Days 132-142 on the Appalachian Trail: Tennessee and North Carolina – Second Half

Hiking the Appalachian Trail Through Tennessee and North Carolina

This section of the trail included some intensely emotional highs and lows. We made it to significant milestones including the 2,000-mile marker, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and some of the last “big” climbs of the AT. We also dealt with physical ailments, tough weather, and the emotional rollercoaster of knowing we’d be done thru-hiking soon.

Big Reflections: 

  1. We have an immense appreciation for our bodies and all that they can do and endure. Physically, this is tough. But our legs are so strong and even when we may not feel 100%, our bodies can still hike. Stretch felt really unwell for the entire week of hiking from Hot Springs to Nantahala Outdoor Center. In “regular” life, he would simply sit on the couch, take medicine, and allow his body to rest. But knowing we had a planned end date for our thru-hike, he wanted to press on despite feeling really physically weakened. 
  2. Relatedly, we have appreciation for food as nourishment and fuel for our bodies. We do not take for granted what having good, fresh, nutritious food can do for our overall mental and physical health and well being.
  3. Someone asked us what the biggest challenge of this experience has been and we both reflected on how hard that question is for us. First, our biggest challenges have changed over time. We answered this question differently even a month ago. Second, there are so many different types of challenges: psychological, emotional, physical, social, logistical, etc. Which one stands out depends on the moment. For Lotus, the greatest challenges derive from the social pressures of the trail. Touted as the most social trail, the AT is full of people and subsequent interactions, particularly as a woman of color, are not always easy, can become burdensome, and are sometimes downright upsetting. Stretch’s greatest challenge hasn’t been one specific thing. Rather, it’s been facing the myriad of manageable challenges that arise while sustaining the intensity of hiking day in and day out for such a long period of time. If he had to pick one challenge, though, it would be dealing with illnesses on trail. Unlike at home, you can’t just take a day off work, rest, and maybe go to a pharmacy for medicine. On trail, it requires hiking on while feeling awful and then dealing with the logistics and costs of getting off trail to tend to yourself.
  4. Our creativity has exploded during this thru-hike. We have so many ideas for creative projects connected to our experiences on trail. We’re looking forward to diving into those in the weeks and months after finishing.

Day 132, 10/27/22: Hot Springs, NC to Walnut Mountain Shelter

13 mi, 5000 ft elevation gain

Today was a slow day. Unfortunately, neither one of us slept well last night. Between sleeping in a bed indoors, staying up late, snacking late, and just being super wired from so much activity, we didn’t get much rest. Stretch in particular felt it in the morning. His stomach was not feeling right, so we stayed at the hostel until checkout at 11am. It was a gorgeous day, perfect for hiking, but the day felt like a slog because Stretch felt so bad! He was a trooper, though. We hiked about 5,000 ft of elevation over just 13 miles. Midway through the day, we paused for a lunch break to let Stretch try to recover some strength. He pilfered from his dinner supply to eat ramen on the side of the trail to soothe his cramping tummy. Lotus tried to provide some support, but there was not much to do other than let Stretch handle his discomfort. Throughout the day, Stretch took long pauses and deep breaths for energy. Ultimately, today was successful because we didn’t take a zero. The thing about thru-hiking is, you just have to hike! If we were at home, Stretch’s stomach ache would not be a big deal. He would just rest on the couch, take a nap, and probably feel fine after a few hours. But when you live outside and have hiking goals to stay on track, you really do find and push your physical limits. We decided to change our plans and camp at a closer shelter, which was absolutely the right call. That means a bigger day tomorrow, but we needed to listen to what Stretch needed, which was rest! Of course, the weather threw yet another wrench at us when the wind picked up overnight and pulled out a vestibule tent stake. Stretch had to get up in the middle of the night to batten down the hatches so we didn’t blow off the ridge. But that’s life on the trail.

