Today turned out to be the most challenging thus far, mainly due to a combination of the terrain and weather. After a breakfast of an egg, sausage and cheese quiche, bagel, and coffee, Maggie drove Jolly and me back to the trail at Burningtown Gap. As we departed the truck, a frigid, freezing rain greeted us. Needing to get started quickly to avoid freezing in the road, we hoisted our packs, put on gloves, and headed up the trail. Within a short while, I had pulled away from my Yorkshire friend, hiking briskly to try to warm up my core temperature.
Out of the gap the trail ascended gradually for the initial two miles before descending down to Tellico Gap. Icicles clung to the rhododendron around every turn, often dangling at face level. On more than one occasion I was slapped in the nose by a weighted down protruding limb. Visions of Robert Frost’s “Birches” came to mind as I strained to hear the icy clinking. Unable to keep my head and eyes anywhere but the ground, for fear of falling on the slippery black mud, I was pummeled by the ice laden branches often throughout the morning.
When I passed Cold Spring shelter during the first hour, four hikers were still hunkered in their sleeping bags, not wanting to face the chilling day. Stopped for a break was Slim Jim, a young man with whom I’ve quickly established a rapport. We hike at about the same pace, so for the remainder of the day we trudged through the relentless mud together. We also hiked in the footfalls of Whiskers and Rocket for several miles. At one point Rocket asked about Don, so I shared his story briefly with the couple from Cambridge. It brought back the memory of when Don and I took Brent and Sam to watch the Braves play the Red Sox at Fenway, when they were eleven.
Taking only one break to drop my pack, simply because it was too cold, we made excellent time considering the conditions, arriving at the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) at 2:45. I had covered the 12.9 miles in just over 5 and 1/2 hours. With the last 4 miles being a tough descent from 4000 feet to 1746, I was very pleased with the effort despite taking my second fall. Really, I’m only calling it a half fall since I was able to catch myself on a blown down tree before hitting the muddy trail.
After arriving at the NOC, I quickly checked into the bunkhouse, showered, and put on clean, dry clothes. By far, it was the best feeling of the entire day. Then I walked to the River’s End restaurant for a meal. I dined with Slim Jim. Seated at the next table were four hikers from the army veterans who are “walking off the war.” One member of the group was Brown Squirrel, a member of the trail journals community whose posts I have been reading for the past few months. I got my second hug of the hike from her.
After a lengthy meal of an onion ring platter appetizer, half pound burger, tossed salad, and sweet tea, Slim and I visited for a good while before leaving the establishment. Several other hikers were also enjoying town food, including Sky, Grinch, Kermit, Whiskers, Rocket, and Tie Dye. When Slim and I walked over to the outfitters, we ran into Jolly who had hiked in a little while after us. I got some change and then headed to the laundry.
I selected one of the vintage 1985 washing machines from the 4 available and loaded it with all my muddy gear including my Brooks Cascadias trail runners, after I had cleaned most of the mud off outside with paper towels. While the clothes were drying I walked across the street to get a cup of coffee which I enjoyed in the laundromat. Slim also dropped by to chat about our upcoming hiking days.
Eventually I made my way back to the bunkhouse which I’m sharing with five lads whose collective age is probably not much over 100. Among them is Walmart with whom I shared a cabin back at Neel Gap over a week ago. That’s what makes the trail so interesting. You never know when someone is going to appear that you’ve seen somewhere along the way. The others are Bitter Goat from Toronto, Blue, Gumby, and Riley. So the characters just keep appearing, as I continue my pursuit of a thru hike on the Appalachian Trail.