Day 150: Fontana Dam, NC to Stecoah Gap, NC (14 mi)
We slept in this morning in our super warm, dry and comfortable hotel bed, soaking up the glory of getting through the Smokies and hopefully the worst weather on trail.
I was up late the night before dealing with Teledoc to get steroid cream ordered to a nearby Walgreens for a spider bite that seemed to be getting much worse in the past 10 days (blue and purple with lesions/broken skin in the center...). Needless to say we got kind of a late start on trail and sure enough… it was raining. The forecast predicted rain for the next four days. We debated staying in the hotel room for the day and taking a zero day, but then we would still have to walk for the next three days in rain, so it didn’t seem to make any sense. We couldn’t get too comfortable this close to the finish line! We had 165 miles to Springer and we just needed to get it done.
We left the hotel around 9 am and got a ride to the trailhead. There were bathrooms so we were able to get our packs on and make sure we were protected enough from the rain to start hiking (pack covers secured and umbrellas out). It was super cold and I had left my gloves at the fire tower in the Smokies the day before and Fontana Dam was sold out of gloves! I used a pair of socks that Fresh Feet had accidentally burned holes in drying them by a fire as “mittens” and then put my gortex mitten liners over them.
We started out with a huge climb that was steep and just lasted forever! As is the custom when leaving resupply towns our packs were full and we had to climb out of the valley and back into the mountains. This time the rain and cold just made it that much more dreadful.
Then we had a wet, cold and very windy ridge walk. After the climb I realized I was getting cold, fast. I wasn’t wearing enough layers. It was ok for a sustained climb, but not for just regular ups and downs and ridge walking. The first shelter was 5.5 miles into our day. Yikes. It was already 12:30 pm. We were moving pretty slowly! We stopped at the shelter and I put on my fleece pants under my rain pants and my puffy jacket over my arm warmers and shirt and under my rain jacket. These extra layers were essential!
We made hot Soylent with chai tea and it was fantastic! We needed that warmth to fill our bodies. We turned it around as quickly as we could because we started to get a little cold just hanging out there drinking our hot drinks.
The woman who was hosting us at her cabin this evening said she was going to try and find me a pair of warm, sturdy gloves, but for today I used a pair of wool socks. They got soaked, but since they were wool they insulated. It was just so frustrating having club hands (no thumb even!) and I couldn’t do ANYTHING! Every time I wanted to adjust my pack straps or pee I had to take off the mitten liner and the sock and my hand would get wet and very cold immediately. Putting the hand layers on and trying to tuck them into my rain jacket was even trickier and got my puffy jacket sleeves wet and everything just took me a long time. Basically going pee was a whole ordeal that was cold and wet and awful.
We pushed on to the next shelter. 6 more miles. Loon and Craig passed us and then we saw them again at that next shelter. They, too, were getting off at Stecoah Gap (but going to a different hostel). The cold rain was just deflating us all.
We only had 2.4 more miles. I queued up a long episode from the Bearded Vegans and Vegan Warrior Princesses Attack on anti-capitalist veganism and tuned in for some activist talk to get me to the road crossing. These last 2.4 miles weren’t so bad. I actually think the temperature warmed up and in the final descent into the gap the rain let up and I was just walking in a cloud (little visibility and still wet, but a LOT better than RAIN!) I was even able to close my umbrella - which was a necessity because the wind picked up anyway.
Our B&B host met us at the trail head and greeted us with two thermoses of hot apple cider! WHAT?! amaaazing and just what we needed! He also had a pair of ski gloves that his wife found for me! Omg I was in heaven! I felt so taken care of! The cabin was an adorable tiny house next to their main house. We showered and they drove us to town so I could pick up my Walgreens prescription (steroid cream for the very inflamed spider bite situation I was dealing with) and then took us out to eat at a Mexican restaurant that was very authentic! We had delicious vegan bean and mushroom enchiladas with a guacamole salad and vegetable chiles rellenos with beans and rice and avocado. Spectacular! We feasted!
Today was day 150 and we ended the day having only 150 miles left until springer mountain - albeit hanging in there by a few threads! Today was pretty miserable and slow and the only saving grace was that we ended with hot showers and a heated cabin where we could dry our wet clothes!
Day 151: Stecoah Gap, NC to Rufus Morgan Shelter (14.7 mi)
We got a bit of a late start this morning - it is SO HARD to leave a warm, comfortable, and dry bed/cabin when it is raining out. The comforts of civilization are just beyond tempting these days. I know the finish line is so close (ideally 7-8 days away!) but the motivation is seriously lacking when it is 40 deg and raining (which it was this morning).
