The Humps Revisited

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14 JUN 15
Roan Highlands: Day 2
Carver’s Gap- Overmountain Shelter
Miles today: 9.3 total (8.7 AT miles)

“Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So… get on your way.”
Dr. Seuss


A  few interesting things happened today, especially AFTER the hike.

In the morning, I made small talk with Trail Magic and Jukebox. Jukebox is crazy, and I see how he got his trail name. Every 5 minutes or so he’d break off in some random song, from Missy Elliott to the Lumineers to everything in between. Seemed like everyone (except the big group with the family tents) was eventually heading to the same place- 19E. Mog & Loopy were hiking back to their car at Mountain Harbour, Trail Magic & Jukebox were going to stop for a spell, and Turtle, Lone Ranger (Mary) and the rest of their group were going to stop at Doll Flats for the night, then hike in to Mountain Harbour the next day. Emmy & Zachary were hiking on to Damascus I think.

Overmountain Shelter

As much fun as I had last night, I considered stopping short at Doll Flats to camp out with the ladies, but hiking only 6 miles and stopping an hour from 19E seemed like a waste of a day, so I pressed on.

On the way up towards Little Hump I spotted the rare Gray’s Lily in a couple of spots, but because the clouds were rolling in making everything dark, I couldn’t get a decent picture of them. Once I emerged from a small thicket, the wind started whipping and the entire walk up Little Hump was obscured in a cloud. Visibility was down to about 50 meters according to my pace count. I ran into Emmy and Zachary and they gave me one of their “Hoo Rags” (kinda like a Buff) and we posed for a couple pictures.

Gray’s Lily!

Fun Fact: Gray’s Lily is a rare species only found in a few high-elevation meadows in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

Emmy and Zach

Having a lighter pack (and being in better shape) definitely made the trek easier, and before I realized it, I was at the summit of Little Hump Mountain (mi 384.7, elev 5,459 ft). There was a rock I remembered standing on last year- that was the only way I could tell I was at the top.

Coming down towards Bradley Gap (mi 386, elev 4,950 ft) (near my campsite from last year) who did I run into but the 3 guys (and Owen!) from yesterday. They’d spent the night on Little Hump. I ran into a few other hikers and made sure to tell them that there are a few “false summits” going up Big Hump, meaning you’ll think you’re at the top, but the terrain will level off a bit then start going up again.

Bradley Gap

It wasn’t before long that Jukebox & Trail Magic came bounding up behind me. Trail Magic didn’t bound so much as SKIP up the trail. Oh to have the energy of a twenty-something again. The clouds started clearing a little when we started ascending Hump, but not to where you could see the characteristic treeless dogleg going up. Shame, because that is an awesome sight, but the wind whipping and clouds zipping by made it a treat just the same. Also, last year it took me over an hour to hike from Bradley Gap to the summit of (Big) Hump Mountain (mi 386.9, elev 5,587 ft). This year I got up there in less than 40 minutes, including stopping for a few “photo ops”. Good times. The hike back down Hump was the same rock-infested trail I recalled from from last year until I got to Doll Flats (389.3, elev 4,600 ft), where it abruptly turned into yet another knee-shattering descent.

Lone Ranger had stopped by to take a break and said she was hiking all the way to to the B&B. Way to go! Since I was in no particular hurry, I pretty much meandered the rest of the way to US 19E (mi 391.8, elev 4,600 ft) and the quick .3 miles to Mountain Harbour. Note- when coming down the trail NOBO, cross US 19E as soon as you come to the road- There is limited sight distance and high speed traffic!

Once I got there & dropped my pack, I realized the blond guy that looked familiar was none other than Country Gold. He’d hurt himself going up Roan and was doing a work-for-stay deal at the hostel. Initially I was going to take the king bed, but at $55 I thought it was better to take a bunk in the loft for cheaper and leave the big bed for a couple. Good move because one came in later that night.

Mountain Harbour B&B (the hostel is in a barn to the right)

Trail Magic & Jukebox were sprawled out on the couch & floor, along with another guy. More and more hikers started filtering in; Lebo, who was hiking from Harper’s Ferry to Hot Springs, and Randy, who was doing a NOBO section from Erwin to Watauga. The three of us ended up claiming 3 of the 4 bunks in the loft. After I grabbed a shower, offered the guys a couple beers I had bought in Charlotte & stashed away in my truck (good move!) and chewed the fat for a bit.

