Big days, big climbs, big views

March 9, 2018

Destination: Brown Fork Gap Shelter Today's Miles: 17

Start Location: A. Rufus Morgan Shelter Trip Miles: 152.70

View of Nantahala Gorge
I thought a lot about fried chicken today. It was a weird craving as I don’t really eat fried chicken.

I also craved a root beer - Barq’s maybe. Root beer was a random craving; the fried chicken thing did have a genesis. Let me get to that.

I didn’t sleep well last night. It was cold, windy, and I tented on a slope. It was just enough slope to where I spent the night clawing my way back on top of my air pad. I knew I wanted to do some bigger miles today, but it was hard to get out of the bag this morning with the cold. I ran outside to get my food down from where I hung it. I then sprinted back to my tent and tucked my legs into my sleeping bag and decided to have breakfast in bag. I boiled water in the vestibule of my tent while organizing and packing things. I had coffee and two oatmeal packets. Today I wanted to go right to my base later only plus rain gear hiking outfit. It was supposed to hit 55 degrees, and while it was freezing this morning, I figured I could hike fast to get my body temperature up. I pulled off my tights to switch over to my hiking pants. In doing so, I looked at my legs. On the trail, I go days without even knowing what I look like. I could have dirt all over my face - who knows! My legs didn’t look that much more muscular. They were pale white though (nothing new) and had lots of little bumps on them. The first thing I thought was that my legs looked like chicken or turkey with that paleness and the bumps. They looked like gross dead bird legs. And that made me think of fried chicken. Hungry Cat makes the mental leap to food! It was just one of those weird things that went through my head (haha, chicken legs!). Little did I know that thoughts of a giant bucket of KFC would haunt me throughout the day.

I got hiking and burned through the mile or so to the NOC. I got there just after 9am and the outfitter and general store didn’t open until 10, so I decided to wait. I chatted with a fellow hiker for a bit, then realized they had restrooms and went to go clean up. Washing my hands felt fantastic. A lot of days I just sort of splash them with water and then use hand sanitizer on top of the grime. After my bird bath, I went around the corner to the laundry and went inside. Some hikers were in there waiting because it was very warm and they also had a few power outlets. Bingo! I ran back across the street, grabbed my pack and took it over by the laundry. Cole was sitting outside making ramen or something. I went inside and Motorcycle Mama let me plug into her free USB port as she was already charging. She camped at the same spot last night and was the lady I bear bagged for. I could charge for about 10 minutes before the NOC stores would open. There was a guy in the laundry room as well. I didn’t recognize him. He was talking about needing to hitch a ride to Asheville to resolve some “legal matters.” He said this to me. I didn’t really want to know what those issues were so I didn’t ask. It’s interesting what people will share with you on the trail. 

It was kind of cool seeing NOC this way. I’d been there a good handful of times to kayak, but had never paid attention to where exactly the AT passed through, or what hiker facilities are there. They have a lot! When they opened up, I first went to the outfitter. I wanted to get a small backup fuel canister. It takes longer to boil water and cook in this cold! When I went inside, they had a lot of good hiker food. I wanted to resupply here as I had heard that there is not much in Fontana Village. I splurged and picked up 3 mountain house meals. I love their chili Mac! They also had Iced Gingerbread cliff bars, which is odd because they are a seasonal flavor. Gillian suggested I order some bars on amazon before I left, so I ordered pumpkin pie. I wanted the iced gingerbread too, but for some reason didn’t get them. I’ve loved the pumpkin pie ones, so seeing iced gingerbread made Hungry Cat very excited! I purchased a few of those and some other assorted flavors. Then I went across the street to the convenience store to purchase other things, like tuna packs, oatmeal, M&Ms - you know, the essentials. I’m pretty sure my blood mercury levels are approaching insanity-causing levels! It’s good and easy protein though. In my mind that’s what happens when you ingest too much mercury - you go insane. Curious, I looked up what really happens. Symptoms include mood swings, irritability, headaches, insomnia, nervousness, abnormal sensations, muscle atrophy, and “emotional changes.” So I guess insanity might not happen, but you might feel like you just worked a hard 9 hours at your job. 

