Days 122-131 on the Appalachian Trail: Tennessee and North Carolina – First Half

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Through Tennessee and North Carolina

For over 400 miles, the Appalachian Trail traverses the Tennessee and North Carolina border. We did not have many expectations of, experiences with, or extensive knowledge about this section. In some ways, not knowing what to expect allowed us to accept what was in front of us, which was often truly spectacular. In our opinion, the beauty of the trail in North Carolina and Tennessee rivaled Virginia and Maine (our favorite states so far). TN and NC have been filled with grassy balds, big climbs, fall foliage, waterfalls, and a deep sense of Appalachian Trail community. 

Big Reflections:

  1. As we get closer to Springer Mountain, we’ve had to make plans for finishing our thru-hike. The process of picking an end date, booking hotels and flights, and considering how we want to conclude this adventure of a lifetime has been both exciting and daunting. Beyond the logistics, we are beginning to face the reality that this immersive and all-encompassing experience that has changed us profoundly will inevitably end. As we walk and reflect each day, we are focusing more and more on how to translate what we’ve learned and cultivated on trail to our lives back home. 
  2. Emotions are so heightened during a thru-hike. We feel everything with unparalleled intensity and the highs and lows can oscillate rapidly. Perhaps it is being in nature all day, largely away from society and established routines. Perhaps it is because we are constantly physically challenged. Perhaps it is because we are mostly alone with our thoughts. Perhaps it is the simplicity of walking every day and channeling all our efforts towards a singular goal. Perhaps it is the reduction of choices in daily life on trail. It’s likely a combination of all these elements multiplied by the immersive nature of this endeavor.  We are just so much more attuned to ourselves, how our feelings change moment to moment, and how we engage with others and the world around us.
  3. During these last weeks, we’ve felt much more connected to both the AT SOBO community and to our personal community outside of the AT. By chance, we caught up to the SOBO bubble, then ended up hiking back and forth with one of its subgroups. It’s incredible how quickly you bond with people on a thru-hike. People are willing to go deeper and be more authentically themselves knowing that we all share this beautiful, challenging, and complex experience. Additionally, we’ve felt such an outpouring of love and support from friends, family, and social media followers who may not be physically walking the trail with us, but who are thinking of us along the way. We posted one story about an opportunity to provide us with virtual trail magic and so many people sent donations and notes of encouragement to us. One thing we are both working on is accepting the love and support that people want to give to us. We are so grateful for it!
  4. The fall foliage has been spectacular. The unfortunate downside is that fallen leaves covering the rocks and roots have made the trail treacherous! We cannot count the number of times we’ve tripped, kicked something, stubbed toes, and almost (or actually) completely fallen. Well, at least Lotus has taken a couple of tumbles. But she did so gracefully, one time with an impressive Superman dive to land safely. What we have realized, however, is that after over 1,700 miles of walking, in scary moments, our bodies inherently know how to respond in ways to keep us safe. We are continuously reminded of how much more connected our minds and bodies are as a result of this thru-hike and it’s truly remarkable to experience and feel that. 
  5. The weather has challenged us in ways we did not expect so early on in the fall. A cold snap came through in October and temperatures dropped to the 20s at night and 30s during the day. It was extremely cold, to say the least. However, we realized just how much discomfort we can deal with. We are immensely capable of handling difficult situations and responding to elements outside of our control. We stayed at more hostels, kept moving throughout the day to stay warm with very few breaks, wore all of our layers to sleep, changed camp routines to stay in our “warm” tent for longer, and remained open to readjusting plans whenever needed. 
  6. Fear mongering on the AT is very common and can really detract from otherwise positive experiences. And we received a lot of it in this section. Examples of fear mongering include people saying things like “you have no idea how hard the next climb is,” or “you are going to get your ass kicked by the next section,” or “you shouldn’t plan for your end date because the next section will slow you down.” It is so easy to let these comments scare you or doubt yourself. But, at the end of the day, nobody knows our bodies and capabilities like we do. People have very different levels of physical fitness, thresholds for discomfort, and prior backpacking experience. So, don’t let other people’s opinions psych you out. Hike your own hike!

