The One Where I Befriend the Cold [AT Mile 69.2-165.9]
The Daily Breakdown
Day 9: 11.8 miles from Dick’s Creek Gap to Muskrat Creek Shelter
Day 10: 12.5 miles to Carter Gap Shelter
Day 11: 12.1 miles to Rock Gap Shelter
Day 12: 3.8 miles to Winding Stair Gap
Day 13: 11 miles to Wayah Bald Shelter
Day 14: 15.5 miles to A. Rufus Morgan Shelter
Day 15: 7.9 miles to Sassafras Gap Shelter
Day 16: 12.2 miles to Cody Gap
Day 17: 9.9 miles to the Fontana Hilton
Total miles hiked on the Appalachian Trail: 165.9
One state down!
On Day 9, I returned to the trail well rested from my zero at Hostel Around the Bend in Hiawassee, Georgia. Near the end of the day, after 78.1 miles in Georgia, I crossed my first state border into North Carolina! I know that *technically* these mountains look the exact same as those in Georgia, but to me, they don’t. They feel like home. This state holds the mountains that first gave me a love for backpacking. Definitely just a mental thing, they totally look the exact same as Georgia. But good luck convincing my brain of that.
I Would Walk 100 Miles…
And I would walk 2093 more! Two days after crossing the border, I climbed up a fog-cloaked Albert Mountain to the 100-mile marker scratched on the side of the fire tower. Sadly, most of the view was blanketed by clouds, but a few mountains were attempting to peak out. Honestly, view or no view, I was just thrilled to not be running across the top in the forecasted (but un-occurred) thunderstorm.
My Bitter Enemy
I have always hated, and dreaded, the cold. But on day 12, after a day full of rain, I got my first taste. I believe it dropped to 22º that night, at least that’s what was forecasted. I spent the night in Rock Gap shelter, with plans to hike just under 4 miles to Winding Stair Gap in the morning to resupply in Franklin, NC. Despite the low temps (whatever the temp actually ended up being), I slept perfectly warm and cozy. I have my 15º REI Magma sleeping bag to thank for that. The other two people in my shelter admitted to being chilly during the night, and they were both sleeping in 20º quilts.
I was not alone in my sleeping bag that night. My electronics (phone, Garmin inReach, and battery pack) and water filter joined me. I have slept with my electronics in my bag since the beginning, not wanting to lose even the slightest battery percentage to the cold. But though my Sawyer Micro Squeeze usually spends the night in my backpack, it joins the sleeping bag crowd any night it drops below 32º because if the filter freezes, damage can be done to the membranes, impairing its ability to filter out the dirt and (more importantly) pathogens in the water. Just one more item for me to roll over during the night.
When I woke in the morning, my shoes and socks from yesterday were frozen stiff. I banged my socks on the shelter floor, and the sound was indistinguishable from the thumping of two wooden boards. Thankfully, I have an extra pair. Putting on my shoes was like trying to force cold metal to conform to my feet. Definitely took twice as long as normal. They did thaw as I walked around in them and somehow dried simultaneously, as my feet didn’t get wet.
I also discovered the one flaw with my Ursack. An Ursack, if you don’t know, is a bear-proof bag that you fill with your food (preferably in an odor-proof plastic bag) and then tie to the base of a tree. Using an Ursack negates the need to hang a bear bag from a tree limb to protect your food, which I find to be annoyingly energy-taxing at the end of a long hiking day. Anyway. The night before, I had tied my Ursack to the underside of a fallen log, and thanks to the rain and freezing temps, it took 10 minutes and a lot of warm breath to untie the frozen knots.
When I finally began hiking, bundled in my fleece pants, gloves, and beanie, I noticed patches of ice that seemed to have grown up from the ground, like a stalagmite in a cave, only with nothing to drip onto it to make it grow. The little collections of upright icicles looked like small white geodes and little silver crystals bejeweling the frozen trail.
I have encountered freezing temperatures (and cold weather in general, as my definition of cold is not limited to sub-32º) many times since this day, and I must say, it’s not bad at all. I have the right gear to keep me warm, and there is so much beauty to be found on a cold day that literally melts away with the heat I usually prefer.
Hostel Life Round 2
After embracing the cold, I entered Franklin, NC to resupply my food bag, shower, and wash my usually-smelly-but-currently-frozen clothes. A few days prior, I had secured a spot at Chica and Sunsets Hostel, a small but very clean and cozy hostel about 5ish minutes from downtown Franklin. The owners (Chica and Sunsets if that wasn’t obvious by the name) are former thru-hikers who have adventured all over the world. I cannot say enough good things about them and their hostel. It was so homey and welcoming, I could’ve stayed for much longer but I wasn’t in need of another zero so soon. I highly recommend staying here, but definitely make your reservation 3-4 days ahead of time because it fills up very quickly. So far I am 2 for 2 on excellent town stays, and I hope to keep the streak going.
