Dan and Hannah Hike the Appalachian Trail near Erwin, Tennessee

Appalachian Trail MapAfter days of rain in the forecast, the rain gods finally have their way.  Tuesday le deluge comes to western North Carolina.  After John Denver hiking (i.e., that’s right – sunshine on our shoulders) near Hot Springs, we have rain and more rain on this our zero day (no hiking).  Stepping in and out of drenching downpours, we hit Asheville hot spots: Lunch at O’Charley’s with Hannah’s sister Bettsy, then later dinner at Chorizo (Mexican) with Jeff, my College of Wooster tennis teammate.

map of erwin tnNo matter the weather, there is no doubt we are going to hike in Tennessee this mid-October Wednesday. Only 45 minutes from the AT in Tennessee, we won’t miss this chance as tomorrow we head for home some 1000 miles away.

Parking by the Nolichucky River in Erwin, TN

Parking by the Nolichucky River in Erwin, TN

Waking in the Mars Hill, NC Comfort Inn, we can’t even see across the parking lot. The fog is Great Smoky Mountain thick. After a motel breakfast that includes biscuits and gravy for Hannah, we drive west on I-26 to Erwin, Tennessee, a mere 45 miles away, through fog, then into sunlight. The AT passes through Erwin a mere 340 miles from the AT’s origin at Springer Mountain, Georgia. The hiking gods have smiled upon us as we will be hiking precipitation-free today.

Nolichucky River at flood stage

Nolichucky River at flood stage

Driving along the Nolichucky River, we are winding our way deeper into the rural South. Visions of Deliverance come to mind. Deliverance (1972) scared the bejesus out of me.  All the worst stereotypes of hillbilly mountain folk are shown in terrifying detail.  It’s a disturbing movie along the lines of Fargo (1996) in that it’s all too real and frightening.  Even so, we are fearless today.

ET 1C Unaka Springs FBChurchPassing the Nolichucky Hostel and Outfitters on River Road, we park roadside. After yesterday’s heavy rains, the Nolichucky is at flood stage.  Crossing the bridge, we see another of the many small churches in town. Erwin has 6000 people.  YP.com lists 254 churches in Erwin!  You do the math.

ET 1 hanging elephantOnce home to Cherokee Indians, Erwin earned some notoriety in 1916 by holding a public execution of an elephant. Who knew? Mary, the elephant, had killed her handler, Walter Eldridge, in nearby Kingsport.

Mountainside above the Nolichucky River

Mountainside above the Nolichucky River

Crossing a railroad, we climb mountainside above the Nolichucky River on this 50F degree morning. With the heavy wind and rains of the past 24 hours, the trail is leaf covered; our goal is to hike four miles to the Curley Map Gap Shelter. Starting at 1700 feet here in the valley, we will climb 1400 feet more.

Trail of rhododendrons

Trail of rhododendrons

Along the mountainside through a thick forest above the river, we have the beauty of lush rhododendrons each step of the way. The trail is foot-pleasing dirt with enough rocks to keep our attention. We are walking in a forest treasureland far beyond the routines and “to-dos” of daily life.  Again, we are blessed.

Lush rhododendrons along the Appalachian Trail

Lush rhododendrons along the Appalachian Trail

After two miles of hiking we have a steady climb with switchbacks through the deciduous forest. As our sweatshirts come off, shorts and tee shirts feel just right. October is just a fantastic, invigorating month to hike in the South. (Two weeks later on November first, this area gets seven inches of snow!)

Another VCU Ram sighting

Another VCU Ram sighting

Once done with the steady climb, we return to our ridge line conversation.  Is it a red flag to feel sorry for anotherOn the surface, feeling sorry for another might make it seem like one cares.  Not so fast my friend.  Could something else be going on?  Say a little self-righteous judgment?  When we feel sorry for another, are we really saying that “we have decided that you have not made the right choice or, more likely, the choice we would have made?”  Projecting that their life is something less because it is not the life we would choose seems a tad arrogant. Well, a ton arrogant.

“Judgments prevent us from seeing the good that lies beyond appearances.” – Wayne Dyer

Curley Maple Gap Shelter log entries of thru-hikers

Curley Maple Gap Shelter log entries of thru-hikers

And then the Curley Maple Gap Shelter appears suddenly. What a blessing these shelters are for thru-hikers, especially in storms like last night. They are free and foster togetherness, whether one wants it or not. (Click on log entries image to read them more easily.)

Let me show you the Curley Maple Gap Shelter.

ET 5B mountain stream

Heading back down the mountain, we soon meet Loaf who is section hiking the AT. (A section hiker is one planning to hike the entire AT, but in sections of say, two weeks here, four weeks there, over the course of a number of years).

ET 3C H on trailHe did find a shelter last night from the rain, but said Monday’s 50 mph winds on Big Bald (a mountain top without trees) were the toughest.  Funny 50 miles south of Big Bald that same day, we were hiking in the 70F degree sunshine of the AT near Hot Springs. His trail name Loaf was given to him years ago, when starting off on the AT at Springer Mountain, he carried a loaf of French bread for days for a fellow female hiker.

ET 6A welcome to DamascusBack at the Nolichucky, we pack up a little after noon, set to take a 20 mile detour to see Damascus, VA, just over the Tennessee border.  Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Damascus is known as the #1 “Trail Town” along the A.T.

ET 6 trail town signIt holds Trail Days, a multi-day festival attracting thousands of hikers during mid-May each year (Mid-May is about the time that many thru-hikers who began hiking the AT at Springer Mountain, Georgia arrive in southern Virginia).

With Tennessee in the books as our 13th of 14 states of the AT, we set our sights on #14 Georgia next fall.  What an opportunity we have to combine it with some hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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