A late start, late finish, a fairy tale forest and a new ankle problem.
I don’t stay in hotels so I can get up at 6am. It’s a resource used to heal the body so it makes sense to spend an extra hour or two asleep than normal. That’s my excuse anyway. I had a shuttle (aka a taxi, but they are always called shuttles in hiker-land apparently) booked for 10am and took my time for a final shower and breakfast before going to the lobby to check out only to be told that my driver had come 15 minutes early and taken another hiker! Egads. I called and she came back having just seen the chance to squeeze another fare in. By now it was 10:15 and a young hiker couple had appeared and I had offered that they could split my shuttle if it ever came back. They accepted, it did and we all got a cheaper ride than planned. In fact, these two thanked me twice since they had benefited from my grocery buying yesterday and extra cordage I had left in the hiker box two seconds before they checked it. (I personally took 3 woman’s hairbands since they are fluorescent and therefore more useful than the elastic bands I have been using.)
The girl was called Bugs Bunny (“You can call me Bugs.”) and had lost a sock the day before when doing laundry. So we also stopped by the landromat but no sock was forthcoming. She was using a ziplock bag instead. Marie, the shuttle driver, happened to have a good spare pair in the car which fit Bugs and thus the problem was solved. The trail, or Marie specifically, will provide.
In fact the couple had been forced to come to the motel because the day before Bugs had put her pack down in the morning into a pile of human poop just left under a thin veneer of leaves. They cleaned it off in a stream but wanted to scrub and disinfect it ASAP. Ick.
Dropped off back where I had got off the trail I was right by Uncle Johnny’s hostel and store so popped in to buy 1 dehydrated dinner (Mac and Cheese!) and found Sas, Big Cheese, Shawn, Chainsaw and The Major were in residence. They had gotten in yesterday and were still drying out their gear in the sun (it was quite cool but at least sunny). They were probably taking a zero today, Big Cheese clutching a bottle of JD made that more likely.
I chatted briefly while polishing off a banana and chocolate milk and then left about 11am. Crossing over the Nolichucky River I took a wrong turn and went 0.2m down the wrong road. Coming back to the junction I went 100 yards down another wrong road. I was annoyed now. What if someone came up behind me from the hostel and wondered how come I left 20 minutes ago?! Finally I spotted a gap in the woods bordering the road with a tell-tale white blaze showing. Ah well.
The path quickly led to the train tracks which you just clamber over of your own accord. After relating my little episode yesterday Marie had told me the trains can take up to 45 minutes to pass! Fortunately the tracks were clear and I could officially leave Erwin behind.
The trail descended at first slightly to 1742′ before we started an all-day climb to the top of Unaka Mountain at 5180′. That’s 3440′ net but with various dips and descents thrown in probably an aggregate of 4000′ ascent and then I had to descend 1300′ off Unaka and climb 250′ to reach my final camp. So a pretty respectable day. I tented at 359.1, just past Cherry Gap Shelter, making it a 17.6 mile day.
The trail varied in quality today. Some of it was ok but a lot was rocks and roots, better dry than when wet but still hard work on the feet and ankles. The trail is hard enough as it is; terrain like this just feels like an obstacle course.
Sure enough, after a couple of hours my right ankle ligament started to feel sore and tender in the same way the left one did 2-3 weeks ago. Ironically today was the first day my left ankle had absolutely no pain whatsoever. I was fully fit was 2 hours.
There was no choice but to continue and I just tried to place my right foot more carefully, seeking out flat spots where possible and putting little weight on it. Now it was time for the left leg to pay back the debt owed to the right when limping over the Smokies. I had been reducing my intake of painkillers in the last 4-5 days and was disappointed to have to pop a big one again now. It was either that or hobble.
I made steady progress and was actually quite enjoying the hiking. I was so used to hiking on a bad ankle it was more normal to me than being pain-free so I didn’t get too down. As long as it doesn’t get worse than today. Hopefully an ankle that has hiked 360 miles can shrug off a problem more quickly. We will find out in the next few days.
As I had started at 11am I didn’t have a big ‘lunch’ break, just 3 fifteen minute snack breaks. Also because I was fully hydrated at 11am I only drank 1.6 litres of water all day until I got to camp at 7pm. This meant I got a lot of hiking done even at my now lesser pace.
At mile 353.7 is a place called Beauty Spot Gap which has road access. Although the views are only ok (see below) apparently the sunset views here are good.
The best part of the day was the spruce forest at the top of Unaka Mountain. As well as wonderful soft pine needle beds to walk on after the discomfort of a rocky approach (and descent it would turn out) it just exuded remote calm, beauty and other-world presence. If a speaking faun had appeared and warned me about an evil queen I wouldn’t have been in the least bit surprised. Also, navigation through it required you to keep an eye out for the extra blazes used here. Miss one and you could be off into some enchanted land.
After descending 2300′ from there at an ever-slowing pace the first opportunity to camp and get water appeared but was clearly not in the same state as when the guide book author visited.
So I pushed on one more mile to Cherry Gap Shelter, arriving at 7pm, finding a good remote spot and erecting my tent by 7:10, got water and drank and cooked dinner by 7:45 and went back to the shelter for a quick chat before sunset. The AWOL guide says there is no tenting available at this shelter but in fact there is plenty within a short distance.
I didn’t know any of the 5 there already but one or two of them had heard of me. One man on a 3 day hike was called Old Bones. He is 84 now but sectioned the AT from 1972 to 1985. Tonight he told us how he met his wife in Puerto Rico in 1953 at a Navy New Years Eve dance he drove 85 miles to attend (his nickname was the San Juan Kid) and how a buddy set him up on a blind date with Carmen, a friend of the girl he was taking. Although his buddy went to the bathroom and bailed completely on the group Old Bones got on well enough with Carmen to propose in April and get married in July. They were married for more than 51 years before she passed away in 2004.
No-one attempted to top that story and darkness had fallen so we all turned in.