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Since leaving Hot Springs…

Day 35: Hot Springs to Spring Mountain Shelter, 10.9 miles.

Day 36: Spring Mountain Shelter to Jerry Cabin Shelter, 15.4 miles.

Day 37: Jerry Cabin Shelter to unnamed campsite, 12.8 miles.

Day 38: Unnamed campsite to Bald Mountain Shelter, 12.1 miles

Day 39: Bald Mountain Shelter to Erwin, Tennessee, 16.4 miles.

Day 40: Beauty Spot Gap southbound back to Erwin, 12.2 miles.

Day 41: Beauty Spot Gap to Iron Mountain Gap, 8.4 miles.

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I should probably quit making broad declarations like this, but I think this has been my favorite stretch of hiking so far. The trail is beautiful and well-maintained, the views are stunning, my neck has improved gradually every day, and the weather has been mostly cooperative (more on that in a minute). It’s had the most trail magic I’ve seen so far, too, which certainly doesn’t hurt…whether it was Quiet Paul cooking eggs and hashbrowns, Easter baskets hanging in the woods, Brother Tom with hot coffee and homemade brownies, passing sightseers with bananas, a day-hiker who shared half his PB&J sandwich (he said he likes to save his extra food until he sees someone who looks like they really need it), or just all the friendly people around town offering rides and answering our questions.

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But let’s rewind a minute…

Hot Springs ended with a friend, Jennifer, driving in for dinner and bringing me the world’s best cookies, which my hiking partners and I enjoyed so much for the next few days. After two long soaks in the springs and two full days off, my neck wasn’t feeling any better. But I knew I had to keep going, so I moved on nervously and decided to watch it closely and make sure it didn’t get worse.

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I don’t know if it was because I’m being more intentional about how I tighten my pack, or the new food bag that fits in my pack so much better than the old one, or maybe just a delayed reaction from all the rest in town, but something changed. The night after our first day hiking again was the first time my neck felt slightly better, and it’s gradually improved since then.

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We have missed the front half of our group a ton, but it turns out that Tank, J-Rex and I make a pretty good team on our own too. We take our time during the day, which means we might stop and set up camp later than usual, but it’s worth it for the relaxed pace and the long afternoon breaks lounging in the sun. (The trail is still right on the state line, but I think lately we’ve hiked more in Tennessee than in North Carolina.)

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Because the weather was so clear, we set up our tents for a few nights, the first time since Franklin, and even went without the rainflies one night when the moon and stars were especially breathtaking. This won’t be much of a surprise, but I’m finding that I sleep so much more comfortably in my tent than I do in the shelters.

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Friday we crossed a long, exposed ridgeline called Firescald Knob, a narrow trail with steep drops on both sides and incredible, expansive views in every direction. The climb down was rocky and difficult, the first time we had to put our poles away and climb backwards because a descent was so steep…maybe I am easily amused, but I really enjoyed that.

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On Palm Sunday we crossed the grassy and beautiful Big Bald, which reminded me of Max Patch from before Hot Springs, but the weather this time was so much more amenable to lounging in the grass and enjoying the sunshine.

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We pushed hard to get into Erwin before the weather turned bad. Tank and J-Rex were taking a full day off Tuesday, but I wanted to hike more to get ahead of them…I’m taking some time off for my sister Caroline’s visit, and the plan was for me to move ahead so our group would be together again when Caroline leaves.

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Here’s the problem: Starting Monday afternoon, the weather got really bad, really fast. After a Mexican dinner and a night at the hotel with the others, I was planning to hike out Tuesday morning in pouring rain that was forecast to turn into snow as the temperature dropped. And the shelters after Erwin are awkwardly placed, so I had no idea where I’d be camping that night…I just knew I’d be soaking wet and freezing cold.

I was absolutely miserable at breakfast, and Tank started encouraging me to think of a Plan B as we kept hearing about hikers coming out of the mountains to escape the weather. The couple at the next table overheard and told me about some folks who would shuttle me ahead so I could walk southbound and end the day back in town…at the hotel…with a hot shower and a bed. J-Rex said that was the most I’ve smiled in days.

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So Tom and Jaywalker drove me 12 miles ahead yesterday, and for one day I was a southbounder. The weather was as bad as promised, and I walked in crazy wind gusts, horizontal rain, sleet, snow and hail. The temperature set new record lows for the area this late in the year, dropping below 15 degrees where I would have been camping last night. Despite all that, my spirits were high because I knew I was ending back in town where I’d have a bed for the night (shared with Tank, of course). The change in plans since breakfast had me so happy that I actually enjoyed the terrible conditions…hiking in hail was an interesting new experience, and the moment the rain turned to snow right in front of my eyes was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen out here. I was soaked and shivering when I got back in town, but that’s manageable when there’s a hot shower waiting on the other side.

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The rest of our group, still a day ahead of us, ended up escaping the cold and getting a ride back into town too, so for one night the Caravan was reunited, and we all enjoyed a dinner feast together. That sudden change in fortune, a miserable morning leading to a memorable day and a perfect night, is an emerging theme for this trip. I could not have been more pleased with how the day turned out.

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Eventually I’ll stop being surprised by how quickly and drastically the weather improves, but I was shocked by how perfect today was. (All these snow pictures are from today, which is why the sky is blue…my hands were way too numb to take pictures when everything was wet yesterday.) Tom shuttled me back ahead to Beauty Spot Gap while Tank and J-Rex were starting 12 miles behind in Erwin, so I hiked alone all day…and it might have been my favorite day yet. There was still a blanket of fresh snow at high elevations, and the top of Unaka Mountain was covered in a dense forest of spruce trees, possibly the coolest thing I’ve walked through so far. The temperature has warmed steadily all day, and the skies are clear and sunny.

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I’m sitting at Iron Mountain Gap now, waiting for Caroline to come pick me up (I tend to walk faster when I’m alone, so I made good time and got here early). Since she’s wonderful and one of the world’s two greatest sisters, she rented a cabin for the next two nights, then after that she’ll get to hike with me for a couple days and stay in two landmark shelters–the highest shelter on the whole trail and a giant converted barn that everyone looks forward to staying in. That second one, Overmountain Shelter, is where I’m hoping Tank and J-Rex will catch up. It would be so much fun for me if Caroline gets to meet the people I have had such a blast hiking with lately.

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I imagine this might change at some point, and I’ve heard sections of the trail can become monotonous, but so far every day out here has felt like something new. This is the most difficult and exciting thing I’ve ever done, and when I wake up in the morning, despite my guidebook and all my plans, I have no idea what the day will bring. Each section has carried its own surprises, both good and bad, and I hope that feeling continues as long as I am out here.

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As always, thanks for reading.

 

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