Two miles in the next day I hit clingman’s dome, which had impressive views but was honestly not as big of a sight as what I’d expected from all the hype about it. Another mile or so and I got to mile marker 200! I met up with a hiker named 5-0 while taking a snack break and he mentioned hitching into Gatlinburg for a short resupply. Not needing to but wanting more snacks and a cheeseburger I hiked with him to the Tennessee north Carolina state line and proceeded to have possibly the fastest hitch in and our of Gatlinburg ever. We were almost immediately picked up from new found gap by a couple on vacation celebrating a birthday and after a burger, fries and a phone charge from the super awesome crew at five guys burgers, we hit Walgreen’s and hitched a ride back to the trail from a Canadian couple on a business trip slash vacation. Total time, under two hours. We rule. From there we hiked three more miles to ice water spring shelter and enjoyed the fruits of our labor, cheese and slim Jim’s wrapped in tortillas and peanuts stolen from five guys. Even though our Cajun French fries had gotten a little soggy, they were still good and we made a lot of friends that night passing them around. Jeff was already at the shelter and he announced that he was changing his trail name to Lost Boy since he’d taken a wrong turn at clingmans dome and walked over a mile the wrong way. Lost boy seemed to fit him more than majestic anyways. A weekend hiker asked us if we wanted to play a dice game, and since it was still early for bed we got half of the shelter in on a game called blisters. Apparently a former thru hiker had discovered multi colored dice in a hiker box and created a simple dice game about the Appalachian trail where you play to 2200 points. Different combinations of dice rolls lead to higher scores, no scores (or blisters) or game over (getting of trail). It was an awesome idea and by the end of the night the hiker who brought the game had also earned a new name, Blisters. I met a girl named dairy queen and a guy named Odysseus, both part of the bubble of hikers calling themselves the cuddle puddle. Odi was particularly cool because I’d been following him in the shelter logs. He had an ancient coin he’d do a crayon rubbing of after each of his entries in the logbook. Swiper eventually crept in just before bed and we all stayed up probably too late gossiping and sharing trail stories.
Up and attem! Today was a groggy sort of day, I left ice water springs shelter a little later than normal, almost none o clock, but soon regained my hiker flow. Our new hiking crew for the day consisted of lost boy, swiper, DQ and myself. First stop for the day, a small but sketchy cliff side trail that led to a rock formation known as Charlie’s bunion. The terrain was incredible. Somehow we’d traveled from the hundred acres first style woods filled with wildflowers and bear poop to a rocky Colorado gorge. The trees shifted to mostly pines and dry bushes and the earth turned red. Charles bunion is a round tumor like projection from the cliff side that reminded me of a round, american version if pride rock from Disney’s the lion king. The girls and I scrambled up it for a photo and DQ screamed ‘whoot spring break!!!’ And pretended to flash the wilderness. Somehow or minds collided with the same thought and (careful to not show the male in our party) all three of us flashed Charlie’s bunion and the countless trees and critters below. Perhaps not a moment I’d tell my future students about, and definitely not something that would up on hiker girls gone wild, but for a brief giggly moment these two girls and I, all former camp counselors who’s only just met doing the same crazy adventure, had a goofy bonding story to share between us. end We spent the rest of our day singing camp songs and ended at try corner knob shelter. It was here that we meet Spencer. Let’s talk about Spencer. Spencer was a ridge runner, aka a seasonal employee of the ATC who works with park services to maintain the trail and enforce park rules. The previous ones I’ve met were very laid back but Spencer was a little more serious about his job. He refused to shake hands with anyone and spread stories of noro virus. He wanted packs off of the shelters pack hanging racks because they were an eyesore. He said he’d be checking to make sure no one zeroed in the shelters (a rule he made up). He threatened to call law enforcement of anyone broke his rules. We aren’t the biggest fan of Spencer. Now also recall that the shelters in the smokies are reserved for day hikers. Long distance hikers can use them to however we fall to the bottom of the totem pole and, should the shelter fill up with reserved section hikers, they hikers are required to vacate and forfeit their sleeping space even if they’d been there all day. By the end of the night we had nearly thirty hikers wanting shelter from the doomsday worthy storm predicted for the night. Suddenly a an update came in, the weatherman was calling for tornado warnings in our area. Against Spencer’s complaints, twenty seven smelly hikers crammed into the 14 person shelter and twenty seven packs hung not only from designated pack hangers, but from rafters and support beams too. Spencer fled the noro virus breeding ground and wasn’t seen again. Poor guy, he was only trying to do his job and do it right. If you’ve ever seen the movie down periscope, Spencer can best be represented by rob Schneider’s character, an over eager newbie trying to start his career.
