Waking with the knowledge that it was looking like rain for the remainder of our Smokies hike it was decided we were to put in some big miles to emerge and get into Hot Springs by the weekend. Now as I mentioned before being a bit older I wasn't sure I could handle the milage we were talking about so I kept in my mind that getting into Hot Springs on Saturday and not Friday was A.O.K in my book.. Or was it?
The first day my push was a 13.5 miler in, as usual, wet conditions. It also was the start of a lot of solo hiking until I reached town. Up, down, wet and muddy but something about the Smokies keep your attention with its landscape changes and the mesmerizing factor. It's a pinch yourself moment throughout. This isn't the Blue Hills nor the Fells. This is the Great Smokie Mountains.
I could probably move on to the next days details but about an hour from camp I took a corner and there 100 feet in front of me was a big old bear. It stopped me dead in my tracks and though the encounter seemed long to me it was actually over pretty quickly. It sniffed in my direction some and then darted into the woods. Being as big as it was you could hear that it was running in the right direction to give me the feeling I was out of harms way.
Yup my heart was racing and I made sure to make noise and do my part to keep the bear heading away from me. Those in camp expressed jealousy but if that's my last bear encounter for the trip Im more than fine with that. It helped that the boys had some moonshine to calm my nerves. That along with dinner had bed come quickly to end the day.
The next morning we discussed the possibility of hike close to 19 to get us to Standing Bear hostel. This would also get us out of the Smokies. Ive developed this reputation of usually saying I don't know if I can hike this far and that far but somehow ending up in camp by late afternoon. In this case I made the usual statement and told the guys I'll see you if I see you.
Yet again we had rain and the fall off had you hiking more so down a brook than a trail. Even with the hike being predominantly downhill the AT always seems to make the hike hard one way or another. I pushed hard and the further along I got the more confident I felt this day was gonna get me to Standing Bear.
Though tired and soaked cruise control and wallet gave a yell of "we knew you would get here!" As I entered the hostel.
Standing Bear is a farm which is one of the more unique hostels I've come across thus far. It's just as stated. It's a farm with a bunk house and a home with a wrap around porch. The bunks were full for the night but I was able to convince cruise control to give me his bunk for a pizza you could cook in the kitchen. We both felt we made out on the deal.
A great group of hikers were here and the porch was filled all around. Even with the pouring rain those on the porch were happy. I was even happier in a warm bed as I read myself into a nice sleep.
One of the interesting inclusions to the hostel was its pet rooster. Of course no one thought much of it the day before but come 515 in the am the little guy sounded his alarm and did so every 20 minutes or so for the next 2 hours. Though I was awake I couldn't help laughing into my pillow knowing the rooster was hanging just next to the porch and was envisioning the boys reactions as the rooster screeched before sunrise and beyond.
Early up and detailing our day 14, 17 or more miles was the discussion. "I'm not doing all those miles! I'll see you guys when I see you." I wanted to enjoy the great views expected on Max Patch and planned to do 12 to a shelter soon after.
The sun started with us early but as the day went on clouds started to follow. Though rain held off for the most part up high the temps dipped and the wind picked up. Max Patch is a bald so layers were added as I took photos.
As I continued the hike my stubbornness emerged. I pushed to a shelter 14 miles in. Cruise and wallet pushed on according to those who were settling in for the night. Well I pushed and after 18 miles of hiking I found them at a camp site. I cooked 2 dinner packets that equaled enough food for 4 and filled my belly. By the time I was done it was already dark. Sleep came soon after.
The next morning I woke at 8am. Wallet was about to leave camp and everyone else who tented at the site were already gone. It was 14 miles to Hot Springs. You know the routine but in the back of my head I knew the further I got in the greater chance I would push to town. Sun out and some big climbs ahead of me I was off.
This day my body felt the many miles. Though sunny there was still mud throughout. My legs were dead and my feet started showing the grind (no photos necessary). I labored but pushed. I reached a shelter 3.5 miles from town at 3. Dammit! It's early! Downed some jerky and water, put my head down and finally emerged at Hot Springs.... On Friday.
After close to 64 miles in 4 days I rewarded myself with 2 days off. The legs and mind both needed the break. The Laughing Heart hostel provided great hosts and they thoroughly enjoyed the stories "hiker trash" provided. It was obvious the pride these great people have in the environment they create for hikers emerging from the woods after hard long hikes.
You may have noticed that I haven't been mentioning the full group of guys (the six pack). Well some separation took place between standing bear and Hot Springs. 2 sticks yellow blazed and got a ride into town. 1 liter and Woo made it in on Friday night. Once they did all but 1 liter and I ended up meeting up with friends that lived 30 min from HS and decided to stay the weekend with them. Even 1 liter got picked up on Saturday morning by some buds that came down from Virginia and bailed for the rest of the weekend.
I was fine with this. I got to break bread with many other hikers I've met along the way. This town is the type of southern town I read about that showed all kinds of love towards AT hikers. From mineral baths overlooking the river to drinking pints with the local owner of the towns Tavern. And of course meeting Bethnay, a southern charmer/hot shit/bartender who had us all smiling and laughing thoughout the weekend. There were hikers from all over due to a hikers fair on Saturday. I even got some reggae in at karaoke night. Pretty interesting reaction from some of the locals to say the least. Overall it was just a great experience and one of the many Im sure to have along the way.
As my weekend comes to an end Im yet to hear from the guys who are 2 towns over. I'm sure I'll see them on trail either tomorrow or the day after. It does have me thinking though. It's great hiking with the boys but separation happens and it reminds you that this hike truly is about hiking your own hike.
When it boils down to it you have your own goals and your own journey to live. Depending on others to fulfill any of this is a trap better off avoided. Theres no hard feelings out here. We love each other and support each other but we don't live the same journey. For most of us we share the same goal of getting to Maine but as far as the journey goes, though they may have similarities, they are very different in so many ways.
I will be proud of these guys regardless of when and where their journeys end as Im sure they feel the same towards me but of the five million or so steps I will take along the way I know I'll meet many. I'll feel love all around. It may come from people or it may come in the form of scenery, accomplishment or something Im not even aware of yet. That's the beauty of the hike.
As I write this I received a text from 1 liter. He decided to return home and hopes to meet back up with us in TN. 1 liter and I met on top of Springer. We wished each other luck, took our first steps and soon enough became friends. I may see him again soon. I may not but I will miss my friend.... And more importantly Im proud of him.
Tomorrow I'm back in the woods climbing mountains. I'll be thinking of the so many I know involved in the Boston marathon. It's one of our city's best days. I promise to be strong for you tomorrow just as I try to be each and everyday I'm out here.
Till next time hike the good hike everyone
Jesse AKA The Boston Mule