Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 Update 6: Damascus VA to VA 610

May 31 to June 5
Start Location: Damascus VA (mile 469.0)
End Location: VA 610 (mile 553.9)
Total Miles Hiked: 553.9
Miles Left: 1635.2
Miles Since Last Update: 84.9

May 31
Start Location: Damascus VA (mile 469.0)
End Location: Lost Mountain Shelter (mile 484.8)
Total Miles: 15.8

I had bought so many groceries that it took me almost an hour to get packed.  No matter what I did, I couldn't get my pack to close.  I ate my way through a bit of my supplies, squished the food items that were squishable, and eventually got everything in my pack.  Still, this was a big set back, and I wouldn't get on the trail until 11:00 am.

I had two clear sightings of deer that day, both as I was following the Virginia Creeper Trail along the highway (the AT parallels the VCT in a few spots).

Trestle on the Virginia Creeper Trail




Lunch for the day was freeze dried beef stroganoff, which, while good, wasn't as tasty as my mom's stroganoff.

I got into the Lost Mountain Shelter around 8:50 pm and decided to call it a day, having just enough daylight to set up my tent.

June 1
Start Location: Lost Mountain Shelter (mile 484.8)
End Location: Grayson Highlands State Park south entrance (mile 499.6)
Total Miles: 14.8

I got an 8:30 am start, much better than I was thinking I would do.  Throughout the day the sky was a mixture of blue and bright, and dark and ominous.  It felt like it could rain at any point all day, though it never did.

View from Buzzard Rock





My back continued giving me problems, and as a result my pace was slowed all day.  As I passed Elk Garden, a gentleman who was helping his wife slackpack filled one of my water bottles for me.  That was definitely appreciated.

Climbing out of Elk Garden

There were fantastic views starting around Thomas Knob.  There would be great views all the way from here, to my eventual campsite (about 2.5 miles).








Towards the end of the day I ran into a group of wild ponies.  A couple of them were quite friendly, and I actually got to pet one.  It was my first time petting a pony of any variety.

Wild ponies


I stopped at the entrance to Grayson Highlands State Park as there was no tenting allowed inside the park, and I didn't feel like pushing all the way through that night.

June 2
Start Location: Grayson Highlands State Park south entrance (mile 499.6)
End Location: Bobby's Trail (mile 519.9)
Total Miles: 20.3

Grayson Highlands State Park was spectacular, and I was very glad that I didn't hike through it in the dark.  It was definitely one of my favourite parts of the trail in Virginia, and as an added bonus, I saw more wild ponies.



I call this the Terrence Malik shot


It wasn't too long before I passed the 500 mile mark.  This was one of the more exciting moments of my hike.  Even if I didn't make it to Katahdin, 500 miles was still quite an achievement as far as I was concerned.



Around the trail to the Hurricane Creek Campground it began absolutely pouring rain, and I got completely drenched.  I was considering turning around and going to the campground, which had showers, but I pushed on to a campsite just off of Bobby's Trail.  The rain stopped a little bit before I got into camp, so I wasn't setting up my tent in the rain.

June 3
Start Location: Bobby's Trail (mile 519.9)
End Location: About a mile back of USFS 86 (mile 535.4)
Total Miles: 15.5

It was a very solitary day, as I only saw 3 people for the better part of the day.  The trail was fairly moderate, going through a picturesque field at one point.



At the Mount Rogers Visitor's Center (near Marion VA) I was able to get a pizza delivered.  I had a big pizza and a big bottle of Pepsi, and tried to replenish some of the calories that I had burned off.

I pushed on, intending to make it quite a bit further, but in the end I decided to end early, a little ways before USFS 86.

June 4
Start Location: About a mile back of USFS 86 (mile 535.4)
End Location: Crawfish Trail (mile 550.6)
Total Miles: 15.2

I got a 9:30 am start and headed down the trail in good spirits.  Good spirits until I ran into a very long black snake.  I asked it to move, and it stretched out so that it was blocking the trail.  Not what I had in mind.  I threatened it.  I begged it.  I did everything under the sun to get it to move, and then in the end I just bushwhacked around it.  Snake 1, Tortoise 0.

I got into Atkins around 2:00 pm and went for lunch at a local restaurant.  I had a big meal, consisting of a cheeseburger, a hot dog, and a Philly sandwich.  Very good, very filling.

I topped up my supplies at the nearby gas station and headed back down the trail.

