I’m back, writing again! Two blog posts in less than a month; you lot sure are lucky. Unfortunately, this freedom to write comes at a price that we have to pay, a loss of time and miles. But, since I’m sitting in a house, drinking hot jasmine tea and not hiking the trail, I figured I’d make the most of it and give everyone an update on how things are going. Actually, I was going to sleep in, but Connie is making me write this, and sitting next to me, folding toilet paper into squares, to make sure I follow through.
A soothing cup of jasmine tea.
Anyway, as of this writing, we are just now beginning to emerge from somewhat of a slump in our progress. For various reasons, some outside our control, some not, we have struggled to get our daily miles in. But in the midst of some trying circumstances, we have been greatly encouraged by some excellent friends, so there is always something for which to be grateful.
Excellent friends, and a very suspicious dog.
On June 2nd, a Thursday, Connie and I emerged from the woods after a steep three-mile descent into the roads surrounding Erwin, Tennessee. Connie assured me that she had arranged things for us to meet and be picked up by her good friend Caleb there, and for us to stay the night with him and his wife, Katie. Now Connie had failed to actually mention to Caleb when we would finally exit the woods that evening, instead assuring me all day that he got out of work around 6 (she also didn’t know where he works or what exactly he does), and so when he called at 3 PM and let us know that he’d arrived, we were still 3 miles away and had to hustle a bit to get there.
“Let’s take a break,” she said. “We have plenty of time,” she said.
But once we did, it was a wonderful night. We each took showers (our third shower in a month of strenuous exercise), had our clothes washed, and ate a huge meal of spaghetti that Katie made. Later that evening we went to Cookout for some milkshakes, taught Caleb and Katie how to play euchre, and stayed up past midnight enjoying the company of friends.
The girls were unlucky in cards. Must be because they’re so lucky in love.
The next day, after enjoying a nice cup of chai masala…
…Katie dropped us off at Walmart to restock our groceries. After that, we were picked up by Connie’s former coworker Lynn Steelman (true to form, Connie accidentally sent her to the wrong Walmart at first), who took us to breakfast at Shoney’s and then dropped us off back at the trailhead in Erwin.
Lynn is one of the few people who actually reads this blog, and we really appreciate her.
And then our week of trials began.
To start with, we didn’t get to start hiking that day until after 2 PM. Now, ordinarily, we allow for shorter mileage on the days when we resupply, but we had only made about 9 miles the day before when we reached Caleb, so it was a bit discouraging to only have time for a short hike. And then that short time was diminished further when Connie got the news that her sister had just had her first baby, and phone calls had to be made, of course. I have three nieces, but this was my first nephew, so it was good to hear from family about the birth. The time spent on the phone cost us, though, and we ended the day with just under 7 miles hiked. We promised each other that the next day would be better, and went to bed.
But you can’t call it a bad day when it brought this guy into the world.
The next day, in spite of our intentions, we got off to a slow start in the morning. About an hour into the hike, we ran into a man called ‘Brother Tom,’ who apparently sets up a sort of rest station for hikers that pass through Indian Grave Gap. We’d seen so-called “Trail Magic” before, but usually in the form of coolers left along the trail, invariably full of trash and little else. Brother Tom certainly raised the bar, offering us our choice of sweet tea, coffee, water or lemonade, as well as homemade brownies, banana bread, apples and oranges. He told us that he was there, at that gap, every weekday from February until December, offering hikers a surprise snack and a chance to sit in his camp chairs under an umbrella. He kept an enormously fat Boxer next to him named “Moses,” and sat reading a book while waiting for hikers to come through.
Trail Magic: It means that at any moment, a stranger could leap from behind one of these trees and thrust a Nutter Butter into your hands.
We very much enjoyed Brother Tom’s generosity, and stayed talking with him for a while, then started off again. Unfortunately, once again, it cost us time, and that night we had to cut our hike short before sunset to avoid sudden and heavy rain. So that day we only managed 9 miles (our minimum daily goal at the time was 10 miles). We promised each other again that we would do better the next day, and went to sleep.
The rain continued unabated all the next day. Now, there are some people, I’m sure, who are unaffected by the rain and proceed at their normal pace. We are not at all those people. We started slowly, in the hopes that the rain might slacken off for a bit and give us a chance to take down the tent without soaking the inside, but we waited in vain. Then we set off, trudging through the downpour in our rain coats, with enough uphill exertion to make us sweat so profusely that it soon felt like it was raining inside our coats as well as outside. During the portions when the rain let up for a bit, we marched through poorly-maintained sections of trail, with an abundance of long, wet grass which soaked our shoes and feet far more thoroughly than the rain ever could. It was a miserable day. It was also one of our first encounters with a particularly obnoxious Boy Scout troop, something that thereafter became a daily occurrence. We had seen a troop earlier, right after the Smokies, but they were polite and well-managed by the leadership. None of the other troops we have seen have been anything but loud and annoying, and the few times that we’ve had to camp by them have been stressful nights.
An empty trail is a beautiful thing.
We arrived that evening at a shelter around 6:30 PM, and were glad to have a chance to eat dinner out of the rain for a bit. The shelter was full (by the 5 PM, all the shelters are full, even when we haven’t seen anyone all day), but everyone was very friendly. They were all surprised that we weren’t staying the night there, but we assured them confidently that we hoped to make another 3 miles in the remaining daylight, and set off.
And we might have made 3 miles, if Connie would stop posing.
We got about a mile before the rain picked back up pretty fiercely, and we decided to just call it for the night and set up our wet tent and bear bag, and went to bed in the damp to the sound of rain. We had gone 11 miles that day, but were still disappointed, being so behind on mileage for the week. We really needed to pick up the slack the next few days in order to make it to our next meeting with friends, in Hampton, Tennessee. We told each other we’d do better the next day, and went to sleep.
