Up, Over, Down & Repeat: Neel’s Gap to Muskrat Creek
We stayed a second night at the Blood Mountain Cabins. If you get there early enough to grab a cabin, do so. It’s a short walk from Neel’s Gap, is $60 and the owners will do your laundry. They don’t, however, take reservations for thru hikers. It’s first come, first serve. But, if you’re willing, you can share with other hikers who come in late in the evening, so we shared the cabin the second night with Grinch and Kosmo, two guys from North Carolina who are hiking as far as they can in two months. Staying another day turned out to be a good idea. The day was rainy, foggy and cold and our knees still ached from coming down Blood Mountain.
(Note: I think I am off in my days. When it reads March 11, for example, the account may have taken place on March 11. It may have taken place on March 12. I didn’t keep track and I actually like not knowing what day it is. It means I have unplugged.)
Out of Neel’s Gap and back into the woods. We finished the day at the Low Gap Shelter and were welcomed by a mud pit and a privy so high above the shelter that it might as well be in the clouds. There was no way I was going to tackle the privy trail at night. The shelter and tent area were nearly full. I think this shelter is well used because fewer people go to the Whitley Gap Shelter, which is 1.3 miles off the main trail. Why go there when you can use that 2.6 miles to go further north?
There were so many people in the shelter by the time we arrived that when I peeked in I saw about two dozen eyes looking back at me. One set belonged to a guy with the trail name, Crazy Eyes. He explained that he has two lazy eyes…or something like this.
It felt as if everything at Low Gap was covered in a sheen of mud, including us. It wasn’t a bad day of hiking, however. The forecast called for rain, but we saw very little. The sun tried to come out and my right knee did amazing things. I am still suffering from the exertion coming down Blood Mountain; at least that’s when the knee really started to scream. But it hasn’t buckled or swelled. I guess that’s something.
“You’re not inside out, but you’re definitely upside down,” Adam said when I asked him what was wrong with my sleeping bag. It was wrapped around my body and nothing I did seemed to untangle it. This was the first issue of a long, fitful night. If you’ve followed our other posts, you’ll know that Adam has osteoarthritis in one of his hips. This actually hasn’t bothered him too much when he’s hiking. But it and one of his knees can be painful at night. With my knee also keeping me up into the wee hours, we are not sleeping. No sleep and long hiking days don’t mix, and this night was the worst yet. At about 3 a.m. and after hours of us tossing and turning, I gave him a look and said, “This is ridiculous. We are getting another tent.” “Oh yeah, we are,” he replied. We finally drifted off to sleep, but only got a couple of hours worth.
We left Low Gap with the goal of reaching Unicoi Gap. I really didn’t think my knee would let us get very far, but the first three miles or so out of Low Gap are on an old road. The path is wide and the grade is forgiving. We saw very few hikers today and hiked for a bit with the Mad Hatter, who’s walking back to his home in Maine. He flies on the downhills and sped down from the Blue Mountain Shelter to the gap to catch the Budget Inn shuttle to Hiawassee. I knew I wouldn’t make the scheduled shuttle time of 3 p.m. I am just so dang slow on long, steep downhills. Throw a few mud-covered rocks in to scuttle over and I feel like I crawl down the mountains.
I didn’t want to stay at the shelter, though. The view is fantastic, but the wind was whipping straight into it. An ineffective tarp covered the shelter entrance, but it didn’t keep out the gusts. I tried to push it down to the gap. Adam and I weren’t halfway across the parking lot when the shuttle pulled up. It was late, but what luck for us.
March 12 and 13:
We stayed a bit at the Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee. There were a lot of hikers there. We rested, resupplied and reconsidered our sleeping arrangements. We did purchase a one-person tent to go with our other two-person (or, really a person and a half) tent. It feels excessive, but I think it will help us be successful and we think that’s the key to this whole endeavor: To be as successful as we can be for as far as our legs will take us. I hope the extra purchase pays off.
I love hiker boxes. I love seeing what hikers leave in them. I love seeing what I can take out of them. We left a few items in the box at the Holiday Inn, including my little blue sun hat that has traveled with me for about eight years. It just keeps my head too hot and it was time to part ways. I really didn’t want to do it, but I’d picked up a better hat at Mountain Crossings. It’s a ventilated runner’s cap.
One thru-hiker in the Budget Inn shuttle saw the hat and asked he if I’m a runner. “No,” I said. “I really try to avoid strenuous exercise.” “Didn’t your friends tell you what the trail was all about?“ he asked a bit incredulously. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I think I’ve figured it out, all right. Lots of exercise.”
We got a shuttle back to Unicoi Gap for our longest day yet. We aimed to hike the 13 miles to Deep Gap Shelter. I picked up a knee brace in Hiawassee and it helped. We had three challenging uphills today, but we tackled them. We skipped camping before the last one. We really wanted to get it out of the way and not have it glaring down at us in the morning.
Today we met Courtney and Earl. She is writing for Appalachian Trials and it was neat to meet someone with this connection. It’s kind of amazing, actually. If they were a half mile faster or us a half mile slower, we might not have met.
Deep Gap Shelter is tucked away in the woods and was a neat place to stay. There were about a dozen people here for the evening. There was guitar and banjo music, a campfire and Ollie from England (the banjo player) packed in beer. It’s probably the first night that we felt we were in a community of hikers. It’s also the first night that we set up what we call the “apartment complex.” The two tents worked well. Both of us got a decent amount of sleep and we had enough space to keep all of our gear inside, which was a huge plus.
We had a terrible day of hiking. Nothing really happened to us. No injuries. No emergencies. It’s just that we felt we hiked all day and got nowhere. I think pushing past that last uphill yesterday was paying us back. We just weren’t there today–physically and mentally. And despite getting more sleep, we were in foul moods. I told myself that, “No matter what you think and feel right now, this still won’t be the worst day you have out here, so deal with it.” This didn’t lift my mood, however.
We passed Courtney and Earl a few times. They passed us a few times. Those two have such enthusiasm for what they are doing. I wished it had rubbed off today. It should have been a great day for us, but it just wasn’t.
We also met Sunset, a hiker who has hiked just about every trail out there. He rattled off PCT this and CDT that. We met him as he was hiking south and we were hiking north. There’s nothing too interesting about this, except that we passed him yesterday in the same fashion. How can he pass us going south two days in a row as we are going north?!? I think he has the north Georgia slackpack-shuttle system figured out a lot better than we ever will.
We ended up at the Plum Orchard Shelter. We had a great dinner with Courtney, Earl and Hank, a family counselor from Atlanta who got back to the mountains for a few days. Courtney showed us a few yoga poses to help our hips and knees. Earl is a pastry chef so we discussed (and dreamed of) confections while slathering tortillas with Adam’s tuna fish-instant potato one-pot meal.
We made it to North Carolina. We would have missed the tiny sign indicating the border had Courtney and Earl not seen it right before we got there. We had hoped to make it to the Standing Indian Shelter, but got only as far as the Muskrat Creek Shelter. There are two insane uphill climbs out of Bly Gap and I think they got the better of us. My knee is feeling much better, but these two ascents started chewing on my left heel. The tendon here is very tender. But it’s always something out here. Adam says that once you figure out how to combat one ache or pain, another pops up. He’s right.
It’s really amazing out here. I really like knowing that we are seeing views and going to places that you can get to only by hiking. Also, part of the AT’s famous green tunnel is starting to take over. Much of the trail today was covered with sheltering rhododendron plants. They aren’t blooming, but the trees around us are starting to bud and I suspect we’ll soon see hundreds of beautiful rhododendron blossoms.
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