Dates .... Sunday, September 9 through Thursday Sept 27, 2001 - 19 days on the trail
Miles .... 218 miles, total.
From .... I 40 Davenport Gap, Tennessee Along the TN - NC border
To ......... Damascus VA
PROUD to be an AMERICAN
I got the news when I arrived mid-afternoon September 11 in Hot Springs, NC for a hostel stay and mail drop pickup. At first, I did not believe what I was told, as if it were some kind of perverted joke. But it was real. All too real. At the diner I heard the continuous radio news reports. At the convenience store adjacent to the Laundromat I saw the incredible and unbelievable images on TV. I was shaken with disbelief, anger, sorrow and a feeling of helplessness. There was, in fact, nothing I could do to help, though my first impulse was to head to New York and offer my assistance. But, 800 or 900 miles away with no transportation, I decided the best course of action was to continue my trek. At least I felt completely safe in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. I called home and spoke to loved ones; we assured each other that none of us were in harms way and that we were able to function.
A clear blue sky, bright sunshine and mild temperatures greeted me at the Interstate 40 trailhead. I was, as I always am, nervous with anticipation as I was soon to be dropped off and would have to survive for three weeks with what was on my back and what I had mailed to myself at post offices along the way. God, I hope I didn't forget anything. (I never have.) And, I was anxious to get on with the adventure and see what lay ahead. I knew one thing for sure: I had a lot of climbing ahead of me. I had to climb 3,000 feet on my first day out. And climb, and climb, and climb some more. This was one rugged section of Appalachian Trail - right over the mountains and high ridges. The trail itself was very nicely maintained and well graded - actually smooth - for most of the first 90 miles, or so. Then it got a little rockier, muddier and challenging, as the terrain became more mountainous. At times it was torturous and treacherous, and very dangerous right along cliff edges or along rocky sections with big holes between rocks. Coming into Irwin TN, at lovers leap near hot Springs and a couple of other spots, you could look right over the edge of the trail and see straight down into the valley some 500 feet below. The trail map - a nearly useless thing with a ridiculous contour interval of 50 meters (that's over 150 feet, compared to the standard topo map interval of 20 feet) and a scale more like a state road map than a hiking map- showed that for the majority of the distance covered, one was hiking the ridge that defined the state line borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. Indeed, I was hiking at times with one foot in each state.
The shelters were different. Definitely, they were among the most primitive I have experienced in my 1600 miles of the AT. Definitely not the elegant affairs found in VA and PA that competed for luxury with lofts, skylights, porches, showers and state-of-the-art composting privies. With one notable exception, the Overmountain Shelter two-story barn converted to a shelter at Yellow Mountain Gap - they were simple open-front lean-to's of log or concrete block construction, leaky tin roofs, capacity of 6 to 8 people, that served their basic purpose - shelter. And havens for mice, flying squirrels and other sleep-depriving, pack-eating rodents. The privies were one of two styles: DELUXE, with a toilet seat over a hole in the ground surrounded by skimpy modesty panel/windbreaks on three sides (NO door) and maybe a partial roof of sorts. Bring your own TP. The ECONOMY Privy featured extreme durability and beauty in its simplicity: Dig-your-own with the shovel provided. Definitely we're getting back to nature, here! The Economy Privy served a dual purpose, however. You could use the shovel to scare hyperactive rodents into allowing you 5 to 7 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.
Another thing lacking at most of these shelters: a register. A register, to my way of thinking, is an essential little safety net for long distance hikers. Most hikers, especially long distance hikers, will sign in to document that they have been there. If a search for a hiker were ever initiated, the register is the only way anyone has of knowing a hiker has been (or has not been) to a particular point on the trail. Most hikers go to a shelter, even if its just for a break or lunch, and most will sign in if there is a register. Only three of the many shelters I stayed at had registers to sign.
I enjoyed weather that was mostly favorable for hiking the mountains, except a little too warm for me. I had only two days of rain - one day being when I climbed Roan Mountain, The highest point and the supposed-to-be highlight of the trek, of course, and the other when I walked the ridges above Watauga Lake. Three nights were very cold - in the mid to upper 20's and one day never got above 35. I was prepared and had the gear to be comfortable but some of those hiking with super light gear (no extra clothes, no tent or sleeping bag) were in for an awful cold night curled up in their plastic trash bags - unless they made it to a hostel. For them, the cold weather was an omen of things to come and a signal that is was time to get some heavier duty gear or risk hypothermia. But, for the most part, the weather was nice. No blizzards (Spring '01- Virginia) or tropical storms (Floyd- fall '99 Massachusetts) to contend with. Besides the minor inconvenience of two days of rain and three cold nights, I had only one other unpleasant incident (besides the September 11 news). On 9/19, getting to and leaving the Clyde Smith shelter, I was attacked and stung by bees. I made it a point to warn all others that I saw and ask them to notify the trail maintainers of the hazard.
