3/24/2018 – Day 15

Sassafras Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Visitor Center – 22.3 miles

Tried waking up a bit earlier than usual since today was an extra long day to meet up with mom at Fontana Dam. Said bye to dad as he started hiking back to his car and I got started by 7:40am. It was mostly downhill, but parts were so slippery with snow, ice, and/or mud that I couldn’t hike very quickly. On good spots, I tried to half jog to make up for other slow miles. I convinced Grant and Graham to go for 22 miles to stay in the 4-person room my mom already paid for. Took them about 10 minutes to go from maybe to yes. Digs was further ahead so I sent him a text and he replied this morning while he was in town. Ended up crossing a road at the same time as Digs got dropped off from his resupply. All the guys made it before I did. Grant 2 hours before anyone because he ran down the mountain and Graham and Digs 30 minutes to an hour before. My last mile was met with a thunderstorm and hail. Worth it for a shower and a hot meal with mom and the guys. This lodge is nice! Taking a zero tomorrow to avoid the cold day of rain ahead and to do some laundry. Almost time to start the Smokies!

It was a very cold morning – as usual – so I did not get moving as quickly as I had wanted to. I saw Graham leave about 30 minutes before I got started hiking. I didn’t see Grant at all that morning and I thought he was still in his tent sleeping. I found out later that he woke up much earlier and was out hiking before I even woke up. I made sure to send out a text to all of them describing what my mom’s mini van looked like since it seemed like everyone would get there before me. After my dad and I finished our breakfast and packed our packs, we hiked the .1 mile back to the trail and headed our separate ways.

Today was very cold and wet. At some point, I got a response from Digs so all 4 of us would be sharing the room! In between trying to run down the mountain and balancing on a mixture of ice and mud, I called my mom to fill her in on where everyone is and what time I would most likely make it to Fontana Dam. Not long after that, I came to a road crossing with a small parking lot and a picnic table so I took my pack off for a few minutes before heading up the next section called Jacob’s Ladder. As I got started and was about to cross the road, a car stops in the parking lot and I see Digs jumping out. Could not have timed that better even if we had tried. We started up Jacob’s Ladder together and it did not take long for him to pull ahead of me. It. Was. Steep. But we made it and kept on going. About a mile after the end of the Ladder was a shelter where I took a quick 15 minute stop to use the privy and eat a fast lunch while Digs kept hiking on. After that, I did my best to keep moving without stopping except to lean over and get my pack weight off my hips and shoulders for a brief few seconds. At Cable Gap Shelter 8 miles from Fontana Dam, my feet were killing me. I took my pack off and lied down with my feet up the side of the shelter. I stayed like this for a solid 2 minutes before starting the final long and steep descent to Fontana Dam.

I don’t remember much of the hike after that besides my feet just hurting and my mind constantly thinking about the hotel room and my mom and her warm car waiting to pick me up. What I do remember really well is the last mile before reaching the Visitor’s Center. I had service so I called mom and told her I was a mile away. She took Grant to the Fontana Dam Lodge 2 hours earlier and Digs and Graham reached the car 30 minutes earlier. All day, I could see storm clouds rolling in and they finally reached me. It started pouring down rain, there was thunder and lightning, and I was running to get out of it as quickly as I could. 0.2 mile from my moms car, I could feel small pieces of hail hitting the back of my neck. That was the first time I had ever been hailed on without any kind of cover…It would not be my last.

Finally made it and got in the van as quickly as I could. My mom had Gatorade and lots of snacks for all of us. When we got to the Lodge, I took a shower quickly and was able to sit down at the restaurant with my mom and catch up while the guys took their showers. We weren’t able to order anything until all of us were seated so by the time the last of us was clean and at the table, we were ready to order. The food disappeared very quickly. My mom only drove up for the day so after we finished eating, we said goodbye, she started her drive back home, and we quickly fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on taking a zero day the next day, but after my first 20+ mile day and finding out Grant and Graham had already reserved the room for another night, I decided to take a rest day before heading into the Smokies.

My view most of the day. Minimal snow, bare trees, and cloudy skies.

3/23/18 – Day 14

A Rufus Morgan Shelter to Sassafras Gap Shelter – 7.9 miles

Woke up after sunrise. Waited around for a few hours for my dad who got there at 12pm. Got lunch – pizza and sweet tea – and set off hiking the 6.9 miles to the shelter. Very slow going with my dad but somehow there was space in the shelter for both of us. Nice fire before a cold night, but it’s not supposed to get below freezing, so hopefully not too cold tonight.

Slept in this morning since I had some time to kill before my dad would get to the NOC(Nantahala Outdoor Center) and the A Rufus Shelter was only a 1 mile hike to the NOC. Still was up and moving before Racheal and Braden, but that was no surprise. Love you guys! Had a very nice morning stroll to get to the NOC. I don’t remember what time I managed to get there, but not much was open yet because in the real world it was still early. No problem. I found a plug outside and hung out there until the one general store opened. The shelves were pretty empty, so there was not a lot to choose from but I was able to scrounge up enough food variety to get me to Fontana Dam in 2-3 days. Out of all my resupplies on the AT, this was one of the very few without a lot of choices. That’s not really a problem anywhere – in my experience – on the AT.