Anyway, the guy at NOC was nice and let me take my shopping basket outside to refill my pack. I did that and realized my food bag was the size of Gillian’s Prius. Oh well, I’ll eat it, and it will get me through the smokies, or at least to Newfound Gap where I can get to Gatlinburg. At the general store there (I got the bars and fuel at the outfitter and the other stuff at the general store) I purchased an “Italian sandwich.” They had a microwave so I warmed it up, and as I did I chatted with the gal working there. She was living out of her van and told me how hard it was to get someone to rig the van for solar power. She said she and her partner lived in it full time, and also had a cat in the van! Hungry Cat was interested... Shane Carlson, if you’re reading this maybe you should get solar power for your daughters caravan! I think I just felt you wince ;-)

Caravan lady and I talked a little kayaking shop. She is a kayaker as well. My sandwich finished heating and I walked back across the street. I bit into that sandwich, and all the heavens exploded behind my closed eyelids. It was delicious! The salami and cheese. Nom nom nom! When my eyeballs rolled back down into normal positions, I set out onto the bridge across the Nantahala river to where the AT picks up on the other side. I had lost a lot of time as it was now 10:30, but I figured a long 17 mile day was doable. Sure - a fully resupplied pack with water as well, why not? Little did I know what was in store for me. The trail took a sharp turn uphill as colonel sanders danced in my head.

Remember back when I said that uphills are my jam? I’d like to strike that statement from the record, your honor. I feel like the trail gods heard me say that and decided they would shove uphill after uphill down my throat, with no opportunity to swallow in between. I found myself channeling that really skinny Japanese guy who wins all the hotdog eating championships by shoving 70 or so hotdogs down his throat in something like 30 seconds. I needed to be him, but with uphills, not hotdogs (though I wanted hotdogs). Alas, I was no champion. I huffed and puffed with my bloated pack as the climb up Swim Bald just kept going. And when I got to the top there was another intense climb to the top of Cheoah Bald. I paused on Cheoah Bald to look at the amazing view. The weather had been gorgeous all day and visibility was grand. A lady is chatted with before was on the bald. I found out her name is Dicey, after the handkerchief she carries that had a dice print. She carries a large point and shoot camera around her neck and takes a lot of photos, so to my reader that asked about this before, she is doing it! She’s the only thru hiker I’ve seen so far with a large point and shoot camera, but the camera looks quite sophisticated so I’m guessing she is pretty into photography. I asked if she’d seen any birds of prey from the bald (that’s not a weird opener out here at all!). I thought about fried chicken immediately after asking that. She said no, and then I mentioned that I hadn’t seen any interesting wildlife like coyotes or foxes yet, and then we had a 10 minute conversation about animal poop. Dicey said she’d seen fox and coyote poop on the trail. I told her I wouldn’t know what that looked like unless I saw the animal doing it with the morning paper. She told me that coyote poop looks like a dog, but has a lot of hair in it. She said they often poop on the trail itself. She then said that fox poo is like a coyote but smaller.... ok, got it! 

About that time, a lady came up to the bald heading south and said “may I join you? I hate to be a Debbie downer but....” Stop! Anytime someone says this, (i) they are about to be the thing they say they hate being, and (ii) they obviously don’t hate it or they wouldn’t be it, so why lie about hating it? It’s a silky expression. Anyway, she finished the sentence with “...I’ve seen balds a lot balder than this.” Cheoah Bald is really just a grassy patch, not a stone bald. But I mean, if non grassy true stone balds are what I love for, I would just search for that on the intrawebgoogle machine and find a stony bald. You can google search “Cheoah Bald” and see what it looks like. Anyway, I acknowledged that it was grassier than some. Then Dicey and I headed on. No Debbie downers for us! We loved the view on the grassy knoll bald! In about ten feet I saw some poop and asked “what about this one? there’s a little hair in it.” Dicey responded “nah. That’s just a dog that’s been licking itself.”

