Appalachian High Route, Part 2: Cherokee to Hot Springs

The Cab Ride

While it might seem like there is an over desire for town on a thru-hike, the truth is there is a lot of unavoidable austerity in the woods and an abundance of relief in town. I’d walked in the same socks every day since the Pisgah Inn, for example, and could really use a long tub soak. Turning from the MST, I find the nearest hotel, a mere .8 away.

Apparently, there is a quarter shortage in the town of Cherokee. Casino? Who knows, but I can only cobble enough silver to wash my filthy clothes. Drying them will require full hikertrash mode: sitting in a hotel towel and rain jacket, flipping my sundries like burgers on a grill as they hang over the sunny railing outside my room.

I still need to resupply, so the next morning I call a cab to take me downtown to the nearest grocery store. Not walking those junk miles.

The woman who picks me up is a Cherokee tribal matriarch, and the ride quickly turns into a lovely tour. She beams as I admire a well appointed island park in the middle of the Oconaluftee River; she had spearheaded its development. The island’s dark past, however, saddens me, given my own native heritage: children looking to escape forced government “schools” hid in the brush on the island, desperate to be reunited with their culture and families.

Now, the tribe has a fully Cherokee language-immersive elementary school. Bravo!

I learn that the Casino is both a blessing and a curse. Tribal members are paid from its coffers, but for many, this money leads to purposelessness, addiction, and parentless children. As both of us have foster kids in our families, we lament their situations but celebrate that they are now being cared for with love and grandmotherly ferocity.

We take the long way back to the hotel and sit chatting in the parking lot. She undercharges and I overtip, both of us enriched by this serendipitous encounter. I wish I could stay another day in Cherokee, but those mountains aren’t going to hike themselves. I repack and head out on a shortish day which ends with a fresh tomato feast after finally entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Day 9: Great Smokies Inn to Backcountry campsite # 57 – 14.7 miles

White Blazes

O, how happy I am to be back on the Appalachian Trail the next day. Blazes, blazes, everywhere, some comically bossy. Even I would have trouble getting lost on the AT.

For 3.5 miles the MST and the AT merge on their way to Clingmans Dome. I must climb Clingmans and then unclimb it on the way back to my first shelter of the trip.

I make it to the Mt. Collins Shelter just before another storm hits; others join, and it’s a party atmosphere as we all chat, eat, and tuck in for the night. I feel bad packing up by headlamp the next morning at 4, but the park rules don’t allow stealth camping; I must make it 20.1 miles three shelters ahead with a much anticipated stop at Charlie’s Bunion, a stunning rocky outcropping some miles ahead. At 2 mph, I need all the time I can get.

I don’t mind hiking in the morning dark. I try to set myself up the day before so that the first few miles on any given day are not tricky or technical. Passing the 200-mile mark in the quiet dawn feels great, and I reach Charlie’s Bunion a few hours in.

I have mixed emotions negotiating the places the youngest and I hiked 12 years earlier. I loved having a partner on that epic trip; though only 10 at the time, my son was steady and strong, relentlessly optimistic, and generally just fantastic company, even when his constant chatter scared all the wildlife away. I laugh seeing the sign at the turn to Charlie’s Bunion, remembering how he sulked when I pretended I wasn’t going to let him out on the precipice. In a funny turn of events, his photo from that day pops up on my Facebook memories as I write this section.

He comes to mind again, later, when I encounter a nettle gauntlet and think back on how comforting it was to have someone alongside to share the torture. I am sore over always being alone.

Rain, rain, and more rain to end the day with another full, feisty shelter and the last time I’d have company camping the rest of the trip.

Day 10: Backcountry campsite #57 to Mt. Collins Shelter (+3.5 mile backtrack on AT) – 17.1 miles

Day 11: Mt. Collins Shelter to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter – 20.1 miles

One Bear

So far the only bears I had seen on this journey were the fake ones in Cherokee, but that was soon to change.

I head out of the Smokies after only 3 nights. Another memory surfaces, the climb up from Davenport Gap. 12 years ago, the son and I were SOBO’s – hiking the AT in a southbound direction – and climbing up into the Smokies. The steps along the trail were awkwardly spaced and nearly ruined my hamstrings. We later referred to that awful climb as “The 7 Mile Up.”

Now I was headed north, and the 7 mile down into Davenport Gap was infinitely more pleasant. Sights were set on Standing Bear Farm, where I would grab enough tuna and bars to make it to my last resupply, Hot Springs, about 35 miles ahead.

Unfortunately, the hop between Davenport Gap and the turn-off to Standing Bear was a spidey hellscape. This section of trail had clearly not been hiked in a while, and the spiders had been busily spanning the trail with their dead-bug- infested webs, all at face level. I was covered with filament and creepy-crawlies by the time I emerged on the other side.

