Dense spruce forests, windswept bald, and an Appalachian Trail Legend. We leave North Carolina for good, and enter Tennessee.
After leaving Erwin, we hiked out another five miles to Curley Maple Shelter. Leaving town with small mileage age means carrying out luxury food for that first dinner. I gorged myself on fire-roasted brats and Cabot Seriously Sharp cheese, wrapped in tortillas. Glim-Glom passed around a three liter bag of wine. Honey Badger and Wet Wipes sipped on a 6 pack each. A good time was had at that shelter, despite a weird and unsettling ‘hiker’ (see Junky) who snored ridiculously loud all night. A new face, Sherlock, and I alternated punches every time his snoring got too much to handle. Throw in a massive rain storm that night, and no one really got a good nights sleep.
The following day started cold and wet. A small but powerful storm rolled in just as we left the shelter. Huge, heavy drops pelted us as we quickly threw on our rain gear. Those types of storms are so disheartening. Thankfully it only lasted an hour. We were all set to hike 15 miles, but at the first shelter the rain cleared, and we decided to add another 7 miles to the day. The terrain was gentle, and we made good progress. Cold and wet hikers are usually fast hikers. A definite highlight was Unaka Mountain. In AWOLs it’s specifically marked as a, “dense spruce forest.” In the misty, wet day, it felt like walking through a fairy tale. The ground was vibrant green with moss, and the spruce trees were spaced as if by design. I would love to have camped there, but we needed to make tracks! Just one of those places to go back to when we are done with this hike.
As we approached Clyde Smith Shelter, we were hailed from the distance. It was Fish and Radio, two hikers we had met at Cold Spring Shelter before the NOC. It was great to see them, as they were hiking on a strict budget and thus were moving much faster than we were. (Eventually, Radio would finish the AT several hundred miles ahead of us with Sherlock. Fish would get off trail for good with 370ish miles left due to Lymes Disease.) Also there was ___. (If you say his name, he appears.)
____ is a 20 year trail rat. He’s not evil, but he is viscerally unappealing to be around, both mentally and physically. Besides inundating us with the worst stories of all time, like how his friend did drugs once, his teeth were rotting out of his mouth, and he had a sleazy, weasely type of laughter used only by henchmen in Bond movies. He loved to smoke weed, loved talking about smoking weed, yet never seemed to have his own. He lurked around hikers who did, trying to yogi them for a hit. He could be heard asking a hiker if he could scrape the resin from his bowl. Gross. I also saw a hiker sanitize his piece with a lighter after begrudgingly giving him a hit. He mouthed to me, “I don’t want scurvy.”
That night, rain pinged away on the tin room of the shelter, making it seem like we were sleeping in a snare drum. Every gust of wind was a particularly jazzy solo. I never liked jazz.
We woke and left, trying to distance ourselves from _____ (I heard saying his name makes him appear) and made for Over Mountain Shelter. The morning was wet, with silvery mist obscuring everything. We were not keen on climbing up Roan Mountain in this weather, but you really don’t have a choice, you just gotta keep walking.
Just before Roan, at Hughes Gap, a family had set up some trail magic. Suddenly, the rain and wind were bearable. I ate several hot dogs and honey buns. They made us wear medical gloves to stop the spread of Norovirus, which can be a problem on trail. Basically, dont touch your shit then touch your face or food. You know, wash your hands. While we were chowing down, a small woman got dropped off at Hughes Gap. This woman, who I will not name because only those who actually hike get a trail name, is a yellow blazer. A yellow blazer gets rides and skips huge portions of the trail, sometimes not hiking at all, using the yellow lines of the road as her markers. It had become a running joke in our tramily. We all thought we would see this person to Maine, but never actually see her hike. After getting out of the car, she ate some trail magic, chain smoked a few cigarettes, then mumbled something about being cold. She flagged down the next car and left without taking a single step. Wouldn’t you believe it, she was in the next town, and had been there for two days! Who would have thought!? A word of advice to yellow blazers; Those who are hiking know who else is on the trail with them. The trail is not wide.
I feel like this post is getting negative, maybe its a sign of hiking in the rain for days. But I digress. After the trail magic, we were properly full, and started up Roan Mountain. Roan Mountain used to be formidable, some even calling it the Roan Groan. You can still see the old trail, rocketing vertically upward, but in 2016, the trail was nicely graded with 32 switchbacks. (Thanks Bob Peeples!) The only “bad” part of the trail was that it was a river. Or sometimes a lake if it was flat enough. So there was that.
