A “Beauty-ful” Spot

16 MAY 15
Unaka/Erwin Trip: Day 2
Unaka Mountain-Uncle Johnny’s Hostel
Miles today: 14.2

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
― Rachel Carson


Links to the photos are not working right now. I will fix them soon. Thanks!

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Chirping birds.

That’s how I woke up this morning. Not my alarm, not being attacked by “squatch”, but birds. It was just before 6 am, 45 minutes before my alarm was set to go off. Let me tell you something- there is no better way to wake than this. No harsh alarm, no phone ringing off the hook, no noisy neighbors, etc. Just God caressing your eardrum with the sweet sounds nature, seemingly saying “the forest is waking up, you should too”.

Forgive me if I waxed poetic, but wow! I had a great night’s sleep. The limbs on the trees are absent 20-30 feet up the trunk, so I kept my food in the tent with me. No mice, no animals, nothing. I remember falling asleep reading, changing positions once or twice, but it was such a good DEEP sleep.

Anyway, it was time to get to the next must-see area, Beauty Spot. My awesome Easter plan was to do this very same hike, and spend Easter morning atop Beauty Spot. Of course, my truck had other plans and demanded repairs. I hated leaving Unaka; she took great care of me yesterday.

The spruce and firs gave way to deciduous trees coming dow to Low Gap. There was a hiker behind me who eventually caught up. Stopping to snap a picture I offered to step aside & he said “no you’re fine, you’re walking right at my pace”. We both got to Low Gap for water and talked for a little while. “Knothead” is from Kentucky and doing a section from 19E to Erwin. Down at Low Gap, there were a few tents set up downhill from the spring; I didn’t know there was space for camping, but after getting assaulted by gnats and mosquitoes at the spring, maybe it’s not so great a spot.

While we were there a guy named Bear Claw came by talking to Knothead. Apparently they met on the way up to Unaka yesterday. Bear Claw is doing a flip-flop, except he started at Harper’s Ferry and is hiking south to Springer, then returning to head oto Katahdin. This was the first time I’d heard of that, but I’d later find out he would skip a section of a hundred or so miles that he did last year. Still a thru hike to me, & others would disagree, but HYOH, right?

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Bear Claw

Knothead started up the hill from Low Gap before I did. A few minutes later I caught up to him as he was taking a break and said “Okay, it’s not just me, but this IS a steep hill”. What I couldn’t do was stop. It was kicking my ass, but I just kept chugging along, and I’m going to tell you something- he motivated me, but not how you think. I was motivated by the fact that I was at least keeping pace with or outpacing a man younger than me. I’d been hitting the Stairmaster and elliptical at the gym pretty hard and doing a lot of training hikes with 35+ pounds in my pack, and it seemed to be working. All the way to Beauty Spot I was the one “on point” (Army slang meaning I was in the lead) and with him behind me I was motivated to hike a little faster than I probably would have by myself.

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We eventually came to a meadow where I could turn around and see Unaka behind us. A lot of perspective is gained when you can look back and actually say “I climbed that mountain”. I mistook this meadow for Beauty Spot, forgetting that Beauty Spot has a parking area nearby.

When we finally got up to Beauty Spot (mi 352.6, elev 4437 ft) it was worth its name. 360 degrees of awesome. Unaka, Mount Mitchell, Roan Mountain, Bluff Mountain and the Smokies behind were all visible- absolutely gorgeous. It helped that we were above a small cloud deck off to the southeast, but that made it even better. Only downside was the flies. There were so many flies you could her the annoying buzz all over, but I didn’t let that ruin the beauty.

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Roan Mountain

After spending about 30 minutes at the top, I headed down to Curley Maple Gap shelter (m i346.2, elev 3083 ft) where I’d originally planned on stopping for the night, but with the decent time I was making coupled with my Type A personality, I was gonna push all the way into Erwin from Unaka.  I lost Knothead a few times- he would stop and take a breather going uphill, but I kept on truckin’.

I got to the shelter just before 1, and Bear Claw was already there laying down with his shoes off. Curley Maple Gap is a pretty big double decker and looks to be one of the nicer shelters I’ve seen out here. The three of us sat down & talked about random stuff for a while, then Bear Claw set off. He’s averaging 20+ miles a day, so I knew he’d make it to Erwin in no time. Lunch consisted of a Kind bar and a Star-Kist lemon & dill flavored albacore tuna pouch, which, after I ate the last bite, I promptly drank all the remaining juice from the pouch.