Today was the day id been looking forward to for the last week. If I could push my longest day yet, a 21 miler, I could be reunited with my dog. The week of had been nice, not having to carry food or worth about another living thing besides myself, but I was ready to reclaim my beagle. Swiper and I made an incredible five thousand foot drop exciting the great smokey mountain park and when we hit the first road I began to get a strange headache. Without warning, a river of blood began shooting out of my nose and pouring down my team reeve t shirt. I guess I’d somehow been affected by the sudden change in elevation because I hasn’t had a nosebleed in years. I made a gurgled nose that probably resembled a bit feeding is young and swiper turned around to see me clutching my face with blood running down my hands. She laughed for a solid minute, like all good friend do, before giving me her last two wet wipes. Funny story about wet wipes, they don’t absorb liquids. They are meant to wipe. I was out of toilet paper and had nothing else to stop the bleeding with so I continued down the trail with my nose up, and wet wipes in hand. At the gap we stood for twenty minutes not sure which direction the trail picked up on, and like normal the trail made the decision for us. The trail takes care of those who follow it, I believe it more and more each day. As I did on the side of the road looking like I’d just murdered a family and eaten them raw, an older gentleman in a tan Buick pulled up and have us a lift to standing bear hostel. I will never pick up a bloody faced, frizzy haired mountain child off the side of the road so I have to say this guy just bought his way into heaven and got good Samaritan of the year award. We unloaded at what remains still my favorite hostel on the trail, a small farm with an outside cooking area, showers, and laundry on a washboard just like grama used to do. Before I’d even gotten up to the house I heard a familiar bark, and scout tore towards me like a rocket. You know those emotional videos of army guys coming home abs seeing their dog after deployment? Scout made them look like simple hellos. He cried and screamed and rolled as if he were on extasy and got attention from everyone at the hostel. I expected him to have separation anxiety and Vietnam war flashbacks from his days in the pound but this little sucker has been living the high life. Not only had he gotten five days of from hiking, he’d slept in the bed with the hostel owner and his wife at night. Spoiled ass beagle….. Swiper and I stole bed sheets from the hostel and fashioned togas while we did our laundry, which priced to be harder than expected. It came out smelling like feet. We should have washed the socks separately….
I did it!!! I made it out of the vortex! Hot springs is the coolest trail town I’ve seen so far, naturally making it the most dangerous. I shudder to think about how much time I wasted in town getting caught up in my friends and real world things like showers and soda. I freaking love soda. Like, I drank it in the real world but not like this. When I get to towns that’s the only thing I want besides clean laundry…. An icy cold diet Dr Pepper or Pepsi or Coke or Cheerwine. Yea I said diet. I get weird looks from my fellow hikers for drinking diet but i only ever drank diet soda all through college so now I can’t stand the taste of regular sodas; they’re just way too syrupy. Mmmm soda.
Anyways, today sucked. Looking back it wasn’t all that bad but then again I’m currently fed and watered and laying in bed next to a snoring beagle so my judgments a little off. Today we did our longest day yet ( I shudder to think how long the days will end up if we continue at or current pace). Nineteen miles, mostly uphill. Funny how my long days always end up being the hard, uphill days. Knowing we’d be pushing our limits after a three day break, I took scout’s pack and l let him roll of leash for most of the day.
At mile marker ten we reached the next shelter where I met an older gentleman named naturally hob which he informed me stood for hiking or biking. He was a former thru hiker from twenty plus years ago who’d only just retired from a lifelong career running a summer camp. Hanging from his pack were two large turkey feathers and an eagle totem he’d whittled himself. I also meet two section hikers, Rasputin, who’d done 85% of the entire trail in pieces, and Ivan, a Russian man in the country for an engineering seminar who’d decided to hike rather than hit the main US tourist traps. I freaking love the AT. Is like taking the roster from a random airplane and throwing everyone together in a backpacking situation. Old, young, athletes and those wanting to lose weight, dropouts and doctors. Heinz 57.
