HOT SPRINGS, N.C. — We took another zero in Hot Springs and, as it turned out, Asheville, N.C. Mark it as hospital visit No. 2.
It was Sam’s feet again, this time a new problem in her new shoes. The problem area was slightly behind the tops of her toes. She’d complained of a burning feeling that wasn’t bothering her too much — until the morning after our zero day in Hot Springs. We hardly did any walking that day, but by that night there were two puffy white dots amid a reddened section behind her big toe on one foot. She showed it to some folks stay at the hostel who figured she might have a stress fracture.
So with stress in her mind and her feet, she went to bed that night figuring another hospital visit in the morning. And when she woke up, it wasn’t any better. She couldn’t put her shoes on, so she walked barefoot into the car of a nice former thru-hiker who was going into Asheville anyway and offered to give us a ride to an orthopedic sports doctor.
In Asheville, a real city about 35 miles from Hot Springs, the doctor took her in, took an X-ray and determined there was nothing wrong with the bones. It was something to do with then tendon or ligament, and she gave Sam a boatload of patch and pill steroids to take and didn’t even try to recommend she stop hiking.
One of the managers of the Laughing Heart Hostel in Hot Springs was to be in Asheville anyway a few hours after the appointment, so we went to REI, where I picked up a new shirt and Sam bought yet another pair of shoes, and then a local tavern before heading back. That night we bought some beers and hung out watching movies with G, Kristo, Trip and Cactus and had a good time.
After enjoying another heaping breakfast at Hot Springs’ Smoky Mountain Tavern and resupplying, we hit the trail again and left the town behind in the afternoon. We went a pretty uneventful 11 or so miles up a steep hill on an exceedingly hot day to the first shelter and set up our tents. G turned up later on and made a good attempt at breaking the record for the most pasta cooked at one time in a Jetboil over a fire he built at the shelter. While practically an entire box of angel hair pasta cooked in his pot, he sauteed some diced onions in olive oil and added them in with some tomato sauce he was heating up (it’d been packed in double Ziplock bags among his foodstuffs).
I told you these veteran thru-hikers eat well.
Day 23 and 24
We woke up to a phenomenally loud thunderstorm that didn’t seem that close by but made more racket than I’ve ever heard. It was around 6:30 a.m. when it started, with a drawn-out roaring boom that made me think a jumbo jet had crashed nearby. When lightning struck it was like a flashbang grenade went off in my tent, even though it was a handful of seconds before the corresponding thunder sounded.
We waited it out, packed up our stuff and left camp about 9:30 a.m. G, who was cowboy camping next to the fire, was rudely awoken by the storm and got an earlier start, since he was then forced to get moving.
We caught G eating and listening to music at the first shelter, then he moved on while we ate. We caught him again at the second shelter doing about the same, and we left together. Sam stopped to take a break and G and I hiked together to the third shelter, where we ate dinner and Sam turned up before long. Along the way, G told me all about a job he had working on a fishing boat in Alaska, where he stayed in a cabin on the beach alongside dozens of grizzly bears in an area where bald eagles were like pigeons. It sounded great and he said he’d made enough money that he’d been traveling since.
Sam and I left the third shelter, about 22 miles into our day, planning to go a mile or so further to a campsite. Still feeling good when we got there, we decided to press on a little further and camp once we got tired. We crossed a road after about another 8 miles and were paused in a field when we heard G let out another COO-wee from the woods across the street.
G had been talking about hiking as far as he possibly could — maybe through the night – to try to get to the next city, Erwin, Tenn., where his buddy Safari was ahead of him. When he came up on us, Sam offered him the 48-hour challenge, which was an idea we’d planned to execute much later on as training for the Death Race. The idea is pretty self-explanatory: attempt to hike for 48 hours straight as a simulation of the hell that was going to be unleashed on us at the end of June in Vermont when we tackle the Death Race.
To get to Erwin from the shelter we woke up at was 57 miles. That wasn’t actually going to take a full 48 hours, but it was still a hell of a day.
“If we did do it — I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone doing 57 miles,” said G, whose personal best on the Pacific Crest Trail was back-to-back 45-mile days.
Even after we convinced ourselves we were going to try it, most of the talk about the feat was phrased like that. “If we really do do this…”
We hiked literally straight through the night and even felt good for the majority of the time, until somewhere around mile 45. We’d gone up and over countless mountains at this point, but we knew after we crossed a deserted road and faced a sign that let us know it was 4.9 miles to the next shelter that the trail was about to go straight up.
I was leading the way this whole time. At first G was saying that he was glad I was leading because he would have been going faster and likely would have burned us out. But by this time, I was waiting at the tops of hills for Sam and G to catch up, while Sam was calling me the Energizer Bunny and wondering how I still had so much energy.
Facing the 4.9-mile sign (which actually meant we had about 13 miles left, since there was another 8 to go into town after the shelter), they both showed for the first time real thoughts of stopping. Someone asked whether we’d be able to keep going through to the shelter. It was just after 5 a.m. now and we were at the peak of our weariness.
