March 26, 2018
Destination: US 19E Road Crossing / Mountain Harbour Inn Today's Miles: 12.90
Start Location: Carver’s Gap Trip Miles: 394.80
Last night was a bit of a low point. I felt like I had made a sketchy decision camping next to this parking lot.
The wind picked up and it got cold. I managed to sleep ok though, and woke up just before 7. I figured the parking lot toilet was there, so I went and used that. When I went to get my food bag down, the rope was frozen to the tree again, but this time a little tugging did the trick to bring it down. I learned from the last time and did not hang it with the PCT method. I was also happy that I slept ok and was not awakened with fits of indigestion from the mashed potatoes I had shoveled into my gullet last night, though I did spend half the night hoisting myself back up my air mattress like a beached whale - I tented on a ridiculous incline again because it was all I could find. I ducked back into my sleeping bag for a few minutes to get warm. The trail was an immediate climb up to the balds where it would be windy and cold. I was already cold....
I had a few issues in breaking down camp. First, I ripped two of the tent ties that hook onto my stakes trying to pull the tent stakes out of the frozen ground. Fortunately I figured out a much better and easier way to do this, using one stake as a lever to loosen the other. Second, my socks and boots were frozen solid. I took a picture of my socks and uploaded it because they were so rigid it was comical. They were like 4 day old roadkill carcasses that had baked in the sun and turned to rawhide. I made the call to wear the socks I normally just sleep in since I would be doing laundry at the hostel tonight. I still couldn’t get my feet in my boots though. I took them to the parking lot and stumbled around like a hobo in them with my other gear strewn apart. Some guys with photography equipment wee casting glances my way. I’m sure I looked quite mentally stable doing this dance, cursing at my shoes, snot freely flowing from my nose. There’s a guy you can trust! I took my boots into the small bathroom in the parking lot where it was at least a little warmer and jumped up and down on them in my crocs. I was then able to force my feet in, albeit uncomfortably. I walked back outside. The photo guys were gone. All of this took time, and I had a fair bit of hiking today. I wanted to check out a side trail to Grassy Bald, which would take me a mile off the AT. Note - the only miles I track and have tracked are the AT miles and the Approach Trail. I don’t track the other stuff, like side trails or walking to towns or hostels. I bet the average thru hiker walks at least an extra hundred miles or so factoring in these side journeys.
I got going. My feet started hurting, feeling like I was getting frostbite. OUCH! The first 20 minutes were so uncomfortable that I was sure I was going to end up like Finnigan with frostbite. But, then my feet warmed up and they started thawing the shoes and things felt a bit better. I was hungry. I had eaten two packs of oatmeal and one Justin’s peanut butter squeeze pack, and that was all my food for the day. I was empty until resupply. I was feeling pretty low as I climbed up yet more icy trail. It was either ice or mud, and both were slow going in different ways. Ice was just hard to try and find footing. Mud was like doing a weird forwards moon walk - my feet moved but slid back as I took a step, so it took one and a half to two steps just to move a normal distance.
I got up to Jane Bald and saw the photo guys. I went over to say hello to them and their cute dog Jade. I told them I was a thru hiker (partly to hopefully help put the morning scene into context) and we chatted briefly. They said they heard the weather was really rough this year. While I could not compare, I agreed it had been a challenge. In my head I was thinking and screaming “GO AWAY SNOW AND ICE. BEGONE!”
I headed up from Jane Bald. The wind was painfully cold on my hands, even with windstopper gloves. I alternated holding my trekking poles in one hand and using them like a flawed cane, and putting the other hand in my pocket to warm up. This helped, but was repeatedly foiled as I got to icy patches where I had to use both of my poles. I arrived at the sign for the Grassy Ridge Trail. This was one reason I tented at Carver’s Gap - to check out Grassy Bald. As cold as I was a struggling, it was only an extra mile round trip, so o headed up the ridge trail. I would come back when done and continue on the AT.
For some reason, I felt compelled to bring my pack with me. With no food and little water, it only weighed about 23lbs. As silly as it sounds, it was also a form of safety with so much ice on the trail. If my feet slipped out from under me, it might cushion a bad fall. As the trail got steeper and more icy, I had several close calls slipping and sliding, and started to regret my choice. But Hungry Cat is stubborn and curious and had to see the Grassy Bald! I dropped my pack off not too far from the top and carried on with only my poles. When I got to the top, there was a big plaque on a rock outcrop. The view was beautiful and I walked to the other end to have a look North. I was glad I went and the itch was scratched.