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Curley Maple Gap shelter

Some jackass hiker who calls himself “The Real Hunny Badger” had tagged the side of the shelter (again). I’d seen his “handiwork” on shelters and signs a few times between here & Damascus, and apparently word got around up & down the trail, and he was apparently shamed into ceasing and desisting his antics. I hope he learned his lesson. Now, I will say this- some “graffiti” seen on/near shelters is actually helpful. More than a few times there were impromptu notes left detailing where the good water sources were, or milestone mileage points. That I have np problem with, because it benefits everyone, not just some random person with a “hey look at me” complex.

“Look at that snake over there”. Knothead. “What snake, where?” He said, over by that tree. Sure enough, a black snake had half its body up the trunk and the other half on the ground. Whoa.

Now, let me tell you, I’m not a snake person. I’ve run into two snakes recently either inside my house or in my backyard, and they were both met with an untimely, horrific, and violent death. Because they were in my environment, and they’re snakes. Out on the trail however, they don’t bother me at all; I’m actually curious like “ooh, looky, a snake” and try to go take a picture of it and observe it. It’s a strange phenomenon. Any uninvited animal that makes its way into my house (beetles, spiders, snakes miscellaneous bugs) is going to be terminated ASAP, but, I will make it a point to not step on a millipede (or spider or random bug) while I’m walking on the trail. Seriously. Now if any bug gets in my tent, game over. I guess as long as I’m in their house and they’re not trying to bite/sting/poke/eat/injure/maim/kill me, we’re on good terms.

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Snake!

Knothead took off about 15 minutes before I did. It was pretty much cruise control all the way down to Erwin. There were plenty of flame azaleas and mountain laurel in bloom, and at one point when I stopped to tighten my shoelaces, I happened upon a Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) and snapped a few pics of it (later I would find that they all came out blurry. Rats).

The trail crossed a stream called Jones Branch a few times over wooden bridges, and wouldn’t you know, about 2 1/2 miles out it began to rain. I quickly threw on my pack cover and my brand new Outdoor Research Helium II rain Jacket, and continued on. Donning that rain jacket was a mistake- it’s super lightweight (7 ounces!), but not breathable at all, as I was instantaneously wet inside and out. The rain stopped about 6 minutes after it started, and the trail wound down towards the Nolichucky River.

Fun Fact: The Nolichucky River flows unimpeded (not controlled by a dam) from it’s headwaters near Mount Mitchell. This particular section near the trail is rated Class III-IV whitewater.

The sun peeked out and started drying me off again. I was chugging along when the trail (for some odd reason) shot back UP a rock formation. Why? Why do I always end up having to go UP to get DOWN? Arrgh! According to the AT guide, this part of the trail was carved out of the rock with a jackhammer. Thanks to the folks who did that- one could only imagine lugging a jackhammer up here.

I finally got to Uncle Johnny’s at about 3pm. As I was walking to my truck to set my pack down, Bear Claw came up to me with a bottle of apple and orange juice in both hands. “Here, have one” he said. “Oh thanks, but I have water here in my truck”. “Is it cold, because these are”. Well, I couldn’t argue with that logic. Much appreciated, Bear Claw.

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My original plan was to run into town for food & crash in my truck overnight, but “Sarge” (the guy who picked me up when I bailed out at Spivey Gap last year) convinced me that I’d lose my parking spot & to just camp out on the property. So for about $11, I set my tent up in the yard (there were several other tents out), got showered, and rode the evening shuttle into Unicoi with the other hikers. Note- I’d had a pair of jeans and a cotton t-shirt in my truck, but for some reason, I didn’t want to NOT look like the other hikers, so instead I wore my rain pants, another moisture wicking t-shirt, and my Crocs. Gotta look the part, right?

We were dropped off at a little plaza that had an Italian & Mexican restaurant. Most of us went with the Italian, which allowed you to bring in beer from the little package store next door (why don’t more places do this- oh, because they can markup the price of beer). After gorging myself on a giant bowl of baked spaghetti and garlic bread, we walked around Wal-Mart. I didn’t really need anything, so I bought a 12 pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon & waited outside for the shuttle to pick us up.

