Friends, Trail Angels, and my Trail Angel Friend

Updated: Mar 17, 2019

March 6, 2018

Destination: Winding Stair Gap (Franklin) Today's Miles: 12.20

Start Location: Betty’s Creek Gap Trip Miles: 109.20


My friend Chris, coconut oil, and a cuckoo clock!
I woke to the pitter patter of rain on my tent . No surprise there!

I had planned for this the night before. I pulled on my hiking clothes and ran out in the dark to get the bear bags down. I dropped Steve-O’s by his tent, and then ducked back inside my tent for what I like to call “breakfast in bag.” It’s like breakfast in bed, but you leave your legs in your sleeping bag. I set up my pot to boil water in the vestibule area of my tent (an overhang created by the tent fly that keeps rain out of the area immediately in front of the tent - think of it as a tiny mud room). While that was heating, I organized and repacked gear as best I could. The rain outside started coming down heavier. When the water boiled, I made instant coffee (I still feel a little bougie for bringing the Starbucks Via packets!) and my usual breakfast of two packs of full sugar calorie-sodden maple brown sugar oatmeal. The breakfast in bag felt wonderful! With the rain peppering the outside of the tent it kind of felt like waking up to the rain, but staying in bed to read. I finished getting my gear organized as much as I could. Now I needed to brush my teeth, filter a little water, and...well... take care of the morning constitution. Now, on the trail we talk about bodily functions, namely because we are living like cave people and so everything becomes more “it is what it is.” By mid-day on day one i was a professional snot rocket launcher. It’s just life in the woods - you deal. I’m not going to say that squatting over a dirt hole i’ve just dug, hands dripping with mud from the rain running off my trowel, in the pouring rain sucks. It doesn’t. It just is. But the real trick is not getting the toilet paper soaked. There is something about toilet paper that, once wet, it just doesn’t ever really “work right.” Anyway, these special challenges are just part of adapting and dealing with the trail on the trail’s terms. 


So once I was done those activities, my feet were already getting wet. I had my rain gear on and must have had it adjusted better today because it seemed to be doing an ok job (chuckle chuckle, I hadn’t left camp yet. I ripped down my tent, enjoying yanking up the wet and muddy tent stakes. Then I used the same muddy hands to wipe the water off my face, giving myself a nice mud mask. I probably looked like Martin Sheen in that famous scene in Apocalypse Now where he raises his head out of the muddy water with crazy eyes. Ay least I’m not Kurtz, right? The trail teaches me to be grateful for little things. Besides, people go to the beauty salon and pay to have mud rubbed all over their faces; I was really just exfoliating for free. I got all my tent bits up and set out to hike. 


It wasn’t too long before the precipitation intensified. I pushed on. I had a plan. My friend Chris lives with her partner Ron about 11 miles away from Franklin. We know each other from kayaking, having met on the river years before. We don’t know each other that well, but I had camped near the Green River Gamelands with them previously and we had bumped into each other here and there - enough to know I liked them and they are good people. I also was interested in their life choices. I knew they had chosen to leave city life and go live on a mountain in rural North Carolina. I’m always interested when people follow non-conventional paths. I had been meaning to catch up with them for some time, so I thought I would drop her a text to see if she wanted to grab lunch or dinner in Franklin. She had reached out previously and very generously offered to let me stay at their place. I don’t like putting people out (and it’s hard for me to ask for help!), but she responded to my text and asked if I would like to stay for the night. Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the teachings of the trail, but something told me I should accept such a gracious offer, so I did. We quickly set a plan to meet in Franklin in the afternoon, as she had a morning appointment in Asheville. I was really excited to see her (unfortunately Ron is out of town on business, so I’ll miss him this time) and catch up as it has been a while since I’d seen them for more than just river banter. That all put some spring in my step and I hiked on. The rain intensified.... I started to feel mysterious rivlets running stealthily down my legs. How in the HECK does the water get inside my rain gear? I just don’t get it! I ran into Slosh again. She was pushing along slowly and carefully, as that is her mantra. I’m pretty sure she’ll make it to Kathadin.


The climbing got steeper, and before you know it I was having to claw my way up boulders and rock face to get up the steep trail. It was raining hard and slippery, so I moved slowly and deliberately. With a little patience I made it to the summit of Albert Mountain (5,250ft). There was a fire tower on top of Albert Mountain that I would have liked to have climbed on a clear day, but today it was just pure whiteout - no dice.


