Days 31-35 Hot Springs to Erwin (Mile 342 since Springer Mountain)
Hot Springs was a gorgeous place to spend some time, though I am limiting my zero days as much as possible in order to spend some time with Diane. However, for my young amigos, zero days became double zero days and even triple zero days, as they found the existence of alcohol the very thing to temper the stresses of the Trail.
I headed out on the Monday morning, having twice sampled the delights of Elmer’s vegetarian cooking, at dinner the previous night and breakfast on this Monday morning, and I can highly recommend it. It really was difficult to leave and I turned and took this video as I started my first big climb of the day.
The hiking wasn’t too onerous until I got to Rich Mountain, at about 8 miles, when I really gasped my way up the side of the mountain. I decided to forgo the optional visit up to the fire tower, as it wasn’t on the AT and I don’t intend adding unnecessary mileage to an already full agenda. It wasn’t a clear day, so I rationalized missing out! A precipitous climb down only presaged another lung bursting climb to Spring Mountain Shelter and the exhausting end of an eleven mile day.
The next day was spent hiking in the clouds, with virtually no views to be seen. I had set out to do 15 miles, skipping one shelter for the more distant second one and including a climb that lasted about six and a bit miles and took me from about 2300 ft to Camp Creek Bald at over 4700 ft. This was unrelenting and I had something of a glum day, with nobody around me, nor anything to see. The clouds were all around and I couldn’t see more than about 200 feet in the distance. There was already intermittent rain and I was hopeful that my day was winding down when I encountered Big Firescald Knob (I’m really not making these names up).
With the cloud now closing in, the Trail now chose to let hikers scramble, hand over hand, over huge rocks, such that there were times when I literally had to jump, with my pack on my back, several feet from one rock to the next. To be frank, it was bloody terrifying and I probably took at least 45 minutes to negotiate this little tester. Funnily enough, there was what is referred to as a “blue blaze” alternative to allow hikers not to be exposed to the ridge in bad weather. I thought that cloud could hardly qualify as bad weather, so I set out on the ridge route. I hadn’t hiked more than 50 yards when the heavens opened and I had both the cloud, high winds and now rain to contend with. This was something of a low point in terms of my manliness factor!!
Fortunately, no harm was done and, with 15 miles under my belt, I made it to Jerry Cabin Shelter, at which point, I passed the 300 mile mark.
I had a conversation with my brother, Mike a few miles before this and he related the distance as equivalent to going on vacation as a child, with my brother Dave and my parents. We used to spend an entire day driving across, first, England and then Wales, on quiet roads, and I had hiked pretty much the same distance over mountains. I think we were both awed when we looked at it in that context.
Having lost most of my younger companions, temporarily, to the wonders of alcohol, I now found myself surrounded by a new group of youngsters, more commonly known as stoners. They used to call them potheads in my day, but I think you get my drift. Quite how these guys fit into what I used to call civilization, I really don’t know, but they fit into Trail life perfectly! They find various wild vegetables along the way, cook directly in the campfires, wallow in the filth of the AT and laugh constantly. While I’m aware that this laughter is partly the result of their smoking, I think it is more than that. To a man, they are polite, intelligent, happy and, to be honest, some of the most delightful people I’ve met here. I guess this is another example of something you find out here that you would rarely be exposed to at home; I’m truly blessed to have met them.
Coming out of Jerry Cabin Shelter, with another 15 miler in my sights, I quickly ran into another beautiful spot – a meadow over 4500 ft. These look so out of place, yet they are some of the most arresting sights on the Trail thus far. I had to use my ipad for this video, but it still looks gorgeous, as was the day.
It had been quite an easy decision to go for the 15 miles on this day, as the first shelter I came to was only at 6 miles and I really didn’t want to break my fairly “hot” streak of hiking, so I was happy to see some nice Trail Magic at Devil Fork Gap. A really nice guy was waiting for his wife, Jersey Girl, and regularly meets her with his RV and provides Trail Magic while waiting. We have been really lucky with this phenomenon of the AT and now, entirely unreasonably, seem a little disappointed when we arrive at a road crossing and nobody is there to greet us!
The video below was shot having left Jersey Girl’s husband and you’ll notice that I keep looking at the ground as I hike. This is pretty much a necessity, what with all the stones and tree roots about, so looking at the scenery is secondary to safety, with one false step peremptorily ending hikes for some.
Unfortunately, this calorific intake only lasted for about a couple of miles, and I was soon puffing and panting with another slow chug up Frozen Knob, eventually reaching Hogback Ridge Shelter at about 5pm. Unfortunately, there were virtually no level areas to camp, so I spent my night sliding about in my tent once more as gravity redistributed me and my backpack into the bottom corner of the tent.
I am quite an early riser at camp, often out of bed before others. However, I am dreadfully slow getting everything packed up, coffee made and oatmeal eaten, then everything cleaned and re packed. However, for once, today, this paid off. My usual dilly-dallying had me leaving the shelter slower than all but my stoner friends, but this proved to be the best time to leave as, only about 2.5 miles later, as I descended into Sams Gap, I met two smiling guys, Charlie and Bob, who were putting up a sign to tell hikers of Trail Magic at the gap. They directed me to their wife, Patricia, and I was their first visitor.
Now if there is one thing that most hikers relish, it is pizza. Not only did they have pizza, but it was still in the heating cover. To make it even more of a dream instance of this Trail wonder, they had local beers – on ice! So, there I was, with a couple of my stoner friends, eating hot pepperoni pizza and glugging back beer, in a chair on a gloriously sunny day. They even also had fresh fruit. Happy, happy days.
The day got even better as, apart from the horrendous climb to reach it, I summited the beautiful Big Bald. I showed a video in my last post of Max Patch, another huge expanse of meadow above the trees. This was yet another, with my favorite view thus far and the most glorious weather to see it in. I met up with several people at the top, including my roommate in Hot Springs, Longhorn, along with his companions, Hawkeye, who I’d met on day one at Springer Mountain, Bo and another guy I hadn’t met previously with the mysterious name of Science Tooth. These four had been hiking together and had such a relaxed air that we all just lay out in the grass and nodded off. It was glorious. In all, I spent about an hour and a half at this wonderful place, before settling for a ten mile day at Bald Mountain Shelter only a mile or so further on. Once more, the video doesn’t come close to doing this justice, but just imagine the warmth and the sky and you may get something of a flavor of the place.
It was a cold night in the shelter, not least because it was over 5,000 ft, but I knew that I wanted to try to get into Erwin today and that meant a 17 mile hike. As I’d slept in the shelter, at least I didn’t need to deal with my tent and I got on the Trail at 7.45am.
For some reason I can’t fully explain, I really motored today, spending some time hiking with a great young guy, Little Foot, who is only just turned 18, yet has a confidence far beyond his years. He and his friend, HatTrick, really kept up a strong pace and, for the first time, I was able to match them step for step. I still think that hiking at my own pace is preferable sometimes, but I was certainly helped today. I hope this is evidence that my hikers legs are kicking in, as I’ve put over 340 miles of effort into this and really need to knock out some 20 and 25 mile days in Virginia before slowing again in the north and the dreaded White Mountains.
Still heading north and still hoping to meet with Diane in the coming week.