Since leaving Franklin…
Day 18: Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter, 11 miles.
Day 19: Wayah Bald Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter, 10.6 miles.
Day 20: Wesser Bald Shelter to Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), 5.9 miles.
Day 21: NOC to Sassafras Gap Shelter, 6.7 miles.
Day 22: Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter, 15.2 miles.
Day 23: Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam, 6.6 miles.
“So you’re Listener?”
“People have been telling me I need to talk with you.”
“Okay, about what?”
“I don’t know, man. Existence and stuff, I guess?”
In my last post I briefly mentioned the group I had met at breakfast. Those five people, Ace, Mac, Tank, J-Rex and Frankie, have become my hiker family for this section. I caught up with them the first day back on the trail, and we’ve been together since. We’re in the middle of the hiker bubble, so there are familiar faces at every shelter and road crossing, but it means the world to have a smaller group that feels like a real family. We’ve been planning our days together, sharing food and gear, learning from each other, and always looking out for each other.
The first morning after Franklin, I woke up to a perfect blanket of snow. It was beautiful, and hiking in it was an amazing new experience…at least for a couple hours. Then the wind picked up and more snow started falling. The temperature dropped way too fast, and it became more and more difficult to see the trail. I was shivering and not always certain I was headed in the right direction, so stumbling upon the shelter that marked the end of the day was a huge relief.
The others had started earlier that morning and were saving me a space…they got a few laughs out of watching this Florida boy marvel at all the snow and ice. We cooked early dinners and were bundled in our sleeping bags by 3:30, but we knew we shouldn’t fall asleep that early or it would be a very long night. So I suggested 20 Questions, and for the next two hours I laid next to my new friends, all of us bundled up tight and staring at the ceiling, listening to the wind and taking turns thinking up famous people or places for the others to guess. It was fun, miserable and cold, and I have no doubt that I will always remember that afternoon.
The next couple days warmed up a bit, but the snow stuck around and the wet weather was relentless. We took a short day and split a couple cabins at the NOC, which is a perfect riverside oasis in the middle of the mountains, then pushed through a few days of tough terrain to Fontana.
We’re staying in the Fontana Lodge tonight, then in the morning we’ll cross the giant dam separating us from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail goes right over the top of the dam…it’s quite a sight. If it’s not raining in the morning, I’ll be sure to grab some pictures.
The Smokies have been looming for a while now, and it’s thrilling to actually be here. The rain’s supposed to clear out by late morning, then the forecast for the next several days is absolutely perfect…we couldn’t have asked for better conditions for starting the next section.
I can feel my body getting stronger each day. I stiffen up and waddle around like an old man every night, but I’ve been amazed by how fresh everything feels once I start walking again. The uphills are getting easier, and the downhills don’t hurt nearly as much as they did the first few days. I’ve seen people I met at the very beginning, who I thought would be days ahead of me by now, so I’m pleased with my pace so far…after the Smokies I should be able to kick it up another notch.
Eventually I’ll reach that familiar point of thinking I might want to make my own pace, but for now I have no intention of leaving this group. They have varying paces, so I can push myself and try to keep up with the younger ones up front, or slow down and wait for Tank, who’s quite a bit older, to come lumbering up the hill behind me. Or I can stay in the middle and hike by myself for most of the day, which I tend to prefer.
Plus, it’s nice to have found a few folks who are fun and look for ways to enjoy this experience but manage to do it without joining the party culture that’s consumed a lot of the hikers around us. I’m impressed that people are dedicated enough to pack in all the beer and marijuana they want, and even more impressed that they’re able to get up the next morning and keep walking, but that’s not why I’m out here. Also, it’s fun to sit with Frankie and Tank and grumble about the kids these days.
So Smokies for about a week, and a much-anticipated stop in Hot Springs not long after that. It feels like a year ago that Caroline was dropping me off at Amicalola Falls, but at the same time I can’t believe I’m here already.
Thanks for reading…we’ll talk here again soon.