Oats on the Appalachian High Route: Day 18

I woke up 3 minutes before my phone would’ve begun vibrating the shelter floor. Even with the added chore of packing my mostly-dry tent into its stuff sack, I was ready to hit the trail in record time. My last experience hiking before the sunrise left me with a gash to remember, so even with dry leaves underfoot I was wary of each step forward. Eventually the landscape brightened and my body shook off the soreness of the morning – today I’d meet my Dad in Hot Springs and prepare to tackle my final stretch of the trail.

About 10 miles into the day, and after the only 2 significant climbs on the way to Hot Springs, I ran into a hiker taking a quick break on the side of the trail. He looked to be in his early 50s with a gray ponytail and blue bandana wrapped around his head. Though I caught him with his pack off, he seemed to be finishing up with his break and the conversation we struck up quickly turned mobile as I realized he was heading north as well. Scott, whose name I picked up only after the first 2 hours of hiking together, was section hiking the trail and completed from Springer Mountain to Standing Bear on his previous trip. His goal for this LASH would be Standing Bear, where he left a car the day before I arrived, to around mile 600. I recommended he finish at Woods Hole, a hostel I did a few months work-for-stay at in early 2020, and he eagerly took down the name.

Scott and I talked about everything under the sun in the 8 or so miles we hiked together. From his 3 kids who were around my age to my Dungeons and Dragons fixation, we exchanged tales from our lives and from the trail like the miles under our feet depended on it. We took a break at a shelter about 3 miles out from Hot Springs where even the promise of town food couldn’t stop us from crushing a few more snacks. I wistfully admired Jennifer Pharr Davis’ Blue Ridge Hiking Company as we followed the sidewalk, inlaid with large metal AT symbols, into town.

Just before the bridge crossing the French Broad River, I spotted my Dad down the sidewalk and began waving my arms frantically, “DAD!” to which he threw his arms up exctedly in response: “KATIE!” As we closed the distance in front of a charming outfitter, I introduced my new friend I had met only 6 hours before, quietly confirming his name before officially inviting him along for lunch at Spring Creek Tavern. One beer, a foot-long half-pound hot dog, an order of fries, and many stories later, my Dad and I bid adieu to my new trail friend and loaded up his ruby red Mustang convertible with our sights set on Asheville.

Once home, I’d eat a large M&M Sonic Blast (with additional M&Ms), a package of honey and peanut butter crackers, a peanut butter sandwich, and whatever else I find in the cabinets after I finish writing today’s journal. I’d also throw in a large glass of sweet tea and another beer for good measure. I was able to see my Gram, Mom, and Uncle John in town from Puerto Rico while I prepared my resupply for the final stretch of the trail.

Only 3 nights left on the Appalachian High Route. I could sense several things swirling around in my head – a feeling of excitement for the end of the trail approaching, homesickness for the smell of my dog and the arms of my partner, and anxiety for the 4 planned 20+ mile days still left on my itinerary. And then, what comes after the trail? Being thrust back into daily life is no easy task, even with a shorter 3-week trek like this one. The minor inconveniences and routines of living in society would once again become my every day – but so would the adventures I share with my family and create for myself through my work.

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