Upon leaving Gatlinburg and going back into the Smokies, we once again ran into bad weather. While in town, it was all sunshine and blue sky. As we started out, the sky got darker until it began to snow. We made it to Charlie's Bunion, a scenic rocky area, just before it started to fall but it kept coming down well after we reached the shelter. When we woke up the next morning there was a fresh 4 to 5 inches of snow on the ground. Though the packed down conditions of the trail the day before hadn't saved our feet from getting wet, we were now back to the beginning.
We were so sick of the snow that we pushed out a 23 mile day to get to the I-40 underpass, just outside of the Smokies. The snow turned to slush, which turned into rivers, which turned into mud a s we came down out of the higher elevations. My shoes were now mud caked as well as soaked through. But at the particular spot we planned to stop, we knew great things were waiting for us. Our old friend Fresh Ground was posted up there as an incentive to get us through the rough times in the Smokies. We camped with him that night, the second time for Broken Pack (BP) and I. In the morning, Easter Morning, he made us bacon, eggs and pancakes. It made the day special to wake up with him and eat well and have a sense of celebration on an important day.
This day, Easter, also marked my one month on the trail!
Reluctantly, we left the comfort of Fresh Ground's mobile trail magic station and did a short day, partially to rest and partially to avoid incoming rain. Wild Blue, the real mile pusher in our group tried to convince us to plan on another 23 mile day for the next day. We laughed at him told him to have a good time and have a booth for us a the diner in Hot Springs when we get there.
The next morning I woke up a bit earlier than most days and headed out from the shelter about an hour ahead of the guys. It was just one of those days where I really felt like hiking and felt really good in my own head and was ready for some space and time to think. Just as I was approaching Max Patch, Maineiac caught up. Max Patch is a huge bald in the middle of the mountains. I remember going as a child. Maineiac and I suffered through the wind to eat lunch on the summit. It was too cold for me and I moved on just to keep warm before the others arrived.
That afternoon, I reached the shelter I planned to sleep at 13 miles down the trail only to find that it was a dump. It was tiny, rickety, and on the top of a blustery mountain. It showed obvious signs of leaking in the rain and was far too drafty and small. Of all the shelters I had come across, it was the first that was a disappointment rather than an achievement. After a while of contemplating my options, the guys showed up talking crazy nonsense of pushing on the the next shelter, another ten miles. We all stopped to make an early dinner and the crazy talk turned into pushing another 13 miles all the way down into Hot Springs.
And so it happened. I hadn't even unpacked in my 2 hours of sitting there, disliking that shelter, so I fell in line with the guys as we all readied ourselves to night hike down into Hot Springs. We started around 5pm and walked in tandem to make sure we didn't loose anyone in the dark. It started out being exciting, our first night hike. But it soon turned fairly miserable. We were all walking on fiery pins and needles due to a slew of new blisters that came up during the past week of hiking with wet feet. We would occasionally stop to take a break and share our individual woes, growing weaker as we walked up and over countless mountains in the night. During one particular stop we all needed a snack break. BP busted out two honey buns, took a bite of each and passed them down the line. Maineiac followed suit with a Cinnabon, followed by Movie Star's four snickers, Genie's peanut butter crackers and my clif bar went down as well. Every snack was passed down the line, disappearing bite by bite so that all eight of us, snack having or not, had the needed energy to keep hiking. It is moments like these on the trail, when everyone willingly digs into their packs for the most prized possession and shares it with everyone else, disregarding germs, that you really get a sense of the love and devotion that builds between hikers.
Finally, after long last, and much suffering and after I was quite convinced that I had visited hell's purgatory and come back again, we made it to the trail head at Hot Springs. The parking lot was mud and I shot across it to a road and collapsed. The others followed. Twenty six miles we had just hiked and all of us on beat up feet. All I wanted was to change into clean, dry socks and put on my camp shoes.
It was 11:50pm. We were sitting on a road in front of a hostel in a strange town. The owner came out to ask if we wanted a room and to warn us that we were sitting in a sharp turn that townies often took quickly. We did what anyone in our position would do. Thanked him for the warning and denied the bunks, still sprawled in the street. After a few moments of recuperation, we decided to just move up the road a bit, out of the street lights, and cowboy camp just off the road. We busted out out sleeping pads and sleeping bags and settled in.
The next morning we awoke just before sunrise with the birds tweeting and walked down a hill to the diner. Suddenly our 26mi. day was worth it, thinking that we could be 13 miles back, wishing we were in Hot Springs instead of downing hot coffee and a huge breakfast.
Since then, we have been hanging out taking it easy, meandering up and down the one block strip in town. Some of the guys may head out tomorrow but I will stay at least one more day, until Thursday. Then, my mom may come in town for a few days. We may stay here, or maybe I can talk her into going to Asheville, but regardless I plan on it being a few days before I get back on the trail.
I have been making great time and I really enjoy the awesome people I am with, but I still have so much time I want to spend on the trail. I don't want to speed through it too much. I know this will change my hike. I will have to make new friends and find a new group and be on my own for a while. But I feel ready for it. I am looking forward to seeing my mom and taking a few days off to let parts of my body rest. I will miss the guys I've been with a ton, but I am sure I'll be following them all the way up the trail.