I said we should at least go to the shelter, and once we got there we could sleep as long as we wanted — if we wanted — and then go the rest of the way when we woke up. And so we slowly pushed on.
As the sun came up and we were nearing the shelter, we were both energized by the light and the ability to turn off our headlamps and — at the same time — so, so tired. The last two miles, when we were walking along the edge of a few mountains and kept turning the corner to see a scene that looked almost exactly like that path we’d just trodden, seemed to take forever. At one point in my weary state, I swore I saw a cooler sitting on the trail and wondered what sort of deliciously cold beverages might be inside. Some caffeinated soda? Orange juice? Beer?!
It was a cooler-shaped rock.
Likewise, G swore he saw the shelter a half-dozen times before we actually got there. When we did arrive, we proudly scribbled something in the logbook that preserved our feat and then rested, ate and stretched our legs for about an hour. I was getting antsy, since we were so close to being done but were now sitting still, and soon we started off again.
At first, we were all taking tiny, aching steps and were surprised with each footfall at how the fatigue had overtaken us. “So this is what it feels like to be 80,” I said. After a while, we were back to almost our regular gait, although markedly slowed and pained. G spun ahead and was waiting for us at a hostel at the bottom of an enormous hill that led into the outskirts of Erwin. The descent offered a number of lookouts that made you feel like you could reach out and touch the town, but in reality it wound us slowly down the side of the mountain probably 100 different ways and took an hour to get to that spot that seemed so close.
The wind picked up in a threatening way maybe 30 minutes before we got to the bottom of the mountain, and the sky opened up about 5 minutes before we were finished.
People called the hostel Uncle Johnny’s, and a guy whom I’m guessing is Uncle Johnny came out to see us when we were all together again sitting on his porch. We asked him how much a shuttle into town, about 3 miles way would cost. He paused and gazed out into the rainy street then slowly answered that it would be $15 for the three of us. We politely said fuck no and ended up walking not 100 feet before a trail angel named Rob Bird picked us up in his van, gave us all sodas, advised strongly against walking 57 miles a day and gave us a free ride to the Huddle House, where I ordered a hearty breakfast and a brownie sundae a la mode.
Later that day, we did laundry and eventually walked 1.5 miles to a Mexican restaurant to meet up with Mariposa, Scorch, Dune and others who couldn’t understand how we’d caught up to them after spending 72 hours in Hot Springs.
I woke up the next morning at the extremely unfriendly Super 8 feeling surprisingly good and hit the trail that afternoon after resupplying. Sam said she was going to wait for Cactus and follow behind the next day.
I walked nearly halfway back to the trail before I got a hitchhike and only ended up doing about 14 miles before I camped solo in a beautiful pine grove on top of Unaka Mountain that night.
From Unaka Mountain I went 21 miles to the highest shelter on the Appalachian Trail, Roan High Knob Shelter, at 6,275 feet. I stopped to eat breakfast and clean out my stove at a water source at the first shelter I passed that day, Cherry Gap Shelter — apparently a family’s worth of Velveeta is just too much pasta for me to cook in my little stove. Some burned to the bottom and I spent some time scouring and scraping to get it all out. But the birds seemed to like it anyway.
I heated up some water in hot coals that were left at the firepit and made coffee, and before long Mariposa, Scorch and Dune came along with surprised looks on their faces that asked, “How did you get in front of us again?” They camped somewhere just before me the night before, and I have no idea how I didn’t come across them, since I checked out every campsite looking for something suitable in the few miles before I stopped.
They were also planning on going to the Roan Mountain shelter and arrived there a few hours after I did, when everybody on the first floor of the fully-enclosed cabin shelter was going to sleep. I met Hawk and Canadia there and cooked some instant potatoes, covered in olive oil, to warm myself up after a chilly climb. I kept thinking in my T-shirt and shorts that the shelter must be right around the corner and was trying to hold off changing into my warm clothes until I got there, but I eventually broke down and changed along the way.
It did indeed storm overnight, and the trail going down from the shelter was nothing short of a river. I hopped from rock to rock for maybe 15 minutes going about 0.5 mph before I gave up all hope, intentionally dunked my feet in the icy water and tromped coldly for the next mile or so until the river continued straight as the trail cut to one side. All along this way, too, were long sheets of sheer ice that made me sad to see. On the bright side, I won’t be at such a high elevation again until I reach Mount Washington in New Hampshire.
Two older guys in the shelter were joking before they went to sleep. Person A said the only louder snorer than him around was Person B, and Person B contested vice versa. I sighed and put my ear plugs in, which proved to be extremely helpful. Scorch, who was staying upstairs and could clearly hear the snoring contest, couldn’t believe I was able to drown out the roar.
Scorch, Mariposa and Dune were talking about staying at a hostel around 16 miles away and I said I might meet them there. When I got to the hostel, the guy that answered the door was exceedingly awkward as he eventually got to his point: there was one bed left that I could have if I wanted. It was only about 3 p.m. so I decided to take a $4 shower and keep going.