Around 5 I drove back up to Carver’s Gap to see the Rhododendron Gardens on Roan Mountain. The drive up was pretty spectacular, and at the top I stopped by the Old Cloudland Hotel site. Last year I walked right past it since there was no view and I was beat from my climb up Roan. Nostalgia made me take a left at the Appalachian Trail junction, and next thing you know I was retracing my steps from last year. It was a whole lot different with the sun shining. My original thought was to walk up to the shelter, but I didn’t bring a daypack or poles- only a bottle of water and it didn’t seem prudent to go up there for nothing. Also, my legs were just a wee bit fatigued.

Rhododendron Gardens trail

There was a side trail to Roan High Bluff, but at over a mile away I decided against that too, so I walked arround the Gardens for a minute then decided I had seen enough. My belly was rumbling & I’d told some of the guys we’d take a ride to get some food somewhere once I got back. Coming back down the road to Carver’s Gap there was a little pull off where I noticed a view of Grassy Ridge Bald, Little Hump, and Big Hump mountains. Walking them is one thing, but actually seeing mountains you’ve hiked from a distance is completely awe-inspiring.

Randy and the other hiker from earlier (he’s from Charleston, SC but I forgot his name so let’s call him “Chuck”) went to Bob’s Dairyland, one of the TWO restaurants open in little Roan Mountain TN, and a greasy spoon in every sense of the word, but I was there to chow down & chow down I did. Afterwards we scoped out this place called the “Beer Wash”, a little hole in the wall bar that sold all kinds of beer in “mix-n-match” 6 pack cans. Chuck, Randy, and I all got six packs that included Pabst Blue Ribbon, Blue Moon, Yeungling, Rolling Rock, and Corona.

Hostel

Hostel common area

Wood burning stove, library

Back at the hostel things were picking up- not only the hostel was packed, but two ladies with two dogs were camping out back (as was Chuck), the upstairs group from the Overmountain Shelter was camping with their dog, an older couple had a room in the back with 2 cats, and Country Gold had his dog Sunshine with him. At one point in time, there were 4 dogs and a cat roaming around the main room in the hostel. Glad I get allergy shots. Sunshine didn’t help much by barking every time a person or dog or cat or squirrel or what have you walked past her, not to mention the the or four dogs that LIVE at the B&B.

Randy & I stayed up watching Indiana Jones, drinking beer, and shooting the shit until 11:30 pm when my Benadryl kicked in. Good night!

Same location, a year later

Note- From here, it’s 75 miles to Damascus (65 miles to McQueens Gap) to complete the Davenport Gap-Damascus chunk of the Appalachian Trail.

Roan Highlands (again)

13 JUN 15
Roan Highlands: Day 1
Carver’s Gap- Overmountain Shelter
Miles today: 7 total (5.6 AT miles)

“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…”
― John Muir


Panorama of Engine Gap

Long post warning & a quick back story:
Last year I hiked the Roan Highlands from Iron Mountain Gap northbound over Roan Mountain, and five splendid, mile+ high (and rare) southern Appalachian Balds; Round Bald, Jane Bald, Grassy Ridge Bald, Little Hump, and Big Hump. Thing is, I’d missed the rhododendron blooms by about 10-14 days. I had no idea how beautiful a hike I missed, so this year I made it a point- I was going to hike the highlands during the bloom, to see in all it’s splendor.


I had a shuttle arranged with Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast (& Hiker Hostel). Shannon, who shuttled me last year, immediately remembered me when I called, so we had a great chit-chat on the way up to Carver’s Gap (which I ended up splitting with three other guys and a cute Irish Setter). She told me Vagabond, who was kind of taking care of the hostel last year, had gone to visit her grandson, and she still planned to thru hike the AT again for her 75th birthday. Insane.

We got up to Carver’s Gap (mi 377.5, elev 5512 ft) to be dropped off, and HOLY CRAP! You would have thought the Grateful Dead was playing up there. Wall to wall cars, trucks, buses. People were scurrying all around like cockroaches. Here’s the thing- it was a Saturday, and I hadn’t thought about the other thousand people who would be out day hiking, sightseeing, and otherwise enjoying the same massive rhododendron bloom I was there to see. All over Round Bald (mi 378.2, elev 5826 ft) were people, people, people.

Jane “is” Bald?

Needless to say, I quickly grew irritated at the zombie horde. The worst were the uber-important photographers, who were becoming visibly annoyed at the hikers and day visitors who were obviously keeping them from the epic shot. No, I take that back- the worst was the 3 or 4 massive herds of youth groups/college students/tourists, all clad in their respective clan’s t-shirt uniforms, forming a conga line snaking up the 18 inch wide trail. A group of red-shirts here, a group of blue-shirts there…madness. They were EVERYWHERE. One of the key tenets to “Leave No Trace” is to not travel in groups larger than ten people. This way you alleviate the “stampede” effect in the backcountry. Not today. I felt instantly transformed to the Great Plains in the heyday of the wild buffalo storming across the midwest. Ugh.