We pushed another nine point something miles to the shelter that night, passing up an opportunity for a hostel that hob took full advantage of. I met up with solitude, the German hiker numb toes, and a new friend by the name of Yogi at the shelter and quickly ran for water down the blue blaze trail. Scout was to busy being solitude for some of the Pepperoni’s he was putting on his trail pizza to notice, but halfway thru the water collection process I heard his unmistakable aroooooorooooooo echo thru the mountainside. Translation: “Mom!?!? MOM!?!??!?!!!!!!!” I walked back up to the shelter to find my friends looking inquisitively at me as to why scout howled. They had never heard the mellow beagle make a sound before. He had apparently wondered off down the task in search of me and gotten scared. I whistled really loudly and sure enough a minute later the chiming of id tags and charging doggy feet erupted from the now darkness. The dumb dog hadn’t tracked my scent but had logically figured to continue down the Appalachian trail where I had yet to go. Some hunting dog I’ve got here… And people wonder why I always say that of he could talk, Scout would sound like he had a stuffy nose all that time.
My Florida crew never did catch up, I’d figure with brother nature’s ankle and the late start theyd never cover the same distance. Bedtime for the night was made complete by trail magic when solitude gave me a big slice of his trail pizza, which turned out to be the motivation I needed to crawl into bed with my shelter mates.
I slept in by choice today feeling guilty for being so behind in my writing and yet not getting very far with it. Yogi gave me some caffeine pills to get me started and whoosh…. Game changer. I packed up record speed and took off down the trail fueled by granola and caffeine, skipped a side trail to a fire tower (I’d seen enough and was trying to catch up with lost boy and the girls) and charged over one of the rockiest places I’ve seen on the trail so far. I met preacher taking a snack break and learned that somehow I’d passed ken without seeing him, and pushed on another few miles to the shelter. I covered seven miles in just over two hours and stopped for an early lunch at the shelter where i meet 3D, a hiker my age from up north who was taking the day of so he could night hike and escape the heat. Not a bad idea considering it was nearly 90 degrees. Solitude and the others caught up and we chatted during a quick lunch. I stupidly didn’t refill my water thinking I still had half a liter and trudged on.
That’s when things started to go downhill. About an hour of walking in the intense sun and even scout was struggling. I considered taking A nap to try to beat the heat. Scout tried digging in a dried up puddle for water and kept looking back and forth between me and the empty water bottle dangling from my pack. Poor thirsty beagle. Then the cramps started, followed by a migraine and instant nausea. I was that but knew this wasn’t from dehydration; even though I’d been sweating all day I’d had several litters of water already. I found a new water source thankfully that had been busy whacked and blazed but was to new to be in the guidebook and spent about an hour there filtering water and calming my nausea while scout happily drank his fill. Looking at the map I knew the terrain was mostly downhill and we only had six miles to the next shelter, two of which I’d already completed.
So we pressed on again and I noticed I was no longer sweating. I made it another two miles, stopping occasionally, before I had to find a seat. As if on cue (like most things on the trail, You get what you need when you need it most) a huge tree lay on the side of the trail being for a butt to sit on it. I almost made it ten seconds of peaceful sitting before violently hurling up my lunch and a good part of breakfast too. It came up so sudden that poor scout who’d been nervously watching me for the past hour barely had time to yelp and escape the splash zone. I’m not sure how much time passed sitting on the log puking up what felt like every liquid in my body, but eventually I summoned the guts to saddle back up and stagger, as if in a trance, to the shelter.
I was so angry when I arrived… There were the girls. Dairy Queen and sweeps, the girls I’d been chasing all day to catch back up with were packing up from their break and getting ready to head out and here I was unable to continue with them. The thought lasted maybe ten seconds before I dropped my backpack on the ground and collapsed into the icy cold creek next to them. I knew it was cold but barely felt it. I told the girls I was fine and that I’d catch up with them soon, rolled over and feel asleep in the creek in the middle of the trail. To anyone walking by I must have looked like a dead body, guarded by a beagle with the utmost look of concern.
I woke up not too much later, rolled over and found myself starting straight into the eyes of a very fat newt. Realizing where I was and how freaking cold I was, I scrambled out of the water and up to flint mountain shelter where my pack lay abandoned. No one else had passed through o it seemed but I knew preacher and men and possibly the Florida crew would be there in a few hours. Plus I was cold. I put on every layer I had and crawled into my sleeping bag in the 80 something degrees and passed out trying to keep water down unsuccessfully. Scout curled up next to me watching the shelter door and never budged.
