Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter – 11 miles
Last free pancake and bacon breakfast in Franklin before heading back to the trail. Took the 9am shuttle to Winding Stair Gap and went on. It was snowing when I woke up and did not let up until close to dark. Windy all day also. Hiking in the snow and wind is very slow going. It was all around a very cold day and night. Four guys from the shelter even called a shuttle to pick them up at the Wayah Bald a mile back because they couldn’t take the cold. When I got to the shelter, I got in my sleeping bag and did not leave until morning.
The minute I woke up this morning, it was already snowing and it would not stop snowing all day. After another delicious breakfast – this time with my hiking friends who were able to wake up this morning not hungover – I wanted to head to the trail asap. The snowing started off very mild, but it had already picked up by the time I got on the shuttle at 9 to be taken to the trail and there was a light covering of snow on the ground. It was fine with me at that point since I had not seen any snow like that on the trail yet so I was enjoying it. As the day went on, the harder the snow came down and the more I realized that I could not stop moving without freezing my ass off. I stopped once to get of picture of me in the snow(picture below) and that was it. My most vivid memory of hiking that day was when the wind would change directions and blow the snow directly into my face and I just had to take it. You learn to “Embrace the suck” very quickly out there.
I did not realize it that day, but I have sectioned hiked from Winding Stair Gap to the NOC once before. The big difference was when I sectioned hiked it, it was the middle of summer so the grass was green, there was no precipitation of any kind, and I got a beautiful view on top of the tower on Wayah Bald. When I got there on my thru hike, I had already been hiking in the snow for a few hours and the top of Wayah Bald was completely unrecognizable. I didn’t even stop, I just kept moving to get to the shelter as quickly as I could. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that I had hiked there before.
Once at the shelter, I was happy to find a spot for myself so that I did not have to set up my tent. I got everything I needed out and set up quickly and grabbed a few snacks from my food bag to eat while I was in my sleeping bag. It was so cold that day that even taking the few minutes to cook some ramen wasn’t worth it to get my arms out of my sleeping bag. An 18-year-old there – Beans – had a gallon sized bag completely filled with candy so he was passing that around the shelter because it weighed too much and wanted us to eat the weight away. After maybe 2 or 3 hours, a few of the guys also crammed into the shelter decided that it was way too cold for them, so one of them called Ron from Baltimore Jack’s Hostel to see if he would drive up to Wayah Bald to pick them up. He said that he could do that, but because of bad road conditions he charged them almost $200, but these guys did not hesitate and agreed to that immediately.
This day and night was very much the coldest day/night I had on the Appalachian Trail. Any time I’ve talked to other hikers about this day, they know exactly what day I am referring too. This was when a snow storm went through the Smokies and trapped hikers in Gatlinburg for days because cars could not get back up to Newfound Gap to get them back to the trail. I would get to the Smokies a week later. Thankfully there was no blizzard while I was hiking through there. This is one of those days that I would never want to go through again, but I look back on fondly and remember the people that I spent hours with in the shelter. All of us in our sleeping bags, only getting out to pee when it hurts to hold it in any longer, sharing and passing around our food that did not need to be cooked, and trying to fall asleep at 6pm because we had already been crammed into the shelter for 4 hours.
Woke up early even after a late night to get shuttled to a church for a free all-you-can-eat breakfast of pancakes and bacon-delicious! Walked back to my hostel and slept for a bit longer. Printed my Smokies permit for free and walked half a mile to ingles to get more food for the next couple of days. One of the hikers in my hostel room – I found out – got arrested last night – big conspiracy theorist guy high on acid and weed. Hung out with some hikers I stayed with at Rock Gap at the brewery in Outdoor 76. Later, I met up with Digs, Graham, and Grant for dinner at Motor Co Grill. We got free scoops of ice cream for being thru-hikers. Best way to end the night, I gave Graham a trombone lesson and taught him the 5 note Bb scale and ‘Hot Cross Buns.’ Should be meeting up with dad on Friday at the NOC!
I was up very late the night before, but the promise of pancakes and bacon got me up and moving before 7am. The same could not be said of any of the others I was out with the night before. A church in Franklin makes an All-You-Can-Eat pancake breakfast with bacon every day for thru hikers. They were all so sweet and welcoming and even passed out cards for us to fill out for them to send to our parents and/or friends back home. Once back at the hostel, I needed to print out my Smokies permit – the only time I had to pay to enter a park on the AT – and needed to get more food. At Ingles, I ran into Racheal and Braden barely awake from the night before. I was right there with them because as soon as I got back to the hostel, I passed out for an hour.