The next day, we woke up sick.
Connie complained of stomach troubles right away that morning, and I mentioned that I was feeling a bit nauseous as well. Undaunted, I ate almost a whole bag of Hostess Donettes anyway, while we planned out our hike for the day. About twenty minutes later, just after we finished taking down the tent, the donettes made a reappearance in spite of my best efforts. The most disconcerting part of the whole thing was how completely unchanged the flavor of the donettes was, going down and coming up.
After that, we carried on, but made very slow progress. Connie was hesitant to eat or even drink very much, and at one point we laid out a tarp and rested for a while. The weather was fitfully sunny, until the evening finally turned clear and quite chilly. We were hoping to reach Roan Mountain that afternoon, and Connie even posted on Facebook saying we would be on the mountain that afternoon in case any of our friends in the area wanted to join us for a hike (Connie has lived in North-Eastern Tennessee for the last 7 years). Luckily, no one took us up on that offer, because we didn’t reach the Roan section until early evening that day, and when we came to the Cloudland Hotel site, with its beautiful and much-appreciated bathroom facilities, we decided to set up our tent early in a grove of trees less than a hundred yards away. We had traveled 6.2 miles that day.
Maybe we could have made more time if I hadn’t pushed over that tree.
At this point, Connie and I were quite discouraged. It was starting to seem as though we couldn’t get out of our slump and have even one good day. It wasn’t working anymore to promise each other and ourselves that the next day would be better, when we didn’t believe it. It seemed like if we had the resolve, bad weather would sap it away, and when that subsided, sickness came to take away our strength. We really needed for things to turn around and stay good in order to make it to our friends when we had promised to meet them.
That night, a heavy mist rolled in and soaked everything around us, reminiscent of our time in the Smokies. It wasn’t a good association.
When I awoke in the morning, things didn’t seem particularly cheerful from inside the tent. It was quite cold, for one thing, which always slows down our morning routine. I was a bit late getting out of the tent first thing (I always get out first to retrieve the bear bag while Connie puts away our sleeping setup).
This guy is supposed to take down the tent, but he sure takes his time about it.
To my surprise and delight, it was a beautiful day. It was extremely windy, with gusts reportedly as high as 40 mph, but the sunshine was more than enough to fight off the chill. Somehow, we had managed to camp our tent in a lone shady spot. I called out to Connie to hurry up and get out of the tent, because it was so nice, and she didn’t believe me.
Roan Mountain is the last time the Northbound Appalachian Trail climbs above 6,000 feet until Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Supposedly, for every 1,000 feet you gain in elevation, the climate will resemble that of environments 400 miles North. I don’t know how accurate that statement is (an old retired forest ranger told it to me), but Roan confirmed it with its sub-alpine forest, an ecosystem apparently only found in the Canadian forests and some mountaintops. Connie has visited the mountain several times, and considers it to be one of the most beautiful sections of the entire AT.
We had a wonderful hike on Roan that day. It has many great views from its windy balds. After passing the main part of the mountain, we came across several smaller balds and Hump Mountain, which had probably the most picturesque climb of the day and one of the best views of the entire hike.
We hiked 14.4 miles that day, not our longest day, but more than double the day before, and exactly the encouragement that we desperately needed. I was really hoping that it was the start of a turnaround and not just a fluke, because I was beginning to get worried at how discouraged Connie had become.
We also hiked out of North Carolina that day for the last time at Doll Flats. Our second state down, and one of the longest.
Complete with embarrassing photo.
The next day, it was quite hot, and we made slow but steady progress. We had lunch at the beautiful Jones Falls, then walked just far enough to get past where another loud and annoying Boy Scout troop was setting up camp, and quietly set up our tent near another tent we found, its occupants already asleep. We hiked 11.6 miles that day, enough to keep the positivity going.
Two beautiful sights in one picture.
We got off to a slow start the next day, Thursday. Connie had been having some continuing stomach troubles; apparently she is just becoming less and less able to constantly eat the same foods, day after day. She choked down a single bagel, and we carried on from lunch, but she started to feel pretty bad, and eventually I suggested that she might feel better after a quick nap. So we set out the tent tarp and she slept for half an hour. She felt better after that, but we were beginning to feel discouraged again, since it was already afternoon and we’d only gone about 3 miles.
But Connie turned up the pace, and by sunset that night, we’d gone 14 miles total. Our only problem was that we were out of water and 2 miles away from the next source. So we put on headlamps and decided to just make a really good mileage day of it. We hiked until about 9:30, got water, and set up camp in the dark at Dennis Cove, 16.5 miles from where we’d started.
Don’t strain your eyes, just trust me; it’s a long way.
And that put us only 9 miles away from the spot where our friend was picking us up on Friday. We got started decently early that morning, passed Laurel Falls (which is actually where I proposed to Connie in the Spring), climbed up and then down Pond Mountain, and came to Lake Watauga, where our ride was waiting for us. These friends have basically been Connie’s adoptive parents while she’s lived in the South, and it was a huge relief to be able to relax with them for a bit.
They fed us so well and pampered us that somehow we ended up taking a zero day on Saturday with them, and not until Sunday morning did they finally return us to the trail. What heavy rain and sickness could not do, these friends did, convincing us to remain in place for a day and not hike. And we are very glad we did not waste that spare day wallowing in the damp or sickness, but instead got to enjoy excellent fellowship. Since then, we have been reenergized, and on we hike.
“Life is like this waterfall. Eventually, we all flow down into the river below, but sometimes Connie and Jacob get stuck halfway because it’s wet and they’re sick.”