It was definitely freeing to exit Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It’s a great place, but just not the best section to thru – hike due to the added rules. The first section out follows a nice little stream and had lots of rock hopping to keep my shoes dry. Some people go with waterproof shoes, but those just get wet with sweat instead. There is no way to cheat the system.
The Pigeon River is the first major river to cross and was over a road bridge. Shortly after was the first time I’ve seen the interstate in over a month. I can’t say I miss the road noise. I did stop to chat with a trucker who was parked on the off ramp. When people find out that you’re hiking 2200 miles they quickly become fascinated, probably wondering if I got hit on the head or something. I’m not entirely sure what mental defect causes someone to get this idea stuck in their head. I’ve had a handful of days that I walked simply because that is what I do now, walk north.
I shortly came upon Standing Bear Hostel and bought myself a frozen pizza and a My Dew. Wow, was it good. I charged my phone and chatted with the other hikers. No one was in a hurry to leave.
Once I mustered the courage to move on, I started the first big hill up. Part way, at the top of some stairs is a sign that says “Go back to Standing Bear”. I admit, I gave it some serious thought. The climb was around 3000′, typical it seems for leaving someplace nice.
I scored some good views from the FAA tower area and made my way down to Groundhog Creek Shelter. It was in aptly named “Deep Gap”. Looking at the guide book, there is at least one gap with that name on every page it seems. I would have thought it just came from a survey where they noted it was deep, but there is an even more common name: Sassafras Gap. I guess they just weren’t creative with names in the South. Maybe it’s better up North.
At the shelter I met some new characters: “Big Country”, “Airborne”, and “Shaman”. Shaman was certainly intriguing. She hiked half the trail a few years ago and got off due to injury. Her job let her off for the weekend so she decided to hang out with all the smelly thrus. Hopefully she’ll make it to Trail Days and I’ll run into her again.
Trail Days is a weekend long hiker gathering in Damascus, VA. Former hikers, gear makers, current hikers, locals and trail celebrities all get together for parades and strange events in mid-May.
Daily mileage: 10.5, AT mile 247.7
The next day had more awesome wildflower patches covering whole hillsides. I also ran into Trail Magic just before Max Patch. Trail Magic is the term for people giving away free stuff or offering a free service to hikers just to be kind. Usually its some kind of hot food, and no hiker can get enough of that. The couple here were a pair of former SOBOs (South Bound hikers, from Maine to Georgia). They had met on the trail and have since gotten married and have kids. Its really a great story. They were handing out hotdogs, vegan chilli, and soda. I of course enjoyed, as did my vegan friend, TK. Usually he has to pass by because there aren’t vegan options, but this couple nailed it.
We hiked on after chatting and got on top of Max Patch. The views were exceptional. It was also packed with people. There is a parking lot just below. I wish I had known that before I walked 250 miles to see it. Sounds easier…
TK and I made a quick stop at Roaring Fork shelter before heading to Walnut Mountain Shelter. Just before the shelter we stopped and watch the sunset. The hues of orange to green painted the sky in a way you really can’t capture in a photo.
The shelter was windy as hell. Why on earth do they point the opening straight in to the normal wind direction? The shelter I’ll remind you are just 3 sides and a roof. The wind blows straight in through a giant absent wall. Thankfully Fair Enough and Sputnik arrived shortly after dark and we rigged up their rainfly to block much of the wind.
Daily Mileage: 13.1, AT mile 260.8
Leaving Walnut Mountain was exciting for two reasons. First, they day was mostly downhill, meaning very low effort. Second, Hot Springs and a warm bed awaited us. I got in to town right about 4:00 and grabbed my new SPOT at the post office. Everyone was walking around eating delicious looking ice cream. They were quick to mention the shop had just closed for the day. I felt a bit shafted.
I made my way over to Hot Springs Resort and got into the cabin I was sharing with Fair Enough, Sputnik, TK, Tinkerbell and Smoky Bear. I had enough time for a shower before many of the hikers in town met for dinner at Spring Creek Tavern. Probably 30-40 of us descended onto their deck that evening. The food was pretty solid. I think a good time was had by all judging by how late the crowd stayed.
Daily Mileage: 13.5*, AT mile 274.3
* Does not include all the trips we made back to the check-in at the resort because they gave us the wrong key. It was no short walk either.