March 30. Woke up in the Grand Prix hotel in Gatlinbrug for the third morning in a row. At least today we should be heading back to the trail! We started with doughnuts and coffee at the hotel and then headed down to the national park road with a group of 3 girl hikers, all 5 of us looking to hitch a ride. About 4 minutes into the process a young guy had pulled over and naturally offered the three young ladies a ride to the trail. The two guys with beards, us, were left sitting on the curb with our thumbs in the air. We tried to hitch a ride for the next half hour without any success until a big SUV pulled over with two guys and they said "we decided you guys don't look too dangerous!". We put our stuff in the back and set our packs on top of theirs. They turned out to be hikers themselves and were heading up the mountain to camp for a couple days. We enjoyed the ride up the mountain with Patrick and Steve and we talked about gear and the hikes they've done in the area. They said there are some 900 miles of trails in the Smokey Mountains and it is their goal to hike them all! We got dropped off at the trail and headed out, glad to be hiking again.
While we were in Gatlinburg we constantly saw cars with license plates from Indiana and Ryan kept joking that he would probably run into someone from home with so many Hoosiers around. About a mile into the trail we passed a group and I saw someone with a Purdue hat and thought, more Indiana people. Then I saw that one person had a South Adams Starfires shirt on, people from Berne! I stopped and talked and it ended up being a family from Berne and Kent works literally next door to my mom! We got some pictures and Kent said he would email them to my mom to show her they met up with me and that I am alive and well. Small world!
I hiked on ahead of Ryan today so he could rest his injury and so I could make it to meet my cousin Justin by Sunday morning. After lunch I hiked 12 miles in 4 hours in the pouring rain. When I got to the shelter for the night I hung my clothes out to dry, ate dinner quickly, and got into my sleeping bag to warm up. Being in the chilly rain for a few hours really froze my fingers and when I set up my spot in the shelter for the night they were so cold that I had a hard time opening bags, unclipping things, and I almost couldn't squeeze my toothpaste out of the tube! Needless to say, my thermals and 15 degree down bag felt great! We started hiking today at 11 AM and I was able to put down a good 16 miles in the rain, not a bad day!
March 31. Rain. It poured all night last night, hard! I was happy to be in a shelter for sure, although the guide book says that it is the most remote shelter in the national park, and it wet weather it can be a "very soggy place". Great! I stayed dry but the shelter and upper sleeping level did seem to have a slight lean to the far back corner. I picked the high end to sleep on which worked great until the middle of the night when I had worked my way over to elbowing the guy next to me. He said about an hour later he elbowed the girl next to him. We figured it would be like a domino effect and by the morning we would all have worked our way down to the low end of the sleeping platform leaving the other side bare of everything except our hiking boots set out below. It was also an interesting night of sleep because at one point I opened the valve on my sleeping pad to let some air out and I must not have closed it properly. About an hour later I woke up with no pad, just me sleeping on the hard floor. I didn't refill my pad and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning on the wood planks.
Headed out down the trial, time to get out of the Smokey Mountains! The rain had stopped but the hills where saturated with water and all of it seemed to be pouring out onto the trail and pooling up in big mud bogs right where I needed to step. It was a pretty muddy day to say the least. Heading downhill made for a quick pace and I quickly hiked 17 miles in 7 hours. I hit our target campsite at 3 PM and found Brian's tent already set up. We camped next to a couple of other thru-hikers and had a fun evening.
April 1. At 9 AM on the dot we made it to the highway to meet up with my cousin Justin from Indiana. We stopped by the hiker hostel to get our food resupply and headed up the trail. And it was UP...something like 3,000 feet in the first 6 miles. That was a good climb for me and I've been on the trail a few weeks, a pretty tough climb for Justin's first day. Somewhere around mile 11 we hit some trail magic...free cans of Coke and a nice place to rest. It was at this point that I remembered that our first day out on the trail Brian, Ryan, and I only hiked 8 miles and were dead tired. For Justin's first day we were already at 11 miles! We hiked on about another mile and set up camp on the flattest surface we could find. Ironically, just next to our campsite was one of the North Carolina Bear Sanctuary signs, back into bear country! We had our dinner, Justin gave me one of his cooked backpacker dinners, either because he was being nice or because he wanted to get rid of as much weight as possible! It was really good, and a tasty change from my cold mashed potatoes and beef jerky. We were all tired, but Justin was drop dead exhausted, either that or he wanted to kill me, but I couldn't tell. We all went to sleep and sometime later in the night the winds rolled in like a freight train. All night I wondered if the trees above me would fall over or if they'd stay standing. My tent blew around in the wind, Justin's tent only had two stakes in the front so his 3 person tent blew over and became more of a one man tent. Luckily it was all just wind and no rain!
April 2. Woke up with dry tents today, probably because we were about to be blown off the side of the mountain. Justin didn't feel too bad after his first day so we kept on climbing the mountain we had camped on. Today's trail started a little more level but later in the day we climbed Bluff Mountain. This mountain got its name because it bluffs...you climb and climb and climb only to get to what you think is the top but when you get there you see that there is more climbing. This happens a couple times and by the time we got to the top we were beat. We headed down the other side and set up camp about half way down in an old road bed. After this 14 mile day we were all tired, especially Justin. Another tough day, really hard for his second day on the trail. We sat down for dinner and Ryan made a camp fire and surprised us with a six pack of craft beer that his friends had given him yesterday and that he hauled up the mountain in his backpack! He was happy to reduce the weight and we were more than happy to help him!
April 3. Today was mostly downhill into Hot Springs. Mostly. Justin will probably be the first to tell you that it is never just up or down on the tail, always rolling and always tough. It didn't help that this was one of the hottest days we had so far and the thermometer on my backpack was reading well into the 90's in the direct sun. We were all looking forward to getting into town. We made our final descent and hit the sidewalk around 2 in the afternoon. Hot Springs is unique in that the AT actually goes through down town and is marked by AT symbols in the sidewalk. First thing into town we got a beer and then headed to the outfitter to pick up our resupply boxes. And boxes we had! After the girl ran through the whole package log Brian had 3, Ryan had 4, and I had 2...that's a lot of treats! Brian got some caramels and cake, Ryan had goodie boxes of candy and more, and my mom's coworker Jill and her mom sent us cookies, twinkies, and ho-ho's! We had a whole convenient store with us! We had a great meal at the local restaurant, chicken fried steak was amazing! We went to the coin laundry and cleaned our clothes. Justin was picked up by an AT taxi driver to take him back to his car. Justin said he had a good 3 days hiking with us but he was happy to get off the trail and avoid the next big climb out of Hot Springs. He probaly thinks we are a little crazy for hiking the AT, but at least he doesn't hate us for putting him through the three day climb! After cleaning our clothes it started pouring rain so we decided to spend the night in town and we got a room right above the tavern where the rest of the hiking crew was already enjoying the evening. We spent the rest of the night there with some drinks, sharing good trail stories, and sharing our boxes of trail magic goodies and snacks with a very appreciative crowd of hungry hikers! Out of Hot Springs tomorrow and on to Erwin!