I hiked back to my pack and shed my fleece, knowing I would start moving faster so I could get to the hostel in time to do laundry and resupply. And EAT! I went back to the junction with the AT and steered north. The trail was icy and muddy, but I was on a mission from my stomach. I stopped at Stan Murray Shelter as I saw Nate, Pritch, and Starbucks there. They had all been at Cherry Gap Shelter with me. Pritch and Starbucks were trying to call Harbour Inn to make a reservation. Yes!! Chances of breakfast were looking good. Nate was still contemplating heading on versus staying st the hostel. I told them about how I had goofed and missed the shelter. They said it was a rough night up there and the shelter wasn’t in great shape anyway. I continued on, working my way through slippery snow, which then turned into ice chunks. It looked like someone had dumped a huge cooler of gas station ice all over the trail. It was really strange. It was also a pain to walk through. I felt a little like I was walking through one of those pens full of colored balls at A Chuck E. Cheese.
I passed by the sign for Overmountain Shelter. I did not go down as it is a bit of a walk and I have been there once before. The Big Yellow Mountain Trail hits the AT here. That passage was used by militia men during the Revolutionary War. The placard was scratched and hard to read, so I am not sure how long it is, but this is a googleable thing.
I carried on and started a steep climb, rewarded by views of the mountains looking back south. I could see Overmountain Shelter, a big red barn, juxtaposed against the white and grey backdrop of the mountains. It was stunning and I took a few pictures. I kept climbing the steep grade. This essentially began a series of long uphills and false summits for Hump Mountain. Every view just got better and better. This lifted my spirits a bit. Despite being hungry and tired, the skies were clear and I was being bombarded by raw beauty. It was incredible!
When I was at one of the first false summits, I saw a glowing orange jacket. Could it be? Yes it was! With a plastic bag flapping over his pack and him gripping onto two hiking sticks, there stood Tennessee (formerly Bugler), who I had met at the Fontana Hilton. We were both happy to see a friendly face. Both of us were wind torn and had runny noses. We both commented that it was a morale boost to see a familiar face. The wind was so strong that in some places walking up towards each mini summit I almost got blown over. We walked along together for a while and caught up a bit, chatting. I told him about Mountain Harbour, though he seemed like he might just stay on the trail. I finally split off so I could pick up my pace and made it to the real summit. The views were spectacular! Pictures will never do it justice.
On the back side of Hump Mountain the wind was just as intense as I was still out on the bald. I bounded down, anxious for some relief, and passed by a section hiker named Mike from New Jersey. His trail name is “iiuii,” pronounced ee-ooh-ee. He recognized me from my journal and introduced himself - so cool! He said he tries to do a section a year. He was hiking from Hot Springs to Damascus. I couldn’t help but think that he had drawn the short straw when it came to the weather we’d had.
I continued on and got off the bald. After another little climb, I reached an area called Doll Flats. It was pretty, green, and had some nice tenting sites. It also had a sign that said leaving North Carolina! I have had one foot in NC and one in TN for a while now, most notably in the Smokies, but this would be goodbye to North Carolina for good! It felt kind of surreal and sad in a way - another state down.
I powered on, determined to complete the descent down to the US 19E road crossing. When I got there, I texted Gillian. We had communicated earlier in the day and I am sure it was clear that I was not in a great mental place. I wanted to let her know I was almost at the hostel, which is 0.3 miles west of the trail / super convenient! I walked alongside the highway and it was like a horrifying wax museum of woodland creatures. Roadkill everywhere!! It reminded me of a trip Gillian and I took to Pompeii in Italy to see the ancient ruins, and molds of people instantly killed by Mt. Vesuvius. Rocky the raccoon was there, frozen in a state of leaping when he had an unfortunate meeting with an 18 wheeler. There was frank the fox - nothing left but his tail! There was also some kind of rodent thing, but it was so bloated and gross I didn’t get a good look. It may have been an opossum. It looked like he had been caught napping by a bulldozer. Needless to say, I had to watch where I walked, but every few steps introduced me to new and more horrifying tale of a creature’s rapid demise. Fun times. It was also startling how fast cars would whiz by me - I haven’t been around traffic for a while now, thankfully!
