Finally, I have hit North Carolina.
The pain in my foot was jarring. Every step of those last 2 miles in Georgia was agonizing. As my confidence waned, I found myself reeling in a lot of self ridicule. My internal dialogue wavered between ‘you’ll never make it to Maine like this,’ and, ‘all you have to do is get to the next shelter.’ In trying to battle the negativity, I lost track of time. Suddenly, there it was, the sign I had been looking for: “NC/GA”
If you’ve hiked the AT northbound, you might remember what came next for me. If you haven’t, the only way I can describe the next climb is by telling you how many swear words I breathlessly muttered on the way up—approximately 27.
Theatrics aside, the grade on this climb was obnoxious. There were times I was concerned my toes would make contact with my shinbones. Eventually I jammed headphones into my ears to drown out how hideously out of breath I sounded. The music must’ve drowned out the pain in my foot, too, because by the time I passed the next shelter I was feeling GOOD.
I stopped for lunch at that shelter and contemplated how far I should push. I knew my foot injury would get worse if I pushed too hard, but I was virtually pain free at that point. I decided to push on for a bit longer and then reassess.
Boy, does this trail feel desolate.
On the way, I passed a day hiker who told me he had just seen a group of NoBos headed up and over Standing Indian. The absolute desperation to see other hikers slapped me in the face. I hadn’t realized until then how STARVED for an actual conversation I was. At that moment, I decided to push up and over the mountain to hopefully catch this mysterious group of NoBos.
The entire rest of that day I didn’t see a single person. I pushed and pushed. What should’ve been a 10 mile day turned into an 18 mile day, because I just felt so alone. I rolled up to the shelter kind of late, and got a pretty awful tent site. I hardly spoke to anyone, and yet was elated to see other dirty hikers. They say the trail teaches you things about yourself. I think my first lesson was: I’m not as much of a loner as I thought I was.
That next day I hiked alone, but had decided to, once again, stay at a shelter. I figured if I was ever going to make friends, I would need to actually be in the vicinity of other hikers. So I got to a shelter early. I set up my tent before making my way down to the shelter and forcing some words out of my mouth.
I had a conversation with two hikers, Frosty and Jose, about Franklin. I wouldn’t have enough food to make it to NOC, so I was planning to resupply in Franklin the next day.
Originally, my plan was to pop in and back out, but one of the guys told me we were supposed to get severe thunderstorms on trail that next night. That in addition to my leaking tent and my tender foot guided my decision to take a night off trail.
The first thing I did when we arrived in Franklin was eat a donut. My god, it was so good. Peanut butter icing! I topped that off with a croissant from the same place, and some coffee. By the way, this was my second breakfast of the day.
I then headed to the local outfitter, Outdoor 76. There I was able to buy myself a new tent and wash my clothes. I was hanging out in the hiker lounge, waiting on my clothes to dry, when two other hikers walked in. One of them was a girl!
I was so happy I could cry. I had been surrounded by an unwanted amount of testosterone basically since starting the trail. I gleefully introduced myself and explained the utter lack of female companionship I had experienced on trail. She told me her name was Coyote and that the other hiker was her boyfriend Radio. She invited me to lunch and said I could meet Cheeto, another female hiker! And so I went to lunch with them, where I devoured a huge plate of fajita nachos and laughed with the new friends.
I was invited out to dinner later in the evening, and had just enough time to finish up the things I needed to do. I got my clean clothes, checked into my motel room, showered, and resupplied at the local grocery store. Some of the grocery store workers were talking about tornados in the area, so I was glad to be in town for the night.
At dinner, I met a few more girls: Bubbles, Friday, and Spirit Fingers. We laughed over burgers and shakes for hours. I even got my trail name that night: Hellman. It’s a dual meaning name, given originally for my confession of buying a 500 count box of mayonnaise packets before going on trail. The other meaning came from my disdain for the horribly unbalanced male to female ratio on the trail. Thus, Hellman was born.
That next day, we added another hiker named OG to our little mix. We all ended up at the same shelter after getting back on trail. Most of us ended up making it to the fire tower on Wesser Bald at the same time as well. As we sat atop that rickety structure, bare toes wiggling in the sunshine, we hatched a brilliant plan. If we could push another 7 miles (16.5 total for the day), we could make it to the NOC in time for food and a warm bed. We had all heard the climb up out of the NOC was the worst, so we wanted to feel refreshed and ready.
We ended up renting two cabins to split between 8 people. As we gorged on overpriced carbs at the restaurant, we found out our cabins had hot tubs. This brought more joy than the hot food had; the hot tubs brought major spring break vibes and helped ease our worries about the climb out of the NOC.
Sometimes the trail really is straight up.
Those next two days of hiking were pretty brutal. The climbs were demanding and consistent, with intermittent water sources down steep, blue blazed side trails. The morning that we hit Cheoah Bald, we all sat down and stuffed our faces full of salty hiker snacks, wishing for the easy sections from days prior. We ended up splitting up our group that day, as some hikers pushed on and some fell back. Jose and I pushed on to Cable Gap shelter. It was a long, grueling day for us, but we pushed to be closer to our next resupply stop: Fontana Dam.
Fontana Dam sits right at the base of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We would need a day of rest in preparation for our big climb up into the higher elevations.
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