Day 122, 10/17/22: Damascus, VA to Rt 91 (stay at The Rabbit Hole)

21.6 mi, 4800 ft elevation gain

We made it to Tennessee! 11 states down. It feels unreal that we’ve walked this far. To wait out the morning rain, we lounged around The Broken Fiddle Hostel until around 9am. On the way out of town, we grabbed buttery biscuit breakfast sandwiches at a gas station and stopped at an outfitter for fuel. We also took obligatory pictures around the Damascus AT murals and the iconic archway in the park where they hold Trail Days. Shoutout to Tumbleweed (we know, the name might change) and Rocky who took our picture and wished us well on our way out of town! Immediately, we climbed up to a ridgeline that we hiked along for the rest of the day. About three miles into our day, we crossed the border into Tennessee! And, Tennessee treated us well right from the start with its gentle undulation and softer ground in comparison to its surprisingly rocky neighbor, Virginia. Today, Stretch mentioned feeling at peace with the fact that our hike is coming to an end soon. He’s absolutely loving life out here. But the rapidly chilling weather and his nagging ailments are reminders that this cannot last forever. When we consider deeply, the impermanence of thru-hike is critical to its impact. If it went on forever, it would not have the same power as a transformative experience. And transformation itself requires impermanence as things must change in order to transform. As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Thanks to impermanence, everything is possible.” So a peaceful acceptance that our hike will end is a really good thing. At the same time, we are also sad that this huge endeavor is almost over. We are feeling waves of complex emotions and do not expect those to subside any time soon. The last mile of the day passed over gorgeous pastures that glowed from the afternoon sun. A barn with a painted AT symbol was framed beautifully by bright yellow and orange trees, making it one of the most picturesque scenes. We paused for about 15 minutes to enjoy the sun and the sight before Rabbit picked us up to shuttle us to The Rabbit Hole hostel. The Rabbit Hole included a rustic bunk room that was nicely heated for a 20 degree night with a freeze warning. Bonus: we found a fancy meal in the hiker box and had the bunk room all to ourselves!

Day 123, 10/18/22: Rt 91 to Boots Off Hostel

21 mi, 3300 ft elevation gain

Officially 4 months on trail today! We can’t actually believe how much we’ve loved this experience. We’ve had plenty of difficulty and discomfort, but that’s not the lasting impression. Those things served to make our accomplishments on trail all the more meaningful and led to a sense of content pride in what we’ve done and how we’ve handled ourselves along the way. We’re proud of our growth, of who we are, and of who we are becoming. It’s amazing to step back and reflect on what we can do both as individuals and as a couple.

Today was the coldest day of hiking we’ve had so far, bar none. It was in the 20s to 30s with snow flurries at times. We are so glad we opted to stay at The Rabbit Hole last night so we could keep warm while eating breakfast. After Rabbit dropped us off at the trailhead, we didn’t stop moving our bodies. To maintain our internal heat, we hiked at a consistent pace, stopping for no more than 10 minutes for lunch. It felt like winter hiking so we were glad to have ample experience with that from hiking the NH 48 in winter. It helps so much to have prior experiences to draw upon and know that we can handle it. With that experience, Lotus chose to put on a pair of pants because it was so cold. Though we did joke that you can pick out thru-hikers on these days because we are the only ones still willing to wear shorts in freezing weather. Listening to our current book club book, Kafka’s The Trial, made the 21 miles go by more quickly than expected. We were proud that despite it being so cold, we managed to stay positive and cheerful. Today’s ups and downs added up to a lot of elevation gain but it didn’t feel like so much in our bodies. The graded switchbacks just mellow things out so much. In the last few miles, we walked across Watauga Dam and around Watauga Lake before arriving at Boots Off Hostel. With the bunkroom unfortunately closed, we had to tent in the cold. But, at least there was a lovely warm common area and kitchen to hang out in. They also had a full resupply and pizzas for us to make for dinner. When we walked in, we were greeted by Gryllz, a SOBO hiking the AT as his final trail of the Triple Crown who we hadn’t seen since NJ! It was great to catch up with him and sign his Tyvek as a memory. Sitting around a couple of tables for dinner with Tick Bite, No Kiddin, Gravy, and Ducky, we both ended up eating a personal party pizza in addition to a hot pocket and a zebra cake (thanks Tick Bite)! Hiker hunger at its finest. It was a lovely night of AT community and we’re liking this little group of friends that is forming so naturally now. As we heard snow hit our tent later in the evening, we put on all of our layers, including two pairs of socks, to keep warm. We survived and it could have been worse.