I walked up to Mountain Harbour and immediately saw a goat. This was auspicious - a harbinger of a tasty breakfast perhaps? I spotted some edible chickweed in their drive and snacked on a handful of trail salad as I walked towards their big barn with an “AT” on it. A hiker worker (work for stay) named Mule (Aaron) greeted me. I went into the general store and he told me the pertinent things. I paid for my bunk and got some snacks - a Yoo-hoo, Reese’s cups, a jumbo honeybun, and an apple. The big red main house was across a fast moving creek and up the hill. It looked gorgeous! Mule showed me the bunkhouse. I was in love! It was very uniquely laid out, super clean and organized - my spirits were quickly lifting. Far Far, a hiker that I met yesterday at Carver’s Gap, and Derwood were here! They had stayed last night and then slack packed today and were staying tonight. They told me the breakfast was awesome. I was giddy inside just thinking about it. I slammed down my snacks and Yoo-hoo and made a quick resupply list. The general store was closed, but Mule had said to go find him at the main house, so I got my wet boots off, set them in front of a fan (good hiker hostels have fans for boots!!), and headed to the main house in my sporty green crocs. I walked in and the house smelled delightful, like a Southern Living cookbook come to life in scents. I met Shannon - she and her husband David are the proprietors. She was super sweet and offered me raspberry strudel leftover from breakfast, and some cookies and coffee. It was all fantastic, but the strudel sent my eyeballs back into the recesses of my skull. In my opinion, it wasn’t just good - it was award winning quality, and I’m not exaggerating because I was really hungry. It really was divine and had just the right blend of sweetness - not over the top. Shannon gave me 3 huge pieces. At that moment, I just wanted to live there forever. I would call Gillian, have her pack her things and grab Lucy the cat and come. We would all live out our days together here, eating raspberry strudel to our hearts’ content. Ahhhhhhh.... I told Shannon about Beaker’s recommendation and she remembered that he had thru hiked last year. She whipped out her 2017 thru hiker yearbook and pulled up his picture. I took in the details of their house as well. Shannon is from Texas, and David was in the Marine Corp. Their house was decorated quite lovely! There were 3 dogs (one was the neighbors) and a cat was sleeping on her desk by her computer. I had seen two other cats at the barn. They sold frozen pizza and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream pints, so I picked out an ice cream flavor for later - Jimmy Fallon inspired “The Tonight Dough.” This was just getting better and better.
I went back to the general store with Mule and took care of my resupply. As I did, in walked Pritch and Starbucks. Breakfast was definitely happening! I went back inside and got my laundry together. I put my puffy on and used a towel around my waist so I could wash everything. The laundry room was awesome and clean. I put a load in and went upstairs to shower. It felt so good to get warm and clean! There was a scale in the bathroom. I weighed in at 143, down 12lbs from when I started. They had a rack of bath products, and in that rack I saw some aloe, so I put some on my windburned face. They also had Axe body spray. The temptation was too great! So what if I smelled like a fresh 22 year old looking to hit da club? I decided to doll myself up, so I sprayed my pits with Axe and grinned, satisfied, into the mirror. They also had a little thing of Tresseme mousse. Why not!? I rubbed some of that into my hair and I was ready to go, shiny and new! It was a hiker makeover. I was about to hit the catwalk when who came in the door but Tennessee! He had a change of heart and I guess I sold him on it a bit. He was just going to stop by to resupply, but decided he would stay and have breakfast. This was going to be a fun stay! I went down to grab my laundry from the dryer and Nate was there. The whole crew had showed up! We all chatted upstairs as we tended to our various chores. Once I got dressed and put away some laundry, I tended to a few nicks on y fingers and went back to the main house to get my pizza and ice cream. Mule had forgotten to charge me for it, so Shannon went with me down to the general store and rang me up. I went around back by the laundry to the drink machine and got a root beer. I was really excited they had root beer! When I went inside Shannon was chatting with everyone in the common space. Alaska The Last Frontier was on the television. Too funny.
I went downstairs to cook my pizza in the pizza oven. Two cats were down there, one of which cried until I petted her. I ate my ice cream while the pizza baked, and then when it was done took it all upstairs to eat. It was divine! I gave Tennessee a piece as he looked hungry and I was getting full. After dinner, we took care of organizing our packs and other chores. I had hung my sleeping bag to dry a bit. The top part by my head often gets damp when I sleep buried in it, just from my breathing. I had also dried my tent out. I packed all of that away, and then grabbed some split firewood from outside for the wood burning heater in the bunkhouse. It was time for bed!
Yesterday and today were challenges, but as a friend wisely said to me, “this too shall pass.” Sadly and happily, all of life is ephemeral - the good, the tough, the easy, the hard all come and go. Just as these tough days will pass, so too will the good days, and my time in the trail.
Today I was grateful for the support of my wife when I was feeling frustrated and beaten down. I was grateful for the incredible views and for running into Tennessee and others from the day before. I was super thankful to have come to such a lovely place to stay and fill my belly. Filled with gratitude, I will now dream of filling my face at this famous breakfast that awaits me in the morning!