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Standing Bear Farm to Damascus, Virginia

Volume 34: Tue May 20, 2003

I met this colorful fellow while hiking out of Hot Springs

I left Standing Bear Farm relatively early for being such a comfy spot—about 9:30 or so—and pushed on hard over 18 miles to Roaring Fork Shelter—just over the halfway mark to Hot Springs.

The halfway point brought me up to Max Patch, a bald with spectacular views in all directions. I was half-tempted to spend the night up there watching the stars, but I needed to get more miles on the trail.

A little ways farther I passed a group of four thru-hikers gathered around a smoldering fire. I stopped for a few minutes to snack and meet these new people, and I got the distinct impression they were drunk and probably high on pot as well. Definitely not the sharpest knives in the drawer, and I happily packed up and left them behind. They claimed their goal was to reach the next shelter—the same one I intended to reach—but seeing as they covered about a half mile after eight hours of hiking, I didn't expect they'd make the shelter that night. Fortunately for me, they didn't.

At the shelter I met one of their friends—this one with far more common sense than the four I left behind. He had spent he last few days with them, but was itching to get away at this point. However, he did have his own little stash of pot that I got to watch as he lit up and smoked. I've never actually watched anyone smoke pot before, so it was a guilty pleasure to watch such an illicit activity taking place just ten feet away.

The next morning woke up to rain and thunder—not a good sign. I woke up early and dallied around for an hour hoping it might let up, but alas, it did not and I packed up and headed out into the rain.

This was the first Welcome to Tennessee sign I'd see on the trail at Sam's Gap, even though I'd been hiking along its border for over a hundred miles now

The day poured buckets of rain, torrential dispiriting torrents. I started telling the story of Sam McGee to myself to pass the time. By the time I reached the part, 'The trail was bad and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in!" I was belting the poem out as loud as I could talking to myself more than reciting a poem.

I also had another glimmer of light to keep me going on that dreary day: Amanda. As it turned out, she had to be in North Carolina for work and had a day or so available to come out and meet me in Hot Springs. I'd also be meeting a local letterboxer named Lucy, so I definitely had to hike through to Hot Springs, rain or shine.

I finally dragged myself into Hot Springs after hiking 15 nonstop miles through a pouring rain. As you would expect, the area is known for hot springs in the area—something far less common out east than on the west coast and a topic of much discussion of among thru-hikers. I'd tell of wild tales back west of natural hot springs where people ran naked and didn't actually have to pay for the privilege of using them. They accused me of being "spoiled" by the hot springs out west. =) I learned the town was actually called Warm Springs until they changed their named to Hot Springs—a marketing ploy that sticks around to this day.

The AT actually runs through the middle of downtown Hot Springs. I didn't know where to find Amanda when I arrived. The plan was to call her when I arrived. But while wandering through town looking for a pay phone, she saw me wandering through town while killing time at the Smoky Mountain Diner.

A good plan on her part because her cell phone wasn't working there and I wouldn't have been able to call her.

The Magnolia Mountain Inn of Hot Springs, North Carolina

I ordered a Trail Burger, because that somehow seemed appropriate. We ate then she walked us to where we'd be staying the night: The Magnolia Mountain Inn. Is that a horrible joke or what? Forcing me to WALK there?

The place was absolutely beautiful—hidden in an old mansion built 150 years ago. I took a shower and cleaned up a bit, then we went out to explore the town a little and visit the library with free Internet access—my first while on the trail so far.

Later in the evening, we headed out to the Paddlers Pub to meet up with Lucy, a local letterboxer of western NC. Lucy was a delight, and probably starved for letterboxes in this area that's scarce of them.

The pub had a variety odd burgers available, including an ostrich burger, which fascinated both Amanda and myself if for no other reason than neither of us had eaten ostrich before. So we both ordered that and our assessment was that it tastes just like cow. Heck, it could have been cow for all we knew.

The next day we went out on the town to learn that major flooding was taking place. The creek running through downtown was overflowing its banks and nearly reached the top of the bridge going over it. Large logs floating downstream would THUMP against the bridge causing it to shake which was quite exciting.

