On Day 4, we wound up at Mountain Crossings at Neel Gap. They have a hostel and an outfitter, and word is, 25% of people who start the trail at Springer Mtn. wind up going off-trail there. Out front, there is a huge tree with the boots of folks who gave up the ghost early. We stayed in the hostel on the night of day 4. There we met Rick from PA and Red from Indiana and we agreed to “slack-pack” the next day. For us, that meant getting a shuttle from Mountain Crossings up the trail about 8 miles to Hogpen Gap. We carried only water, rain gear, and a few snacks, so the hiking was much easier. We were able to do the whole eight miles in about four hours. That night the four of us shared a cabin at Gooch Mtn. Cabins.
After a second night indoors, the four of us got a shuttle ride back to Hogpen Gap and we hiked northward again. Our plan was for Red, Gavin, and me to share a cabin at a hostel that was down a trail off the AT. I got a text from Red that he had missed the turn-off, so he went on down to Unicoi Gap and got a shuttle into the cabin. Gavin and I saw the side trail, but it was 1.4 miles downhill, which meant we’d be doing the same trip uphill the next morning. Since Blue Mountain Shelter was only 1.5 miles up the trail, we opted to head on up the trail. I hope we didn’t put Red out any, but I told him we’d make it up to him up the trail somewhere. This turned out to be an 11.9-mile day, our longest and most difficult yet.
From Blue Mountain Shelter we had a 7.6-mile day to Tray Mtn. Shelter. The day started off with a 200’ climb, followed by a 1,000’ descent to Unicoi Gap where we were met with Trail Magic from BSA Troop 134 from Decatur. We had hot dogs and sodas and headed back up 1,000’ to the summit of Rocky Mtn. That was followed by a nearly 1,000’ descent, which was followed by about 1,500’ uphill to the top of Tray Mtn. The shelter was down the back side of the mountain a short distance. Though the mileage of the day was on par with what we’d been doing, this was definitely our most arduous day of hiking. We slept well, and slept in a little bit, and were the last ones to leave the campsite.
On Sunday we hiked from to Deep Gap Shelter, a distance of 7.9 miles. Gavin really put on the afterburners and left me in the dust. We met up with Jukebox and Timber and hiked much of the day with them. They are definitely much younger than me, but Gavin was able to keep pace with them. Thankfully, they stopped and waited on me periodically. With about 1.5 miles left, we were climbing Kelly Knob and it started to rain. I got my pack cover on, and pulled on my rain jacket, but didn’t take the time to mess with my rain pants. This was a huge mistake! I was hiking in shorts, and in a short time, they were soaked. Thankfully, it wasn’t too cold. Yet. We made our 8 miles in about four hours, which was a new speed record for us, though I still trudge slowly uphill. Gavin and the younger hikers beat me to the shelter by 20-30 minutes. On the way up, I met up with Rick again and we finished the day’s trip together.
When we got to the shelter, there were folks all around trying to get in, get settled, get dry, and get warm. I went down to the privy and switched into my dry wool base layer and covered back up with rain gear and my down puffy jacket. We wandered around the awning for a while watching it rain and waiting for an opportunity to go pitch a tent. Finally, it let up enough for me to do that, but it wasn’t a completely dry pitch. Oh well, live and learn. Gavin stayed in the shelter and made bunches of friends. He brought some waterproof playing cards with him, and he has had much fun playing Egyptian Rat Slap with folks. All the other hikers have really accepted him as one of their own because he has hiked the same miles that they have. They are all really impressed with his tenacity and grit, and the fact that they’re in the company of a not quite 14-year-old thru hiker that is doing as well as they are.
This morning it was about 25° when we left the shelter. It was a real joy putting on boots that had frozen solid overnight. I slept with my water filter so that it wouldn’t freeze and become worthless. We had a short 3.6 mile trip today to Dick’s Ck. Gap where we were picked up by a shuttle driver for the Budget Inn in Hiawassee, GA. We’re staying here for the next two nights because the temperatures are supposed to drop into the low teens. I haven’t looked much farther out, but I expect we’ll have some snow in the coming week. Yay. We are sharing a room the next two nights with a hiker from Winnepeg named Travis.
We had supper tonight at an all-you-can-eat buffet called Daniels Steak House. It was really good- salad bar, fried chicken (and chicken livers), and Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and Lima beans! Yummm. Unfortunately, Gavin, who usually picks at his food and isn’t accustomed to eating large meals, ate too much, too fast, and wound up with a stomachache. There were 8-10 other hikers at our table and while Gavin was in the restroom nursing his stomach, they were all amazed at how well he is doing on the hike. They couldn’t stop going on about how well he is hiking, fitting in, and making friends. They are all in awe that he is able to make this trip as a 13-year-old. It made me really proud to be his dad!
I’m going to close by revisiting a tired subject, that of trail names. If you’ve kept up with our posts, you know I’ve been toying with two trail names, Next Step and Aftermath. Funny story: I met a girl on the trail the other day and told her I was waffling between two names, but she misunderstood. She thought I said my trail name is Waffle. Needless to say, it is now. The good thing is, though, that when I explain my name, I can tell the stories of both the trail names I set out with. Gavin was first called Hawk by So Far, So Good, but after we met another Hawk who is planning to yo-yo the trail (Springer to Katahdin, and back), he picked up Hawkeye because of his ability see things that others miss.
I think the thing I’ve enjoyed most so far about the trail is meeting complete strangers and becoming instant friends. We’re all out in the woods walking the same miles, through the same rain, uphills, and downhills, so we have a shared experience. Hanging around the shelter the past two or three nights has given us a chance to make new friends, and we’ll be hiking around each other for the near future until the younger group get their trail legs more quickly than me and start hiking longer days. By that time, though, others will catch up to us, so there will never be a shortage of folks to meet and socialize with. At some point, we’ll fall into a group that has a similar pace and we’ll form a trail family. That will be really cool.
Thanks for following our posts. I’m doing the best I can to get some videos out, but the WiFi in our hotel isn’t strong enough for me to post. I’ll keep trying. Blogging and blogging on the trail has turned out to be harder than I expected because by the time we reach camp, all we want to do is eat and go to bed. I am also not flexible enough to sit cross-legged and type. I really need a chair and flat surface to write, and so far, the picnic tables at the shelters have been too wet to do that on. I’ll try to do better.
Again, thanks for following our journey. I am trying to respond personally to comments, but the same eat/sleep routine gets in the way of that as well. Please do keep sending them, though. It is very encouraging to hear from friends and strangers who wish us well. Prayers are appreciated as well, especially for the uphills that I’m struggling with so. I guess I need to just keep taking the Next Step.