Appalachian Trail Mile 182.9; Spence Field Shelter

Thursday, May 18th, 2017 (Day 15)

I entered The Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a 5 mile climb from Fontana Dam. During the ascent I noticed the wings of a butterfly precariously positioned on trail. It’s body eaten, most likely. Only its beautiful wings left behind. I felt it was a metaphor for something greater, but for what I was not certain.

After following a side trail to climb a tower on Shuckstack summit, I was met with awe-inspiring views.


I was later enchanted by a twised tree with an opening to its heart. I have often thought longingly of existing within a tree. A safe space. A hug. A place of power. I placed myself inside and breathed in deeply. It smelled damp and alive. I shined my headlamp up its hollow trunk. It was teeming with bug life. It impressed me. So hollow, yet so strong and alive. I thanked it and continued on.

I approached a shelter with familiar faces sitting around a fireless pit. They were cooking their dinners or eating their snacks. I chatted with them briefly, but did not wish to stay. I would collect water from the spring near Spence Field Shelter, just over 2 miles further.

I had travelled but .5 of a mile when I heard something moving quickly and loudly in the trees to my left. I stopped suddenly. I watched and waited. I saw one run by, then spotted three or more. They were wild pigs. I was a bit nervous at first. All of the stories I had heard concerning wild pigs never ended well. They did not appear aggresive, however. Though, not terribly frightened either, as they continued down the trail in tandem with me for about one mile. I later was told that they run rampant in these woods. They cause damage and are considered “pests”. People are hired to come with guns in the night and pick them off one by one.

The shelter was aptly named. The .2 mile trail leading to it was fringed with millions of blades of tall green grass and white and purple wildflowers. After collecting water I motioned to leave. It was nearing sunset. The Ridgerunner (an Appalachian Trail Conservancy employee who is paid to enforce the rules and clean the privies) of the area was staying at the shelter that night. He made certain that I was aware of the rules: all hikers must stay the night in the designated campsite (of which there was one), or a shelter unless it is full and/or a nonthru-hiker had made a reservation for the night.

Looks like it would be my first night in a shelter. Oh, how I dislike rules.

Appalachian Trail Mile 196.4; Double Spring Shelter

Friday, May 19, 2017 (Day 16)

There was a lot of climbing today. My feet ache. I saw a wild turkey, and a buck here at the shelter. Apparently you are not supposed to hunt deer or buck here, so it is more common to see them.

Everyone is settling in for bed now. Maybe I should settle in. The idea of staying in a shelter is growing on me a bit more.

I will still be glad to re-enter the woods free of restrictions. I will hitch in to Gatlinburg, TN tomorrow to resupply. I should try to get an early start. It is in ten miles. I am down to protein powder and Chia seeds.

I hope the hitch back to trail is not too difficult. I hope I see a bear soon.

There were beautiful views today. Just before the shelter the smell of pine trees was overwhelming. I buried my nose in the largest one and inhaled deeply.

Staying in shelters has heightened my concern about filtering my water.

My eyes are heavy. I am going to go to bed now.

Appalachian Trail Mile 209.8; Ice water Spring Shelter

Saturday, May 20, 2017 (Day 17)

The shelter I stayed at last night was full of early risers. This rubbed off on me, as well. I got started at 8 instead of 8:30 (still not that early, I know). It was incredibly foggy. We were high up in a mountain cloud.

Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,611 ft. was less than 3 miles away. The climb was not bad at all. Unfortunately, due to the fog, there was no view to be had. There was an interesting eerie sense to it, though. The tower itself looked like a futuristic spaceship.

After Clingman’s it was just 7 miles to Newfound Gap where I planned to hitch in to Gatlinburg, TN.

It did not take long before a sweet young couple from North Carolina swooped me up, took me to the grocery store, bought me lunch, took me to the gear shop, and dropped me right back off at the trail. It was positively amazing.  I am so grateful for their kindness. I hiked jus another 3 miles to the shelter, where I rest on the lower plank.

Not so bad for a town day. Did not really miss a beat.

