Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 16

Last night was the loudest storm I’d ever experienced in a shelter. We knew rain was expected to hit, but the incessant pounding of the heavy drops on the transparent plastic ceiling and tin roof was near-deafening. With the discovery of a slight downward slope to the sleeping platform, both RD and I shifted around quite a bit during the night, and even more as we tossed and turned our way through the storm. We’d wake to find the exact spot I had planned to sleep in before the group of rangers arrived soaked through from a leak in the roof, and the section we had settled on only subject to the thick humidity, but otherwise dry.

I stirred to the bright white light and speaking level voices of the rangers, preoccupied with morning chores of cooking breakfast and assembling gear. I stretched to check the clock on my phone (as my Fitbit had been retired due to the added irritation to an ill-placed wasp sting), and the dim numbers 6:00 AM read on the screen. Another half hour passed and the shelter was once again a flurry of activity. I rolled over to catch RD’s eye; “I guess we won’t be getting any more sleep,” he joked quietly. Several of the tenters admitted to getting drenched during the storm and one that had spent the night in the shelter with us commented that she was glad she had brought earplugs after all. After exchanging several more tales from the trail, typing up loose ends over PopTarts, and preparing for the days miles, RD and I shared a final fist-bump and set off, myself heading north and him back towards Newfound Gap, saying goodbye again on the Appalachian Trail.

The Appalachian Trail from Tri Corner Knob Shelter to Standing Bear Hostel climbed ~1,500 feet and descended ~6,500 over 18.5 miles. The two most memorable moments from my thru-hike through this section were impressing spring-breakers with my ill-advised miles and my Mom sending out a search party for me. To expand on the former, I ran into a friend group of around 15 guys on my last day in the GSNMP in 2019 all heading out for a backpacking trip together. I noted their cotton sweatshirts and sweatpants, but knew it wouldn’t make or break their trip – all the freezing rain and temps in the teens had passed and the forecast was decent for their Spring Break trip. They were planning between 5 and 10 miles per day, and asked me how long I had been out. When I revealed I had followed the blazes from Georgia and was already 18 miles into my hiking day, their wide eyes sent a surge of satisfaction up my 30+ lb pack.

To cover the latter, I remembered the gradual slope of the section where I just enough service squeaked through to receive a message from Fontana Dam Visitor Center: “Hello Katie! Your mother is very worried, we are getting a search party together. Are you okay?” I told my Mom and Gram that if they didn’t hear from me via text or my SPOT GPS every 5 days they should notify someone – but going into the notoriously remote GSMNP I was particularly insistent on this being the case. So after 3 days of ice storms, elevation, and shelters blocking my check-in messages, they decided to pull the trigger. My Dad was on his way to Newfound Gap (a place I had passed 2 days prior) when he got the call from my Mom that I was fine, just a little disappointed they had jumped the gun.

After crossing I-40 and spotting a sign for Asheville that sent a pang of nostalgia through my chest, I arrived at the intersection of a gravel road, white blazes, and a sign that read, “Standing Bear 0.2 miles <–“. I looked up and noticed the gray clouds moving in; coupled with the thunder I could hear approaching for the second time that day, I picked up the pace. Heading up the gravel road I spied tree houses on the other side of the creek, doors wide open to air out the small bedrooms on different levels and platforms. The ever-changing pack of dogs welcomed me to Standing Bear Hostel before the people, and that was alright with me.

After a friendly check-in and promise of beer and pizza on demand, I claimed a bunk and took my first shower in 6 days. The second storm of the day began tapping out the roof of the hot, steaming shower, lined with bright tiles and rocks in a mosaic of a mountain on the wall, just as I finished my rinse. I cleaned around the KT tape stretched expertly around my left knee and thoroughly scrubbed the gash on my right in an attempt to clean it out as much as possible. After the shower, I took a closer look – minimal redness, it wasn’t hot, and the pain felt related to the awkwardness of the location and not acute as if caused by infection. My left knee was certainly feeling the climb out of the Smokies, which in 2019 pushed me off trail for 3 weeks with severe achilles tendonitis and shin splints, but it was nothing a 24-hour Stretch-A-Thon and a 15-mile day over Max Patch couldn’t fix.

The rest of the night was spent socializing with both dogs and people and stuffing my face with pizza. As my delicious dinner emerged from the oven, the canine occupants of the hostel quickly came around to survey the scene and stand guard as I ate. One puppy-eyed patron in particular had hungry eyes and would softly whine if I teased him, giving me his paw in protest as if to say, “See? I AM a good boy!” He and the large husky that made my audience ended up reaping rewards for their efforts in the form of several bites each. I felt guilty for not being able to stomach the entire meal, until one of the hikers in the bunkhouse informed me it wasn’t uncommon even for those with hiker hunger to bite off more than they can chew with one pizza to themselves. He also told me he had walked from Houston to the Blue Ridge Mountains just because he wanted to see them, and found Standing Bear completely by accident and had been there ever since.

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