I arrived at Uncle Johnny's hostel in Erwin, TN yesterday to get a shower, do laundry and avoid the thunderstorm that was forecast to hit the area later in the evening.
I booked a double cabin with Gronk, who I've been hiking with since meeting up again last weekend in Hot Springs. The hostel had plenty of rooms available, as most hikers jumped on one of the many shuttles going to Damascus, VA for Trail Days this weekend.
At 3pm, I took a ride in the hostel van with a group of hikers in to town to resupply and grab dinner. Our driver told us the story of Mary the elephant, a disturbing piece of Erwin's history.
My next resupply will be Hampton, TN in about 5-6 days, then I should cross the VA border in another 4 days.
After coming down from lunch on top of Max Patch, I ran in to a guy that I had passed earlier in the day hiking over the grassy bald. He was sitting on a log eating peanut butter for an afternoon snack, so I decided to stop and talk for a moment before hiking down the last few miles of mountain.
His trail name was True North and he had been living in Jacksonville, FL, just before starting the trail. I told him that I had also been living in Florida, which prompted him to ask if I was the missing hiker from south Florida others had been searching for. I laughed and told him I wasn't, then continued my hike. As I descended down the mountain, I tried to remember if I had met any hikers from south Florida. I had met a few from Florida, but I didn't recall anyone specifically from south Florida.
Fast forward to my arrival to Hot Springs the following weekend...
It was Mother's Day, and luckily I had a wifi signal at the Laughing Heart Hostel, so I decided to Skype my mom. We spoke for about an hour and caught up on my experiences on the trail. During the call I thought about my encounter with True North a few days earlier. I also remembered how happy my mom had been to hear from me after going about a week and a half without contact, due to the non-existent cell service leading up to and throughout the Smokies. So, I asked her if she had contacted anyone to locate me on the trail. She paused for a moment, then said, 'Well, I did call a few hostels because I was worried about you.' That's right, I was the missing hiker!
I caught back up with True North a few days after leaving Hot Springs and told him that I was the missing hiker he had asked about. He went on to tell me that he had stayed at Standing Bear Hostel and the owner was asking everyone that came through the door if they had seen me. Moreover, it was my sister that had called to locate me, so there was apparently a small search party attempting to locate me as I unknowingly hiked the trail!
Although it was slightly embarrassing, I am grateful to everyone that was concerned for my safety and took part in the search. I really do have a great family and some thoughtful friends!
Most shelters, as well as some hostels and outfitters have a register or journal that hikers use to communicate with others or to leave a quick comment. Here are a couple of pages from one in a shelter just south of Erwin, TN that I was reading. Some of the comments are fun, so hopefully it's legible.
Remembering back to the first day on the trail, I recall hearing about sick hikers who had contracted something called the 'Norovirus' along the section of the AT coming out of the Smokie Mountains up to Hot Springs. I was told that this was a severe stomach virus that caused diarrhea and vomiting for 24 hours. Rumors continued almost daily as I got closer and closer to the the area.
Sickness on the trail is one of a hiker's biggest concerns. I try to follow common sense hygiene practices, although it can be difficult to stay completely germ-free on the trail. A couple of rules I follow to prevent illness are to politely refuse shaking hands with anyone, as well as not sharing food.
I avoided the shelters between GSMNP and Hot Springs and thought I was in the clear when I arrived at the Laughing Heart Hostel, only to find a memo posted from the Forest Service concerning sick hikers north of Hot Springs. The viral cloud seemed to be moving north ahead of me.
On the second night after leaving Hot Springs, a hiker arrived at the campsite where I had stopped for the night, only to place his tent about 20 feet away, shortly before vomiting nearby. This really brought the reality of the sickness to light. Luckily, this was a south-bound hiker, but it made me concerned with what could be waiting for me ahead on the trail.
The next night I camped near Jerry's Cabin shelter with another group of hikers. About 2 miles after leaving camp in the morning I caught up to a hiker who had stayed at the shelter the night before. He was just standing in the middle of the trail, so I asked if he was ok. He replied that he had just thrown up, and to keep going ahead of him. As I quickly passed, I took a look back to see him vomiting twice more on to the side of the trail!
Two days later, I made it to Erwin and have yet to have any stomach issues, although others at the hostel have confirmed they went through a period of sickness. I will continue to elude this ominous virus, but I have a feeling it will catch up to me one day...
I recently wrote a post lamenting about the fact that I missed out on my first 'trail magic' opportunity. Well today I did get my first taste of the generosity that sometimes unexpectedly appears on the trail.
I was hiking with Peanut, Bill, Elaina and Easy Rider to a campsite in a meadow for the night. Along the trail, we all discussed hitching a ride to a convenience store a few miles from where the AT would intersect Sam's Gap so we could get some ice cream. It was about 85 degrees, so this seemed to be a brilliant plan to cool off before reaching our destination that evening.