Preacher and ken arrived at some point as well as numb toes, who held my braids back in between bouts of vomiting. They all conversed about getting me to the road now or if they should wait, but just as it began getting dark my heroes arrived. Whiskey and the rest of the Florida gang rolled in. Whiskey was a drug sales Rep in the real world and Blackbeard was an EMT, so between the two of them force feeding me electrolytes and monitoring my water intake, I was able to overcome the nausea and get some real sleep. I don’t think scout ever left my side, even when everyone cooked dinner even though he hasn’t eaten since lunch. What a good boy.
I woke up this morning feeling much better than what I had last night. I didn’t vomit once during the night but ironically Scout had. Could we had eaten something bad? The possibility rattled through my brain as the Florida gang rise and began to eat breakfast and pack up their tents. I drank more of the potent lemonade electrolyte mixture and we headed off not really sure where the day would lead us. A mile later we found out. The trail crossed a pretty busy back road and stuck in the ground right next to the trailhead on the other side was a sign advertising a new hiker hostel and restaurant. It didn’t take our group of now six hikers long to unanimously vote on walking downhill two miles to the hostel. Between injuries and mysterious sicknesses we all needed a burger. At the hostel we were greeted by Sasquatch and several others we’d meet along the way who were helping to build a horseshoe pit. As we entered the small general store we were greeted by a man who in a past life must have been a professional wrestler. That or the grounds keeper for Hogwarts. The man was very tall and pure muscle with hands as big as dinner plates. Strapped to his hip was a very visible pistol that only added to his intimidating appearance. Mark was his name, and he was the owner of the hostel. Despite first impressions, mark was a totally awesome guy who comes us up some of the best burgers we’d ever had. After lunch we played in the creek for a bit (okay I did laundry) and sprawled out in the shade of a big oak tree to discuss or plans. No one wanted to spend the money on another hostel stay just yet, so we had mark call his buddy to shuttle us into Erwin for the night where the plan was to sleep right at the trail head. A big blue ford pulled up minutes later and we hopped into the bed of the truck. Our shuttle driver was named Michael and in driving around with him I learned all about his farm and family. He was a good old country guy who’d worked his but off to put his kids ahead in life and was happy to just be working the farm that’d been his family’s land for generations. We pulled into Erwin and told Michael of our game plan and he looked back and forth at our group of dirty hikers and then at scout.
Next thing we knew we were back on the truck headed back towards the hostel to stay down the road at Michaels family farm for the night. He drove off road through his fields to show us possible camping sites. I was having a blast as we bounced around in the field but the Florida crew had different thoughts I’d later learned. “Why did he go off road?!?! We could have died in the back of that truck!!”. I couldn’t help but laugh at them, they were legitimately afraid for a bit having been raised in the fast paced city life. Once we set up camp Michael offered someone a motorcycle ride since he had to go to the store anyways. Not surprisingly the Florida crew was hesitant but I sprang up, tossed scouts leash to whiskey and hopped on. Motorcycles are awesome and so much another than horses. We hit 85mph at one point and i was torn between thinking about how strange this day had turned out to be and how I could never tell mom I jumped on a motocross with a stranger and flew down back roads with a busted spine. I was wearing a helmet though! Back at the farm we got showers and Michael built a strange looking fire for us, however the thing burned until morning light and we never once had to touch the thing or add more wood.
Time to try this getting into town thing again. We woke up and packed our gear and loaded into Michaels truck. He drove us back into Erwin tn and dropped us off in front of a dollar general and pizza place. I still wasnt totally ready for a big meal but the pizza buffet was six bucks a person so I forced down some calories (that’s the most positive way I can describe it, how do you mess up pizza?) And slipped a plate to about who was tied outside. While the others settled their bills I walked into dollar general to resupply and to grab something for nausea. I got ahold of Pepito bismal and motion sickness pills unsure of which one would help me the most but couldn’t look at the food aisle without getting the urge to vomit. I’d save resupply for later. The group reconvened in the pizza plus parking lot and decided to fork out ten bucks for a hostel stay rather than five a piece to the trail head from town from the shuttle driver. Minutes later our shuttle arrived driven by a man named Sarge. He informed us that there was a shuttle running to a Mexican restaurant, the liquor store, and Walmart that was free to hostel residents. We set up tents in the yard, got laundry started and towels for showers and boarded the van for Mexican food. The hostel was the right choice, Amy, swiper and honey badger, raven, puzzle, train, war chief, cotton and more friends were all staying there too. This of course made for an excellent time at Mexican, full of margaritas and catching up with long lost trail mates.