I anticipate that by the time you’re reading this, I’ll be a mile up, approaching the summit of Wayah Bald, roughly 120 miles away from my starting point at Springer Mountain. But right now, I’m laying in a hammock on the front porch of Gooder Grove Hostel wearing nothing but a pair of sparkly red flannel women’s pajama pants from Walmart and swigging on a free Michelob Light they handed me as soon as I walked in the door. It’s 10:30 am. There’s an indie rock playlist coming from speakers somewhere, and Tibetan prayer flags are flapping in the breeze.
This is my first true zero day, meaning I’m not hiking. Since I started back on the 23rd, I’ve covered almost 60 miles. I’m finally in new territory: I crossed into North Carolina three days ago, passing Deep Gap where I jumped off the trail in November. I love my home state, but this is where the trail really gets good. It’s a shame that over a quarter of would-be thru-hikers have already quit by this point.
The scenery is spectacular. I hear the phrase “eye candy” tossed around a lot, but I don’t think that comes close to doing it justice. Eye candy implies the flashy, the loud, the fast and the cheap. Airbrushed models, new products, brightly colored TV ads, million-dollar supercars. Sweet to taste, but without substance, it brings only temporary satisfaction.
This is something different. This is fried chicken, collards, mac & cheese, cornbread, green beans, and mashed potatoes, washed down with a big glass of sweet tea and finished off with a slice of pecan pie. The kind of plate you’d get at an all-you-can-eat small town country buffet, or from the kitchen of a grandmotherly old black lady. Soul food. Stick-to-your-ribs, go-out-and-work-all-day food. Hearty, satisfying, and memorable. That’s what these mountains are for the eyes.
For the feet, however, is another matter. The hiking has gotten markedly easier since I left Georgia, but it’s still a challenge. The mountains have gotten much bigger, but the grades are far steadier and there’s a lot less gratuitous up-and-down. I’ve learned a few things.
For one, I’m getting better at climbing mountains. I don’t have to stop to slobber, heave, cuss, and catch my breath every few hundred yards like I did when I started. I can usually make it up an entire mountain without stopping more than a few times, albeit at a very slow pace. This is good, because I have a lot more of them to climb. I’ll be hitting some of the highest peaks on the AT, including the highest of them all, Clingmans Dome, in the next few weeks.
Another thing I’ve learned is that every mountain has a character all its own. Standing Indian Mountain, at over a mile high, looks intimidating. It’s huge. Like, Donald Trump talking about making America great again yuuuuge. It takes up the entire horizon for days before you actually reach it. But it’s a gentle giant. 2.5 miles up, 2.5 miles down at an easy, manageable grade. I didn’t even break stride.
The next day’s hike, up Albert Mountain, was a different story. Almost as high as Standing Indian, it isn’t visible until you’re already ascending it. Most of the slope was easy enough, but the final quarter mile was almost straight up. It took me nearly an hour, when my normal pace is about two miles per hour. At some points I had to strap my trekking poles to my pack and climb up hand over foot, taking care to lean forward so as to not fall off. The fire tower at the top serves the official 100-mile mark of the Appalachian Trail. Only 2,100 more to go, right?
Oh, I feel like I should explain the women’s pajamas. The hostel offers a laundry service, and I didn’t have a single piece of clean clothing to my name to wear while mine were being washed. So, they offered me the pants. Tomorrow, I continue onward, but this has been a great zero so far. My next resupply point and short day will be at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, just so you know. But now, I’m feeling good, rested, and ready to hit the trail.
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