Day 4 – Thursday
To Cherry Gap Shelter (Mile 19.1)
It was nice to walk into the warmth of the hostel after breaking down camp and getting packed up in the cold. It was still dark outside, but it was apparent from our campsite down by the creek that people were up coming to life inside because the lights were on and the dogs had been let out. We had been promised a good breakfast that morning, and I was looking forward to it. I don’t drink coffee, but do have a bad Diet Coke habit and was also looking forward to drinking my last one for at least a couple of more days.
Cee Cee was in the kitchen working when I walked in—she had several people to feed that morning. Big Old Mustard and Mango had shared a room in the hostel, and unfortunately, Mango still wasn’t feeling well and had decided he wasn’t up to pressing on with us. We all agreed it was a wise decision. Right now it was very easy for him to get off the trail and back to his car at Uncle Johnny’s. Getting him off the trail would not be so easy if he tried to continue on with us and figured out he wasn’t up to it a few miles in.
Something I haven’t mentioned until now is the ridiculous amount of food Mango carried with him. I am guessing his enormous food bag weighed close to 20 pounds… and I’m not exaggerating. He had all sorts of stuff, including a dozen eggs. That’s right; he brought a dozen eggs. Well, it was now or never for those eggs since Mango was leaving us, so Cee Cee agreed to cook them up for us, and I must admit that we weren’t mocking Mango any longer about those eggs as we were scarfing them down. They were outstanding.
After breakfast, it was time to get going, but before we hit the trail, Cee Cee snapped a picture of our little group. We were all a little bummed about Mango, but it was the right decision. I don’t really remember what happened after the picture, but I do remember that as we were walking back up to the trail, it hit me that I didn’t really say goodbye to him. I was focused on the hike for the day and was busy calculating what I owed Cee Cee, and somehow walked out the door without a proper goodbye. It made me feel bad as we were walking, but I knew I’d see him soon and could apologize, so I put it out of my mind and focused on the task at hand.
The task at hand was walking back up that very rocky road that we followed the previous day down to the Greasy Creek Friendly. It was as irritating as I anticipated it to be. I’m guessing it was 7/10 of a mile or so. At some point, I tried to lift everyone’s spirits about Mango by cracking a joke about how the old guys walked the 20 something-year-old kid into the ground. I think it worked. We all laughed and picked up the pace a bit to match the newly painted picture of ourselves my joke had put into our heads. Getting old is sad.
Once we had made it back the trail, we took a little break and discussed the plans for the day. We had already begun hearing that rain was going to be moving in Friday night and that Saturday was going to be a total washout. That was in the back of everyone’s minds, and it would ultimately play a role in our discussions and decision about when to leave the trail. Whatever we decided to do and whenever we decided to leave, we were going to have to climb nearly 1,300 feet up Unaka Mountain before we could get back to Uncle Johnny’s. Originally we had planned to hike past Uncle Johnny’s for another 11 miles, but with the very short day yesterday, and the rain moving in Friday night, everything was up in the air. We decided that we didn’t want to try to go up and over Unaka Mountain that day. That would have been a long and exhausting day for us at our pace—particularly trying to tackle the 1,300-foot climb after having already hiked 8+ miles just to get to the base of the mountain. I realize that 1,300 feet is just a hill to a lot of folks, and 8 miles on the AT is only a few hours for others, but we knew what our pace had been for the previous few days and were trying to be realistic about what we could all do. Unfortunately, though, that left us with pretty much a single practical option for the day, which was just a 7.1-mile hike to the Cherry Gap Shelter. That would leave us with a very short hike the next morning to the base of Unaka Mountain—something I had honestly been dreading all week.
After discussing it for a while, we all agreed that even though it would be a short day (again), that is what made the most sense for us. As we were wrapping up our discussion and getting ready to go, a young thru-hiker (whose name I can’t remember) stopped and chatted with us for a while. I can’t recall a thing we talked about, but I remember that the conversation was enjoyable and how talking to him took me back in my head to when I was his age—not in an envious way, but in a happy way. I was happy to have been that carefree once upon a time, and I was happy that he was enjoying that stage of life right now. I was also happy that my adventure on the trail was allowing me to taste a bit of that again for a few days at least.
Well, before I knew it, the conversation was over, and we were picking up our packs and putting one foot in front of the other once again. I didn’t know it then, but that day was going to turn out to be my favorite day of the trip. The hiking was not very difficult, the weather was great, and the views along the way were spectacular. And, since we didn’t have many miles to cover that day, I was fine walking at a pretty leisurely pace and taking it all in. The truth is, it’s very easy to get to pressing on toward the camping spot for the night, with your head looking straight down all day long, and not experience the beauty of the trail while you are hiking. Fortunately, today was not going to one of those days.