Appalachian Trail Mile 228.; Camel Gap Trail Junction

Sunday, May 21, 2017 (Day 18)

I am at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. I am tired. It rained all day today. I did not travel far. I arrived in the early afternoon. My pace was slow. Maybe it was the fresh resupply. Maybe it is the two books I am carrying. Maybe I should watch my pack weight.

Or, maybe I should not stress about only travelling 12 miles. If I just stay consistent,  it will be alright.

I was actually looking forward to staying in a shelter. I wanted to stay dry…or at least keep my stuff dry. Dry my stuff out. Everything is just so wet.

There is lots of chatter. A section hiker offered me a swig of whisky. I let a few ounces of the amber liquid waterfall into my mouth. It tastes sweetest in the woods. I don’t think I will stay at Standing Bear Hostel. It is just .2 miles off trail in about 19 miles. That’s what the others are talking about.

***

…I kept going. Just as night was falling. I was restless, i had stopped too soon. The rain had let up. I hiked another 5 miles in the dark. I enjoy night hiking. The visibility was low, as it was extremely foggy, thus obstructing the travel of light from my headlamp. The sunset was beautiful. City lights shone to my left, mountain ranges to my right. There were bright flashes of lightning far off in the distance.  No thunder. The stars were shining brightly. The night sky was clear.

As I was nearing the next shelter I began to think of how awkward it might be to fumble on site in the dark cracking twigs beneath my feet and bearing unnatural light, the clinking wiry sound of hanging my food bag on the cables. Not to mention, the shelter may be full. I came to the Camel Gap trail junction. There was a nice flat spot to the left of the trail. Enough to cowboy camp. I decided to risk the rain. It was 12:30 in the morning. If I stopped, maybe I could get some rest.

Appalachian Trail Mile 245.3 (a bear!)

Monday, May 22, 2017 (Day 19)

I did get some rest last night. It only gently sprinkled in the early morning. This was good. It led me to rise at about 6:30 and get started at 7. It was a beautiful morning. I stopped and perched on a rock to make coffee and breakfast at a spring just 2 miles from where I camped. At this point I realized that I had not only left my t-shirt behind (soggy and hanging from a nail at the shelter), but my fuel cannister as well. This is the problem with packing up in the night, I thought. Especially with the gear of seven or more other hikers strewn about. Oh well. Standing Bear Hostel was in just ten miles. I should be able to pick one up there, and maybe there will be a shirt in the hiker box.

I exited the Smokies. Part of me felt badly at my relief. The Smokies were beautiful, and I understand that the rules and strict observance of them were for its preservation due to extremely high human traffic, but I was so excited to have the woods as my playground once more.

After crossing a bridge and Interstate 40, then following the road markers that led under an overpass and back up a long stair case into the woods…and then back down and out again, I came to the junction to Standing Bear Hostel.

Standing Bear Hostel was interesting. It had a very backcountry Southern feel. I was greeted by an old man on a stoop. He sported a long grey beard and a cap and was cradled by a wooden rocking chair, feet propped on a stool. He was not smoking a corn-cobbed pipe, however. He was reading a book.

I saw some familiar faces, found some camp shoes in the hiker box (to which my feet exclaimed: Oh, yes, thank you!), purchased some fuel, some crackers (my stomach had been uncomfortably gurgly), and a top (complete with…moth holes?) and shorts at $5 each (the inseam of my previous shorts [the same I wore on the PCT] were ripping and the surrounding fabric was literally disintegrating, it was only a matter of time). I sat and rested my feet and chatted for a couple of hours, and set off once more.

I had travelled but a mile before…I saw a bear! It was not extremely large, as bears go that is, and it moved to the left of the trail as I came towards it. I stopped short. It was very near me. I could see it clearly. It was staring at me. I could not help but stare back. I know you are not supposed to look them in the eye but I could not help myself. What a magnificent beast! Black with brown around the muzzle and deep almond colored eyes. Still, neither of us moved. I backed away slowly. It crossed the trail and stood by a tree to the right. I had not backed away much. I could not take my eyes off of it. I was mesmerized. My trance was broken as it showed signs of aggression, stomping it’s right paw and powerfully digging it in to the dirt as if revving up a motor. I did not want to be charged. I backed up farther, then lifted my trekking poles and banged them together. This worked. The bear moved off trail enough so that I could comfortably pass.