I met very few long-distance hikers on the trail the first 2 weeks. In fact, very few hikers at all. I had extreme solitude and quiet - there were not even any planes in the sky after September 11. It was very lonely, I had almost all the shelters to myself and I had too much time to think. The first three days out I saw no houses, cars, paved roads or hikers at all along the trail - only a couple of locals gathering ginseng in the woods. (See 9/9). Then I came into Hot Springs for a re-supply and got "the news". Even at two of the hostels I stayed in - Elmer's at Hot Springs and Braeman Castle in Hamton, I was the only hiker. During the second week I saw a few section hikers - a sweet older couple in their 70's doing sections with a motor home for support, and a couple of guys. I did have another extraordinary experience - On Sept 12 I came up to a shelter and saw another hiker. We instantly recognized each other. It was Hoppin Hoosier. We had been together in the Little Rock Pond shelter in Vermont on Sept 22, 2000. It was so nice having company - we had a lot to talk about.
At Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel I ran into Belfast, a section hiker and trail bum from Belfast Ireland, and a couple others. Shortly after that I ran into Dirty Boots, a long-distance section hiker from England. God love those Brits! Toward the end of the hike I started to run into the very first Southbounders making their way into Tenn/NC. The first three were traveling super light - with less than what I would consider the bare essentials for a safe and comfortable hike. Linguini, leading the pack, had a black plastic trash bag for raingear and an ultra light pack. (After I met him, he had to get more gear for the colder weather, I later found out.) Two others, a sweet young boyfriend/girlfriend couple also were traveling ultralight. At least they had each other to cuddle with and stay warm. (That was somebody's plan, I'm sure!) But, a light pack is what helped them do 25-30 miles a day, and be leaders of the pack. After all, they had some 1600 miles of trail behind them. Nothing is a better test of gear and a hiker than the miles behind them.
Some of the unique and very interesting characters I met: Belfast (Ireland), Dirty Boots (UK), Hoppin Hoosier (see 9/12), Bob, Krispy, Slo Joe, Linguini (see 9/19), Surefoot, Gander, Ed, Mr. Magoo and Sleepy Scout, Kokopelli.
The hostels and town visits are one of the hiking experiences I look forward to the most. I love seeing new places and meeting new people. It seems that in every town along the way on this trek I met the nicest, most easygoing people. They seemed to be places that time had forgotten. Elmer's in Hot Springs NC was my first stop. It was a neat old Victorian home furnished rustically with beautiful antiques, a rambunctious Visla dog and three lovely cats. There was no working TV. Elmer was a kind and gentle, completely trusting and likeable, laid back southern gentleman. He had a resident helper, a very sweet and pretty young woman. Both were vegetarians. Oddly enough, Hot Springs, a tiny little town of 4,000 or so residents, had a vegetarian cafť' and health food store. Fortunately, it also had the Smokey Mountains Diner with good ol' fashioned artery clogging burgers and fried food - right across from Elmer's. See 9/11. Sams Gap NC was a food stop on 9/15. It had a diner and general store 3 miles from the trail. The young lad running the general store sat out in front on a wooden rocker between the few customers they had. It was truly Rural Americana circa 1930. He was kind and let me use the store phone to call home. I had a helluva time getting a hitch back to the trail despite the heavy traffic on Rt. 23.
Uncle Johnny's Nolichucky Hostel, near Irwin Tenn, was one of the highlights of my trek. I was there on 9/17 - a full day ahead of schedule. I ate well - pizza, beer and Salmon Patties ala Bob, was treated extremely well at the Irwin Post Office by some of the nicest postal clerks I ever met, and loved the way Uncle Johnny saw to it that my every need and reasonable desire was met. My stay at Times Square Motel and Restaurant in Elk Park NC was interesting. The restaurant had great food and service and the motel was the epitome of laid-back take-it-easy, nothing serious hospitality I ever experienced along the trail. Those Elk Park NC folks take their porches and rocking chairs VERY seriously. The room was nice, though. The Braemar Castle Hostel and Sutton Brown, proprietor of Brown's Market in Hamton, Tenn. was really nice, and also very laid-back. I ate well at the local restaurant, re-supplied at Brown's Market and the post office, and had a lovely room in "the castle" on my 9/22 visit. Sutton Brown, also proprietor of the local hardware and feed store - like stepping back to the early 1900's - is another soft-spoken, gentle laid-back southern gentleman. No computers here! It seems the pace of life in the southern Appalachians just hasn't kept pace with the rest of America - and that's probably a good thing. Hamton was my last town visit before Damascus Virginia and The Place Hostel, the end of my trek. Damascus is a town geared for hikers in all regards. The trail goes right through the middle of town and a big arch over the trail welcomes hikers at the edge of town. The church-run hostel is spotless and nice - but, perhaps, only because it wasn't full of odiferous through hikers.
