The Great 8: Days 19 – 28

Day 19 – 13.7 miles

My shuttle to the trail got me there pretty early and of course it was raining. Heavily. Lucky for me, I overpacked on rain gear. So I slapped on some rain gaiters, a rain kilt, and of course a rain jacket. The piece de resistance though is my umbrella that I can clip to the shoulder of my pack. Overkill? Maybe, but I stayed dry for the most part, in pretty heavy rain too.

The elevation climb was actually gentle, and there were switchbacks, which was very surprising! So getting back up in the mountains wasn’t the usual BMT slog fest. It was a pleasant walk in the rain. The rain darkened the tree trunks and gives the leaf color a pop. It seemed extra green today.

I thought my knee was better after the rest. I could walk around in town without any pain. I failed to take into account my pack and the uneven slick terrain. I’ve been going slow in the hopes that will help, but I’m not sure? It feels the worst going up and down the steep slopes, which is most of the BMT.

I stopped relatively early. An hour before sunset. I didn’t make it to the original campsite I’d planned on Bob Bald. (I wanted to camp there because of the funny name.) As soon as I set up my tent and hung my food it started pouring rain. Im staying mostly dry. This Dyneema tent I’ve got is a little cocoon.

Today I am grateful for that gentle elevation climb.

Day 20 – 4.7 miles

The day started out drippy wet, where the wind knocks the moisture off the leaves making it seem like it is raining. I packed up and headed out fairly early. The mist curled through the trees obscuring the path ahead.

And what a path. For some reason, right after Cold Spring Gap the trail wants to act like its the Whites in New Hampshire (think crazy hard and rock climbing). Combine this with an absolute downpour, I was climbing up either a waterfall or a bog, depending on the steepness at the moment. After slipping and sliding over wet rocks and tricky roots, my knee called it quits. Or rather I did, because it was hurting so bad.

I asked myself: Self, why are you forcing this? I didn’t have a real good answer other than pure stubbornness. So I thought my knee was better but it wasn’t (not for the BMT anyway). No sense in further damaging it because “I have to complete it”.

I managed to get one bar of weak signal and called The Hike Inn who said they’d be able to pick me up! It meant backtracking a little, but that’s fine. Going down that hellacious mile to where I camped the night before only reinforced that this was a good idea. My knee started to have a sharp pain with every crunch down. Luckily the forest service road back to the Cherohala Skyway was mostly mild.

I got picked up and wrapped in towels. Tom even brought a bag of ice for my knee. After getting showered and laundered, the owner Nancy took me and another hiker into town where we ate Mexican and I resupplied. I was operating as if I was going to continue. Worst case scenario I’ve got a big bag of snacks.

Today I am grateful to Tom and Nancy for answering the phone and being able to pick me up. Also that 1 bar of 4G.

Day 21 – 0 miles

I slept and ate and elevated my knee. Nancy stopped by to see if I wanted to go into town. My knee felt great, no pain at all. I went to Walgreens and got a knee brace though. I’m not sure what is going on with this thing.

Today I am grateful for restful sleep.

Day 22 – 10.1 miles

I woke to the pounding of a downpour on the roof. Great. In an awesome turn of events though the rain died down by the time I got dropped off at the trailhead. My knee felt fine, but the 32 pounds (I weighed it at the Hike Inn) on my back didn’t do it any favors. I put brace on it just in case.

I said bye to Tom and turned my sights toward the Smokies. (If you hike in this area definitely give Nancy and Tom at the Hike Inn your business, they’re good people). FINALLY! Back in the Smokies, one of my favorite National Parks, though Death Valley is still number one in my books. The trail was so mild and forgiving, as they are when you maintain them. There were a few blow downs, but you could tell they were very recent.

I cruised along side the Fontana Lake at a steady clip, making sure not to over exert my knee. First I passed an Antique Road show of old cars (from the 30s I think?) left in the wilderness. Their rusted metal carcasses were no match for the trees and ferns that overtook them.

I spent a pleasant lunch at Lost Cove Campsite where I was even able to take my socks off to air out! The sun peaked out from the clouds and everything started to steam. I crossed Eagle Creek on an old metal bridge.