I pressed on, excitement still coarsing through my veins.

I decided I would try to camp at Snowbird Peak. I read that there were amazing views. There were. For a brief moment you exit the woods and are on a fielded hillside with wild flowers and low growing brush and the sight of mountains in the distance.

The summit of Snow Bird was piled wih gravel and an air traffic control tower that hummed with electricity. It, unfortunately, was too unnatural for me to camp there.

I moved on. I heard loud music and talking in the distance. I came to a site that would have made for lovely camping. There was trail magic there. An ice chest full of pink lemonade, and a strange tent described as a storm shelter. There were two hikers there already. They were the source of loud music. One had drinken more than their share of lemonade. Empty cans crumpled beside him. I tried not to be bothered. I continued.

The trail stayed in the fields for but a moment before reentering the woods, where I set up camp for the night.

Appalachian Trail Mile 258.8

Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Day 20)

I got off to a very late start this morning…or, afternoon, rather. I was very tired. I awoke, began my morning routine, ate my morning oatmeal, and found myself falling back asleep. Lulled by the sound of the pouring rain singing the lullaby of Avoidance, or Procrastination, or I Don’t Wish to Be Cold and Wet Right Now. Regardless of title, it did the trick.

I started hiking around noon. The rain was coming and going in spurts at that point. It paused long enough for me to break camp. There was a lot of climbing today, but nothing too difficult. Each climb was followed by a gently graded descent.

I spotted this marvelously colored fellow.

He had an adorable stride.


Late this afternoon I came to the summit of Max Patch. It was overcast and rainy so the visibility was not optimal. It was beautiful nonetheless.

The rain then started pouring. Each drop its own little powerful universe. I decided to push past the shelter, despite the rain. Now that I could camp anywhere, I had no desire. I prefer to camp alone. I set up camp just under 15 miles shy of Hot Springs, NC. I plan to stay at the Laughing Heart Hostel tomorrow night. It is located right on trail in the town of Hot Springs. The time has come for a proper load of laundry and a shower with soap. How lovely it will be.

Appalachian Trail Mile 273.1; Hot Springs, NC

Wednesday, May 24, 2017 (Day 21)

I am in a bottom bunk. An oscillating fan whirls and clicks over the soft snoring of a dorm-mate, and the sound of television from a neighboring room. Karaoke has commenced down the hall.

I am at the Laughing Heart Hostel in Hot Springs, North Carolina. The trail runs right through the heart of this town. I had never seen a live bait vending machine before today. The town grocery store is a Dollar General, or “D.G” as I heard a local refer to it. I find the locals to be quite charming.

I travelled just over 14 miles to get here. It was a rough 14 miles. I am fearful that I am coming down with a cold (I blame the shelters). The rain has been relentless this week. I thought today might be different. The sun is such a tease. This morning was bright and full of dry potential. As the day progressed, however, little spurts of showers fell from the sky in very small intervals. It was like when someone taps your shoulder from behind to fool you. It would just sprinkle enough for you to notice. It might cause you to put on some rain gear, only to get hot shortly thereafter, and pull it off again. The sky might laugh as you did this.

By 1pm the true showers began. Steady, heavy drops from the dark grey sky. Then a pause. Then there was a flash of light, inflicting momentary blindness. It was like nothing I had experienced before. So quick. So bright. Like someone flashed a camera bulb inches from your face. Then an enourmous clap of rolling thunder. The rain that followed was so powerful I did not think it could rain any harder. Then, of course, it proved me wrong. Only 6 miles left, I kept telling myself.

After one mile it stopped. The sun came out. I actually spotted shadows on trail. No rainbow though.

Thank goodness I would have access to a washer and dryer soon. I wore my dry sleep clothes and sleep socks because I was too much of a baby to put on my wet clothes in a morning full of grey. Now I was left with nothing dry.

The birds sang. There was the familiar squish/splat sound of wet sock in wet boot, wet boot in mud puddle. I was just thankful, slippery as the trail had become, that none of this was followed by a kerplunk of my downfall.

After a long steady downhill I came to the little town and the little laid back hostel. This little sheet-free vinyl covered mattress.