Probably the most breathtaking experience of the trek was my sojourn to the top of Big Bald, NC on 9/16. There I hiked up to 1ts 5516 foot high grassy summit with an incredible 360 degree clear, unobstructed panorama of mountains surrounding it. It was a crisp, clear day with only the tiniest white clouds visible on the most distant horizon. Nothing blocked the awe-inspiring view, save perhaps the tears in my eyes. I stayed for a couple hours before reluctantly moving on. Clearly, this and McAfee Knob / Tinkers Cliff VA (4/28/01) and Mount Washington, NH (9/10/2000) were to be the most memorable and exhilarating vistas of my Appalachian Trail journey. Other Highlights of this trek included Snowbird Mt (4263'), the hazy and cloud-covered Max Patch (4629', 9/10), the French Broad River and its Lover's Leap overlook (9/12), Big Butt (4750'), Big Rock (4838'), Beauty Spot (4437') and Unaka Mt. (5180') on 9/18, and the highest point on this trek at 6285' on 9/20, Roan High Knob which I hiked in the rain, Little Hump (5459') and Hump (5587') Mts. on 9/20, the spectacular Laurel Falls and Laurel Forks Gorge on 9/23, and Watauga Lake, its dam and powerplant on 9/24.
I climbed a lot of mountains. Indeed, I was continually climbing or descending most of the time. Many areas of the Appalachian Trail have long, flat ridges between mountains or between climbs. Some areas stay in the valleys or follow rivers or streams for long periods. But this area, the high ridges and mountain peaks forming the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, was anything but flat. It was a nearly constant series of climbs and descents with almost no level terrain in between. Any ridges were high and usually an extension of a peak. Some of the higher peaks were "balds" , that is, treeless summits, not rocky as in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, but grass or brush covered. A few of these high balds, most notably Big Bald at 5516 feet elevation, gave me extraordinary views, a tremendous reward for my efforts.
It was very challenging and tiring terrain. Most notable: Roan Mt (Roan High Knob, which has the highest shelter on the AT) 6285' and Round Bald 5826', Jane Bald 5807, Big Bald 5516', Beartown Mt. 5481', Unaka Mt. 5180', Elk Hollow Ridge 5180, Carvers Gap 5512', Hump Mt 5587' and Little Hump Mt 5459'.
There were lots of summits over 4000 feet high, which, had I been hiking in New Hampshire, would have been barren and rocky, above the 4000 foot treeline. In the Tennessee / North Carolina Appalachians, most summits were wooded. Summits I climbed: Walnut Mt (4280'), Beauty Spot (a small bald) 4437', Piney Ball 4220', Camp Creek Bald (4844'), Little Bald Knob 4459', Lick Rock 4579', Sugarloaf Knob 4560', Big Rock 4838', Little Rock Knob 4918', Blackstack Cliffs 4490', High Rock 4460', to mention a few. Most of the trail is around 4,000 feet elevation. It was only in the river valleys or the northernmost section of this hike that I dropped below 3,000 feet. By way of comparison, consider that in all 229 miles of AT in Pennsylvania, 2150' is the highest point and the AT seldom exceeds 1,500 feet elevation.
Saddles and gaps between mountains or ridges were also high, often higher than many of the other mountains along the AT: Grassy Ridge Gap 6050', Low Gap 5050', Buckeye Gap 4730', Yellow Mt. Gap 4682, Bradley Gap 4960, Hughes Gap 4040', Street Gap 4100', Greasy Creek Gap 4034', Ash Gap 5340', Deep or Beauty Spot Gap 4100', Yellow Mt. Gap 4682'. By way of comparison, Priest Mountain VA, at 4,063 feet elevation, was the highest point on my 286-mile spring 2000 hike.
