“I’m Goin’ To Carolina In My Mind”
Day 142: Nature’s Inn hostel to Little Laurel Shelter (25.3 mi)
Daylight savings totally surprised us this morning! Our shuttle back to the trailhead didn’t leave until 8 am, but when I got out of our window-less freezing cold (42 deg with the space heater...) uninsulated shed “cabin” at 6:45 am to go to the bath house. I was confused and surprised to find that it was completely light out! The sun hadn’t been rising until about 7:30 at the earliest and even then it wasn’t THIS bright out. My phone must have been wrong somehow with the time. I went back in to the cabin to check with Jamie and sure enough, it was indeed 6:45! It dawned on us that daylight savings must’ve occurred. What a HUGE bummer and loss of precious daylight - especially with our late shuttle to the trailhead. This meant that it would be dark around 5:30 pm instead of 6:30 pm. We lost so much daylight. I surrendered immediately to the fact that we would be night hiking.
We started on trail at 8:15. It had been light out for two hours. We were trying for a 25 + mile day. The elevation profile for our day didn’t seem too bad, more descent than ascent, and the grade looked less steep than yesterday. However, there were a lot of short (less than 2 miles) punchier and steeper climbs and downhills. We weren’t moving very fast in the morning. We took lunch at Flint Mountain shelter. We looked at Guthook and we still had 14 miles to hike before getting to our goal - Little Laurel Shelter. There was a shelter in 7 miles (Jerry’s Cabin Shelter) and Fresh Feet was thinking we would end up there. He looked at me squarely and said “there is absolutely no way we can hike 14 more miles.” It was 1:20 pm and he had a point. We had maybe slightly more than 4 hours left of daylight. I suggested we camp somewhere in between shelters if we were too tired to night hike all the way to Little Laurel shelter. We just agreed to get moving and see what the afternoon terrain was like and decide later.
We had a 6 mile climb after lunch on very gradual grade. This is my favorite type of hiking. I feel like I can motor and power hard on this type of trail. I think I sometimes lose momentum and focus on the totally flat trail, but with the slight climb, I felt aerobically engaged and warm. The mountain was called Big Butt, which inherently made me smile. Fresh Feet didn’t catch me until the summit. We both decided we were making good enough time that we would pass the shelter in 1 mile (it was 3:20 pm). We were able to do 3 MPH on that climb, which was good!
The descent was a bit slower for me than the climb and then we had some nice and easy trail. We were still making good time.
Eventually we found ourselves on a very windy and exposed technical ridge and FF decided Little Laurel shelter was in striking distance so we should go for it. The wind was absolutely out of control on the very long 1.5 mi rock scramble on the exposed ridge. Had it not been so windy, this would have been much more enjoyable as the views were spectacular. But there were gusts that were causing me to lose balance and slow way down in order to not get blown over.
I have decided that wind is my least favorite weather (although rain is a VERY close second). The sound of high winds all day just wears on me. It stresses me out and makes for heightened anxiety when there doesn’t necessarily need to be any. Wind can just be oppressively loud! I really dislike strong winds. I can’t think of any advantage unless it was a tailwind for a point to point bike or running race. But I’ve decided strong wind is pretty much the worst. The ripping sound in the trees is so loud and stressful and it zaps warmth so quickly. On exposed terrain (Balds, fields, ridges) it can really push me over and try my balance.
Anyway, I was SO glad to get past the rock scramble before dark. Doing that section in the dark with the wind would have been impossible. Just as the technical rocky part ended it was dark enough for me to stop and get my headlamp out. I charged on hoping to make quick progress. Only 3 more miles left.
Then I saw Fresh Feet’s headlamp! What? I thought he was way ahead of me. He checked on me and then continued on to the shelter. We had about 1.7 steep downhill left. My left calf had been cramping and my right quad began to cramp. I knew I hadn’t had enough water. At least I consumed my allotted 4 bars for the day which was a huge improvement from my appetite aversion issue I was having for the last few days.
I got to the shelter, made dinner and was visited immediately by a very brave mouse! Ugggh! I quickly set up the tent in the shelter which actually made it a bit warmer and gave a barrier between mr. mouse and me. FF also hung the footprint to block the wind in front of the tent area and it made quite a difference.
It ended up raining later that night and we were so glad we made it to the shelter before it rained and didn’t try to camp in our tent somewhere in between. Also, night hiking and ending up at a shelter is much easier than setting up camp in the dark.
Day 143: Little Laurel Shelter to Hot Springs, NC (20 mi)
We woke up early to try to get into the rhythm with the sun now that it is lighter out earlier. This meant getting up around 5:30 am and we were on trail by 6:40 am. It was light out already. We had a rolly day which trended mostly downhill to town. However the uphill sections were much steeper than they had been in a while. FF took a spill at one point that could have been trip ending, but he luckily caught himself in a strange way that saved him. We have both been a bit stumbly lately. Our bodies are being pushed so much lately! We are on the edge.
The weather today was actually quite warm which was nice for a change.
My quads and calves were starting to cramp towards the end of the day and my hip flexors were quite tight. I wasn’t moving very fast into Hot Springs and felt pretty blasted. What a milestone to get to Hot Springs though.
This is the last town we walk through on trail and is the northern end of the Smokies. The Smokies are the highest mountains on trail and sort of like the white mountains - you can just get horrendous weather at such high elevation. Getting through the Smokies would be the crux of us finishing. The weather would be such a wild card and we hoped it wouldn’t slow us down too much. There also wouldn’t be any hostels to escape to - it’s incredibly remote with one town, Gatlinburg (15 miles away) with road access in the middle of the mountain range.