The rest of the evening was pretty uneventful, save for hanging around on Uncle Johnny’s deck drinking and watching the never-ending Jimmy Buffett concert playing on the TV. To my surprise, the old guy that was always sitting at the picnic bench writing down the shuttle schedules was Uncle Johnny himself! He had a friend with him that offered me some wine, and kept flirting with me. it was hilarious at first- he’d keep saying he had a lot of money etc. There were three other empty wine bottles on the table, and once I realized he & Johnny had gone thru all of those, I said it was time for me to turn in and went back to my tent.

Never a dull moment on the trail…

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Unaka

15 MAY 15
Unaka/Erwin Trip: Day 1
Iron Mountain Gap-Unaka Mountain
Miles today: 6.4

“Each fresh peak ascended teaches something.”Sir Martin Convay


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For once I arrived at my shuttle pick-up location on time. For the past couple of days, I’d been putting away a lot of water so I wouldn’t be dehydrated getting on the trail. It definitely worked, because I stopped 3 times between Charlotte & Erwin. I arrived at Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel & Outfitters right at 0950 for my 1000 shuttle. Uncle Johnny’s was going to shuttle me, but they couldn’t get me out until noon, and I wanted to be out by 10, so I went with Tom “10K” Bradford.

10K was the shuttler whose info was on the business card I took down at Devil Fork Gap last September. I  had texted them that I’d taken their last card, and wouldn’t you know, he & his wife put 2+2 together and remembered me!. 10K (who has hiked the PCT) was a pretty cool guy. When I told him my plans to stop at Unaka & camp out instead of pushing on to Beauty Spot, he said that was the best thing to do. Beauty Spot has a lot of open campsites (it’s a bald summit), but there’s a Forest Service road & parking area right off of it, and with this being a Friday, no way did I want to contend with drunken locals. 10K suggested that I top off with enough water for dinner & breakfast at Cherry Gap shelter, since there wouldn’t be any springs until I come down Unaka to Deep Gap the next morning.

We arrived at Iron Mountain Gap (mi 362.1, elev 3,723 feet) at 1025. I got out, donned my pack, took a look at the white blaze across the road where I’d started my hike back in June last year, and set off southbound towards Erwin. The trail wasn’t bad at all; pretty well graded save a few uneven spots. I felt refreshed and eager to be hiking out here again, and with a base pack weight that was down to about 17 1/2 pounds, felt light on my feet.

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Shortly I arrived at Cherry Gap Shelter (mi 359, elev 4,012 feet). As I was taking a picture of it, I was startled by a man’s voice coming from inside that called out and said “Hey there”. I walked up closer and saw a middle-aged man sitting on the right side of the shelter in a sleeping bag, with a dog tied out along the rafter. “Hi there”. Immediately I wondered if he was a homeless guy- because he kinda looked the part- slightly disheveled, slightly slurred speech, with a crap ton of gear laying about.

Fun Fact: Cherry Gap Shelter was built in 1962 by the US Forest Service.

My plan was to sit here for lunch before heading up Unaka, but now I wasn’t so sure. This guy seemed a little “off”. He introduced himself as “Country Gold”, and his 1-year-old Plothound “Sunshine”, and said he was hiking from Erwin to somewhere in PA. When I asked him how long he was going to take, he said “Oh, I’ll get there when I get there”. I made some small talk, trying to be polite while I munched on a few snack bars and an Os-Cal stick (which, by the way, was pretty damn good). He noticed my MRE’s and said he was familiar with them, then went on to tell me Lillington about 15-20 years ago once he found out I was in the Army. He asked if I was hiking alone (stranger danger!) so I said “yeah, I have a few friends that probably stopped for an early lunch”. Why does everyone think it’s cool to ask a woman if she’s hiking alone? Stop it! Anyway, I noticed the reason for his slightly “off” sounding speech was due to the hearing aid he was wearing.

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I went down to the piped spring behind the shelter to camel up and was pleased to see it was a gusher! The water was so cold that it gave me brain freeze a few times when I was chugging it down. Talk about refreshing! Since I wanted to get on my way, I headed back up to the shelter to see that Country Gold had come out of his bag and was sitting at the picnic table, and tied Sunshine out to a tree. He talked about how he stayed at Curley Maple Gap Shelter for a few days, was going to stay here for a day or two,and keep heading north.

No way in hell could I zero at a shelter- that would drive me batshit insane, just sitting there, looking at the walls, watching the vermin scurry around the shelter, and worrying about one of them strolling across my face…Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy being out in the woods, sitting still, enjoying Ma Nature. I can do it for hours on end when I go hunting but I couldn’t just do NOTHING but that all day. I’d have to keep walking unless I was really sick or hurt, in which case I’d call for a ride back to town.

