Over the weekend I got the chance to get back out into the woods. It had been about a month or so since my last hike, and it was time I found the comfort, solitude, and torturing pain of a backpacking trip.
Im a three season hiker – I prefer fall, winter, and spring. As the weather gets warm I start to shy away from doing many hikes, but the weather looked good, mid 70s at 6000 feet. Originally 9 or more people had signed up, but as is typical with trips, people started dropping out the closer we got to the hike. A few days before, the weather took a turn for the nasty: Good temperatures, but lots of rain. I said, “Screw it” and held fast to the idea of going. A few more people dropped out Friday afternoon. Saturday morning 3 of us showed up at the meeting spot, two drove direct to Erwin, and 1 failed to show up at all. Since I don’t usually drive, I drove our little crowd up to Tennessee. Jim, Paul and I met Bob and Laura at the Hostel for the drive up.
We started our hike in Erwin Tennessee, at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel (On the Nolichucky River, of course). There I got just a glimpse into the thru-hiker life. Back in February or March, people in droves started flocking north from Springer Mountain, Georgia, intending to walk five or six months to Mount Katahdin, in Maine. They spread out, but in general a big group of them spread out over a few hundred miles moving slowly north. This is called the “thru-hiker bubble”. Time of year and last month’s forest fires meant we were smack in the middle of it. A tent city had sprung up outside Uncle Johnny’s, not to mention a full parking lot of people in cars out for the weekend or section hikes. People were buying alcohol fuel by the ounce, getting mail drop packages from home, and were in all states of wear from fresh faced and clean to scraggly and smelly.
So we paid our shuttle fee* and followed the van up to Iron Mountain Gap, dropped a car and took a quiet but long van ride to Carvers Gap. There were lots of Bicycles out on the cool, misty, very windy morning. We hit the trails, which Jim said looked like the Pacific Northwest. Lots of tall evergreens blocked most of the wind and a lot of daylight. It was a nice medium “up” for the first mile, about 700 feet. I stopped to take a couple of pictures, fix my shoelace, get a little extra water, and take off my outer shirt. Jim, Bob, Laura and Paul went on and it was mid day before I saw them again. Hiking is like that, you can spread out and hike alone, while with your group.
It was lunch by the time I got to the turnoff for Roan High Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT at 6200 feet. I walked up to it and found a small group had already taken over for the day. They appeared to be staying there, even though it was just lunchtime. I went inside the bare room (which would have been great for filming a horror movie), sat down and ate my lunch. Bare floor, log walls apparently cut from local trees, with what appeared to be concrete in the log gaps to keep down the wind. The building was cool but it was out of the wind. The group I met had been hiking for a while, over 2400 miles across many different trails and states. They would hike a while, find work, make some money for food and gear, and hike more. It was a real nomadic life. It sounded sort of appealing, at least for a little while.
After eating, I said goodbye and wound up just down the trail at a beautiful bald area formerly occupied by the Cloudland Hotel. Nothing remained but a bit of driveway. I smelled someone down the hill in a parking area cooking hamburgers, but there was no sign for hikers, so no Trail Magic for me. Trail Magic is when, completely unexpectedly, someone will set up a hiker feed or offer to take a hiker to their house for a shower or whatever. The hiker culture is really weird, because everyone is generally so nice and helpful to each other. It’s kind of the way society is supposed to be.
I met up with the rest of my group soon afterward, sitting down to lunch in the middle of an incredibly green field of trillium and wildflowers. I kept up with some of them for a while and we began spreading out. It was a 2000 foot drop over 4 miles from our highest point of the hike to Hughes Gap. I stopped for water at one point and Paul went on ahead. Laura happened upon me as I was finishing up. We headed towards the shelter, looking for the other three of our group. Along the way we passed Little Rock knob, which had some beautiful views over the landscape. It was totally worth walking back up 1000 feet to see the view. The sun had come out and it was a little warm out by this point. Even though there were clouds in the distance, it was beginning to look like the weather was in our favor.
Laura and I found the rest of the group getting water just half a mile or so from the shelter. We walked on as a group and found that the thru-hikers were laying siege to the area around the shelter. We found several decent tent spots and began setting up. I went for water, which was a heck of a clog down the hill and back up, but the water was cold and clear and flowing pretty well from a pipe stuck into the side of the hill. I ate dinner and got my stuff prepared for rain, because during dinner we heard some rumbles of thunder. We started a small fire right about 6:45, immediately followed by the rain beginning in earnest. I lay down and relaxed in the hammock while it rained.
I had a cellular signal and posted a few hiking pictures, although Jim was 75 feet away and had no signal. The mountains are strange that way. Along about 7:45 the rain eased off and several more people showed up, setting up tents in between the rest of us. I got up and walked around a bit. One grizzled older man walked up to me and just said, “Mountain Man” and confused me, until I realized it was his trail name. “I’m Taco”, I said. He looked at me confused and I pointed at the hammock. “Because I sleep in a bear taco”. By 830 the rain started back and I went back to lay down, intending on sleeping. The people in the tents right next to me were planning there hike for the morning and the sound was carrying right through the tent walls. I tried to rest, and soon they got quiet. It started raining like crazy, and rained on and off all night. I slept pretty well. The temperatures were perfect and the rain was soothing.
At 5 am I woke up and couldn’t stand it any more. I HAD to pee. I moved around and got redressed in the hammock, got up and went just outside the tent area to pee, and started putting aways some of my stuff around 5:30 By 6 I was mostly packed and sat around and ate breakfast. Oh, yeah, and it was still raining. The nice thing about an overnight trip, is you don’t really have to worry about wet stuff. Keep your sleeping stuff dry and everything else just gets jammed in the pack wet. By 7 I was done with eating and was packed, and looked over at Jim and Paul. Paul was about to put his pack on, and Jim was right behind him. Laura and Bob hadn’t packed up yet, but they were driving separately.
I shrugged on the green beast and walked off down the trail. After about a quarter mile I realized I had on too much stuff and that it stopped raining. I took off my jacket and over shirt, and braved the woods in just my shirt. The wind would occasionally shake the trees and drop some water on us, but the rain seemed all but done. The weather made the woods very misty and otherworldly. It would have been a beautiful forest to film movies about elves and dragons and stuff like that. The rain made the browns deeper, the greens really showed up, and the light filtering through the mist was really nice.
Jim and Paul caught up to me after a while, and we stuck out the rest of the day together. It was only 6 total mile to the car from the shelter, mostly a series of tough ups followed by tough downs. Overall it was downhill to the parking lot, by close to 1000 feet, but we paid for that downhill with lots of ups. It rained on us a bit on the way to the car, but not hard enough to get out the jacket again. After all, there were warm dry clothes in the car.
We left the trail around 10:30, took a tour of the backwoods of TN wile finding the interstate, and headed home. A quick stop at a seafood place later, and we were home. It was nice hike, although I have the “hiker hobble” today.
My hiking video is below.
*A note on shuttle fees: We talked about this at length on the trail. So many people sign up to these things, then drop out at the last minute. This often causes problems for people that want to go but can’t because a hike is full. Also – no shows are a big problem, because if I schedule a shuttle for 9 and show up with 5, they charge the same rate as they would have for the 9. Its just how shuttles run. So the 4 that dropped out just cost the 5 that showed up extra money. In the future my rule will be something like this:
I will schedule the shuttle when I arrange the hike. You get a spot on the hike when you PayPal me some money for the shuttle. Anyone unpaid a week before the hike gets dropped. Anyone who drops out less than a week before the hike may not get a refund. No shows don’t get a refund. When you show up for the hike, I’ll take care of the shuttle at no additional cost for you.