My dad, a collector of railway spikes, would approve of this


Later in the day it began to storm, with thunder rumbling in the distance to a chorus of pounding rain.  At two points there was a flash of lightning followed by immediate thunder, both times scaring me quite bad.

My goal was to get to a campsite near the Crawfish Trail.  I got to what I figured was the campsite, but pushed on to find the Crawfish Trail sign, so that I could know I could stop.  As I was hiking, a deer came flying down around a corner right at me.  I startled it, and given that the trail was wet and slippery, it lost its footing and went over the bank.  It got up immediately and took off while I tried to stop laughing.

June 5
Start Location: Crawfish Trail (mile 550.6)
End Location: VA 610 (mile 553.9)
Total Miles: 3.3

The night was long and difficult as I, in a very short time span, became violently ill.  Without getting to graphic, I lost a lot of fluid, and was unable to keep any in.  I got the chills quite bad too, putting on every layer I had.

It took me two and a half hours to take my tent down.  That told me I needed to get off the trail.  It was a little over 3 miles to the next road crossing, and a very helpful hiker told me that there was a hostel three quarters of a mile west of the road.  She also gave me electrolyte powder and imodium, both of which were life savers.

Despite being only 3 miles from the road, it took me 5 hours to get there.  I was very weak and had to sit down every few minutes.  Before I got to the road I passed the one quarter mark of the AT.  It was a bittersweet moment for me.  Sweet, because I had hiked so far, bitter, because I was coming to realize my hike was probably over.

I got a ride from the road to the hostel and the hostel proprietor drove me to the hospital in Marion.  I got diagnosed with a viral infection (which I suspect may be norovirus), bronchitis, and pneumonia.  I was told I had lost too much weight too fast, and that was likely my ultimate downfall.  I started the hike at 185 pounds.  In that hospital I was 135 pounds.

I knew my hike was over then, but it was okay.  I had hiked a huge chunk of the trail, and had an amazing time doing so.  I had met lots of great people, and had gotten an experience that I will never forget.  I'm not happy with how the hike ended, but really, I have no regrets.

I got a hotel room in Marion after I was discharged from the hospital, and spent the next week resting up.  When I was feeling stronger, I took a bus to Roanoke, and flew from Roanoke to Vancouver.  I got home and began to recover more rapidly.  While I'm still feeling a little sick now, I'm feeling much better, and I think I will be completely recovered soon.

Flying out of Roanoke, I looked out the window at the Appalachian Mountains below.  I marveled at their beauty, and reflected on my time in them.  Then, the mountains disappeared into cloud.  When we came out of the clouds, there were no more mountains.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 Update 5: Erwin TN to Damascus VA

May 23 to May 30
Start Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
End Location: Damascus VA (mile 469.0)
Total Miles Hiked: 469.0
Miles Left: 1720.1
Miles Since Last Update: 126.9

May 23
Start Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
End Location: Low Gap (mile 358.1)
Total Miles: 16.0

I did the 1 mile road walk back to the trail with Frosty.  I immediately felt severe pain when I put my pack on, indicating that my back was still hurt.  For the first little bit the pain was so intense that I could barely breathe.  By the time I was on the trail, I could breathe, but not without pain.  I was debating spending more time in Erwin, but I didn't really have the time or money to do that.  I elected to push on, vowing to not leave the trail until my body was well and truly destroyed.

I was on the trail by 11:00 am, later than I was hoping, and essentially guaranteeing that I wouldn't be able to make big miles that day.  The early part of the day was uneventful, though I did get a millipede stuck on my pants at one point.  In addition to freaking me out a little, the millipede left some kind of yellow residue on my pants.  So much for the clean laundry.

I came to Beauty Spot Gap after a few hours, and while I hadn't hiked very far yet, I was tempted to stop.  It was a fantastic location.

The climb into Beauty Spot Gap

View from Beauty Spot Gap



I pushed on, doing the steep 1000 foot climb up Unaka Mountain.  The top of the mountain was covered in dense spruce forest, reminding me a bit of the forests of BC.

I descended the mountain and was at Low Gap by 7:50 pm.  I decided I had gone far enough, and called it a day.

May 24
Start Location: Low Gap (mile 358.1)
End Location: Carvers Gap (mile 378.3)
Total Miles: 20.2

I was on the trail at 9:45 am, still suffering from severe back pain.  I could hike for about 20 minutes before the pain became so bad that I had to take my pack off.