I arrived at the gap just ahead of everyone and dropped my pack, took off my shoes and sat in the grass to relax while the others made their way down the trail. Peanut showed up a few minutes after I did, so she sat and talked with me while waiting for the others. As we sat by the road that ran under I-26 near the NC/TN border, an SUV passed us by, then turned around and stopped. A guy in his mid-20's got out and walked over to us. He was dressed in typical southern fratboy attire: a long-sleeved pastel plaid shirt tucked in to khaki pants with flip-flops and sunglasses. He asked us if we were thru-hiking, then offered us bottles of Gatorade, which we gladly accepted. Soon after, the rest of our crew arrived, who were greeted with Gatorade as well.
It turns out that this trail angel was from Lexington, SC and a Gamecock fan! In addition, he was planning to hike the AT in 3 weeks, heading south-bound from Kathadin. We talked for a while about the trail, as well as Gamecock sports before he left to head back to SC.
Although I didn't get the ice cream I had been thinking about for 5 continuous miles on the trail, I did get my first taste of trail magic, which was just as cool.
After being dropped off at the parking lot of the Visitor's Center at Clingman's Dome, we hiked the half-mile paved approach back up to the top in, yet again, cold foggy weather. Although there was no view, I decided to hike up the ramp of the monument, just to say I was there. Then Bonjour, Gronk and I began the descent down the mountain, heading north on the AT. We covered 9.5 miles before arriving at our destination that night at Icewater Creek Shelter. Another cold night, followed by a light fog in the morning. The fog began to burn off around noon, when I came to a great view where I decided to have lunch on a rock, overlooking the Smokies. Our group stayed at Tri-Corner Knob shelter that night, each of us ready to soon exit GSMNP.
We departed the shelter around 8am with a goal to hike over 15 miles to the last shelter in the park. On our descent from Mt Guyot, somewhere around the 226 mile mark, we found wreckage from a plane about 10 yards east of the trail down the side of the mountain. My guidebook didn't explain what or when this happened, so maybe someone can help me figure out the details...
The rest of the day was nothing more than a muddy trudge through the remainder of the park. I arrived at Davenport Gap shelter, which was located a little less than one mile short of the park boundary. It was around 3:30pm when I arrived to the only shelter in the park with a chain link cage covering the opened side of the structure. At this shelter, the hikers cage themselves in with their packs and food at night and hope the bears aren't waiting for them to exit in the morning! I blew up my air mattress and unrolled my sleeping bag to stay for the night. After assessing my food supply, I realized I was running low. Gronk and Bonjour arrived about 30 minutes later and we discussed going to resupply in Newport to have enough food to carry us to Hot Springs. The only shuttle we could find out of the gap wanted to charge us each $40 round-trip for the ride. I decided that was too much to pay for a resupply and decided to ration my food over the next two days hike to Hot Springs. Gronk and Bonjour both offered me food, but I declined, knowing that I could make it on my own. However, I knew I needed to get to Hot Springs quickly and decided to pack up and leave the shelter to hike out of the park and get another 5.5 miles closer to the town. I left my hiking buddies at the gap where they were waiting to be shuttled, not knowing if I'd see them again.
As I left GSMNP, I felt liberated, although I was now hiking on my own. The cage on the shelter seemed to be symbolic of the way I felt hiking through the restrictive length of the park that had not offered me many of the beautiful views I had looked forward to seeing. As I began my ascent out of the gap, the muddy trails seemed to disappear and I could smell the variety of plants and flowers that were now beginning to appear on the damp forest floor. A calm came over me and I knew everything would be fine.
Wings and I made it to Clingman's Dome at 10:30 after the short 5.5 mile hike along the cold, windy and wet ridge. Because it was so foggy, we decided not to hike up the ramp of man-made structure which capped Clingman's Dome. Instead, we followed the half-mile paved path down to the Visitor's Center to hopefully warm up and find a ride down to the town of Gatlinburg, TN, about 30 miles away.