Story time! I don’t remember this hikers name, but he was in my bunk room. The day before he basically was talking conspiracy theories at me and was convinced we were all living in something similar to the Matrix. He was very much on drugs and somehow ended up getting arrested later that night. A lot of things went around about what happened, but the one that seemed to stick is that he had a warrant out for his arrest for an unpaid parking ticket. I never saw him again on the trail, but I did hear that he got back on only to injure his foot; forcing him off the trail again. There are interesting people everywhere…
Some of the guys from the Rock Gap Shelter invited me to grab a beer at the brewery in Outdoor 76, so I went to hang out with them for a while before meeting up with Digs, Graham, and Grant at Motor Co Grill for dinner. While there, Snicker Bear, Honey Badger, Smiles, Penguin, and others they were hiking with came in! That day was the last time I saw any of them on the trail, but I do see some of them again! Snicker Bear ends up being my roommate for 2 months when she moves to Colorado and I got to see Honey Badger and Smiles briefly as they were driving cross country to move to California.
Best part of this day – besides the AYCE pancakes and bacon – was teaching Graham how to play the trombone! I taught him the 5-note Bb scale that most beginners start with and Hot Cross Buns. You can’t have a band class without Hot Cross Buns. His moustache hairs were a bit long and getting in the way of the mouthpiece, but he made it work and did an awesome job with my free trombone lesson. All future lessons will come with a charge ;p.
Woke up before dawn to get an early start to make it to Winding Stair Gap by 9am to get the early shuttle to Baltimore Jack’s Place Hostel. Feet were a bit sore and hips a bit raw, but otherwise I felt great the day after hiking 19.7 miles. Got to the hostel and took an amazing shower and washed my clothes for the first time since I started hiking. Went to Outdoor 76 to get new mittens after getting ice cream across the street – a lady paid for it when she found out I’m a thru-hiker. Ran into Grant and Graham and we met up with Digs at Lazy Hiker Brewing Co for some drinks. Got pizza at Dominoes with them and ate like real hiker trash on a patch of grass by a dumpster and a busy intersection. Met up with those guys again later for dinner at Mulligan’s with an Australian couple – Braden and Rachel. After Mulligan’s we were about to call it a night until we walked by a bar with a ‘hikers welcome’ sign, so we go in. $1 Bud light on draft that night plus 3 rounds of whiskey shots, 1 round of orange vodka shots, pool, and a jukebox made a great night.
Baltimore Jack’s Place Hostel offers a free shuttle to and from the trail if you stay with them. They pick up hikers from the trail every day at 9am and 11am. Most of the other hikers and I were up early to make the 9am shuttle. Alex – now going by Digs – slept in to catch the 11am shuttle. Gramps and Sani both stayed at the Budget Inn with him and I was just across the street from them at Baltimore Jack’s. As far as hiker hostels go, it was a great place. I was in a room with 2 bunks and 3 other hikers – Paddington and 2 others I can’t remember their names. I spent a good amount of time napping and just hanging around getting myself clean and washing my clothes when the washers and dryers were free. Gramps and Sani ended up staying at Long Branch Shelter the night before so they had a bit longer to hike to make it into town.
I got some unexpected trail magic off the trail! I was in line getting ice cream and an older couple ask me if I am a thru hiker. I tell them yes and we continue talking for a bit. They ended up paying for it and said, “I need all the food I can get” and that they were happy to help. The kindness of strangers on the AT is amazing. A few days before getting to Franklin, I dropped one of my mittens on the ground when I took them off and did not realize it until I was too far to turn around to go look for it. I needed to go to Outdoor 76 to find another pair because gloves never do a good job keeping my hands warm and the mittens used were great. Outdoor 76 did not end up having what I was looking for in stock, but I did find a thin water/wind proof mitten layer that I could put over a pair of gloves and got those instead. I still use that with my gloves when I hike now in Colorado. They served me well this past winter.
At Outdoor 76, I ran into Gramps and Sani. From there we make our way to the Lazy Hiker Brewing Co to meet up with Digs for some drinks. One round and we are all starving so we found a Dominoes that was very close. We were hungry, but did not quite have our hiker hunger yet so we split 2 pizzas. Gramps and Sani had one, Digs and I had one. We sat in the grass by a busy intersection and a dumpster just like the hiker trash we were. The picture at the bottom is of the four of us with our pizza.