The trail evened out at the top of Albert and I soon ran into someone facing away from me, hunched over, under an umbrella. I called out a hearty “hello!” and the mysterious figure spun around revealing a young girl with a piece of pita bread in her mouth. This Hungry Cat understands! She introduced herself as Life Alert. Said she got the name because she falls every day. I found that hysterical, but also felt bad for her because it cant feel good to fall on rocks with a pack on. She told me she was just coming off of two successive zeros (zero mile days) due to injury. Those days were clear and sunny and she came back just in time for the rain. Then she told me that there is a daily shuttle that goes into Franklin that only costs $3, but that it gets to Winding Stair Gap at 12:30. At the time it was still before 11 and I thought that I had traveled farther than I really had, so I thought I might make it. I kept hiked on, motivated to keep a solid pace. By this time I was wet in many places. I think my rain gear starts to give up at a certain saturation point.


Galumphing forwards, I finally ran into two gents who were at the campsite with me at Betty’s. One of them was walking back to the shelter I had just passed. We were at Rock Gap and apparently the same shuttle goes there. He thought there might be a schedule back in the shelter so was going back to look. Regardless, I wanted to hike to Winding Stair Gap, so I decided to press on. I asked him what time it was and he replied “11:40.” Yowsers!! I had 50 minutes to make it 3.7 miles!! I started hiking faster. Soon I passed Eddie Man and Obiwan on a steep climb. I pushed harder. On level stretches I started jogging a little, my pack lighter with not much water reserve. In my head I knew I wouldn’t make it, but my will was driving me. I pounded on. And then I stopped. I realized the whole thing was silly. My will wasn’t going to get me on that bus. My will might get me hurt though! Also, who cares if I didn’t make the $3 shuttle. I could probably get into town for $20, or thumb a ride. I slowed down to my normal pace, now at peace. It will be what it will be, and I don’t get to decide - the trail will take care of me. 


I finally started hearing the sounds of a road. Then I could see the parking lot! It was definitely an exclamation point moment for me, as I knew I would soon be warm, dry, and fed. I descended the last step into the parking lot and walked towards a row of cars. I didn’t even have a chance to put my pack down, get my phone and check the time before a guy got out of a van, came over, and asked “are you a thru hiker?” He said he had thru hiked back in the 80s and was retired now in Franklin. He goes up to the gap occasionally just to see if hikers need rides. He then offered me a free ride into Franklin! These people are called “trail angels.” I was very excited and we stood and chatted for a bit. All that silly worry over a bus for nothing. He asked if there were other hikers behind me, and I told him I thought Obiwan and Eddie Man were about 45-50 minutes back. Then, just as we were about to load my stuff in his van, what pulls up but the local bus! I told him if he wanted to wait and grab Obiwan and Eddie Man, I would hop on the bus, and that’s what I did. The bus is run by the county to funnel hikers into Franklin - we are a big part of their economy. The driver was willing to take us anywhere in Franklin. He had looped back around to Winding Stair Gap after checking Rock Gap. I saw Steve-O and another guy on the bus. About then Chris texted me and said she could meet a bit earlier, closer to 2pm. I told the bus driver to drop me off with the other two guys at the Budget Inn. Franklin is not exactly the Big Apple - I could walk anywhere in 5-10 minutes. I got out at the Budget Inn, thanked the driver, and rolled my pack back on. As I did this, I heard the manager telling the other guys that the Inn was full and they would have to go to the bunkhouse. At least they had beds! There was an outfitter across the street, so I walked over to get a new fuel canister. I had 3 major things to do other than have fun with my friend and resupply. I needed toilet paper, a new fuel canister, and a permit for the Great Smokey Mountains National Park that I would arrive at in due time. When I went into the outfitter, who was there but Ron Haven, “El Snake!” He seemed to be busy with something, but I said hi anyway. I purchased the gas and then headed up into town to get food. Time to eat!!!


