The photos from this trek can be found at http://pictures.grauvogelfamily.com
Day 1 – Tuesday, October 9
Drove to Uncle Johnny’s (Shores) Nolichucky River Hostel in Erwin. Met Charlotte, his recent widow, and she gave us a cabin for the price of the bunkhouse as things were a bit slow mid-week. Ate dinner at the Checkerboard Cafe (not too great) and stopped at the grocery for some non-wheat tortillas to replace the ones I left at Anna’s in Avon. Retired for the night after extricating one of the cats from the top bunk in the cabin. The weather today was overcast and a bit sticky. Weather expected to be rainy the next couple of days as we are on the northern edge of Hurricane Michael. Lucky to make it this far in one piece with a near rear-ender on US-25E at Corbin. God’s grace was sufficient as advertised.
Day 2 – Wednesday, October 10
Showered this morning at 0700. As predicted awoke to a drizzly, gray morning. Drove to the Maple Grove Diner in Unicoi for breakfast and this place was special. Neither Mary Ann or I slept very well last night although it was comfortable enough with the A/C on. Drove up I-26 and US-19W to Spivey Gap and located the trail crossing without too much trouble. It didn’t look anything like i remembered from 2002. Bid farewell in a light rain at 0900 and headed west and upward on Bald Mountain. Met a foursome from Vermont (2 and 2) at High Rocks as I ascended. No vistas, just drizzle and gray. Trail at High Rocks a bit treacherous with the wetness but negotiated it well enough. Big Bald on Bald Mountain is the highest point on this segment at 5,516′. The uphill right out of the car was taxing and getting sprayed the whole time didn’t help. The Vermont foursome was a bit spread out and i had some words with the three in the lead – turned out they were experienced, with one through hiker in the group. I advised them on the recent the woman’s death in the Smokies from separation and exposure at Forney Ridge – she was experienced, too. I did report how far back the last gal was so that helped them.
Made it to the Bald Mountain shelter for lunch and cover from the rain. A through hiker with his trail name taken from the Song of Hiawatha – Mudjekeewis, the West-Wind, Hiawatha’s father – was there. The reunited Vermont 3 arrived a bit later (the trailing gal pulled by herself shortly thereafter) . The Vermont 4 had had enough for the day but I departed soon after Mudjekeewis with new legs back into the mist. Never saw anyone of them again. Hit the Big Stamp and crested the mountain at Big Bald. Found bird watching stations and live traps set up on Big Stamp. Visibility was low since I was walking in the clouds. Took a picture on Big Stamp and missed my pocket with the phone; I discovered it about 1/4 mile further on at Big Bald when I fortunately stopped for another picture. Retreated and found it right where I expected, face-down in the drizzle unscathed, and I turned around and pressed on. Got to the USGS monument and headed downhill. There was a parking lot and gravel road at this point (had crossed the two-track trace earlier) used by the local ski resort. As the trail guide had warned there was more than one route out. The correct one was marked by weathered posts that were a bit hard to see. Got the right one and headed downward. Trail down from Big Bald was very poor, rocky, sparsely blazed and hard to follow. Kept on route however. Never did find either end of the blue-blazed bad weather trail around Big Bald, unless it was the two-track road) and I also must have missed two blue blazed water sidetrails. Finally had to take water from a seep down from the trail at Low Gap. Found some flow and hollowed out a depression enough to get the Sawyer Squeeze bottle into it. This took awhile. On filtering it had a white foam on top. At the time i thought it might be a residual from my filter disinfecting at home, so I used all of this boiled only. It was in the end a little tannic acid leached from the leaves acting as a surfactant. Made it to my destination at Street Gap by 1800. the drizzle had stopped some time before I had stopped for the water and held off all the while I made camp, set up the hammock, cooked, ate and hung the food bag. This was a big blessing. Made 10.3 miles but had only planned on 7 or so. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Day 3 – Thursday, October 11
And a big AT welcome to Hurricane Michael! Awoke to 30 mph winds from the northwest driving the drizzle sideways. Fortunately I had inadvertently set the hammock up perpendicular to it, so the fly was catching both the wind and the rain, thus keeping me dry and toasty. I had my prayer time in the dark in the hammock. I then waited til daybreak at 0700, took a deep breath and hopped out, donning my rainsuit under the rain fly. Man this is the worst way to start the day. Anticipating this trouble I had stuffed all my dry clothes into ziplocks last night, so I had a dry change of clothes if needed. After retrieving the food bag from the sappling across the trail the next challenge was to find a spot shielded from the wind for the stove so I could make the coffee. It was a warm granola morning, also planned for its speediness. Granola was also the heaviest breakfast among those I have, so it was a double win situation. The sitting logs at the campsite were facing just right, with the lee on the opposite side from where I cooked last night, and I managed breakfast with no real incident except the rain. Taking the tent down in the 30 mph cross-wind was an experience – it was blown basically perpendicular to the ground once I had the sleeping bag stuffed and out. Crazy, crazy stuff. I called Mary Ann from the hammock before getting up and advised her to be on call. My alternate plan was to cover the 2.3 miles to I-26 at Sam’s Gap, hole up under the expressway bridge and wait to be retrieved for an overnight respite. Well as it turned out I got my waterlogged ass off over the next ridge and did indeed make it to the expressway underpass where I witnessed the clouds blowing through like a wind tunnel. Took time to call my brother Bob and wish him a happy birthday (Oct 10) but didn’t have the heart to tell him where I was. For all he knew I was at home in the Lazy Boy. Saw a bird just blown like a leaf through the underpass. He righted himself upon exiting. Checked the weather forecast on my phone and with Mary Ann. Her WeatherBug reported the weather clearing by mid-afternoon but my NWS slowed it clearing later. It was a moment of truth – I decided to press on. I heard from Emma through Mary Ann later that she knew i would be very disappointed in myself had I gotten off the trail, even for the night. She was right.