Fun Fact: Jane Bald is named for Jane Cook, who died in 1870 nearby as a result of milk sickness.

Looking towards Grassy Ridge from Round Bald

So again, there were the day-hikers, tourists, the wild herds of youth groups, the all too important photographers, and then the hikerhikers, those of us going just a bit farther than the 5 miles to Grassy Ridge Bald.

The AT doesn’t traverse Grassy Ridge Bald (elev 6165 ft). There’s a spur trail that goes to its summit, and since I didn’t stop last year (I was too concerned with racking up miles to get to a campsite), it was on my checklist today. A few people who saw I was hiking solo offered to take my picture as I summited Round Bald (mi 378.2, elev 5818 ft) & Jane Bald (mi 378.9, elev 5,809 ft). On the cover of the ATC guidebook for Tennessee-North Carolina (and several images on the internet) there is a photo taken from a rock formation on Jane Bald that looks back towards Round Bald, with blossoming Rhodos and the Roan massif in the background.

Roan Mountain from Jane Bald with Round Bald in the foreground

Looking east. Those two distant balds are Little Hump & Big Hump Mountain. I’ll be there tomorrow!

I got a chance to snap that picture, but couldn’t stick around to enjoy it- when I wasn’t stopping to take pictures I was huffing & puffing up the trail trying to put as much distance as possible between me and the shouting, squealing, giggling, complaining mass of millennial angst coming up behind me. Sadly, since I was actually carrying a tent, food, sleeping bag, etc in my pack, coupled with the fact that they were all about 23-28 years younger than me and NOT carrying gear, I had to pull over and let them pass. Luckily their guide (shepherd to the lost sheep, baaaa) said they were going no further than Jane Bald. Yay!

Does this look familiar?

Once I veered off to the trail leading up Grassy Ridge Bald the crowds thinned out. there were still a substantial number of people, just in groups of 2-3-4. Once off the Appalachian Trail, the treadway narrowed considerably and it felt like bushwhacking at time through the dense rhododendron tunnels. At the first summit I passed a few choice campsites, and although kind of envious that I wouldn’t get to enjoy the awesome sunset/sunrise I knew the occupants would have, I was determined to stay at the Overmountain Shelter this trip (I’d been there last year but didn’t stop, more on that later).

Flame Azaleas blooming near Engine Gap

Not only were the Rhodos blooming, but the flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) were adding to the palette, contrasting their bright orange flowers with the deep pink hues of the Rhododendron catawbiense. These two hues set against the somber gray of the massive rock slabs and boulders, the emerald-green grass of the clear, open bald summits, the foreboding dark green color of Roan Mountain looming to the south, and the stunning blue sky and bleach-white clouds made for quite the interesting palette. Crowds be damned, I was glad I came.

Fun Fact: Grassy Ridge Bald is the second-highest open bald in the Appalachians. Only Black Balsam Knob near Asheville is higher.

Looking back towards Round Bald. Roan High Knob is center, and Roan High Bluff is to its left

Another look at the “Humps”. Beech Mountain is the far peak left center

From Grassy Ridge Bald looking SE. Table Rock (center) is visible with Hawksbill to its left.

An older gentleman saw me taking pictures of some of the far-off summits, and kindly let me know what I was looking at on the horizon. Most of the peaks to the northeast, east, southeast, and south I was familiar with: Mount Mitchell & Mount Craig, Table Rock and Hawksbill Mountains overlooking the Linville Gorge (I must hike that soon), Roan High Knob and Roan High Bluff, and the distinct jagged silhouette of Calloway Peak on Grandfather Mountain. He went on to show me Grandmother Mountain with a large antenna spire on it, Beech Mountain off to the west, and Sugar Mountain dead ahead.

From right: Grandfather Mtn, stupid condos, Sugar Mtn, Beech Mtn, the “Humps”. Big Yellow Mtn is the clearing center right.

Mount Guyot (in the Smokies) is visible in the distance behind Roan High Bluff.

Rant- Atop Little Sugar Mountain, clearly visible from most peaks within a 50 mile radius and in the shadow of Grandfather Mountain, is an abomination to the beautiful vistas in the area; a 10 story condominium called Sugar Top built right on the ridgeline. I’d read about this in an ATC magazine last year, and when I saw it, I was immediately disgusted. Long story short, once this eyesore was completed, it spurred a grass-roots movement and legislation preventing further development on the state’s mountaintops. You can read about it here. Years ago I probably wouldn’t have cared much about it, but I guess being able to enjoy hiking in the backcountry got me a little closer and appreciative to Ma Nature, and I don’t like seeing her spoiled. Rant over.