Chris had suggested a place called Motor Company Grill. It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a 50s style diner and very hiker friendly. I was a muddy, wet, mess. I set my pack down in their courtyard and started stripping off rain gear and wet stuff to make myself more presentable. I stripped down to my smart wool base layer and pants. I was wet, but at least not dripping. I went in and asked if I should leave my pack outside. They said “bring it in, we’ll watch it for you!” They were so nice. I think they thought I was worried someone would take it. On the contrary, I was worried they would smell it or me and either or both would be offensive to their clients. Nope! Motor City is downright cool. I sat down with my ditty bag (dry bag where I keep my “trail wallet,” phone and charger), ordered a cup of coffee and water, the. Went to the bathroom to clean up. I looked in the mirror and realized I haven’t seen myself really since the start of the trip, other than taking a selfie. It was horrifying!!! Ok, maybe not that bad, but still. I had some dirt and leaf chunks stuck in my beard. My beard had the fullness and consistency of a 16yr old with the bristly, wiley white hairs of an old man. It’s not a good look for me. I used to be able to grow a nice thick full beard 10 years ago. Now my face looks like I should shave with rogaine. I cleaned up as best I could and went back out.


The place had lots of food options. As I looked at the menu, Chris walked in! She gave me a hug even though I was disgusting and sat down to chat. She had already eaten, so I ordered a burger and onion rings for me. The coffee kept flowing and Chris and I started catching up, as well as made a plan. We would go to Ingles first so I could resupply and she could get a few things, and then go back to her and Ron’s so that I could get showered, hang gear to dry, and do laundry. Then we would go into Sylva for dinner. 


I destroyed the burger. I had wing sauce all over my fingers, and I wiped that on my onion rings and licked everything clean. Then, as I was considering something else, the waitress said “we have free sundaes for hikers.” What?!?! Yes please! I ate the hot fudge sundae in about 30 seconds. It was time to go. Motor Company Grill was really fantastic!

We shoved my pack into Chris’ Jeep and headed to Ingles. I mixed up my resupply this time and got some ramen. I got more M&Ms as well, of course. We drove back out of Franklin towards the town of Sylva, where Chris and Ron live. Their house sits up in the mountains with an overlook of the valley below. The views are quite stunning, and the fog, light and clouds are continually morphing. It’s Appalachia at its finest! When we got to the house, to Chris’s surprise there were two contractors on the roof. She wasn’t expecting them without a call first, but they showed up anyway and just started working. They were throwing flashing pieces off the roof. 


We went inside and into the garage where I could air out my tent and gear. It was amazing! Ron and Chris are kayakers and campers, among other things, and they had a great setup to hang dry wet gear. They had a clothesline and fans all around, as well as a dehumidifier. It was incredible just to know that my stuff would get dry. 

Next on the docket was a shower. I felt like I was at a royal spa with hot water and a good shower head. Chris even gave me some clothes to borrow so that I could wash all of mine. It was amazing. While that was happening, we sat and talked and I got to catch up more on what was going on in her and Ron’s life, etc. It was really a lovely afternoon. While we talked Chris baked bread for the morning.


When everything was dry, I put my clothes back on, sported my camp loafers (kelly green crocs), and we drove into Sylva for dinner. We ate at Guadalupe. They use all locally raised ingredients. I finally got some good solid veggies in me! We talked over dinner about all sorts of stuff, including the different journeys we were both on. I also told her about the last little bit of magic that happened in Hiawassee. I’ll tell you all about that in a later journal entry! 


After dinner, we looked back down Main Street at the courthouse at the end of the road on the hill. It was quite stunning and apparently is often used in photographs and films.  We had one last stop, and that was to get ice cream at a local shop called Jack the Dipper! They do warm waffle cones there, and it was honestly the best waffle cone I’ve ever had, not even a close contest! I had blueberry cheesecake and chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream. It was divine and the staff was super friendly. After that, it was time to go back to bed. It was really awesome catching up with Chris. I really look forward to hanging out with her and Ron post my thru hike, especially so they can meet Gillian. And of course we all have to go to Jack the Dipper. That place is wickedly good.


I went to bed feeling grateful to have such nice and kind people in my life, grateful for everything Chris had done for me, and excited for breakfast in the morning! I am, after all, Hungry Cat.


Postscripts:


#1 wondering about the photo in this entry? Chris is holding coconut oil. She told me to use it on my face as a moisturizer, sunscreen and windscreen. I did today, and not only did it work great, but my face smelled like the beach! Also, the cuckoo clock behind us is one of Ron’s family heirlooms from the Black Forest region in Germany. It came over by boat, and then from the coast to the Midwest on a covered wagon. They had it restored and it still works!


#2 I’ve posted more photos. At some point I’ll figure out how to have more than one in my entries.

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