In the afternoon when I was hanging out at Possum Hollow for a snack break I heard some thunder in the distance and the light got dim. Dark storm clouds were rolling in. Lucky for me the trail turned into a flat old road bed and I scurried as fast as my knee would allow to the Calhoun House. Built in 1928, it is the only remainder of a mill town called Proctor. I made it to the porch of the house just in time. It isn’t locked and you can walk around inside if you want. It smelled moldy and looked creepy so I decided to stay on the outside. I sat and read a book on my phone while the rain splattered on the creek in front of the house. I was dry so it was pleasant.

After 30 minutes or so I packed up and made my way to Campsite 86 known as Proctor Field, just a short walk away really. I’ve set up on a bed of pine needles which actually feel comfortable. The only uncomfortable thing is that I think the squirrels are mad at me for invading their turf. They keep chattering in the tree above.

If I’m careful and can maintain a steady pace I think my knee will hold out. I hope so, because I really want to finish this section.

Today I am grateful that my knee held out.

Day 23 – 12.6 miles

More rain in the morning. A deluge really. I didn’t get started till late but once I did get going it felt great. The air was cool and crisp. Climbing up to Welch Ridge warmed me up quick though. There was cell service up there so I took a “whats going on in the world” break.

There are still plenty of ups and downs but they don’t seem as extreme as the southern part of the BMT.

I saw some southbound hikers and what appeared to be two hunters with dogs. There was water everywhere and not just cause it rained. It seemed like every 100 feet there was another creek to go down to and go back up from.

Occasionally I would get a glimpse of the lake through the trees. For a purported Lakeshore Trail it doesn’t seem to actually go down to the lake. That’s fine by me though, because that is where the mosquitos live. I like being up high on the ridgeline.

Even though most of the trail was mild today, I just couldn’t make the miles I was aiming for. I get real pessimistic and critical in the afternoon. Today I just decided to stop early and hope that there aren’t any rangers checking permits. (You are supposed to stick to your chosen backcountry campsites on your permit.) I’ve been feeling pretty “meh” lately.

Today I am grateful for the chat with the only other solo female hiker I’ve seen on the trail.

Day 24 – 18.1 miles

I managed to make it through the night without getting rained on. It made waking up early and getting going easier. I made it to the campsite I was supposed to stay at last night to find three ladies still enjoying their morning coffee. The site was pretty, but I’ve gotten used to camping alone and I’m not sure I remember how to be sociable. Not that I ever really was in the first place. Im glad I stopped where I did.

I noticed a pattern with the trail this morning. Turn left inland and away from the lake, go down to a water source whatever thay may be, cross it, veer right towards the lake and climb up. Rinse and repeat. Sometimes there would be a little straight part, but mostly it did this all morning. I felt like I kept doing the same thing over and over.

Going around one bend I saw a rather large bear who promptly exited stage right. All along the trail I’ve been seeing bear poop, full of berry seeds. I’ve been poking them to see how old they are, they’ve all been dry. Down by one of the many unnamed little creeks I saw a littler bear searching through the brush. It was a lithe little shadow who didn’t respond when I clicked my trekking poles. I swiftly made it up to the other side keeping an eye out for any angry mama bears.

You can always tell when you get close to a major trailhead because the path becomes well worn and wide. About a mile from the Tunnel to Nowhere I spotted day hikers. I tried to not creepily sniff them. So fresh. So clean.

The Tunnel to Nowhere was built in the 60s as part of a roadway that they never finished constructing. Now its a tourist destination to walk the 1000 yards and turn back. On Guthook (a hiking map app), comments stated that the tunnel was creepy. It may have been when there weren’t hoards of children with glowsticks running and yelling. It made me think that the tunnel could be a cool rave venue…if it was still 2000.

It was a brief roadwalk down to the new trail that I’d be following: Noland Creek. On the way down I saw two snakes and thought oh its that kind of creek huh? The path was a smooth forest road of gravel. It made the miles easier and I actually got to camp where I’d originally planned!