Rhododendrons among the rocks

Once I was coming down around the backside of Grassy Ridge Bald, the crowds immediately thinned out, and the forest enveloped me within its gentle green arms yet again. I encountered a few people on my way to Stan Murray Shelter, where I stopped to sign the log book (this time I got fancy, using a pink & blue pen and an NC REI sticker). Onward to today’s goal- the Overmountain Shelter (mi 383.1, elev 4654 ft).

Haiku and sarcasm at Stan Murray Shelter

When I turned to the side trail, who did I see? The three guys that shared the shuttle with me, and their dog, Owen. Owen started wagging his tail and panting, and one of the guys said, “Hey he remembers you!” I gave little old Owen a couple of hearty pets, and asked the guys if they were camping at the shelter. They declined because they figured it was too crowded (you could hear people talking from up on the AT). I told them of the next couple of camping areas up on the summit and at the bottom of Little Hump, and off they went.

Heading around the northern side of Grassy Ridge

Yup, there was a crowd already at the shelter. It has a pretty large open area for camping, and there were already seven or eight tents set up (one was a six-person behemoth!), and a rather loud group of about ten people hanging out. I initially set up on the far side, but ended up moving to the front platform on the bottom floor of the shelter, not wanting to be disturbed by the crowd that looked like they wouldn’t observe “hiker midnight”.

Overmountain Shelter

Soon a few more people showed up; a lady from Florida (Emmy) and her 14 year old nephew Zachary, who hung a hammock between the support poles, another group that came in around 7:00, and a few stragglers here and there, some that I recognized from Mountain Harbour waiting for shuttles. Having said that, the place was pretty packed- I’d say about 40 hikers in all.  those of us who weren’t with the first group kinda congregated in our own area. The other groups were twenty-somethings, and we were all 30+, so naturally we kind of migrated away. One particular group of ladies was from a hiking meetup club in the Atlanta area. We chatted about our experiences (one hiked the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, one hiked the Grand Canyon).

More rhodos and rocks

That’s when I saw a familiar face. (Stay with me- this is going to get funny). I’d remembered this lady from the B&B, notably from the yellow t-shirt, but there was also a defining characteristic about her- she was black! HOLY CRAP! We do exist! Ha ha ha, I finally met another black female hiker. Trust me, I cracked more than a few jokes about this to the crowd. first thing I said was “we HAVE to take a picture together- this is like spotting two unicorns in the wild!” Everybody had a good chuckle out of that. Those of you who know me personally know I like to joke like that. Now I admit, not a lot of very few black women are interested in going out in nature, getting sweaty & dirty, hiking with 25+ pounds on your back, and not showering for a few days, so it’s pretty cool to see someone who “gets” it. “Turtle” & I chatted for a while, comparing experiences and all that. She mentioned that some guy up by Grassy Ridge said “you’re only the second African-American woman I’ve ever seen out hiking, and I saw the first one about an hour ago”. That made me laugh my ass off, so the ladies said we should be called “Number One”, and “Number Two”. Funny as hell.

We all steeled around the fire with the other couple, Mog (pronounced with a long “o” who wore a kilt) and his girlfriend Loopy. Mog started playing a small little flute (almost like a miniature recorder) and I thought to myself “wow, a bunch of somewhat smelly hikers, a guy in a kilt playing a flute, a fire, out in the middle of nowhere; I have discovered my inner hippie”. Somehow I fought the urge to take my Crocs off and dance around the fire…

The gang

Once it got dark & everyone retreated to their tents & I went back to the shelter, a few more hikers had set up shop. Three of them were thru hikers: Andre (who hadn’t yet had a trail name bestowed upon him), a young woman named “Trail Magic”, and a young guy named “Jukebox”. I moved my stuff over so Trail Magic could have some space, and Jukebox was on the other platform.

As I started falling asleep that night, I noticed that the fireflies were putting on quite the show. Apparently this is their prime mating season, and it was like a hundred little miniature yellow-green  lights going off; from what I heard, the male would light up first, then all the females would light up in a synchronous fashion, kind of like saying “hey handsome, I’m over here”. It was really interesting. Everything would be dark, there would be a single flashing pattern somewhere, and seconds later a whole buttload of flashes lighting up. I recalled the same thing happening to me last year when I was up this way, but now I knew what it was, and I was lulled to sleep by the mating call of the fireflies.

The Overmountain Shelter facilities

I found someone’s keys coming down Grassy Ridge. Hope they got them!

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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