I really didn't condition myself adequately for this hike. Usually I devote three weeks to an intense daily conditioning routine of hiking up and down Pennsylvania's Endless Mountain hillsides with a full pack, traveling 8 to 12 miles daily. But this year I was hard pressed to find the time. I knew I would pay for my lack of conditioning on the trail. Instead of progressing steadily up the steep climbs I would grunt, curse, and rest a lot. Instead of being just tired at the end of a day, I would ache and hurt. But, no whining allowed; I brought this on myself. I had absolutely no knee problems as I had in past hikes, thanks to my trekking poles and a long term regimen of 2000 mg of Glucosamine Sulfate every day.
I did have one other problem, though, and that was my hiking boots. For the first time ever, I spent big bucks for Gore-tex Asolo hiking boots. I wore them on my conditioning hikes and experienced a hot sensation on the sole my left foot, which, I assumed, would go away with break-in. The left foot fit more loosely that the right. But they seemed otherwise OK, were all I had, so off I went. A week into the hike my left toes got numb sensations. They stayed that way, and still are numb. I suspect pressure from the boots. They were stiffer that any others I ever tried and had a high spot in the sole under the toes and I believe that caused my problem. Although uncomfortable, I continued my hike.
I had a most unwelcome visitor in the middle of the night at the Abbingdon Gap shelter, where I spent my last night on the trail. I heard some rustling in the plastic bag next to me. Thinking it was just another sleep-depriving rodent, I grabbed the broom, preparing to thump the rascal. I turned on my light and saw a furry black thing with a white stripe down its back. I turned off the light, lowered the broom, and waited for the critter to go away - about 10 very long minutes. Thankfully he did not leave any of his cologne behind. Being squirted by a skunk would be one thing that would make a long distance hiker smell worse than three-day old road kill.
Just before the TN/NC border I saw the most beautiful, sleekest black bear along the trail, only 50 feet away. As soon as he saw (or smelled) me, he took off, ever so gracefully and effortlessly moving through the woods, the sun catching and shining off his glistening coat. I wish he'd stayed long enough for a photo - but was glad he didn't hang around and have this hiker for lunch. It was the only bear I saw on this hike in spite of starting and ending my hike in bear preserves. I felt elation at the Tennessee / Virginia border because I knew I was less than 4 miles from Damascus VA, a nice, badly needed hot shower and my very good friend and trail veteran Jim Yeich who so kindly is giving me a ride home. No matter how great the adventure, it's always so nice to come home.
With the completion of this section of trail - 218 miles from Davenport TN, to DAMASCUS VA - I have hiked 1,599 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT) from Mt. Washington, NH to I 40 at Davenport Gap, TN. I have the two "ends" to do - Springer Mt. GA to Davenport Gap TN, about 240 miles, including the Great Smoky Mountains, and Katahdin Mt. Maine to Mt. Washington, NH, about 333 miles. That leaves me a total of 573 miles yet to hike. Getting to the trail sections I have not hiked has become a major effort, now requiring a very long trip.
I refined and fine-tuned my pack for this, my fifth Appalachian Trail adventure. Fully loaded before food and water it weighed a pleasant 22.75 pounds. That included all my gear and clothes, except what I wore or carried in my pocket. It included film, but not my small camera, which I carried in my front shirt pocket. Food weighed 1.1 to 1.3 pounds per day and I never carried more than 5 plus 1 days reserve of food due to frequent mail drops, so my maximum pack weight with food and 1 qt. of water was 22.75 + 6.6 + 2 = 31.35 pounds. That is a tolerably light pack, and, as this journey would prove, had all the essentials I would need for a safe and comfortable trek. I learned from my previous hikes (last spring's sudden and unexpected nasty snowstorm and last fall's near disaster on Stormy Mt. Moosilauke in NH) to be prepared for the worst-case scenario weather-wise. Weather in these Appalachian Mountains was unpredictable and can run to extremes with no warning. I carried nothing that was not absolutely essential to me.
Many thanks to John Clum for the ride down to Tennessee and to Jim Yeich for the ride back from Damascus Virginia.
I have detailed photo journals of each Appalachian Trail journey at home. These contain all my hike photos, usually about 300, daily descriptions of each day's hike and events, and maps of the section hiked. After I complete the AT I intend to write and publish a journal and backpacking book detailing my adventures, techniques, and some of the many things I learned along the trail.
Following is a brief daily description and selected photos. Some days have more than one photo and some will have none. Daily climbing is the sum of all climbing for the day, not just the total elevation change. Often I had to climb in order to accomplish a net descent or downhill section of the trail.