Today I decided to eat more snacks and take more frequent shorter breaks. I noticed that I turn into a cranky baby in the afternoon which just drags down my energy. Sure enough right around 1500 I was getting antsy to be done, so plopped right down on the side of the trail and ate my first Snickers of the whole trip. Maybe it was just psychomatic (addict, insane!*), but after awhile I felt my mood shift and things weren’t so melodramatic anymore. I’m sure the sugar helped.

Today I am grateful for making mileage in decent time.

*everytime I say that word i have to end it with Prodigy’s extra bit. *shrug*

Day 25 – 14.7 miles

Today was tough, both physically and mentally. I did all the mental hard work before this trip with all the planning, cross planning, and contingency planning. But there are just some things you can’t plan for. Weather. The park closing your campsite choice. How unexpectedly tired you feel. Downed trees.

I’m doing the actual physical work, and it’s surprising. Not to play the getting old card, but I am, everyone does. Now that I’m over 40 things just don’t work the same. I’d like to think of this hike as a rediscovery of what my body can do with all the demands placed on it, especially after years of neglect and stress. I can do 18 miles, but only if I eat enough calories and take many breaks. I can sleep comfortably in the backcountry, but only if I set up in the right spot. I can do the long hard ascents/descents, but only if I control my breathing and manage my pace. Also stretching is important.

The responses are a little slower and my recovery is definitely longer, but I’m doing it. After so long of taking care of others physical needs first it is deeply satisfying to tend to only my own. It is a deliciously selfish act.

All that to say, today was still tough. There were two waist deep creek fords early in chilly morning that were kinda scary and slowed me down. There were downed trees I had to crawl through. Going down Pole Road Creek was rough and had multiple wet feet crossings. And then I lost one in a pair of my favorite socks. They were Darn Toughs with bears on them and you could see their little claws.

In the afternoon it was a long hot dry climb up and up and up. Where I was practically drowning in water earlier, there was not a spare drop to be found. I put on some podcasts to distract me from the pain in my knee and feet. I even stopped and ate a Payday.

The sun has been setting earlier and earlier and I was getting close to walking in the dark. The last three miles seemed to stretch on forever. Finally I crested Newton Bald right as the sun set.

Only to find I had company and a lot of it. There were at least 8 other people jostling for spots. It was crowded for a Sunday night. I wasn’t feeling chatty so I went and got my water (100 yards downhill of course) and set up my tent. After eating some snacks to stave off hunger, I crawled into my tent and lay blissfully flat.

I thought I’d fall asleep quickly but I lay there…not doing that. I had to replay the day and figure out why 14 miles was so much harder than the 18 before. All I could figure was my attitude about it? Also it is easy to stay awake when five other people are up way past hiker midnight yakking loudly by the firepit. As soon as I heard a man complaining about vaccine mandates I put my ear buds in so I wouldn’t emerge from my tent like a banshee full if righteous indignation IF YOU WOULD HAVE JUST GOTTEN THE VACCINE…

Today I am grateful that the last 0.2 miles to camp were flat.

Yay! A bridge!

Day 26 – 14.5 miles

I woke early and tried to be as quiet as possible with my crinkly things. But not too much, seeing as how my site companions stayed up late. The descent to Smokemont was gentle and fast. I felt like I was flying and nothing hurt, all was right with the world.

The trail after Smokemont campground was a well used horse trail that went to Chasteen Creek Cascades. This pretty lunch spot looked a lot like Long Branch Falls on the AT. After lunch the horse trail stopped playing around and got real. Real hard.

I encountered a new menace: freshly fallen leaves over loose rock. When the leaves are all fluffy and not trampled down they hide the treacherous rocks underneath. My feet twisted this way and that, with my arches taking a beating. Onwards and upwards, forever climbing.

I started to get annoyed and contemplated again why these shorter days were harder. Part of it is my attitude, part of it is the trail conditions, but mostly I think it is time. The backcountry permit put me on a schedule where I have to camp in designated spots. I am forced to go a set mileage in a certain amount of time, no matter what. That was stressing me out and I didn’t realize how much. I have to go go go, why are you so slow? you’ll never make it before sunset, stop stopping so much!