Day 133, 10/28/22: Walnut Mountain Shelter to Roaring Fork Shelter

4.8 miles, 775 ft elevation gain 

Unfortunately, Stretch did not feel better today. We started hiking and realized there was no way he would make it 24 miles to stay on pace. He really needed a full day of rest. After difficult deliberation on the side of the trail, we decided to just hike the five miles to the next shelter and set up camp for the day so he could nap. These types of decisions are really hard. It was a beautiful hiking day, we had to adjust plans we made with other hikers, and we didn’t want to slow down and sit around all day. It was also disappointing to know we’d be off pace with the group we had been hiking and having such a good time with. And to add to it all, we didn’t have any cell service at camp so we couldn’t communicate with anyone. This was particularly hard for Lotus who was feeling really physically strong but had to stay with Stretch. Part of hiking as a couple means being responsive to the other person’s needs when they do not match your own. But at the end of the day, we have to listen to our bodies and trust that they are telling us what they need. Around 11am, we arrived at Roaring Fork Shelter (our intended destination yesterday if Stretch had felt fine). So these two short days amounted to a zero which honestly sucks because we didn’t get the rest of an actual zero. Stretch felt like pushing himself yesterday was now for nothing. Lotus set up the tent, made Stretch some tea, and we both got laid down to try to rest. The only silver lining is that this rest day gave us time to reflect upon and share some of our feelings as we come closer and closer to the end of this thru-hike.

Day 134, 10/29/22: Roaring Fork Shelter to Davenport Gap Shelter

17.8 mi, 4800 ft elevation gain 

Today was a big day for a few reasons:

  1. We made it to the last map on our FarOut app.
  2. Stretch was feeling pretty bad all day but just beasted out 19 miles.
  3. We made it to the Smokies! 

We packed up a sopping rain fly due to condensation – the joys of cold weather camping. In the morning, we hiked over Max Patch, a popular bald with big views. The hazy mist over the mountains on the horizon was a great sight. It was super sunny today and we couldn’t believe how warm we felt after some cold nights. Stretch’s stomach pains were pretty constant throughout the day, but he just put his head down and made his way up and down the mountains trying to keep forward momentum. He could mostly stomach crackers and granola so ate all of those from his food bag and saved other snacks for later. We joked that he was fueled by crackers and stubbornness. It certainly takes some stubbornness to complete a thru-hike! We stopped in at the Standing Bear Farm hostel to get cold beverages, medicine for Stretch, and to charge our phones. It helped us hydrate before the last climb of the day that brought us into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When we arrived at Davenport Shelter, we saw how the front opening was fenced in to keep bears out. It basically looked like a jail to keep hikers in! We chatted with some really nice section hikers and backpackers before retiring for the evening. We aren’t big shelter sleepers, but staying in them is required in this national park. You’re not even supposed to tent nearby unless the shelter is totally full. Luckily, by this time, Stretch started feeling a little better and was able to eat his whole dinner!

Day 135, 10/30/22: Davenport Gap Shelter to Peck’s Corner Shelter

19.8 mi, 6400 ft elevation gain

We woke up in bear jail ready to get hiking. The good news was that Stretch had an appetite after two full days of struggling to eat. The bad news was that he still couldn’t hike uphill at our regular pace and the weather was getting worse and worse. The forecast called for a full day of rain tomorrow and the clouds were fast approaching. We watched the sun rise through the trees as we ate breakfast and then started hiking. Although the trail was lovely and well maintained with lots of built in steps crafted from split logs, we had about 3,000 feet of elevation to gain in the first 5 miles–that will make any hiking day strenuous. We climbed through tall rhododendrons and eventually up into a beautiful conifer forest. This felt like home as so much of our New England hiking consists of this environment. Stretch, who was still recovering from his stomach bug, definitely bonked a few times today. We realized he just needed more food and fuel for the immense amount of energy the climbing took out of him. Thank goodness for energy gels! Lotus felt consistently strong throughout the day and it was hard for her to watch Stretch struggle. After we ascended about 4,000 feet total, the gentle undulation along the ridge was a welcome change that allowed us to move much faster. For the most part, though, we walked through dense fog, wind, and drizzling rain. We certainly didn’t get views for the second half of the day. It looks like we will have to return to the Smokies for those. But we did try to enjoy the scenery of misty vapors blowing through the trees and across the open grassy areas. By the end of the day, we were so happy to get to the shelter, which was of course 0.4 mi downhill off trail. However, the vibe from many hikers there was unfortunately a bit off-putting. Their gear was scattered everywhere and their demeanor towards us was somewhat cold. Maybe it was because everyone was miserable in the rain? That said, while we made dinner, a lovely couple out for a few days gave us a massive protein cookie as we were talking about what to eat next out of our food bags. The trail provides! Through the night, we experienced the loudest snoring we’ve ever heard in our lives. It was comically bad – a symphony from multiple hikers who probably need medical intervention to sleep safely. Heavy rain set in and provided some white noise, but nowhere near enough. Thank goodness for earplugs.

