Part 1 of the NC and TN Saga: Days 10-28 (Miles 78.1-255.1)
Crossing into North Carolina was surreal. It’s the first really big milestone that you hit on the Appalachian Trail. All through Georgia, you’re just trying your very best to stay sane enough to cross the border into a new state. However, while Georgia kicks your butt and gives you a reality check, North Carolina doesn’t even begin to let you think that this will be easy. Tennessee shows you beauty and gives you a little bit of a breather, but soon you just wish you were in Virginia (I’m sure I’ll soon regret saying that…).
In this blog and in the Part 2, I will share some of my experiences going through North Carolina and Tennessee. During a large portion of this section of the AT, you’re constantly straddling the border between both states. Hence, for a large portion of the time (19 days for me), you have no clue which state you’re in unless you’re at a shelter. The thought is that North Carolina has privies and Tennessee doesn’t. I think it has something to do with the difficulty of acquiring a permit to build and maintain them, but don’t quote me on that.
Entering North Carolina
I woke up around 6 AM at Plumorchard Gap Shelter and got going to hit up the border. My heels had been hurting for a couple of days, so I was trying to get up earlier to take it easy. The trek to the border was uneventful but my anticipation grew with every step. As I rounded a bend and trudged up a hill, I saw it. The sign was real! I couldn’t believe that I had made it through my first state on the Appalachian Trail. Even better was seeing some of my tramily members already there and they were cheering me on. We waited until every last one of us had made it across and then we set forth into North Carolina.
The state welcomed us with two large climbs. Both of which kicked my butt. I had to stop halfway at a viewpoint to take lunch and mentally recuperate, but after, I kept on trudging.
The climbing didn’t stop there. Soon we were about to reach another big milestone. The 100 mile mark at Albert Mountain. Dozer and I had stayed a couple miles back at a campsite with a creek while the rest of the tramily had pushed on to be closer to Albert for the steep and arduous climb up. Dozer and I woke up early to catch them so that we could all cross 100 together.
We managed to catch them as they were packing up and soon, we were off. The path up to the Albert Mountain fire tower was steep, rocky, and full of technical spots. In truth, I had been dreading this climb, but doing it with my tramily made it easier. We kept each other excited and we tried to let it sink in that we were soon going to be 100 miles into the Appalachian Trail.
As we crested the last climb up to the tower, I felt my breath get sucked out of me. I had made it 100 miles! And what a view from the tower. It was cold and extremely windy on top of the mountain, but boy was seeing the number 100 on the fire tower so worth it. At that moment, I felt truly happy and grateful. I felt like this hike would truly be something that I could accomplish.
Becoming Hiker Trash and Celebrating my Birthday
Soon after crossing mile 100, you enter the town of Franklin, NC. This town is another huge milestone as it is a well-known hiker-friendly town. For my tramily and I, this was really the first town we got to experience while on trail. We stayed together at a motel, wore our rain gear while doing laundry, scavenged what we could out of hiker boxes, and attended a hiker feed. Truly, we were becoming hiker trash.
At the end of our first zero on trail, my tramily helped celebrate my birthday by singing happy birthday to me and partaking in some cake. At this point, I knew that I had met some truly wonderful people. I felt happy. I felt like I could be myself. These people barely knew me, but they celebrated me like old friends.
And the celebrations didn’t end there. My mom and stepdad surprised me by hiking a few miles to a shelter. They brought cupcakes and spent the night with me. The next day, they hiked back out but met me again at the NOC, where they had their biggest surprise yet. As I crossed the bridge after picking up my permit for the Smokies, I was blown away. My mom had set up a little birthday party, just like the ones I had when I was a kid. There were butterfly-themed tablecloths, cups, plates, everything (since my trail name is the Spanish for butterfly – Mariposa).
My tramily and I took a dip in the very cold river at the NOC, and then we enjoyed some hot dogs, more cupcakes, and a bunch of other treats. I couldn’t have asked for a better trail birthday.
Life on trail was truly superseding my expectations.
Fontana and the Smokies
After Franklin and the NOC, North Carolina treated us well with lots of beautiful views from balds as well as the beginnings of spring. Here and there, you could start to see little pops of color. The wildflowers were beginning to bloom.
With that came a sense that life was changing. Things were beginning anew. We were now a few weeks into the trail and we were getting accustomed to trail life. The trail was still hard, but we were getting used to the challenges. I began to feel strong.
