An Appalachian Trail Series – North Carolina/Tennessee, PART TWO

Part two in this two-part post covers the Appalachian Trail north from Hot Springs, NC to the Tennessee/Virginia border:

189.3 miles

  •   384.7 miles total in NC/TN

20 Days from Hot Springs, NC to the TN/VA border

  •   38 total days spent in NC/TN

Highest elevation: Roan Mountain – 6,285 feet

IMG_2283

There is a running joke on the trail that the moment you ride in a car after a week in the woods is comparable to a ride in an F-15 fighter jet. When you become accustomed to walking 2-3 mph, cruising down the expressway at 60 mph is eye-opening to say the least. Put that F-15 on copious amounts of crack and you will begin to understand our near-death experience on the ride to Asheville, NC.

Needing a little respite after more than a month on the trail, we decided to take a mini-vacation in Asheville. About 40 miles away from Hot Springs, landing a hitch was going to be a bit tricky. Fortunately, we made this sign:

It didn't work...

It didn’t work.

While waiting for what turned out to be our non-existent hitch, we overheard some hippie-looking chicks telling some fellow thru-hikers about heading back to Asheville for a concert. After strategizing how to land a ride with them, we slowly made our way into the conversation as smooth as possible (which, if you know us at all, is smooth as tiger’s teeth). When we heard that they had a car, we erupted in excitement and asked if they would be so kind as to let us tag along. They said “yes” and we thus caused the biggest hook-up blocking event to our comrades in hiker history. I swear, we didn’t even realize what we were doing until later. Sorry guys!

It wasn’t long before our excitement turned into absolute horror. The girl behind the wheel was the equivalent of a blind AND drunk grandmother navigating her way through curvy mountain roads. Maybe she is usually a better driver but, in light of the wine bag-slapping party they were indulging in before and DURING the trip, her driving skills were nil.

I lost count of all the cars we narrowly avoided rear-ending by screeching to a halt or swerving into the next lane at the last second. Some thoughts she must have had:

                 Who needs to go 55 mph on mountain roads when I can go 90 mph and make the trip go that much quicker?!

       Cruise control, huh? That should steer the car just fine while I refill my wine glass.

                                     I. LOVE. THIS. SONG. ::Lifts hands in air and throws head side-to-side::

                           Where did those pills go?

Rob handed them back to her as they must have fallen on the ground when she got out. We kissed the ground after arriving in one piece and thanked them for their generosity. We offered them gas money which they benevolently declined. They were incredibly kind so I will give them that. I suppose we needed a thrill-ride to remind us of our blessings.

We spent three days enjoying civilization and all of the wonders that come along with it (such as buses to get you from one spot to another and clean, running water). If you have never been to Asheville, go. With all of the traveling we’ve done in the U.S. over the years, Asheville is one of the most unique and friendly (not to mention beautiful) cities we have visited. There is a lively downtown area with a Friday night drum circle that seems to pull in a diverse crowd. We enjoyed delicious food and beer and rejuvenated our badly-abused muscles.

Appalachian Trail 281

Appalachian Trail 282

Appalachian Trail 284

Appalachian Trail 285

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After three days, though, we needed to move along in fear of becoming too comfortable and not wanting to leave. A couple of Rob sister’s friends we visited with while we were there knew someone that lived in Hot Springs. They arranged for us to catch a ride with him on his way back home from work. How great is that?! He was a very kind man and we were incredibly grateful for his generosity.

When we arrived back in Hot Springs, it was already dark and we were faced with the decision of where to sleep. Our luck seemed to continue when Patches and Downhill, two friends we made in the Smokies, randomly walked up and offered for us to sleep in the cabin they rented.

We spent the next day exploring Hot Springs and indulging in the “hot spring” experience at the Hot Springs Resort & Spa (gee, how many times can I say Hot Springs in one sentence). Legend has it that the land is cursed as the Cherokee considered the area to be sacred because of the springs mystical and curative powers. Of course, the white man came in and completely disregarded their beliefs and built a resort. After burning down two or three times, I’d have to say that it may be more than a coincidence. No fires occurred during our visit but healing certainly did as the natural magnesium and minerals in the water felt spectacular. The water is piped from 2 ½ miles in the mountains directly to individual hot tubs. No treatment of the water is done or needed. Having such a relaxing hot tub experience, we had to force ourselves to leave town once again.

