Thursday, February 23: I was up early, and ready to get back to the trail! After getting everything packed-up, I was out of my room, checked-out at the office, and by the roadside waiting for a ride (hitching again) at 8:30 am. Within 15 minutes I had a ride and was on my way to Dick’s Creek Gap. The young man who picked me up was an avid outdoorsman with a real appreciation for positive recreational use of leisure time… A great combination! In another 20 minutes I was at the Gap, and thanking him for his kindness.
I began this next section of hiking with mixed feelings. Part of me was more than ready to be hiking again; another part of me was feeling anxious and concerned about my back. And then there was that feeling that sometimes arrises, questioning whether or not returning to the hike was the right decision.
There is a tremendous difference between a decision to attempt a section hike and the commitment to begin (or continue) a thru-hike. Minimally, the commitment to a thru hike is significant (both physically and mentally). The decision comes with many unknowns and only a limited number of aspects you can control. I like to say (or write) that at some point as a thru-hiker (in 1972), I become extremely good at managing those things I could control; and also, become reasonably good at accepting those things that I could not.
As I’ve grown older, I seem to have less patience for those things that I can’t do anything about. Therefore, this is one aspect of my hike that I need to accept more readily. A simple example is that I may plan to hike to a shelter located 12 miles up the trail, only to determine that I need to stop hiking sooner… (because I underestimated the challenge of the terrain; there was a significant change in the weather; the availability of drinking water along the trail makes going the 12 miles less than reasonable, etc.). Stopping sooner than planned may be the right or necessary thing to do; but, it also forces you to adjust your plans…
The distance to Plumorchard Gap Shelter (the first shelter north of Dick’s Creek Gap) was 4.5 miles. Although I arrived by 1:00 pm, I wanted to ease back into the hike. And, even though I was feeling pretty good, I had noticeably strained my gastrocnemius (calf) muscle on my left leg the day before; while hitching (during times I walked backwards). So, Plumorchard Gap Shelter became home, my first night back on the AT!
I shared the shelter with two other men; one who was staying there a second night (“zeroed” that day at the shelter) and, another who arrived sometime after I did. This second hiker, “Swagman,” is an experienced hiker who annually takes to the Trail in the spring. He particularly seems to enjoy meeting other hikers and spending his time in the out-of-doors. The night was comfortable and my sleep was only briefly interrupted by coyotes “getting together” and howling. There may have only two, but it sounded like a half dozen or so… 4.5 miles for the day and 74.1 miles total.
Friday, February 24: This morning began with a bright sun; making my decision to wear shorts and a short-sleeve shirt seem reasonable. However, not long into the day, the sky clouded-over and the temperature began to drop. As I continued toward the North Carolina state line, there were a few sprinkles. At the NC-GA line (78.5 miles north) I stopped briefly for a self-portrait, only to have the sky open up into a downpour! Fortunately, directly up the hill from the sign was a large rock outcropping, where I took shelter, and had a snack. As suddenly as the rain began, it stopped; and, I was able to proceed to Bly Gap.
In 1972, Billy Taylor, George Dunn, and I camped out in this Gap. As I began walking across the gap, towards a widely photographed tree; there was a second downpour and I found myself seeking the limited shelter of this tree… By now the temperature was at least 10 degrees colder than when I first got dressed; and, I was thoroughly wet! However, the rain stopped again, allowing me to take a few photos and be on my way.
The hike out of Bly Gap is steep… and not much fun, but your body warms-up quickly. My destination, Muskrat Creek Shelter, was 2.8 miles further and gave me a total of 7.3 miles for the day. At the shelter, I quickly laid-out my pad and sleeping bag. It takes very little time for my body to cool off enough that I begin shivering uncontrollably. To mitigate this pre-hypothermic state, it’s easiest to get out of your wet clothes and into the sleeping bag! I did this and proceeded to rest (and even sleep) until a young couple arrived at the shelter.
Mike and Autumn grew up and went to college in Maine, only to move to Iowa where Mike works with his father. Their’s is an interesting contrast to me: growing up and going to college in Iowa, only to now live (going on 14 years) in Maine! We immediately “hit-it-off” and enjoyed the late afternoon and evening together. 7.3 miles for the day and 81.4 miles total.
