Walking in Widerness

Solo for the last time Part 1

First I’d like to apologize for the length of time between posts. I have experienced some technical difficulties with photo placement and other issues because of my inexperience with the software. This post took place last October 19th thru the 25th from Erwin Tennessee to Hot Springs North Carolina.

My journey on the Appalachian Trail though shortened due to injury,  has had quite an impact on every aspect of my life. Trail life has a way of doing that if you open yourself to the experience. This journey has had more than a few twists and turns. I came upon a fork in the road or rather an intersection which, as these things do, would change everything in my life going forward.

I woke up on October 19th fresh and eager to get back on the trail. I’d spent a second day at the hostel to once again rest my very tired legs. I was in no hurry because Hot Springs was only 45 miles away and at this point I couldn’t get a ride home for at least a week.

Mother Marian once again provided a great breakfast. Gears and Theory were leaving this morning as well. The conversation was positive but rain was forecast about mid day. Each of us wanted to be dry and in a shelter before the skies opened up.  Marian and Fred treated us like family, delivering us to the trail at 8:00 o’clock. I had left the trail two miles short of Sam’s Gap and was let out first. Timing would be critical if I was to avoid the showers and reach Flint Mountain Shelter 14 miles away. The skies were cloudy with a pinkish orange horizon signaling that there was a sun behind the gray clouds. A brisk wind brought the temperature into the 30’s. After an initial short climb my legs warmed up quickly. Two miles and 45 minutes later I was at Sam’s Gap where I would need to cross Interstate 26.

After a snack I began my first climb. As you trek along this path there is always the possibility of coming upon something very special. If you’re mindful and open to receive or better yet perceive these gift moments, wonders and mystery sometimes are revealed. That is what makes the journey so exciting, the anticipation that today something wonderful is about to happen. I was very mindful this morning and my day was richer because of it. After 30 minutes of climbing out of  Sam’s Gap I entered the Moye Rest.

A plot of land along the trail donated by the Moye Family. A marker was placed at the entrance 1998. It is a place where the Moye family explored in their youth, experiencing personal encounters with God. Their hope is that others may also find rest and inner peace. I thank the family for their kind gift. Not far from the marker I was drawn to a piece of paper folded up neatly and laying on the ground under a rock.

I opened it!


It contained the words from Psalm 19. I meditated on what it meant to me, prayed and gave thanks for the gift and ability to experience this amazing Trail. This wonderful journey keeps unfolding before me one step at a time. Each step that day would be taken with a sense of awe and an awareness that my journey was so much more than just an adventure. It was teaching me how to live! The rest of the climb was magical with sections of beauty and peace culminating in views of the valley below.

Near High Rock

I stopped at Hogback Ridge Shelter for a snack and water, taking the time to change out of my long johns which I had worn that morning to fight the cold temperatures. I also removed my hoodie which started to get damp with sweat as I climbed. These were two pieces of clothing that needed to stay dry because I depended on them for warmth at night. The anticipated rain suddenly seemed closer. From here it was downhill a short way followed by a 700 ft. climb and then another downhill of around 1200 feet to Devil’s Fork Gap. This is where the rain started. Slow at first but hard enough to force me to put on a rain jacket. There was three miles to the shelter mostly uphill. Thankfully the trees shielded me from the worst of the rain and only the bottom of my pants and shoes were getting wet. The climb seemed easy enough and by 3 o’clock I arrived at the shelter. To my surprise Gears and Theory were here,  having made the distance before the rain. They were completely dry. I quickly changed to my warm, dry sleep wear and got in my bag for a short nap just as the rain began to pour from the sky. I had avoided the worst as it would continue the rest of the day and into the night.

I awoke early and started preparations for the day in the dim early morning light. It would be a big day climbing up Big Butt Mountain even though 600 feet of it I had already climbed getting to the shelter the day before. The rain wasn’t totally out of the picture but had diminished considerably. Fog had settled around the trees which created a completely different mood from yesterday. A slight wind promised to push the rain away. For now everything was gray. 

I started hiking and within 30 minutes realized I wasn’t on the Appalachian Trail. Fortunately I reversed course before going too far. I climbed back up 200 feet to the point of my mistake. These small errors are just a nuisance most of the time but always a morale killer. Today was a big climb and I surely didn’t need to waste my energy.

The first part of the climb seemed easier than anticipated. Along the way the rain dissipated but the fog increased in density. The white blazes on the trees became hard to see in the surreal environment.  I came across the grave site of three Union soldiers and their 13 year old cousin. They had been killed returning to their homes in 1863. There are solemn moments when the Trail unexpectedly delivers you to some tragic story from the past. I always stop and consider what happened to all those involved.