Later on we went to Mulligan’s and found a lot of other hikers there already very drunk. We just wanted food and a few drinks at that point so we did not stay long. Braden and Racheal even joined us! We were all very tired so we all called it a night and started walking towards our hostel/motel for the night. On our way back we saw a bar with a sign that said, “all hikers welcome” so we of course went in. I don’t remember what it was called, but they had a weird rule that you had to be a member of a club to drink there so Gramps and Sani both signed up (for free) and the rest of us were there as their ‘guests’. This place was great. The bar had a special going on that night of $2 bud light drafts and they had a jukebox, darts, and a pool table. Sani kept buying us whiskey shots. Racheal even got us all a round of flavored vodka shots and then trid to play the song ‘Shots’ on the jukebox. It wasn’t an option on there, but it was being sung anyways. She started calling herself Lil Wayne (we later realized that he is not the one who sings ‘Shots’) and we said Braden was her Pimp Chalice and their drunk alter egos were born. Long story short, our walk to go to bed turned into a few hours of drinking and hanging out. Thankfully we were all taking a zero day the next day.
Standing Indian Shelter to Rock Gap Shelter – 19.7 miles
Long day. Decided to stay with Alex and Red Robin and go the extra 4 miles to Rock Gap. Just barely got a shelter spot. The other guys here are already asking to hear me play my trombone. 2 days in Franklin starting tomorrow.
The day started with a 1.5 mile hike up Standing Indian Mountain. It wasn’t very steep and I felt really good hiking up it. Red Robin and Alex caught up to me at the top and we ended up hiking together on and off throughout the day. I remember taking a break after a long descent and running into Red Robin and Alex with their shoes off checking their blisters. Red Robin has some really nasty blister on his feet. He has been pushing himself to make miles since day one so that he could finish the trail before he started med school mid summer. I was happy to find out after the trail that he did finish. Anyone who thinks I finished the trail quickly should look at his hike. He finished weeks before I did. All that is important is the both of us hiked the trail how we wanted to and I can say I enjoyed every day (more or less). While the 3 of us were there resting our feet, Alex said he was planning on doing the extra miles with Red Robin to make it to Rock Gap Shelter. My original plan was to hike 15 miles that day to Long Branch Shelter. I wasn’t ready to commit to a 19+ mile day yet, so I waited to make a decision until I got to Long Branch.
Hiking on from our rest stop, I had the climb up Albert Mountain. On a map it looks short and steep and it is. What the map doesn’t show you is that the steep part is almost like rock climbing. I love it when trails are like this, but man did it kick my ass. The top of Albert Mountain is the first really big checkpoint for northbound thru hikers. It is 100 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia! I did not realize that when I was there, but I still hung out there for a while with Alex and ate my lunch. It was a nice, sunny day but on top of the mountain it was also windy. When it got too cold to sit around without a jacket, I started hiking again.
It was all downhill the rest of the way to Long Branch Shelter and by the time I got there, I was more than ready to hike 4 more miles to Rock Gap Shelter and have less to hike to get to Franklin the next day for a nero and a zero day. After a few minutes of being turned around because Alex, Red Robin, and I all missed the turn of the trail before it led to Long Branch we finally found it and went on our way. The campsite was very close to full when Alex and I first got there – Red Robin not far behind. My feet hurt like hell so I was very happy to again get a spot in the shelter. This one was much smaller than other shelters I have seen and also slanted down so that our feet were above our heads at night. At first, it looked like there was only space for one more person in the shelter and Alex let me have it. I felt really bad when he went to look for a place to set up his tent on the wet ground, so I got the other guys in the shelter to move extra gear out of the way and scooch closer together and we were able to make space for Alex. It’s ridiculous how often I would get to a shelter and be told that there isn’t enough room for anyone else and lo and behold, there ends up being enough room.
Before going to sleep that night, I showed the other hikers there my pBone (they asked about it non stop since I got to the shelter). I played Summertime for them and one of the guys even sang along with me. It was really cool, but I was also really tired so I packed it up and called it a night.
