Part one in this two-part post covers the Appalachian Trail from the Georgia/North Carolina border north to Hot Springs, NC:
- 384.7 miles total in NC/TN
18 Days from the GA/NC border to Hot Springs, NC
- 38 total days spent in NC/TN
Highest elevation: Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 feet
With nearly 200 miles of trail that weaves on or close to the NC/TN border, I’ve decided to combine the two states into two shared posts. When you are hiking this section, it can be hard to distinguish what state you are in – distinguishing the two while writing about them is just as hard. Thus, you’ll get to read about the awesomeness that is North Carolina and Tennessee in TWO WHOLE POSTS.
Crossing into North Carolina, we had our work cut out for us – first on Standing Indian Mountain (5,499 ft) and shortly after on Mt. Albert (5,280 ft). The challenge of the latter climb was somewhat dulled by the fact that we completed 100 miles during the ascent! Looking back on that number, it doesn’t seem like much. But, at the time, we celebrated with the same excitement as a dog feels when hearing the words “Go for a ride?!”:
Or, maybe this dog going down the slide:
That’s the thing with this trail… celebrate all of your accomplishments! Once you get to the point where nothing is new or exciting or worth celebrating (which is easier than it sounds), then the journey just becomes a long walk in a green tunnel.
Shortly after Mt. Albert, we experienced for the first time how liberating a privy can be. Thus far, privies had been fairly “normal” with 4 walls and a hole to “release the troops” into. Butt, our first privy in North Carolina was a little different. There were TWO walls to block your bare ass from the direction of the shelter and NOTHING to block the view from incoming hikers on the trail maybe 40 feet in front of the privy. You could have an entire conversation with another hiker on the state of your affairs as they tread on by:
“Hey Rob, how’s it flowing?”
“Pretty good, pretty good. A little dehydrated I think but other than that, can’t complain”
“Wait. Wait. Are you eating a snicker’s right now, too?”
The first North Carolina town we resupplied in was Franklin. After only taking a “nero” day in Helen, we decided that we were going to take our first true “zero” day here.
“Nero” Day = A day where not many miles are hiked (usually on a resupply day or when hiking to a hotel)
“Zero” Day = A day when no hiking is done (“the only moving I’m doing today is to lift a beer and a slice of pizza”)
We were fortunate as one of the businessmen in town, Ron Haven, provided free daily bus rides into town for all hikers. The premise is that he expects you to stay in one of his motels while in town in return for the free ride. Otherwise, a small donation is requested. The man recognizes the opportunity to make good money on little out-of-pocket cost, I’ll give him that.
We decided to stay at Ron’s Budget Inn for the night because it was really close to downtown and would give us the chance to explore. It was a no frills room that was fairly outdated but sleeping on a mattress made it all worth it. Truth be told, I felt that $50 was a bit much for the room but I suppose its fair when you factor in the free ride, kind owner and trail culture.
Rob found a Comfort Inn on the other side of town that had a JACUZZI suite. If you know Rob at all, you will know that he is obsessed with hot tubs. Like, VERY obsessed. They are likely ranked number three on his list of favorite things right behind beer and making whoopee. Naturally, we moved there for our second night in town.
While wandering around Franklin, we found ourselves inside the gear shop Outdoor 76. While they carried a large amount of gear, the incredible customer service was by far their best quality (not to mention the 10% thru-hiker discount). Our feet had been hurting quite badly and it had been recommended to us to invest in some shoe insoles. The store owner not only provided his brand recommendations but measured our feet and posture, cut the inserts to fit our shoes and custom molded them to our feet. He really took the time out of his day to provide every detail about our feet and why insoles are so helpful in correcting your stride. Naturally, we got some blisters along the way with the amount of abuse we caused on our feet (mostly as a result of the friction caused from walking in the rain). But, for the most part, we avoided anything too detrimental and troublesome. I’d like to credit that to these guys. Everybody should find what works for them but the hike-saving insoles we used were SOLE Dean Karnazes Signature Series Custom Footbeds:
Now, first thing you will want to do once arriving in town is to demolish a bunch of food that is not, and has never been, dehydrated. One good option in Franklin is a delicious Mexican restaurant called “Mi Casa”. It’s hard to take a thru-hiker restaurant review seriously as I would have drooled over anchovy pizza but I think the food was good. At the very least, they had good tequila. This was the very night in which my trail name was born.
While on a thru-hike, it has become a kind of tradition for hikers to be born again in nature and reemerge with a new name… a trail name. Scratch that born again and reemerging crap and that simply leaves you with a fun or meaningful name that others will begin to know you as on your hike. It’s a kind of second identity, if you will.