Day 124, 10/19/22: Boots Off Hostel to tent by brook

21.5 mi, 6000 ft elevation gain

Waking up this morning, we could not have been happier about our decision to tent at a hostel so we could immediately get out of the cold and go inside for included breakfast in a warm common room. After eating our fill of donuts, cereal, and fruit with Ducky, Gravy, Tick Bite, and No Kiddin, we packed up our tent and got ourselves ready for another cold hiking day. Getting started is always the hardest part! Once hiking, we warmed up and really enjoyed the day’s terrain. We climbed immediately up and over a substantial rise, but with trail legs and switchbacks it felt fine. After that, we descended into a gorge and walked through a cool section along a stream with rocky cliffs leading to the bottom of a big waterfall – Laurel Fork Falls. Then, we climbed out of this area along pretty steep rock stairs before getting back to the switchbacks we’ve come to love so much. We climbed up to a ridge and then walked along it, up and down, with a few viewpoints through tree cutouts revealing gorgeous scenes of fall foliage and the balds we would hike tomorrow. It looked like a scattering of fruity pebbles among mounds and cliffs, making us really excited for the views to come in the next few days. Along the way, we talked about our plans for finishing the AT, which made us so excited and blue all at once. We’re going to be really sad when we wake up the day after finishing and realize that we don’t get to hike all day. It feels really strange to set a target end date. Springer has been such a nebulous end goal, seemingly never to be reached. When we planned logistics for reaching Katahdin and flipping back south, that was all part of the thru. Part of the larger journey. Now these Springer logistics are the actual end. Stretch always says, “The journey continues,” and while it does so metaphorically, we won’t be hiking every day after we reach Springer. We’re preparing ourselves for that, but it’s going to hit us pretty hard for sure. So we’re trying to savor the moments without grasping or forcing the experience to last longer to its detriment. It could be tempting to shorten days at the end to eke out a little more time on trail, but that would not be the best way to conclude this journey. Instead, we will hike the miles that feel good for us, right now that means 20s, up to the end and let the journey reach its natural conclusion as all things must, eventually. Also, Lotus wasn’t feeling her best today, but pressed on without complaint. We’ve learned how physically and mentally resilient we are and feel immensely grateful that we have each other for support on tough days. Tonight, we ended up camping in a frigid rhododendron forest next to a stream – both factors that make for an even colder microclimate. So as we ate dinner in our sleeping bags, we knew we were in for a really cold night.

Day 125, 10/20/22: tent by brook to Overmountain Shelter

20.9 mi, 5500 ft elevation gain

It must have gotten close to about 20 degrees last night. We both had a fitful rest because it was so cold. Lotus wore 4 layers! We woke with a sheet of ice inside our tent’s rain fly from frozen condensation. We made tea and coffee in our vestibule so we could stay even somewhat warm in our sleeping quilts before packing up our frosty tent as quickly as possible. Ducky, Gravy, and No Kiddin came by and we all agreed that the rhododendron forest areas can be some of the coldest microclimates on trail. Luckily, it warmed up quickly as the sun rose. A local we met on trail said the temperatures this time of year are often in the 70s with lows around 50 degrees. That would be nice, but at this point we’d even take a return to the 40s overnight. That would be balmy in comparison to the last few days! Halfway through the day, we got picked up to go to a pub, The Station at 19E, where we enjoyed a delicious, but heavy lunch of macaroni and cheese, reubens, and craft beer while resupplying. And, since Station 19E does virtual trail magic, we posted a quick story with the opportunity for friends, family, and social media followers to send us some love to cover our expenses. People sent a total of about $200 in one hour! We felt so cared for and also paid it forward by using some funds to buy beers for Tick Bite, No Kiddin, and some of the others in the SOBO bubble. After lunch, we were feeling quite full of food and beer, but trudged up a big climb into the Roan Highlands with Ducky, Gravy, and No Kiddin. And it was a serious ascent – sustained and quite steep at times, though switchbacks helped and we moved well even while feeling like oafs. When we got to the top of the first climb, we entered North Carolina! We will be crossing back and forth between the Tennessee and North Carolina border for the next couple hundred miles. We were absolutely blown away when we emerged into the open grassy bald area of Hump Mountain. What an amazing place on a beautiful sunny afternoon! The trail follows a dirt path through tall reeds and yellow grass with mountain views for as far as we could see. The experience of walking across these balds is something special and new. We’re looking forward to more and more of them in the coming days. We naturally met up with friends at the summit and then walked the last three miles to camp together chatting about books, the trail, and just life stuff before settling in for the evening. We walked a bit off trail to get to Overland Shelter, an old defunct barn that is now unsafe to go inside as it could collapse at any moment. So we all set up tents in the wide field with a nice view into the valley. No Kiddin made a fire that kept us warm while we ate and watched the sun set. The stars came out on another clear night with the Milky Way showing up early in the twilight hours. Freezing, we tucked ourselves into our tent and reminded ourselves that this should be the last super cold night for a while. At least we were all in it together.