As we made our way up, Spruce trees began popping up with regularity. Towards the summit, we were in a dense forest, and the wet was slackening off. Sunbeams began burning through the mist, casting bright spotlights on the coniferous trees. The trail gurgled with water. It was stunning. Another fairy tale moment.
At the summit, the skies opened. It’s not that it was such a great view. By itself, the summit of Roan is nothing special. But having the clouds clear, and feeling the warm sun on us after being wet for 2 days was simply blissful. We lounged in the open clearing where a hotel once stood, and soaked up the sun. The hotel was perfect for debutants and fine gentlemen to escape hay fever, and drink alcohol, but only in the Tennessee side! Now it’s nothing but foundations, but we took our time up there and enjoyed the energy of a summit. These are the magical moments that keep you hiking. I felt so accepted, seeing the dew in others beards, and knowing it was also in mine.
We passed the highest shelter on the AT, Roan High Knob Shelter. The trail down Roan was very nice. Wide, green, and beautiful. We are really starting to see more and more green in the terrain.
After Roan, the trail became even more magical. The day was perfect now, even hot, without a cloud in the sky. We felt good. Better than good, we were churning ground, and pushing the earth behind us good. The trail rewarded our good spirits with an incredible display for its devotees.
First, we had Round Bald, then Jane Bald, then Grassy Ridge Bald. The land was open and airy, golden in the forefront, then blue to the horizon. We stopped at each summit and took a break because we felt like it, and the miles ahead didn’t seem so far. We need this moments of ignorance, so as not to let the thousands of miles ahead become too heavy a weight to bear.
Overmountain Shelter is one of the more famous shelters on the trail. It was a barn, now converted into a sweet space with a great view. There is a top floor, ‘enclosed’ from the elements, that can sleep at least 20 people comfortably. Downstairs, looking directly down a valley, are conventional platforms that resemble a usual shelter. These are the best spots of the shelter, unless you need the protection of the attic. Unfortunately, two weekenders decided to pitch their two 4 person tents on the deck, taking 16 places up for only 4 people. Advice for future hikers: DON’T SET UP YOUR TENT IN A SHELTER! There is never any justification.
It was two fathers and their daughters so we let them have their magical time, and slept in the attic. Dinner was lovely despite failing to get a fire going, as the view and company could not be beat. Honey Badger, Strider, Oz, Wet Wipes, Glim-Glom, Machine, Stache, and Winter, all eating some form of carbohydrate, and all quite happy with the 20 something miles they hiked that day. The sun set, we retired to the barn attic. I fell asleep beneath a dozen hanging food bags. They looked like cocoons. What the fuck is my life?
The following day was less climactic, but still very fast. We had some incredible climbs and views in the beginning part of the day, but a morning spat between Legs and I made for grumpy hiking. I hiked alone for the first half of the day, summiting the bald peaks of Little Hump and Hump Mountain. I find it funny how ‘off’ an elevation profile can be, and it always ends up being my own hopes and biases. For example, some climbs south of the Humps look much more daunting, but are in fact much easier. The Humps are grassy, bald, climbs, which means the trail just goes straight up an eroded rut. They tend to be pretty steep.
Grumpy, and tired after hiking as fast as I could, I walked over to a hiker hostel .3 to the left if the road crossing. The original idea was to go there and eat at a food truck. Instead we went to Bob’s Dairy Land and tried to suffocate ourselves in food. It’s a great spot and an easy hitch. Stache, Machine, and Honey Badger ate “The Holy Cow Burger” and a shake, and were all promptly disgusted with themselves. Maybe not Badger.
Like true hiker professionals, WE LEFT! After getting stupid full, we hitched back to the trail and started hiking. It was somewhere around 90 degrees. Somewhere about halfway up the first, shadeless, climb, we saw Stache throw his trekking poles down to the left and tear his pack off with a huff. The Holy Cow was fighting back. Still, I loved it. We were getting in and out of town and making good miles. We hiked another 9 miles that day. We also had one of the best moments of the entire hike.
