Blog, Days 13-17 (Franklin to Fontana)
AT Miles: 11
Winding Stair Gap > Wayah Bald Shelter
We really enjoyed our zero in Franklin, NC. Our bodies desperately needed rest, and our souls needed nourishment, too. We spent the evening we got into town as well as the evening of our zero with friends at the Lazy Hiker. The first night we spent time with Tasmen, and the second night we hung out with Tasmen and Felicia (Franklin locals who are friends of Hero’s) as well as a lot of our tramily that we hadn’t seen in a few days (Einstein, Oak, Honey Badger, Toodles, Wicked, and Batman). BAM! gave Holly her name that night (Wicked). He had been thinking about it since the last time we were all together at Blood Mountain Cabins, and presented the idea to her at LH. She seemed to really like it, accepting the name almost immediately.
The tramily all planned to take a full zero, and as tempting as it was to take another zero to stay with them, we felt the need to get back to the trail. We were feeling well rested, had our new shoes with better arch support, and trimmed down on our food weight. Feeling more confident with our revised plan to dial down the mileage and take things a little slower, we caught a ride to Winding Stair Gap via Macon County Transit.
It was raining lightly when the transit bus rolled up to the hostel. We went ahead and threw on our rain gear, knowing the precipitation was only going to intensify as the day progressed. The driver couldn’t make change, but was kind enough to drive us to a coffee shop so we could buy coffees and get change back- after that was done, we were on our way to Winding Stair. We got back to the gap and ran into Chris and Cu while we were finishing our coffee- we always seem to meet them in parking lots, haha! They were planning on hiking to the same shelter as us today, but were moving a little slower and offered to let us get out ahead.
We left the parking lot and were welcomed back on the trail by a beautiful little waterfall. It was nice to be back in the woods, even in the rain. The day was challenging with lots of mud. We found ourselves sliding around a lot and had to go slower so we wouldn’t fall. The temperature seemed to cool down significantly as we went up Siler and then Wayah Bald. We tried not to stop too long or too often because we needed to keep producing body heat and avoid getting cold too quickly.
In the end, we got completely soaked through with no reprieve in the downpour (except for while on top of Wayah Bald, which was completely shrouded in a dense fog). Today was definitely one of the harder days, what with how constant the rain was. There were some moments early on in which Hero was focused on and able to reframe her thinking about the rain and even enjoy it a bit- the soothing sound of the soft pitter patter on the hood of her raincoat, reminiscing about how fun it was as a child to pull on rain boots and go splashing around in puddles. This worked until about the time that the water soaked through her rain gear and the layers beneath, all but draining the warmth out of her as every inch of her body was no longer dry but covered in a layer of cold, dampness. As she trudged along through the thick, slippery mud which coated the trail, she prayed that the waterproofing on her pack was holding up, that everything inside remained dry.
After 11 miles of sloppy trail and a nearly constant downpour, we made it to our home for the night. We camped next to the Wayah Bald Shelter, where there were quite a few other people staying for the night: three friends (Paul, Andrew, Kyle) on a weekend trip, Chris and Cu, Nick (Leto), and Fifteen. We were the first ones to reach camp, so we took advantage of having the empty shelter to ourselves. We started by peeling off our soaked through top layers and replacing them with warm dry layers. Mercifully, the waterproofing on our packs (mostly) held up. BAM! had to help Hero get things out of her pack because her fingers had become so cold during the hike- she had virtually no dexterity with which to unclip the clasps on her pack! After warming up our core and getting some blood flowing to our hands and feet by shaking out our limbs and dancing around, we went about erecting our tent in the dry refuge of the shelter. This genius idea is courtesy of our friend Einstein- the idea to set up tents under the cover of a shelter when it’s raining is actually how he earned the name Einstein! After getting the tent set up, rainfly and all, we carried it to the nearest tent pad and staked it down (thank goodness for our free standing tent, which made it possible for us to use Einstein’s trick). We went back to the cover of the shelter and got ready to cook an early dinner so that we could be out of peoples way as they started to roll in for the evening.