Day 136, 10/31/22: Peck’s Corner Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter

21 mi, 5000 ft elevation gain

Today was a magical day in more ways than one. We needed it after some days of tremendous difficulty. We woke up in the pitch black to rain pattering on the shelter roof. Without saying anything, we both started feeling our way through the darkness to pack up without waking other hikers. Even though the weather was cold and wet, we stayed really positive and laughed hard at Lotus’ rain getup. She made herself a rain skirt made from a contractor bag and put ziploc bags over her hands. Stretch, on the other hand, wore rain pants and a rain jacket, making him look like a totally normal outdoors person. Lotus did a fashion show runway walk on trail and definitely got some looks from day hikers. It rained lightly all morning, but it was clearly the tail end after the heaviest precipitation lashed down overnight. This morning presented tough conditions and we dove into them with a smile and had fun! We really are happy positive people when we are at our best. It was a pretty good example of how we handle difficult things and accept discomfort – great lesson from the trail! Thru-hiking is a great opportunity to transform suffering. There has been plenty of suffering along the way (clearly, given our last few days) but it has not been a sufferfest overall, as many might assume.

The rain tapered off to just a sprinkle by the end of the morning. At noon, we got to Newfound Gap where Lost and Found (a section hiker we met in Maine) and her husband were waiting for us! They opened up the back of their jeep to let us sit in the warm car and gave us sandwiches, soda, homemade cookies, hot dogs, chips, and our resupply bags. We felt warm, physically and emotionally, in minutes. After we bid them farewell, we made our way up the climb to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. Although the summit was underwhelming (it was cloudy and the concrete tower structure is kind of an eye sore), we enjoyed the hike on the way through a couple short sections of really pretty moss covered forest. We reminisced about our favorite and least favorite moments and hostels of the AT and time went by really quickly. In the late afternoon, the clouds crept away and gave us our first real view of the Smokies, which was beautiful. The evening sun worked its way out and lit up the dripping forest with slanting rays that illuminated the drifting fog as it slowly vanished. Each scene would last only seconds as everything shifted with the breeze. At the shelter, we chatted with two section hikers and Daddy Long Legs (a 4x AT hiker), shared our hot dogs, and curled up in our sleeping bags for the night.

Day 137, 11/1/22: Double Spring Gap Shelter to Birch Spring Campsite

24.9 mi, 5500 ft elevation gain

Oof today was big! 25 mile days are not easy, even if we can do them. We really wanted to set ourselves up for a shorter day into the Nantahala Outdoor Center, so we needed to get the miles in today. It was incredibly foggy when we woke up and it took longer than we would have liked to start hiking with Stretch still feeling his sour stomach lingering from being sick. Around 8:30am, we left the shelter and quickly found ourselves at the 2,000 mile marker! What a high to start the day. It’s such a momentous milestone that it felt unreal. At the beginning of this journey it felt huge to have hiked 100 miles. Now 2,000 is just amazing! With less than 200 miles left, that now feels short – it’s all a matter of perspective. That high was unfortunately followed by some lows, though. As Stretch still isn’t at 100%, the steep climbs of the morning were not great for him. He almost bonked before the climb up Thunderhead Mountain and then we went over Rocky Top, which actually had some views, a rarity for our time in the Smokies. These couple of ascents, Lotus would argue, were surprisingly some of the toughest of the Smokies. Stretch got a second wind in the afternoon and we made really good time through those miles. Both of our moods were better and we kind of felt like hiking machines. Our trail legs really kicked in and we just kept moving forward with constant momentum. We got to camp around 6:30pm, set up quickly before it got dark, and then had dinner in the pitch black that set in so early. On a thru-hike, you sometimes just need to put your head down and walk the miles. Mile after mile no matter what else is happening. Whether you’re sick or the weather is nasty, you hike those miles. And we certainly hiked the miles today. We’ve had quite a few trying days in a row at this point and we’re proud of how we handled them.