The larger French Broad River on the edge of town was also flooding and I watched full sized trees floating downriver along with all sorts of bizarre junk such as basketballs and even the gas tank of a large car went floating by. I half expected to see a dead body floating down river, but alas, that did not happen.

Other diversions for the day included what appeared to be a helicopter rescue, although I never did learn the details about that. At around noon, a large landslide took out power in the town, a power outage that would last until midnight. Half the town had their water turned off to prevent the sewage from backing up. And the Appalachian Trail was closed at one part because it was under five feet of flood waters. AT hikers that day would have to take an alternate route to continue their journey, but I smartly decided to stay in town and take a 'zero day', that is, a day of no hiking.

Later, I would overhear locals talking about this flood as being the largest in Hot Springs since 1916.

Amanda wanted to try eating lunch somewhere new, so we checked out a map of the town and learned that we had already eaten at all the restaurants except for one, which was closed, so we headed back to the Smoky Mountains Grill where the power was still off, but their gas grills continued to run at full blast.

Amanda had to leave that afternoon, and I spent most of the rest of the day talking with other thru-hikers and telling the story of Sam McGee by candlelight.

The next morning I lounged around rather late hoping the rain would let up, and it did! I took what would be my last shower for awhile, ate breakfast, and headed down to the post office to check up on the maildrop I had coming.

It still hadn't arrived, so I filled out a forwarding address form where it would catch up to me in Erwin, TN, 70 or so miles down the trail.

Then I headed off to the Outfitters to pick up food to compensate for the lack of a maildrop, then I headed off.

The flood waters were still quite high, but noticeably lower than before. At the Outfitters, they were still saying that the AT was closed due to flooding but there's an alternate trail that hooks up with the AT after a mile or so.

The trail near Lovers Leap was still flooded when I passed by, but the day before, that white blaze behind my shoulder was underwater!

After crossing over the French Broad River, I jumped over a guardrail (the trail actually requires this) and proceeded to follow the AT until I reached just short of Lovers Leap where the detour begins. Not knowing the route of the detour, I asked a guy there where it was, and he informed me that the AT probably was passable now that the flood waters had receded a bit, and since it was only a short bit around Lovers Leap that had been impassable, it was easy to walk down a minute or so and find out.

As it turned out, the river's edge was still lapping at the AT, but I was able to navigate it without walking in more than an inch of water. The guy explained that the day before, that area was under five feet of raging river, definitely impossible to pass along that cliff face.

So I continued to the first shelter past Hot Springs relatively unhindered hoping to make it before it started raining again. Which worked really well until I made it to the shelter and learned it was full. I was shocked. What kind of idiots would be hiking in flood weather? Besides myself, that is?

So at about 4:00 in the afternoon, facing the prospect of a wet night in a tarp, I decided to walk 8.6 miles to the next shelter for an exhausting 20 mile day.

It went rather well, and fortunately there was still room in that shelter. However, I'd be haunted by three West Virginians—an 'interesting' bunch to put it nicely—that had no intention of letting anyone get to sleep early. I've heard a lot of stereotypes of West Virginians, but I always assumed they were just that, stereotypes. This family of three proved their was at least an element of truth behind those stereotypes, though.

Earlier in the day these people had traded their stove for a bag of tobacco. The mom wanted to quit smoking on this trip, so I guess they didn't bring enough. The 15 year old daughter was chain-smoking the stuff. That in itself didn't surprise me too much, but the fact that her mom didn't seem to care astonished me. I haven't met too many moms willing to fund their child's tobacco habit.

As the sun was setting and the rest of us in the shelter started to head off to sleep, the mom commented, "Why does everyone always go to sleep as soon as the sun sets?", a fact that she'd do her best to prevent.

They were an interesting bunch, and when I left the next morning I prayed that I'd never have to share a shelter with them again.

The day went swiftly without anything in particular to note. I putted along for a non-stunning 12 1/2 mile day, calling it quits at the Flint Mountain Shelter.

