After a long 9 days off the trail, my cut toe had finally closed enough to put pressure on, and the knee pain had mostly subsided. I took a short day out of the N.O.C, only making 6.7 miles, but gaining nearly 3000 vertical feet, to Sassafras Gap Shelter.
Regardless of the painful climb, it felt great to be back on my journey. It felt brand new again, and I was now introducing myself to a completely new group of hikers. One of the hikers I met that first night out was a guy named Yaeger. A soft spoken guy in his mid 30’s, originally from rural Northern Maine, but current resident of Snowmass Village, Colorado. We seemed to be very like minded and walked a similar pace; he reminds me a lot of my friends back home. Although I’m generally moving a bit faster than he, we have been hiking together ever since.When we got to Fontana Village, we were forced to take a short day because of aggressive bear activity at our first desired campsite. Apparently a mother bear had thrashed a few backpacks the previous two days. So, being in the mindset of self preservation, we walked an easy 7 miles from Cable Gap to the Fontana Hilton. We’d begin our foray into the Great Smoky Mountains the following day. Over the next few days in the Smokies, we would lay down some solid miles. The first night at Spence Field Shelter, we met a section hiker named Joe. Joe is a Charlotte native, and married to a previous thru-hiker named Hardcore. Hardcore did not come by her name lightly. She is widely known on the trail for using round stones to clean her bottom, after having relieved herself via the number two fashion. Hardcore indeed. After having come across a giant female turkey on the descent from Rocky Top, Joe quickly earned a trail name. Joe proceeded to chase said turkey, trying to catch it for dinner perhaps? After getting to know him and his affinity for whiskey…and chasing turkeys…he earned the name, Wild Turkey.
We had some pretty amazing trail magic at Newfound Gap from a former Thru Hiker named God Speed. God Speed fed us, drove us to the outfitter in Gatlinburg and to the grocery store. Most importantly, he shared his amazing story with us. He and his son started a thru hike in 2007. God Speed unfortunately got Giardia and was unable to recover, forcing them both off the trail. A week later, his son went for a routine eye exam and a stage 4 malignant brain tumor was found on his frontal lobe; inoperable. After two years of every medicine possible, his son was cancer free. A year later, they finished the trail together. Simply amazing, warming to my soul, and motivating. Never give up.
Wild Turkey decided to use some saved up hotel points to put us up at the Hampton Inn; which might was well have been Caesar’s Palace compared to some of the shit places I have stayed thus far.
From Gatlinburg, we decided to push to the end of the smokies; making 18.5 miles in 7 hours. Our destination for the night, Standing Bear Hostel. This hostel was probably unlike any other hostel on the trail. Think, nudist-farming commune…without the nudity or farming. It was delightfully dirty and rustic. There were about 18 of us staying at Standing Bear. One thru-hiker named LeLe was playing the ukulele and singing all night, while the rest of us tended fire, drank and sang along. Although we enjoyed ourselves, the emotional tension at the farm was palpable. Unfortunately, the proprietor passed away a week prior and a dog that was being kenneled got loose and was hit and killed on I40. The dog owner did not know until he finished his hike in the smokies. Tragic.
The last few days before we made it to Hot Springs were brilliant. Nicely graded trail and fairly cool temperatures made for some of the best hiking we have had. Max Patch bald was stunning. We sat at the top for a couple hours, laying in the grass, eating lunch and cat napping.
The walk in to Hot Springs was an easy one. The sounds of lawn mowers and cars filled the mountain. The mountain laurel in early bloom helped mask the stench of our 10 day, sweat drenched bodies. Real food, beer, showers and soft beds helped quicken our pace into one of the coolest little towns on the east coast.
Now, I await the arrival of Warpzilla and El Perro to take me to see my best friend Hazel Mae, and my parents. Destination “Trail Days” in Damascus. A couple days off, good friends, family and a massive hiker party all sound like a deserved treat.
Cheers for now,