As I type this, I’m at Laughing Heart Hostel in a Hot Springs. Today was heavy rain, but thankfully the worst of it came after I arrived at 2p. I’ll be taking a zero day here tomorrow and am grateful to be showered with laundry done.
Wednesday March 26 Standing Bear hostel 240.2 to Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7
Flash and the Princesses dropped me off north of the Smokies at Standing Bear Hostel. Road closures through the center of the Smokies make it impossible to hike my plan through the Smokies and I’m just not willing to wait out the weather another day. I’m a hiker and hikers HIKE!
One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Standing Bear Hostel: Box of goodies from my mother and niece. Adia had decorated a shoe box for me and she and Grammie had filled it with goodies. I ate the thin mints right away! Then I ate Reese’s for a snack that day. Shared zucchini bread with other hikers who were staying at the hostel. They were all quite jealous of my largess. Adia also made a lovely card for me AND included a four leaf clover which I will carry with me the rest of the way.
Standing Bear Hostel was fairly new when I came through a decade ago. Still owned by Curtis, but Rocket told me he has managed it for the last 3 years. They have a bunk house, private cabins, kitchen, laundry, shower and a small resupply store.
At the hostel: Facts was here (last time I saw him I identified him as a young Jewish man who tried too hard. Turns out he’s Protestant, son of a preacher. Oophs!) and Red Beard (we are both from Atlanta), Snorlax. The manager, Rocket, is a very thin, hard looking man, though he spoke kindly to me. The young men inside were thrilled with the availability of marijuana and the hostel has just also gotten a liquor license. Clearly not my kinda place. But I talked to others later who stayed there and found the place charming. No matter, I needed to move on and become a hiker again, regardless the amenities. It was only 10:30a and I needed to move. But there was also an amazing amount of snow ahead of me.
The hike to the next shelter was just over 7 miles, but the first 5 miles were up to a bald with an FFA tower, Snowbird Mt, 245.2. (From 1700 feet to 4300). It was a nice grassy bald, with posts lining the way, painted with the AT white blaze. Much more snow over the area than I’d expected, about an inch to three inches. The temperature did not get above freezing and the sky was partly cloudy, so there was little melting, except a bit on the trail where people were walking. So by 2p there mud to avoid. After the bald, the hike was straight down to Deep Gap. There must be a dozen valleys named a Deep Gap and the AT seems to plunge down through all off them. There are also too many places called “sassafras.”
I’m slow. Very, very slow. I hiked just short of a mile an hour (counting breaks). It was like starting the hike all over again. Wet, cold weather made it hard to take a break. Nowhere to sit that’s dry. And the wind is blowing so you can’t stop for long without getting cold.
I finally made it to Groundhog Creek Shelter. For an hour I was the only one at the shelter, an ancient stone structure that really needs attention. Then Bean Dip joined me (Australian, fast hiker) If I’d known she was coming I’d have stayed inside shelter, but I already had a tent set up. Bean Dip also brought me my bandana, which I’d dropped on the trail! She is excited about her mother coming to hike with her soon, though she plans to make several gear changes after her mom leaves, including a smaller tent and stove.
Very cold night. It had not gotten above freezing all day. Bean Dip updated me on several people. Radar and NORDO had passed me. Turkey Buzzard/Mickey has dropped out (she says this is his 3rd attempt, but it seems to me that his only issue is an oversized pack. A good outfitters could solve that in a couple hours!)
Thursday March 27 Groundhog Creek Shelter 247.7 to Roaring Forks Shelter 255.9
My tent was quite damp in the morning and it took me far too long to get going due to cold. Once again I threw up some of breakfast. Is this going to be every day? Also found a pair of socks that I thought Bean Dip had left (they weren’t hers).
Still hiking in snow most of the day and there are some places that someone, maybe 2 days ago, postholed through more than a foot of it. Their foot steps are frozen into the drifts. Whoever they were, I am grateful to them, though they have much longer legs than I. Very windy all day. Too cold to stop and rest for more than a minute at a time. Wore my rain jacket most of the day to cut the wind, adding my rain pants before lunch.
I was not prepared for the height of Max Patch Bald, 254.1, nor the wind. I had been walking up hill almost since I left Groundhog Creek Shelter and needed a break, but the climb was relentless, alternating between mud and deep snow. My hiking pole got stuck in one snow drift and I lost the cap to my pole. (I had a spare). When I got to the top I was able to lie down on my ground cloth and rest. As long as I stayed low I could avoid the wind and soak in a bit of sun. After walking in trees, the bald feels dizzying, wide and high. It’s like the opening scene of the Sound of Music where Julie Andrews sings, “The hills are alive……
It was dry most of the way to Max Patch, so as soon as I saw water I stopped. I met Jeff, who thru hiked 3 years ago. He will be working for the park service this summer in the Smokies. I wish him well.
From the bald it is down hill for several miles, but the temperature had at least inched over freezing. With the melting snow the whole trail was mud. Such a mess and my new shoes are not waterproof. I moved so slowly trying to keep my feet dry. I’d wanted to push past to the next shelter, but at 5pm, tired and muddy, I was the first to stop at Roaring Forks. A squirrel was scolding me from the shelter and I wasn’t sure I was welcome. Shortly after, Hopper and Bismarck came in. Then Grasshopper and Jump Up came. The four of them had stayed in a cabin at Standing Bear the night before. The first couple are very experienced AT hikers, but this was the longest day for the second couple. We all stayed in the shelter since rain was forecast. Right at dusk, Wrong Leg (a strong hiker with a British accent) came and filled the shelter. Jump up gave me the bandana that had been lost in the laundry at Top of Georgia hostel! He’d been carrying it all that time. Their bandana didn’t return from the laundry either, and were given mine.