Day 126, 10/21/22: Overmountain Shelter to Cherry Gap Shelter

24.7 mi, 5600 ft elevation gain

I like big balds and I cannot lie…The Roan Highlands! Today we hiked through one of the highlights of the AT. When we woke up, it was freezing…again. Like, things were actually frozen. There was frost covering the ground and our breath appeared as thick icy clouds. Huddled in our tent, we made breakfast in our vestibules and waited to pack up until the sun rose and warmed us up. No Kiddin did the same. Ducky and Gravy were more brave and packed up early. Once we were hiking and reached the ridge, we saw rolling mountains with open peaks covered with yellow grass and a clear trail cut out and meandering through. The mountains surrounding us were also so textured and dynamic. It was a gorgeous sight that filled us up to the max. We caught up with the three other hikers again and the five of us walked together for the first half of the day. We all enjoyed the huge views from the balds as we walked the muddy trails up and over Jane Bald and Round Bald and then down to Carver’s Gap. The footing felt like a slip-n-slide as the snow and ice had melted only on the topmost layer hit by the sun. That created slippery mud on top of still hardened or frozen ground. It definitely made us work a little harder than the gentle trails would have allowed, giving our ankles and stabilizing muscles a challenge. The parking lot was crowded and busy. No surprise as the trails were packed with people, mostly backpackers as the weekend approached. Then we hiked together through snow-covered trails into a conifer forest up to Roan High Knob. Yes, there was snow! Truly an anomaly for this time of year, yet another day feeling like winter hiking. It really was fine, but we had to pick our steps carefully on the slippery surface. 

We all stopped at the Cloudland Hotel Site for lunch in a warm spot in the sun before we had to leave and start hiking way faster to get to our planned shelter by dinner. Up to that point, we had enjoyed the balds and socializing so we only hiked about 7 miles by noon, way under what we usually do. This left 17 miles for the second half of the day! Yikes. We engaged the trail legs and moved those miles very fast. We just walked and walked through the forest sometimes with all the leaves down and sometimes hanging onto the remnants of fall. Lotus was motivated by the new TSwift album, but her feet were killing her from the extra work required by the mud and uneven trail. We got to camp by 6:30pm, which felt miraculous. Our bodies are capable of more than we ever thought. After shoving as much down our throats as we could with No Kiddin and another section hiker, we crawled into our tent at 7:30pm and settled in for a night that already feels so much warmer than the last few. We’re pretty easy to please at this point because it’s still like 40 degrees.

