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
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
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
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~