Opportunity: it comes in many varieties. For Julie and me, we have an opportunity to narrow the distance between us and Chris and Blake. As discussed in Chapter 2, Chris and Blake were unable to make the hike the first week of June 2015, so we were able to gain 53.7 miles, narrowing the gap between us to approximately 65 miles. We now have an opportunity to make another week long hike in July 2015 to practically catch up with the Thompson’s so the four of us can hike together in 2016. So the decision is made and I plan out a 6-day, 5-night hike that will take us another 51.7 miles North and 13.6 trail miles from Chris and Blake. (The plan is that Julie and I will hike an extra day in 2016 to catch up, and we will meet up with Chris and Blake on Day 2 at Stecoah Gap – their starting point. But that’s a story for another day – in Chapter 4.)
The morning of Saturday, July 18th, we load up the Tahoe and head to Lawrenceville, Georgia to MeMaw’s and Pop’s house. We arrive at the Thompson’s that evening and as usual, MeMaw feeds us a dinner that will fuel us for the first couple of days of hiking. We have a pleasant evening of conversation, catching up since last we saw each other in June. Realizing we have to get a very early start in the morning, MeMaw and Pop send us off to bed. So we say our goodnights and good byes since we will not see them again until the following weekend.
I estimated it would take us about 3 hours to make it to our stopping point, the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), and it is about an hour drive from NOC to Deep Gap. And of course, we have to make time to stop at a Waffle House to enjoy our traditional pre-hike breakfast. So we awake around 0315 the next morning to give ourselves plenty of time to make the drive North to meet our shuttle driver (Ron, who we used in June), stop for a quick breakfast, and still make it to our starting point between 0830 and 0900. I had already made arrangements with Ron to meet us at our stopping point, the NOC, at 0700 and then shuttle us to Deep Gap, our starting point.
Ron arrives at the NOC General Store at 0715 and we load our packs and walking sticks into his vehicle. The NOC requires a parking pass for extended parking stays, so I had already pre-arranged over the phone and we find our Parking Pass in a pocket on the front door of the store. The parking pass has instructions to park at what is known as Basecamp (a parking area in the NOC just North of where the AT heads back into the woods). We follow Ron to the parking area and once again say goodbye to our Tahoe for another week. We arrive at Deep Gap a little after 0830 (right on schedule) and say goodbye to Ron; probably for the last time since we will be a little too far north for his shuttling business when we embark on our next hiking adventure in 2016.
Day 1: Deep Gap to Carter Gap Shelter (8.5 trail miles)
As usual with the first step of the first day, our adrenaline is flowing and we are both anxious to get started. We are in Deep Gap and standing at the trail entrance leading back into the woods. Before donning our packs, we pause to take a picture next to the trail marker indicating the path direction and other pictorial “rules of the trail”. But what catches Julie’s eye is the little blue picture near the bottom with the white wavy line – it states: “More Difficult”. And we quickly figured out why those words were indicated on the trail marker. As soon we started out of the gap, we were hiking uphill, beginning a two mile hike up Standing Indian Mountain. Upon reaching the top, we will have gone from an elevation of about 4,400 feet to nearly 5,500 feet.
The temperature is a little warmer than we are used to and as a result, there are quite a few more bugs flying about. But otherwise, the climb up Standing Indian Mountain results in nothing but pride as we pose next to the marker on top of the mountain.
The trek up Standing Indian Mountain proves to be the most difficult part of our first day. The rest of our hike to the Carter Gap Shelter is uneventful. We arrive at the shelter early evening to find an old, blue tent inside. Always wary of strangers basically “squatting” in the shelters, we look around for other signs of prolonged occupancy, but find none. We move the tent outside of the shelter (as can be seen in picture below) and left it for anyone who might claim it later.
We unload our packs inside the shelter and walk approximately 50 yards behind it to locate the privy. When we return to the shelter, another young couple has arrived and we explain the tent sitting outside. They too are concerned about the abandoned tent and end up making camp a few yards away from the shelter, leaving Julie and me alone inside the shelter. I think more than anything, their decision to not stay inside is to provide each lady some privacy.