The Visitor's Center was filled with out of town tourists, who were presumably staying in Gatlinburg. Wings and I looked out of place, as we entered the building with full rain gear and large packs on our backs. We began speaking to the helpful staff about ride options for getting in to Gatlinburg. Our choices were few, and seemed a bit expensive. About 15 minutes after our arrival, a couple in their early 60's entered the Visitor's Center. We had said hello to them as we passed them about 30 minutes earlier. We spoke for a minute about the weather and lack of a view, then Wings casually asked if they were headed to Gatlinburg. They confirmed they were and offered us a ride. We immediately accepted and hopped in their Prius with their dog. They had driven down from Indianapolis for the week to enjoy the Smokies. After the half-hour drive down to Gatlinburg, our 'trail angels' dropped us off at the NOC outfitter on the edge of town. We then headed over to the Wild Boar Saloon for a burger and a few beers. I was so excited to see Kyle when she showed up about an hour later. We drove west to Knoxville where Kyle had a loft in a converted schoolhouse close to downtown. She showed me around her place, then to the guest room where she had left a towel with soap, shampoo and conditioner. I took a quick shower, threw my clothes in the laundry and had a drink while catching up with Kyle. I felt right at home. That evening we went downtown with her neighbor Justin to grab some dinner at Tupelo Honey Cafe, a semi-upscale southern-style restaurant in the Market District. I had the shrimp and grits, which was delicious, and a nice contrast to the processed trail food I had now become accustomed to eating. The next morning I was able to catch up on some journal entries I had neglected for a few days prior. Afterwards, Kyle and I went to brunch at Shuck Raw Bar for oysters and bloody mary's. We were still hungry and decided to order more food from the menu of the restaurant next door, which was under the same ownership. We had a smorgasbord of foods and had a great time hanging out while the rain fell outside.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing at Kyle's place before going out to have Mexican food for dinner with Justin and another neighbor, Michael. Now it sounds like all we did was eat, but sometimes the best memories are created while sharing meals with people you care about.
Kyle took me back to Gatlinburg before going to work on Monday morning. It was a quick, but great break from the trail. I met back up with Gronk, Bonjour, and many other familiar hikers at the Grand Prix Motel as we waited for our turn to get on the shuttle to take us back up to Clingman's Dome to resume our hike where we left off...
I entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park with Gronk and Bonjour on May 2nd after a resupply in Robbinsville and a stay at the Hike Inn the night before. I dropped the carbon-copy of my thru-hiker permit in the box on the way in. This is the first year a fee has been required for thru or section hikers in the park. I purchased it over the phone from a park ranger, and the fee was $20, which gave me an 8-day window to cover the 72 miles the AT runs through the park. The first day was a challenging climb, but had nice views (one being the Shuckstack fire tower in a previous post). To reduce impact in the area of the United States' most visited park, camping was not allowed. We were restricted to staying in shelters, which limited our movement through the park. The shelters were quite a bit nicer than I had previously encountered. They were still 3-sided structures, but most had a fireplace and were built of stone, instead of wood. Temperatures on the first night were in the mid-30's. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph blew past the shelter, causing the flu on the fireplace to draft improperly, filling the structure with smoke. In addition, the shelter had no privy. Instead, there was a designated area about 50-yards from the shelter which looked like a minefield of poorly dug catholes.
The hike on the second day was partly foggy, but I did have a chance to see some nice views. I caught up to Wings and hiked with her for the rest of the day. Wings had left work on a community farm near Boston to hike the trail, with plans to return to school in the fall to pursue a PhD. on our hike, we had the opportunity to meet not only one, but two Ridgerunners. It was quite unique to meet two in the same day since there are only 23 for the entire 2,180 mile length of the AT. Ridgerunners are employed by the overseeing body of the AT, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. They collect thru-hiker data, such as what shelters you had used, how far you were hiking, or what state you were from. In addition, they were a great source of information about bear activity or weather reports. Because rain was moving in to the area the next day we pushed hard, making this my biggest day yet, hiking 17.5 miles. We stayed at Silers Bald shelter for the night, which was packed with a few other thru-hikers, as well as some section hikers. Similar to the night before, cold temps and high winds made sleeping difficult. The next morning, Wings and I ate a quick breakfast and hit the trail around 8am. It was cold and foggy, but we only had 5.5 miles to hike to Clingman's Dome (the highest elevation point on the AT at 6,643'), where we would get a ride down to Gatlinburg. The short hike was absent of views and the winds almost blew me over as we hiked the mountain ridge leading up to the Dome. Although the hike was a little unpleasant, I was excited to get to Gatlinburg, where I would meet my cousin Kyle who had 3-months earlier moved to nearby Knoxville from Kuwait City...
'Trail magic' is a term for unexpected surprises that people leave along the trail. I've had many conversations with hikers who have read about things like cookies hanging in a bag from a tree, someone handing out Snickers bars as hikers passed, or even a 6-pack of beer teathered in a cold stream where the trail crossed. Today I came to a red cooler and thought to myself that today would be my first trail magic! Unfortunately, when I opened the cooler, there were only empty cans. Oh well, I guess my trail magic has yet to come...
I've had a few opportunities to update the blog since beginning my hike and have noticed some comments on previous posts. For some unknown reason I am not able to reply from my phone. Hopefully I'll figure out the issue soon, but until then, know that I really enjoy reading your comments and look forward to checking each time I have a chance. It's really encouraging to know so many people are interested and supportive of my adventure, so thank you!
I came around a bend on the trail yesterday and found this guy (or girl) in my way. I didn't get close enough to try to identify it, but I wish it had been around this morning when a mouse decided to drop from the ceiling on to my pillow while I was sleeping at the Cable Gap shelter. I usually tent instead of staying in the shelters, but one of my tent poles broke the other day, so I'll have to fix it soon or live with the mice for a while!