North Carolina / Tennessee on the Appalachian Trail
If Georgia had been a gentle introduction to the trail, North Carolina would quickly quash any thoughts that this was going to be an easy trip. Once the state line is crossed, one is confronted with a series of big, tough uphills. For the first time I was forced to pause midway during an ascent to rest. The shelter was full of undesirables and all the good camping taken so I tarped on some hard muddy ground. I awoke to find myself buried under seven inches of snow that had fallen in the night. It was pretty and I initially enjoyed hiking in it, though it was a little slippery underfoot. The big problem came from above though. Rhododendrons, laden with snow, were sagging under the weight and obstructing the trail for miles. I could find no way through that didn’t cause me to get snow dumped all over me. It was cold enough for me to be wearing all my clothes and by the time I made it to the shelter they were soaked through. It proved to be a cold night, but bearable. The people at the shelter were a vast improvement on the night before. They all expressed concern for me and kindly offered me fresh dry clothing. That’s not how I do things so declined and set about warming myself up as best I could. Next day I struck for the Rainbow Springs campground where I hoped to stay and get dry and warm again. In the way lay the challenging Albert Mountain – negotiating which gave a few ‘interesting’ moments in the snow. As I was finally arriving at the campground a pick up laden with hikers stopped and offered a ride into Franklin, where I shared a room at the Microtel with two guys from the previous night.
The next day was probably the most significant of the trip. I have no idea what would have been the outcome if I’d been back on trail a few hours later and never met Billy. He was filtering water at a road crossing when I first came across him. He seemed to know a lot about me which left me at a disadvantage, but I’m not easily thrown by such things. We’re both towards the eccentric end of the human scale - whether we recognised this trait in one another I don’t know, but hiking on together we struck up enough of a rapport that we were happy to form a loose alliance that would go on to become the successful partnership that endures to this day. From now on we hiked together, camped together and split motel rooms. Over the course of the next few weeks we would rationalise our equipment to a single stove and shelter and spend countless hours locked in conversation on how best to go about our business of hiking.
We stopped for lunch at the Nantahala Outdoor Centre where we loaded up with huge meals of burgers fries and brownie sundaes. This would be the first of many occasions when gluttony would overcome common-sense and we found ourselves forcing ourselves up the six-mile, 3000ft climb from the centre with overloaded bellies that screamed in protest at every step. Billy quickly proved himself to be a remarkable hiker, never showing any need to slow down or the slightest sign of fatigue as he raced up the hills.
The weather was getting warmer and the steep grades and constant climbing made for thirsty work. We made good progress though and a twenty mile day took us close to Fontana Dam. From a telephone provided, we were able to call for a shuttle and within minutes Southern gal Charity was there to pick us up and take us to Fontana. Fontana Dam is strange but rather likeable, kind of holiday resort. We booked into a twin room and explored the amenities that happily included a games room stocked with 1990s videogames.
For Northbounders, Fontana is the gateway to the Smokies. This was to be the start of both the first really spectacular scenery of the trail and the first tightening of camping regulations. We got magnificent views from a fire tower on our way to a shelter and camping area that was packed with people. The crowds in the shelters and the good weather encouraged us to do without cover altogether and sleep out under the stars for the first time on the trip. This proved to be a good habit to get into and we found ourselves doing the same whenever it seemed safe to do so.
Clingman’s dome, highest point on the trail didn’t turn out to be particularly memorable, but the scenery throughout the park was unremittingly stunning. We had good intentions to keep up a solid pace, but when we reached a road crossing and met a couple of former hikers just waiting to drive us into Gatlinburg, we couldn’t resist. We ate an enormous pizza lunch and very quickly lost all appetite for hiking. We waddled off to a motel to spend the night and digest. It remains one of my few regrets about the trip that we didn’t go to Dollywood, but it was a very pleasant stay nonetheless.
Hiking on through the Smokies we again found the shelters and camp areas to be packed. We couldn’t face fighting the crowds so hiked on a little and stealth camped amongst the undergrowth. The next day we were free of the park and its regulations. During the long descent out from the park, we detoured to Mountain Mommas Kuntry Kitchen for an excellent burger lunch. Immediately after we were faced with yet another 3000ft climb in the heat and again full of burgers. We never would learn our lesson. Part of the problem was that by now hunger was increasingly becoming a problem on the trail and we were just able to endlessly eat. We’d invariably find ourselves short on food during each leg and spend hours thinking of little else. When the chance to gorge came up we were powerless to resist – fine when we were staying in town overnight, not so great when we had to hike on.
Next day was Easter Sunday and Billy’s parents drove up to meet us at Max Patch Road to take us out for lunch in Hot Springs. It was a jolly affair and I’m grateful to Billy’s parents for making me feel so welcome. They dropped us back at the trail a day’s hike from where we’d just eaten. The following day we were back in town in rather less pleasant weather and got ourselves a room at the Bridge Street Café and planned our itinerary to Damascus. It was here that I finally got brave enough to take a knife to my sleeping bag and remove the zipper. Billy had taken his own risk the day before by sending the hiking poles he used to support his tarp home. Slowly, but steadily we were shedding excess equipment and gradually lightening our loads. Each change we made to our gear was the product of a huge investment in time and energy thinking about how it would impact upon us. Sometimes it seemed like the obvious right thing to be doing, sometimes we had reservations. Pretty much always though our changes turned out to be for the better and we didn’t give jettisoned kit a second thought once it was gone.
