AT Miles: 15.2 (approx.)
Though the rest was very much needed after our first few days on the trail, it was time for us to move on from Neel Gap. We had one more Fresh Ground breakfast and then hit the trail by 8 am.
It felt REALLY AWESOME to be back on trail. We were feeling really strong and eager to make some miles. It was foggy, cold, and windy, so we kept a brisk pace while simultaneously enjoying the “Glass Blown” Forest that surrounded us, a slightly different variation of the Crystal Forest from a few days back. We marveled at how every time we hiked on the west side of the ridge, the forest was covered in this wind blown ice. But then as we walked along the east side, the wind all but disappeared, the temperature warmed, and there was no ice on the trees. With such dramatic differences on either side of the ridge, it felt as though we were weaving back and forth between two different worlds.
It was only 1 pm and the sun was just starting to peak out when we got to the first of the camping options we had looked at, Low Gap Shelter. With a spring in our step, we continued down trail, telling ourselves we’d stop at Poplar Stamp Gap (option number two) just a few miles down the trail. We didn’t wind up seeing Poplar Stamp Gap. We assume we must have blown right passed it as we were pelted with ice chunks being blown off the trees by the wind that was whipping across the ridgeline. It was a pretty humorous moment, and reminded us a bit of the trees in the Wizard of Oz that started throwing their apples at Dorothy and Scarecrow, though luckily the ice chunks weren’t quite as big as apples.
When we realized we must have passed the campsite, we continued on until we found a good spot just off the trail. As we were setting up, Ultra and then Sherpa passed by on their way to Blue Mountain Shelter, another 4+ miles away. Though part of us longed for the company of trail friends, we also enjoyed having an evening to ourselves.
AT Miles: 12 (approx.)
The trail was abuzz today with day hikers and weekend warriors, all of whom were taking advantage of the blue skies and (slightly) warmer temperature. We didn’t run into too many people initially, but the numbers really picked up once we reached Unicoi Gap, where we once again found our dear friend Fresh Ground set up.
Seeing us walk up, Fresh Ground ushered us over and began his signature rapid fire questions: “How about some coffee? There’s water and koolaid over there in the coolers. And snacks- don’t forget those! Now go on and getcha some hand sanitizer- no hand wash station today, it’s too cold, I won’t do that to you. How about some vegetable stir fry for my very special people?” We spent about an hour with Fresh Ground, soaking up the sun that graciously filled the parking area at Unicoi Gap. We even got to talkin’ to Smooth Sailin’, a former Thru Hiker and friend of Fresh Ground’s, one of the original crew who convinced Fresh Ground that he should make the Leapfrog Cafe Hiker Feed a permanent enterprise.
After a nice long break in the sun with good company, we braced ourselves for the next leg of the trail, which involved climbing two peaks back-to-back: Rocky Mountain and Tray Mountain. We were stuffed and sluggish after our heaping plates of vegetable stir fry, so we took it easy as we trudged up Rocky Mountain. We stopped to admire the view and socialized a bit with Trouble (a Thru Hiker who says he has pretty much lived nearly full time on the trail since 2016) and some weekend warriors out of Atlanta, but then continued on down into Indian Grave Gap and then up, up to the top of Tray Mountain. We really enjoyed the view up there on Tray, and so we took a nice leisurely 30 minute snack break, talking with a gentleman from Athens who joined us for a bit and kindly took a photo of us. (See photo at beginning of day 7)
On our way to the Tray Mountain Shelter where we’d be staying for the night, we ran into Ultra and Sherpa, who had hopped forward to Dick’s Creek Gap further north and were now SOBO slackpacking to Unicoi. We all got a picture together, along with the incredibly friendly dog who belonged to the guy who took our photo, and then we parted ways.
We got to the shelter and claimed a beautiful tent site with a spectacular view overlooking the valley- we were really quite pleased with ourselves for finding such a beautiful, serene spot. And then the weekend warriors started trickling in, and some other thru hikers, and then the Family. All of these people started trickling in towards dusk- by the time Hiker midnight hit, there were at least 25 people in the area surrounding Tray Mountain Shelter. It was the exact opposite of the peaceful night we’d had the night before, that’s for sure! While it was fun to socialize around the fire and catch up with the Family who’d just crushed out their first 15 mile day, we were wiped out and in need of some good sleep before the 11 miles that stood between us and Dick’s Creek Gap, where we’d jump off trail to head into the town of Hiawassee, Georgia for a resupply.