Day 2: Carter Gap Shelter to Long Branch Shelter (8.6 trail miles)
We awake to a beautiful, cool, crisp morning with no rain in the forecast. I have reviewed the maps to see what we have in store for the day and it looks relatively easy – with one exception: Albert Mountain! It’s six miles away, so we don’t worry about it just yet. After repeating our morning ritual which we perfected during our June hike, we set out around 0800 to begin our hike.
The day gets warm and the flying insects become somewhat intolerable. What would have been a nice hike in June was now so aggravating with constant swatting of bugs a mere seven weeks later. We are convinced just two days into our hike that hiking in July will not be a repeat performance – at least not until we get further north.
Early afternoon, we arrive at the base of Albert Mountain. The distance to the top is a little less than three tenths of a mile, but the elevation is a little over 500 feet. In other words; it’s steep!
It takes us quite a while to make it to the summit of Albert Mountain, and there were moments that we were on hands and knees to make some progress, but once at the top, the view was spectacular.
Not only did the pinnacle of Albert Mountain provide some breathtaking views of the Appalachian Mountains around us, but it also marks a very important milestone in our AT hiking adventure: we are now at the 100 mile mark of the North bound trail.
A few steps further up the trail still on top Albert Mountain, we come to a fire tower which marks the 100th mile. The tower is located in a fenced in area just a few feet from the edge of the mountain that provides a more panoramic view of the mountains around us. And if brave enough, the tower is open if one wants to climb the approximately 50 feet up to the top. Well, let’s just say the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. My dreadful fear of heights kicks in about a third of the way up the tower steps. So we just enjoy the view from the bottom around the fenced in area.
The remaining two and half miles to Long Branch Shelter is smooth sailing. There is a steep descent coming down Albert Mountain, but after, the trail provides a nice stroll downhill to the shelter.
Long Branch Shelter is a beauty. Newly constructed in 2013, it is our first “two-story” shelter. The couple we had met the previous night is there and we learn they are from Florida hiking as much of the AT as they can in the few weeks they have. Later in the evening, another lone, male hiker joins us and he takes the upstairs. It is nice to sleep in numbers – this provides a safe feeling and a better night’s sleep. Although tents are not recommended for inside the shelters (so as not to take up too much room for other hikers), it is agreed all around that it is OK for us to pitch our tent inside and the Florida couple does the same. Again, it provides a modicum of privacy for the ladies.
Day 3: Long Branch Shelter to Siler Bald Shelter (11.5 trail miles)
Day 3 is our longest hike this week, so we get an early start. We pack up our gear, prepare our oatmeal and coffee and then we are off. The weather continues to cooperate, but the days do get into the 70’s F so we are drinking much more water. But fortunately, the water sources are where we expect and we never came close to running out. But the flying bugs!! My God, they will drive a person insane. You cannot walk away from them – they just follow you like Pig Pen’s dirt cloud.
After covering a little over three and half trail miles we come to trail sign providing distances to landmarks along the trail whether you are heading North or South. The sign is located at a side trail leading to Rock Gap Shelter. But we are headed to the top of Siler Bald 7.9 miles away. The trail sign is located at the edge of the woods as we exit into a parking area alongside what is referred to as Old US 64. We remove our packs to take a break. As we sit there sipping on water and eating a snack, a lady and her dog gets out of a parked car. She asks about our hike and she informs us she is exploring day hike routes. As we are chatting, the couple from Florida emerges from the woods and joins us. The Florida couple is asking about places to eat and drink in the nearby town of Franklin, North Carolina and she recommends a place Julie and I have set our sights on once we complete our week of hiking: Lazy Hiker’s Brewery. The lady tells us that she is the wife of the Master Brewer at Lazy Hiker and we tell her that we are definitely making a trip there after we complete our weekly hike.
As with previous days, the remaining hike to Siler Bald Shelter is uneventful. There are the warmer conditions and the bugs, but all we can do is trudge along. Eventually we get to the sign pointing the way to Siler Bald Shelter. The shelter is a half mile from the main trail. We rarely like to stray that far from the AT (every mile is precious and usually we don’t want to spend a mile walking to a sleeping place when there are typically places to pitch a tent close to the trail). But there is a chance of rain, and the idea of a roof over us if it rains makes the decision easy. Plus the half mile to the shelter appears to be a relatively easy hike.
