Hot Springs to
Beginning on Saturday 17 May, 2003, I hiked my first section of the Appalachian Trail. After driving to Erwin TN, the night before, I bought a shuttle from Tim McCormick who works as a guide at USA Raft on the Nolichucky River. He picked me up in Erwin and delivered me in front of the outfitter in Hot Springs, NC. After a short time looking around in the outfitter, I began my walk over the French Broad River, north, out of town. While crossing the bridge, I looked up and to the right seeing the Lovers Leap cliffs and overlook.
The white markings of the trail showed me that the trail descended rock steps just at the far end of the bridge, passing in front of the NOC raft/kayaking center on the river and then along the river to just past a massive rock dam which crosses the river just upstream of the bridge. This rapid is clearly visible in the photo below, taken from one of the overlooks at Lover's Leap above the town of Hot Springs.
The trail up the cliffs is rugged, but quite passable with good footing. It was a great introduction to the AT! Once on top, the trail meanders along a ridgeline with several nice camping spots on flat ground. Since I was planning to camp with a hammock, I was also spying out how frequently trees could be found with the right spacing for my home-made hammock.
It was immediately obvious that this was going to be a great week for flowers. Mountain Laurel was blooming everywhere. The standard pinks and whites were abundant. Later in the week I also saw several plants with flowers nearer to orange, which I had never seen before.
After 3 hours of walking through the woods (5.8 miles), I came upon a pond formed by a concrete dam. It was time for lunch and time to cool off. I was quite warm, and although the air temperature was only 68 degrees, (and the water was more like 60 degrees) I took a brief cooling dip in this little lake. It would be the only time in the next 5 days I would see a lake big enough to get under water.
Just above this pond, the path leading to the fields of Mill Ridge was bordered with foot high orchard grass. I saw a black snake head poking into the dirt of the pathway. It seemed dazed by the warm sunlight and when I gently pushed the head back into the grass and then uncovered the grass from on top of the snake, it began shaking its tail, making a sound that led me to believe the snake might be a timber rattler. I told several people headed the opposite direction of the snake, and it was not until several days later that a hiker told me that black snakes often shake their tails near a blade of grass, making like they might be a rattler... In retrospect, I believe that is exactly what this snake was doing.
On Mill Ridge, the trail follows a gravel Forest Service road for perhaps a hundred yards. Unfortunately, I followed the service road for several hundred yards down a hill before I realized that I had left the trail. This was my only experience loosing the trail during the hike. Perhaps it got me to looking a little more carefully. After walking back up the road, I found the trail on the uphill side of the service road. It passed through several old homesteads with rotting metal hardware for a hundred yards and then followed an old road that lead down to Tannard Gap. After crossing US 25/70 on a modern bridge, and entering the woods again, I came across my first piece of "Trail Magic." An unknown stranger had left two coolers of sugar soft drinks next to the path for the taking. I enjoyed the Pepsi, and left the can in the provided trash can. Stranger, whoever you were, THANKS!
Just past this treat, I began looking for a letterbox left at Tannard Gap by Amanda from Seattle. The clues were nice and I found the Magic Rabbit right where it should be. Ryan (Turtle) had been by 10 days before. He was the first one to the box and he said it was the first box he had found on the AT. I was the second to check in. (It was also my first AT letterbox.)
A little more than an hour later, I came to the cut off for the Rich Mountain fire tower. The photo below is looking north from the tower, in the direction I was headed. I sat for a few minutes and wrote my impressions thus far. I really should have gotten a picture of the tower itself, as it was the only fire tower I saw during the hike. I did find a USGS marker at the tower and will register the find later.
The trail itself, is absolutely beautiful. Often running through mature forest, or second growth forest, it runs along the flanks of hills, well engineered and nicely maintained. Others have said that the AT is loved to death. I found it not to be crowded at all. On this Saturday, I ran into more hikers than any other day, and in 12 hours of hiking I saw 8 people, all day hikers. The trail bed was well maintained, almost all deadfalls had been cleared, and erosion was very limited. Compared with the trails in the Greene County parks, the trail was in superior shape.
By about 1600, I reached the Spring Mountain Shelter, a small shelter in a small gap. A spring was a hundred yards down the ravine, and I set about cooking my supper. In the picture, you can see my little Flyfisher Kettle smoking away, boiling a little water for some mashed potatoes and some beef jerky.
Shortly after taking the picture, two trail runners came up the trail, in the middle of a planned 44 mile run that day. They had nothing other than a couple water bottles apiece. Then a few minutes later, three hikers came up and started putting their packs all over the picnic table. I learned quickly how easy it is to get confused where all your gear is.... Needless to say, I took some extra care making sure I had everything before I took off for my after supper hike to a camping spot.
