Soup Stories: Catching Up

I’m back on trail after a six day leave for routine medical treatment. It’s a frigid morning, partially helped by the wind scooping the cold air across Fontana Lake and into the treeline. The wind breaker is staying on today.

Making my way towards the dam, I come across a group of hikers packing up. None of them are recognizable. Why would they be? Anyone I would know is likely finishing or already finished with the Smokies. I haven’t even made it to the permit deposit box yet.

Across the dam I spot the permit box as a voice rings out.


My heart leaps at the thought of a friendly face. Up the hill is a trio of hikers I last saw almost 100 miles back at the GA/NC border. I don’t have to guess how this happened. One of them has been nursing a knee injured at Springer Mountain and the other two are loyal friends. They’ve been slowly but steadily making miles, enough to catch me after my nearly week absence from the trail.

After a quick chat, it becomes too cold to stand around. Up the mountain we go and, after a few switchbacks, I’m ahead of them. I don’t think I’ll see them again. But the encounter does spark a thought.

If they can catch up to me, I can catch up to my tramily. This will become a driving source of motivation over my next month on trail.

Fontana Lake from the road.

The Smokies

The plan is to hike the national park in five days. My sister, a middle school teacher, is on spring break and is in Gatlinburg with her husband this week. They will pick me up at Newfound Gap in three days, let me sleep at their rental cabin for a night and then drive me back out the next day.

What actually happens is that I push myself too hard to make it to Newfound Gap in three days. Six days off trail has done more than rest my legs; they’ve forgotten how to do big mile days.

Haggard and sore, I ask my sister and brother-in-law if I can crash their vacation to take a zero. They graciously oblige, allowing me an extra day of town food and extended access to their rental’s hot tub.

Back at Newfound Gap after my rest, there are still ice patches to traverse and miles to push. My plan is to take it easy on this section. This an is quickly scrapped due to an impending thunderstorm. My three day route to Standing Bear is now two days.

On the back half of the Smokies, I meet a tramily at Tricorner Shelter with whom I get along with well. Likely because two of them are from Wisconsin. There are so many of us out here this year! They also plan to push to Standing Bear in two days, which puts me at ease. Standing Bear Farm has a bit of a reputation as a rowdy hostel and I’m not one for parties. Having familiar faces, despite being strangers this morning, makes these situations easier.

The day into Standing Bear is hot and sticky but I’m not getting stuck out in a storm. Dragging my body up the gravel road, I stumble into the hostel campground and get shown to my bunk. Some of the campers are a bit boisterous, but that’s why ear plugs were invented. I turn off my alarm so I can sleep in on my day off tomorrow. No point in hiking in a storm.

A thru-hiker rite of passage. Eating food past its Best By date at Standing Bear. (Picture taken on 3/24/23)

Standing Bear to Hot Springs

I wake up at the very late hour of 9 a.m. to the birds singing and sun shining. This isn’t the storm I was going to zero around. I cancel my second night, pack up and head out for the day. The tramily I met at Tricorner has similar pacing as me, so I camp with them as we make our way to Hot Springs.

One of the Wisconsinites (Trail Bob) even motivates me to tackle my first 20 mile day. His confidence in my ability and a relatively easy trail propels me from Max Patch to Hot Springs in one day.

I plan to take two zeros here. The first will be for typical town chores and rest. The second will be to do a “takeover” of The Trek’s Instagram. I send a text to my tramily to let them know where I’m at. A response comes back quickly. They left Hot Springs this morning. I’m only one day behind them!

Except now I’m taking two zeroes. I’m going to fall behind again.

But that just means I can catch up again!

My zeroes go well and my body is very grateful for the rest and the calories. The diner in Hot Springs lives up to the hype. The first meal there prompts a second one the next day.

BBQ burger from the Smokey Mountain Diner.

Breakfast skillet from the Smokey Mountain Diner.

Hot Springs to Erwin

As I am heading out of Hot Springs I can feel that I have packed too much food. This just means a shorter first day and larger first dinner. I’m devising what abomination of camp food I’ll mash together when I stumble upon trail magic. A trail angel named Monarch and her husband are cooking cheeseburgers and brats in a gravel parking lot. And they brought camp chairs.

Heaven. Pure heaven.

After two burgers, a brat, chips and a nice hour in a chair, my pack is back on. I make my way to the next shelter and find myself going to bed without dinner, too full from a lovely lunch.

The next two days of hiking get me to Sam’s Gap where I once again take a zero to avoid foul weather. The high winds take out the power from 2pm to 2am on my day off. As I sit in the shadowy common room of the hostel, I think about how lucky I am that I charged my electronics and did my laundry in the morning.