Unfortunately, my new-made friends from West Virginia also made it that far, rather a long distance for them. I also met a new fellow calling himself Grunt that had walked a whopping 33 miles in from Hot Springs in a single day. He's actually planning to thru-hike BOTH the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail this year which is why he was putting on so many miles. Even I was impressed.

The dysfunctional West Virginians continued to be a source of endless entertainment—and I don't necessarily mean that in a good way. One 64 year old thru-hiker calling himself Pops decided to set up a tent to avoid them. The boyfriend of the mom kept commenting about how much he'd like to catch a squirrel or something to eat in addition to bragging about the two birds he killed and cooked for dinner while hiking the AT last year. I bet he even ate them raw. I could go on with a hundred things they said and did that would strengthen those West Virginia stereotypes, but it also seems like I'd be taking cheap shots at them if I did. They were a nice family—don't get me wrong—but they were dumber than dirt and rather annoying—especially late at night.

The real show for the night started at around 2:00 in the morning—and felt vaguely like something from the Twilight Zone. Maybe I did enter that strange dimension for a brief episode.

We woke up to a flickering light. It was kind of a cross between lightning and a strob light flickering and lighting up the whole sky. Except it wasn't like anything any of us had ever seen in our lives. Our first thought was aliens, but then rational heads perserveered and we figured it was probably something normal and rational, although we didn't have a clue as to what could possibly cause it.

We figured lightning was unlikely. For one, it didn't even LOOK like lightning. For a second thing, there wasn't a cloud in the sky. And for a third thing, there was absolutely no sound of thunder.

Being a man-made phenomena seemed equally unlikely since we were in the middle of friggin' nowhere.

Which pretty much exhausted all of our ideas for what was going on, and to this day I can't tell you what it was we saw. But it sure has livened up discussions of aliens, anal probes, UFOs, and alien abductions, although none of those theories have been proven either.

Later Amanda told me that Western North Carolina was known for strange, unexplainable lights—perhaps the same ones that I saw. She did some Internet searches for the "Brown Mountain Lights"—pretty bizarre stuff, actually—except that I wasn't at Brown Mountain, although Amanda says I was pretty darned close at the time. Perhaps it was the mysterious Brown Mountain Lights that I saw.

With the forecast of good weather for the next couple of days, I lounged around lazily the next day and didn't leave the shelter until 9:30. Spent a few hours avoiding the heat of the day at the next shelter, Hogback Ridge, before heading off to Low Gap to spend the night by myself and away from my West Virginia friends. No shelter for me that night!

Hotdawg, hiking with his cat, Stubbycat

The rest of the hike to Erwin was rather dull. I met Hotdawg and his pet cat, Stubbycat. He's legendary on the trail because while dogs aren't exactly uncommon, thru-hiking with a cat is a rare and funny sight. The cat hangs out on top of his pack during the day and catches mice by night making it a rather wonderful shelter companion. When I caught up to them, Stubbycat had 13 confirmed kills and 2 escapees.

I stayed the night at No Business Knob Shelter, something we all pondered the meaning of.

And then it was on to Erwin, TN, a town all elephants would do well to avoid. The town is famous for having hung an elephant back in 1916 after a mishap with one of its handlers. Many communities were threatening not to allow the circus into town as long as Mary, the elephant, was with them. So the owners decided that the elephant had to be destroyed. The town didn't have any artillery large enough to kill the elephant, so they brought in a railroad crane and strung the elephant up like an outlaw until it strangled to death.

It's not something many of the locals today are proud of, and most would probably want the story forgotten completely, but there's something fascinating about the hanging death of a 5 ton elephant named Mary that's hard to forget.

Walking through town I noticed yellow ribbons tied around anything that was vertical—trees, lamp posts, columns, etc. It was a way of showing support for our troops abroad, but I've never seen anywhere with so many yellow ribbons tied around anything possible.

I walked four miles into town admiring stately homes sitting next to rustted, busted trailers—a rather odd look, I thought.

And best of all, I heard rumors of such wonderful places as Pizza Hut and all other manners of wicked food that would make a thin person blush with shame. I was looking forward to it!