Day 138, 11/2/22: Birch Spring Campsite to Yellow Creek Gap

14.1 mi, 3000 ft elevation gain

On our way out of the campsite, we saw freshly dug up earth indicating that an animal like a bear or hog was looking for food. Stretch heard something in the night, but knew better than to investigate. Lotus was so grateful to not have seen any of these animals in the Smokies! The bear fear is real. We took the short spur trail to Shuckstack, which has a fire tower for viewing. Although it was a bit of a scary climb up, it was worth it! We got the best views we had the entire time in the park. After, we made the long descent to Fontana Dam which included a couple miles of road walking to and across the dam. Then the trail took us over some pointless ups and downs along the lake to the marina where we stopped for lunch. Stretch’s friend offered us their vacation home, conveniently located about 30 minutes from trail, so we spent a fair amount of time organizing shuttle rides for the next couple days. Luckily, we were able to find drivers available for reasonable prices! We finished hiking a nice 14 mile day and then spent the rest of the afternoon soaking in the hot tub, watching tv, and making a home cooked meal. Good friends have made this hike so much nicer.

Day 139, 11/3/22: Yellow Creek Gap to NOC

21.6 mi, 5300 ft elevation gain

Slackpacking! To slackpack means to carry a lighter pack unburdened of all of your backpacking gear. You just carry what you need for the day which of course makes hiking so much easier. We have only slackpacked one other time on this trip and doing so again today was a no brainer. With a place to stay a second night, it would have been silly not to leave our heavy stuff there. Jim, the shuttle driver, picked us up promptly at 7:30am and we were hiking out of the gap by 8:15am. Finally, a beautiful and sunny day. The first two-thirds of our 22 mile day included pretty consistent ascent and the terrain was surprisingly difficult. The trail skirting the mountain was quite uneven and very narrow, which put extra strain on our ankle and foot muscles. The steepest climbs brought up to Cheoah Bald, which had a pretty nice view for a quick snack break. Then the descent was pretty rough with steep sections and deep leaf cover atop slippery rocks that felt really treacherous. We had to work super hard to stay on our feet – lots of trips and almost falls! All in all, though, it was a nice day of slackpacking. When we got down to Nantahala Outdoor Center, we saw Tick Bite! His knee was bothering him so he got a shuttle to Franklin for a zero. We realized once again that all of us are dealing with some level of pain, discomfort, and/or fatigue after this many miles and months of walking. It is just part of it! We got a shuttle from a local resident, picked up Chinese food, and enjoyed a beer in the hot tub. We were daydreaming of Chinese food during the last 2 miles of our hike and were really looking forward to it. But in a comedy of errors, Stretch’s wonton soup leaked all over and we could only salvage a quarter of it. Then we realized we were missing the fried rice we ordered. And with no car to get ourselves back to pick that up we would have to do without. Come on universe! We both missed out on something we really wanted, but we still had plenty of food for dinner, so we can’t complain too much.

Day 140, 11/4/22: NOC to Wine Spring Camp

19.1 mi, 6400 ft elevation gain

Both of us slept better last night than we had in a long time. Thank goodness. We tried to eat every last bit of leftovers from the fridge before our shuttle ride to head back to the NOC. We knew today was going to be a tough one with over 6,000 ft of elevation gain, most of that in the first half of the day. Getting into a mental headspace to tackle this was essential. Both of us listened to podcasts and music and were really proud of how consistent our pace was throughout a very sustained climb with a few steep sections. Today was the last day of this whole thru-hike that we’d have such substantial elevation gain and knowing that motivated us to keep going with a positive attitude. We climbed a viewing platform on Wesser Bald for good views, but it’s all a little drab now that most of the leaves have totally fallen. The last big climb of the day to Wayah Bald felt like it lasted a lifetime and got super steep toward the top! At 4:00pm after ascending all day, a 1,500 foot climb is tough on the body and mind. But, when we got to the top, we were rewarded with incredible views, a cool stone tower, and a group of visitors who gave us tangerines. Wow, vitamin C tasted good – no scurvy here! Then, another family of four came up and were absolutely flabbergasted that we had hiked from Maine and had been out here for over 4 months. They took our trash to throw away and proceeded to talk about our accomplishments loudly as they walked away. Moments like these remind us what an incredible thing we are doing. It can be easy to forget that when you are so immersed in it.