At any rate, we talked about trail towns, hostels, and how Curtis Owen from Standing Bear Farm (the first hostel you reach NOBO exiting the Smokies, or the last sign of civilization for 70 miles heading SOBO into the Smokies). When I mentioned Curtis had died from pancreatic cancer, Country Gold went on to tell me that when his mother had died of pancreatic cancer in 2009, he attempted suicide shortly thereafter, and then put everything he had in a backpack and thru hiked the AT in 2010. At any rate, after I perused the shelter register (someone said it smelled like poop!) I said goodbye and beat feet out of there.

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The hill leading away from the shelter was pretty steep, of course. Nothing gets your blood pumping more than stopping for food & water, and then being greeted by the trail’s omnipresent characteristic near vertical climb. As I wound my way thru the forest of blooming wildflowers, a dark ridge became visible through the treeline off to my right. I’d had a feeling that was my target; Unaka Mountain; looming ominously in the not-so far landscape. The Backcountry Navigator app on my phone confirmed it; once again I had a summit in sight, but this time I was ready. Pointing my pole at it in an authoritative manner and muttering I’m coming for YOU, Unaka, I set off.

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Bring it.

Unaka didn’t let me down; the elevation gain was hearty, but not a lung-burner. Remembering my bout with Big Bald last year, I promised myself the first available rock or downed tree I saw that I could use as a seat for a break, I was going to stop for a snack break. Of course, within 45 seconds of that thought, I came upon a perfect rock for that purpose. The trail provides. Halfway up to the summit, the terrain became a lot less steep, and the telltale spruces and firs were beginning to emerge.

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“Upon this rock, I will take a break”

Several hikers have done blogs/videos about Unaka, so I knew exactly when I was entering the dense forest at the summit. You’re walking along in a moderately open area, and as you approach you it looks dark as hell like there’s no light shining in there at all. I showed a friend the picture and he said no way in hell would he have walked in there. Instead of feeling any trepidation, my pace quickened. I was excited to finally be here.

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The doorway to awesome.

The top of Unaka (mile 355.7, elev 5,180 feet) was nothing short of enchanting. Yeah, that’s a corny description but it’s spot on. Bright green moss crept up the tree trunks, in stark contrast to the dark brown bark, and the forest floor was covered in pine needles and moss, making it very soft and spongy. I dropped my pack by one of the fire rings and just walked around, taking it all in. 10-15 years ago I would have never thought I’d be wandering around in a scary-looking forest by myself but this was absolutely cool.

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 Way cool indeed.

Fun Fact: The name “Unaka” (pronounced oo-NAY-kuh) is thought to come from the Cherokee Indian word unega meaning “white” or “fog draped”. The town of Unicoi and the county of Unicoi Tennessee are derived from the same name although pronounced differently.

I set up camp, sat down for dinner, which was an abysmal disappointment. I’d bought a Mary Jane’s Farm dehydrated Shepherd’s Pie meal, and was curious as to how it would taste. Take some dry dog food, let it sit in water for a few hours until it’s mushy, toss in some stale mashed potatoes, add a teaspoon of pepper, and voila! you have exactly what this abomination tasted like. YUCK! Believe me, I tried hard to cram it down, but uh-uh, it wasn’t going to happen. The other bad thing was I couldn’t just dump it out (Leave No Trace!) so I had to roll it up as tight as possible, put a piece of 100 mile an hour tape on it (Army slang for heavy-duty olive drab duck tape), and pack it out until I got to Erwin, so I ended up eating tomorrow’s lunch for dinner, putting me a meal down, Luckily I always pack an extra couple snacks stashed away in case something like this happens. Only low point of the day.

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Surprise! I managed to get a somewhat robust fire going (finally! hooray!), and I could smell some other campers had one going. While I was walking around after the horrendous dinner attempt, there was a loud SNAP that came from some unseen part of the forest. Oh shit, just great, I finally get to see this magical place only to be decapitated by Sasquatch. It was someone collecting wood for their campfire, stupid imagination of mine. The rest of the night was spent reading, stretching my legs that cramped up for no apparent reason and moving my tent around to keep the campfire embers from setting it ablaze (I just pulled the stakes and drug it around like a bag lady dragging her shopping cart down the street.

I’m camping on Unaka Mountain. Good times.

Unaka Campsite

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