We got on trail at about 8:40 am and climbed for the entire morning. I was so happy with my new gloves which were quite warm, however they are like fat ski gloves and take me a while to get them on and off (especially because I put my gortex mitten liner outside of it. This slowed me down a bit whenever I needed to use my hands. We used our umbrellas some this morning, but were able to put them away after lunch as the rain started to let up. FF got a new umbrella at Walgreens yesterday and it is bigger than the ones he’s had in the past so he seems happy with it.
The afternoon was mostly downhill (with some climbs - always), but was wet and slippery. There was a lot of slipping today from both of us and rolled ankles too. When I got to the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center), FF was waiting at the picnic tables. I went to the outfitter and bought a new pair of socks because I left a pair at the cabin. With rain on the horizon the next two days I definitely wanted to be able to have dry socks to change into at the end of the day. It was 4:15 and the store closed at 4:00, but the guy working there was so nice he let me come in and buy socks anyway! FF decided to get a pair of socks also to replace his burned ones. Then we decided to eat dinner at the restaurant and Craig arrived and ate with us. Loon took a zero today back in Stecoah Gap to deal with raw heels (probably from all the rain).
After eating inside at the restaurant at NOC we hiked 0.8 mi up the mountain to a shelter where we set up our tent inside the shelter. Craig and FF tried hanging the food but the branch broke and I guess there weren’t many options, so they ended up hanging the food on the rodent hangs in the shelter. Fingers crossed!
Day 152: Rufus Morgan Shelter to Wayah Gap - Franklin, NC (20.6 mi)
We got a pretty early start as we needed to cover more ground to get as close to Franklin as possible. It became imperative to get off trail these nights that we were so wet and cold so we could dry out our gear and avoid hypothermia. We had a solid 4 mile climb right out of the gate, then a slight ridge walk that was more flat and then another steep climb to get to the top of Wesser Bald. We then climbed above 5k feet today and stayed above 4k until the long descent from Wayah Bald to Wayah Gap. During that descent is when it started to actually rain and I instantly became drenched. My rain pants were just sticking freezing cold wet on my bare legs and I wished I was in shorts or had my fleece pants as a layer in between. My feet and socks were totally soaked. We were so lucky it didn’t rain on us most of the morning. I would not have been able to push 20 miles before dark being so wet and cold. Lunch break at Cold Spring Shelter was super fast (10 mins?) I started to get cold quickly and could not linger. You really can’t take any breaks when it’s raining and 40 degrees. So glad it wasn’t very windy though!
Craig caught up and decided he wanted to take the shuttle with us to Franklin as well to get out of the cold and wet. Zen, our hostel owner came and got us at 5:10. We went back, showered, changed and then went out to a Thai restaurant w a father and his son in law who were finishing a 60 mile section due to 2016 fires in NC. Father-in-law (trail name “Tillerman”) had finished his thru hike in 2010. The Son-in-law (Legs) did a SoBo hru hike in 2016 and there were such bad forest fires in this section that he had to skip it. The two of them were back finishing up that last little section. The Thai food was amazing, fresh and delicious, but took a lot longer than we expected. We then chatted for a while with Zen about his hostel and how he helps out the homeless during winter etc. He’s a very good guy.
My back had been hurting so much lately. I hadn’t been able to take little stretch breaks to relieve the spasm and inflammation in my back because of the rain and it was really bothering me. That night my throat started hurting at dinner.... the spider bite was also still quite bad. Some matching “satellite bites” on the left thigh have now popped up…. makes me wonder if it’s a spider bite or something else?! Maybe I just didn’t notice the satellite bites on the left thigh before? It REALLY Itches when I’m warm (inside out of the freezing cold) and burns so I’m starting to have doubts about if it really is a spider bite… the lesions are also getting worse.
That night it was still pouring rain. We are not sure what we will do tomorrow. Half day? Zero day? Ugh this rain!!
Day 153: Zero day in Franklin, NC
Lazy morning. We ate one of our beans and quinoa dinners with tortillas for breakfast. Then Fresh Feet went to the grocery store with Craig and got bagels and veggie patties, avocado and Chao vegan cheese. We made sandwiches for lunch and then played some games of chess (2-0 Sprout won! But they were CLOSE!)