The morning followng my zero, Taft from Nature’s Inn shuttles me and the other hikers back to Sam’s Gap. I’ve got food for two days to get me to the ~24.5 miles to Erwin, TN. I check my mileage for the day as I sit on my lunch break. I’m already halfway to Erwin.

Screw it. Let’s fly.

Into the woods I go, motivated by the thought of setting a personal best for daily mileage. I’m jogging the last few miles of switchbacks into Erwin, racing the sunset. An employee of Uncle Johnny’s is coming up the trail. He let’s me know that I can pick a tent site and settle up in the morning. I do just that, after a night of chatting with familiar faces around the firepit and washing the salt off of my body in the shower.

View of Uncle Johnny’s Hostel after a near marathon of a day.

Erwin to 19-E

In the morning I take the shuttle into town to grab McDonald’s and buy enough food to get me to the road crossing at 19-E. With my big day into Erwin, my first tramily is in striking distance. If I keep to 20 miles a day I should be able to catch them at the road crossing in ~50 miles.

I leave Erwin at 1 p.m. and drop 12 miles to set myself up for two big days to 19-E. It dawns on me that 12 miles used to be daunting and now it’s what I consider acceptable for a half-day of hiking.

I do 20.5 and 18.5 miles respectively over the next two days, eyes alert for my tramily. I hit the road crossing and there is still no sign of them.

Feeling a little defeated, I head down the road to Mountain Harbor B&B. I text my tramily and learn that I came about five miles shy of where they were camping.


The story repeats itself. I almost catch up, fall just short, take a zero in the hostel to recover from pushing miles and my tramily gains miles on me again. There isn’t much time to stew on this. I have enough cognitive function to order a burger from the hostel’s food truck, shower and fall into my bunk.

Evidence of lack of cognitive function: trying to take a photo of a flower, realize the camera is facing the wrong way, take a picture of yourself because you can’t be bothered to switch the camera around.

19-E to Hampton

The zero does me good. More specifically, two of Mountain Harbor’s legendary breakfasts does me good. Which is fortunate because it’s startung to storm as I set off today. But I’m hellbent on catching up to my tramily so I’m off into the deluge.

I’m hoping to get 26 miles in today to a hostel run by a popular trail maintainer. This plan is cut short by a new strain in my left calve that appears 15 miles into the day. My body is telling me something and I listen. I cut my ambitious day short at 18 miles to camp at Morland Shelter.

Setting up a tent in the rain and cold isn’t appealing so I make camp in the shelter; my second time ever doing so. The mice must hate me because they leave me alone. They love the section hiker who left a cookie inside his travel coffee mug. The opening of the lid has a dozen teeth marks that weren’t there when he went to bed.

With my one bar of AT&T I manage to reserve a bunk at Boots Off hostel from a mountain top. I am in need of drying out and a comfortable bed to rest my leg. My one bar of signal also delivers good news: my tramily has taken a zero day at one of their houses to get out of the rain. I can catch them!

Mindful of my cranky calve, I nearly jog the 14 miles to Boots Off. There are many familiar faces at the hostel, but not the ones I’m looking for. I’m getting a resupply that evening in Hampton when I get another text.

My tramily is getting dropped off tomorrow at the parking lot down the road from the hostel. We coordinate a meet up time and I go to bed thrilled that all the big miles are going to pay off.

(Not that the beautiful landscape and other hikers weren’t enough of a payoff, but you never get over your first tramily, ya know?)

The next morning I’m scurrying down the road to the parking lot. As I’m crossing the road I see the car they described pull in. Up a quick set of stairs to the parking lot and there they are.

Fist bumps and hugs are exchanged, as well as plenty of friendly teasing and joking that I so missed. The day is spent hiking and catching up on how each other has tackled the nearly 300 miles we’ve been apart.

I do some addition with the help of a calendar. It has been 22 days since I returned to the trail. 22 days to catch up to my tramily after giving them a six day head start. While we have different daily mileage goals (I wouldn’t have caught them if they were faster) I make plans to hike with them for the next resupply or two.

Three days later, we’re in Virigina. I’m caught between two realizations. The first is that I’m actually doing this, actually successfully progressing on an AT thru-hike.

The second feeling is how fortunate I am to be able to share this moment with my tramily.

Left to right: Me, Rocket and Lucky Charm. Saying goodbye to Tennessee.

No I’m not dead, just enjoying the trail and not making as much time to blog as before. I’ve got a few posts brewing (Soup Stats: NC/TN is in the works) so keep an eye out for that. I’ve been turning to my Instagram to give shorter more frequent updates, so take a look there if you’re itching to stay up-to-date.

Thank you for reading! I hope life is treating you well, or at least, that you’re treating yourself well.

Take a hike!

David/Good Soup

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