After resupplying, I got a text from my dad that he was running late because of traffic, so I ended up sitting by the river in a nice wooden lounge chair while I waited. I had the complete collection of the Sherlock Holmes books on my phone, so I had plenty to keep me busy. He arrived just in time for the restaurants there to open up for lunch at 11am so we went to the River’s End and dug in. Pizza is something I almost always got in town and if sweet tea was an option, I would most likely get that too. The most southern thing about me is my love for sweet tea. No matter where I move to, that will never change.

After eating, we started our 6 mile ascent towards Sassafras Gap Shelter. This climb is one hated by all NOBOs. It’s not particularly steep compared to the entire AT, but it is 6 miles straight of just uphill so there was a lot of bonding of our shared hatred of this climb. It was a slower climb too with my dad with me, but we still made it before dark and thankfully to a fire already made.

One of my biggest pet peeves on the AT was hikers in a shelter saying that there isn’t enough space for another person when there is. That’s exactly what happened when we got there. The 2nd floor of the shelter was very much full, but when I looked at the bottom floor, there was a good amount of space between everyone’ sleeping pads. I was able to get other hikers to move their pads over and move some myself and make space for my dad and I. You learn to sleep shoulder to shoulder with other hikers in a shelter. I honestly preferred that when it was colder out and that night was cold.

After setting up our pads and sleeping bags we made our dinners and joined some other hikers by the fire. I spoke with my mom earlier and she said she would be able to drive to Fontana Dam the next day and even reserve a 4 person room for me and 3 other hikers at the Fontana Dam Lodge if we could make it there. That would require me to do my first 20+ mile day and I was down to do it and I knew exactly who to share that room with. Graham and Grant were at this shelter and I was able to convince them very quickly to agree to get there tomorrow. Digs hiked past this shelter, so I sent him a text and hopefully he would have enough service somewhere to see it. I wasn’t sure if he would see it or not because his phone rarely got service on the trail.

It was a pretty cold night and with the fire dying down and having to hike 22 miles the next day, I headed to bed to get a good nights rest. I was ready to take on tomorrow!

My dad and I on the AT

3/22/18 – Day 13

Wayah Bald Shelter to A Rufus Morgan Shelter – 15.5 miles

A cold but sunny morning. Hiked with Digs for a part of the day when I could keep up with him. By 12, I could tell the snow was melting and turning into a muddy mush that caused me to fall once and slip a lot. At the shelter, I was the only one except for Super English and Beans who decided to both set up their hammocks. A few hours later, Rachael and Braden showed up, so I didn’t get the shelter all to myself. I was still able to get a p-bone practice session in before they got here. Meeting up with Dad at the NOC tomorrow.

This morning was just as cold as the night before but with the sun rising, it ended up being a beautiful day of hiking. This day had the most snow that I hiked in on the entire AT. The beginning of the day a few other hikers started before me and broke the trail so in the deeper snow, I just had to step in their footprints. By the time I got to Cold Spring Shelter about 5 miles in, it was still very cold and I found Super English sitting at the shelter. He offered to make me some tea and I happily accepted. We were joined by a few others – bonding over our shared cold and miserable night – before I started hiking again. Not too long after that, Digs had caught up to me and we hiked together for a little while.

Up at the top of the mountain, the views were beautiful. There were no clouds in the sky and the ice and snow on the trees were reflecting the sunlight. I remember one view in particular that I made sure to stop at and get a picture where all you could see was a white covered landscape. All the trees were covered in ice and it made a view that I did not see very often growing up in South Carolina.

The descent down towards the NOC had me sliding all over the place. It was midday and the sun had warmed things up significantly. I don’t know how Digs was able to hike so fast without falling. I had 1 hard fall on my side in the mud before slowing down my pace to avoid any more bad falls. After 5 miles of that downhill, I made it to the A. Rufus Morgan Shelter. Beans and Super English were also there, but they were both planning on setting up their hammocks so I had the shelter to myself. The shelter was a little ways off the trail so I got some alone time with my pBone there before Racheal and Braden showed up to also stay at the shelter.

At some point that afternoon, I realized that I did not have my Jet Boil. I thought that I must have left it at the last shelter I stayed in or someone might have accidentally put it in with their stuff. I had no idea so I thought I was going to have to buy a new cooking system once I got to the NOC the next day. Later that afternoon, Lose/Fast/Square – who also stayed at the shelter the night before – came hiking south from the NOC and said he was looking for me. He found my Jet Boil in his pack and said it was all the way down at the bottom. It wasn’t until he was in his hostel room unpacking his things that he realized he had it. Thankfully he was nice enough to hike a mile backwards to the shelter I was staying at to return it to me. I still got to eat my ramen that night!

Enjoying some tea at Cold Spring Shelter on a cold morning.
Photo credit to Super English – insta: @goingforalittlewalk

3/21/18 – Day 12

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.

You’ll notice I have one of my gloves off. The man who took my picture also told me to take his picture and I am holding his phone in my gloveless hand. I could not feel my hand or really anything else that day.

3/20/18 – Day 11

Franklin, NC – zero day

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.

3/19/18 – Day 10

Rock Gap Shelter to Winding Stair Gap – 3.8 miles

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.

Digs, me, Gramps, and Sani enjoying our pizza by the side of the road. We positioned a phone on the dumpster to get this photo.

3/18/18 – Day 9

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.

View from the top of Albert Mountain