We then went to see Bohemian Rhapsody in the small town movie theater. Omg my senses were completely blown away. The loud music and the big screen and the story of Queen and Freddie Mercury just captured my senses in such a moving way. I reminisced some and was carried back to my teen years. I remembered my 17th birthday party where Shelley, my friends and I did a performance of Bohemian Rhapsody (yes it’s on video tape somewhere)! The story of Freddie Mercury is sad and moving but the movie made me feel so ALIVE and energized afterwards. I felt like I could appreciate art in a whole new way after living in the woods for almost 5 months! The way my senses were so stimulated was somewhat overwhelming, but in a good way!
We then got shuttled to the fall hiker happy hour that happens twice a year in Franklin (once in the spring for the NoBos and once in the fall for the SoBos) and it just so happened to be tonight! We hung out and mingled with the local trail club. Then stayed up too late discussing politics with Spicerack back at the hostel. He is a young guy from Iowa who thru hiked Franklin, NC to Katahdn and was now helping Zen run the hostel until he saved up enough money to finish the last section of the hike to Springer. The convo was lively and we had friendly debate over nuances in the progressive agenda and vented about our shared outrage about many of the current systems and institutions in our country. It was cathartic.
Day 154: Wayah Gap - Franklin, NC to Carter Gap Shelter (21.8 mi)
Yay! The sun was out! We got up at 6 and left Gooder Grove hostel at about 7:20. We had to pick up another section hiker at a different gap before we got dropped off so we got on trail at about 8:15. We bid farewell to Zen, who we decided is like Poet at Shaw’s in Monson, ME, but for southbounders. Poet bids NoBos farewell into the 100 mile wilderness as they finish their thru hikes and we are exactly 115 miles away from Springer so it felt quite similar.
The morning was quite cold (about 27 degrees) and there was a fresh layer of snow/ice covering the ground like we have now seen a few times. I was glad we slept inside last night and the zero day felt validated. The forecast looks cold but sunny for the rest of our hike! Woohoo! No rain! I can do bitter cold as long as it is not accompanied with precipitation.
The day went by quickly as the terrain was pretty mellow. After lunch I dropped FF and then waited for quite awhile at the observation tower on the top of Albert Mountain. It was quite windy and I wanted to get to camp before dark so I pushed on before he got there knowing he would catch up to me (he always does!).
Miles and miles passed (12 miles total!) and he still hadn’t caught me. I started to get a little worried. I called him and his phone was in airplane mode. Finally one of my calls went through and we were able to have a brief check in before my service dropped. He told me that he forgot that I was ahead of him and so he had waited about 30 minutes at the observation tower for me! Oh no! I told him I was close to the shelter and he should run to get there before dark. It is unusual to go 12 miles without seeing each other on trail. This was the second time that he forgot I was ahead of him. Yikes.
I arrived at the shelter area and was informed that the shelter was quite full. I had read comments in Guthook that it was ridden with mice so I thought tenting would be good anyway since it wasn’t supposed to rain.
I saw a fire and a lot of tents in the camping area and asked a group of section hikers if I could wait by their fire until FF arrived. It was such a big and nice fire and gave off so much heat! FF finally arrived but didn’t get the memo about getting water on the trail before arriving so the section hikers offered us some of their water! They also offered to boil us water for dinner so we didn’t have to use our fuel, which was super nice! True trail magic. We ate dinner by the fire and felt so warm and enjoyed conversation with quite a few hikers who meandered over to the fire. We reconnected with Tillerman and Legs by the fire as well. Craig had decided to take another Zero in Franklin so we probably wont see him again.
That night the wind picked up dramatically. It was SO windy and SO cold. It was definitely our coldest night on trail. The temperature was in the teens and the wind was just ripping. I used two z rests, the air mattress sleeping pad I had been carrying as well as two sleeping bag liners and still felt chilly!! Fresh Feet was super cold as well that night. The good news is that it will probably get into the 50s during the day and combo that with sun and it makes for pretty great hiking weather!
The topic of “what next?” continues to be brought up and the honest truth is neither one of us is even able to think about that yet. We are so immersed in this trail world, that the other world seems so distant. We are so focused on the present moment that the trail doesn’t really allow for grandiose self discoveries. I do think that will come, but we will need to get out of the harsh elements and let our bodies rest some in order to process the experience. I think this experience has allowed us to be open to many possibilities and feel energized about a lot of different ideas of how we will re-engage with civilization, but we will probably need to hibernate and be warm and dry for a while without having to worry about hypothermia as we make that transition. I imagine the transition will need to be somewhat slow and gentle to intentionally reintegrate with true purpose. But all I can really think about is just wanting to be on my couch in soft, dry, cotton pajamas with a lot of blankets and to snuggle my kitty… for like 1 month….!