Saturday, February 25: It was a genuinely cold night, dropping well below freezing. All my water froze and I had nothing else to carry water in (until the ice melted); so my hydration was completely dependent upon water sources along the trail, throughout this day. I left the shelter by 8:30 am and took a half hour break at Standing Indian Shelter (4.9 miles), prior to hiking on to Carter Gap Shelters at 12.5 miles (arriving at 2:47 pm). I was pleased that I stopped for a bit at Standing Indian Shelter. One evening back in 2005 I stayed in this shelter with “Train”, “Opa” and Bayley; three wonderful individuals. Bayley thru-hiked the AT that year. I understand that “Train” completed nearly one-half the AT, and “Opa”, though he had to get off because of a “shin splints” injury, at Davenport Gap (northern end of the Smoky Mountains); he managed to return to the AT and complete over 1600 miles!
My night at the newer of the two Carter Gap Shelters was again graced with the presence of Mike and Autumn. I believe it was this night that Mike thought he heard a bear, only to realize that it was me…snoring a bit? Sunday, February 26: I was up early again, this time only part of my water froze, and I was able to have plenty for breakfast and some for along the way. However, it was still a cold start… And, “getting myself going” afforded me a chance to warm up! My goal for the day was to hike up and over Albert Mountain to Wallace Gap (Old US 64). The 12.1 mile trek would bring me to the first of two locations providing reasonable road access to Franklin, NC.
In 1972 I injured my left ankle, just south of Wallace Gap; and, hitched into Franklin to have my ankle seen by a physician at the hospital (fortunately it was only sprained). At that time the road was US 64. Since then, a second road access became available as “Winding Stair Gap” US 64. This gap is another 3.1 miles north from the Wallace Gap.
I arrived at Old US 64 by 1:47 p.m. and proceeded to call Haven’s Budget Inn to see if I could get a shuttle (I would stay there the night, re-supply, and return to the AT the next day). I was told that the shuttle didn’t begin running until March 1st… A very big disappointment! So, I decided to hitch in to Franklin and stay someplace closer to the AT than the Budget Inn. Frankly, Ron Haven is known up-and-down the AT as an excellent host… And, he owns motels that cater to hikers, in both Hiawassee, GA and Franklin, NC. However, his motel wasn’t open when I was in Hiawassee, and the shuttle wasn’t operating when I wanted to get into Franklin… So, though I had enjoyed staying at Haven’s Budget Inn on my 2005 hike, it did not happen this time.
As I waited for my “ride possible” I saw a pick-up truck pull up with two familiar hikers in the back: Autumn and Mike. The truck’s driver had offered them a ride and when he got to where I was at the gap, he asked if I’d like one too? Soon enough we were rolling down the road, headed toward Franklin. And, though we offer to pay them, the driver and his lady friend wouldn’t hear of it…
In Franklin we were able to secure a couple rooms at the Microtel. We also enjoyed dinner together at Pizza Hut! I was able to clean-up, and wash some clothes (in the bathtub…they dried overnight in the room). Re-supply would have to wait for the morning, before I left to hitch back to the AT! 12.8 miles for the day and 106.7 miles total. Monday, February 27: I was ready to go fairly early, but still needed to re-supply; and, Three Eagles Outfitter was a promising stop along the way to a local grocery store. Unfortunately, the Outfitters didn’t open until 10:00 am (I wasn’t going to wait around).
On my way to the grocery store, a young lady in her car stopped at a traffic light, called over and asked if I needed a ride back to the AT? I told her I was headed that way, but needed to stop at the grocery store first. With that, she pulled over to where I was; had me put my pack in her car; and, drove me over to the grocery store. There she waited while I picked-up a few items and returned to her car. Within minutes I was on my way back to Old US 64 and the AT! I came to find out that this young lady and her boyfriend had recently thru-hiked the AT. The two met on the Trail, and decided to live together in Franklin so they could remain close to the AT. This ride was just another example of “trail magic”… After dropping me at back at The Old Route 64 Gap, she headed south (a few tenths of a mile) to Rock Gap Shelter; where (I understand) she posted some shuttle information, etc. for “north-bounders,” including her telephone number, should anyone need a ride… And, I took off northbound towards Winding Stair Gap (3.1 miles).
From Winding Stair Gap I continued hiking another 10 miles to Wayah Bald, where there is a beautiful stone tower with an incredible 360 degree view! At the tower, I met Rocketman who was kind enough to take my picture. After taking a few pictures myself, Rocketmann and I headed north from the tower to Wayah Bald Shelter (another .9 of a mile). We shared this shelter with Autumn and Mike when they arrived a bit later. That night the rest of the “gang” heard a wolf or two… while I slept right through the disturbance. 14.1 miles for the day and 120.6 total.
