When we got to the property, a nice guy with a clipboard showed us around the place. They had a bunk room, shared cabin, well-stocked resupply store, and a communal area to cook/eat.
We weren't sure about staying, since we wanted to get more miles, so we hung out and ate lunch waiting on the storm and hanging out with Toasty, Fire Devil, Buttercup, Moonbow, Lightning Bug, and Downhill. The owner was smoking delicious smelling meat for a BBQ the following day, and it was tempting to stay.
When we had finished lunch, the storm still hasn't arrived, and we decided to just take our chances and push on to Painter Creek Campsite for the night. We said goodbye to those of our friends who were staying for the BBQ the next day and hiked back to the trail.
There was a steep climb up to Painter Creek, and it was slow going. Of course once we got about a mile or so up the hill from the road, the rain started falling fast and hard. I didn't even bother with my rain gear, because it was hot hiking up the hill, and it all leaked anyway, so it seemed pointless.
I was thoroughly drenched when we saw what appeared to be the side trail to the campsite. We crossed a swollen stream and saw some other folks camped. They pointed us over a second creek and up the hill to more camping spots. Forest and his companion invited us to sit under their tarp, but we declined, because we wanted to get our tent up, and I would have just made their dry space wet.
We have gotten good at pitching our tent in the rain! With all the practice, that shouldn't be surprising! Putting the poles together first and using the rainfly loosely over the work space helps with the speed of setup and keeps more rain out. Then we just mop up the drips that do get in with a bandanna.
Mike, Jade, Shane, Akela and a couple of others made camp a little further up from us after the rain slowed to a drizzle. We cooked, ate, cleaned up, and hung out with them for awhile before dusk came and it was time to sleep.
Despite the rain, I was just happy to be out of the Smokies and just a few days from Hot Springs, where we would be taking a zero at a luxurious spot called the Iron Horse Inn to celebrate our anniversary for real! There would be good food, good beer, and a soak in the hot springs too!
The next morning, it wasn't raining, and we took our time getting ready to leave, because our tent was actually almost dry!! We planned to head for Roaring Fork Shelter about 13 miles ahead. Between here and there, we would summit the famous, Max Patch!
We hiked most of the day in dry conditions, and it felt so nice!! Patchy clouds moved across the sky, but nothing really looked threatening until late in the afternoon, when dark clouds started to gather behind us. I wouldn't have even noticed except that all the cute little white and pink flowers closed their petals like they had in the Smokies when it rained.
Muskrat said he didn't think it would rain. I thought it would, because flowers are good meteorologists! As we were nearing a descent from the ridge, raindrops started falling.
I dropped my pack to put the cover on and grab my somewhat useless rain gear and the wind started gusting and thunder and lightning crashed and flashed! We picked up the pace to get down off the ridge!
By the time we hit the road crossing, the rain had slowed. We stopped to get water at a stream in case the opportunity to camp on Max Patch presented itself.
We started climbing up as the sun peeked through the clouds with golden fingers reaching down to the mountains. It wasn't as hard of a climb as it looked on the elevation guide.
We came out of the woods at a gravel road and started up the last push to the summit just as a second surge of storm started! Rain, wind, and pebbles of hail came down hard! There was nowhere to go, and we were completely exposed.
Luckily, the squall blew over quickly, and we finished climbing to the summit and some of the most amazing views we had seen since the beginning! We took a ton of photos, and started hiking down the other side to get out of the wind.
The edge of the trees was still a bit away when we saw a familiar tent pitched in the grass. It was Shane and his dog Dudley! We talked to him for a bit. He had pitched his tent before the hailstorm. We had enough phone signal to check radar, and we decided to camp nearby! A little later, Ranger also pitched his tent on the bald.
I snagged some wonderful long exposures of the sunset and our tent before the relentless wind drove me inside to get warm! I'm excited to see them when we finish and I can post process my RAW files!
We cooked in the vestibule and ate in the tent. So reckless!! Especially since I knocked over our ramen when I went to take it off the stove! Gah! Bear bait all over the grass at the door to our tent! I salvaged what I could for us to eat, because hello?! It's FOOD!! We eat stuff off the ground all the time. The rest, I scraped out of the grass with a spork and put it in our trash bag to pack out.
The wind shook the tent all night! I thought it was pretty awesome, though it was really chilly and difficult to get moving in the morning!