Here near the end of this section, I’ve decided I don’t care. I’ll get there when I get there. What a relief. And then I came to a campsite I thought was closed for bear activity like the last two, but it wasn’t! There was even a camper already set up and it was Judy from Lightheart Gear (IYKYK)! I found out she used to be an FNP too. How wild it that?

Now I get to chill and relax before sunset. Have a chat with an awesome lady and not have to climb a 1200 feet ascent in an hour. What a win!

Today I am grateful that the Enloe Creek Campsite was open and that I got to meet Judy.

Day 27 – 10.1 miles

I did not sleep much. My tent was on a slant and I was itchy all over. Eventually I took a Benadryl and zonked out, but it made me groggy in the morning. I definitely didn’t wake up on time. Oh well. At least I got to have one last conversation with Judy before we split ways (she was going south).

The climb up to Hyatt Ridge wasn’t that bad, but I know that I would’ve hated it yesterday. Once up top the air got thin and chilly. There were more pines and their scent kicked up with every step. The decent was rocky down to Beech Gap where I had lunch. After which was another extended climb up to Balsam Mountain.

Since I wasn’t caring about time or mileage I went slow and then slower. The further up I got the more Boreal the forest became and even though it felt neverending, my spirits lifted at the sight of pines dripping with verdant green moss interspersed with the shocking yellows/reds of the Birches. A cool breeze knocked leaves off in showers that lazily drifted through shafts of sunlight dappling through the canopy. Very sweaty and very dirty, I gingerly stepped through this mountain top church feeling a little bit soothed.

I’ve been asked many times why I like thru hiking, or what I get out of it. Its often hard to explain, but after listening to a podcast it became a little clearer (Real Talk Radio with Nicole Antoinette – Episode with Amanda Jameson, if you’re interested).

It is these mountain top moments of peace/clarity/awe/joy/whatever that bring me back to myself. They teach me the true things that can’t be planned or forced or commodified. The trees, sky, moss, birds, wind, and light fill me up with something unnameable, but significant just the same. Each moment is cherished because they are fleeting as the landscape changes. The only way to get up to that mountain though is to walk and put yourself in the way of those moments. Or thats what I think anyway. There are other ways achieve these moments, but I find that the movement is what works for me.

Also you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. Win-win in my book. Which also what I am grateful for today.

Day 28 – 16 miles

I woke up chilly which was a first. It took awhile to get the gumption to crawl out of my sleeping bag. Eventually I shouldered my pack and moved through the dew laden trail.

The trail up to and after Laurel Gap Shelter is all Boreal, which means high elevation pines and cool chill air. I associate this type of forest with Maine and it brought back kinder memories of vacations and finishing the AT. The sun dappled the ground and everything seemed fresh.

The climb up Mt Sterling was tough but not interminable like the rest of the BMT. The higher you go, the trees start of thin out and you see a little more out into the distance. It feels like you are about to get the prize. After rounding a corner of brush you come upon the top Mt Sterling which doesn’t have views, but it does has a fire tower you can climb!

The top of that fire tower is a bit creaky and worrisome, but the views are unparalleled. You finally get to see some mountain range! It was a beautiful day and the wind was mild. I got some awesome pics, ate some cheese, and rested a bit. Even though there were 6 miles to go downhill I considered this the mental end point. Which is probably for the best because when I got to the end of the actual trail at Baxter Creek, I didn’t see a BMT terminus marker. Or at least they didn’t make it obvious. It just kind of ends.

I took advantage of the bathrooms and then started the 3 mile road walk to the Appalachian Trail. So now I’ve connected that loop! Made my way to Standing Bear and ate some pizza. Soon it will be southbound on the AT!

Today I am grateful for the awesome views on Mt Sterling.

One thought on “The Great 8: Days 19 – 28

  1. AT

    Thinking of you. Hope that derby knee behaves. I went ahead and made your cozy spot a little cozier AND added a kitten. I’m sure he’s dying to meet you. Be safe my courageous friend. Hugs.

    Like

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