AT Miles: 11
We enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise as we packed up and ate a quick breakfast. We’re realizing that we like to do a cold breakfast with a hot drink in the morning, rather than a hot drink and a hot breakfast- it’s saves time and fuel to eat something that doesn’t require cooking. We were pretty psyched at our timing, that we’d managed to pack up, eat, and leave camp by 7:50 am. Not 30 minutes later, we had to jump off trail to frantically dig ourselves catholes and fill up on water. So much for efficiency, right?!
After our pit stop, we powered through the rest of the hike to Dick’s Creek. At one point we caught up to Sonar, whom we had met the night before at Tray, and the three of us finished out the last stretch to the gap together…
…where we were greeted by none other than (you guessed it!) FRESH GROUND!!! For our seventh meal with him, we had delicious tacos and sweet tea and snacks. As more hikers started to trickle in, we sat off to the side and waited for Smooth Sailin’, who we had seen out on the trail. He and his wife, Casual, offered to give us a ride into town in the back of their Tacoma, an offer we readily jumped on. Smooth and Casual dropped the three of us (Sonar hopped on board, too) off at the Holiday Inn Express in Hiawassee. It was a little pricier than we were hoping for, but we figured it would be nice to have a night that would allow us to relax and take a nice hot shower (great pressure! Oo la la!) and get some laundry done while we waited for the post office to open the next day. We made phone calls, worked out logistics for the next few days leading up to getting to Franklin, NC, and half watched Indiana Jones while trying to eat down what was left of our ration. While we thoroughly appreciated being spoiled by Fresh Ground so frequently, we did not eat nearly enough of our own food, haha!
AT Miles: 16.7
We woke up plenty early so that we could be at the post office the second they opened at 8:30 am. Because it was under my name, I (Keeka) went in to pick up the box. Before the postal worker handed it over to me, he set it on the scale, raised his eyebrow and said “Darlin’, you’re about to add about 19 more pounds to your pack with this.” Sheepishly, I mumbled that the weight would be split between two packs and hurried back outside with it. “19 pounds, Micah, 19 pounds!” It was entirely too much food for the four days we were expecting it to take us to get to Franklin, but we had a shuttle picking us up in less than 30 minutes which gave us no time to properly sort through it. Instead, we shoved it all in our packs with barely a glance.
Our shuttle driver, Grace, picked us and Sonar up and took us all back to Dick’s Creek Gap. It was starting to rain ever so slightly, but knowing that the forecast was calling for much more we went ahead and threw on our rain gear. Then, after mentally preparing ourselves for the soggy cold to come knowing that the clouds would part in the afternoon, we started our trek.
Between the pouring rain and cold and packs that were much heavier than we wanted, the day was a struggle. But Keeka was leading the pack with a positive attitude and a spring in her step. Sonar was brainstorming names for her like Mush or Iditarod because she was fast and a good leader but there was more to it than that… then he said “Hero”. Keeka didn’t say anything right away, but she pondered that name for a while. At first she was hesitant to accept it but then she realized that this was a name she wanted to grow into, to be her own hero. So now she is Hero!
Despite feeling sluggish and achey as we trudged through the last miles of Georgia, our spirits remained high. We all kept each other company and stayed focused on how excited we were to be crossing our first state border. For Micah and I, crossing into North Carolina felt extra special, as it holds for us the power and draw of home. The sign for the NC/GA border at Bly Gap is so unassuming that in my head-down-make-miles trance I might have walked right by. Luckily, the Jersey Boys (a group of three recent high school graduates from New Jersey) were taking a little siesta at the border, which helped draw my attention to the sign hunkered in the tree. I waited for Sonar and BAM! to catch up, and then we all three stepped into North Carolina together.
Grinning from ear-to-ear, we took pictures with the little sign in the tree. Then, filled with triumph and resolve, we continued to push on. The elevation gain just past Bly Gap was staggering, and the cold and wind and sleet did not translate to the warm North Carolina welcome we were hoping for. But we bared down and did our slow march up to the top. At one point, I got brought down by a Rhododendron tree whose branches were jutting out into the trail. I didn’t see it because my head was down to keep myself as dry as possible, but I sure took notice of it once it grabbed my legs and introduced me to the muddy ground. It was actually pretty funny, and I laughed, only slightly saddened by the fact that no one else was there with me to join in on the hilarity.
