You can smell their perfume from a mile away, and I feel like a zoo attraction as they all stare and whisper at our appearances. It’s been days since my last shower now, and I can only imagine what I must smell like to them. Only a few miles left until camp, so we push on quickly, already behind our normal arrival time. We arrive in no time, and still manage to knock out camp setup, dinner, chores, and collect wood for the fire well before dark. It’s nice to know we have our routine down to a science now. Our little bubble is here again tonight, and everyone is happy to have weather above 35 degrees for a change. Today was a day filled with milestones, and we’re all excited to be on the home stretch of the Smokies. A blood red moon rises just after sunset, and we admire the breathtaking view before going to bed.
Thursday, March 24th
Icewater Spring Shelter to Tri Corner Gap Shelter
We take our time getting out of camp this morning. With a short day of only 12 miles there’s no need to rush except for possible rain this afternoon. The elevation and terrain look promising too, a good sign for a more leisurely day. Our hiker hunger is out of control these days with the mileage we’ve been pushing, but with that our hiker legs have gotten into shape as well. We breeze through the day, stopping only for lunch. A doe and fawn come into sight as we’re eating, not more than 50 yards away. Although the Smokies are harrowing, it’s nice to be reminded that they’re also filled with immense beauty. The whole bubble joins us at the shelter again tonight, after arriving ourselves just before 2:00pm. We all finish dinner and camp chores early, just before the rain hits. Thankfully there’s plenty of fire wood, and we tend to it to keep busy for the evening between rounds of rummy. Tomorrow is our last day in the Smokies, and you can feel everyone’s excitement to be at less extreme elevation and on our way to Hot Springs. The hunger for real food and a warm bed are the strongest they’ve been since the trip started.
Friday, March 25th
Tri Corner Gap Shelter to Davenport Gap Shelter
Today looks to be filled with downhills, so the remaining 14+ miles can be made with the help of gravity. It’s a good feeling knowing we’ll have gotten out of the Smokies in only five days. It’s damp out, but the rain lets up before we get out. We know that we’ll make it to camp early, so we take our time at lunch making hot Mountain House Beef Stew. On our way down after lunch we pass a Trail Angel named Apple who is handing out candy bars, which we gladly accept. As predicted, we make it to the shelter before 4:00pm. Tonight will be the first night in five days that we’ll have slept below 4000 feet, and we’re happy to be warmer below serious elevation. I can’t say I’m upset that this is our last night in the Smokies. It’s been beautiful, but too cold for my liking.
Saturday, March 26th
Davenport Gap Shelter to Roaring Fork Shelter
Somehow, we decide that an 18+ mile day is a good idea today over some pretty strenuous elevation. We start the day saying goodbye to the Smokies, and are immediately greeted by bins filled with Trail Magic from Bear Bag’s wife. We fill up on chips, soda, and candy – a breakfast for thru-hikers. The next few miles are fairly gradual to Standing Bear Hostel, where we get a short resupply before moving on. We find out later that half of our resupply has since expired. The next five miles is uphill, and I curse every second of it. At the top we see Apple again, out for some more Trail Magic giving out chocolate bunnies and soda for Easter. Perfect time for lunch too. We keep chugging all afternoon, and make it just before Max Patch before stumbling along yet another Trail Angel. It’s 3:30, and we’re exhausted as Ferrell and his wife serve us hot dogs, brownies, chips, soda and all kinds of other fantastic snacks. Ferrell is hiking the trail in 2018, and we lend him our knowledge of the trail so far. We’re happy as can be and full beyond belief hitting Max Patch. The views are perfect, and we spend some time reflecting on all our good fortune today before moving on to the shelter. The bubble is here again, and we all talk excitedly about making good mileage and experiencing so much Trail Magic. We sleep well in the shelter for the evening, having gotten used to not setting up the shelter because of the Smokies.
Sunday, March 27th
Roaring Fork Shelter to Deer Park Shelter
Today is Easter. We all wake up early and get on our way. Some are heading into Hot Springs tonight, but we’ll head in tomorrow morning so we only have to stay one night. Today is only a 15 mile day, which seems short in comparison to the 18+ day we had yesterday. We figure we’ll make it to camp early, so we take our time all morning. After a while we stop for lunch with Ron Jon, who is on his way shortly after to head into town for the evening. We push on with Mambo and Snap, not sure what we’ll do getting to camp with so much sunlight left. Our question is answered when we’re greeted with Trail Magic from The Sunshine Gang. They’re a group that thru-hiked together in 2012, and they come out every year to cook Easter dinner for current hikers. They’re a wild and wonderful bunch, and we have an absolute feast. We stay for a few hours before saying our goodbyes, and head on to Deer Park Shelter with Mambo, only three more miles. It’s hard to move quickly being so full, but we make it to the shelter before dark and immediately get ready for bed. There’s some noisy animals outside, and we all get tucked further into our sleeping bags after shining our headlamp out onto a possum. We sleep uneasily, but good knowing we’ll be in town in the morning.