The previous night we stayed at one of the newer shelters to-date; constructed in 2013. Tonight, we are staying in one of the oldest; constructed in 1959 – older than me! It is pretty late in the day since we covered 12 miles and no one else is at the shelter and we don’t really expect anyone else this late in the day. We remove our packs and quickly find the nearby privy and water source while we still have daylight. We are definitely isolated being so far from the AT. But there was one huge plus to confirm our decision to stay in the shelter was a good one; what I personally consider to be one of the most craftily engineered structures that I have seen on the trail: a fire place with chimney constructed out of stones you would find along the trail! There was no rain so we have dry kindling to get a fire going in no time. This proves to not only provide us much needed warmth (since the nights still get chilly even in late July), but also provides a fire and a good amount of smoke to deter any wild animals from coming in too close. I’ve wondered whether the fire place was constructed at the same time as the shelter or was it built at a later date by some ingenious hiker?
The shelter also has a huge, totally-made-out-of-concrete, picnic table that we sat comfortably at eating our dinner and breakfast all the while contemplating how the massive pieces of concrete was brought to this spot so far in the wilderness.
Day 4: Siler Bald Shelter to Wayah Shelter (6.8 trail miles)
We get an excellent night sleep and have a very relaxing breakfast sitting at our huge concrete picnic table. We are able to get an early start even though this is a relatively short hiking day – a little over seven miles including our half mile trek back to the AT. Our challenge today is to reach the top of Wayah Bald, but we are excited because at the top, there is the Wayah Bald Observation Tower, which is known for its terrific scenic views. The stone observation tower at the summit of Wayah Bald was constructed in 1937 and then renovated in 1983. A little trivia: Wayah is Cherokee for the word “wolf”.
In the early afternoon, we emerge from the woods into an open area with a National Forest sign indicating the location of the observation tower. It is not clear to us exactly which direction we have to walk to get to the tower. Just beyond the sign, to our right, there is a blacktopped area and we hear voices. There is no clear indication what lies in the other direction, so we opt to head towards the sounds of other humans. After a short walk down the blacktop, we come into a large parking area and there are adults and many young boys walking about. After a few quick questions to a couple of the adults, we find out they are a local Boy Scout troop who have just arrived at the bald to see the tower and to do a little hiking. We quickly do an about face and head in the other direction to which we are sure now lies the observation tower and the AT North.
It’s a short walk further up the hill to reach the tower. But once there, it is a sight to behold: an old, two-story stone structure fronted by a stone wall at the edge of the bald which overlooks the Appalachian Mountains; by far, providing the best views we have seen yet.
After snapping a few photos of ourselves at the overlook, the Boy Scout troop overtakes the observation tower. We make our way up the stones steps to the second story of the tower. There are two ladies at the top painting and sketching their versions of the views across the mountain tops. They happily offer to snap a couple of photos of us. Also at the top are placards telling the history of the bald and of the tower itself.
While we are the top of the tower, the boy scouts leave and begin their hike. We hit the trail a few minutes later and quickly catch up to them. It is then that we realize just how many comprise this troop as we struggle to walk past them on the narrow trail. There are at least six adults and approximately 20 children ranging in ages from about 10 to 18. I comment to Julie that they should not have that large of a group out on the trail, but we figure they are just out for the day and once we are past them, we will not see them again. We are oh so wrong!
In the early afternoon, we arrive at the side trail leading to the Wayah Shelter. Just like the night before, this shelter is about a half mile off the AT. Before heading to the shelter, I decide to back track a couple of tenths of a mile to a water source to refill our containers. By the time I reach the water source, it is surrounded by some of the Boy Scout leaders and a few of the children. Only a couple of the adults were actually pumping water, but the others made it very difficult to squeeze into the small area to get my own water. The one’s not pumping did not move out of the way and I had to push my way in with a few “Excuse me’s” to get to the water source. I quickly realize that neither the adults nor the children have any trail etiquette, or not much etiquette at all for that matter and this is proven over and over again over the next couple of days.
Now let me interject before I go on further about this group that I am a huge fan of the Boy Scouts and I think they teach young men valuable lessons that they can take into adulthood. But this group did not reflect any of the characteristics I have seen demonstrated in other troops I have been around, and I blame the adults, who had no control or provided no instruction or discipline to the children in their charge. And I have purposefully left the name of this troop out of this chapter because I know they do not accurately represent the Scouts as a whole.