Walking into town, I had the opportunity to admire the street names, and besides one called Hoback Ave that I thought was pretty amusing, it seemed like half the street names had the word 'Love' in it. I suspect one of the founding families of the area probably had the name, or else the townsfolk are trying to create the Loveliest town in Tennessee.

My first stop was at Miss Janet's, a hostel legendary in the area for her wonderful hospitality. Unfortunately, due to deteriorating weather, many hikers got off the trails and had already filled up the available room. I was still able to take a shower and at least get cleaned up a little before wandering to the Super 8 where I watched television for hours on end—the kind of stuff that makes your brain rot—like Survivor. (Hey, it was the finale!) I was the first time I watched television since before I started my hike, and I had some serious withdrawls that needed tending to. At least until I fell asleep at 3:00am.

Erwin was actually the first scheduled stop where I was going to meet Amanda—Hot Springs kind of worked out on a fluke, but wasn't really planned in advanced. And bright and early the next morning (7:30 or so) she came knocking at my door wanting in. Since I was now awake, I turned on the boob tube again where Amanda and I proceeded to watch much of Roxanne. We left before it ended, though, because there was stuff that needed to get done!

Like breakfast, before it ended. Then off to the library for some much needed Internet access. And then to the post office where my mail drop from Hot Springs finally caught up to me. And Wendys for lunch, where I could 'borrow' a few salt packets for the trail. And later that evening, off to Pizza Hut where I picked up parmesan (okay, I really messed up the spelling of that word, but I don't have a spell check available right now!) cheese packets for the trail. (I swear, fast food establishments are GREAT for those little condiment packets. You'd think they made that stuff with backpackers in mind!)

Then back to the hotel, where we watched more television. Life was good.

The next day Amanda demanded that I do 'something' rather than sit around enjoying my time off the trail. So there I found myself, stranded at the trail where I had gotten off two days earlier, and Amanda waving goodbye. She would pick me up ten miles down the trail at Beauty Spot (sounds nice, don't you think?) during which time she'd wash most of my dirty laundry (for some reason, she accused me of smelling too much) and shop at her own pace without me to slow her down. The bonus for myself is that I'd be 'slackpacking', which means I wouldn't be carrying a full pack. Some snacks and water, and that was about it.

At around 3:45 I pull into Beauty Spot, a grassy bald with fantastic views, but no sign of Amanda. Not to worry, I thought, I told her I'd arrive at around 5:00. I was WAY early!

So I tucked my arms into my shirt (it was windy and getting cold, and I didn't think to bring an extra jacket—it was being washed!) and waited.

By around 4:30, I realized something had gone horribly wrong. Surely Amanda would have come at least a half hour early in case I made it to the bald earlier than expected. And while looking down that unmarked, gravel road, it came to me: She's lost. She couldn't figure out how to get up there!

A typical shelter, crowded with many hikers who've stopped to eat lunch

So I begin to walk back down the road, hoping to flag her down as she drove past, finally having figured out how to get to Beauty Spot.

But it didn't happen. About a mile down the road I had to make another decision. It was now 5:00, and Amanda was still nowhere to be seen. But the AT crossed the road at this point, and having already hiked that section, I knew I could go down it for a mile (or so) where it would come out on a major road 3.3 miles from a 'recreation facility' that would certainly have a phone I could use to call Amanda's cell phone.

Or I could continue walking down the road—who knows how long it went for, though?—and hope to cross paths with Amanda along the way.

Deciding that Amanda must be hopelessly lost, I crashed back into the woods retracing my steps on the AT until I made it to Indian Grave Gap and the major road that passes through it.

And would you believe it—there was Amanda, parked, and waiting for me! My guess that she couldn't figure out how to reach Beauty Spot turned out to be true, but she thoughtfully stopped at the last place she knew I'd have had to pass on my way to Beauty Spot.