Day 127, 10/22/22: Cherry Gap Shelter to Erwin, TN (stay at Uncle Johnny’s)

17.1 mi, 2800 ft elevation gain

Thank goodness the cold snap is over. Waking up to a reasonable temperature was such a relief this morning. We started hiking around 8:30am and the terrain wasn’t bad, but Lotus’ feet were really hurting from the day before. It was definitely a sufferfest of a hike day. It’s been tough footing with slanted hillside trails to traverse, land mine rocks and roots hidden under leaves, and slick mud and snow to contend with. We’ve kicked so many unseen rocks and roots so our toes really hurt. And both our heels ache from the continued use and strain day after day. Not even the double zeros in VA made those feel better. But today, the morning sun illuminated the forest around our tent to start it off well. We first climbed Unaka Mountain where a beautiful conifer forest made the morning even better. The long shadows cast by tall trees on the flat wooded summit covered in soft needles was absolutely gorgeous. Further up the trail we came upon Beauty Spot, a popular destination right by a parking lot with a great view and camping. We ate lunch there as some folks walked by enjoying a weekend stroll. We also met Tarzan there, a SOBO pushing 30+ miles a day so that he could finish the AT on his wife’s birthday. Then we ran into a former NOBO, Chef Ducker, and her mom doing trail magic! A good grilled cheese, breakfast potatoes, cupcakes, fruit, and cold drinks perked us right up. The last eight miles consisted mainly of descent that felt annoyingly tough due to the treacherous footing on a slightly slanted trail along the side of mountains. Lotus’ feet were in so much pain! But it got warm so we can’t complain too much. We made it to Uncle Johnny’s Hostel around 3pm with plenty of time to do camp chores before heading to town on the shuttle for resupply. Dirty, CB’s brother who we had not met yet, was sitting at the picnic table at the front of the hostel and greeted us upon arrival. In the van on the way back from resupply, we all cracked a beer (apparently there are no open container laws in cars in Tennessee?), ate dinner, and chatted with other hikers (Dirty, Tick Bite, No Kiddin, Forrest, Little Cave, and Beer Girl) around the fire.

Day 128, 10/23/22: Erwin, TN to Big Bald

18.2 mi, 6600 ft elevation gain

Today was just a massive all day climb out of Erwin up to Big Bald, a gorgeous mountain with 360 degree views on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. We started our day around 10am after a leisurely morning at Uncle Johnny’s. At the last minute, Lotus purchased an alpaca sleeping bag liner to stay warm through the Smokies. We also ran into Ducky and Gravy again as they stopped in for showers and laundry that morning. Immediately, we started to climb out of the gap on what some locals called Cardiac Hill. It had some great views of the Nolichucky River below and the glowing hills on its flanks. Throughout the entire day, we gained elevation incrementally. Most of the ascent was reasonable, but there were three or four rather steep sections where we really had to work! We even had to lose our long sleeve shirts because it was getting so warm. We can’t believe it got so hot after being so cold for the past few days. In the middle of the afternoon, we got to Spivey Gap at the same time as Dirty, No Kiddin, and Forrest and former thru-hikers (including Chef Ducker from yesterday!) who brought trail magic of fried chicken, donuts, and soda. Even though we just ate our sandwich for lunch, we had to take the opportunity to eat fried chicken. That extra fuel helped us truck up the last couple thousand feet of elevation and 8 miles or so to Big Bald, the tallest bald in the area, where we decided to camp. Stretch needed to convince Lotus to camp on the bald because there were no facilities up there and it took an extra bit of climbing, but it was worth it. The views from Big Bald are some of the best of the whole AT and we got so much time with them. The layers of mountains in the hazy distance over the tall dry grass looked spectacular. We saw the most glorious sunset we could imagine and tented on a nice grassy patch at the summit with virtually no wind. A father and daughter came up and were blown away by our thru-hike. She said, “Wow, I love that for you!” This was one of the most memorable nights of our trip so far. Unfortunately, the zipper on Lotus’ side of the tent broke and we had to duct tape it together. She now has to climb into the tent from Stretch’s side, but at least we only have a couple weeks left!

