Since leaving the Blueberry Patch Hostel…
Day 13: Dicks Creek Gap to Muskrat Creek Shelter, crossing first state line (11.8 miles)
Day 14: Muskrat Creek Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter (4.9 miles)
Day 15: Standing Indian Shelter to Carter Gap Shelter (7.6 miles)
Day 16: Carter Gap Shelter to Winding Stair Gap (15.9 miles)
“Hey Listener, what do you want to do today?”
“I don’t know, I was thinking about going for a walk.”
“Ooh, yeah, walking sounds nice. Let’s do that.”
I’m not sure if it was the warm bed, breakfast feast, encouragement from friends, or all of the above, but circumstances improved 100 percent after the last post. Sugarfoot told me about the “three day rule,” which means when things get really bad, just stick with it for a few days and it’ll get better.
We hiked a long day after leaving the hostel, crossing our first state line in the afternoon. North Carolina immediately greeted us with what might have been the hardest series of climbs to that point, but it mellowed out after that and was absolutely perfect for a couple days: gentle terrain, pleasant weather, enjoyable company.
Thursday was the first time I felt a conflict between the “hike your own hike” mantra and sticking with people I like. I was feeling strong, and the terrain made me think a big mile day was doable, but the group was planning an easy 4.9-mile day and a relaxed afternoon at the shelter.
After way too much inner debate, I decided to take it easy and stick with them a little longer, and I’m glad I did. A couple folks at the rear of our group stumbled on a deer carcass, recently killed by coyotes. A hiker named MacGyver, a real-deal hunter with a Bear Grylls knife, happened to be passing at the perfect moment. He had the edible meat cut and cleaned within minutes, and they packed it up and carried it to the next shelter, where we had a fire going by 11 a.m. We built a rotisserie spit over the fire, and MacGyver took charge of the cooking. There was a bit of a traffic jam at that shelter, so we had about 20 people that night enjoying a venison feast. With a little cayenne pepper and soy sauce, it was a giant step up from Ramen and dehydrated meals. That night also featured the best star-gazing so far (not that I’ve been awake late enough to check the stars every night).
Word spread fast over the next couple days, and just about every hiker I ran into asked if I’d heard about the group that found and ate a deer. I have a feeling that story will follow me all the way up the trail, and it’s been fun saying I was part of it. MacGyver was definitely the hero of the moment, but I feel like my manliness points went up just by being there.
Friday was another relatively short day, 7.6 miles. Standing Indian Mountain was the highest elevation so far, but it was a gradual climb, gentle descent and perfect weather once it warmed up a bit. We were back to our smaller group at the shelter that night: The Rock, Anna, Flinch, Dan (best beard ever), Tatanka, Sits in Chair, Trudge, Ray Charles, and a couple late-comers I don’t really know.
Saturday was separation day for me. Franklin was getting close, and we were all planning to stop in town to re-supply and maybe wait out some bad weather. Most of the others were planning a 12-mile day before hiking a few miles in the rain this morning to get into town. But I decided that, for my morale’s sake, I needed to attempt my first 15-mile day before taking another day off.
So I hiked 15.9 miles to the road crossing near Franklin…a walk that included a near-vertical (as in put your poles away and climb with your hands) ascent up Albert Mountain, which has an awesome fire tower on the summit and marks 100 miles since Springer Mountain. The day also featured a nearby forest fire, with helicopters overhead much of the day and smoke so thick at parts that I had to hike with my shirt over my nose and mouth. That meant there was a weird haziness all day, and whenever the sun poked through for a few minutes it looked like dusk in the middle of the afternoon.
I ran into a few separate people out for day hikes as I neared the road, and after a little small talk they all immediately offered a ride into town. I am consistently amazed by the kindness and generosity of people living near the trail.
So I’m in Franklin now, a little sore, but feeling strong enough to think I’m about ready for yesterday’s distance to become a regular thing. Several people I’ve enjoyed being with have given up the hike, and at least one more is going home from here. It’s a little de-moralizing to see friends get so discouraged that they can’t go on, and I find myself wondering who might be next. But so far there’s been no shortage of amazing people out here, and I already started getting to know a new group at breakfast this morning. People talk about each other on the trail, telling stories and letting people know who they’ve enjoyed spending time with. There have been a few times already when, after introducing myself as Listener, people have smiled and said they’ve heard about me and were hoping to meet. That’s an amazing feeling.
I’m keeping an eye on the forecast, with snow probably on the way, but the plan at the moment is to start walking again in the morning. My spirits are high, and part of that is thanks to you all. The comments, messages and texts have meant the world to me. Thank you!