I skirted the summit of Little Bald Knob where there was a nice view.

View from Little Bald Knob


Towards the end of the day, I would do the 2000 foot climb up Roan High Knob, reaching an elevation above 6000 feet for the first time since the Smokys.  Like Unaka Mountain, the top was thick coniferous forest.  I filled up with water at the shelter, and then, with fading daylight, descended the mountain.

The top of Roan High Knob

Chimney a little ways down from the summit


I made it to Carvers Gap and camped on a grassy hillside.  My tent ended up angled down and leaning to the right, there were mice in the bushes that were out and about all night (I swear I didn't punch any), and there was noise from the highway periodically.  All in all a pretty good campsite.

May 25
Start Location: Carvers Gap (mile 378.3)
End Location: Elk River (mile 399.2)
Total Miles: 20.9

I woke up to blistering heat.  I checked my thermometer and saw that the inside of my tent was 48 degrees Celsius.  The sun was pounding down on my tent and with my tent fly on, the tent was just absorbing heat.  That got me out of bed pretty quickly.  As soon as I opened the fly and felt the warmth dissipate, I felt a swell of relief.  I still didn't get on the trail until 9:45 am, but that was still a little better than my average.

The first climb of the day was up Round Bald where there was a nice view.

View from Round Bald


Immediately after Round Bald I climbed Jane Bald, where there was a fantastic view of Round Bald and Roan High Knob.

View from Jane Bald



I continued on for several miles, noting that, while my back still hurt, it was getting marginally better every day.  That was encouraging.

Soon I was on Little Hump Mountain with the third good view of the day.  This was definitely turning into one of the most scenic days of the trip.

View near the summit of Little Hump Mountain

Hump Mountain from Little Hump Mountain


I began the climb up Hump Mountain where there was false summit after false summit.  The view from the top was the best of the day, and I basked in said view with my nuclear waste colored Gatorade.

View from one of the false summits

View from Hump Mountain


I descended the mountain, and a few miles later I was at the North Carolina/Tennessee border, where I would leave North Carolina for good.  Two states down, twelve to go.



I continued on, passing a cemetery just as it was getting dark.  I noticed a freshly dug grave, which is definitely something you don't want to see at twilight.

I got to the campsite at 399.2 that I had been shooting for, only to find that it was occupied.  I took a side trail that went off from it, hoping it would lead somewhere flat where I could pitch my tent.  The trail paralleled Elk River, and because of the slippery mud on the trail, I slipped and started sliding towards the river.  I don't know how I saved myself, but somehow I pulled myself back onto the trail, avoiding disaster.  I eventually came to a little field that I decided to call home for the night, falling asleep to the sound of rain hitting my tent.

Ridge a few hours before dark



May 26:
Start Location: Elk River (mile 399.2)
End Location: Field with barn (mile 418.0)
Total Miles: 18.8

I somehow didn't manage to get on the trail until 11:00 am.  I passed the 400 mile mark, and celebrated the occasion with a freeze dried chicken a la king lunch a few hours later.

I began to feel the psychological effects of the trail set in, as I was swarmed with claustrophobia and disorientation throughout the day, augmented with the odd stretch of pure euphoria.  I was somehow less mentally aware of everything, going into an autopilot mode and losing track of miles and time.  It was a very strange day.

My foggy state was broken in the fading hours of light, when I came to a little clearing where I saw a mama bear and a cub take off to the right, with another cub taking off to the left.  About 50 yards further, another mama and 2 cubs heard me, with mama and one cub running in separate directions while the other cub climbed a tree.  I could see all 6 bears, there was maybe 10 minutes of day light left, and I was faced with no choice but to get between two sets of mother bears and their cubs.  Not a fun situation to be in.  I decided to muster all the false courage I could, and marched through my valley of the shadow of death, bashing my poles together and singing the first song that popped into my mind (YMCA in case you were wondering).  My tactic worked.  I didn't die that evening (as you could have surmised by the fact that I wrote this post).

A nice scene just before the bear incident


I came to a field with a worn down barn and decided to call it a night.  It is worth noting that this was about a quarter of a mile from where the 6 bears had been.  Brave?  Yes.  Smart?  No.

May 27
Start Location: Field with barn (mile 418.0)
End Location: Spring (mile 434.2)
Total Miles: 16.2

I got a typical 10:00 am start and made it to Laurel Falls after a few miles.  The falls were quite nice, and I was glad that I hadn't hiked by them in the dark.