After I finish filling our water containers, I head back to the side trail to meet back up with Julie and head to the Wayah Shelter. We can hear the large group heading off into the distance and we are grateful that they are not staying in or around the shelter. We conclude that since the group is still heading North that they are not day hiking (like I first thought and hoped).
When we reach the shelter, we find that a solo male hiker is already there. We learn that he is an Elementary School Music teacher so he and Julie have a lot to talk about, since Julie is also a teacher. We ask if he minds if we pitch our tent inside the shelter and he graciously says no problem.
Day 5: Wayah Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter (10.6 trail miles)
This hiking trip, we have been extremely lucky with the weather. The nights have been pleasant and we have had a shelter to sleep in each night, usually with company. And although the past couple of days have had rain in the forecast, it stayed clear the whole time. But today that would change.
Our school teacher awoke much earlier than us and got an early start. We awaken a little while after him, but it does take a little longer to pack up two rather than one. After our usual breakfast of oatmeal, we head back to the main trail.
Now with a little over 120 trail miles under our belt, I really never felt like we strayed off the main trail at any time, but today, I have to admit, I have an uneasy feeling that something is not quite right. After we make it back on the main trail from the shelter, the first few miles is easy hiking for quite a long stretch, but then we encounter an extremely overgrown path. So overgrown on both sides that the path is barely visible and at times, non-existent – like no one has walked here in quite some time. So obviously, if you start thinking you are walking somewhere that looks like no one has traveled recently, maybe you have strayed off the path. And it does not help that there are no trees that would indicate white blazes to mark our way. There are just head-high grasses and bushes on either side that have squeezed the path to obscurity. For what seems like a mile or more, I reach my walking stick out in front of me and swing it side to side to clear the path of any unknown and out-of-sight creatures (e.g. snakes) – like a blind man finding his way. Julie is close on my heels and it is somewhat claustrophobic, but we keep our heads down and our sticks out in front until finally the path opens up again. And we both breathe a sigh of relief. Our conclusion is that this time of year (late July), the vegetation has grown more and there aren’t as many hikers this time of year to wear down the path.
A little less than five miles into our hike that day, we pass Cold Spring Shelter, and it is immediately obvious who spent the night here. Apparently the Boy Scout troop settled here for the night as evidenced by the amount of trash in the fire ring and around the campsite. “Leave no trace” has no meaning to these guys. There is only one good campsite between us and the NOC and that is Wesser Bald Shelter. Julie and I both know that it is in our best interest to overtake them and get to the shelter first.
But our luck soon runs out. The early afternoon showers we missed the previous days didn’t miss us today. We hike the afternoon in pouring rain with minimal tree canopy to cover us. We cover our packs but decide not to pull out our ponchos – we have about four miles to Wesser Bald Shelter.
We are still about a half mile from the shelter when it becomes painfully obvious that the scouts have already reached the shelter. Their voices can be heard for miles. As we approach the side trail that leads down to the shelter, we come upon a hiker who has made a makeshift lean-to at the edge of the trail and he informs us that we are not going to find any space down there to pitch a tent and that they have taken over the shelter. The exasperation could be heard in his voice. He suggested that we go further down the trail, that he thinks there is a spot off the trail to pitch a tent. But Julie and I are soaking wet and exhausted since we have hiked over 11 miles and I assure her that once the male adults and children see a soaking wet woman tired from the trail, that they will make room for her in the shelter. I am silently thinking that this is a great opportunity for the scout leaders to change my opinion of them and to show that they can and are teaching these young scouts valuable life lessons. They proved me wrong. We approach the shelter which is crammed full of kids and there are 3 adults inside. It is still lightly raining and I ask if room can be made for my wife and me so we can get out of the rain. One of the troop leaders responds, “Nope! Full up!” I guess I am from a different time. I kept repeating, “Nope! Full up!” over and over in head, asking myself, “Did he just say that?!” A prime opportunity to teach what the Boy Scouts are known for and graciously open a spot for a couple who have been hiking for a week (and for whom the shelters are intended), but an adult leader chooses to teach the wrong lesson.
