Part 2 of the NC and TN Saga: Days 28-47 (Miles 255.1-467)
Waking up after the incredible sunset at Max Patch and then having to start hiking in the rain was hard. However, this just goes to show that life on trail isn’t always perfect (did I mention I somehow left my sleeping pad at a hostel?). Yes, I had an incredible sunset the night before, but that wasn’t going to prevent rain from coming the next morning. At least I had a good tent that kept the rain out. Poor Smoke Master had not set up his tent and ended up getting wet. At about four in the morning, I heard him trying to wake up Dozer so he could get into his tent. After a few panicked moments, I hear Dozer hurriedly rushing Smoke into his tent. Dozer had him switch out his wet clothes for his own dry ones.
After the threat of hypothermia in the Smokies, I was very aware of how to avoid hypothermia and had taken precautions to set up my tent well to keep all of my belongings dry. I think after this experience, Smoke decided that being wet and cold was not fun. To me, these experiences reminded me that we all learn the same things, but in different ways and at different times. While I was miserable in the Smokies, Smoke had avoided hiking in the rain by night hiking the previous night. At Max Patch, I had already experienced being miserable, but he hadn’t. The trail will always teach us what we need to know.
After a wet start, the day improved quickly. The sun would occasionally poke its head out and only periodically did we get hit by some sprinkles. Thank goodness for that. Today was going to be a long day. We were about to walk our furthest yet – 16 miles! We could’ve done less, but the tramily was all pretty much in agreement that we wanted to reach Hot Springs as soon as possible. If we did 16.2 miles to Deer Park Mountain Shelter today, we would only have 3.2 miles into town the next day. And boy! We had heard rumors about an incredible diner just as you get into town, so obviously, we had to get there ASAP.
Hiker Heaven in Hot Springs
The next morning, I woke up at around 6 AM and got going. I was the first one out of the shelter (I was really craving some biscuits and gravy from the diner). Silverback had left just before I did and yet it took me about 1.5 miles to catch up to him. After that though, I zoomed past. Gosh darn it, I wanted biscuits and gravy!! We made it into town just before 9 AM and made our way to the Smokey Mountain Diner – heaven on Earth. I wanted everything on the menu, but I settled for a country-fried steak with some eggs, hash browns, and of course, a biscuit and some gravy (and orange juice and coffee to top it all off). It was all I could’ve hoped for. The rest of the tramily arrived soon after. We ate and then checked into our motel.
Since the town’s hostel was booked up, we ended up sharing a hotel room, which was not a bad idea. Sharing a hotel room meant a cheaper rate. However, we did end up having to go to the hostel to do laundry because the motel didn’t have any.
Hot Springs was such a fun little town. And I mean little. For some reason, I had thought that it would have been much bigger. There was no laundromat, no barber, and only a Dollar General for groceries. The main strip was pretty awesome though, especially since the trail ran right down the sidewalk. There was an outfitter, a few delicious restaurants, a coffee shop, a library, and a brewery. All things that we enjoyed on our third trail zero. The local taco joint even had a trivia night, which was chock-full of hiker trash. Sadly, all good things had to come to an end and soon we were on our way again.
The hike out of Hot Springs
We all ended up leaving Hot Springs at different times (some of us – me – being morning people). I left the Alpine Court Motel at around 8 AM and walked down the sidewalk back towards the woods on the other side of town. The walk out of town was quite pleasant: sunny and not too hot. Eventually, I reached the French Broad River and made my way onto a dirt trail that would lead me up my next mountain. Dozer soon caught up and we spent some time enjoying the view back to the river and the town.
Around noon, we encountered some incredible trail magic at Rich Mountain Fire Tower. We had sodas, Little Debbie’s sweets, and homemade soup (yum!). Dozer took a nap here (hence his trail name). The sun was out and it felt like things might finally be starting to warm up. That evening, we were supposed to end up at Spring Mountain Shelter, but the number of flies there led four of us to hike further on to a stealth spot. Little did we know we’d be visited by a large black snake that evening and by a much larger mystery creature in the middle of the night (bear???). Thankfully, the next few days led to much happier surprises.
