Thursday, February 25, 2016

Escape from Hot Springs to Erwin, Tennessee

The morning after our first night camping alone, I felt a little better about having left Hot Springs. Little did I know, that town would have me in a funk for a few days!

Our first night camping solo

While we were in Hot Springs with phone signal, we had seen on Facebook that our friend, Big Country, was resting some injuries at Hemlock Hollow Inn and Cafe at mile 290. We planned to hike the 8 miles in to see him, have dinner then hike out or maybe tent there.

We met Big Country the last day of our shakedown adventure in Southern Shenandoah last August. Yes, I know we never blogged about it. It was embarrassing. I'll do it later.  Anyway, Big Country was thru-hiking, and he stopped to take a break and talk with a couple of day hikers when we came out of the woods to our car after a successful overnight!  We offered him all of our leftover food... There was a lot of it.  He said he'd come back this year to thru-hike too, because he knew he was too late to make Katahdin last year.  We had been chasing him since we started, so seeing him was going to be awesome!

We set out under cloudy skies, and climbed into thick fog. There was a fire tower on a side trail, but we didn't bother because of the fog.  The steep ups and downs were more challenging than they looked on paper, and once again, we didn't cover ground as fast as we had hoped.

We came out of the woods at a road crossing, right at the NC/TN border, and as I looked to cross the road, I saw a store with a spray painted sign that read "Moms."  It didn't look like it was open, but I remembered seeing someone post in one of the AT groups on Facebook that it was open, and that they had cold sodas and snacks.  Of course we had only left the decadent town of Hot Springs the day before, and we were headed to Hemlock Hollow for dinner, but I was also curious about the store, because I just HAD to know the story behind it.

NC/TN Border

Mom's Store

Yes, this store is open!

We walked over, and Muskrat kept saying, "There is NO WAY that place is open."  I insisted that it was, and sure enough, there was a lit neon sign in the window beckoning us to come in!

We were greeted by a friendly woman with long dark hair.  She pointed out the coolers behind us and invited us to grab a soda or a beer.  We each popped open a can of Pepsi, and looked around.  The store was half full of snack cakes, chips, candy, and other hiker treats.  There were coolers of cold drinks and a freezer with an assortment of ice cream.  Prices and scriptures were posted all around the store.  They were all handwritten in Sharpie on pieces of cardboard.  The other half of the store looked like a storage shed where old appliances and furniture had gone to die.

We talked to "mom."  She owned the place with her husband, whose parents had owned it before him. She and her husband had both grown up nearby, and he is eighteen years older than her.  She told us about her father, and how he had been a moonshiner and had killed people.  She said that he had died on the road where the store was in a single car drunk driving crash when she was seven years old.  The man she would later marry was the first person on the scene, and he had covered the body.  She met him years later when she got up the courage to go into his bar, which is down the road.

We always met the most interesting people on the trail!  We finished our sodas, signed the guest book (Muskrat wrote "all I wanted was a Pepsi"), and left just as Bearded Crab came in to buy the rest of her Yuengling.  We hiked back up the road to the trail, ran into Fuego and Fancy Pants, who ran towards mom's at the mention of ice cream.  We followed the white blazes back into the woods.  

We were close to the road where we would turn off to hike nearly a mile to get to Hemlock Hollow, and it was late afternoon when we turned onto pavement, hiking past rusted cars, fields of cows, old barns, and humble houses.  We arrived at Hemlock Hollow to find a cozy looking building with a wrap around porch, sitting right beside a rushing stream, and a small crew of men working at demolishing a smoldering house just behind the building.

Strange little cemetery in someone's side yard

Sweet Ride


Hemlock Hollow

We entered, and asked for Big Country, who greeted us with joyous hugs and an offer of beer!  We hung out with him and EZ Rock on the porch, drinking Yungling.  We order dinner, a heaping plate of home cooked food, that we inhaled before topping it off with milk shakes!

The sun was starting to sink low in the sky, and we felt less than motivated to hike the mile back to the trail to camp, especially with cheap tenting right here.  The opportunity for a hot shower before bed sealed the deal, and we made camp by the river.  The shower, even just a two days after leaving Hot Springs, was blissful!

View from our tent site!

We settled into our sleeping bag, as lightning started to streak across the sky, and thunder crashed, drowning out the whooshing of the river.  A quick, but spectacular storm swept through, guaranteeing that we would hike out with a wet tent in the morning, again.

After another mountainous plate of home cooked food, EZ Rock stashed our packs in the back of a hostel car and shuttled us back to the trailhead, where we set a northbound course, uphill, as usual!

We skipped a firetower on a side trail, because it was marked as having no view.  The day was humid and foggy with intermittent rain.  We huddled near a stream for lunch with BB and Queen Bee.

After lunch, we started up to Big Firescald Knob, where we faced a choice. We could hike the "rocky and strenuous" segment of the AT over the slick wet rocks, through fog and rain and wind, or we could use the "bad weather bypass."  Of course we picked the former!

