Getting out of Dodge

March 23, 2018

Destination: Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel Today's Miles: 26.90

Start Location: Hogback Ridge Shelter Trip Miles: 343.80


Descending towards the Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN
The morning cold cut deep when I got out of my sleeping bag at 6. It was still dark and I wanted nothing more than to wait for the sun to come up, but I needed to get moving.

Yesterday’s hiking through snow drifts had taught me a valuable lesson: it can always get harder; it can always get tougher. It’s not that I didn’t know this, but I can only anticipate so much based on the experience I have, which with snow is very little before this trip. I wanted an early start today to give me plenty of time to deal with obstacles. Overall, I hoped to hike a 20 mile day and get to the last shelter before Erwin. I knew that was lofty so I figured I would just see how things went. Everyone else was still asleep. I planned breakfast on the go, so I packed up my stuff, for my wet gear on for snow, brushed my teeth and left. I was on the trail somewhere just after 7 (I think).


My breakfast was a bar I picked up in Hot Springs at Bluff Mountain Outfitters. It was called a Big Sur bar and looked like a huge breakfast blondie with dates, nuts, etc. The guy at the store had recommended it. It was a balmy 22 degrees or so outside, so I had put it in my pocket when I was packing up to thaw it out. It was delicious! I could’ve eaten 10 of them....

I tried to move quickly to warm up. My hands were hurting from the cold, even with my gloves, so I alternated putting one in my pocket while using the other to hold both trekking poles but still to stabilize myself. There were still big drifts, so it was tough. It took longer than usual, but my hands finally got warm enough to stop the pocket game, so I could push myself through the snow better. After a bit I started a noticeable descent towards Sam’s Gap. I could see dirt again! This was much easier going. I crossed a road and walked under a highway underpass at the Gap. On the other side I noticed a “welcome to Tennessee” highway sign. After Sam’s Gap I started to climb again. 


As I kept going higher, in the distance I noticed this mountain with an incredibly snowy bald on the top. I thought to myself “that’s kind of cute - I bet it feels like Everest up there though.” Insert evil laugh here. I didn’t realize it then, but that is where I was headed. 


The ridiculous amount of food I had eaten the day before paid off in that I felt fairly strong. I took good solid strides and didn’t feel like my legs were made of lead. I climbed and climbed towards Bald Mountain Shelter, 10 miles from Hogback Ridge. I could feel the wind gusts pick up, and then there appeared a break in the tree line. Before me stood a white desert. It was snow, but it looked like sand. Little bits of grass showed through in some places. This was Big Bald.

The trail almost seemed to go up and disappear, an illusion created by the horizon line. I followed it up. I kept putting one foot in front of the other until I could see the rest of the climb I had up the bald. I don’t know why, but i turned around and almost fell over with awe and surprise. The views, unobstructed by any clouds or trees, were breathtaking! I climbed up to the top of the bald and the views were 360 degrees of beauty. It was spectacular! I took some photos, though they could never do it justice. it was hard to stay up on the bald as the wind was blowing fiercely and it was so cold. I took a little 360 degree video for Gillian and then skedaddled downhill. From Big Bald the trail dropped down to a smaller bald. Getting down this was challenging. In a few places the snow was waist deep! I tried to avoid the really deep drifts. 


After the balds I arrived at Bald Mountain Shelter. It was empty, but I decided to make some lunch there. Trying to be quick, I set some water to boil for ramen and ate a few snacks. I signed the shelter log. It was an interesting shelter. It was two stories and each hiker’s “slot” was already built into the wood. It’s the only one like that I have seen so far. While I was eating the Taylor Crew showed up. Man, those guys are beasts!! I was moving at a fast clip and they kept up pace. They told me they were hiking the 27 miles into Erwin. Their car was there and I think they were about ready to be done with their trip. They had plans to go into town and eat pizza. They had some leftover cliff bars and were super cool and gave me 4!! I was incredibly grateful as i needed calories to keep me going. I wish I had gotten a picture with those guys as I really enjoyed their company. I immediately ate two of the cliff bars, then downed my ramen. They left about 10 minutes before I did.


As I walked down the trail I saw a man with a dog headed my way. He was on skis! I’m sure he was doing a lot better than I was getting around. Shortly after him I ran into two guys with a dog. One of the guys said he had thru hiked the AT with his girlfriend and that dog a few years ago. I wish I had asked if the dog had a trail name.