I walked for another 3-4 hours, putting in 12 hours of hiking for the day and 18 miles, stopping a couple miles prior to the Little Laurel Shelter. As darkness was approaching, I found my self on a broad ridge line, with much flat space to the left of the trail. I walked about 50 yards to this side, on the far side of a fallen tree, and put up my hammock and tarp in a stealth camp. It began to rain about the time the tarp went up, and got dark quickly. I got into the hammock and under my quilt. It was a noisy night, with the wind in the top of the trees and dripping on the tarp all night. I was at about 3500 hundred feet of altitude. I wondered if the wind would ever stop... and it did not... in fact, I had wind like this for several days.
The next morning, I packed up and was hiking by about 0645. I made Little Laurel Shelter by 0800 and set about cooking my oatmeal. The shelter had been used by a thru hiker (KOOP) and about 6 other weekend section hikers. Several tents were set up just past the shelter. I took off just after 0830 along the trail, in front of the pack. I became chilled hiking up a little ridge line in the wind and with the dew dropping off the leaves on my tee shirt and shorts. I put the umbrella up for the wind and the moisture and felt much better.
The weather continued fog, as we were in the clouds. Overlooks, like the White Rock Cliffs below, were socked in, but had a special beauty nonetheless. The white void was empty of sound, and the laurel next to the cliffs was well watered in the morning dew.
Even the trail in the woods was socked in much of the time. There was a little more light occasionally, but the time was a noisy cacophony of water drops and wind whistling through the trees.
I ate lunch at Jerry Cabin Shelter with many of the same folks from breakfast, and dinner at Flint Mountain Shelter. Same crowd. Much of the walking during the day was on rough boulders. One particularly bad section before Jerry Cabin lasted several miles and was slippery. The footing was stones between the size of mailboxes and foot lockers. KOOP fell on these stones and it felt to him like he broke his patella. Also, gout began in one of his great toes... I hope he did well with a couple easy days.
I did run into another thru-hiker at Flint Mountain... Easy Street. Easy Street was putting in short days. Like KOOP he was older than me. He seemed to be having the time of his life.
I pressed on far too long this second day... 14 hours in all and 22 miles. The day was capped by a beautiful climb up out of Rector Laurel Rd to Sugar Loaf Gap... 1040 feet with many crossings of a beautiful stream. The photo I took of the waterfall there did not turn out due to lack of enough light. I continued climbing another 580 feet to Frozen Knob. By the time I reached this at 4580 feet, I was in the wind, in the cloud, and nearly in the dark. My knees were also hurting a lot.
I quickly set up camp in a windy camp area, in the blowing moisture, now collecting on the leaves and falling in the wind like rain. Second night with a roaring wind and cold moisture.
The next morning, my left knee was really acting up and I was finding it hard to step down... I hiked another couple miles to HogBack Shelter, where a camper named Chris was just leaving... the last to leave for the morning. I stopped to cook breakfast, and then moved on... Sam's Gap was not far away and I wanted lunch at the diner 2.9 miles down the hill from the road crossing!
On the way, a beautiful view of TN, from High Rock, (below) was seen. The fog had cleared and the day looked beautiful.
As I descended, step by painful step, to Sam's gap, the light beyond the green of the woods brightened and the path led closer and closer to the bright open of the gap. Construction traffic was clearly audible, as the government is busy building a new interstate highway through the gap.
After a little breakfast of 3 eggs, double hashed browns, sausage, and biscuit with gravy, I went back up to the gap with Chris. I saw from his pack, that he was carrying a Hennessy Hammock. He did not know much about it yet, though he had camped in it for about a week. We had a pleasant discussion during the climb out of the gap (300 feet) but when it became time to climb down a field, I was in too much pain and Chris went on ahead.
I later caught up with him, as he read a Bible along the trail on the way up to Big Bald mountain. The view from atop this bald was the best of the trip. It was even better, as I had just seen two deer at the edge of the bald as I was emerging from the trees.
Just as I was taking this picture I saw Chris coming out of the trees below, and I waited for him to take a hero picture of me, looking north at the rest of the Big Bald complex across a little valley. If you look closely next to my left hand in the photo below, you can just make out the AT on the next hill a half mile away. This spot is 5516 feet above sea level. From here one can see south as far as Mt. LeConte in the Smokies and also Mt. Mitchell, the highest mountain in the southeast, not far away.
Just a half mile past that next hump, was the Bald Mountain Shelter, the highest of the shelters I stayed at, at 5100 feet.
Hobbling down the hill in back of me, I began to realize that my knees were really going to cause a lot of trouble. In the picture, I am wearing a black elastic bandage on my right knee. It did not help much... if anything, it seemed to make things a bit worse. After getting down to the bottom, I had the luxury of climbing up along the trail you see in the background. After that, it was down about 500 feet on the other side to the Bald Mountain shelter. I became convinced that I had passed the sign and hiked back up about 200 paces in the woods (0.2 miles) before I realized I had not missed the trail and then turned back down for those painful 400 steps again. After another couple hundred paces, I finally got to the shelter turn off. It was a painful day.