We woke and packed up at 6. We hiked out with plans to cook breakfast at the next shelter. We ended up being part of a lively and fun conversation with Sloth, Moonbow, Lightning Bug, Buttercup, Fire Devil, and Mr. Ambitious. Mr. Ambitious even generously drank some of our dirt coffee from Walgreens.
I know I said I had nothing against Walgreens, but actually, I do. Their "Nice!" brand instant coffee tastes like dirt. It makes Tasters Choice and Folgers Crystals taste like fresh roasted gourmet beans. Sadly, I know what dirt, Tasters Choice and Folgers Crystals all taste like for comparison. Ew ew ew ew ew. Dirt coffee. Mr. Ambitious didn't like it either, but we all choked it down, because coffee. Duh.
That afternoon, we got trail magic at Lemon Gap from a day hiker who left a cooler full of cookies, clementines, and granola bars. He also left a trash bag! Yay!
We ate lunch at the side trail to Walnut Mountain Shelter with Shane and Dudley. Zebra was there too for a bit.
After some steep ups and long downs we made it to Deer Park Mountain Shelter for our last night before Hot Springs!! The shelter area was packed with awesome people, but we still found a good tenting spot.
The water was down a side trail on the opposite side of the AT. We hiked down to collect enough for dinner and the three miles into town in the morning. A lot of people were making camp down that way. One was standing in front of a campfire that was mostly smoke in an odd meditative trance. Then there were two older gentlemen hanging bear bags. Then right down next to the creek were two young women and a guy. The women were wrestling with a tent while the guy was trying to bring down a small live tree by hanging on it. He was wearing goggles. Strange things. We got water and got out.
We were so excited about hiking into town in the morning that we ate all of our ramen! FOUR PACKAGES!! Several other hikers commented that it was a lot of ramen. I thought it odd that other hikers were commenting on the amount of food we were eating. We eat food! We are hikers. Seriously though, I'd felt like crap since living off the ramen. I needed more nutrition, and all we had was ramen and dehydrated veggies, so I figured just eat more. We finished it in record time.
In the morning, we got up early to hike into town!! The trail goes right down the sidewalk on Bridge Street right through the center of downtown, and it's super hiker friendly! We decided to wait to eat breakfast, because the first thing the trail passes in town is the Smoky Mountain Diner! And we couldn't choke down one more cup of dirt coffee.
The trail down was probably less challenging than I remember, but I was starving and feeling sluggish and kept tripping. Finally, Muskrat convinced me to stop and eat a granola bar. Woah! Food!! I continued without further incident!
We located the Smoky Mountain Diner! There were packs all over the porch and hikers, some of whom passed us days ago, piled up at tables inside eating massive amounts of food and drinking gallons of coffee! We nabbed the big picnic table out front and were joined by Mike, Jade, Shane, Akela, Ranger and the gentleman!
We ordered ridiculously inexpensive breakfast food in bulk quantities! You could add a pancake to anything for a dollar, so everyone added at least one pancake... Then more. When the food arrived, Muskrat and I cleaned plates in less than 5 minutes. No exaggeration. The ramen week nearly killed our skinny butts!
When we waddled down the street towards our hotel, we passed the Dollar General, Hillbilly Market, Hiker's Ridge Ministries, Bluff Mountain Outfitters, Spring Creek Tavern (home of the $2 mystery craft beer), a Mexican restaurant, and the Wash Tub! We checked in at the Iron Horse, conveniently located above a restaurant and next to a coffee/smoothie/ice cream shop! Oh yeah!!
We checked in to a phenomenal room with a claw foot tub, a beautiful comfy bed and a nice little table for organizing our resupply! We snagged baths/showers and enjoyed the fluffy awesome towels! Then we walked across to the Wash Tub wearing rain gear and crocs to do laundry while drinking fantastic kale smoothies!
This town already had me in its clutches! We heard that there were hikers who had gotten jobs in town because they stayed so long. There was free camping at the Smoky Mountain Diner and on the other side of the French Broad River (I kept joking that it's named after some French broad), so some folks had made the place home.
With laundry in progress, Muskrat went to Dollar General and Hillbilly Market to get groceries. We wanted to get all of the chores done so we could enjoy our anniversary celebration! We were also invited to a taco party at the campground with a bunch of other hikers, but we didn't know of we would go or just hang with each other.
We ended up at the tavern for dinner. They had some good food and a great beer list. They had a mystery beer for $2. When you ordered one, they'd grab a random can out of a special cooler full of mixed craft beers and you got what you got! Fun! There were some really yummy NC brews in there!