Only a mile and a half long, we spent the rest of the afternoon picking our way carefully and sometimes blindly over the wet rock, up along an exposed ridge line, where the wind whipped around us, and down the treacherously slick and rocky north side of the ridge.  We were denied the apparently spectacular views from Big Firescald Knob, but we were rewarded with a big 300 in the middle of the trail!  What seemed so unlikely when I was sobbing about going home on day two, was happening!  300 miles lay behind us, stretching south to Georgia with our footprints along them.

Luckily Muskrat had his pack cover on, so I didn't lose him!

Apparently there is a gorgeous vista in those clouds!

Muskrat at 300

Ironjen at 300

We made camp that night just .6 miles past the 300 mile mark, at Jerry Cabin Shelter.  We tented near the shelter, along with Queen Bee, BB, Fuego, Fancy Pants, and The Gentleman.  It rained most of the night, but we woke to cold sun peeking through the clouds.

Fuego, Fancy Pants, and Muskrat and I took our time making breakfast, giving the sun some time to dry our wet hiking clothes and tents before resigning ourselves to getting on with the business of putting on wet dirty clothes.  That part never really gets easier.

We had our eyes on covering 13.2 miles to get to a designated tent site at Big Flat.  When we hiked out, the Bs were long gone, and The Gentleman hadn't yet emerged from his tent.

We hiked alone most of the day, and waited for The Gentleman to pass us with his ever speedy pace.   We ate lunch with Fuego and Fancy Pants at Flint Mountain Shelter, where we chatted with some south bounders out for a small section.

Late in the afternoon we crossed a paved road and chatted with a hiker who was smoking a cigarette and debating whether to take a nearby sign up on the offer of cheap burgers at a nearby hostel. It was tempting for sure, but we hiked on.  If Muskrat hadn't been there to be the voice of reason, I'd have stopped EVERYWHERE for town food!

Tacked to the same wooden fence stile as the burger ad was a another sign.  It was scrawled in marker, and it began "Dear AT Hickers. . . " and it proceeded to deride us for having apparently having led a local dog to its death, in an interesting and sad story about an unrestrained dog that apparently wandered away and followed the trail to Sam's Gap, where he died beneath the wheels of a car on the interstate there.  So sad.

As evening approached, we stopped at a series of waterfalls to collect water for the evening and the following morning.  I took photos while Muskrat filtered.  Loaded down with water, we climbed steep trail in search of our camp for the night.  Before we located Big Flat, we found a beautiful spot, where the sun was turning the sky lovely colors, and decided to pitch our tent there.

We followed up dinner with hot chocolate and a small campfire.  Every few minutes, we would glance towards the trail, because we realized that The Gentleman hadn't passed us.  We hoped he was okay.

In the morning, we set off early after our usual oatmeal, but quickly encountered a setback when we discovered phone signal, and had an argument about whether or not to take advantage of its presence to take care of some administrative tasks.  In the end, I won, and we accomplished real world things, and we made up!

We planned to eat lunch at Sam's Gap, about six miles from where we had camped.  The guide promised TRASH CANS at Sam's Gap!  In my opinion, trash cans on the trail are almost as good as trail magic!  I was so excited about the trash cans that we were practically RUNNING through the woods.  We made a quick water stop at Hogback Shelter, where I picked up some extra trash to take with us to Sam's.

Feeling good, we covered the ups and downs with lightning speed, and rushed downward towards Sam's Gap!  Lunch! Trash cans!  What could be better?!

We popped out of the woods in glaring sun, and I noticed a sign tacked to a post at the trailhead. It was yet another even angrier, "Dear AT Hickers. . ." sign.  Next to the post was a shiny gala apple, the last in what had been a 5 pound bag of them.  Trail Magic!!  I picked up the apple, excited to add it to my lunch.  I say MY lunch, not because I wouldn't share it with Muskrat, but because he doesn't like apples.

He cautioned me against taking the apple, because of the hostile tone of the note, and speculation that the apple and the note might be related. . . and not in a good way.  The section of trail through some of NC and TN had an old reputation for being unfriendly to hikers, including traps set on the trail and harassment of hikers. Most accounts from more recent thru hikers indicated that these incidents were a thing of the past, so I wanted to trust the apple, because FRESH FRUIT!!  But I left it there by the trailhead, and hiked along under the interstate overpass to the spot where we would eat lunch and EMPTY OUR TRASH!!

We emerged from the cool shade of the overpass into warm sunshine glaring off of the cars parked at the Sam's Gap parking area.  There were two concrete slabs next to the parking places with conspicuously clean square outlines in the middle of each.  Ugh.  This was where the trash cans used to be. . . and were no longer.

We sat and ate tortillas with some flavored tuna, and Muskrat asked me if I was okay.  Noooooooo!!!  I started to cry, lamenting ever coming on this ridiculous trip, cursing myself for picking up extra trash all morning, angry that I couldn't have the apple, pissed that the trash cans had obviously been there, but we're not there now, when I NEEDED them.

