The One with the Crazy (and Possibly Evil) Animals [AT Miles 239.1-344.2]
Day 25: 4.8 miles from Davenport Gap to Painter Creek
Day 26: 11.2 miles to Max Patch
Day 27: 16.6 miles to Deer Park Mountain Shelter
Day 28: 3.2 miles to Hot Springs
Day 29: 14.8 miles from Allen Gap to Hot Springs (SOBO)
Day 30: 18.8 miles from Allen Gap to Flint Mountain Shelter (NOBO)
Day 31: 18.9 miles to Bald Mountain Shelter
Day 32: 16.8 miles to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel, Erwin Tn
Total miles on the AT: 344.2
After zeroing with my family, I reentered the trail at Davenport Gap pretty late in the afternoon as I only planned to hike a few miles. It was supposed to rain that night, but the next night was supposed to be clear, so I hiked the shorter distance to set myself up for camping on top of Max Patch on the clear night.
I set up camp at Painter’s Creek, alone. There was one hammock off in the distance, but no one around me. After getting my tent set up, it began to rain, so I cooked supper under my tent’s awning (created by unzipping both sides of the rainfly door and holding it up with my trekking poles) before packing away my food and crawling into bed.
Honesty time. This night was a little rough. I was alone, and I didn’t like it. I wasn’t scared or anything, just lonely. I’d just come through the Smokies, surrounded by awesome friends, then spent two nights with my family, and now I was completely alone. In my tent. In the rain. Sometimes I love solitude, but that night it felt like culture shock. Like quitting something cold turkey.
I hope to spend more nights alone out here because usually, I love having the woods to myself. I don’t know what was up that night, just a weird mood I guess. But the sun rose, bringing with it the promise of friends, as I had made plans with some to camp on top of Max Patch.
Trying not to Mary Poppins off Max Patch
Max Patch is a bald, a mountain with a grassy field at its summit instead of trees that usually offers 360-degree views of the landscape surrounding it. In other words, a beautiful place.
When I arrived at Max Patch, the wind was ripping over the top, snatching at my clothes and hair, and shoving my backpack forcing me to walk in somewhat of an S-shape. I was doubting my plan to camp up there until I found some friends setting up for the night. I’m not about to freeze alone, but I’ll do it with friends. Triple T, his majestic Australian Shepherd Willie, and Austin who I met in the section before the Smokies were there, along with some friends I spent my first night in the Smokies with, Tinder, Gumby, and Tessa. And met some new friends, which is always great. I loved being back with all of these great people (and pup).
I braved the wind long enough to see the sunset and then dove into my tent where I slept nice and warm all night before waking for the sunrise. Both were absolutely beautiful and worth all the wind.
The joys of Hot Springs
Hot Springs is the first town the AT literally walks through, right down the main street. As soon as I entered town, I ran into Triple T and Willie, who sadly had to get off a few miles before Hot Springs because Willie woke up limping. Despite the circumstances, I was so excited to see them again and hung out with them for most of the day.
While in Hot Springs, I stayed at the Happy Gnomads Hiker House, a hostel about 15 minutes out of town. This is such a great little place, with easily the comfiest bunk beds I have ever slept in. The house is cute inside and out and sits on a beautiful piece of land. And the owners are super great people, very chill and accommodating. I stayed there for 2 nights, and they slackpacked us SOBO on the day in between.
Before leaving Hot Springs, I did what my friends and I have dubbed the triple crown of Hot Springs. There are 3 restaurants in town: the Smoky Mountain Diner, the Iron Horse Station, and Spring Creek Tavern. We ate at all of them and I can’t pick a favorite. I got some amazing french toast from the diner, and had to eat it in two sittings because the portion size was huge! At the Iron Horse I got some chicken tenders and the best bbq sauce I’ve ever had, while at the tavern I had an incredible bacon cheeseburger on texas toast which makes it so much better. All were so so good.
As I mentioned earlier, we (me, Vista, Pluto, No Doubt, and Cimba) slackpacked southbound (SOBO) on day 29 courtesy of the Happy Gnomads. It was so weird—I was hiking away from Katahdin, my final destination, but simultaneously getting closer to it.
Slackpacking is where you leave most of your gear with someone and only hike with enough food and water for the day, and then that someone meets back up with you at the end of the day with the rest of your gear. It’s great because you can cover miles without all the usual weight.
My favorite part of slackpacking wasn’t the lightweight backpack or the fact that since we were hiking south it was the easier direction, but the views of the river we wouldn’t have enjoyed as much hiking in the opposite direction. We had many great views of the French Broad as we descended back into Hot Springs, and even hiked along it for a while. I sat by the river for about 20 minutes, just enjoying the peace and the smells.
I love the smell of the river. I don’t know quite how to describe it, except in memories that hopefully will spur your own and grant you an idea of the scent. It smells like kayaking trips down the Lancaster Canal, searching for spider lilies. Like sparkling, fast-running water, white with rapids. Like the mud along the banks, and the sun-baked dust of the trails above. All of that combines into the scent of this river, one of my favorite scents in the world.
When I reached Hot Springs, after eating at the tavern (the third of our triple crown), I found Triple T and Austin, so I could say goodbye to Willie. Triple T was sending him home with his girlfriend who had come up to visit because his poor leg was only getting worse. It was very sad, and I will definitely miss his sweet smile and happy growl, but it’s definitely the smart decision. Triple T hopes that Willie will be able to rejoin him after some rest, so we’ll see. I’m so glad I got to see him again before he left though.
After leaving Hot Springs for real, I hiked almost 19 miles to Flint Mountain Shelter, where, not wanting to set up my tent after the long day, I set my stuff up inside the shelter. But when darkness fell, I regretted this decision.
Squeaking resounded throughout the small space, and soon we saw them scurrying up and down in the far corners. I knew if we turned off our lights they would be emboldened by the dark and not confine themselves to the corners for long. Not wanting to be a mouse jungle gym, we set up our tents long after hiker midnight (aka around 9:30).
I have yet to have my stuff shredded by a mouse, or tiny feet run across my body, and I’m perfectly happy for that streak to continue.
The Demon in the Night
On night 31, I woke up around 2:15 desperately needing to pee. I turned on my headlight and crawled out of the shelter. When I rounded the corner, a pair of red eyes floating about 4 feet off the ground glared at me from the dark. My heart dropped to my feet as I stared at those ominous orbs of flaming crimson.
Suddenly I remembered I had my headlight turned to the red setting (following proper shelter etiquette because red light is less disturbing to sleepers than white light). Switching it to the white spotlight setting, a deer emerged beneath the amber spheres. I whispered a polite “hello there” to pretend I never doubted what was attached to those evil eyes, before hurrying to a better spot to pee. I could hear what I hoped was another deer (and not an actual monster) off to my right but never saw it. On my way back to the shelter I said goodnight to the deer, who continued munching his mouthful of grass like he hadn’t just slightly terrified a still mostly asleep hiker.
As soon as I left the shelter on my last day into Erwin, it started snowing! I didn’t see snow at all this winter, but now, in April, in what is supposed to be spring, it was snowing. To say I was excited is an understatement.
Sadly, as I descended the mountain, the snow quickly turned to sleet. Sleet, despite feeling like a splinter when it gets in your eye, is far preferable to rain as it doesn’t actually get you wet. The sleet accompanied me for most of the 17 miles into Erwin, a fitting way to celebrate my one-month anniversary on the trail.
In Erwin, I was met by some dear friends, David and Susan, who graciously welcomed me into their home. I passed a lovely evening with them before returning to the trail to continue making my way north. As always, I am so grateful for the friends I have, both on and off the trail.
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