Laurel Falls


I took a side trail into Hampton Tennessee where I topped up my food and got a hearty dose of Big Macs at the local McDonalds.  Yes Ronald, I am lovin' it.

Back on the trail, I came across something that scared me more than the 6 bears.  A snake.  Next to the mouse, the snake is the next biggest enemy of the tortoise.  I nervously tip toed around it and prayed that it wouldn't follow me.



I began the climb up Pond Flats, stumbling across another mother bear and two cubs.  They took off pretty quickly, leaving me quite astonished that I had seen 9 bears in 2 days.  There were people who had been on the trail for 6 weeks who had told me they had still not seen a bear.

On the descent from Pond Flats, heavy rain began coming down, turning the trail into a slick muddy bog that was borderline unhikeable.  After making slow progress for a couple of hours, I decided to stop at the first flat spot I could find.  I came to a not quite flat spot, but I wasn't prepared to be picky, so I set up my tent and went to sleep.

May 28
Start Location: Spring (mile 434.2)
End Location: Double Spring Gap (mile 455.7)
Total Miles: 21.5

I found a millipede on one of my trekking poles as I was breaking camp.  I knocked him off, but he came back two more times, the last time working his way up to the handle of the pole.  What a great way to start the day.

The day featured a hike through a farm field, littered with cow paddies.  It was an interesting area to hike, as it was listed in the guide book as being handicap accessible, something definitely uncommon on the trail.



I left the farm and entered the woods again, where two squirrels were going absolutely crazy, zipping around and making as much noise as possible.  I sat down and watched their antics for a good ten minutes before pushing on.

A little while later I heard a sound off to the side.  I turned around and saw an adult black bear taking off.  Ten bears in three days.  If that wasn't enough, after it got dark and I was hiking by headlamp, I shone my light in the face of two more bears, who promptly climbed a tree.  That put me up to twelve bears in three days.

I stopped at Double Spring Gap, in striking distance of Damascus.  In what was beginning to feel like a tradition, I fell asleep to rain on my tent.

May 29
Start Location: Double Spring Gap (mile 455.7)
End Location: Damascus VA (mile 469.0)
Total Miles: 13.3

I got an 8:30 am start, much better than my average.  Nothing like the allure of town to motivate a tortoise.

Just before I said goodbye to Tennessee for good, I came across yet another bear.  By now it wasn't even fazing me.  Thirteen bears in four days.  And to think, Bill Bryson didn't see a single one on his hike.

I came to the Tennessee/Virginia border.  I was so happy that I began jumping up and down, which really wasn't a good move with my messed up back.  I celebrated by eating a pack of bologna, and pushed on.


Best graffiti ever


I was soon in Damascus, one of the most iconic trail towns (it is the site of the annual Trail Days gathering; it's basically the Woodstock of hiking).  I got a room at the Hikers Inn, took a few showers, bought way too much food for the next week, and then wrote this post.  I don't know what the rest of the day holds for me, but I'm assuming it will include binging on Subway, and a few more showers.

May 30
Start Location: Damascus VA
End Location: Damascus VA
Total Miles: 0.0

This day hasn't happened yet, but I can guarantee you I am not hiking a single mile.  Put a gun to my head and I still won't do it.  Got to rest up before the next stretch, which will take me to Pearisburg.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 Update 4: Hot Springs NC to Erwin TN

May 18 to May 22
Start Location: Hot Springs NC (mile 273.7)
End Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
Total Miles Hiked: 342.1
Miles Left: 1847.0
Miles Since Last Update: 68.4

In case there is anyone following this blog who is jealous of the journey I'm on, I thought I'd break down what my average day looks like, step by step:

1. Wake up at 5:00 am to the sounds of birds (typically owls), highway traffic, or a drunken hiker stumbling about answering the call of nature.
2. Lay around for a few hours trying to convince yourself that you can get out of your sleeping bag, despite the cold and/or rain.
3. Finally get out of your sleeping bag by 8:00 am and put on a cold, wet pair of socks that smells like a rotting clove of garlic.
4. Eat a snickers bar.  When hiking, all meals can be replaced with a snickers bar.
5. Nearly chip a tooth on the snickers bar, which is rock hard due to the cold.
6. Get everything put away, including your sopping wet tent.  Immediately begin dreading setting it up that evening, knowing that the inside will be wet.
7. Tie up your hiking boots and take your first few steps.  Those steps are so painful that you feel like you might wet your pants.
8. Lethargically saunter along until you come to your first climb of the day, ranging from 1000 to 3000 feet.
9. Hike for about an hour and see the top of the mountain in sight.  Celebrate your victory.  Then get to the top and see another top stretching on beyond you.  Curse to yourself.
10. Repeat step 9 until you are so disheartened that you think the climb will never end.
11. Finally get to the true summit (where there are no views).  Blast the Lord of the Rings theme on your ipod as you cross the top of the mountain in slow motion.  Bonus marks if you do this with a long line of hikers.  Even more bonus marks if one of them has a Gandalf beard.
12. Wreck your knees on the descent and begin fantasizing about the flat terrain in Virginia everyone talks about.
13. Feel intense pain on your toe that prompts you to stop and take your sock off.  Have Another One Bites the Dust ready on your ipod in case the toe nail comes off.
14. Bandage your toe and resume hiking.
15. Feel a blister forming on your heel seconds later, prompting you to stop again and apply more bandaids to your feet.
16. Continue hiking and stopping to bandage your feet until you finally decide to stop for lunch.
17. Eat a bowl of ramen out of a dingy bowl that you clean with your sweat soaked shirt.
18. Continue doing 1000+ foot ascents and descents at a snail's pace, realizing that you will not make it to your destination before dark.
19. Feel impending doom as dark rain clouds blow in, soon pounding you with monsoon rains that have you completely drenched.
20. Get into camp after dark and set up your wet tent in the rain, making it even wetter.  Get inside and take your socks off.  You will note that they are drenched in what I like to call "bluss" (a sweaty combination of blood, mud, and puss).  Die a little on the inside knowing they are your last pair of socks, and you will have to put them on the next day.
21. Go to sleep, waking up every few hours due to cramps.
22. Repeat until you are at Katahdin.

I bet you're not jealous now.  Anyways, onto the update.

May 18
Start Location: Hot Springs NC (mile 273.7)
End Location: Little Laurel Shelter (mile 293.3)
Total Miles: 19.6

I got at 9:00 am start, a little later than I was hoping, but still not too bad.  The climb out of Hot Springs hit me harder than I expected.  The day off had definitely set me back a bit conditioning-wise.

View climbing out of Hot Springs


It wasn't very long before I ran into a group of hikers going south.  The guy at the front of the group told me they were "trail angels on patrol", and gave me a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie.  We thru-hikers are definitely spoiled.

At two different points that day, I stumbled across hares.  That was very significant to me, given that I am Tortoise.

On the climb to Little Laurel Shelter, I felt a little turned around, as it seemed like I was spending more time going down than up, and the trail started looking very familiar.  I became convinced that I was hiking south, but I kept going.  To my relief, I eventually made it to the shelter and got one of the last tent spaces.  I had a freeze-dried Mexican dinner, and then went to bed before dark, something that was pretty rare for me.  It began raining that night, and the rain would persist until I made it to Erwin.

May 19
Start Location: Little Laurel Shelter (mile 293.3)
End Location: Devil Fork Gap (mile 308.9)
Total Miles: 15.6

Disappointing myself yet again, I didn't hit the trail until 10:00 am.  The ascent out of the shelter was tough, and by the time I was at the top I knew I wouldn't be able to hit 20 miles that day.

I hiked the Firescald Ridgeline, an exposed ridgeline that goes on for about 1.5 miles.  It was rocky, strenuous, and involved a lot of scrambling.  If my hopes of a 20 weren't already dashed, my slow progress on that ridge killed them.

After some easy hiking, I climbed up Bald Ridge.  In case you couldn't guess it from the name, Bald Ridge is a bald ridge.  Who would have thought?

Bald Ridge


Throughout the day I had a number of slips on mud, wet rocks, and tree roots.  Every time I managed to save myself with my trekking poles, but it began to really strain my back.  The day became a little miserable from all of the slips, and I got desperate to find a campsite soon, even if it meant a longer day into Erwin.

I stopped just before Devil Fork Gap, camped right above NC Highway 212.  The highway wasn't very busy that night, but there definitely was a bit of noise.  I had freeze-dried spaghetti and a cup of iced peach tea and went to bed, the rain picking up through the night.

May 20:
Start Location: Devil Fork Gap (mile 308.9)
End Location: About a mile beyond Little Bald (mile 327.7)
Total Miles: 18.8

I was on the trail at 9:00 am, doing the ascent up Lick Rock.  I did a good chunk of the ascent with thru-hiker Frosty, which made it pass a little quicker.