And she came bearing gifts of candy bars and sodas. It was great. Reunited once again, we went off for dinner and then TV. Life was good. =)

The next day she'd make me hike again, but after learning about the wonders of slackpacking, I was determined to push a whopping 20.7 miles to Roan High Bluff. Amanda dropped me off at Beauty Spot at 12:15—between the two of us, we had no problem figuring out how to drive up there. For a 20+ mile hike I was getting a very late start, but I had a Sonic burger and milkshake happily digesting to get me through the distance.

I estimated it would take about eight hours to hike, and told Amanda I should arrive at the Roan High Bluffs at around 8:00 in the evening—give or take. After a couple of staged photographs, I was on my way.

This meadow was a carpet of flowers

During this time I was slackpacking, I was using Amanda's smaller and lighter pack since my larger one was definitely not necessary. However, it was very covered with bright flowers and girlish stuff, so whenever I passed any thru-hikers that I knew, I had to explain that the pack was NOT mine, and that I was NOT gay.

The rest of the hike went pretty well. At long last, I caught up with Popsicle from Paradise, someone I'd been hoping to meet for weeks by this point but she'd always manage to stay one or two days ahead of myself. She signs all the registries with a purple pencil and draws little palm trees next to her name, which is all very cute and I had wanted to meet the face behind the name for weeks. And at last, I finally did, although she didn't have a clue as to who I was since she had always been in front of me and never able to read MY witty registry entries.

The last few miles were the toughest I had seen on the trail for quite some time. Later, Popsicle would tell me she called it a "two bitch" mountain, sentiments I agree with whole-heartedly.

Right at 8:00 I made it to the top where Amanda was already there and waiting for me with candy bars and sodas in hand.

I didn't learn until later that Amanda had been making quite a name for herself that evening on Roan Mountain. Several thru-hikers stopped to chat with her including Lumberjack, George, and the guy whose name I never did catch. She offered them candy bars and sodas as well, so they instantly fell in love with her—one of the guys saying that if I didn't marry that wonderful angel, he would!

That night we ended up staying at a nearby motel other than Erwin, mostly because at this point Erwin wasn't so close anymore.

Then it was my last day of slackpacking. Amanda dropped me off at Roan Mountain where I would make another 15 or so miles to US19E where Amanda would pick me up.

I stopped briefly at the Overmountain Shelter, something I had heard was not to be missed. And I agree. While I didn't actually get the honor of spending the night there, it was the most scenic and pretty shelter I've seen to date. It was made from an abandoned barn—very cute—and the view from it was absolutely phenomenal overlooking a valley blooming with flowers. If I knew Amanda wouldn't be waiting for me another nine miles down the trail, I'd have spend the night—sleeping bag or not!

That's also where I caught up with Lumberjack, George, and the mysterious stranger, who continued to gush about how wonderful Amanda was the day before.

What a view!

But I said my goodbyes and continued down the mountain. I've heard stories from other thru-hikers that the area I was now entering wasn't especially hiker friendly. The story goes that the federal government took some land from some locals to create the Appalachian Trail, and many of those locals still hold a grudge about that. So they like to vandalize hikers' cars, throw stuff at hikers crossing the road, and even hanging fish hooks from the trees at eye level in the hopes of catching themselves a hiker. Of course, I reasoned, the stories have probably grown all out of proportion from whatever incident it sprang from, but I started keeping a lookout for fish hooks and other booby traps along the trail. Better safe than sorry!.

But I made it out to US19E where at 6:30—our agreed upon time—Amanda was already waiting for me. This time we would go into Elizibethton for the night.

We stopped at Taco Bell for dinner—a luxury I had been lacking since California. It was nearly as thrilling as when I discovered Taco Bell in Guatemala—and that's saying a lot! Then headed back to the hotel to watch the season finale of CSI.

After which, you could find us wandering outside every 15 minutes or so to watch the progress of the lunar eclipse happening that night. I've seen eclipses before—both lunar and solar—and wasn't especially impressed, but Amanda had never seen a total lunar eclipse and was quite thrilled about watching its progress.

The next morning we made our usual stop at the library before she dropped me off where I got off the trail the evening before. This time I'd have a fully-loaded pack. My slackpacking days were over. Amanda had to get back to report in for work (the horror!) so we said our goodbyes and I hit the trail again, this time to the Moreland Gap Shelter.