We had already gotten very comfortable with hiking at our own pace. As usual, Nemo shot off like a rocket and left us behind. I slowly pulled away from Big Old Mustard and hiked for a long way by myself. I felt like I was making pretty good time while still enjoying the scenery—much of the trail that day was pretty conducive to that. I passed a lot of hikers that day, more than what had been normal for us. At some point, I heard a group gaining on me from behind. When they were close enough that I felt like I was going to be in their way, I stepped off to the side and turned around to greet them. They were young and moving really fast. The only thing moving more quickly than their legs were their mouths. There were three guys and one girl. She was setting the pace and leading the way. And I am telling you they were moving along at a very fast clip. They slowed down a bit, and we exchanged greetings. They asked if I was “Checklist,” and told me that “Big Old Mustard” wasn’t too far behind. I decided to hang out for a little bit so that I could walk with him for a while. It wasn’t too long before I could see him coming.
Once he reached me, he was ready for a break. So we dropped our packs and chatted for a bit. We figured that Nemo was so far ahead that he was probably hiking the PCT by now. But, we were enjoying the wilderness and weren’t in a hurry since we had plenty of time to get we where we were going for the day.
After Big Old Mustard had rested up some, we started off together and pretty much walked together until we caught up with Nemo who had found a place to stop and rest while he waited on us to catch up and have lunch with him. When we got there, he assured us that he hadn’t waited too long, but I think he was just being humble. On the way to our lunch spot, Big Old Mustard and I ran across a tree that a bear had signed his name on. And not too much further up the trail we heard what was either a bear or some pigs grunting at us and running off.
The lunch spot Nemo had picked for us was at Iron Mountain Gap which is almost right on the Tennessee and North Carolina state lines. A road runs through the gap, and there was a small parking area there. We plopped down not too far from the road, and I sat down for lunch on a pile of discarded asphalt. I had a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I also realized that the beef jerky I had bought at the Dollar General the night before was still at the Greasy Creek Friendly. That was irritating because I was looking forward to eating a few pieces with my lunch.
After lunch, we looked at our maps and figured out that we only had about three more miles to go. So we decided to take an extended break where we were. I took advantage of that decision and grabbed my hammock chair out of my pack and set off to find a suitable place to set it up and take a nap. I did doze off in it for a while, but it was a little chilly in the miniature hammock with no under quilt or sleeping bag.
We probably rested there for close to an hour before we decided to knock out the last three miles of the day. We pretty much stuck together the rest of the afternoon. Again the day was fantastic, and the scenery was terrific. I can still picture so many parts of that section of the trail in my head.
We arrived at the Cherry Gap Shelter with a lot of daylight left. The trail was so close to the shelter it might as well have passed straight through it. There was a notice there about bear activity in the area, so we were careful about where we hung our food bags that night. Down the hill from the shelter was an excellent water source. It was easy to get to and flowing well. Big Old Mustard setup in the shelter again. His sleeping pad had been giving him trouble all week. I won’t mention the name brand, but it is one of the popular ones. Anyway, it had been leaking down slowly since the first night on the trail. Apparently, he hadn’t had it that long and had only used it a handful of times. He mentioned this to Gadget while we are the Greasy Creek Friendly, and Gadget immediately went and found one of his old pads and gave it to Big Old Mustard. That said, Big Old Mustard was looking forward to a good night’s sleep that night.
Nemo and I found some spots to set up our hammocks. And once we got them set up, we gathered back at the shelter to make some dinner and FINALLY start a campfire. We also had company that night, a hiker with a teeny, tiny dog. We enjoyed our conversation with him, and once the dog warmed up to us, he stopped yapping.
We knew it was going to be cold that night. And boy was it. I was wearing as much as I could comfortably sleep in and I was still freezing most of the night. I’m not sure what the low was, but it was definitely below 30º. Not interested in doing that again with my current setup. In addition to the cold, there was a deer or a group of deer or something that kept walking in close proximity to my hammock all night. In fact, I think one may have even bumped into me at one point. While I was pretty sure it was only deer, I couldn’t help but think about the sign in the shelter warning about bear activity. Nemo later told me that he heard animals all night too. Overall, though, I slept okay that night—not as good as the night before, but better than the first two nights.
Things were still up in the air about our plans for the rest of the trip when we went to bed that night. I was really wanting to stay out as long as we could, even if we risked spending another night in the rain. But we agreed to discuss it the next morning and make a decision about what to do.
To be continued…