It’s 5:16 AM. I’ve been tossing in my bunk all evening, trying to get some sleep in a room where the temperature has to be hovering in the high 80’s. I’m lying on the outside of my sleeping bag, unable to tolerate the added heat within, yet needing to keep the bag under me due to the absence of bed linens in the facility. I’ve mulled over the idea of going ahead and packing up and sitting outside the River’s End restaurant on a bench until they open at 8:00. I’ll try to persevere for a little longer since at least one of my bunk mates appears to be asleep.
Finally, at 6:45 the alarm sounded. I quickly packed up and walked down to the NOC outfitters. Even though it did not open until 8:00, a nice lady let me come in early to use the ATM. I then sauntered over to the restaurant to wait for it to open. When it did I shared a table with Jolly and enjoyed a large southern breakfast of eggs, sausage, grits, and coffee. After filling my water bottles and purchasing 5 candy bars, I set out from the NOC for the long climb up with Jolly. Little did I know at 9:30 this morning how difficult today’s 13.4 mile hike would be.
For 8 miles, the trail elevates from 1746 feet at the NOC to 5062 feet on Cheowah Bald. It was indeed a challenging morning. According to Captain Dan, “even the downhills were up.” I trudged along through thickets still laden with ice at the higher elevations. When the sun appeared around noon, we were periodically pummeled by the falling ice. At one point it almost seemed as if it were raining. At least the mud from the previous day was minimal.
For most of the day Jolly, my UK friend, and I hiked together. At the highest elevation of the day on Cheowah Bald, we took a break to enjoy the views. While resting, Gumby, Riley, and Ryan showed up. Gumby and Ryan are both veterans. Ryan served a tour in Afghanistan.
They were still lounging without shirts as Jolly and I headed up the trail.
As the afternoon continued, my energy level diminished. Jolly hiked on ahead as I struggled. As the temperature increased I shed a layer of clothes, hoping my pace would increase. It didn’t. At times I stopped on the uphill sections to just lean on my poles. Several thru hikers passed me as the afternoon wore on. Grinch and Kermit, the two young men from Marietta, GA, stopped to briefly chat and encourage me to keep hiking to today’s destination. Postman also hiked past, saying he wanted to get to the next shelter ahead of his hiking buddies. His inspiration is a motel room tomorrow for the Final Four. I also met two southbound thru hikers. One, Biggie Small, said he started in August and has taken 45 zero days. He also is hiking in memory of a relative who died of ALS, so we wished each other well as we headed up the trail in opposite directions.
When I got to Locust Cove Gap I saw Blissful resting by a tree. She planned to camp there. So I dropped my pack to visit for a few minutes. She asked about ALS, so I told her a little more about Don. When I started to hike on, she also offered encouragement by saying there’s only one more climb and then it’s all downhill. She only missed her assessment of the climbs by five. Due to my fatigue it was also difficult to hike over numerous large rocks on the descent to Stecoah Gap.
When I reached the gap, Grinch and Kermit were waiting at the picnic tables for a shuttle into Robbinsville. After only a few minutes more, my shuttle, Phil Capper, arrived to take me and two others to his cabins in the woods. I’m sharing a cabin tonight with Jolly, Captain Dan, and Tie Dye. Hopefully, conditions for a good night’s sleep will have improved over the previous evening. Whiskers and Rocket are also here in another cabin. We were all invited into Phil and his wife Donna’s home for a meal tonight.
Today was probably my most tiring of the 13 days I’ve hiked thus far. When I arrived at the cabins I was spent. However, after a hot shower, a hearty meal, two ibuprofen, and some good fellowship with hiking friends, I feel much better. So again, I expect to get a good night’s sleep so that tomorrow I can complete the 13.9 mile section to Fontana Dam. The Smokies await on Sunday as I make my way northward on the Appalachian Trail.