Over the weekend (Sep 24 and 25), our meetup group joined many, many other people in hiking part of the AT between Carver’s Gap (In Tennessee), through part of North Carolina, and ending at Mountain Harbor Bed and Breakfast, in North Carolina.
The trip became known as the “Five Guys and Burgers” hike. All the women dropped out one by one, so by the time Hiking day rolled around, there were only five guys left. At the end of the hike, we had burgers on the way home, thus the title.
I had heard of the difficulty and beauty of this section for a while. Uncle Johnny (of Uncle Johnny’s Hostel in Erwin) says it is one of the most beautiful sections of trail in the area. 5 Balds in 8 miles, or something like that. I was impressed, but I wasn’t expect near as much open area as we had.
Hikers generally refer to the A.T. as “The Green Tunnel”. Most of the time you’re walking along in shade, under a tunnel of greenery of some sort. On this hike, we wound up being in the sun more often than not, which lead to me getting somewhat sunburned in spots.
It started out easily enough. I got up at 4am and headed to Columbia SC, trying not to die in a car wreck in the dark after three hours of sleep. Then it was a nice easy ride to Mountain Harbor Hostel. Thankfully we got there at the same time as another group, and they piled us all in one van and drove us the 25 minutes to Carver’s Gap. If you have seen my previous hike starting at Carver’s Gap, this one was going North instead of South. Last time we went to Iron Mountain Gap. This trip was headed 15 miles back to Mountain Harbor, along TN Route 19E.
They dropped us at Carver’s and bid us Adieu. From the previous trip, we headed down into a valley. We didn’t get a lot of grand views and awesome scenery. This time however, we walked across a gravelly path and within a quarter mile we were standing on top of a bald mountain with incredible, awe inspiring views. And it only got better as the day wore on.
We ran into a LOT of day hikers and small groups. The guys we rode with in the van were headed to Overmountain Shelter, one of the most scenic and largest shelters on the AT. We were passing it by, headed to Doll Flats 12 miles away. It wasn’t long before we were up one bald, down into a saddle, and up to the top of another bald. There was a side trail to Grassy Ridge, but out and back it would add another mile to the trip, which our group skipped.
At this point we were running into fewer and fewer day hikers. Going down the trail into the valley beside Grassy ridge, I passed the last of the out-and-back crowd from the Carver’s Gap parking area. We stopped at Stan Murray shelter and had lunch with a father and son. From their accent I was guessing they were from the Boston area, but I didn’t catch exactly where. They had spent a few months walking south from Maine, and had around 350 miles to go before going back to the real world. The younger one reported being stung by yellow jackets the day before, but thankfully they were north of where we planned to be hiking. Bees were out everywhere, both bumblebees and honeybees. There was even a large contingent of flies, and around the shelters I could smell why.
Hiking takes its toll on an area. In the south, a lot more thru-hikers start than will finish. The trail is crowded enough in the spring and summer months, and add in the cooler weather of the fall, and there’s a whole lot of hiker poop buried in the woods close to the shelters. The area around Stan Murray shelter really kind of reeked. It was sad, really. I didn’t see a Privy (sort of a primitive poop/leaves compost system), so I’m guessing a lot of the smell was probably badly buried dung.
After leaving Stan Murray, we went over Little Hump Mountain. I am guessing it is named such because it is slightly dwarfed by nearby Big Hump, but there was nothing little about it. We had something like 600 feet to walk up, a lot of it out of the trees, on dry trail surrounded by thigh high grasses and flowers buzzing with bees, in the sunlight with no breeze.
The A.T. is no Green Tunnel through this section. The views from the top of Little Hump were worth the climb, however. I was glad the temperature was tolerable. On an August day in the sun in the high 80s it would have been miserable. After Little Hump we passed Overmountain Shelter. I couldn’t see it from the trail, and I still had enough water to make Bradley Gap, so me and Jim passed the shelter without stopping to check it out.
From Little Hump, we went down into some scrub brush and trees, and there was a trickle of water coming from a spring. I stopped at this point, since I had only a little left in my bag, and it was a few miles to our planned stop at Doll Flats.
I was tired and a little hot when I dumped my pack at the spring. Calling this trickle of water a “spring” was greatly overstating it. There was a bit of liquid seeping through some rocks onto the ground on a slope. Someone had dammed up a little puddle and stuck a 2 inch PVC pipe in it about 3 feet long. The other end of the pipe (thanks to the slope) was about 6 inches off the ground. A trickle of water was coming out the end into a larger puddle a few inches deep and barely large enough to stand in, before the puddle ran down the hill. A couple with a pump filter were trying to pump the puddle dry, but the filter kept clogging. They finally pulled the pre-filter off the end of the hose and sucked up about a liter of liquid before the filter gave up and started squirting water out the top.