Appalachian Trail 292

One of the most spectacular experiences after leaving Hot Springs was the hike through Blackstack and Whiterock Cliffs. It was foggy when we got there but jumping from rock-to-rock and playing around on the mountaintop was exhilarating.There are two routes when you reach the top of the ridgeline: one that follows Firescald Ridge and one that skirts around it to be used in inclement weather. Even though we knew we wouldn’t be able to see anything, we took the ridgeline route. It was worth it:

Appalachian Trail 318

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A couple of days later, we had another bald mountain experience on Big Bald Mountain (creative name, huh?). Scientists aren’t entirely sure why a select amount of mountains in the area are bald. The most widely agreed upon theory dates back to the Ice Age when a combination of tundra-like conditions and strong winds caused trees not to grow in the most extreme locations (i.e. mountain summits). The trees never recovered where mountains are still bald today.

We were reeling from the beauty of the mountains until we ended up at the next shelter. While some hikers will wear long underwear around camp, most are aware of what all they are showing off. Not at this shelter. Well, I should specify not ONE old man at this shelter. He was wearing white, see-through long underwear… long underwear pants to complete that picture. Yeah.

Visualize that, will ya?

Our nightmares weren’t about bears that night.

We made it to Erwin, TN a couple of days acquainting ourselves with the old man. The highlight on our way there was probably “High Rocks”. They offered pretty views but, more importantly, had a lawn chair set-up. It’s funny how you take chairs, or really anything with a back to it, for granted in the civilized world. Rob and I took turns chill-axing on it.

Appalachian Trail 334

When we arrived in Erwin, TN, Rob and I already had some preconceived notions about the town from hiker word-of-mouth. Having heard that the area was not too hiker friendly and that the townsfolk hung an elephant from a crane in 1916, we weren’t expecting a grand affair. Fortunately for us, our experience was okay: Nothing bad, nothing amazing.

What’s that?

Oh, the elephant hanging bit?

I need to elaborate on that?

Yeah, I suppose that warrants some elaboration…

Back in the early 1900’s, circus acts were a big deal and the competition was real (just think of “Water for Elephants” without the undercover vampire). Thus, when the Sparks Brothers Circus paraded through Kingsport, TN, many people turned up to see the crown jewel of the circus – Mary the Elephant. As the parade proceeded, the “qualified” drifter hired days prior to handle Mary decided to jab her with a hook behind the ear as she stopped to eat a watermelon rind. Not knowing that he was actually pressing on an abscessed tooth, and surely being a tad cruel in the first place, Mary went full rage on him. She grabbed him with her trunk, threw him on the ground and trampled his body (it should be noted that witnesses said that blood and brains were everywhere). The town blacksmith tried to rectify the situation by firing five rounds into Mary…which did absolutely nothing. The town demanded justice. Since nobody had a gun large enough to bring about her ultimate demise, they had to brainstorm on how to bring “Murderous Mary” to her doom.

Electrocution?

No.

Crushing between two train engines?

No.

Dismemberment?

No.

Hanging?

Yes!

As it turns out, nearby Erwin had a crane strong enough to lift and move locomotive boilers – problem solved. The first attempt to hang Mary failed. Too weak of a chain was used and it snapped causing Mary to fall and break her hip. A larger chain was obtained that was ultimately successful and caused her death by asphyxiation on September 13, 1916. It’s an all-together cruel and horrendous story.

Chilling.

To lighten the mood, we had excellent (non-elephant) BBQ in Erwin at Hawg-n-Dawg.

The best part about reaching Erwin was our first run-in with Miss Janet. A trail angel, and quite possibly the sweetest person in the history of humans, Miss Janet dedicates much of the year to help hikers where needed. From providing rides to cooking pancake breakfasts, her legend precedes her. We literally squealed with excitement when we recognized her and were offered a ride to the Super 8. A word to the wise – donate to her if you can. The A.T. would be a much sadder place without Miss Janet around.