Quickly grabbing my supplies from the farm store, I sit on the porch talking to the owner and devouring a pint of pistachio ice cream. She told me the previous day she had seen a huge mama bear standing in the middle of the road waiting for her two cubs to cross.

Glad for the warning, I am on high alert back on trail, and, sure enough, I hear the tell-tale crashing of a fleeing animal on the first switchback. Baby bear had heard me coming and was skedaddling downhill. No sign of mom or sib.

In every encounter I have had with bears over the years, this has been the prototype: they are typically as uninspired to interact with you as you are with them. Still, I make up silly bear-songs to maintain my presence as I continue to climb.

Mama bear, mama bear, I have kids just like you, Won’t you relent and let me on though?

The next bear, however, was not as accommodating. More on that in the next post.

Day 12: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to stealth camp north of Snowbird Mountain – 23.2 miles

Breaking Down

I’d been keeping to my original plan of averaging 20 mile days so that I could be finished in time to meet home obligations, but the miles were beginning to break my body down.

I starting taking shelter naps at lunch and making a second cup of coffee in the afternoon.

My feet felt more hoof than flesh, and I took to walking in my crocs whenever the terrain allowed. I needed to get to Hot Springs and rest for a good portion of the day, not just blow in for the night.

Luckily, there was lots to see on the way, like Max Patch, an iconic bald peak with waving grasses and a berry-lined thoroughfare.

Wind and clouds set the mood and keep my mind off my dwindling food supply. I simply can’t get enough calories, and every afternoon there is no walk left in me. Too tired to cook upon making camp, I usually down a cold tuna packet and crawl under my quilt, praying sleep will come soon. At one point I think I hear an animal outside the tent, but realize it’s the rumbling of my empty stomach.

I awake to lightning and rain the morning of my short hop to Hot Springs. The strikes are only a mile or two away, and I stop to take off my pack and ditch my poles a few times before the storm passes.

Only 7.3 measly miles to Laughing Heart Lodge, and I use every bar of phone battery singing my way down to the French Broad River.

Though the woods are lovely, dark, and deep, I’m excited to check into the Cardinal Room – and eat a civilized second breakfast – at Laughing Heart, my last resupply on the AHR.

Day 13: Stealth camp north of Snowbird to stealth camp north of Bluff Mountain – 20.6 miles

Day 14: Stealth camp north of Bluff Mountain to Laughing Heart Lodge – 7.3 miles

~To be continued~

A Cairn in the Woods

Late Monday night, while I lay zipped up snug in a tent deep in the blacknightcold of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, my dad pitched headlong onto the unforgiving floor of his room at the assisted living facility where he lives.


While I lay, believing my only worry to be a bear breaking into the metal box protecting my food, my dad lay with his head on cold tile, bleeding, 100 miles away.


There is so much in life we don’t understand, can’t control, refuse to accept.


Like death with dignity.


What does that even mean?

Having watched my mother disappear into the unrelenting ravages of a progressive brain disease, in the end able only to blink and flutter a helpless hand; having held my son’s cold arm, unable to look one last time at his sweet face, wrecked by the accident and covered in a shroud; and now, having ears assaulted by my father’s confused shouts to openthedoor, helpme, ICANTBREATHE as he twisted in pain on a hospital bed – having seen too close the carnage death delivers, I am unable to accept such a concept.


There is nothing dignified about death – nor should there be.

Death is an assault, an affront. It is the thief that comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10a): our sworn enemy, relentless and heartless and heedless of rank, station, or affection.


We were not created to die, however, but to live. And not just to eke out some weary actuality until we limp, defeated, to a dark earthen hole.




Though the enemy’s scheme is murder and mayhem, Jesus has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10b).


When my brother called me about my dad’s fall and subsequent hospitalization, I had just finished a 2 1/2 day, 7-peak traverse in the woods that I love. Fall and winter – color, light and mood – had been wrestling at altitude. The contrast between bare granite dry and icy struggle was a wonder.




The same seemed true when I arrived to see my father. Though the room was sheathed in harsh light and antiseptic, though all appeared colorless and sterile and bleak, a battle raged.


My dad was a fighter.


Sadly, he was no stranger to a hospital bed since his Lewy Body Dementia inflicted indignity after indignity upon his weakening frame: multiple falls, confusion, respiratory distress, hallucinations. This last crusade was no different.


Despite a head riddled with stitches and a chestful of 12 broken ribs, my dad fought to breathe, to speak, to hold my hand, to eat a donut even, which turned out to be his last and final meal.