We went to the outfitter and got some snacks. I had a delicious Rebel vegan chocolate milk drink that brought me back into the land of the living. Fresh Feet had some vegan ice cream and chips and bought a new pair of shoes. His Hokas were falling apart again and so he was able to return them by mailing them back and got a new pair of La Sportivas which seem quite durable and sturdy. We also got our back country permits for the Smokies printed at the outfitter.
We ate at the tavern and did laundry at another hostel down the trail. We stayed at Elmer’s Sunnybrook Inn which is a historic home and absolutely gorgeous! It is the oldest home in Hot Springs and it felt like we were in a museum. The house is so old and yet so luxurious and clean. FF was in love with the house and wanted to zero there. It was so very tempting.
We decided we would have a relaxed morning and eat breakfast with Elmer (at 8:30 am) in order to wait out the rain. It looked like it was supposed to be quite a rainy morning, but then clear up around 9 or 10 am.
Day 144: Hot Springs, NC to Walnut Mountain shelter (13.1 mi)
We slept in and had a huge family style vegan breakfast with Elmer (hostel owner and former thru hiker in the 70s), George (his helper/employee) and Tomato (SoBo thru hiker, 29 y/o from Raleigh, NC). We had some nice conversation and we realized we weren’t going to be on trail fast enough to get 18 miles done (our original plan). Fresh Feet still had to pack up his stuff and go to the outfitter to print out a shipping label to return his Hokas, and then to the post office and dollar general for snacks. It took a while so we hit the trail at about 11 am. We took a lunch break at the first shelter only a few miles away from Hot Springs. We were both feeling a bit unmotivated.
11 out of the 13 miles today were straight climbing. It was slow going with a 5.5 day resupply to get us through the Smokies and all the way to Fontana Dam.
We finally reached our shelter just as the sun was setting. We made beans and quinoa and ate dinner while chatting with two other SoBos, Craig and Loon. Today is Election Day and both Loon and Craig divulged that they did not vote! Uh!!!! Heartbreaking. Absolutely devastating. FF and I were super anxious about the election and partially wished we had just zero-ed in Hit Springs so we could watch it.
The shelter looked pretty dilapidated and mouse ridden so we set up the tent in the shelter. Then after I was in my sleeping bag and getting warm, FF was still out and about and noticed a mouse repeatedly crawling in Loon’s backpack. We decided to just move our tent out to the woods nearby, away from the shelter and mice. It was kind of a pain because all of our stuff was unpacked and in the tent, so we had to take it all out to move the tent. The only downside to tenting in the woods is that the rainfly can get soaked on the inside by morning from condensation because it is so cold outside. However, sleeping in the tent is usually warmer and feels much cleaner (and is away from the mice!)
Day 145: Walnut Mountain shelter to Davenport Gap Shelter, Smokies (23.8 mi)
Last night the mice found our tent and were crawling on it inside the rain fly!!! Fresh Feet woke me up at 12:30 to tell me that one had gone to my pack. I shone my light on it and listened for a while but didn’t see or hear anything and needed to go back to sleep.
When I woke up and inspected, the mouse had chewed through the mesh pocket of my hip belt attachment and chewed on the cap to my unscented chapstick. I’ve had this unscented chapstick there the whole time and never had any issues before. I think it is safe to say that the mice of the south are much more aggressive and bold! Another hiker told us that a few shelters back the mice were so bad they were chewing on another hikers mustache and crawling up his pant legs in his sleeping bag!!! Ewww!! I just have no tolerance for sharing a living space with rodents. I’m really reaching the end of my rope!
We got up early but decided to have warm smoothies and were just moving kind of slowly so I didn’t start hiking until about 7:30 am. We watched the sunrise while we drank our smoothies and walked through a beautiful field where the clouds were absolutely spectacular!
We hiked together for most of the morning and chatted. We then had a pretty big climb up Max Patch, which was a bald. It was spectacular! No wind, warm sunny weather and just phenomenal views. What a highlight.
After many miles of descending (with a few small climbs), we climbed up Snowbird Peak. Omg this climb went on forever, but I knew it was the last climb of the day. The terrain is definitely getting steeper and I’m just slower on steeper climbs. Everything hurts more on them.
Then we had a long descent down to the road where Standing Bear hostel was located 0.2 mi off trail. When we got there we regrouped. It was 4:55 pm. It didn’t really seem like it was going to rain (we had felt a few drops, but that was it). We decided to push on 3.5 more miles pretty much all uphill to get a start on the absolutely MAJOR first climb of the Smokies. We also knew that staying at a hostel usually means a bit later of a morning and therefore a shorter mileage day or a lot of night hiking.
We climbed and our pace slowed down. It got dark and the last hour was with headlamps in the dark.
I was beat. We arrived at the shelter and it was full of fellow SoBos! Some we knew and some we did not. There were probably 9-10 of us in the shelter (although hard to tell in the dark). They had a fire going, which was really nice! We reconnected with our friend Rebound again (who we met in PA).
We made Thai lemongrass curry (one of our fav meals) and lo and behold a mouse came out just under where we were setting up to sleep. I moved us to the top level and further away from where the repeat mouse offender was and tried to overcome the whole mouse thing. UGH!
Getting to the Smokies FINALLY felt like another milestone. Another celebration. We just needed to get through these next 70 miles and then it would be the home stretch. I started to realize that our 13 mile day leaving Hit Springs basically added an extra day to our itinerary which meant we were short on food. I had some extra bars and we usually have a little extra soylent and we’ve had an extra “safety dinner” with us for a while now. We would probably be ok, but we could not really afford to add any days in the Smokies unless we decided to bail out in Gatlinburg, which was our terrible weather back up plan. But we needed to push miles and get through in the next 4 days - not longer or we would run out of food.