Mile 300, rain, and trail magic
After a poor night’s sleep due to all the rustling in the woods near our tents, encountering the famous Southern Cookie Lady was such a happy side adventure. Dozer and I picked up a cookie and some water (it’s always nice when trail angels provide water we don’t have to filter!). We hiked on with happy bellies. That afternoon, we encountered stunning views from Big Firescald Knob just before reaching mile 300! Has it really been 300 miles already?! Jerry’s Cabin Shelter was quite full with some very proud 300-milers that night.
The next day was quite something. I hiked around Big Butt Peak, rested by the graves of some Union Soldiers (Shelton Graves), gorged myself on trail magic, and finally reached camp at Hog Back Ridge Shelter all by 2 PM (15 miles!). It felt like quite an accomplishment to reach camp as fast as I did. I guess I have the six-mile descent of the morning to thank for that. Maybe my trail legs were finally making their appearance. Let’s just say, I felt incredibly good, and it was lovely to have an entire afternoon just enjoying my time at the shelter.
And I’m so glad I did. The next day was rain, rain, and more rain. A few of us were hoping that the rain would stop sometime in the late morning, so we hid in the shelter for as long as possible. Around 10 AM, the rain turned more into a sprinkle, and I decided it was finally time to brave the elements. Although it was foggy and a bit rainy, the forest was beautiful. The Mayapples were everywhere and the fog gave the hills a surreal atmosphere. I ended up making great time even though it was raining. I put in my headphones and blasted some pop and rock tunes.
By late afternoon, the rain clouds seemed as though they were letting up just as Dozer, Packman, Ranger, and I climbed up to Big Bald. The views from this bald were stunning! But soon we were interrupted by the beginnings of a hailstorm. Packman had decided that he wanted to camp atop the bald, but the rest of us decided that we wanted to live and continued on to find shelter below the trees.
The following day, April 23rd, would become a day that would go into my trail history book. Dozer and I were hiking along when we encountered a road. We decided it looked like a good place to stop, so we did. Five minutes later, a minivan pulled up and we met Kent. Little did we know that this would be the start of our “Kent-blazing” experience (hence, no picture). Kent’s wife, Patty, was doing the trail this year and he was supporting her by meeting her at road crossings and providing food and rest. While on this journey, Kent decided he would provide trail magic to hikers along the way. We would meet Kent several other times on our journey and would soon hike fast to catch up or pass Patty so that we could meet Kent at the next road before he picked her up.
Injury, poop, and leaving NC for good
After Kent, our hike to Erwin was mostly uneventful. We passed by beautiful Trylliums and Pink Lady Slipper wildflowers as we climbed our last hill before the descent to town. Toward the top, I started feeling an intense pain at the front of one of my shins. I ended up hobbling the rest of the way to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel and began to worry that I had shin splints. That evening, I spent my time icing my shin with a bag of peas and sitting by the fire with my leg elevated.
I felt better the next morning, but I knew not to push it. The tramily decided to hike only 4.3 miles out of town. Our short mileage meant that Smoke Master had time to cook some blueberry muffins over the fire (yes, they were mostly uncooked, but they were still fantastic). That evening I also stepped in human poop, not a great ending to my day (dig your catholes deep enough please!!!).
After that crappy incident (pun intended), the trail treated us with some beautiful spots: Beauty Spot, the Emerald Forest, Roan High Knob Shelter (the highest shelter on the AT and my first 17-mile day), and the Roan Highlands. Sadly, the day we hit the Highlands it was rainy, and all the views were hidden by fog. I’ll just have to come back at some point. However, soon after Hump Mountain, we saw the sign that finally ended our uncertainty as to which state we were actually inside of. Seeing the ‘Leaving NC’ sign was so relieving. Although, with the end of NC, came no more privies until Virginia…
Line Dancing, Karaoke, Mile 400, and More
After a miserable day in the Roan Highlands, we decided to take an extra day at the Station 19E Hostel to mentally recover. We were in for a treat! The night we got to the hostel, there was a line dancing class and the next night, there was karaoke! We had a blast and did not want to leave. Sadly, we left after our amazing zero, but we were rewarded with mile 400, swimming at Jones Falls, gnome hunting at Mountaineer Falls, and Mountaineer Falls Shelter (a three-tiered shelter!). But the rain still did not stop and the next morning we were wet again. Although we did enjoy the rhododendrons and their blooming pink flowers.