A little later there was another ascent to a meadow.  The views from the top were quite nice, though from the looks of the clouds it seemed like heavy rain was in my future.

The meadow at mile 319.4



I began the climb up Big Bald, and the rain intensified.  It did a number on the trail, making it muddy, slick, and slippery.  I had many more near falls, and on one recovery, I felt a horrible pain in my back.  That pain persisted for the rest of the day, and for the next two days, I struggled to hike for more than ten minutes without taking my pack off.  This convinced me I needed a day off in Erwin.

As I continued on the trail, my boots got absolutely drenched, leading to the formation of some blisters.  I got to the top of Big Bald where it was storming so hard, I thought I might get blown off the mountain.

Big Bald


I contemplated stopping at the Bald Mountain shelter, but that would have made the next day too long, so I pushed on.  I climbed Little Bald with the intention of making it 2 miles further, but the mud and rain killed those plans.  I stopped at an open area 1 mile beyond the summit of Little Bald and set up my tent in the heavy rain.  The nice thing was I have gotten the technique of the fast fly set up down, and managed to keep my tent relatively dry during the set up.

May 21:
Start Location: About a mile beyond Little Bald (mile 327.7)
End Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
Total Miles: 14.4

I broke camp at 7:45 am and began the hike to Erwin, which would feature a 2000 foot descent over about 14 miles.  Despite my nagging back injury, and some new foot injuries, I made good time, averaging slightly better than 2 mph.

After a few hours I got on a ridge that had some views of Erwin and the surrounding area.  This was nice, though it did make the descent feel very slow as the town always seemed so far in the distance.

The Nolichucky River


I got into Uncle Johnny's around 2:15 pm and did a resuppply.  I picked up 2 new pairs of socks, so that I could have a dry pair every day.  I took a shuttle to the Mountain Inn and got a room for 2 nights.

May 22
Start Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
End Location: Erwin TN (mile 342.1)
Total Miles: 0

Today was a typical day off.  Laundry, a bit more resupply, updating this lovely blog.  Tomorrow I'll try to get on the trail at a decent time, my next destination being Damascus, Virginia, around 125 miles away.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Appalachian Trail 2016 Update 3: Fontana Village NC to Hot Springs NC

May 11 to May 17
Start Location: Fontana Village NC (mile 164.7)
End Location: Hot Springs NC (mile 273.7)
Total Miles Hiked: 273.7
Miles Left: 1915.4
Miles Since Last Update: 109.0

May 11
Start Location: Fontana 28 AT Crossing (mile 164.7)
End Location: Mollies Ridge Shelter (mile 177.3)
Total Miles: 12.6

My alarm went off and as I reached over to shut it off I fell out of bed and bashed my head on the bedside stand.  What a way to start the day.

I took a shuttle from the lodge to the Fontana Marina and backtracked about 50 yards to make sure I didn't miss any trail.  I returned to the Marina and hiked to the Fontana Dam Shelter, better known as the Fontana Hilton.  It is considered one of the nicest shelters on the trail, largely due to the fact that it has showers.

The Fontana Hilton


I hiked to the Fontana Dam Visitor Center and bought some drinks to take on the trail.  I watched a short film on the history of the dam, before finally crossing it.

Fontana Dam



I wasn't on the trail for too long before I heard the news that would dominate all conversations on the trail for the next several days.  Apparently, the night before at Spence Field Shelter (mile 183.2) there was a bear attack.  What I was told was that a very habituated bear (that hikers had apparently been feeding) went to the campsite and attacked a man in a tent who was wearing coconut scented sun screen.  The man was bitten in the leg and the bear chewed up his tent, before moving on to another tent.  The man who was attacked was evacuated by horseback the next day, and from what I heard, it was expected that he was going to be okay.  Hearing about this kind of attack before heading into a park known for having very habituated bears was very unnerving to say the least.

I began the climb from Fontana Dam into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, gaining around 3000 feet in elevation before the day was done (from here I would be hiking the North Carolina/Tennessee border for several days, typically unsure of what state I was in).  On the way up, I found a very large toad.  It was definitely a very neat wildlife find.