The next day, after a luxurious night and another huge breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner, we booked an afternoon soak at the Hot Springs mineral baths! We brought a bottle of Portuguese wine (with a twist cap) and two plastic hotel cups for the soak. We checked in and got an hour in glorious warm water pumped from the springs and circulated by jets in the tub. Sadly, they really meant it when they said it was an hour soak. At 55 minutes, they knock on your little enclosure and suddenly the tub starts draining. 😫😢
We walked back to the hotel all blissed out. We got some ice cream at the little shop downstairs and headed to the outfitter for a fuel canister and to look around at gear! They had Dirty Girl gaiters! I had decided I needed gaiters for when I zip the legs off my pants. As the weather warmed, I'd go for shorts and end up with boots full of debris. Gaiters would stop that.
We grabbed a mystery beer at the tavern and chatted with some hiker friends before heading back to the Iron Horse for our anniversary dinner! We are bottomless pits for food, and we still have almost 2000 miles left!
Dinner at Iron Horse was wonderful! While we were eating, Mike, Jade, Shane and Akela walked in with another couple. When we finished dessert, we went over to say hello. They'd met the other couple at the fire pit at the hot springs and they were super cool people. We all chatted for awhile, and when the server brought the checks for both tables, these awesome folks bought us all dinner!! Crazy sweet people!! The restaurant was closing, so we headed upstairs to our room, and everyone else went to their respective lodging.
Oh man. We had to leave the next day. I couldn't believe how sad I felt about that fact. Now I knew why people had been here for 4, 5, 7+ days and why the clerk at the campground store started a thru-hike a couple years ago and never made it past here. He said he and his girlfriend stopped in Hot Springs and two jobs, a baby, and a house later, and they're still there.
The town isn't much. It's only a few blocks long, but there is something about it. Maybe it's the fact that you can easily walk to everything. Maybe it's that you see hikers everywhere, and the bubbles all collide again, so you see people who got ahead and got behind, so there's a reunion feel. I just knew that walking across that bridge out of town the next day would be very very hard.
In the morning, we had to hit the post office to mail my rain jacket back to REI for a warranty replacement. That jacket was no longer made, so they were sending me an Outdoor Research Enigma Gore-Tex Jacket with full length pit zips for poncho style venting! Oooooh! Fancy! They didn't have anything to replace my leaky rain pants, so they said to call back in a few weeks.
By the time we did the post office, ate some snacks and talked to some newly arrived hikers at Hiker's Ridge, and bought my gaiters, it was time for lunch. We were about to head back to the tavern one last time when Mac and Pace came hiking into town!! There was much cheering and hugging and catching up! We hadn't seen them since just after the NOC! They tipped us off to $1 garden kneeler pads at Dollar General to use as seats in camp and on breaks!
After we parted ways with them, we went to get our garden kneelers at Dollar General then grabbed lunch at the tavern. Then it was time. We had to hike out of town.
Loaded down with food to last us to Erwin, Tennessee, we walked back past the Iron Horse, past the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, past the campground, over the bridge, over a guardrail and onto the trail. We followed white blazes along the river then through a series of steep switchbacks up the side of the mountain. There were so many viewpoints to look back at the river and the town, and I kept lamenting the fact that we never ate tacos. It was hard to keep going.
We encountered the Gentleman, Bearded Crab and another hiker playing frisbee in the woods a little after the trail dove back into the deep woods. They were drinking box wine from the bladder removed from the box! "Slap the bag and take a drink," they yelled!! Awesome. We each took a turn then hiked on.
As if it wasn't hard enough to leave, 8 miles out of town, the trail intersects with another trail that can take you back to Hot Springs in 3.5 miles. We kept walking north, but it was near there that we decided to make camp for the night at a little site just off the trail and just big enough for a couple of tents.
We cooked, and I made a fire and some hot chocolate. A few other hikers we didn't know passed us, but didn't stop. Three were section hikers who had just started at the intersection with the last road we crossed. We read from the book we had been sharing since day one, and went to bed when it got too dark to see. It was the first night we had camped alone. Any other night, I might have been happy about that, but I wanted a big group around me to distract me from the fact that leaving Hot Springs felt like breaking up with someone really cool.
I went to sleep hoping that no other town ever made it so hard to leave or we would never make it to Katahdin!