The woods were quiet here. I prayed for each of them and rested for a few moments in silence. I climbed the last 400 feet and then walked down through a beautiful cove. Although I had only walked 7 miles. Jerry Cabin Shelter was up ahead. I hadn’t seen anyone the entire day.  Because I was wet and cold,  I made the decision to stop for the day and for the first time to build a fire. There were some dry logs under the shelter overhang and enough suitable branches to get a fire going though it took three attempts. After dark another hiker with the trail name Chef Boy Ar Dee arrived and we chatted for an hour while he ate before getting in our bags and off to sleep.

Today was unexpectedly hard in hard conditions. Not having hiked very many miles it might have seemed somewhat of an unsuccessful day. But I have learned to accept that even bad days have good moments. Many times what seems to be a failure, (like only hiking seven miles), is based on our expectations and not the many blessings that too often go unnoticed. 

It was now Monday and only 26 miles to Hot Springs. I still didn’t have a ride home until maybe Saturday. I also had a new problem to consider. My wisdom tooth had broken off sometime between supper last night and breakfast this morning. It wasn’t hurting but would need to be looked at soon. I had three options, keep  hiking past Hot Springs another 35 miles which would take me to the Smoky Mountain National Park. but was possible by Saturday and much easier for one of my daughters to pick me up. Or I could reach Hot Springs on Wednesday and stay there till Saturday. The third option was to slow down. I decided to slow down. I would hike ten miles to Hemlock Hollow, spend two days there, get to Hot Springs on Thursday and arrange for a ride home on Friday or Saturday.

The weather did what it normally does and fooled me this morning. It took a turn for the worse. It got colder and more windy the higher I climbed. Though only a 600 foot climb up Firescald Knob, at 4500 feet it was in the 30’s and winds of around 35 mikes an hour. It wasn’t fog surrounding me but massive clouds blowing across the ridge. Visibility wasn’t more than 50 feet. This wasn’t the hardest climb but the ridge top was rocky and a mile long. Without tree cover I was exposed to the cold and gusting wind. I couldn’t speed walk through this. At times the wind threatened to blow me over. Without the possibility of any views there was no reason to stop moving. It took me almost an hour to cover one mile of the ridge. Yet at some point I began to enjoy the difficulty and the elements. At least it wasn’t raining! Once the trail started off the ridge, within a hundred feet the trees shielded me from the wind and everything got really quiet, even peaceful. It is amazing how being out of the wind changed the experience. Now it was 5 miles down hill to a bed and a shower. Oh yeah and a pizza too! As I walked, the cloud cover grew thinner and the forest lost the gray cast and began to show her colors

I took a long lunch break at Laurel Shelter and made a phone call to reserve a bunk at Hemlock Hollow. Two hours later I settled into a bunkhouse which apparently I had to myself. There are two streams which run through the property and the sounds of rushing water across the rocks filled the air. Diana was a great host and remarkable woman, running this hostel mostly single handed. She had a lot of knowledge and along with another hiker from Scotland we sat in rocking chairs and had a deep conversation about the trail and life in general. On the second day I had Diana drop me off  down the trail and I hiked a 2 mile section of the trail back to my cabin. This would take 2 miles off my last day’s mileage leaving 15 miles into Hot Springs.

The hike into Hot Springs had one big climb followed by some shorter and then a long descent into town with views of the French Broad River. It was a pretty steep downhill and my knees were pretty sore afterwards. The weather was cool but beautiful and full of sunshine.

The sight of the river and town from up high was exciting! I called Elmer’s SunnyBank Inn and reserved a room at his Bed and Breakfast which caters to hikers as well. Elmer had hiked the trail many years ago and decided to move to Hot Springs. His house is the oldest in town(1875). I spent two nights here.

View of the French Broad River and mountains of Hot Springs NC.

Little did I know but my journey was about to take a big turn. Two years ago when I made the decision to retire there were changes in me slowly taking place. The planning of the hike with an emphasis on Mindfulness and Spirituality were taking me in a direction I wanted to go yet I could never have imagined the intersection I was soon to encounter. I had been making decisions each day on how far to go or where to stay but always heading north to Maine. Things were about to change. Hot Springs was not the start of my journey but definitely a turning point. It was the meeting of two individual journeys. On different trails but with similar goals and endpoints. All my goals would remain the same with one important difference.

The Journey continues in Part 2…

3 thoughts on “Solo for the last time Part 1

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