Plum Orchard Gap Shelter to Standing Indian Shelter – 12.2 miles
Made it to NC! Was joined by Joe Derajtys until I got to the GA/NC border. Got even more trail magic at Deep Gap including beer for a great St. Patrick’s Day surprise. Huge thunderstorm overnight at Standing Indian Shelter with hail and strong winds. Glad not to be in a tent.
I woke up earlier than usual this morning so that Joe and I would cross paths between the shelter I was at and where he parked his car. It wasn’t long before I saw him. A few tenths down the trail and I saw him hiking south so he turned around and started hiking with me. The beginning of the day was an easier section of hiking up to the GA/NC border. At the border, Joe gave me an orange and a sandwich that he made at home. As we were there taking pictures by the border sign, Sani and Gramps show up and also take a break there. I still didn’t know them very well at this point, so we did not interact too much. I also didn’t want to hang out long, so Joe and I said our goodbyes and I headed north while he turned and hiked south back to his car. The climb out of Georgia was hard. Not SOBO hard having to start in Maine, but still very steep and long for anyone who does not have their thru hiking legs yet.
At Muskrat Creek Shelter I stopped to eat my lunch. There I met a few hikers, 2 of them named Vape and The Boss. They were an older couple and more importantly, Vape was blind. Vape would hike behind The Boss and hold on to the back of her shirt while she would direct him to take a step up, down, or over anything on the trail. It was so cool to meet them and hear their story. I wish I had more time with them. That day was the only time I ever saw them and I have not heard if they made it all the way or not, but I would 100% believe it if they did.
1 mile from the shelter I was planning on stopping at, I saw Alex/Digs sitting in a chair with food and beer. Some trail angels set up at Deep Gap for St. Patrick’s Day. I had my second lunch of the day with Yuengling and great conversation with other hikers and locals from the area. The last mile to the shelter was all uphill, but not too bad. I even was able to get a spot in the shelter! A few of the guys after setting up their campsites hiked back down to Deep Gap to drink more beer. I wanted to go back, but I didn’t want to have to hike back up to the shelter so I stayed put and made some hot chocolate instead. That night there was a huge thunderstorm. It even hailed at one point. It was so loud that all of us in the shelter were awake and watching our backpacks hanging in the front of the shelter swing all over the place, but somehow not fall off of their hooks. A lot of hikers there were tenting, but thankfully no one found any holes in their tents the next morning after the storm. That was my first storm on the trail and it would not be my last.
Tray Mountain Shelter to Plum Orchard Gap Shelter – 15.5 miles
Another long day with a resupply at an Ingle’s in Hiawassee. Got 2 cheap big slices of pizza for $2 and a Yoo-Hoo for $1.50. Took a shuttle into town but had to ask a lot of strangers for a ride to get back to the trail. An older couple eventually said yes and even gave me chocolate chips cookies during the drive. Plumorchard Gap Shelter is the biggest shelter I’ve seen yet. 3 floors for sleeping on. A nice fire and a calm, small dog – Scuba Steve – to pet to end the day.
Just Shawn was up and hiking before the sun was up. No one else was even awake when he left. Eventually I would start waking up much earlier, but it was still really cold in the mornings so I didn’t want to leave my sleeping bag without any sunlight for warmth. By 8am, I was hiking. I planned on going into Hiawassee today for my first off-trail town resupply. I made it to Dicks Creek Gap and found Smiles and Penguin waiting there for their shuttle to take them to the Budget Inn where Snicker Bear, Honey Badger, and Coors already were. I was told that I should be able to find a hitch very easily into town, but I was very nervous to do that for the first time. I ended up getting a free ride with the motel shuttle and then given directions to an Ingle’s that was only half a mile away from the motel. While resupplying, I called my uncle in law – Joe – because he wanted to meet up the next day to hike a few miles with me. We decided that he would hike south from Blue Ridge Gap if he was able to get his car far enough up the road while I made sure to wake up a little bit earlier than I usually do. The Ingle’s I was in sold huge slices of pizza for $2 each, so I was more than happy to make that my lunch for the day.
The shuttle driver that drove me from Dicks Creek Gap said that I could come back to the motel and pay to get shuttled back to the trail, but I wanted to try my luck and see if I could get a ride from someone at the grocery store. I felt very sketchy standing outside asking people for a ride – especially with all the no’s I got – but eventually I got a yes! An older couple offered to drive me back out of their way and even gave me a few chocolate chip cookies on the drive to the trail! Hitching and asking strangers for a ride was something that took me a long time to get comfortable with. I managed to go a long time on the AT without ever sticking my thumb out for a ride but once I finally did do it, my reservations went away (not 100%, but enough for me to keep doing it for the remainder of the trail).