I got some unexpected encouragement soon after re-entering the woods from a granite monolith marking the donation of the property through which the AT ran here by the Moye Family. It included multiple scripture texts and references for their decision and expressed their sentiment that the trail would be used by God, our Father, for refreshing the souls of those on it. Thanks much, Moye Family. So upward I pressed toward another High Rock and the Hogback Ridge shelter. I blew into the shelter from the ridge with a wicked crosswind howling around me and rain from my right side . My left shoulder was dry – really. I kept my eyes and ears open for potentially falling trees. Once at the shelter I was ready for some lunch and needed some water. Miraculously the rain let up and being down off the ridge a bit so did the wind. The spring was about 1/4 mile away and there was no rain the entire round trip. By now it was 1300 and the weather was supposed to be breaking soon. I was heartened. I even used the privy without rain. But as I packed up at 1400 to break shelter here it came again. The ridge was very exposed for a ways through Rice Gap. My boots were a mite wet , but not squishy, and I was warm enough with the exertion, my new breathable raincoat and my wool beanie. By the time I hit the second Frozen Knob crest at 1530 the rain had stopped but visibility was maybe 100′. As I steadily descended toward Devils Fork Gap the wind subsided and I finally got below the clouds at Sugerloaf Gap (1605). As I arrived at the Gap I checked in with ground support and asked about hostels in the vicinity. She saw none so I decided to skip that idea. By 1645 the sun was breaking through and conditions were steadily improving. As I crossed Rector-Laurel Road I saw ads for the Laurel Hostel just down the road, but my mind was already made up to camp. I arrived at a trailside campsite a 1/2 mile up the switchbacks on the far side of TN-353, my evening stop, at 1745. Just enough daylight to get the hammock up and dried out and get dinner ready before dark. After the hammock I went to work hanging damp clothing from various broken off limbs and branches, giving the campsite the appearance of a giant yard sale. It was pretty much everything. Put on my dry stuff, including my long johns, for the night. The sleeping bag was miraculously nearly all dry. With the clear sky the temperature overnight was going to drop like a rock in water. I had my Italian pepper steak and hot tea set out and eaten by sunset at 1900. Then as twilight dwindled, with much difficulty, I got a fire going. That was comforting. No matter that I forgot about the nearby low lying barbed wire fence and went sprawling over it in the dark hunting for wood. That did in one knee of my old non-breathable rainpants. Crap. Needed new breathable ones anyway. No serious cuts what with the long johns under them, just an L-shaped tear. Used my storm matches and fire starters to good advantage on the standing squaw wood I broke off of a nearby pine. Burned the trash of course. Crawled into the sleeping bag at around 2100 wearing every stitch of dry clothing I had. Left the damp stuff hanging since no rain was forecast. The sunset was beautiful. 10.8 miles today in bad weather.
Day 4 – Friday, October 12
The pack thermometer read 52° at 0630. Had the food bag down, breakfast cooked and eaten in the dark. Breakfast was the Scrambler in tortillas – yummy. Hit the trail at 0810 under crisp, sunny skies (can skies be “crisp” – a bad metaphor). My thumbs were numb but already this was a better day. Picked up water at the Flint Mountain shelter, happily it was running across the trail and the shelter was trailside. Then over and up it went through Flint Gap with a steep exit climb for two miles. Climbed up to Big Butt (Butte?) almost before I knew it. Met an Aussie near the top and we congratulated each other for being out in the previous two day’s weather. The first challenge of the day broke upon me here. It had a challenging approach with steep rock steps and boulders, as did the backside. I slid down part of the backside on my butt (maybe that’s where it gets its name ). I was not happy. But it was short, and then down to Jerry’s Cabin shelter for lunch. On the way I passed the Shelton gravesite and took my first fall of the trip by the huge rock at trailside (it’s noted in the AT guidebook). Lesson learned – don’t attempt to adjust your pack belt while walking. I dried out the pack and other stuff in the sun while eating. Saw exactly no one else besides the Aussie all morning. Leaving this shelter I got off track as there were two paths to water, plus the AT. Took on more water and got on track. Getting through to Lick Log Gap over Bald mountain was a breeze, hiking through a wide, long pasture with great vistas.