I caught up to BAM!, and as if on cue, the clouds started to roll away as we neared the top. At last we were treated to that spectacular North Carolina welcome we’d been longing for.
BAM! and I had been planning to stay at the shelter about 12 miles from where we started that morning. We got there and sensed that Sonar, whose on a tight deadline to finish the trail by the beginning of July, wanted to keep going. We said our see ya laters, but then BAM! discovered that the tent sites at the shelter were basically puddles. This plus our desire to stick with Sonar plus the sun being out led us to the conclusion that “Hey, we could do another 4.9 miles, yeah, let’s go!”
We only had about an hour of sunlight left when we rolled into Standing Indian Shelter, but we made it! After our highest mileage day so far (16.7 miles), we felt drained but accomplished, and ready to nom down on some delicious food. It was windy and cold, but we were having the time of our lives.
AT Miles: 16.2
Feeling well rested, strong, and excited after the miles we tackled the day before, we weren’t as hesitant to trying and knock out some similar mileage. We were motivated to keep up with Sonar, too, who was looking at another big day. It took BAM! and I a bit longer to get going in the morning, so we told Sonar to go on and we’d catch up. As it happened, we wouldn’t catch up to Sonar, because after a while our bodies really started to feel the mileage we’d done the day before. By the time we got to the shelter 16.3 miles away from where we started, Sonar wasn’t there. Apparently he felt strong and decided to push on to the next shelter 3.5 miles further north. Our bodies were so done by then- there was just no way we were going to be able to push another 3.5 miles that day.
Despite the fact that we were on our own and a bit achey for most of the hike, we had an absolutely gorgeous day on the trail. For the first time since we started our thru, we were able to hike most of the day in our tees! Even on the crazy ascent up Albert Mountain we had a blast, fueled by the exhilaration of approaching our 100th AT mile- how accomplished we felt!
AT Miles: 7.2
We awoke feeling a little worse for wear. The past few days of pushing 16+ miles back-to-back had definitely caught up to us. We could tell by the aching in our feet that we needed to pump the breaks a bit. Thank goodness Winding Stair Gap, our gateway to Franklin, NC, was less than 10 miles away.
We had a ride lined up with a friend’s mom, so we ate breakfast, packed up camp, and started down the trail. It was a beautiful, warm, sunshiney morning, and despite the fact that our feet were hurtin’ pretty good by this point, we were in good spirits knowing that civilization was oh so near.
After getting a ride into town, we got settled into a private room in a hostel and then moseyed into town. We hopped over to Outdoor 76 for a few items we needed, and also decided to check in with them about some of the aches and pains in our feet. And of course, we signed their AT Class of 2021 banner!
We also signed the AT banner at Lazy Hiker, where we met a friend for drinks in the evening. It felt great to go to a local brewery, sitting outside by the fire pit in the cool night air.
After talking with some folks at Outdoor 76 regarding the aches and pains we’ve been feeling in our feet, we decided to stay another day and night in Franklin. We realized that in our excitement at feeling strong and alive on the trail, we were pushing ourselves a bit too hard with the the back-to-back 16+ mile days. It seems obvious now, that “duh!” hindsight is 20/20 thing which makes you feel kinda silly for thinking you could push harder than you should. But we’re trying to be kind to ourselves and cut ourselves some slack- we got caught up in the thrill and exciting brand new-ness of being on trail. At least we’re correcting course early on.
The zero is also giving us time to catch up on all the Hiking for Hunger stuff that tends to build while we’re out on trail. Still figuring out that balance, and I expect we’ll continue to “figure it out” throughout the entirety of our journey. For all the planning you do, and all the things you say you WILL undoubtedly make time for, the trail truly teaches you to let go of all those preconceived notions. The expectations we bring out with us, we’re beginning to realize, are much like the excessive amounts of food in our rations, all the other things we’ve been carrying with us which, simply put, are unnecessary. We shed literal physical weight and mental heaviness with each step we take.
Thank you all so much for following along and supporting our journey.
Micah (BAM!) & Keeka (Hero)