By the middle of the day though, my shin pain had returned. Dozer and I were going to stop early while the rest of the tramily went on, but we ended up hearing about a free hostel just a short walk down a road up ahead. I decided to push on even with my shin pain and I’m glad I did. We ended up staying at Kincora Hostel, run by the legendary Bob Peoples.
Kincora is an interesting place, to say the least. For starters, there is absolutely no cell service and no Wi-Fi. Bob keeps some cats as pets, but also some raccoons and an opossum (which gave me a fright when I was trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night). The hostel is also quite run-down, but hey, it’s just Bob running the place and he’s a bit old to be doing all the upkeep. It’s also completely free (although he asks for a donation) and includes laundry and showers. Bob was kind enough to drive us the 20 or so minutes into town to resupply and get groceries for meals. He even let us use the sauna that he had built just up the hill from the hostel.
If you’re in the mood for an adventure, I definitely recommend checking it out. No reservation is needed, just walk up. If Bob isn’t there, the hostel is unlocked, and you are welcome to help yourself. Leave a donation if you can.
Leaving Kincora was sad (leaving every hostel at this point felt like leaving a temporary home). However, we did get to pack out Subway sandwiches and enjoy them at Laurel Falls. Smoke and Dozer got into the falls, but I decided it was just too cold for me. I instead enjoyed the Flame Azaleas and Mountain Laurels that were in bloom. Soon, we were off, and I have to say, the trail after Laurel Falls is gorgeous! The flowers, the rock walls, and the forest are just stunning. By the end of the day, we had reached Watauga Lake and camped nearby (some people chose to aqua-blaze across the lake, but we just walked around it).
The next day was a beautiful spring day filled with Fire Pink wildflowers and Mayapples. However, what made that day even better, was knowing that soon we would be out of Tennessee. That evening, at the Iron Mountain Shelter, some people were preparing to do the ‘Damascus Marathon’ the next day. This insane event is where one hikes 26.2 miles from this shelter to Damascus, the first town in Virginia. About 3.2 miles from Damascus, you finally cross the border into Virginia (once more into a land with privies!).
Dozer and I were iffy about doing the Marathon. We thought that it would be a great way to test our trail legs, but it was also quite intimidating. It seemed like a third of the individuals at the shelter that night would be attempting the feat. Thankfully, if you want to back out, there are two shelters and lots of places to camp in between. The reason why this marathon is something doable is the fact that the terrain is surprisingly smooth. No huge climbs or descents. However, 26.2 miles is a long day. By the end of the evening, I had not yet made my mind up about it but was leaning towards no.
The Damascus Marathon
The next day, I woke up around 7:30 AM and took my time. Many individuals were already gone, probably already a few miles into the Damascus Marathon. Soon, I was doubting my choices. I started hiking and the first three miles of the day were suspiciously smooth and went by fast. At that point, I picked up my pace. Dozer caught up to me soon enough and he asked me, “so, are we doing this thing?” That’s when I realized that yes, I had wanted to do this thing all along but was afraid to go at it alone. Around 10 AM, we decided we were going to attempt the marathon. If we kept a consistent pace, had plenty of snacks, took short (but lots of) breaks, and kept hydrated, we could do this thing.
And that’s how the day went. The hike was pretty flat (as flat as the AT can be), the landscape was beautiful, and the weather was nice and sunny. Toward the end of the day, we saw the sign that meant we were finally leaving cathole central. Goodbye Tennessee! Hello Virginia! We arrived in town (literally sprinting) soon after, just past 7 PM. It took us around 10 hours to hike 26.2 miles. We were quite proud of that.
After getting our pictures with the ‘Welcome to Damascus’ sign, we started walking towards the center of town. We would be staying at the local church hostel called The Place. On our way, we ran into Dingo and he surprised us with a couple of beers to celebrate our accomplishment. We then ran into Silverback and Navigator who had picked up dinner for us before all the restaurants closed. We ended our day with a large burger and tons of fries. Life was good.
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