Tuesday, February 28: From Wayah Bald Shelter I hiked 3.6 miles and arrived in Burnington Gap, NC. At the gap I was pleased to see a familiar face from my 2005 hike: Bill Apple, now from Cincinnati, OH. Bill has been coming up to this location for a number of years, during the early spring. He provides Hikers with food, a warm place (when it it cold), and his fine company! Providing trail magic is only half of his purpose. He also helps maintain a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Shortly after I arrived and “settled-in”, Mike and Autumn showed-up and Rocketman followed a little later. I managed to stay from 9:43 to 11:20 am.
The balance of the day involved a “hump” up past Cold Spring Shelter (where my boots froze overnight in 2005); then over Copper Ridge Bald; and, down to Tellico Gap (4.8 miles). From there it was back up 1.4 miles to Wesser Bald (with incredible views from an observation tower); and, finally down .8 miles to Wesser Bald Shelter. On the tower, a number of pictures were taken (I also took a couple of videos). Looking both east and west, each some distance away, we observed three fires in forest areas. Later, at the shelter we experienced the smell of smoke and a light “shower” of cold ash. With some concern on all our minds and having more energy than the rest of us, Mike returned to the observation tower to determine that none of the fires noted earlier, were headed our way; which was a relief. 10.6 miles for the day and 131.4 miles total.
Wednesday, February 29: The morning began with a light rain that then remained fairly steady during the morning. Off hiking by 8:20 am, the trail was mostly down (all but .9 of 5.9 miles). I arrived at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) by 10:46 am. NOC is located at the very bottom (US 19 & 74) in an area that used to be called (in 1972) Wesser,NC. At that time there existed only a gas station and market (no telephone). In 1972, George, Billy, and I wanted to make telephone calls. So, a nice man with a pick-up truck took the three of us up in the hills to a house, where the owner let us make collect calls; then returned us to the store. The same year, NOC was born…
Given the rain, and the fact that I had taken a pretty good tumble at one point; I decided to stay over in one of the bunkhouses. Mike and Autumn also remained at NOC. After a hot shower and laundry detail, I settled into the my bunkhouse (I had it to myself) and then headed to the “Rivers End” Restaurant where I spent no less than five hours (two meals) and worked on my blog, emails, etc. The location of the restaurant is just as it’s name suggests. Sited adjacent to the river, so close that at times you’d feel like you were mo ing and the water was stationary! It continued to rain all day, and there were thunderstorms that evening; so I did not regret my decision to stay over at NOC. 5.9 miles for the day and 137.3 miles total.
Thursday, March 1: Unfortunately I didn’t sleep as well as I’d hoped. My back was sore from the fall on Wednesday, and I just hadn’t gotten very comfortable! However, I was packed and on my way by 7:34 am. The climb out of this gap initially amounts to a gain of 2964 feet in 5.6 miles, before there is a swag of 2.3 miles; and gain of another 800 feet before reaching Cheoah Bald. Besides the breathtaking views from Cheoah Bald, the fact that the four hour hike to the top is over, makes this place even more special.
I decided to spend a few minutes this summit… I was able to chat briefly with Mike Honeycut, a USFS crew member out of Hot Springs ,NC, who was on top of Cheoah Bald observing the ongoing activities of the Forest Service in that area of North Carolina. I came to understand that the past Monday there were a couple of forest fires. After putting these fires out, the Forest Service had moved into a prevention mode and were setting up “back-burns” to help avoid further fires. I also had enough of a signal to call my daughter Aimee, and let her know where I was.
Leaving the top a few minutes later, I began a mostly downward hike with some small peaks every mile or so until I arrived at Stecoah Gap; 5.5 miles (three hours) from the top of Cheoah Bald. I was exhausted…and everything hurt: my feet, by legs, my shoulders, and especially my back! Knowing that to the west of the gap (approximately eight miles) is the town of Robbinsville, NC; I decided to hitch into town and find a place to stay. I managed a ride after about 20 minutes, and enjoyed the ride (in the back end of the truck) right to the town’s center.
Minutes later I was checked-in at a Microtel,in my room, and washing my clothes as I took a shower. This likely sounds strange; but, you throw all the dirty clothes in the tub, close the drain, and soap up while agitating the clothes with your feet. Then a few minutes later you rinse and wring-out the clothes; and, finally rinse off yourself. You can dry off and then take care of the damp clothes; strategically placing them in the bathroom and near the air heating/cooling unit. Dinner was at Lynn’s Cafe, a short walk up a small hill. I thoroughly enjoyed the salad bar (all you can eat) and a “bottomless” soda (Robbinsville is in the only “dry county” in NC). And, there is a 5% discount off your meal if you let them know you are staying at the Microtel! Once back in the room I fell asleep easily! 13.4 miles for the day and 150.7 miles total.