The three friends showed up as we were getting ready to start dinner. We all hung out under the shelter out of the rain, but were able to maintain space. It was fun talking with them- close friends who had known each other forever but now lived in different parts of the country and were trying to find a way to safely see each other during the pandemic. They figured a weekend of backpacking and being outside would be a great and safe way (COVID-wise) to see each other after not being able to for more than a year. We wish they’d gotten a less rainy start to their weekend reunion adventure!
Eventually, Leto showed up, and we realized that we had met each other our first day as we were getting ready to begin the Approach Trail at Amicalola. It was cool to see him again this far down trail! Sometime later, Chris and Cu showed up, with Fifteen close behind. By the time Fifteen rolled in, we were ready to go back to our tent and get out of our soaking bottom layers.
We’re in our tent right now and it’s still raining. Hero’s doing everything in her power to quell her bladder for as long as possible until she absolutely HAS to go out for her last pre-bedtime pee. She figures if she waits until it gets dark out, she can stay closer to the tent rather than frantically stumble around to try and find a tree up the hill to hide behind for privacy (which would equate to more time outside getting more soaked- no thanks!). Neither of us are trying to get more damp than we already are.
We’ve actually been quite productive with our forced tent time, looking ahead at the days to come and forecasting our mileage and thinking through logistics. As the light outside of the tent is beginning to fade, we can feel the approach of hiker midnight, and are preparing now to try and catch some Z’s.
AT Miles: 10.6
Wayah Bald Shelter > Wesser Bald Shelter
We slept in a bit this morning. We were waiting for the rain to stop and knew we weren’t trying to go crazy making miles, so there was no need to rush. We were awake just listening to the wind intensify around us for a while. The rain had pounded on our tent most of the night, and there were moments we thought we might get lifted into the air Wizard of Oz style the wind was blowing so hard. Later, we realized that we were both just waiting for a tree to crash through our tent- the gigantic one just outside our synthetic, domed habitat had been creaking and swaying threateningly whenever a significant gust blew through. Thankfully, it didn’t and we rolled out of bed in a not tree flattened state and started packing up. It had stopped raining, but some water was still falling from the trees whenever the wind picked up. Needless to say, we were grateful for the drier morning.
We were slow to get out of camp, in part because everything was so wet and every fiber of our beings resisted putting cold, damp shirts back on! But we were also slow to leave camp because of the great company of the folks who’d weathered the storm with us at Wayah Bald Shelter the night before. In such a short time, we’d grown fond of the new friends we made, and we all had a great time eating breakfast and talking about how grateful we were that we made it through the night. Each and every one of us hoped that the sun would make a guest appearance today.
We finally started hiking around 10 am. The rain seemed to try to make a comeback a couple of times, but then the clouds started to lift and the air warmed up to a very pleasant hiking temperature. The sun tried to peak through a few times, but the clouds remained prominent. Overall, we got better views today than the day before, and just in general had a great time walking the 10ish miles to Wesser Bald Shelter. The observation tower on top of Wesser offered impressive 360 views- we spent a chunk of time there before making our way down to the shelter area.
In the evening, we had a great time hanging out with folks. We met Thru Hiker Cryptic and cooked and ate dinner with him and Leto. Then Paul made a little fire and we had some good conversations with him (he’d been dubbed Hot Chocolate because the hot chocolate he was cooking with his pocket rocket the night before bubbled over and burned such that now everything he cooked tasted like hot chocolate), Kyle (dubbed Sporkless, because he didn’t bring a utensil to eat with and tried to make do with a few makeshift backcountry “chopsticks”), Andrew (managed to avoid a funny trail name by not committing any faux pas), and Betty White, a Thru Hiker we met today, too! Lots of great laughs and conversation- such a fun way to wrap up a great day!
Meeting folks like the people we’ve met the past few days is one of the things we love most about this trail. The community that is brought together by the AT…there’s just nothing like it!
