At about 3:05 am, I was awoken by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. The rain was coming down in droves and the wind was blowing hard. My tent wasn’t leaking, but because the air was so filled with moisture, a ton of condensation had formed inside. The top of my down sleeping bag was wet from where it had touched the tent wall. My backpack had suffered a similar fate. My boots happened to be leaning against the tent wall the whole night. By morning, there was about a half an inch of water in them. To make matters worse, the temperature was plummeting. Fortunately, as long as I stayed inside of my sleeping bag and on top of my pad, I was able to stay mostly dry and warm.
As morning approached, I called out to Wayne to see if he was awake. He had enough of a signal on his phone that he was able to check the forecast for a nearby town. Supposedly, the rain would be moving out at eight, to be replaced by sunshine and blue skies. Eight came and went but the rains remained. Then half past eight, then nine, but still no sign of the sun. Many of the other hikers had braved the weather and had already packed their gear and headed up the trail. Eventually, Wayne and I had no choice but to do the same thing. The freezing rain and cold made my hands feel numb, which naturally made the task of breaking camp much harder. Finally, right at ten o’clock, Wayne and I began to hike. Of course the rain waited till just then before it stopped. Someone up there has quite the sense of humor.
I had parked my car at Sam’s Gap the day before and had hiked south to Hogback Ridge Shelter to meet up with Wayne. Now, we were heading north, back towards my vehicle. I was cold, my backpack was heavy-laden with rain-soaked gear, and my toes were freezing from being stuffed inside wet boots. I have to admit that I was more than a bit tempted to bail once we reached the gap.
Instead of bailing, Wayne and I climbed into my car and drove about three miles to the Little Creek Cafe. It’s rather nondescript looking from the outside, but inside, it’s quaint and cozy. More importantly, it was nice and warm. The food was also pretty darn good. Wayne had the Special, which consisted of chicken casserole, two sides, a dessert, and sweet tea. I had a chili dog and home fries.
While we ate, we discussed our alternatives. Originally, I was supposed to hike with Wayne to Iron Mountain Gap, about 47 miles away. That was going to require us to do back-to back-to-back sixteen mile days. In this terrain, that would have been a challenge under the best of circumstances. Now, with the late start and with a pack full of wet gear that probably weighed six to eight pounds more than when it was dry, it seemed like it was simply too much. We looked over our maps and came up with a plan B. Instead of Iron Mountain, I would hike with Wayne to Indian Grave Gap, about 37 or 38 miles further. This would allow us to reduce our daily mileage and not push quite as hard.
When we finished eating, we drove back to Sam’s Gap, parked my car, then commenced to hike. The town of Erwin, Tennessee was twenty-seven miles away. Today, we intended to hike about half that, or roughly 13.5 miles. There is a hostel in Erwin that is well known to most anyone that does much hiking or backpacking here in the southeast. The name of the hostel is Uncle Johnny’s. It’s situated on the Nolichucky river and has bunks, cabins, and a small outfitter store. The Appalachian Trail passes right by it. With any luck, there would still be bunks available the next day when we expected to arrive.
Sam’s Gap is at an elevation of 3,760 feet. Our hike today began with an immediate climb, gaining about 700 feet in a little less than a mile. That was followed by a descent, where we lost more than half of our hard-earned elevation gain. The Appalachian Trail is chartered to follow the high ridge, so it’s common for it to go up and over a knob, hill, or mountain, then drop down to a gap, only to do it all over again.
The climbs aren’t without their reward though. When you get to a place with a beautiful view, like a grassy field, a rocky outcrop, or an expansive bald, it makes it all more than worth the effort. Today was no exception. About half way into our hike and after an extended climb of fifteen-hundred feet, Wayne and I emerged from the woods onto the grassy expanse at the summit of Big Bald Mountain.
The views were simply spectacular in every direction. I felt privileged to be there. While a lot of people hike, it occured to me that we were still in the minority of people that would ever get to enjoy these views in person.
After spending a few minutes taking pictures, we resumed hiking. We were heading towards a camping area at Whistling Gap. Along the way, we passed the junction for Bald Mountain Shelter. The shelter is not more than about a tenth of a mile or so off the trail. Through the trees, I could see that there were people already at the shelter. I heard the sound of snapping branches and guessed that they were preparing to build a fire.
While there were still a couple of good climbs between us and Whistling Gap, it mostly trended downhill the rest of the way. It was 6:45 pm when we finally arrived. We were losing daylight and our tents and groundsheets were still wet. The whole day had been very windy, so we took advantage of that fact and draped our gear over logs and branches to give things a chance to air dry. It worked pretty well and we were soon able to get our camp set up for the night.
In addition to the strong wind, it was cold. The temperature was supposed to drop down to about 27 degrees by morning. After cooking dinner and hanging our food, I went into my tent and climbed into my sleeping bag. Wayne’s tent was set up next to mine so we chatted back and forth for a few minutes. I was pretty drowsy though, so it wasn’t long before I rolled over and dozed off.
This day had provided quite the initiation and insight into Wayne’s world as a thru-hiker. You have to be mentally and physically tough to long endure all that nature will throw your way.
As for the stats, according to my Garmin gps, we had hiked a total of 14.5 miles, climbed nearly 3,800 feet and had descended over 4,200 feet. Thanks for reading.