I truly felt this when we climbed up Jacob’s Ladder and then after Fontana, when we entered the Smokies. At Fontana, we took another zero in preparation for the Smokies. We didn’t know what to expect. We heard rumors that the Smokies could be tough or simple. We prepared for the worst and I’m glad we did.
On the day we left to head into the Smokies, it poured. I would say this was the worst weather we had had so far. It was windy, it was wet, and it was cold. While we started off excited when we crossed Fontana Dam and then deposited our permits, the weather soon gave us its worst. The day turned miserable and all we wanted to do was get to the first shelter.
Some people in our tramily took off, hiking as fast as they could to get out of the weather. Silverback and I stuck together and kept a steady pace. We barely stopped on our trek up into the Smokies. At one point, we were both so hungry that we just had to stop. Silverback pulled out his tarp for his hammock and we set it up with frozen fingers. We huddled under it trying to escape some of the rain and ate some lunch. But soon, our sweat had frozen to our bodies and we had to get moving again or fear becoming hypothermic.
We finally reached Mollies Ridge Shelter and almost just collapsed. We were beat up and miserable. As quickly as we could, we took our wet clothes off, changed into dry base layers and set up our sleep systems in the shelter. That day, we shoved so many people in the shelter because no one was really able to set up their tent. We had not expected the weather to be as bad as it was. But thankfully, kindness and camaraderie was present all around. We tried to laugh as much as we could, we helped each other get warm and dry, and we slept.
The rest of the Smokies were not as traumatizing, but at some points they were still difficult. However, I mostly remember the beauty. During our 7-day trek through the Smokey Mountain National Park, we crossed mile 200, experienced one of the best sunrises at Clingman’s Dome, and walked through some of the prettiest fairytale landscapes. I also experienced the effects of malnutrition, dehydration, and exhaustion.
When I started the trail, I was already aware of the importance of water, food, and rest. I had done the best I could to keep myself hydrated, fed, and rested all the way to mile 200. However, the day I reached Clingman’s Dome, I began to feel ill. After a beautiful sunrise and hiding out in the park’s bathrooms for warmth, I began to feel a huge wave of fatigue taking over. I was also nauseous and my stomach hurt. I feared I had gotten Norovirus, however, that was not the case. It was a slog to try and hike for the next few days. My body would not cooperate. We concluded that I was not consuming enough food for what we were doing. My body had reached a point where it was giving up. I needed to eat more. I needed to rest. I needed to hydrate better.
Thankfully, after a few days of taking it slow, sleeping as much as I could, eating as much as I could, and taking all the electrolyte packets, things started to get better. I had more energy, I wasn’t nauseous, I was eating better. This was my scariest experience on trail so far. I was afraid I might have to leave my tramily and the trail. When that did not come to pass, I learned that I was much stronger than I had ever thought. I also learned valuable lessons in nutrition and caring for my body out on trail.
While much of my time in the Smokies was clouded by this bout of illness, I was still able to experience the joy of crossing back and forth from North Carolina into Tennessee, seeing Charlie’s Bunion, Barter Boy receiving his cowboy camping certificate, climbing up to Mt. Cammerer, and staying at the Davenport hiker jail.
Leaving the Smokies, experiencing Standing Bear, and feeling alive atop Max Patch
While the Smokies were a wild rollercoaster ride, they were part of my trail experience. I’m thankful for the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, it all ended well when we came upon some incredible trail magic at Davenport Gap. A few individuals had set up a grill, chairs, and some pretty amazing trail magic. We were given steak sandwiches for breakfast, Gatorades, all different kinds of Little Debbie’s, and fruit. It was magical.
Afterwards, we were off to Standing Bear Farm Hostel, where we recovered after being out a week in the Smokies. Now, Standing Bear has various reputations on trail. Some good, some bad. I’m just going to say that it is what you want it to be. If you’re looking for certain things on trail, you can find them. If you’re looking to avoid certain things, you can do that as well. For my tramily and I, we appreciated a place to rest and we even watched the movie Rango on someone’s tiny smartphone. Life was good.
Leaving Standing Bear was tough, as it was rainy and a bit chilly. However, we would soon be reaching Max Patch! We were all super excited to be hitting the famous bald. The hike to it was rough, but it was all worth it for the amazing sunset. We huddled together trying to stay warm as the sun set. Various shades of orange and blue soon faded as it got dark, and then we were staring at the stars and constellations above. And once again, life was good.
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