The shower was especially nice because of what I’d been through earlier in the day. In the 11 miles after Roan High Knob shelter, there are a string of bald mountains — they aren’t tall enough to be above the treeline and scientists don’t fully understand why they’re bald — perhaps because of early settlers or some Native American ritual ground? Anyhow, the weather up there is severe. Most of the people I talked to afterwards estimated the winds were probably 60 or 70 mph, and hikers that went through that day were subjected to this for maybe an hour at a time as they walked in a cloud with almost no visibility over the peaks.
I had to lean at a 45-degree angle into the wind just to stay upright, and at one brief moment when the wind actually died out I almost fell over because of the stance I’d adopted. Luckily the hood on my raincoat can be tightly adjusted, because the way I originally had it set up it was making a thunderous racket as the wind blew the far side around.
At one point a blew a snot rocket straight down that, I swear, went 40 yards after it was taken sideways by the wind.
So after I got out of that mess, I stopped at the hostel and was happy to shower and wash my wind-burnt face. I ended up going 25 miles in all to Mountaineer Falls Shelter, a new, three-story deal where I met up with Canadia, Mumbles, Teach and Birdman.
I got started real early and was the second one out of the shelter and the first one to arrive at Kincora Hotel, a donation-based place run by a trail legend named Bob Peoples. Being the first person there, I took an uncontested shower and washed all my clothes before the masses showed up and waited in line for each.
Bob takes everyone into the small town of Hampton, Tenn., to resupply at a small place called Brown’s Grocery. He’s got a full-size, old pickup truck with a cap on the back and three sheep-skinned bench seats bolted down in the bed. We literally crammed 15 people into the truck and held on as we wound down the mountain into town.
Brown’s Grocery didn’t have any of the fresh produce I was really craving, and six people got frozen pizzas and again lined up to cook them in the lone oven when we got back. This time I was at the back of the line, but that was OK because I got to eat a whole pizza all by myself. I stayed there that night with everyone whom I mentioned sleeped at the Mountaineer Falls Shelter the day before.
I was the last person to leave the Kincora Hostel in the morning, sleeping in later than everyone and then eating all their leftovers after. I had four eggs and a few pieces of Texas toast, not quite satisfying my insatiable craving for eggs every time I go to a town.
Despite my late start, I ended up pulling into the same Iron Mountain Shelter (24 miles) that the whole crew was staying at.
After waking up at Iron Mountain and leaving late again, I went another 24 miles to a spot just a mile and a half outside Damascus, Va., where I camped with Canadia and Achilles, with whom I ate lunch and met at various times throughout the day. Damascus is the town where Trail Days are held and we chatted about the the great stuff we were going to do once we got there in the morning.
Virginia is known to be the place where you start to see some big snakes, and I talked with Snowplow Man and Skitter who said they saw a three-and-a-half-foot-long rattlesnake just over the border.
Safari came cruising by around 9:30 p.m., the first time I’d seen him since Erwin, talking about how he was rushing down to catch a basketball game on TNT. He did 50 miles that day. G, I later learned, did something similar, except that he was around 7 hours behind Safari.
Something happened along the way and I was off by a day. I think it might have been during the Smokeys? Everything in this post, I’m pretty sure, is a day behind what it should be.
Canadia, Achilles, Red and I came down a short way into Damascus looking for a place to eat breakfast. We stopped first at the Blue Blaze Cafe, which had a yellow-and-red sign outside with streamers that said BREAKFAST. Their breakfast menu was that of a lunch-and-dinner joint that was taking the materials it already had an fashioning breakfast out of them — the first things listed are various subs with breakfast foods in them. The other options is pancakes: two, three or all you can eat (with no sides whatsoever). Red was appalled and said exactly what I was thinking: “I don’t want this. Where can we get some real breakfast?”
We walked to the other side of the town to the Country Inn, which had exactly what we wanted. The manager brought us over a complimentary dish of scones — “Where are y’all from? … Down here, we start with dessert.” — and followed with huge plates of breakfast and a few pots of coffee that almost satisfied us.
All we wanted after that was ice cream — it’s 10:30 a.m. at this point — from the place next door by the same owners. So the manager, Robert, opened up the ice cream store, made the three of them milkshakes, and made me a waffle cone with Moose Tracks, and sent us on our way, having had everything we wanted.
On the way back into town, we stopped at both outfitters — I got a new winter hat to replace the one I lost and a new pair of socks to replace the pair I wore holes in already — and then at the post office, where Canadia and Achilles picked up packages impressively stuffed with food and goodies.
Snowplow Man and Skitter walked by on a mission to find a fabled brewpub and I joined them. It turned out it doesn’t open until 6 p.m., but we stopped at the nearby Food City and resupplied anyway. When I got back into town, I found G again who hadn’t yet slept and was planning on passing out in his tent on the lawn of The Place, a donation-based hostel where he was staying. I unpackaged the huge amount of food I bought and then came over the library, where I’ve now been tying for the past hour and 45 minutes.
NOTE: Now that I’ve caught up on my journaling, I promise to be more prompt in the future. I’ve also got a number of ideas for fun posts detailing stuff that I find to be actually interesting that I hope I’ll be able to bang out in the near future.