I bumped into he Taylor Crew before the next big climb. We all headed up it and I had to strip layers at the top. After that it was all downhill until the snow was gone! I never thought I would be so happy to see mud. I was out of water so I stopped at a stream to I’ll up. I had been out for a while and was thirsty going up the last club, though quite happy not to be carrying water weight. I grabbed handfuls of snow and let them melt in my mouth as I climbed.


As the trail evened out the Taylor guys fell behind me. The climbs started again, and again there was some snow, albeit not much. I passed a water source, walked about another third of a mile, and I was at the target shelter. I had hiked 20 miles! No one was there, and the. I started thinking, what if I just get the heck out of dodge and push 7 more miles? That would take me into the gorge, away from snow, and I could find a place to camp along the beautiful Nolichucky river. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the plan. The weather was supposed to be wet tomorrow, so better to get the gorge views today. I took off! 


The hiking was not that difficult comparatively. I cruised in down and found myself at the river at just before 7pm. I had pictured things differently, however, thinking that I would find a stealth campsite. The trail emptied onto a road, and continued on a bridge. Below the riverbank was very rocky and trashy, more akin to an underpass than a camping place. I checked the other side and didn’t see any good options. There was a hostel right there called Uncle Johnny’s, so I reluctantly went in and inquired about a space. A bunk was 22 bucks, and since it was about to be dark I took it. They had some frozen pizzas, so I cooked two of Those in a toaster oven and also had a jumbo honeybun and a Reese’s cup. I know - super healthy. I washed it down with a V8 and a Yoo-hoo. Some guy then gave me another honey bun, which I also ate. 

A guy named Okie was in the hostel. I had seen his name on the shelter logs and recognized it from the journal of Vagabond Jack. I started reading Jack’s journal early on to get excited about my trip and got hooked into following his progress. I was hoping to meet him on the trail just north of Hot Springs, but he hurt his toe and had to come off for a few days, so I missed him. Oh well, maybe later our paths will cross. 


I took a shower at Johnny’s, which felt good. They had awesome WiFi there, so I was able to backup my photos to a google drive. This was the first really good WiFi I had gotten on the trail. In the morning I would grab some breakfast and hit the trail, but before doing so would call Harbour Mountain Inn to book a bunk for two nights ahead. 

I was too tired to journal. It had been a long day with many mikes and was time to go to sleep. I was grateful for my strength today, the bunk that would allow me a good sleep, and the warm fire inside of the bunkhouse to keep it cozy. It was a good day.


Postscripts: 


#1 - Hey Joe, I actually do thumb type my journals on my phone. It is tedious but worth it! I don’t really have a better way. Dictation is frustratingly inaccurate and not practical at shelters. I feel like all this phone typing should make me younger!


#2 - Joe, I use the old school paper AWOL trail guide. I like it. It comes in pdf form. There is also guthook, which is a good app guide. I just liked the old school approach, which is one reason why I am also journaling on this site versus a more technologically modern platform. One reason I chose the physical guide was to not have to use my phone battery to save it for photos, video, and journaling. However, Guthook is great for knowing how far water is and for being sure you’re at a particular location, which you’ll see was a problem for me later....


#3 - David, thanks for the tip on keeping boots from freezing. The real trade off is sleeping bag space I guess, and the fact that the boots won’t dry in the bag. If I can get a bag big enough though that I’m sure won’t leak in my down bag, I may try this. When it’s this cold, I would also have my filter and water in the bag - crowded house! I roll over a lot at night, so that can get interesting with a crowded toe box.


#4 - Phillip, I think about all sorts of stuff, but mostly repetitive stuff, sadly. I thought about fried chicken a lot one day. I often get songs stuck in my head. Lately Christmas carols have been haunting me. HAUNTING! How many hours can frosty the snowman stay in my head? A lot. It’s the snow driving that. But I often think about ideas I have, or family and friends. I wonder what Gillian is doing or what the cat Lucy is doing. Sometimes I’m like Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, picturing myself summiting Everest and bass jumping off of it, gliding back to Kathmandu. You know, the usual stuff.


#5 - Jason, I haven’t completely revolted anyone with my stench yet! That day will come though. I am preparing some notes on camp chores and town/hostel chores for a later date.


#6 - Shane, thanks! I will check that video out when I can.

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