AT Miles: 12.8
Wesser Bald Shelter > Sassafras Gap Shelter
Had such a great day today! We started it off in camp with our new friends, and then worked our way down to the Nantahala Gorge nearly 3,000 feet and 5.9 miles below us. The views going down were stunning- definitely one of our favorite sections of the AT thus far. It was hard not to stop every few minutes for a photo it was just that awesome! Hero snapped a great one of BAM! looking off into the distance from a spot called “the Jump-off.” As we traversed the ridge line, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were on a quest of sorts, journeying through Middle Earth or Skyrim.
After about 3 hours of hiking, we sauntered into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) campus- about 11:30 am. Not only were our new friends there, but so were a bunch of other AT Thru Hikers- people we’d met before along the trail as well as people we had heard about who we knew were just slightly ahead of us. It was fun to chat with folks, laugh and commiserate. As we were getting caught up, Toodles showed up! He was flying solo because Wicked stayed in Franklin while her dad was coming down to pick up Maverick. Poor pupper just wasn’t adjusting to Trail life, so Wicked decided to have him go home. Can’t begin to imagine how hard of a decision that must have been for her. We really hope despite the time that she’ll be off trail that Wicked will be able to catch back up with the tramily!
We discovered while we were at NOC that the River’s End restaurant had some absolutely awesome vegan food. We each got a jackfruit bbq sandwich with fries and shared an appetizer of buffalo cauliflower bites (YUM!!!!). We were so hungry and so excited to be eating such delicious food! We got super stuffed, though, and tried to give ourselves a little bit of time before starting our climb back up out of the Gorge to Sassafras Gap Shelter.
We left NOC a little after 1 pm, a bit sad to be leaving behind some of the thru hikers who were taking a Nero/Zero there, but excited to keep pressing on. It took us about 3 and 3/4 hours to hike the 6.9 miles to Sassafras Gap. The elevation gain up to Swim Bald was crazy, and there were moments that we couldn’t do anything but just stare at our feet as we shuffled up that crazy mountain- looking up would have meant having to acknowledge what was still left to climb. Plus, our delicious food from NOC was still digesting, and as tasty as it was it wasn’t aiding our ascent.
Eventually, we made it to the shelter. The Family and a Thru Hiker named Gangster were already there, as was another Thru Hiker named Lost Bells. As we were setting up our tent, Toodles showed up, and a little later on during dinner two younger guys who were hammocking rolled in. We caught up for a bit with the Family and Toodles, and got to know Gangster a bit.
Now we’re back in the tent, settling in for the night and mentally bracing ourselves for the fact that it’s going to start raining early in the morning and last through at least the early afternoon. We’ve been joking that our tent fly dried out after getting rained on last night just in time for it to get soaked again when the rain gets started early in the morning! Ha! You can’t beat it, we’re tellin’ ya!
Side Note: Thank you shout-out goes to Andrew from Hero for the ear plugs- they are insanely effective! Thank you thank you thank you!
AT Miles 12.2
Sassafras Gap Shelter > Cody Gap
I (Hero) can’t remember when exactly the rain started last night, but I do remember the feeling of dread that overcame me as it began to mercilessly pelt our rainfly. Meanwhile, the wind rattled the walls of our tent and there were moments I seriously worried the rainfly would get ripped clear off, exposing us to the elements. BAM!, of course, in his reassuring way, insisted that we were fine.
Tearing down the soaking wet and cold tent certainly wasn’t my favorite part of the day. Luckily, the continued precipitation only helped to motivate me to pack it up faster! Despite the speedy tent breakdown, we were a little slow getting out of camp this morning. We were almost the last ones to leave camp, except that Lil and her mom had come in late and had slept in. They kind of scared us last night as they were shining their headlamps around looking for a tent spot, the light creating a strobing effect within our tent. We had spent some time sitting up rigid and tense trying to figure out who was outside our tent and if they were friendly or not.
One of our favorite moments from today was from early on. The view on top of Cheoah Bald, where the clouds started lifting as we emerged out of the rhododendron thickets onto the bald, was absolutely beautiful.