Sam's Gap. . . There are no trash cans here.

Holy shit the trail sometimes makes a person nuts.  I was crying on the side of the road in the middle of the adventure of a lifetime, on a gloriously warm spring day, with nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other, and it was all because of some missing trash cans.  Really?

I managed to pull myself together and get some perspective, and we hiked off towards the afternoon's stretch of six hilly miles toward Big Bald.  We crossed some gravel forest service roads, and hiked under some power lines, through the thick forests.  There was a beat up white pickup parked at one of the road crossings.  Nobody was around, so we continued downhill until we saw a grizzled older man in overalls hiking uphill towards us.  He was carrying a large bulging burlap sack on one hand, and a large shovel in the other.  He smiled as we walked closer to each other.  I asked if he was a trail maintainer, and he said that he wasn't.  He was just digging ramps, which are wild onions that I had heard wonderful things about.  He pulled one from his sack and showed us what to look for, telling us that they were EVERYWHERE in the forests.

A tree that consumed barbed wire. . . ramps nearby!

He was right!  Once we knew what to look for, I saw clumps of them all over the forest floor!  I grabbed the trowel from Muskrat, dropped my pack next to the trail, and romped into the woods to dig up ramps!  Whatever dinner was tonight, we were going to add fresh ramps!   I strapped a huge bunch to the top of my pack, and we hiked on!

Our ramp digging adventure spurred a lengthy string of puns. . . If you eat these with your grandfather, they're GRAMPS!  What's a veggie AND an inclined plane? A RAMP!  If you eat them till your stomach hurts, they're CRAMPS!  I could go on, but I don't want you to stop reading!!

The terrain was challenging, and the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, as we stopped at a few weak springs to collect water for the evening, and to wash the dirt off of the ramps.  At the last spring before Big Bald, I managed to rig a few leaves and rocks into a spout configuration that allowed us to fill our Sawyer bags and our bottles.

Loaded with water, we climbed out from the trees, into a steeply pitched clearing that rolled up to the horizon.  When we reached the top, we were rewarded with 360 degree views!  We cooked dinner, adding the ramps, and cleaned up quickly, because the sky was turning the most gorgeous shades of pink and orange in every direction, and I needed to get the camera out!

Every second that passed, the sky got prettier, and the air got colder, and the wind whipped across the bald.  We sat with the tent door open, staring out at the sky, no longer caring that the trash cans were gone at Sam's Gap, and marveling at the perfection of living outdoors.

We woke before the sunrise, hoping it would be as good as sunset had been.  As we were huddled in the tent with our instant coffee watching the show Mother Nature was putting on, Zebra hiked by, stopping to comment on the beauty of the sunrise.  He said he had camped just below the summit of the bald, and now that he was up here, he wished he had continued to the top before pitching his tent.  We watched the sunrise for awhile, as we finished breakfast, and then Zebra hiked on.

We were all headed for No Business Knob Shelter, 12 mostly downhill miles ahead, and the last place to camp before the steep 7 miles down into Erwin, TN!  We ran into Shane and Akela at a road crossing.  They were being dropped off to slackpack.  Just as we said goodbye and were about to cross the road and duck back into the woods, Miss Janet, famed trail angel, pulled up in her van with Phoddo, and hot Wendy's french fries!!  Oh yum!!  She also took our trash!  SCORE!  We hiked uneventfully, and fairly quickly, stopping for lunch on a rock by a rushing river.

We reached the shelter in late afternoon, accidentally missing the last water source, .3 south, before a steep climb to the shelter.  Muskrat hiked back to collect water, while I set up the tent in a sparsely wooded clearing.  The Arkansas gentlemen, Zebra, Stuffy, and Uncle Sam, and a few others arrived and set up in the shelter and in tents.  We all speculated about whether there might be a stealth camping spot further north, since it was still fairly early, and we all wanted to be as close to Erwin as possible the next day. We had all heard that the was absolutely no place to tent between here and Erwin, so we had bette just stay put.

I said it was called "No Business" because there's no privy to do your business.

We cooked and ate with Zebra, Stuffy, and Uncle Sam at the picnic table, then retired to drink hot chocolate on a log by our tent, because the three of them had some drama to work out amongst themselves.

We set off early the next morning, because it was a TOWN DAY!!  We hiked, the 7 miles into Erwin quickly, with our packs light and nearly devoid of food!  Pack weight is always blissful on the way into town!

We stopped at some overlooks, to shoot a few photos of the Nolichucky River, and pressed on.  When we finally emerged from the woods in early afternoon, we crossed the road to Uncle Johnny's Hostel.  We were drawn to the place because of a large banner boasting "$.40 SNICKERS!"  Say no more! Coke and Snickers on the patio surrounded by smelly hikers!  Town is so luxurious!  And someone gave me a bag of McDonald's hot sauce packets too! It's the little things!