Julie and I head back up the path in search of any small piece of real estate on which we can pitch our tent, but the hiker up on the main trail is correct: they have taken over the entire campsite area, not just the shelter. We find one spot just big enough to pitch our tent, but it is just a couple feet from the bear cables and it is not level – our heads would be higher than our feet and we would spend the night sliding towards the front of our tent. Our only other choice is to find something further up the trail. So we drop our packs at the spot by the bear cables and I leave Julie there while I run back up the trail and head North to see if there is anything better. I walk for about a quarter mile and there is nothing, so I head back and we decide to go ahead and make camp by the bear cables.
At least is has stopped raining, so we are able to pitch our tent and keep everything dry inside. Our spot is next to the side trail that leads down to the shelter, so the boys (and some adults) are constantly walking back and forth. A couple of times, the adults try to make nice, but I have to admit, I am boiling over and want nothing to do with them, so I’m sure my silence to their attempt at funny quips made more of a statement than the words I willfully bit back. Once our tent was up, we prepare our dinner, quickly eat and I begin stuffing all necessary food and hygiene items in our Willie Peter bag. The day light is almost gone, and the bear cables are all empty. I tell Julie that we need to get our bag up there because soon they will take over the bear cables just like everything else. And immediately after I hoist my bag up, a couple of the scouts realize they need to do the same. I just smile and climb back in the tent knowing that there are only three cables left and about 25 of them.
And the fun begins. I do realize it is petty on my part, but I am so angry how they have taken over what is supposed to be a peaceful hike for us and has turned it into an overblown slumber party with no adult supervision. Julie and I are tucked away in our tent listening to the raucous all around us just hoping at some point they quiet down so we can sleep. Then we hear a couple of the adults under the bear cables contemplating how they are going to get all their bags up there. I grin in the darkness of my tent (petty, I know). And then I could not believe what I hear!! These morons are no more than 10 feet from our tent and whispering but they may as well have been right in front talking to us. But we have long since come to the conclusion that none of these guys have any camping experience and probably have never spent any time outdoors. So what I am sure they think is a conspiratorial secret was loud and clear to us. They are actually scheming to take my bag down and attach some of their bags to mine. The words are still hanging in the air between them as I unzip the front of our tent. They quickly walk away. I sit on the front porch of my tent for a few minutes to make sure they have no further plans to mess with my stuff. It is also fun to watch them pile on one bag after another on the three cables and try to hoist them up. I continue to be petty, I know. When they are done, it is hilarious. They have loaded so much on one cable that I could reach up and touch it. Imagine what a bear could do. Although, I do quickly realize that it is not that funny since we are sleeping just a few feet from that low hanging bag. As I sit there, the hiker who pitched the lean-to on the main trail came down and saw the mess hanging from the cables. I saw the bag in his hand and offered my cable. Together, we hang his bag with mine and raise the bags back into the air. This is how it is supposed to be done on the AT.
One gets accustomed to the quiet of the woods, especially at night, when sound travels so much further. I have no doubt the noise this group was making was keeping hikers up miles away. Julie and I retire early already planning to get up especially early to get out in front of this ill-behaved group. The hours roll by slowly as we toss and turn in our tent listening to the hooting, hollering and braying teenage laughter and not once does a troop leader ask or tell the boys to keep the noise down. So finally I look at my watch and see that it is 2300 and they are louder than ever. There is no hope that the adults will say or do anything: we can hear half of them snoring and farting in their nearby tents, obviously unfazed by the loud noise, or at the least, unwilling to do anything about it. Julie can find humor in their loud flatulence, but I am close to my breaking point. I lean up on my elbows and in my best drill instructor baritone voice, I holler, “PLEASE KEEP IT DOWN!!” There is about five seconds of complete and utter silence, just long enough to think it worked, when all it took was one belligerent kid to loudly laugh and the rest joined in and the noise escalates louder than before. I am positive at this point that one of the adults who heard someone else ask their boys to quiet down would follow-up and make sure it happens. These scout leaders prove once again they are useless. Not a one stirs or says a word.