Now to take rest.

Appalachian Trail Mile 275.4

Thursday, May 25, 2017 (Day 22)

I left Laughing Heart Hostel in the late afternoon. I debated over taking a zero day or not. On the one hand, I could not afford it (the dollars or hours). On the other hand, I knew I was coming down with a cold and wanted to do whatever I could to promote a quick recovery. The owner offered me a free night. This made things more complicated. In the end, I passed it up.

I’m glad I hiked out. Even if it was just over 2.5 miles.

It was a good climb. I sat on a rocky cliff that overlooked the town. I truly liked that spot. I took my time there.

I set up camp far earlier than usual. It was well before sundown. I hope the extra rest will speed up recovery.

Appalachian Trail Mile 314.3

Saturday, May 27, 2017 (Day 24)

I did not sleep all that well last night. The campsite I was near was large with a water source. There were late arrivals. I was camped off of a side trail, so I could only see the glow of their headlamps in the distance. It was mesmirizing. It made me think of lightning bugs. I thought there were lightning bugs out here. I remember seeing them when visiting my aunt and uncle in North Carolina long ago.

It was not just the headlamps that challenged sound sleep. Multiple times in the night I felt something crawl over the top of my head. Each time I shot up quickly with a gasp. I put my hand to my head, looked around, and found nothing. The third time, I was quick enough. I saw the little thing. A mouse had been crawling over my head in the night. I was using my food bag as a pillow. It was hungry. I was not willing to share.

The trail was very rocky today. Lots of ridgeline scrambling.

As I came to a water source to have lunch, a fellow hiker passed by and warned me that it may rain in an hour. He then collected water and shot off in a hurry to the next shelter. I sat back and boiled water for my afternoon cup of coffee. That’s nice and all, I thought. But if the rain comes, the rain comes. I did not feel like running to a shelter.  If anything, no better time to take a break than just before the rainfall. The rain did not come.

I continued on my way, passing the shelter. The trail began to climb. At one point I missed a switchback and began climbing up a rocky pathway of what was surely a stream in wetter months. It was not until it became truly rugged that I decided it was definitely not the AT and turned back. The footprints were more visible when descending. I was clearly not the first hiker to do this.

As night was nearing I longed for a nice campsite. It was just after 7pm. I told myself that I could set up at the next good site I saw. I passed two sites — both with inhabitants. I was getting desperate. It was getting later and my body was growing tired. The trail was on a ridgeline, then dropped into forest, then back up again. After passing yet another occupied site and feeling disheartened… I spotted a bear! Oh, how lovely! I tried to continue up the trail unnoticed, hoping for a better glimpse. Twigs broke beneath my boots and he was alerted  of my presense. It ran off quickly. It was far more afraid than the previous bear I had seen.

Spirits lifted from the sighting, I continued on for about .5 a mile before finding a nice vacant campsite nestled in the woods. A lovely home for the night.

Appalachian Trail Mile 295.2

Friday, May 26, 2017 (Day 23)

I am laying on my mat in my sleeping bag. It is dark out. A stream flows strongly beside me.

The sun came out today. It was glorious.

I saw many things on a smaller scale today. The skin of a snake that had been discovered and pinned to a post with a rock for other people’s viewing (thank you); a peculiar bug; a giant beautiful web smack dab in the middle of the trail, woven by the tiniest of spiders; thousands of even tinier red hued baby spiders new to this world, lifting off and soaring through the sky.

  Appalachian Trail Mile 329.4

Sunday, May 28, 2017 (Day 25)

I did not want to rise this morning. I was tired. Especially with this darn cold. I have been taking Dayquil. I found the capsules in a hiker box in Hot Springs. I wondered today, if it could be allergies. I don’t think so, though.

Last night was intense. The storm was a spectacular show of lights. To think I considered not setting up my tent! I must have dozed off before it began. The sky seemed clear while I set up camp. Shortly after nightfall I woke to raindrops crashing into my tent. Then there were sudden bursts of light and enourmous clashes of thunder; then light, then thunder. The lightning was near. My tent shook. Storms had never made me nervous before. This one was different.