It was over 17 very tough miles, and I staggered into camp over an hour later than I had originally planned. Only two weekend hikers inhabited the shelter, mostly because Trail Days was happening in Damascus that weekend and most thru-hikers had gotten off the trail to hitch rides there.

Trail Days is basically a huge gathering of thousands of hikers at Damascus, the first trail town one reaches upon reaching Virginia. The event draws thousands of people that literally quadruples (or more!) the normal size of the town, so huge fields with thousands of tents are erected around it. Tent City, USA.

It does sound like quite a sight to see, but my theory is that people go there to TALK about hiking the AT, and I'd rather be out there doing it instead. So I decided to miss it. The upshot, for me, at least, is that I wouldn't be competing with thru-hikers for shelter space.

So when I staggered into the shelter rather late, I wasn't surprised to discover just two other people there, neither of which were thru-hikers. They had just finished dinner and offered me their leftovers—a full-sized meal in itself—that I greedily inhaled.

I scored some trail magic at Laurel Falls

The next day I hiked another 16 miles, passing Laurel Falls, a rather scenic change from the endless trees I've been seeing. The trail down to it was rather treacherous down a steep rocky incline, but the rewards were worth it—and I mean besides the view.

The falls is only a couple mile hike from a major road, and being a weekend, plenty of people drove out to enjoy the falls. Along with drinks and snacks that they didn't want to carry back to their car, so I was able to feast on such wonderful items as Doritos, Gatorade, Slim Jims, and even a banana. Since most other thru-hikers had gotten off the trail to go to Trail Days in Damascus, I didn't even have to share my treasure with others.

But there were still miles to be done, so I continued on to the Watauga Lake Shelter, cleverly named because it's situated on the shore of Watauga Lake.

Some section hikers were there at the lake, finishing up their last day of their hike, and offered me all sorts of provisions they would no longer be needing including fuel for my stove and food. Life was good.

It rained a little that night—something which didn't bother me while curled up in my sleeping bag under the shelter. However there was a vicious wind storm and I could hear trees falling all night long with a loud CRASH piercing the relatively quiet site.

The next morning the rain stopped, and I hit the trail as dry as when I arrived. This time it would be a relatively short hike of 14 miles to the Iron Mountain Shelter with little to note.

I did find a small, fold-up chair that one hiker had left behind (presumably by accident) that I decided to pick up and ship to myself at the first post office I arrived at. Yes, this is the same type of chair I ridiculed one backpacker for hiking with back in the Smokies, but in my defense, I only carried it as far as the next post office.

In any case, it'll help redeem my self-esteem after having left my trekking pole at a quick stop I made that I will no longer have to lean on. *sob sob*

At the Iron Mountain Shelter, I met two weekend backpackers that were begging for me to eat their food such as pudding (pudding heaven!) because they had so much of it and it was so darned heavy. While I gladly enjoyed the pudding, I know those two were really only thinking of themselves and how to lighten their load as quickly as possible. I was glad I could help. =)

That night, at about 10:30, a couple of people hiked in with good news: The trekking pole I left behind was on its way, and if I slept in in the morning I would be reunited with it.

So I did as ordered, and slept in, and sure enough a couple of guys came hiking in along with my long lost trekking pole. It was a tearful reunion. Okay, not really, but I did miss that pole. =)

Given the fact that I had slept in—rather severely at that—I was once again the last to leave the shelter at nearly 11:00.

But I had a relatively easy 16 mile day ahead with no large mountains left between myself and the next shelter. And a little after 5:00, I rolled into my last shelter before reaching Virginia, a scant five miles away. And the self-proclaimed "friendliest town on the AT", aka Damascus, was just five more miles past that.

I woke up early the next morning and was on the trail by 8:30 while four others were still breaking up their camp. It was on to Damascus, and I wanted to get into town early!

Which is where you'll find me now, tapping away on the computer that in the town library. Which, believe it or not, finally gets you up to date on my progress! For now... Rest assured, I'll be falling behind again soon....


— Ryan

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