They wished me luck and started packing up. I walked over and plunked my Squishy Bowl under the pipe and let it start to fill up. I had clear, dirt-free water to pour in my bag to gravity filter it. The guy’s mouth dropped open, like “I could have done that”. Live, learn, and work smarter. They wandered off. I got about a liter and a half over ten minutes or so, and walked on. The trees and brush opened back up to a grassy field, and there it was in front of me. Hump Mountain.
Normally I don’t get to see the mountains I’m about to climb. They’re shrouded in trees and bushes, obscured from view. This one was laid bare, a victim of it’s own height and weather. Another 600 feet or so to walk up. At the top however, was a 360 unobstructed view. I could see my hiking partners as little dots, already a ways up the side of the hill. I took stock of the one thing I couldn’t replace: Time.
There is a tendency for hikers to beat themselves up making miles, especially on weekend hikes. I’m a victim of it myself. Turn a leisure hike into a Death March, and wind up at camp at 3pm with nothing to do. That’s what I was worried about on this one. I was estimating my arrival time at camp to be around 5pm, much earlier than I really needed to be there. I decided then and there to take it easy, enjoy the hike, and get to camp probably just before dusk.
So that’s what I did. What happened next can only be described as something akin to a religious experience, at least as close to a religious experience as a Rastafarian can get (R’amen). The journey was a pilgrimage of sorts. There I was, a solitary traveler, a stranger in a strange land. As far as I could see in front of me, there was no one. As far as I could behind me, no one. Maybe it was the view, the extraordinary scenery, or something inside me that connected with the earth at the moment. Or maybe I was dehydrated and low on calories. Whatever it was, it was pretty intense. I finally reached the top, only to find the water-pumpers there ahead of me with three other people, stretched out drinking beer.
I understand wanting to have a drink in the wild. But beer? Look, you’re carrying like 92% water. Water! What carry all that extra weight? Bring Jack Daniels. Then you’re carrying a lot less water weight – only 60% water. Too each his own. I stopped for a snack halfway down the back side of Hump Mountain, at a GeoCache called “rattlesnake playground”. It was aptly named, for it was buried amid a big pile of snaky-looking rocks. I poked it with my pole, but I didn’t stick my hand in to open it up. After that it was mostly downhill to Doll Flats camping area.
Doll Flats is HUGE, and it’s mostly flat. The picture below is looking back south from the edge of the woods where the trail continues north. It was our view the next morning.
At Doll Flats we ran into some very loud, rambunctious boy scouts. Thankfully they pretty much kept to themselves. I set my hammock up and went for water. I asked my group how long they had been there, and they said “about an hour”. By the time I set all my stuff up and ate, it was starting to get dark. The scouts managed to build a fire in the fire ring and were having fun exploding acorns by tossing them into the fire. The scoutmaster said he knew about “hiker midnight” and would calm them down. True to his word by about 9 they were quiet and settling down.
I was missing Claudia’s mixture of Bailey’s and Vodka, but I had brought my own drink, just a little bit of brandy made from Muscadine grapes (the only true American grape, native to the southeast). It warmed my insides a bit and I went to lay down. It’s nice to sip a half ounce or so of something to help relax after a hike.
It didn’t take long – between the brandy, the 12 mile walk, and 4 hours of sleep I might have had the night before, I fell asleep in the middle of texting my wife and kid. I actually had pretty good signal from Doll Flats. I stayed that way until 3:30, when I woke to the sound of something walking through the woods. I assumed a scout had to pee, and went back to sleep. At 6 I woke up again, and lounged around. It wasn’t quite light yet, but by 6:30 I was packing my stuff and prepping breakfast from the hammock. As my cappuccino cooled off, I walked out with my camera and took the above picture of the meadow. By 7:30 I was waving bye to my friends. I had enough water to make the Hostel, only 3 miles away downhill.
The trip out was non-eventful, all downhill in the cool morning. Until I fell. I fell hard on my side when a foot shot out on the edge of the trail. I skidded down the trail on my side, getting dirt all over my thigh and backpack. But after laying there for a minute I realized my pride was hurt more than anything. I got up and headed on out, a little more cautious. By 9 I was sitting in the parking lot at Mountain Harbor, and within half an hour we were back in the van heading out.
Unfortunately we made such good time that Los Jalapeños in Erwin wasn’t open yet, so we ate at Fuddrucker’s in Asheville, NC.
But, we had 15 miles of trail under our belts and were back in columbia before supper. It was a good weekend to hike, with great company.