The Balds of NC
I’ve always heard about the beauty of the balds of North Carolina, and I was so thankful to catch them on clear, beautiful days. So far I’ve seen Siler, Wayah, Wesser, and Cheoah balds (not all on the same day, as the second two are a little spread out from the first two). From all except Cheoah you have a 360º view of the mountains around you, due to the lack of trees blocking your view. I highly recommend them all, but I believe Siler and Cheoah are my favorites, though Wayah and Wesser do have some sweet towers to view the mountains from. So I don’t know, maybe I don’t have a favorite.
I do know for certain, though, that my absolute favorite section of trail so far is right after Wesser bald before you begin descending into the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). The trail runs along a spine of the mountain so that on either side of you is a sea of mountains unfolding around you. When I walked it, those closer to me were the color of the ocean reflecting a storm, while those further out rivaled the blue of the Caribbean. And there I stood, on a thin ribbon of green, surrounded by it all.
An Ann Marie By Any Other Name…
I got my trail name! On Day 13 I officially became Monkey Toes. Why? Because I can pick stuff up, open door knobs, and tie shoelaces with my toes. Disclaimer: the tied shoe does look like a 5-year old did it, so it’s not the tightest. Definitely wouldn’t hike in shoes tied with my toes. But they are double knotted.
Easter on Trail
I’ve seen God provide in many ways so far on trail, and this is the story of yet another. While on top of Wesser Bald fire tower, on the Saturday before Easter Sunday, I Facebook messaged Grove Church in Bryson City, asking if there was any chance a ride to church the next day could be found for me. I had very low expectations, as it was very short notice and a Saturday (I figured no one would be checking the church’s social media on the weekend). Time has basically no meaning on the trail, so I didn’t realize Easter was coming up until literally the day before. But I really wanted to go to church, so I just prayed that God would provide. And He did, in the form of Shelley and her dog Tootsie.
Shelley picked me up on Easter morn from the NOC and drove me to Grove Church, which was having a cute little outdoor service. Everyone I met was very friendly and welcoming, and it was so nice to worship in person with them. Then Shelley went above and beyond and drove me to Ingles so I could resupply there instead of the NOC (where the prices are much higher). Very thankful for Shelley, Grove Church, and of course God for pulling it all together.
After returning to the NOC, I hung out with some hiker friends for a little while, soaking in the sun and the cool river water, and doctoring my toe. My right big toe had been a little red and swollen on one side since sometime before Franklin, and it appeared to need popping. So I cleaned and popped it, and shoved it back in my shoe. My best guess is some kind of infection beneath/around the nail bed, as it definitely wasn’t a blister. I don’t know. It’s still kind of swollen and red, but it doesn’t hurt anymore so that’s a win in my book.
After surgery, I packed up my stuff and climbed the 7 miles uphill out of the NOC to the nearest shelter. The uphill was so steep and so long that when I encountered the first taste of downhill I tripped because my legs had forgotten how to walk downhill. But don’t worry, we remembered soon enough and made it safely to the shelter.
Fontana Fun (and Struggles)
About two days after the NOC, I descended into Fontana. While jarring to the knees, the hike into Fontana was amazing in a way I had yet to encounter. As I walked down to the lake, I literally descended into Spring. Trees everywhere were no longer grey and lifeless, but sprouting fresh green leaves at the tips of every branch. Previously, the only green on trail came in the form of rhododendron trees and moss, which are much darker than the bright green of new leaves.
In Fontana, I enjoyed an excellent lunch in the village, and a disappointing resupply at the marina. Apparently, the gas station that you can resupply at in the village is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and the general store didn’t open until the week after I was there, so the marina was my only option. It had some good hiker food, but not enough for the large number of hikers that preyed upon it like frenzying piranhas. I left with what I hope will be enough food to get me 6 days through the Smokies, but we’ll see.
The Fontana Hilton lived up to my every expectation. The shelter itself is HUGE (for a shelter, don’t go imagining a mansion or anything) and, for a hiker who hasn’t showered in a while, the bathroom is luxurious. I enjoyed a great night talking with friends under the stars before retiring to the shelter where I shared the top deck with only two other people.
The Smokies are up next and I must admit to a little bit of nervousness. I’ve befriended the cold, but I’m no expert, I’m not ready for snow or anything crazy like that. I am a true Southerner who doesn’t have a clue what to do with that white stuff that falls from the sky. The forecast is calling for lots of rain for 4 out of the 6 days I will be in the Smokies. But I’ve heard the Smokies are absolutely beautiful, so underlying the nerves is a whole lot of excitement.
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