Back on the trail, I had about 4 miles left to get to the Plumorchard Gap Shelter. I finished hiking later than usual with a longer mile day plus the extra time I spent resupplying in town. The shelter at Plumorchard Gap was the biggest one I had seen so far. It had 3 floors to it with the 2nd floor being just big enough for four people to sleep 2 by 2 and hopefully without anyone turning over in the night and falling off onto the 1st floor. There were a lot of new hikers that I didn’t know at this shelter, but still plenty of space for me to set up without my tent. I ended up sharing the 2nd floor with Beach Bum and Irish AF. These two were recent high school grads who were taking a gap year before starting college in the fall. I joined the other hikers by the fire and officially met Grant and Graham. This was when I found out about them taking a zero day at Gooch Mountain Shelter on my 2nd day on trail. I also met 2 guys hiking with a chihuahua named Scuba Steve! I don’t normally like smaller dogs, but Scuba Steve was great. He was one of the calmest dogs I’ve ever met. He would stop at every hiker sitting around the fire so that each person could pet him. I even got him to sit on my lap for almost an hour while I pet his head. He spent a lot of time going between me and another hiker named Alex. We couldn’t help but give Scuba Steve as much love as he would take from us. Down the trail, so many people knew who Scuba Steve was and somehow no one could remember his owner’s names. I’m not sure if they finished the trail, but I did hear that they at least got through the Smokies. That dog will forever be an AT legend…at least the thru hiker class of 2018.
Low Gap Shelter to Tray Mountain Shelter – 15.4 miles
Longest hiking day so far. Started fairly easy with a long gradual climb. Coming down to Unicoi Gap, the missionaries from Neels Gap had set up trail magic at Unicoi. Got a hamburger, an apple, chips, and a water refill! Two steep climbs later, I made it to Tray Mountain Shelter, and got a shelter spot! Going into town to resupply tomorrow and then hiking on. Almost done with Georgia!
The first 8 miles hiking this day was almost all uphill, but with an elevation gain of 1,000ft over all 8 miles, so it was very smooth sailing. I took a snack break at Blue Mountain Shelter and found a few hikers there hanging out plus 2 tents still set up. It was probably close to 11am at this point, so I was surprised to still see tents up. As I was leaving the shelter (after being told that there was trail magic at Unicoi Gap), I saw a head poke out of one of the tents. The hike down to Unicoi Gap was 1.5 miles of very steep downhill. I probably was letting myself go downhill way too fast and it more likely than not caused my first injury on the trail a few hundred miles in. On the hike down, I passed by a man hiking in nothing but a loin cloth. We exchanged hellos and went on our ways. I later found out that he was a SOBO from 2017 named Sasquatch. I also heard that he always hike in the loin cloth and NOBOs who spent time with him at camp usually did not have anything good to say about him. I’m happy our only interaction was brief.
As I reached the road at Unicoi Gap, I could hear hikers congregated and enjoying some trail magic. The same missionary group that brought trail magic to Neel Gap was here! I found out that for their spring break, they were splitting their time between Neel Gap and Unicoi Gap to provide some trail magic for beginning thru hikers. There, I ran into Snicker Bear, Honey Badger, Coors, Smiles, and Penguin. Smiles and Penguin were planning on hiking on to Tray Mountain Shelter while the other 3 were waiting for a shuttle to take them into town. It was almost St. Patrick’s Day and they wanted to celebrate in town. I hiked on with the 2 guys and they quickly pulled ahead of me. They were much faster hikers than I was. The climb up to Rocky Mountain was where I first met Soul Sister and Mattress King – then known as Rachael and Braden because they did not get their trail names until Virginia. They finished their day at Tray Mountain as well. I only remember that because I remember seeing them pull out a full baguette and cheese and me wanting to eat all of it. That became my lunch for a few resupplies after I got the idea from them.
Today was the longest hiking day so far of my thru hike and somehow I still managed to snag a spot in the shelter. This campsite was beautiful! All of us there enjoyed a gorgeous sunset in the warmth of our sleeping bags (because lets not forget it was still really god damn cold outside). That afternoon, it actually warmed up enough for me to be able to hike without my long sleeve shirt, but it would always go back to 30 degrees or less at night.