After getting a couple of hours sleep, Julie and I break camp and pack everything up while all but a couple of the adults still sleep. It takes so much self-control not to make as much noise as possible and Julie reminds me not to be like them – good advice. But one adult has the audacity to walk up as we pack our gear and ask how we slept. I look at him dumbfounded. I reply that we would have slept much better if their kids would not have made so much noise all night. He retorts, “What you gonna do? They’re kids.” Useless. Absolutely useless. We cannot throw our packs onto our backs quick enough to escape this madness. It is not even 0600 yet, and Julie and I are hastily making our way to the main trail to put distance between us and this unruly group.
Now, I am sure there are people out there that think I am over reacting and that the scouts have as much right to the shelter and the entire campsite and can make as much noise as they want. It is after all, their hike too, and they should be able to enjoy it as well. And I agree – but not on the Appalachian Trail. The AT is not intended for groups this large. There is a level of respect and trail etiquette that hikers extend to one another. This group had no respect whatsoever for anyone else on the AT. And for those of you who still believe that the scouts had every right, well, I will never change your mind, but there is printed guidance on the Appalachian Trail Conservatory website in regards to group hiking. Pay particular attention to the second and third bullets below:
Day 6: Wesser Bald Shelter to Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) (5.7 trail miles)
Once we put some distance between us and the scouts, our mood began to change. It is easy to get in an upbeat mood when you know you are on your last day of hiking and headed to our vehicle at the NOC. And it is less than six miles away and almost all downhill! We should be at the NOC by noon. What can go wrong?!
Well, nothing went wrong – at first. The first mile had some up and downs, but then we got to the “jump off”: a steep uphill climb for almost two tenths of a mile that precedes the dramatic four and half mile downhill to the NOC. It was slow going and took some and hands and knees climbing at a couple of spots, but once there, it provided an awesome view – well, at least an awesome view of the tops of clouds. It has been very foggy that morning and the clouds hung low. So at just 4,200 feet elevation, we stood on top of what is called “Jump Off” staring out at the top of a blanket of clouds.
Then things got interesting real fast. We have already learned that not all downhills are created equal. And this proved true for this one. The descent was steep and in some places, we have to resort to sitting and sliding down rocks to get to the lower level. In other cases, the trail used the switchbacks, and at each turn you descended a series of man-made steps. There was one place where Julie lost her footing and fell, and I imagined the worst: a broken bone or some other injury keeping her from finishing the hike when we are so close. But she picks herself up and does a quick inventory, and everything is fine. But we both make sure to carefully watch our footing as we continue to descend.
There are a couple of places along our descent that level out and provide a little relief. It is on one of these level stretches that I feel a sharp sting above my ankle on my left foot. It feels like someone shoved a hypodermic needle into my leg all the way to the bone. I don’t immediately stop, but hop along scratching at the place that got stung. The stinging sensation worsens so I eventually stop and pull down my sock to investigate. I see a single red dot above my ankle with a little redness around it and some slight swelling. Since there is one tiny puncture and not two, we rule out spider and snake, so Julie and I both agree that I must have gotten stung by some sort of bee. We had heard stories about ground hornets from other hikers so since I never saw the culprit and for lack of a better guess, we attribute the sting to a ground hornet that I must have disturbed as we walked by.
The more I walk, the more the sting stung. It feels as if with every step I am getting stung over and over again. I keep reaching down trying to scratch and walk forward at the same time which was challenging since most of it was downhill. I have just navigated down a switchback, went down about 3 feet of steps and making my way down the next switchback when I hear Julie scream out behind me. I turn to see her running down the same steps I had just left screaming that something stung her on the leg and she was flailing her arms over her head and running towards me. Now, let me try to paint a picture here. Typically, switchbacks provide a somewhat easier descent down the side of a mountain. The key word is “side” of a mountain. You can look up on one side and see the mountain rising up ahead of you where you just came from. Conversely, you can look on the other side and see down the mountain. Well, I am standing on a footpath about two feet wide, now facing my wife frantically running towards me like a linebacker, with mountain going up on my right and mountain going way down to my immediate left. I just know she is going to tackle me and we are both going to go sprawling over the edge. And as all these thought are going through my head, bracing to catch her as she runs toward me, she starts screaming louder than ever that she got stung again and that she can hear it buzzing around her head. She had her hair up in braids, but now her hair is a tangled mess and she is swatting her hands around her head and hair yelling that she can hear it buzzing and that whatever it is, it is in her hair. And I could hear it to. I could hear the buzzing but never saw the actual bee. Then just like that, the buzzing stops and the bee (or ground hornet) is gone.