But the biggest challenge of the trek was now upon me – Big Firescald Knob. If Big Butt was challenging, this was downright scary. Add the steep rock steps to an open ridge with cliffs close at hand to the left side. Since the weather was good I took the fair weather trail to this side instead of the woodland bypass. They didn’t tell me it was on rock steps along a cliff face. It was up and down for what seemed like miles. It was Cloud Peak Wilderness Wyoming all over again (another story). Thankfully the architect of the trail, a woman I found out later, was an expert. So up and down and up and down it went on beautifully crafted stone steps. A couple of downs I did on my butt. There were great vistas if you didn’t fall to your death. It was tense. One 10′ vertical on the path was hand-over-hand. I kept thinking, “Think behind yourself, take your time, measure each step and check the trek pole placement”. It was both tedious and satisfying at the same time, but it added an hour to the hike easy.
Once out of there the map and trail guide seemed to be out of sync, revolving around the location of Jones Meadow, my proposed camping spot. A blue blaze trail to the Meadow came in before I was supposed to pass it, before White Rock Cliffs. I wavered back and forth on pursuing a campsite on this side trail or pressing on, and hiked maybe an extra 1/2 mile back and forth, ending up back where I started. I discovered that I gave a couple of day hiker girls some bad directions when I decided to press on and came upon the White Rock Cliffs side trail. The map didn’t show much of a downhill but a series of switchbacks presented themselves in front of me and down I went. And bingo I ended up in a nice flat campsite at close to 1700 hours. I did 14 miles today not counting the backtrack for the phone and the meandering around looking for Jones Meadow. I raced sundown and got all set up and done eating with some daylight left. The moon was rising as a crescent and I could see stars. Elevation 4,340′. Gonna be cold tonight again. Took another two tries to get the fire going. The key this time was the birch bark I had collected earlier in the day before Jerry’s Cabin shelter and a birch tree next to my campsite. The firestarters just weren’t enough with all the soaked down wood . I got all the trash burnt and it was still flaming as I drifted off to sleep. around 2200. Last night on the trail and all downhill tomorrow – well it’s never ALL downhill out here, but the ending point will be lower than the starting point.
Day 5 – Saturday, October 13
Jake Blues: “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank’a gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark out and we’re wearing sunglasses
Elwood Blues: Hit it!”
I have 7.5 miles to get to Mary Ann today, so no big rush. Woke up to another drizzle. You gotta be kidding me! But no wind. My NWS showed no rain in the area. What gives. Then it dawned on me – at 4,300′ I’m in a rain cloud that’s not raining. Finished my prayer time in the hammock, considered my options and got out with the first light at 0700 to just dripping from the trees. Got into my hiking duds. Had the second half of the Breakfast Scrambler eggs, some coffee and was moving in the cloud down the trail at about 0850. Crossed paths with a group of four guys headed north at the campsite near Jones Meadow, where I learned about the woman who built the Big Firescald Bald trail. Only after passing these guys who were breaking camp did I come to the Jones Meadow sidetrail sign. It also ran to the Camp Creek firetower shown on my map. Now everything about the trail, the map and where I was finally became crystal clear. I started passing and being passed by other hikers. Got to the Little Laurel shelter at 1030 and decided for Mary Ann’s sake that it was bath day. No one was around. Hiked the 2/10ths sidetrail to the spring and commenced into my bandana bath. Everything was fine. After I had completed my private areas, was dressed and putting my socks and boots back on next to the spring pipe down the trail came a cute little gal (trailname Sonic I found out) for water. I thought, “good timing, dude.” Back at the shelter I had some lunch and learned their story, starting at Katahdin on June 8. Her hiking mate was Puddles. I picked their brains about the famous “100 Mile Wilderness” in Maine and learned it was not so tough as I had heard. They left before I, and after phoning in my ETA to Mary Ann I was off at 1135 with enough water for the final 5 miles. No use carrying any extra, you know? Met one more northbound through hiker (Giv) before the end. I had gotten below the clouds coming into Little Laurel shelter and now at 1230 the sun broke through. Made it to Log Cabin Road at 1300 and what I thought was the end of my trek. But on closer inspection I had another half mile of ridge to go over and arrived at Allen Gap on TN-70 at 1338 just in time to see Mary Ann drive past in the wrong direction back toward Greeneville trying to find where the trail came out. She had gone to the little parking area where Anna and I had started in September but then had doubts about where she should meet me. She came back. End of story, for now. We stayed an extra day to hike together over in the Smokies with very pleasant weather.