I left Dicey behind to get my miles in. I figured the tough part was over. Then I hit the downhill into Stekoah Gap. It was pretty brutal, and as I descended into the gap I was feeling very tired. My feet ached and were ready to be done. Surely I’ve done the hardest part though! I turned around a bend and passed Swagman, who was just getting up after falling in the mud. He said he was ok. Mud on the trail can be really tricky and definitely slows the hiking down. I pushed on. I saw a trash can at Stekoah Gap and got rid of my garbage. Finding a trash can on the trail is kind of like going to a therapist. You carry the garbage around with you and put it out of your mind, but when you dump it all out it feels so good! Unfortunately, when I was repacking my bag I noticed that my left bootlace had snapped. Ugh! It looked like the hook from my gaiters had worn away the lace. Luckily it had snapped near the bottom and only the toe box was loose; the ankle area was still tightly in place. I uploaded photos of this (and also how I fixed it later). I decided to hike on rather than take the time for field repairs. It was holding and I knew I would not have much time before dark (and cold) when I rolled into camp. 

Climbing out of Stekoah Gap was again brutal, and after a while I hit the last big climb of the day, known as Jacob’s Ladder. I’ll never say uphills are my jam again! I promise.... I finally came into Brown Fork Shelter and it was packed. No shelter space was left, and all of the established campsites were taken. Drat! I looked around and went back behind the shelter. There was a flattish spot with a nice view of the privy. It would have to do. I set about pitching my tent, enjoying the wafting smells of human nature gifting my nostrils with their essence. That Michael Jackson song passed through my mind. “If they say Why, why? Tell them that it’s human nature....” Also tell them it stinks!

My tent pitched, I scrambled down the steep hill to the water source. I felt like I could barely lift my feet. Then it was time for food. The kids at the shelter had a fire going, so I took my trail kitchen up there to make dinner. I had Mountain house chili Mac. While it was cooking, I talked with a hiker named Joe Cool. He used to be in the Army and still looks very very young. Maybe 24. He was talking about some organization that has stipends for military vets that want to thru hike. He said that Mama Goose told him about it. Apparently she was in the navy for quite a number of years. It sounded pretty awesome. When my meal was cooked, I ate watching the sunset with the shelter kids. They were there on spring break, from Wilmington, NC. One of them had thru hiked in 2013, so I asked him a bit about the shelter at Fontana Dam. I also met a hiker from New Zealand called Traveler. He was super friendly and we talked briefly. I told him that Gillian and I would love to go to New Zealand. He said that February was a good time to go. 

With the sun down, it was time to get into the tent. I stripped into my sleeping clothes and stuffed my puffy in my sleeping bag in case I needed it later. The wind was really picking up. I was camped kind of on a ridge, and while my wind exposure wasn’t too bad, I could hear it howling nearby. I had successfully strung up a line earlier, but had not hung my food bag. I was still hungry so I shoved a granola bar in my mouth. I always try to have all food, anything I’ve cooked with, and all wrappers/trash in my food bag when I hang it. It’s good practice. However, then I saw my M&Ms and knew I needed those later. Despite my better judgment, I hung the food bag and kept my M&Ms.

I got in my tent and organized my gear while eating M&Ms. I fixed my boot lace by tying a double overhand stopper knot to join the two laces and cinch them together. That should do the trick. I laid down to journal and immediately noticed the pitch on which I tented was again slanted just enough to be awkward. I tried to finish my journal, but kept falling asleep. I would finish tomorrow. Originally I wanted to get a shelter spot as we were expecting rain in the morning. It’s easier to get out of camp when I don’t have to take down a wet tent. Oh well, let the rain come! I wanted to make it another 12 miles or so to Fontana Dam tomorrow. I was hurting from the 17 miles, but no blisters or major issues. I could do it. I was dog tired though, and my shoulders and back ached a bit from the trekking pole work to help me with the hills. 

I ended the day incredibly grateful for the good weather and beautiful views, and for the reminder that whenever in life I have the thought “I’ve got this,” I probably haven’t yet learned everything there is to learn. I thanked the trees today that helped me down some muddy, steep sections of the trail. In a weird turn of events, the chili Mac had somehow driven away my fried chicken craving, for now....Tomorrow, rain or shine, I would hike on. 

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