We were by now well established on the trail and getting our daily miles done was just part of our routine. Planning our mileage and resupply strategy was becoming easier too now that we had a good feel for our pace, how many hours we could hike, how much food we could carry, how often we’d want to collect water etc. Par for a full days hiking was twenty miles at this stage. The only spanners that were thrown into the works were caused by getting trapped in town or getting greedy in restaurants. This section always demands that you have to work hard for your miles though. There is plenty of climbing and enough of it is uncomfortably steep that I was never complacent. The scenery is magnificent though – the best you’ll get until up and beyond Vermont. Many hikers cling to the belief that once they’re into Virginia it’ll all flatten out and they can cruise all the way up to New England. This isn’t entirely the case, but it is probably true that this is the section that most Northbounders will find the most challenging. By the time the trail gets really hard going again in Vermont, they’ll be trail-hardened and take it in their stride.
We took another overnight stop in Erwin, TN. Most hikers stop in one of two rival hiker hostels in the area – the Nolichucky Centre or Miss Janet’s House. Hostels were always a shade too sociable for us, so we opted for the Super 8 motel instead. We had been hearing a lot from other hikers about some sort of ill-feeling between Miss Janet and the proprietor of the Nolichucky Centre. We have no direct knowledge of any of this and I get the impression that a lot of what we heard was idle gossip or hearsay. Our experience was limited to Miss Janet swinging by the Super 8 in a minivan full of hikers and giving us a lift back to the trail. She seemed a very nice lady and we heard nothing but praise from those who had availed themselves of her hospitality. Of all the many people who’ve tried to bestow trail names on us, she also came up with my favourite attempt yet for Billy with ‘Hotlanta’.
On a journey of this length, it’s hard to focus on finishing - rather you look to more immediate goals. For some time now we’d been looking to Damascus and the Virginia border as our next big target. We were now just days away and anticipation was building. In the meantime we had the very steep ascent up Roan Mountain to contend with – 2000ft in 2.5 miles. It would have been nice to stop at the shelter on the mountain – at 6275ft the highest on the trail - but it didn’t fit in with our itinerary. The surrounding scenery was yet another high point though and once the ascent was out of the way, the rest of the day was a real pleasure.
We made a detour to Elk Park for an indifferent lunch at the Times Square Restaurant and to pick up supplies at a grocery store. We almost came unstuck here as we had no cash and they didn’t take plastic. With no ATM in the area we were grateful when a friend of the owner volunteered to drive us the twelve mile round trip to the next town to get some readies. This would prove to be the first occasion when I would witness Billy’s astounding ability in the art of the faux pas. We were happily riding in the company of this local gentleman, making small talk, when Billy suddenly piped up from the back seat, ‘do the hicks live around here?’ I couldn’t quite believe my ears and neither I think could our driver. ‘Come again’ was his reply. ‘the hicks, are there a lot of them here?’ Billy volunteered by way of clarification. I had shrunk into my seat in horror and was wondering quite what had incited Billy to do his best to offend this fellow on whose kindness we were relying so heavily. All was quickly cleared up when Billy explained that he was inquiring about the Hicks family, whose name he’d seen on a local business sign some way back. He’d meant no offence, just failed to think through how his words would sound – empathy is perhaps not Billy’s strongest suit.
Unable to turn down the prospect of hot meals, the next day we made another lunch stop at the Laurel Fork Hostel and a day later scored a sweet hitch into Hampton in time for a second breakfast - our driver was a real nice lady in a huge and luxurious SUV. We seemed to be popular with lone female drivers at this time – our Elk Park hitch was courtesy of a blonde in a convertible Mustang, who had driven us to town as though she were entered in the Cannonball Run.
Our first attempt at eating in Hampton didn’t go so well. We found a nice little diner, went inside and asked for a table for two. The waitress looked us up and down disapprovingly and informed us that they weren’t serving that day. Perhaps it was true, but I rather got the impression that it was quite specifically us that they weren’t serving that day. Unwilling to dwell on the snub, we took our business next-door and enjoyed an excellent meal at a rival establishment. We idled away the remainder of the morning at the side of a picturesque lake. A group of hiker girls was doing likewise across the way. We failed to talk to them, but did enjoy watching them frolic about on a tyre swing until the sun went away and it seemed a better bet to be hiking again. This was to be the start of our final big push to Damascus. We hiked on into the night – encouraged on by some of the easiest going of the trip - racking up the miles at a good rate. The night hiking was made to feel quite dramatic by lightning storms off in the distance. Billy was trying to make the case for hiking all night until we reached Damascus. This seemed like an appealing plan, until tiredness and common sense prevailed and we opted to stop at 11.30 and to get up early the next day. This worked well and we raced the last leg to arrive in Damascus by 2pm. In all, we had hiked 42 miles in less than 24 hours. On old shoes this left our feet tender on the long descent into town, but it was a great feeling to finally be walking through the outskirts and on to a very well-deserved town stop.
Continue on the Appalachian Trail: Virginia (Southwest)