As his life slipped away into the fog of the morphine drip, pain and earth fading, he advanced steadily forward through enemy lines to his final destination.

The Lord is your Shepherd, Daddy, I whispered in the stillness.

You don’t need to fear – He’s readied your seat at the table.

Here he is – anointing your poor, broken head with oil, filling your cup to the brim, surrounding you with love and mercy, and there’s nothing our sworn enemy can do about it.


You have just begun to live.


As we waited for the medical examiner to arrive, I thought of the peaks I had climbed – could it be? – just days before.


Why did it seem that the ones most difficult to scale – the ones remote, icy-trailed, muddy-puddled, requiring knee-deep crossings of rapid rivers – why did these mountains end in nothing but a viewless, scrabbly pile of rocks in a clearing?



I thought of those cairns as my brother, my daughter and I watched my father die, one thread of family unraveling as the man who held us all together – faithful father, loving spouse, patient Papa – finished his earthly race.

May we always keep the faith, fight the good fight, until the time of our departure is near (2 Timothy 4:6,7).


Heaven is not a cairn in the woods, arrived at after long struggle and stumble and frustration.


Heaven is not even a treeless summit above the clouds, grand and expansive, exquisite and rare.




Heaven is so much better, like no other place we have known. Heaven is where the enemy cannot follow, where we may run and climb and breathe and love unencumbered by the weight of failure and fragility and pain.


Heaven is life and life forever, had to the full. 


I walked outside, and it was just like God to leave me a note in His compassionate hand.


I wasn’t surprised.

On Friendship

I went to Panera’s after church on Sunday with my dearest friends.

While two of us joked about how the cashier had butchered our names the last time we were here, the third confessed that she always gave a false name when asked by restaurateurs: the stranger, the better.

JoJo. Winifred. Mary, Queen of Scots.

It had gotten to the point that when a waiter called out one of her ridiculous pseudonyms, her family would knowingly look over at her and roll their eyes.

Of course, we played along.

Joining our friend in this harmless game, we were further rewarded with a bored young cashier with a flair for creative spelling.


It’s good to laugh with friends who get you.

You see, we had just come from a church service that had emptied my very soul.

A week filled with dark dreams, children dealing with injuries and illnesses and hard choices, and pondering the fate of my boy who was gone had left me raw, vulnerable.


Church is perhaps the best place to be in such a state, and when one of the elders’ wives asked if there were anyone present in a state of deep lament, I felt she had peeled back the very layers of my heart and exposed the dendrites of loss and loneliness, doubt and ache.


My friends surrounded me as I sat, sobbing, a balled up kleenex in my fist, and spoke over me the truth I desperately needed to hear. Who else would sit on a cold concrete floor at your feet while your face leaked, wrap your knees in firm embrace, weep and intercede for you with groans that words cannot express? (Romans 8:26)

True friends.IMG_1733



There’s a verse in the Bible about friendship that I call to mind when I consider these women: A person of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)


True friends are family.

I feel so blessed for the dear friends, sisters, in my life, who have stuck by me when it would have been easier to run.

The ones who propped me up through divorce and death, the ones who cooked my family meals, bought me flowers, and helped pack up my house when moving was the last thing I wanted to do. Ones who text me still with “I remember’s” and nostalgic photographs, work out beside me, or meet me at restaurants despite the distance or time. Ones who don’t mind when you invite yourself over to the Superbowl party they didn’t even know they were hosting.


Jesus called his disciples friends.

Us: not servants who do not know their master’s business, but dearly chosen friends to whom He can trust with the heart of the Father and whom He has appointed to bear fruit for His kingdom. (John15:15,16)

And not only that – as if that were not enough – our intimacy with Jesus gives us an all-access pass to the Father. So when we bring our children, our marriages, our jobs, our health, when we bring whatever it is we are in need of, whether in despair or hope or doubt or trust, to Him in prayer, Jesus promises that whatever we ask in His name the Father will give us. (John 15:16)

As the three of us sat drinking our coffee and nibbling our toast, I marveled at how it was only the beginning; our friendship was not something even death could end.


I expect the neighborhood we lived in together on earth, our families entwined in an elegant dance of love and struggle, is only a dim foreshadow of the place that has been prepared for us by our loving Father in heaven.


So even though my one friend craves the dry heat of the American Southwest, where she can wear a sweatshirt when it’s 80 degrees outside, the other dreams of a day when she can power out of her crazy driveway on the first try, and I – I am content with the seasons that usher in a new just when it is needed most – even though the vision of our heavenly homes is as distinct as we are –  I am thankful that all eternity awaits for us to finish conversations and sip tea and ponder the wisdom and love of a Father who had the good sense to make us all friends.

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