Appalachian Trail 341

One question we were asked many times before heading out for the trail was “Are you going to carry a gun?” We met some hikers who did, some who didn’t. While we made the decision not to, I can understand where some decided otherwise. Not to protect yourself from animals – 999 times out of 1,000 those black bears are going to run away from you – but from a potential run-in with a homicidal redneck. While I am a firm believer in protecting yourself by being aware of your surroundings (i.e. – not camping next to a road, separating yourself from suspicious hikers, etc.), sometimes there are things that happen beyond your control.

Take this incidence at Beauty Spot near Erwin, TN…

Rob and I arrived here the following day after leaving Erwin. It was a foggy morning but the views opened up around noon making this a nice place to have lunch. Upon arrival, we saw a handful of people from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the National Forest Service scoping out grooves in the ground. We asked them what had happened and were told that some locals drove up to Beauty Spot in their truck. They harassed hikers tenting on top by driving donuts around their tents and chasing them around as they ran for their lives.

Later on, in a separate instance, we found out from fellow hikers that a doped up townie came to Beauty Spot to scare the hikers and acquire a little extra spending money. This guy pulled a gun on the group and used it to coerce the hikers into a line. He mentioned that he was an “undercover” cop and had heard that some people were carrying drugs. He was there to “confiscate them” and they could pay their way out of a ticket by giving him what cash they had in their wallets. After carelessly waving his gun a few times, a couple of section-hikers (who were in the Coast Guard, coincidentally) managed to sucker punch him, take away his weapon, and hog-tie him until some real cops showed up. While this is not a normal occurrence on the trail, and is certainly not meant to scare anyone away from a thru-hike as the probability of it happening is extremely slim, it does go to show that you still need to be on your toes when in the woods on your own… or when you think you’re on your own.

*** This is where I add-in that this instance would probably have been worse if one of the hikers was carrying. Who knows if it would have ended in a shoot-out, someone accidentally getting shot, or another terrible result. In addition to them being a last resort (and is my opinion that most hikers SHOULD NOT carry), they are illegal in some places (i.e. New York). Really do your research if you decide that you are going to carry. ***

Gun-happy, reckless rednecks aside, this region is also home to the incredible Roan Highlands. When I described the beauty of Max Patch in my last post as this stunning bald mountain oasis in a sea of tree-clad summits, Roan Highlands is like this just with a repetition of bald mountains for miles upon miles. The scenery is breathtaking. Most of the trail leading up to this point is tree-covered so you can only see what trail is directly in front of you. Hiking through the Roan Highlands, you can see exactly where you will be going for miles. In reality, it makes you feel incredibly slow. You think you should have made it to a certain point in a certain amount of time and you almost always take longer that you think. We had zero perception of distance in this section. That’s alright. I’ll take feeling as slow as AOL dial-up as long as I can keep experiencing those views.

Seriously, though. It is amazing.

Appalachian Trail 366

Before hiking through the Highlands, we first had to conquer Roan Mountain (6,286 feet). Here is a snapshot from that day:

04.27.2012 – Day 43 (Candice)

Roan Mountain was daunting as we came upon it. The first half of the climb wasn’t too bad as they re-routed the trail this year and added switchbacks all the way up the first part. We had some flat ground for a little bit and then BAM!, helacious climb. All-in-all, they balanced out and it wasn’t too terrible. I think we can credit that to the gradual acquisition of our trail legs.

It was really beautiful at the top as it was a spruce forest. The smell of the pine in crisp mountain air was quite intoxicating. We rested for a bit at Roan Mountain Shelter (the highest shelter on the A.T.) and then headed on to Overmountain Shelter. We climbed a few very pretty balds on the way in the Roan Highlands. Franklinstein accompanied us for the last 5 miles of the day.

The shelter is really neat. It’s a converted barn that is GIGANTIC and nestled in-between some hills and a valley. The view from the front is probably the best one yet from a shelter.