We’d describe the section of trail we hiked today as being reminiscent of a rollercoaster, but not one you get to sit back and enjoy so much as work your butt off for. Jacob’s Ladder on the other side of Stecoah Gap was a TOUGH climb. We climbed (aka shuffled very slowly) up Jacob’s Ladder to Cheoah Mountain (Cheoah Bald’s sister peak), but it was a white out so we just continued on. Shortly after we passed Brown Fork Gap Shelter, Gangster snuck up behind us saying “sorry, not trying to scare you but…” He did scare us a bit as we were zoned in on the trail. But then we all hiked and talked for the next 2+ miles to Cody Gap and it was really nice.
Toodles was waiting for us there and already had his tent up. He heard us talking as we descended into the gap, so he positioned himself in the middle of the trail, arms crossed against his chest with a fake serious expression across his face, soliciting chuckles from all of us! We chatted and set up camp. Cryptic strolled in not long after and we all enjoyed a nice evening together. It started to get cold after dinner so we all retreated to our sleeping bags well before Hiker Midnight. Tomorrow, we’re off to Fontana Dam, and the next day the Smokies!
AT Miles: 9.9
Cody Gap > Fontana Dam Shelter
We woke up around 5:45am and ate a cold breakfast with no hot drinks this morning. We had scheduled to meet our friend, Vance, at noon for a ride to the post office, so we needed to get going and knock out the 8 or so miles ahead of us. We watched sunrise with Toodles and Cryptic, with Gangster making an appearance towards the end. Gangster’s tent was actually right in the sight line for the rising sun, so he got out of his tent a little shocked by the fact that all of our faces were turned in his direction. A smile stretched across his face, giving us all a good laugh.
We were the first ones out of camp (which was new for us). But don’t worry- Toodles caught up pretty quick and passed us, haha! Shortly after, we had to Brown Blaze into Cable Gap Shelter (brown blazing is when you run into a shelter with the sole purpose of using the privy). We were quick and got right back on trail because we really wanted to be on time to meet Vance.
At one point as we were talking, we heard a voice from further down trail: “BAM! Hero!” and a moment later we were face-to-face with Vance, who’d arrived early and decided to climb up the trail to meet us- he must have been cruisin’! It was so great to see him and we were so grateful for his support! We chatted all the way back to his truck about MANNA, life on the trail, etc…
We got to the parking lot and Toodles was waiting for us. We did quick introductions, put on masks, threw our dirty stinky packs in the bed of Vance’s truck, and made our way to the post office and laundromat. Vance hung around while we washed clothes and sorted our food. His help made our day so much easier! He also brought us a super yummy treat from his wife, Ginny- two big bags of homemade (out of this world delicious!) vegan granola!!! Thank you so much, Ginny!!! Toodles found some vegan-friendly Ramen in the hiker box at the post office- what a find! We had a serious hiker trash moment as we sprawled out our stuff and sorted through our new ration in the parking lot of the post office. We were somewhat grateful in that moment that the little village of Fontana was such a ghost town!
Vance drove us back to the trail head and we all said farewell. We went with Toodles down to the marina to get fuel and see if they had any vegan snacks (slim pickins for sure). Then we hiked the 1.2 miles to the Fontana Shelter. It was a luxurious shelter (hence the nickname “Fontana Hilton”) and even had showers a short walk up the trail! As a bonus, the clouds had parted and we were able to dry everything out while we basked in the warmth of the sun. Despite the spaciousness and air flow of the shelter, we still decided to set up our tent. But we stayed close to the shelter so we could be near our tramily.
As we were enjoying the sunshine and thinking that the day simply couldn’t get better, Hero looked up at the trail and saw a familiar face walking our way. Her jaw dropped and she exclaimed “Is that who I think it is?!?!?!” Indeed, it was Fresh Ground!!! We couldn’t believe it- he had found us again, and right before we were all about to begin our journey into the Smokies.
That evening, Fresh Ground cooked up a delicious spaghetti dinner and we all hung out in the parking lot eating and chatting and enjoying every last minute of the sun’s warmth before it vanished behind the treetops. It was so insanely wonderful! Before heading back to camp, we signed the inside of FG’s van, which is covered with the trail names of hikers he has helped over the past eight years. We then took showers and went to bed knowing we had a big day ahead of us going into the Smokies.
Hero and BAM!