At this shelter, I spent the remainder of the afternoon with Chris, and two other thru hikers: FujiBoots and Patience. FugiBoots and Chris started discussing Bible schools... A short time later, Patience, a practicing Jew from Israel came by. Her hair was extremely short and she was making very long mileage. That day she had come 25 miles, despite falling on the rocks on Big Butt mountain. She had done her mandatory military service in Israel as a medic, so it was not too hard to get her to try some vitamin I for her knee.
Just at dark, the woods at the shelter became foggy and wind started blowing into the camp. The rest of the night was spent in the windy clouds with the equivalent of rain continuously. I became quite cold and had to get up and put on my full rain suit for extra warmth. The only thing I did not have on was my long john bottoms and my baklava. If I hadn't started shivering madly when I got up the first time, I might have put them on too!
The next morning, all was dewy. Clouds still filled the woods. It was eerie and a picture of the morning trail still reminds me of the time. Every step still hurt. It hurt really bad. Bad enough that I was rehearsing what I should do to get back to my car without hiking there.
I knew that a road crossing was coming up. Spivey Gap. It was on a main road that led right back to Erwin TN. Shouldn't be too hard to get a hitch into town hobbling along the road, I figured. I had given up. I had lost the battle.
Just to make sure that family knew what I was doing, I called home from my cell phone. I had a great connection from the top of one of the Bald mountains. Diane was home. I told her that I thought with the bony pain in my knee, it was time to throw in the towel and give up.... Silence....
Then she said that I probably wanted to keep going, that she would pray for me, and that I likely could continue slowly on to my goal.
She wanted me to continue. I asked if she would pray right away. She said yes.
I kept walking. I knew it was a descent of 800 feet from High Rocks to Spivy gap and that every step would hurt. I started singing the little Gospel ditty I had been singing to myself for several days: "Jesus is the Rock, and He rolls my sins away." I started skipping a little with my hiking sticks going down.... Hmmm... it feels a lot better taking little half steps instead of big down steps... so good that I can actually make much better time shuffling double time down the trail, almost like a little soft shoe dance.
Well dummy, she did say that she would pray, Right!? And I suddenly discovered a way to walk with much less pain and better time... I give every ounce of this cure to God and credit Diane's Prayer with my finding of it. I became positively elated that I could actually walk! Downhill even!
After all that emotion, the view from High Rocks was spectacular! I later found out that there was a letterbox hidden near where I took this picture. Next time I will find it!!!
Continuing on down the hill from High Rocks, I came across an AT marking on a large rock. This seemed a great little spot for a rest. It was near a barb wire fence that seemed to divide TN from NC. Maybe years ago two farmers had owned the two tracts of land and didn't want their cattle in the other's part of the woods.
A little further down the trail, many of the pine trees had been killed by the blight. There was a curious bracket fungus with bright colors growing on many of the trunks. I had not seen this species of fungus previously.
And so I finally got down to Spivey Gap. Without a thought, I just began climbing the other side, back up into the mountains. No hitchhiking for me!
There was a beautiful little stream on the ascent. At one of the lowest crossings of the stream by the trail, I found a little pool, 4-6 inches deep. It was hot (65 degrees, but I was drenched in sweat) and the water was cold, but it made a wonderful bath! I was even able to wash out my nylon shorts and coolmax top.
After reaching the top of the first hill, the afternoon was spent hiking many level miles to to "No Business Knob" shelter. There I met section hikers NoDrip and PlanB, and thru hiker Paunch. It was a nice late afternoon to let some of the equipment dry out from the wet night on Bald Mountain and to just talk.
In the middle of the night, rain started... gentle stuff... nothing very cold or windy. The rain continued during the morning hike to Erwin. I wore SealSkinz socks which treated my feet very well in the rain. The umbrella was very nice in the rain and kept me warm and dry during the trek.
I continued to be amazed by the beauty of the mountain laurel.
As I approached Erwin, I could hear the coal train going through the gorge. A little later, off a vantage point nearly straight above the river, I could see the railroad bridge and the river through the mist. In the following photo you can just see those landmarks.
And that was just about it for that section hike. I walked to get my car at the Nolichucky Campground, paid for the parking, and drove into Erwin. I stopped for a couple minutes at Miss Janet's home... It was not exactly the scene a middle aged hiker like myself was looking for... I ate at the Erwin Burrito, and decided that with my knee pain I was not going to pay for another shuttle some 40 miles away and then hike back... it was time to do a little healing.
I got in the car, drove for 7.5 hours and arrived home shortly after supper. I had a shower, as shave, and hugged the woman who prayed for me and helped me complete the 67 miles I had originally set out to do.
Next section???? Maybe a part of Virginia in a few weeks? I hope so.
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