Day 129, 10/24/22: Big Bald to Shelton Graves

20.7 mi, 4800 ft elevation gain

Around 7am, we heard voices outside our tent. Dirty, Tick Bite, and No Kiddin made their way to the summit from the nearby shelter to watch sunrise. We all watched the sky change colors and the sun rays gradually bathe the fields around us in warm orange light. To battle the cold, Lotus sat in her sleeping quilt while Tick Bite stood and moved the whole time–different methods! As soon as the sun came up, we warmed up. One by one, each hiker started to make their way south. We slowly packed up our tent, enjoying a leisurely morning on the bald before starting our day. Camping up here was a great decision. Having so much time in this gorgeous spot including sunset and sunrise was awesome. Sometimes you have to put in the extra effort for the experience and this one really paid off. It was surprisingly balmy and for the first time in a long time, we were sweating as we hiked the “pointless ups and downs” of the AT. We came down into Sam’s Gap and as per usual, the hike out of the gap was rather steep and energy draining. By the time we got to the top of the climb, we were ecstatic to eat our luxurious lunch of bagel sandwiches with ham, cheese, and salami. The second half of the day was honestly a bit boring with a late fall feel. Almost all the trees had dropped their leaves and stood like tall skeletons in the bright sun. It felt like a bit of a letdown after the grandeur of Big Bald – just connecting the dots to the next section of awesome mountains. Neither of us had been listening to any entertainment lately, but today, we decided to pop our earbuds in and listen to podcasts, books, or music for the last few hours of hiking. We camped with No Kiddin next to the Shelton Graves, a spot where two Union soldiers visiting family were captured and killed during the Civil War.

Day 130, 10/25/22: Shelton Graves to Spring Mountain Shelter

19.6 mi, 4000 ft elevation gain

Today we passed the 1,900 mile marker! We have less than 300 miles to go…wow. Thankfully, the ghosts of the Union soldiers did not come out to haunt us in the night. But, we did wake up early for our standards, perhaps because we actually got enough rest! We started hiking before 9am and the first few miles were extremely pleasant. The air was crisp, but the sun warmed us. Then, we climbed to Big Butt (we did giggle at this name because apparently we are not as mature as we claim to be), but there was no view. After, we climbed the rocky stairs to another knob with gorgeous and expansive views of what we think were the Smoky Mountains ahead of us, shrouded in a thick haze. Even though it was only 11am, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat lunch at a little rocky outcrop with those views. We had a bagel sandwich with cheese, ham, and salami and it was such a filling meal. Tortillas, a thru-hiker staple, are definitely getting boring. We continued hiking with Ducky and Gravy for a few miles, talking a lot about food along the way. Then, we stopped by a shelter to fill water where Dirty and No Kiddin took their lunch break. The second half of the day started off well, but the last 4 miles to Spring Mountain Shelter felt brutal with about 2,000 ft of elevation gain. On the last climb, the wind picked up and sent leaves flying horizontally past us. But like so many other challenges that feel really difficult while going through them, we did just fine and stood at the top ready for more. Most of us tented near the shelter because it was so run down. We all pretty much laid in our tents and curled up to stay out of the howling winds. They should be strong all night. Just another day on the AT.

Day 131, 10/26/22: Spring Mountain Shelter to Hot Springs, NC

11 mi, 1500 ft elevation gain

The rain came down over night and the wind howled! Earplugs helped, but we didn’t get the best sleep with all the noise. Our little tent village got up and out of camp relatively early so that we could get to Hot Springs for lunch. There was one steep climb, but the rest of the trail was a mild downhill into town. Stretch was feeling a bit low today. His stomach wasn’t cooperating fully, but he pushed through. Throughout the day, we took our own little tour of the town, stopping into many of the establishments right on the main street. The first thing we did in town was grab kombucha and a latte from Artisun, a cute little cafe. Then, we stopped at Vaste Provisions for a delicious and healthy lunch of a rice bowl and a salad. The owner gave us extra protein because she knew we were hikers. After, we stopped by the library to print out our Smoky Mountain National Park permits and went to the outfitters to resupply. We then went to the post office for Lotus to send home extra clothes and the dollar store to supplement our resupply. When we finally got to the Laughing Heart Hostel, we had done most of our chores and felt like we enjoyed a mini vacation in the middle of this hike. We also ran into a different Duckie we met all the way back in Maine! In the evening, we went to Big Pillow Brewing with Ducky, Gravy, No Kiddin, Dirty, and Tick Bite. Turns out, it was karaoke night! We sang loudly and had such a great time. A star was born that night. As we get closer and closer to the end, we are building stronger and stronger connections with other hikers. And that’s adding even more joy to our trail lives. 

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