By daybreak, the storm had passed. My body was still heavy. When I open my eyes yet my body quietly rebels to its rising, I usually give in. I figure it knows what it is doing. It is serving me well enough.

I began hiking just after 10 am. It was sunny at this point. Birds chirped sweetly, the leaves of the trees and stems of the brush gleamed an especially radiant green, fed by the rain.

There was a lot of climbing today. Many meadows. How I adore passing through the fields of grass.

When I reached the top of a mountain free of trees and rich with grasses, a haze had set in. I was inside a cloud. My hair grew damp and curly. The wind blew, like cool ghosts dancing about me; wispy and whimsical. I longed to sprawl out. Roll around in the fields. Sit in the cloud. It was damp and cold, however, and I had places to be.

Appalachian Trail Mile 342.7; Erwin, TN

Saturday, May 29, 2017 (Day 26)

I made it to Erwin in a hurry. I covered the 13 miles in to town by around 2 pm. I could see the town from the mountain for the last couple of miles, the Nolichucky River bending its away through.

Every time the trail began to descend I thought I was heading down for good, but then it would climb again. This continued for what seemed like quite a while, until the trail eventually deposited me on a paved road on the outskirts of town. The trail continued by crossing a bridge over the Nolichucky.

Just to the right of the trail, before the crossing, is Uncle Johnny’s
Hostel.

I decided to stop in for a moment. They had a shuttle to Wal-Mart in two hours. I browsed the gear shop, plugged in my phone, and fumbled through the hiker boxes.

Snacking on the Ritz Crackers I found, I waited for the shuttle.

The van was packed full of hikers. Alone and in groups, we all weaved up and down the aisles, glancing in eachothers baskets in curiosity and comparison. Resupplying can be an overwhelming process, especially in establishments as large as Wal-Mart. I tried to keep it simple and as thrifty as possible: dehydrated potatos, instant rice, rolled oats, peanut-butter powder, chia seeds — my staples. I also purchased some fresh fruit and tortillas. Once finished, I sat on the pavement in front of the store by an outlet. Later I joined the group that had collected by a picnic table to my right. The shuttle was due to retrieve us in just over half an hour. I sat on the ground, back against the store. “Thirsty?” A hiker sitting opposite me handed me a Stella. “Cheers”, I replied with a smile.

On the return trip I squeezed in the very back with 5 other hikers — all the proper seats were occupied. Crammed and awkward vehicle transportation is part of the charm of long-distance hiker culture. Upon returning to the hostel I was offered more beverages and decided to stay on a cot in the dorm at a discounted price, taking advantage of a hot shower and good company.

Appalachian Trail Mile 418.5; Kinkora Hiker Hostel

Friday, June 2, 2017 (Day 30)

The 18.5 miles to the hostel was filled with sunshine and promise of a shower at days end. There were many nice views. I sat by the Upper Laurel Fork River, enjoyed some coffee and continued on. My energy was low and I was moving slower than usual. I was not too concerned with rushing, however, as long as I arrived at the hostel before nightfall I should be fine.

I arrived past 8pm. The sun had assumed the process of setting. An older man with white hair was on the porch calling in his cats. He spotted me and said “hello” and told me that the hostel was in the back. I followed him, or the sound of his voice rather, as he quickly disappeared.  After a brief moment of directional uncertainty, I saw his face through the window of a door. I opened it. Dishes and boxes and cats were strewn about inside. “No, not in here! Out there!” He seemed upset with me. He came out a moment later and was much kinder and showed me the hostel and where I could find towels and do laundry and shower.  All of this for a suggested $5 donation. There were over 15 beds, and the hostel was silent.

“Is any one else here?”

“No, you got the place to yourself.”

I had not expected this.

The man was Bob Peoples. Or at least I think. Neither of us introduced ourselves. Mr. Peoples is legendary in the trail community.  He works to maintain the AT yearly, and is said to have a plethora of stories. Unfortunately, we did not speak much.

The walls and ceiling of the hostel are covered with photos of hikers at Katahdin, sending their gratitude. There is only one cat living in the hostel, now. The raccoon keeps to the porch.