On Shuckstack Mountain there was a side trail that went to an old fire tower.  I was told that the views were quite nice (by a man with a mountain goat skull strapped to his pack), so I decided to take the detour.  The view was quite amazing, but climbing the tower was very unnerving.  It was extremely rickety, and it didn't help that the higher I got, the windier it got.  I would say it made me feel more nervous than skydiving, which is saying quite a lot.


View from the fire tower to Fontana Lake


At Birch Spring Gap I stopped for a break, and heard something loud coming down hill towards me.  I turned around and saw a medium sized black bear charging at me.  For a moment I thought I was a goner, so I grabbed my broken pocket knife and said to myself "the meaning of life is to die in battle".  Fortunately, the bear turned to the right before it got to me, but it was still a very frightening experience.

I pushed on, making it to Mollies Ridge Shelter before dark.  The shelter was not full, so as per park rules I was required to stay in the shelter.  That was my first night in a shelter on the trip, and I hope it is my last night in a shelter.  It was very claustrophobic, with not enough room to sit up.  I did have a dinner of freeze dried spaghetti, which, while not nearly as good as my dad's spaghetti, was still a spirit booster.  I drifted off to sleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof of the shelter, sounding a little bit like a city getting air raided by the Nazis.

May 12
Start Location: Mollies Ridge Shelter (mile 177.3)
End Location: Double Spring Gap Shelter (mile 196.7)
Total Miles: 19.4

I was up by 3:30 am and out by 5:00 am.  I would have left earlier, but I didn't want to go through the bear attack campsite in the dark (one of my few sensible decisions on this trip).  I was initially hiking in rain and mist, and due to low visibility I had to stop for about 30 minutes to wait for dawn.  It rained on and off throughout the day, sometimes raining with blue skies overhead.

View from Rocky Top


I stopped at Derrick Knob Shelter for lunch and saw a wild turkey.  I vowed to buy a freeze dried turkey dinner at the next opportunity.



I got to Double Spring Gap Shelter around 5:30 pm.  I intended to push on, but I was going too slow to really make it much farther, so I elected to stay.  The people in the shelter agreed to call it a full shelter so I could set up my tent, and a fellow thru hiker (Merlin) helped me put my tent up in the rain, getting it set up fast enough that the inside stayed relatively dry.

May 13
Start Location: Double Spring Gap Shelter (mile 196.7)
End Location: Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3)
Total Miles: 20.6

Despite getting to bed early the night before, I didn't start on the trail until 9:00 am.  I hiked to the parking lot at Clingman's Dome and went to the gift shop, hoping to by a cold drink (which the guide book indicated I could do).  I found that all they had was bottled water, which was disappointing, but a park worker was handing out packages of oreos to thru hikers, which was a bonus.

The weather had gotten quite cold and foggy, with the occasional misting of rain.  I was actually contemplating putting an insulating layer on for the first time on the trip.  I got to Clingman's Dome and climbed the tower, officially standing at the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (at 6667 feet).  I smiled at the thought that, technically, it was all downhill from there.

The tower on Clingman's Dome


I pushed on to Newfound Gap, where hikers can access Gatlinburg.  I was tempted to go into town, but the weather was improving, so I decided to push on.

View from Newfound Gap


I climbed out of the gap and back into the mountains.  The stretch of trail from Icewater Spring Shelter (mile 210.1) to Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3) (the part around Charlie's Bunion) was easily the most scenic part of the trail so far.  The trail stayed on a ridge, surrounded by dramatic views.  A number of times I almost went over the bank I was so distracted.




I hiked the last 7 miles in 2 hours and 50 minutes.  I was finally beginning to feel like I was getting my trail legs.

May 14
Start Location: Pecks Corner Shelter (mile 217.3)
End Location: Green Corner Road (mile 240.6)
Total Miles: 23.3

I got a very late start, leaving at 10:30 am.  Despite the late start, I continued my momentum from the night before and averaged better than 2 miles per hour to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter (mile 222.2) where I stopped for a lunch of freeze dried macaroni and chili.  Thru hiker Alex from Florida shared some of his coffee with me, which was definitely a very welcome bit of trail magic.

At one point on the trail there was a little detour that went to the wreckage of an old war plane.  It was definitely a worthwhile side trip.




I crossed the I-40 and continued hiking in the dark, running into a number of fireflies.  I eventually found a camp site near Green Corner Road and set up, having walked 23 miles in 11 hours, definitely my best day (pace-wise) so far.  As I went to bed I found a spider in my tent, but I lost it.  It is a testament to how much the trip has changed me that I managed to sleep just fine knowing there was a creepy-crawly on the loose.

