The day we left Hiawassee, GA was the day Jake and I crossed the Georgia/North Carolina border. Georgia, however, did not give us up easily. The Trail went up and up at an astonishing rate but the weather was clear and warm so we made fantastic timing, despite the terrain. After about nine miles of hiking, the two of us found ourselves standing by a lonely oak tree with an old weathered sign nailed to it simply say “NC/GA.” The two of us took a short break and snapped a few photos and kept going.
There was no easy welcome in to North Carolina either and we gained so much elevation in just a few miles that we went from hiking in t-shirts and shorts to near full cold weather gear. We quickly found ourselves on an exposed ridge being brutally cut into by a biting crosswind. We finished the day though and found ourselves making camp by a shelter at 4,580 feet.
We awoke to a frozen morning and the air was so cold that my teeth would begin to ache if I breathed through my mouth too long. We packed up our camp as fast as we could and hit the Trail quickly in order to warm up. That second day in North Carolina has probably been my favorite of the thru-hike thus far. Jake and I hiked over Standing Indian mountain, where we gained and then lost 1,200 feet of elevation in only a few miles. As the day went along, it warmed up quite a bit and we decided to make our camp in a place called Betty Creek Gap. The campsite was in a low, sheltered spot with a trickling, half-frozen stream about twenty feet from our tents.
Jake seemed to be feeling somewhat sick that evening as we climbed in to our separate tents for the night, battling to stay warm. When we woke up the next morning though, he had a fever and his right knee was hurting him so bad that he almost couldn’t walk. We had to get to Franklin, NC but due to the remoteness and inaccessibility of where we were, we planned on hiking 12.2 miles to Winding Stair Gap where we could hopefully hitch a ride in to town. Our first climb, up Albert Mountain, came quickly and we probably gained 600 feet of elevation in a half mile. I was nervous Jake would not be able to make it in his condition due to the drastic straight upwardness of the terrain but we took our time and eventually made it to the top. On the summit, there was and old fire tower that stood high above an exposed cliff and we climbed the thirty or forty feet up it and tried to get in but it was locked. The view for those tower stairs atop Albert Mountain has been the best of the trip so far.
Up there on the top of the mountain, I started making phone calls to the local motels and they all had open rooms but now way to get us off the Trail. For the next few hours, we had no idea what we were going to do but our best bet was to keep going and we did until, about an hour later, we came upon a Tupperware bin on the side of the A.T. with a nice note and telling us to eat up. When we opened it, we found it filled with dozens of little Ziploc bags with brownies in them. It was a high point of the trip thus far.
As the day progressed, Jake began to worse and his leg was hurting him even more. We found ourselves covering barely 1.5 miles per hour and we knew it would be dark, and much colder, by the time we would be able to attempt to hitchhike in to town. Earlier, however, one of the motels gave us a list of volunteers from the Nantahala Outdoor Club who maintained the A.T. and sometimes would drive hikers to where they needed to go. I searched and searched until I got my one bar of service and the first number I dialed, a man picked up the phone. I told him who I was and he introduced himself as Ron. After I told him our situation, he told us to stop at the next road crossing (a rare thing in the North Carolina mountains) and that he would come and pick us up, saving us three miles of walking and possibly being stuck out in the cold. Within twenty minutes he was there and he cranked up the heat as we climbed in to his minivan and off we went. He was an extremely nice, older man, as well as a fellow Virginian (Richmond) who explained to us that, since he retired from 35 years working for the railroad, he had dedicated his life to maintaining the Trail and helping those who hiked it. We were endlessly grateful for his aid and when we offered to pay him, he would only take a dollar or two to cover gas. He most certainly saved us a lot that day.
We got a room at the Haven’s Budget Inn for only $35 for two of us and we went inside and took showers and rested for a while before going out to find food and medicine. After Jake got all situated and was resting, I decided to walk around Franklin, NC by myself as the sun was fading. As I went down Palmer St. I decided to call my mom and I kept walking and talking until I found a bunch of thru-hikers standing in a line with a sign that said “Free Dinner 6pm.” Well, I didn’t think much of it and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity and got into the back of the line. Standing there talking on my iPhone in my fluorescent orange, down Patagonia jacket I realized that I was in line at the Salvation Army and that these were not thru-hikers, rather the local homeless. Feeling like an idiot, and a little uneasy, I took two or three steps backwards before turning around and making my get-a-way. As I kept heading down this road, I decided to go into the only grocery store within walking distance of our motel; La Mexicanita Grocer. I opened the door and, sitting at a table, were four Hispanic men playing dice and three women speaking to one another in Spanish. When the little bell on the door rang, they all turned and stared at me and the women went silent. All seven of them just sat there and watched me as I moseyed around the store, trying to see what they had. I quickly realized there was nothing there that I needed and the little group of dice players, as well as the women next to them, stared me down until the door shut behind me as I left.
I got back to the motel room and I was laying around the bedroom and talking on the phone when I put my fingers through my hair and found it to be sticky and twisted together. I had somehow managed to get a piece of gum from somewhere in the motel room stuck in my hair. Another great part of the motel room was when I opened the cabinet underneath the television set only to have five or six roaches come skirting out in all directions. I guess that’s what $35 a night gets you.
So now we are sitting around the motel room, taking our first zero-mile day of the thru-hike (and hopefully our last for a long while). Getting Jake out of the cold and into a bed has really brightened him up and we found him a knee brace at the local drug store. We talked about it and we hope to be hitting the Trail again early tomorrow, hopefully catching a “complimentary shuttle” offered by the motel up to the trailhead. We have 30.6 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, 57.9 miles to Fontana Dam, NC, and 100.1 miles to Gatlinburg, TN. Now that we are starting to gain our “trail-legs,” we hope to begin cranking out 20 or so mile days each day once Jake gets better. More news to come.