Side note: This makes for a really confusing Facebook friend list (“I don’t know who Sam from Pennsylvania is. Oh wait. Flash, is that you?”). For at least a year after your thru-hike, it is helpful to put your trail name as your middle name.
Rob originally wanted to call me Sporty Spice from my minor childhood obsession with the Spice Girls (of which Sporty Spice was clearly the best). I thought I could be called “Spicy” for short so Rob wanted me to EARN the name. To do so, it was decided that I had to take a shot of tequila mixed with habanero sauce.
Mmm mmm…. Talk about instant heart burn.
We were with a pretty large group that night and Rocket, a talented filmmaker and sweetheart of a person, ended up filming the trail naming. To catch it and its minor part in her amazing documentary, check it out here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/hardwayhome.
Rob, er, “Rocky” earned his because of his celebration tendencies when he would summit a mountain (meaning that he would get excited, jump around and throw punches whenever he made it to the top). He didn’t stop on the climb, either. He just kept going and going and going until there was no more climbing to do. The man is full of energy!
After waking-up refreshed from a night full of hot-tubbing, the First Baptist Church of Franklin picked us up at the hotel and brought us to their hiker breakfast feed. If memory serves me correctly, the contents of our plates included such delicacies as pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, potatoes, grits, communion wine and toast. Needless to say, they sent us off 10 pounds heavier and with a big smile on our faces.
Remember those knee problems I mentioned would come to haunt me? Well, they came with the same kind of vengeance as used below against Alan Ralsky, “Spam King”:
In 2003, enough people had access to the Internet that spam e-mail had become a problem worthy of national attention. At the heart of the controversy was a Michigan entrepreneur named Alan Ralsky, who became known as the “spam king,” for sending millions of bulk e-mail come-ons for a variety of businesses. As a result, some critics of his business model called Ralsky “vermin” and “scum”
. When an article in a local paper spotlighted Ralsky’s lavish lifestyle, including his 8,000-square-foot (743-square-meter) home, some of those critics managed to find the spam king’s physical address. In a bid for revenge for all of the spam e-mail they’d received through his business, the naysayers signed Ralsky’s address up for junk mail on a number of sites around the Internet. Eventually, thousands of Internet trolls propagated the address across the Web. <strong>At the peak of the revenge scheme, Ralsky’s home received hundreds of pounds of junk mail each day</strong>
In 2009, Ralsky pleaded guilty in federal court to fraud for a penny stock manipulation scheme. He received a 51-month prison sentence
Clark, Josh. “10 Big Cases of Revenge” 15 November 2010. HowStuffWorks.com. <http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-events/10-biggest-cases-of-revenge.htm> 02 February 2015.
Having no major knee problems prior to our thru-hike, going through this was not something I anticipated. It took about a week for the pain to start and was at its worst during the long downhill into Fontana Dam (Day 19). I tried some stretches recommended to me as well as a knee brace for a brief time (I didn’t want my knees to become too dependent on the brace, though). Tiger Balm, a topical pain relief similar to Icy Hot, felt amazing to apply at the end of the day but it didn’t get to the actual root of the problem. It was bad enough that we would switch some of my heavier items to Rob’s pack before a long downhill to alleviate some of the pressure (best husband ever, I know). It was also bad enough that I didn’t feel any foot soreness any more… so you know that must have been BAD!
I learned that I had a tight IT Band which I guess is fairly common among runners and long-distance hikers. The same person that informed me of what I was going through also told me that one day, I would wake up and the pain would be gone. Lo and behold, my pain magically disappeared after getting through the Smokies. I literally woke up, started a descent and didn’t have the pain anymore. Thank you, knees!
AND, re-commence foot soreness.
One of the joys of an A.T. thru-hike is the inevitable fact that you will get rained on.
Rain is as much of a reality during the hike as is the fact that Tom Brady is a big fat winning weenie.
While you will have no choice but to trudge through the downpours, there is a little known secret that is, in its essence, pure magic.
Oh yes, my friends, the ShamWow is a little slice of heavenly absorbency. No joke. We hiked with a single-walled tent, the TarpTent Rainshadow 2, which we loved for its space and weight (42 ounces). Its downfall, other than it not being free-standing, is its tendency to collect condensation on the inside of the tent. When it is not fully ventilated, condensation will build on the ceiling of the tent while you sleep. If you so much as bump into the wall, you may find yourself in a mini indoor rain shower.
This is where the ShamWow comes in.