I was left to make myself at home. First order of business was to locate dinner. I rummaged through the hiker box to find steel cut oats in 1/2 cup vacuum sealed baggies, and a packet of Justin’s Maple Almond Butter. I turned to the refrigerator to find a few pieces of bread amongst old salad and pickles and freezer burned ice cream. The cupboards and shelves held the remnants of breakfast cereals, two energy bars, and many instant oatmeal packets. There was a pack of of corn tortillas on the wooden kitchen table. Could I make it the 51 miles to Damascus on this and skip resupplying in Hampton all together? I decided to try.

After organizing my bag a bit and gathering what food I would need, I retired to a small and rectangular room with one wall of log and cement and three of plywood.  A blue wooden chair sits in the corner to the left by the window. Vines push their way through cracks in the lumbered wall. The air is musty and heavy. I chose the private room, though privacy was certainly a non-issue this evening. I sit on a queen sized bed with a comforter of pink roses against a faded navy background. I am showered and laundered and resupplied. Not bad.

I had difficulty sleeping. I woke to strange sounds coming from the front of the hostel. Banging and rustling and…perculating? A glance at my watch tells me it is nearly 2 am. Strange.

Appalachian Trail Mile 400.2

Thursday, June 1, 2017 (Day 29)

Shortly after beginning my hike I passed Yellow Mountain Gap, the junction of the Appalachian Trail and historic Bright’s Trace route used by the “Overmountain Men” to cross the mountains enroute to the Revolutionary War Battle at King’s Mountain, NC. A nearby barn had been restored for use as a hiker shelter. I was curious and decided to take a look.

As I continued on, I found it difficult to move quickly. The views were paralyzing.

The trail then passed a cemetary. The tombs were carpeted with recently mowed grass enclosed by a wire fence. A tree with brown needles stood at its center. I stared. I turned my neck to keep looking as I continued on the trail.  To my surprise the trail turned towards it, hugging it from behind. It did not feel right to take a picture. Instead I studied it and contemplated the concept of cemetaries. The backside of a small, purple-shawled statue of jesus, hands raised above two rectangular headstones inscribed “Mom” and “Dad” capturing my gaze as I passed. Many were decorated with brightly hued artificial flowers. There were upwards of 100 tombs. Then I passeed a small Baptist church at the end of a road and reentered the woods.

As the sun began to set, I followed the trail along the Elk River.

I found my home for the night beside a stream that fed in to the river below. The flow from the stream was too strong to harbor mosquitos, instead moths and spiders were my bedfellows. They did not bother me much. I watched sleepily as a moth extended it’s tubular tongue and drank the condensation from the outside of my nalgene.

Appalachian Trail Mile 360.2

Sunday, May 30, 2017 (Day 27)

It is so quiet. Quieter than usual. Not a howl or a hoot or a rustle. It is nearly midnight. Ah, wait — a plane just flew overhead. One can never completely escape the sounds of a plane. Unless under sea, I suppose. Point is: it is so very quiet and still right now. It is as if a heavy blanket has been laid over all the woods, dampening each potential for sound or movement. Except for me. Each sound I make is amplified, even my breathing is loud against the stillness. I enjoy the quiet. It makes me listen harder.

I am cowboy camping on a side trail. Well, not a trail persay, more like an extended flat space that looks like it was formed by some sort of vehicle. There are stinging nettles to either side of me. I will harvest some for tea one day. The nettles are all over these woods. There is a shelter .4 mile back. I passed many tents and hammocks.

I rose about 6:30 am. I accompanied another hiker on an early morning bike ride to the local gas station about a mile away. It was terrific fun to ride a bicycle in the morning light, surrounded by beautiful mountains. I did not leave Uncle Johnny’s Hostel until around noon or so.  Sometimes I find it challenging to get back in to my hiking rhythm immediately following a town stay.

It was the perfect weather for night hiking. As night began to fall I entered a wooded area that one could easily get lost in. Everything looked like a mirror image of itself. The trees were all similarly spaced, the trail not discernable from the surrounding earth. I was thankful for the frequent white blazes that led my way.

My feet itch. Exposed in the hours I donned my camp sandals, the mosquitos feasted. The wounds stick to my socks when I change them. The sensation makes it hard to sleep.