Jones Falls will be one of those places I never forget, because I will never stop retelling this story. I don’t remember what led us to take the .1 side trail, but I am so glad we did. As we strode up to the lower falls, having a hiker conversation (yelling up and down a line of people) about absolute nonsense, we spotted a group of young day hikers. I can’t imagine what we all looked like to them. We ignored the NO CLIMBING sign and started up to the upper falls. We took turns sitting in the freezing water. Winter laid face first into the torrent. We laughed loudly and sometimes maniacally. It was glorious, wholesome, fun, which can only be found in such special places.
A few miles before our final camp, I was approached by a shoeless man walking North with a huge dog. Apparently, the dog had run back several miles of the trail and instead of putting shoes on like a human person, this man started to run after. He had an ill favored look, and smelled strongly of booze. Just another character you meet on the trail.
We got to Mountaineer Shelter after Fish, Radio, and two section hikers, Copernicus and Glass Legs. The shelter was well placed next to Mountaineer Falls, where one can draw drinking water. It has two stories for regular sleeping, and a third story loft for two close hikers. Fish and Radio took the loft and I was super jealous. Who doesn’t love the high point in a fort? The shelter was pretty full, and a long conversation broke out until after sundown. Strider had a small debacle with a melted chocolate bar, while Oz chuckled from the second floor. Glim Glom absentmindedly hung his food bag directly in front of Striders face while he was talking. At 3am, Machine would get so uncomfortable sleeping between Legs and Lumber Jill (it was either the kicking, heat, or both), he would pack up his things and leave. He made it to Kincora Hostel much earlier than us, and missed the storm.
We woke to a sky looming with impending violence. It was going to rain, we just didn’t know when. We told Wet Wipes to keep his rain skirt on so it wouldn’t rain and set out. The trail was gentle to us, with minor ups and downs, so we made good time in the 16.3 miles to Dennis Cove Road (AKA Kincora Hostel). We ALMOST made it before it rained. We were so close. Yet, with about 2 miles left in the hike, the skies finally let loose. In moments we were saturated, waiting to see the road. It was like every other step dropped us into a lake where we would have to get out and take another step into another lake. When we finally saw the road, it was such a relief. We walked the final .3 to Kincora Hostel in a downpour.
Kincora Hostel is trail famous, but not nearly as famous as it’s proprietor, Bob Peoples. Remember the Groan Moan? Neither do I. It was Peoples who put the switchbacks on Roan, and who is responsible for most of the trail work in that area. He’s a true trail lover, with a distorted New England accent mixed with flecks of a southern drawl. He’s small and still in good shape, with a big, bushy mustache.
When we arrived, sodden and cold, Peoples was putting in a new shower in the hiker bathroom. A few cats lay sleeping in various perches. The hostel was a welcome sight, and we scooped up the one private room. We put on some loaner clothes, through our wet, gross, hiking clothes in the wash and took showers. It was after getting all our chores done, when we finally got a good look around.
There are probably around 13 cats living at Kincora Hostel. Some don’t get along, so opening doors become a fun challenge. The floor of the hiker area is sloping toward one wall, as if the very foundations of the building are crumbling. No fear, as vines and weeds have begun shoring up the weaker areas, entering every (and there are many) holes in the walls of the hostel. In our private room, vines had grown several meters along the top ‘molding’ of the ceiling. The furniture is old, beaten up, and covered in cat debris. In the gaps between cushions, everything from knives to shoes can turn up. All the walls and most of the ceiling are covered in photos of AT hikers, most of them photos of them on Katahdin. Off the common area is a small kitchen with a smattering of plates and cutlery. Usually, several things need to be moved first before a plate can be taken out of a cabinet, a hiker trash version of the Tower of Hanoi. Past the kitchen on the same floor, is a bunk room. A huge, and brutal looking spider took that room, so I can’t give you a good description. Upstairs, another bunk room. The smell of cat urine lay heavy on everything, and in Wet Wipes case, cat shit lay on his bunk, literally. One of the most hiker trash moments I think I’ll ever see, is Wet Wipes using a Wet Wipe to pick up cat shit, throw it out, then lay down. Hey, it’s still a bed.
It sounds gross, and it kinda is. I didn’t even mention the fact that two raccoons and possum climb into the kitchen through a hole under the sink to eat the ‘compost.’ I also didn’t describe the hammered nail and spider nightmare that is the shower room. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still perfectly suited for hikers because over the years, the very building seems to have molded around them. That leaves Bob, who is the best part of Kincora Hostel. I won’t say more on him though, just meet him on your hike.