The day before reaching Nantahala Outdoor Center (N.O.C), we were wet. It had been raining all day and we had to set-up our tent in the rain as the shelter was full. Once inside the tent, most everything was soaked. My hair, our clothes, the floor of the tent… pretty much everything not inside of our packs (TIP: Use a heavy-duty, construction-style trash bag as a pack liner if your pack isn’t waterproof – it will keep the inside of your pack dry and you can cheaply replace it as it gets worn).
Rob pulled out the ShamWow and went to work. He dried the inside of our tent in no time and rolled up our clothes a few times in the ShamWow to soak up a good amount of the moisture. The angels were practically singing “Hallelujah” as we took refuge from the rain while being reasonably dry. We always kept it on hand for the occasional middle-of-the night ceiling dry-down and as a towel when none were available.
I’ll end this ShamWow rant now in fear of being associated to its most famous pitchman (who incidentally was arrested for beating up a prostitute… true story).
We stayed at the N.O.C. for a night of recovery, laundry, real food, and cheap beer from some paddling film festival we randomly joined. Some hikers indulged in rafting or tubing as whitewater sports are the N.O.C’s specialty. Looking back, I don’t know why we didn’t. Perhaps it was too cold to enjoy or maybe it was too expensive. Whatever the reason, I wish we would’ve done so. Oh well. At least we ate some really good burgers at their River Run Restaurant.
This is also where we had our first hitchhiking experience. Before deciding to eat at River Run, we heard there was a delicious hole-in-the-wall burger joint called Burger Basket a mile down the road. Like a magnet pulling us in, we quickly headed that way. Rob threw out a thumb as there was a good amount of traffic and we wanted to give hitching a try. Almost instantaneously, a car screeched to a halt in front of us. The ease of it made us uneasy. While we thought it was strange to have such quick luck, we were excited to get to the Burger Shack as quick as humanly possible. Opening the door to the van had us questioning whether it was in fact luck that caught our ride or if it was our impending demise.
He was a weird cat guy.
He had two cats roaming around the interior of his van. Maybe this is normal, I don’t know, but I’ve never seen the likes of this. His car had the distinct smell of cat piss. He also had open fruit trays dispersed on the floor. I don’t know if they were his or if they were cat food. Either way, it was strange. I couldn’t help but think of three possible endings to this adventure:
- We would get fleas.
- We would get murdered.
- We would get fleas and then get murdered.
If hiking has taught me anything, it is not to be too quick to judge. As easy as it is to mistake a thru-hiker for a homeless person, it is as easy to mistake a crazy cat guy for a murderer. He ended up being really nice and dropped us off right where we requested (which, evidently, was only 30 seconds from where he picked us up). Alas, we got to live another day.
This other day, though, was going to have to be void of the rumored burgers because the Burger Shack was closed.
While we escaped being ravaged from fleas, mice are a different story. If you stay in a shelter, you will encounter mice. Fact. While they will mostly leave you alone, they will go after your most precious belongings (i.e. – your food). Most shelters have nifty little contraptions where a string is hung from the rafters, a can or bottle is suspended in the middle, and a stick is tied to the bottom.
I’m not going to say that anything is 100% but we only had one close call with mice after using these (this was in Maine where the mice were literally falling from the rafters). We learned quickly to hang even clothes from these contraptions. Apparently, mice like the salt in sweat and will chew into your clothing. Rob’s favorite shirt was chewed up from this very occurrence.
The trek from N.O.C. to Fontana Dam was hot. The terrain wasn’t too difficult but still did us in while exercising our Chris Farley-like lungs. During this portion, I was happy to have listened to my sister and gotten a tetanus shot before leaving home. While resting for lunch at a shelter, I took my boots off to air my feet out. I thought I felt something funny in the bottom of my croc while walking back from the bathroom and then I saw this:
The southern Appalachian Trail entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains takes you though Fontana Dam. Not a good place to resupply (at least in 2012), we shipped food ahead to ourselves from Franklin to be picked up at Fontana Village Resort. We may have considered staying here if it wasn’t for the fact that the famed Fontana Hilton is in the same vicinity.
Not an actual Hilton, though I would’ve certainly enjoyed that as well, the Fontana Hilton is a rumored to be the best shelter on the trail. With a nicely constructed double-layered shelter, a firepit boasting views over Fontana Lake, and a bathhouse with a shower and FLUSHING toilets nearby, I will say it was a remarkable place. While I wouldn’t say it was my personal favorite – this nomination would go to the Partnership Shelter in Virginia – I could see why it would be others.