Our spirits are pretty high. We are still getting used to the fact that we aren’t simply on a couple week vacation from work. We both get a little bit of anxiety spending money without bringing any in and have to remind ourselves of why we are out here. As my Dad said, you have to make sacrifices for the experiences that are most worth it in life. Good thing we have been saving for awhile to come out here so we aren’t living too much on the edge. A fellow hiker once said that the worst days out here are better than the best back in an office. I’m thinking that may be true. I guess I’ll have to keep walking to find out.

We had some really beautiful hiking the next couple of days after leaving Overmountain Shelter. The remainder of Roan Highlands was uniquely beautiful. Slightly cloudy, but pleasant temperatures, made for enjoyable hiking. When we came upon Kincora Hostel, owned by Bob Peoples, we arrived after the shuttle left for a resupply run in town. Having no cash to leave a donation, we decided not to stay and headed on to the next shelter.

You don’t want to be those asshole who don’t leave a donation.

We were bummed. We had been looking forward to meeting Bob as he is a trail legend. He coordinates a trail maintaining crew called Hardcore who really kick butt in this area. They are the crew that added all of the switchbacks up Roan Mountain. Whether you enjoy switchbacks is debatable but his hard work and dedication to maintaining the trail in this area appropriately deems him an Appalachian Trail hero.

Next time, Bob. Next time.

Our misfortune at Kincora proved to be a happy mistake. This next section of trail was absolutely beautiful and the timing of our hike made it that much more incredible. With the sun setting, brilliant oranges illuminated all of the land around us. There were a lot of waterfalls and big rock faces on both sides of the trail. Flowering trees were blooming with vibrant colors. The sound of rushing water was entrancing. My sexy husband in front of me completed this scene of perfection. Oh, Laurel Falls can be found here too:

Appalachian Trail 393

Not stopping at Kincora disrupted our food planning. For dinner, we ended up having to share half a stick of gross pepperoni, a packet of tuna, and 2 pop tarts. Let me tell you, it was not as delicious as it sounds (which should tell you a lot). After this, we got into the habit of over packing food when leaving town. Fortunately, we were heading into Hampton, TN the next morning so we weren’t in too dire of straits. The eternal 2 mile walk to town also happened to be Rob’s 27th Birthday! The first thing we did to celebrate was fill our faces at the first breakfast place we could find. I don’t know if we were just really hungry but the biscuits and gravy we ordered were the best either of us have ever had. We were so impressed with their breakfast that we came back for lunch (which was only a couple of hours later) and packed out food for dinner, too. Unfortunately, I just tried to look up the name of the diner for your reference and it appears to be closed. It is my hope you will find out otherwise. Sorry for the teaser…

As we were heading back to the trail, we came across a bar called the Icehouse Saloon. Being that it was Rob’s birthday, we couldn’t possibly head out of town without taking a birthday shot. After ordering whiskey, and being quickly denied after learning were in a semi-dry county in which the sale of liquor in a bar is prohibited (apparently they still exist in this country!), we fell back on consuming a couple four birthday beers. It made for a rough climb later on in the day.

We finished out Rob’s birthday at the Watauga Lake shelter. There was a large group of thru-hikers there that night who were celebrating for their own reasons so it was easy to join in. Needless to say, we got a late start that next day after much partying and bear activity ensued (some woke us up after sniffing around our tent).

That following night, we realized that we were in the perfect position to hike a marathon (26.2 miles) into Damascus, VA. This would be the most mileage we have done in one day but the nice thing was that we would be ending in a town. We woke up early enough and decided that we would give it a go. We kept a good pace all day, keeping breaks short, and ended up walking into town right as it was getting dark. We did it! We hiked our first marathon! We’d pay for it the next day but that’s alright… the only thing we ended up doing anyways was lift food to our mouths .

NEXT UP: Virginia, Part One

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One thought on “An Appalachian Trail Series – North Carolina/Tennessee, PART TWO

  1. Pingback: An Appalachian Trail Series – West Virginia and Maryland | The Broken Compass

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