Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 17

Even in the dark of the Standing Bear bunkhouse, I woke just as the sun began illuminating the common areas outside. Shapes of buildings were forming outside the open window next to my bunk, and I took the morning songs of birds fluttering through the trees as a sign to get a move on with my day. I packed quickly and quietly so as not to wake the other hikers in the bunkhouse and only had settling up left before I could resume my journey north. I searched around the check-in building, past the tree houses and drying laundry on the side of the wrap-around porch, and even rang the doorbell. Still finding myself alone, I added up all my expenses and left 2 crisp $20 bills on the small clipboard placed directly on top of the sign in sheet I had used the day before. I gave various dogs a few more loving pats, backtracked once for my trekking poles and drying socks, and took off down the trail.

My day began with a 2,500 foot climb over 4.5 miles out of Standing Bear. I was generous with my time knowing today would be the lowest-mile day remaining in my trip and took frequent snack and water breaks. Both knees held up fairly well, but today was my first day of taking Vitamin I more than one time. My left knee appreciated the varied grade of the AT, but the gash on my right was outlined in red and squirting pus if touched. I’d have to get a second opinion on that after meeting up with Dad in Hot Springs.

My excitement grew with every mile that took me closer to Max Patch. I’d be staying at Roaring Fork Shelter, just outside of the camping restrictions put in place to protect the bald. I was curious what I’d find on the grassy mountain top – last I’d heard the frequent Leave No Trace violations had left the bald in incredibly rough shape resulting in the 2 year use restrictions in the area, according to a newspaper clipping my Gram sent me from the Asheville Citizen Times.

The end of summer is approaching, and these already-red leaves don’t need a calendar to let them know change is coming.

As I slowly climbed toward the summit and left the treeline behind me, I instantly knew whatever was being done to rehabilitate the area was working. I admired a vast array of butterflies, wild blackberries, wildflowers of all colors and sizes, and birds darting between the tall grasses lining the trail. As the Blue Ridge Mountains appeared in a panoramic view with every footstep north, I thought of the man at the hostel who had been called to trek on foot from Houston to these very mountains. Those moments soaking in the sun at the summit of Max Patch, admiring the 360 degree view around me, I knew I was answering the same call by exploring these mountains I’ll always call home.

If memory serves these are the steps my Dad and I helped install in 2018 on National Trails Day alongside the Carolina Mountain Club.

As I climbed the large wooden steps around the summit, lined with locust logs and reinforced with large metal bars, I thought of the National Trails Day my Dad and I participated in with the Carolina Mountain Club years ago while I was still in college. Our team leader was named Skip – and Skip was 80 years old. After waiting out a lightning storm for over an hour, we were finally approved to begin our work for the day – removing old rotten steps and installing new locust logs in their place. The long day of manual labor left my Dad and I with a deeper appreciation for the hard work that goes into maintaining every resource on the trail, and also how Skip could hoist 2 large locust logs one on each shoulder without seeming to bat an eye.

Behold: the hiker-trash inspired, carb-ilicious concoction known as the Ramen Bomb. Serving size: one hungry hiker.

Tonight was the first Ramen Bomb of my trip. For those unaquainted, a Ramen Bomb is the staple food of hiker-trash culture and consists of a package (or two) of Ramen Noodles and a package of instant mashed potatoes. It’s a carb-ilicious concoction that can only be finished by someone afflicted with a gnarly case of hiker hunger – and I finished it with so much zeal I burned my tongue on my titanium spoon.

After a few days in the Great Smokey Mountains with the rangers and Standing Bear, it was beginning to look like I’d have the shelter to myself for the night. That only happend once on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and I could’ve easily caught up with other hikers if I wanted to, but after 1,000 miles without spending a night alone the temptation was irresistible. Though at this point I’m no stranger to solo nights on the Appalachian High Route, I still had to calm myself once or twice when particularly large branches fell from the treetops or squirrels playing among the leaves caused mini-showers of acorns beneath them.

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Comments 5

  • Paul Curtin : Sep 18th

    Hi Katie,
    I thought you looked familiar! I am leading the now National Public Lands Day events at Max Patch and would have met you in 2018. Skip is still at it! We have an event coming up this Saturday if you have time/are able. You will probably still be hiking. I appreciate your comments about Max Patch. It has been a labor of love for us since 2018 to restore this area and I’m glad you recognized that. I would appreciate any other feedback you have on the route, we maintain most of it.
    I also enjoyed your comment about the toughest two miles on the MST. That is in the area we call the “Forgotten 14” which has been notoriously difficult to maintain. We have put a big effort in there the past three years to rehab it so you didn’t see the worst.

    best of luck,
    Paul Curtin CMC

    • Katie Houston : Sep 22nd

      Hi Paul,

      How wonderful to hear from you! I wish I could’ve made the event on Saturday, but saw the photos on Carolina Mountain Club’s Facebook page – thank you for the incredible work you and others (including Skip!) have done to make the trail what it is today. My hike wouldn’t have been possible without volunteers like you!

      I’m actually working on an article about the success of the rehabilitation of Max Patch and the visitor use restrictions in the area and would love your perspective on the changes the area has undergone over the last several years – if you’re interested, please send me an email at [email protected].

      I’m so pleased to have heard from you and look forward to meeting again at a volunteer event in the future. Happy hiking!

      Katie “Oats” Houston

  • Skip Sheldon : Sep 18th

    Paul forwarded your notes to me. Nice to hear from you again. I remember you and your Dad from that Max Patch workday. As I recall you both wee very hard workers and did a great job. Thanks for the nice comments, but you missed my age by 5 years. I was only 75 at that time, but am pushing 80 now. Still doing trail work and still loving it. Keep on hiking and join us doing trail maintenance if you ever get the chance.

    • Katie Houston : Sep 22nd

      Hi Skip,

      It’s wonderful to hear from you! I apologize for overestimating your age, the intention was to compliment your strength and ability. My Dad and I remember that event fondly, and you were certainly a large part of that. Thank you for your committed service to the trail, you’re a rockstar to say the least! I’d love to join y’all for another work day, unfortunately I was only in town for the AHR so I’m back in Austin, TX now. Thankfully I have family in the area so I’ll double-check the CMC calendar the next time I’m in town.

      Happy hiking, Skip!

      Katie “Oats” Houston


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