Before heading into the Smokies, you are required to obtain a backcountry permit. At the time it was free but rumors circulated that wasn’t likely to continue. My quick research shows that thru-hikers are now being charged $20 per person. Yikes! Other regulations worthy of noting include the requirement to make it through the park within 8 days, thru-hikers can only hike/camp on the A.T. (and give up bunk space in shelters to non-thru hikers with reservations), and no dogs are permitted within the park. The complete backcountry rules and regulations can be found here. While we had to fill out our itinerary, it is mostly just required to give park rangers a rough idea of where you will be in case you go missing. We did see two park rangers on our trek through the Smokies who asked to see our permits so make sure you carry your portion with you. I hear the fines can be pretty hefty if you are found without a permit (we met some thru-hikers who tented in a non-designated camping area and each received a $150 citation).
After crossing Fontana Dam, we finally entered the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This was a big moment for us as we had been looking forward to this section for weeks and felt accomplished to simply have reached it. To celebrate, we did what all hikers would do:
Climbed a big ass mountain.
Yes, the hike into the Smokies felt like a never-ending incline. The good thing is that once you reach elevation, you mostly remained up high. Mostly.
While exhausting, the climb into the park was beautiful. The sun was shining, temperatures were warm (but not too warm), and spirits were high. We kept hearing what sounded like raindrops hitting the ground. We’d stop and look up to make sure we weren’t crazy and didn’t see a cloud in the sky. As soon as we’d start to walk again, we’d hear more raindrops. With further inspection, we realized that the sound came from hundreds of little crickets hopping around as we passed by their gathering area. It was a nice little welcome to the Smokies.
The trail in the Smokies weaves along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. It became a running joke that you could also tell what state you were in whenever you needed to go to the bathroom. You see, the North Carolina side had relatively nice privies for hikers to poo in private. However, Tennessee wasn’t so accommodating. They had what could only be described as “bathroom areas” – a certain piece of land or side of the hill designated as the “bathroom” spot for all people in that camping area. I think I remember hearing something about Tennessee laws not permitting privies in that area. I don’t know if that is true or not. What is true is the fact that you have to be very diligent about where you step when finding a spot to relieve yourself as many people don’t know what it means to dig a cathole.
Who thought this was a good idea? The only person who could have fathomed that this was bright was the first person to designate it as such. Every person thereafter entered a shithole.
The shelters in the Smokies were nice, though. Most of the ones we stayed in had a tin roof with windows. Being that it rained what felt like every night after that beautiful sunny first day, it was soothing to listen to the rain pitter-patter on the roof… even more soothing than an Enya CD. It made it quite the challenge to get up and leave the shelter in the morning.
Two shelters specifically come to mind when I think of the Smokies…
- We had a terribly cold night before heading into Gatlinburg. Fortunately, the shelter we slept in came with a built-in fireplace that spewed warmth into our refuge. Shelter-sleepers collectively added wood to the fire throughout the night to ensure our groups survival. It was spectacular teamwork.
- On our last night in the park, we ended up in one of the few remaining shelters in the park with a chain-linked bear fence covering the opening. Take that, bears
About halfway through the Smokies, we reached the highest point on the entire trail: Clingman’s Dome at 6,643 feet. While the A.T. doesn’t actually summit the mountain, it gets you close enough to hop on the main paved route to the summit for the remaining 0.1 or 0.2 mile (I’m guessing on that distance but it isn’t far).
There are people EVERYWHERE!
A parking lot is located a convenient 0.5 mile down the paved path from the summit so you can bet on most everybody touring the Great Smoky Mountain National Park to come here. There is a strange, concrete observation tower on the summit that resembles a spaceship about to take-off. From it, you can see up to 100 miles away on a clear day. It is rare to be able to see this far due to a fabulous thing called air pollution but we lucked out with great views.
Fun Fact: The cool and wet conditions on the summit of Clingman’s Dome actually makes the forest growing there a coniferous rainforest. Cool, huh?
There were so many tourists here that we looked very out-of-place with our hiking gear and scraggly appearance. Maybe you could just smell us from 50 feet away but it got to the point where WE felt like the tourist attraction (Humans in the Wild, coming to Nat Geo in Spring 2015). Rob wanted to make a sign that said “Will answer questions for food”.
Speaking of food, this is about the time (3 weeks in) where our hiker hunger hit… and hit HARD. We originally planned on bypassing Gatlinburg, TN but ended up needing to stop as we ate all of our snacks and most of our meals. I literally had dreams about dipping bacon in Nutella. I would roll over in the morning and look at Rob in his puffy orange sleeping bag and think of Cheetos. It was tempting to give it a bite. He said that I, in my puffy green sleeping bag, looked like a pickle. Nothing in this world could make a pickle sound appetizing. Still, food was clearly on the mind.
