The Rains Came…. and Stayed!

Day 12
Cold Spring Shelter
Miles: 15.8// mile marker: 125.6
Mood: one sad face (rained on and off)

Day 13
Nantahala Outdoor Center
Miles: 12.1/mm: 137.7
Mood: 1.5 smileys

Day 14
Brown Fork Gap
Miles: 16.4/mm: 153.3
Mood: started with 3 smileys, ended with a big sad face (day of LE meltdown and Jacobs ladder)

Day 15
“Fontana Hilton” Fontana Dam Shelter
Miles: 12.6/mm: 165.9
Mood: 3 smileys

Leaving Franklin, NC after almost two full days off, you’d think we’d hit the trail running with all the energy and rejuvenation that rest brings. Well, that would be wrong. Dead wrong.

The days out of Franklin felt like a bad hangover, each day slowly getting better, but the effects of the day before still lingering. I think, at that point, Eric and I felt like the AT honeymoon period was over.

It didn’t help that rain plagued those few days and the trail was in horrible condition; streams and mud pits obscured the path, hindering our progress, mucking up our pace and spirits alike.

With rain on and off, the climb out of Franklin was tough, but the sun came out towards the evening and it turned out to be a decent night. It always helps to be able to set up the tent when it’s not raining. The next morning, we awoke to the lovely pitter patter of rain once again, and we knew we were in for a long day, not to mention that the descent to our destination, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), was a grueling 5-mile downhill. Stoically, we packed and geared up for the day.

I personally prefer the downhills. They aren’t too bad on my knees, at least when my IT band isn’t acting up. I can go at a pretty good pace downhill, as opposed to uphill when I slow to a miserable crawl. Eric, on the other hand, hates downhill. He really feels it in his knees, feet, and ankles; he much prefers the consistent march uphill. He can just put his head down and truck along, often leaving me in the dust or, more accurately of late, mud. So, between the two of us, we’re the perfect hiker!

That day’s downhill proved to be a knee buster. Eric’s IT band started flaring up, making each step incredibly painful. While I’ll spare you the details, he is now down to one hiking pole, an innocent rock being at the wrong place at the wrong time during an outburst of frustration and pain. The trail has claimed its first hiking gear victim, but unfortunately, not to be the last of the week…more on that later.

By the time we crawled into the NOC, we were beat. And then something amazing happened! Gavin, who from here on out shall be referred to by his trail name “Paddington,” had gotten to the NOC earlier that afternoon and secured all three of us bunks in the bunk room. We had originally planned on just stopping there for some snacks before camping a few miles out, but after 12 miles of slipping and sliding in rain-soaked mud, we were thrilled to have a roof over our heads for the night.

The NOC is an awesome mini-compound on the Nantahala River that offers a variety of outdoor activities, as one might guess from the name. They also have a general store that sells beer and a restaurant with great hiker food–big portions and loads of calories! The NOC was a tiny mecca for us and many others that night.

The next day was hands down the hardest day of the trail thus far. I had mentally prepared for a five mile uphill climb, as our trail guide had seemed to suggest. I had NOT mentally prepared for basically 15 miles of uphill, half of which was done in the pouring rain, followed by a thunderstorm with lightning. Never ever did I think I would have it in me to literally run down a mountain after trekking 8 miles uphill, but that first bolt of lightning had us literally bolting for cover. It didn’t help that we were at the summit of a mountain when it struck, increasing the urgency to get down and get down quickly. Although the thunder subsided, the rain did not, and down it poured. At this point, we were wet through and through, cold, tired, and still miles away from our planned destination. In hindsight, we should have stopped earlier than we did, set up shelter, and tried to salvage our spirits. But we didn’t, and we continued to slog through the rain for a total of 15 miles that day. The last climb of the day did me in. I was stopping every five steps to catch my breath and regain my footing. At 5:30 p.m., after trudging 15 miles, we were on a straight uphill in thick mud in the pouring rain. I came very close to throwing my poles in defeat, but they were the only things keeping me from slipping down the uphill we had just climbed—not an option! Eric was incredibly patient with me as I did my damnedest to keep my emotions and sanity in check as we finished the day. I went to sleep pleading with Mother Nature for just a short reprieve from the rain before heading into the Smokies.

A welcomed side note: We later found out that the last uphill of the no-good-miserable-awful day was Jacobs Ladder, a notoriously treacherous part of the trail in North Carolina. The trail basically shoots straight up for 600 feet with no hint of a switchback or a gradient break. So, while one probably could have emotionally handled it better than I did, I feel slightly vindicated that I lost it on one of the hardest parts of the trail we had faced.

Mother Nature was kind enough the next day, and we descended into Fontana with slightly higher spirits than those of the previous day. After loads of fresh laundry, a hot cooked meal, and some awesome trail magic at the shelter in the form of beer, we were starting to feel back to normal and somewhat encouraged to take on the looming, legendary, all-anyone-can-talk-about-until-they-get-through-them, Great Smoky Mountains.

And boy, were those a treat. Full update next time!

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