Monday, March 28th
Deer Park Shelter to Laughing Heart Hostel
We wake up to a little light rain, but it’s done before we get out of the shelter. It’s only 3 miles into town, and we make it before 9:00am. The Laughing Heart Hostel is homey and quaint, and we immediately see friends that had spent the night. The caretakers Ty and Solo get us set up in our room so we can drop our packs before walking into town for breakfast. We hit the Smokey Mountain Diner, and meet Ron Jon there. A hot breakfast is divine – exactly what we’ve been needing. Next order of business before errands is heading back to the hostel for showers. This is the first time in my life I’ve gone more than a week without a shower. It’s kind of a freeing feeling, yet disgusting at the same time. Just one of the confusing anomalies of being a thru-hiker. We put on rain clothes and pack our laundry up to head into town. First stop is the laundrymat, and then we head across the street to Bluff Moutain Outfitters to update our water filtration system and get me some new shoes. They have a great selection for resupply and gear, and Wayne gets me fit into a new pair of Oboz. The Women’s Pika Lows fit like a dream, and the tread feels like it can eat trail up and spit it out. I have a pair of Injinji Trail 2.0 toe socks waiting for me back at the hostel too, so I’m hoping the pair will seriously improve my battered feet. We hit up the Dollar General for a cheap resupply after switching out our laundry, which will be more than enough to get us to Erwin along with the package my parents sent us. The town is now filled with hikers, and we see Ron Jon in the tavern as we pass by. The three of us decide on going to the Hot Springs Resort and Spa for a soak in the hot springs, and head there after grabbing laundry. We book an appointment for just before dinner, and run back to sort through gear and food before heading back with a 6-pack. The hot spring soaks away the pain caused from the Smokies, and I sit back realizing how lucky we are to experience these small town luxuries. After an hour of relaxation and sucking down IPA we all head to the Spring Creek Tavern for their famous AT Burger. It’s three parties stacked high with cheese and bacon in between and an onion ring on top. I manage to finish the whole thing, clearly in food deficit. Hikers come and go from the table throughout the evening, and eventually we leave everyone full and tired. Sleep comes quickly when we get back to the hostel.
Tuesday, March 29th
Laughing Heart Hostel to Fire Tower
We wake up, too cozy to want to get out of bed. We know we have to leave again this afternoon, but first order of business is getting a good breakfast in us. We head back to the diner and join other thru-hikers that will be leaving shortly after. Our plan is to leave this afternoon after finishing some last minute chores. After packing up everything in the hostel and saying our goodbyes we head into town to pick up some wifi and send some packages. We send home our water pump, my old sneakers, and a bottle of Nantahala Brewing Company Trail Magic Ale. We also send some of our extra food ahead to Erwin to make the next few days a little lighter. It’s 2:00pm before we finally hit the trail again, apprehensive to leave such a wonderful and hiker friendly town. We make it 8 miles to the fire tower before settling down for the evening. We make dinner around a large fire before settling into bed. We’re planning a big day tomorrow so that we can get ahead of the rain and into Erwin as quickly as possible.
Wednesday, March 30th
Fire Tower to Jerry Cabin Shelter
We take time for breakfast this morning after waking up early. Instant coffee is much needed these days. We also have pb&j honey buns, a result of trying to spice up breakfast. The day passes quickly, although there are some nasty ups and downs. My feet feel wonderful in my new socks and shoes, helping with the rough terrain and the mileage. We’re exhausted by the time we hit the shelter, joined by some unfamiliar faces since we’re just behind our bubble. This shelter has a fireplace, and as the wind picks up we immediately get some wood burning. Tomorrow is supposed to rain, and I fall asleep before anyone else, not looking forward to it.
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Keep on Kerping On Kendra & Tyson!! Hoping you are taking lots of pics to share when you can as well!!
P.S. – can you please hike faster?? I need help with PPP 🙂