We remove her pack and I did a thorough check of her hair and clothes to make sure the bee was no longer around. The sting on her thigh has already swollen and is quite red. The second sting is on her wrist. The bee probably got her there after she started swinging her arms around her head. Our best guess is that I disturbed either that bee or a nest as I quickly descended the steps of the switchback and when Julie trailed behind me a little slower, she suffered their wrath.
We still have over two miles to go until we reach the NOC and Julie has already stumbled and fell and now stung by one, if not two bees. I feel so sorry for her. She is miserable. And I think we will never make it to the finish line in one piece and definitely not by noon.
We continue our downhill walk in silence. I know her teeth are gritted and she just wants this last part to be over. As with previous hikes, that last mile does seem to go forever, but eventually we can see signs of civilization through the trees. It takes a while for us to meander out of the woods, but finally around 1300, we find ourselves behind the General Store where we picked up our parking pass a few days earlier. We made our way across the NOC and finally found our Tahoe at Basecamp. She starts up right away. We pile our stuff in at head over to the General Store.
It took three weekly hikes for Julie to come up with this brilliant idea, but better late than never. Julie had come up with the idea to leave a change of clean clothes in our Tahoe so we could at least get out of the stinky, trail crusted clothes and into clean ones. The General Store has bathrooms outside, so we each quickly change our clothes and wash up a little in the bathroom sinks. Just putting on clean clothes is so refreshing.
Julie had her terrific idea and I had one of my own! Chris had given to me the previous year, a growler of Nantahala Brown Ale. I remembered to bring the empty growler and soon found out that I can do a swap inside the General Store and get a full one for a minimal fee.
Across the street from the General Store is the River’s End Restaurant. We haven’t eaten any lunch yet, so since we at least have clean clothes on, Julie and I decide to go in and sit at the bar to split a burger and enjoy a couple of local brews. The burger was perfect to split between us along with a side of sweet potato fries. We could have stayed there for hours, but we still have quite a drive back to Lawrenceville and we have one planned stop on the way!
Beer makes everything better.
When we were planning this hike, we learned of a microbrewery with a tap room in Franklin not far from the NOC. Lazy Hiker Brewing Company is located in Franklin, North Carolina and is just a 20 minute drive from the NOC, and we did not have to detour too far from our route back to Lawrenceville. As evidenced by the name, it caters to hikers so we are not too concerned that we will offend the olfactory senses of other patrons. We are after all in clean clothes.
No thought needed when trying to decide what to order – we went straight to the flight of beers that they offer and Julie and I share them. Every one of them is delicious! My favorite is the Amber Ale, so I purchase a growler. (Next year, I will now have two empty growlers to fill up and bring home – one from the NOC and one from Lazy Hiker.)
After finishing our flight, I order one more pint, and then we call it quits. In addition to the growler of Amber Ale, we each purchase a t-shirt to commemorate our visit. After letting the bartender know we would see them next year, we gather up our purchases and we make our way back to Lawrenceville.
We make it back to the Thompson’s house around 1800. After getting cleaned up, we enjoy one of MeMaw’s delicious home cooked meals. Afterwards, we spend the evening telling MeMaw and Pop about our hiking adventures. We finally head to bed around 2230 to get our first good night sleep in over a week. As usual, the next morning, MeMaw prepares a breakfast to feed a small army. So with full bellies, we load up the Tahoe, give out hugs and kisses, and wave our good byes all the way down the street.
Unlike in June, our Tahoe made it all the way home with no mechanical issues. And that is a good thing, because what would normally be about an 8 hour drive took over 12 hours. Because of road construction at the Louisiana / Mississippi Stateline, the interstate went to one lane causing severe back-ups. Luckily, before we encountered the snail pace traffic, we stopped at Five Guys for lunch and enjoyed a burger and fries. That proved to be our last meal of the day. Eventually, we pull into the Smith driveway a little before midnight.
Like I said in the previous chapter, it truly seems like we are not able to make a hiking trip without experiencing some sort of misfortune. But if that misfortune comes in the form of traffic jams and long returns home, and nothing else, I’ll take that every time!
Until our next hiking adventure!