No rain overnight, though it was forecast, and the temperature was mercifully above freezing, though the mud was a serious problem in the shelter area.
Friday, March 28 Roaring Forks shelter 255.9 to Dirt road 265.4
I woke in the dark hours to the sound of scurrying mice. It’s the thing I like least about the shelters and why I usually camp in my tent. But the mice didn’t seem to have done any harm. No rain overnight, but the gray skies look like I should get a move on! I added my pack cover and put my rain jacket and pants where I could get to them easily.
I started the morning 18 miles from Hot Springs and wanted to at least halve that distance today. I was the first out of the shelter at 8:15a though of course I knew everyone would pass me by lunch. We all took a break at Walnut Mt Shelter, 260.8. That had been my goal the night before, but it was such an exposed, windy spot I was glad I didn’t. Also there were 10 people, including Bean Dip, in that tiny space, according to the log. It must have been miserable. I drank the last of my water and intended to fill it, but found the trail to the stream a muddy mess. I decided to hike on to better, easier water.
A couple miles later I was getting water at a small spring and met No Poles, who hiked the AT last year. He was complaining at how slow he was, but I’m jealous of his daily distance. 10 miles is still a big day for me.
Much of the day was windy and my rain jacket went off and on. The skies threatened rain all day, but didn’t.
I really wanted to make it to the bottom of the mountain I’m on, another mile to an actual campsite, but my feet ached and when the trail crossed an old, flat road bed, I called it a day. I’m about 8 and a half miles from Hot Springs, mostly downhill. I am ready for a hot shower and laundry. I took a Baby Wipes bath, the best a camper can do!
Most hikers could have made it to Hot Spring in 3 days. It will take me 4. I am just not as strong a hiker. My short little legs just don’t move so quickly. I hope I’ll be able to increase my speed and miles very soon. While I try to remember it’s still early days, I am disappointed by my slowness.
Best things seen today: I saw tiny white and pink flowers, Spring Beauties, a sure sign of spring, which I’m longing for. Also the first leaves of Virginia Water Leaf. I heard an owl when I first stopped to set up camp and woodpeckers are constant much of the day.
Saturday, March 29 Dirt road 265.4 to Hot Springs (Laughing Heart hostel) 273.9
Well that was an odd night. About midnight I woke to the sound of a tractor and headlights blazing on my tent. I could hear two men talking from the vehicle, wondering who would be camping here. I suspect they had only seen the tent because of the reflective tape on the stakes and lines. Frankly, I was frightened. I could hear them talking, but could not make out what they were saying. They didn’t get off the tractor and I didn’t get out of the tent. Eventually they backed down and turned around. My heart had just about settled back to a more normal rhythm when they came back. This time they didn’t come nearly so close, but they sat there illuminating my tent for what seemed like an eternity. Then they finally backed up and drove off. I was frightened as it was obvious that there were at least 2 of them and just one of me. The only “protection” I carry is pepper spray. Later at the hostel people suggested that the men on the tractor had a still in the back woods.
It was sprinkling when I woke up, but I managed to get my food bag down between showers and most of the tent packed up before it began to rain hard. By the second mile of the hike I was simply too warm to hike with a rain jacket. This is the first day that it was warm enough to hike in short sleeves. Spring is coming! And I saw other evidence of it too. One bloodroot just about to pop into bloom. The very first blush of a redbud. A tiny snake that I narrowly missed with my hiking stick.
Though the 8.5 miles was mostly down hill, it was still difficult and my feet are quite sore. While it’s clear that this shoe/insole combination is superior to the one I started with, there is no padding and my feet hurt every evening. My keg muscles recover overnight and my knees have no pain at all, but the ache on the bottom of my feet sometimes keep me from falling asleep. I hope that they will toughen up and also that I will continue to lose weight, making it less weight on them overall. I wonder how much weight I’ve lost. Perhaps 6 pounds?
It sprinkled off and on all day, but I mostly chose just to be wet. It began raining harder on the switch back decent of the final mountain. I could see the French Broad River and Hot Springs below more than 2 miles before I arrived. Cities look so peaceful, clean and organized from that height. I’ve found that when you can hear traffic noises, you are about a half mile from the road.
Laughing Heart Hostel is located on the edge of the AT parking lot as you drop into town. Very convenient. It’s run by former thru hikers Chuck Norris (he does look surprisingly like the actor) and Tigger. It’s got about 12 hikers tonight (most in private rooms) plus a few past thru hikers who promise trail magic tonight. I’m in the bunk room with 5 other young men including Goat, Money Maker (he’s raised over $5 thousand for a charity on this hike), and Snorlax,
The Princesses are here. They’ve been to Damascus, VA to drop off some resupply boxes. They were going to hike today, but wanted to avoid the downpour. Maybe they will hike tomorrow. I hope their return to hiking is better than mine. I feel as if I’m breaking in my trail legs all over again! This section felt like I was starting the trail from the beginning.