Day 141, 11/5/22: Wine Spring Camp to Long Branch Shelter

15.5 mi, 2600 ft elevation gain

This morning, we woke up to rain and dampness. Lotus’ vestibule stake came undone in the wind last night so the wet rain fly just stuck to our tent and held moisture in. And as a bonus, her shoes ended up exposed so they were nice and soaked! To add even more, water pooled under our tent in a puddle on the ground sheet and soaked through the tent floor. Packing up a sopping tent to carry all day is the worst. Stuffing all the wet things into a bag for a damp slog of a day was a poor start. Of course we couldn’t have a final week without the challenges of wet weather. Potentially due to the weather, Lotus’ cough started to get worse. It rained for the first half of the day and felt miserable at times, to be honest. Lotus’ rain skirt did get some head turns and compliments, though! At least the terrain was super mild. When the rain subsided, we paused for lunch, during which we debated getting off trail after seeing that the weather wasn’t going to get better. But, we decided to trudge on and try to make the best of the day, remembering that we only have 6 days left of this massive adventure. Trail magic of lots of peanut M&Ms, ginger ale, and mashed potato packets in a cooler was a pleasant surprise around 2pm. For a couple of hours, it seemed like the rain was going to clear and we thought about hiking further. But as soon as that thought crossed our minds, the rain returned with a vengeance and soaked us for the last mile and a half to the shelter! When we arrived, the shelter looked full with stuff hanging everywhere. There was a large group taking the bottom, but we were relieved that the top level was available. They made some space on one side so we could hang stuff up too, which was desperately needed for our drenched tent. We tried to get as dry as possible and hung our wet clothes from the rafters in the loft above our heads. While we made home, the hikers below us put on some music that we were really…not into to say the least. Some folks may be friendly and nice, but they also kind of take over the shelter without full consideration of others. It felt like we were begrudged guests at someone’s forest cabin for the night.

Day 142, 11/6/22: Long Branch Shelter to Muskrat Creek Shelter

21.1 mi, 4500 ft elevation gain

Sleeping in the shelter was the best decision. We had the whole top floor and stayed dry as it rained throughout the night and into the morning. Lotus felt bad when she had to cough at night because she didn’t want to wake any other hikers up. With daylight savings time and fairly loud hikers getting ready, we woke up early but didn’t stir until after 7:30am or so. We made breakfast under the shelter and waited out the rain for as long as we could. Unfortunately, it continued to rain off and on with a chance of thunderstorms. So we took the bad weather bypass to go around Mt. Albert, which apparently had a really steep rocky descent. The dense fog made for a rather eerie, but beautiful morning, particularly in the twisty branches at the top of some rises. We also passed the 2,100 mile marker! Less than 100 miles to go. We stopped for lunch at Carter Gap Shelter and were pleasantly surprised in the afternoon when the rain stopped and the sun started burning off the fog. The long and sustained climb to Standing Indian Mountain was really lovely and we made really good time. After, we were in cruise control and did the last nine miles or so at a steady pace. When we got to the shelter turn off, we heard a bunch of people from afar at the shelter and decided to go further to a stealth spot. We didn’t want any new interactions and one more mile today would mean one less for tomorrow. But then we heard familiar voices calling our names. It was No Kiddin, Ducky, and Gravy! And a 2022 flip flop finisher, Mountain Goat, and his dogs. We didn’t expect to see them here so we of course chose to stay at the shelter to catch up. The sun went down around 5:30pm and we were all in our respective sleeping areas by 7:00pm. Thanks to daylight saving time, hiker midnight is now an hour earlier!

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