We tried a concoction of ramen, instant mashed potatoes and bacon bits (as recommended to us by a fellow hiker) and deemed it the 8th World Wonder. The sound of this gives me the urge to vomit now but, at the time, it was pure heaven.
Gag. Excuse me while I go thro……………..
By the time we hit Newfound Gap (where the road into Gatlinburg is located), we had an insatiable hunger. Fortunately, a thru-hiking alum who could relate to our self-provoked famine, was set-up at the parking lot providing trail magic with his wife. Simply writing that they provided trail magic doesn’t do them justice so I’ll list it out:
- Grilled everybody sandwiches with whatever meat and cheese combo you wanted.
- Provided home-baked brownies.
- Set-up a cooler full of beverages.
- Had a variety of chips for your selection.
- Piled as many hikers as possible into their truck and drove us to a hotel in Gatlinburg (15 miles away).
- Repeated all of this until the evening.
- Drove us all to the grocery store to resupply.
- Picked us up in Gatlinburg the next day and drove us back to Newfound Gap
- And repeat for the next set of incoming thru-hikers.
Really… where else can you find this community? How can I even put this kind of generosity into words? I don’t know of anybody in the world talented enough to do so. Simply put… just… wow.
Thank you, Godspeed and Mountain Mama.
Riding in the bed of a truck down to Gatlinburg around sharp mountain curves was exhilarating.
While it was tempting to stay in Gatlinburg a second night, I don’t know that I could’ve bore it. We have affectionately deemed the town “Redneck Las Vegas”. I’m sure our experience would have been a little different had we not spent so much time in the woods (read: the amount of people was super overwhelming). That’s not to say that we didn’t have a nice time. We were able stay in a hotel room for a night, SHOWER, go out to eat, drink beer, and soak in the sights (read: it was also Spring Break). However, I’m a little judge-y when a town has a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum. And… this:
Okay, FINE. It’s kind of cool. Especially the giant bear with a backpack. That’s really cool.
I really enjoyed the second half of the Smokies going Northbound (that is from Newfound Gap to the northern border of the park). The first part was gorgeous with conifer forests and moss covered ground. The second part was unlike anything we’d seen so far, though, with rocky outcroppings and uninterrupted ridgeline views into the valleys below:
And the remains of a plane crash:
The last day in the park, the one where we finished at the “bear-proof” shelter, we decided to hike our first 20+ mile day. It was exactly 20 miles from shelter to shelter but we added in the 1.2 mile roundtrip side trail to the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower making it 21.2 miles. We had a good start time, good weather, good spirits and good speed going for us. Our bodies held up just fine until the very ended when we encountered the long descent out of the park. My knees were throbbing by the time we finished. While we felt accomplished, I was happy to finish when we did. I was also happy that Rob bought some Southern Comfort in Gatlinburg to drink away my pain.
Ahhh, nature’s medicine.
One of the first places you hit after exiting the Smokies is Standing Bear Hostel. We arrived to Standing Bear early in the morning so we opted not to spend the night. Of course, we were in need of some more snacks and thus walked the 200 yard side trail to get there. Along with the snacks, we baked a pizza and drank copious amounts of chocolate milk. Standing Bear has a large bunkroom and offers plenty of hiker services such as mail drops, shuttles, laundry, and kenneling dogs as you walk through the Smokies. Click the link above to learn more.
The next couple of nights would prove to be really, really, really frigid. Along the way we encountered a privy our group affectionately named Snuffleupagus due to the fun ventilation tubes coming out of it.
We also encountered one of our first bald mountains on the trail, Max Patch. Standing at 4,629 feet, it is a grassy summit that offers 360 degree views. Many people consider it to be one of the highlights of Southern Appalachia as the experience is pretty extraordinary. Looking back, I wish we would’ve stuck around until nightfall as I hear looking at the stars is an experience like none other.
Instead, we headed on to camp at the remarkable “Unnamed Gap”. So remarkable in fact that it doesn’t even have a name. It was here that we survived our COLDEST night on the entire trail (our last night in Maine was a close second). To paint a picture, our tent condensation turned to ice, neither one of us had one wink of sleep and we managed to leave camp around 6:30am wanting to churn some body heat (if we left camp by 8:00 on most days, we felt accomplished). We tried to create a cocoon in our non-compatible sleeping bags but only managed to let in bone-chilling drafts. The group we stayed there with decided to henceforth name the gap “Hell’s Freezer”.
Leaving early meant an early arrival in Hot Springs, NC and thus beginning our vacation in Asheville, NC. Learn more about these two great places, and the rest of our North Carolina/Tennessee trek, in part two…