May 15
Start Location: Green Corner Road (mile 240.6)
End Location: Walnut Mountain Shelter (mile 260.6)
Total Miles: 20.0

I woke up the several spiders in my tent.  I don't know if they all got in while I was putting stuff in my tent the night before, or if the spider I found the night before was Catholic, but regardless, it was an unpleasant way to start the day.  I spent several minutes squishing spiders, and being a good hiker, I put all of them in my garbage bag and packed them out.

After a 3000 foot ascent up Snowbird Mountain, I was surprised by some amazing trail magic being done by some locals.  I was given homemade ice cream, bananas, a cold soda, and a freshly made pbj sandwich.  It is amazing to me that there are people who do this kind of thing for hikers, expecting nothing in return.  It was definitely a huge spirit booster.

View from Snowbird Mountain


FAA Tower on Snowbird Mountain
 I continued on, climbing Max Patch, possibly the most famous bald on the trail.  I had a dinner of freeze dried lasagna there, and basked in the calmness.  As I was leaving, a man asked me if I was a thru hiker.  When I said that I was, he gave me two scratch tickets that had won twelve dollars, and told me I could cash them in if I made it to Damascus.

Climbing up Max Patch

View from the summit of Max Patch



Tortoise on Max Patch


I continued hiking, intent on getting as close to town as possible.  I climbed Walnut Mountain and watched the sun set on the summit, before continuing on a tenth of a mile to the shelter where I spent the night.

May 16
Start Location: Walnut Mountain Shelter (mile 260.6)
End Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
Total Miles: 13.1

I woke up around 2:00 am, feeling something on my head.  Due to the size of my tent, and my tallness, my head is typically pushing against the back of my tent.  Sometimes a leaf gets caught between my tent and fly and tickles my head, and I assumed that was what was happening.  Still, I opened my eyes, and to my horror, saw an object climbing up my tent.  It could only be one thing: a mouse.  Ah the mouse, the natural enemy of the tortoise.  Mice and tortoises have been going at it for thousands of years, locked in a bloody war that will run until the end of time.  In keeping with the tradition of the mouse/tortoise feud, I flicked the mouse of my tent and turned on my headlamp, hoping to deter it from returning.  However, moments later, that little (insert your favourite expletive noun) climbed up the front of my tent, its beady little eyes staring right at me.  This enraged me.  A tortoise can only take so much before he snaps.  I cocked my arm back and sent my fist flying, hitting the mouse in the face with enough force to knock him off my tent, and rip a couple of tent stakes out of the ground.  Mickey learned his lesson, and didn't return to my humble abode that night.  Still, I couldn't fall back asleep.

I spent the next several hours trying to convince myself to get out of my tent and start hiking, knowing that I was only a few hours from town.  It was quite cold though, a few degrees above freezing (and that was in my tent; outside of my tent it was almost certainly at or below freezing).  Around 6:20 I finally got out of my tent, and by 7:00 am I was on the trail.

I kept a good pace, even on the few moderate climbs I encountered.  After a few hours I saw the town of Hot Springs below the mountain I was descending.  The rest of that descent felt painfully slow, even though I was going fairly fast.  It felt like no matter how much I hiked, I couldn't get any closer to town.  Finally, around noon, I got into town, having covered a little over 13 miles in 5 hours.

I went to the Iron Horse Station, a restaurant and inn, and got a room for a couple of nights.  The building was quite cool.  It was apparently built in the 1800s, and was restored 12 years ago.  It was definitely one of the more interesting places I've stayed.

I got a big lunch at the restaurant and set about doing my chores, getting my laundry done and buying supplies to get me to Erwin.  Deciding that I hadn't been carrying enough food, I splurged, and as a result, I will be enjoying about 3500 calories of food every day until I get to Erwin.

I went for supper that evening at a local tavern, joining fellow thru hikers Kryptonite, Derby, and Elena.  I then went back to my room and went to bed, falling asleep almost instantly.

May 17
Start Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
End Location: Hot Springs (mile 273.7)
Total Miles: 0

Today is a day off for me, and I have very little planned.  I went for breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner, being joined by Pancake and Map Man.  I don't have any chores left today, so I intend to just take it easy.  There is a resort that offers hot mineral baths at a fairly reasonable price, so I will check that out a little later.  I'll eat a few more big meals, get a good night of sleep, and then set off again, my sights set on Erwin, Tennessee.