June 3 & 4

Uncle Johnny’s Nolichucky Hostel, Erwin, TN, to near No Business Knob Shelter, 6.1 miles

Deep, recuperative sleep held me in bed past ten in the morning. I took another shower to wash away the grogginess. Back at my cabin, I cooked chicken fettuccini for breakfast, a packaged meal that I had purchased back at Mountain Harbour Hostel. My mail drop had arrived with four days’ provisions. To that I added Gatorade powder and three Snickers bars. Since my cell phone wasn’t working in the mountains, I mailed it home.

Relaxing on the porch of the cabin, I drew up a new itinerary with fewer miles to hike each day. The new priority was to savor the remaining sixteen days I had left in the woods rather than meet unrealistic mileage goals. I was still sitting there at lunchtime, so I hopped in Johnny’s van with a load of thru-hikers and went to the all-you-can-eat Pizza Plus. After several trips to the salad and pizza bar, the guy across the table from me came back from the dessert bar and started dipping his cinnamon-sugar-glazed pizza in chocolate pudding.

Back at Johnny’s, a thunderstorm rolled in, so I wrote in my journal until it passed. Six young men decided to stay another night. They had been hanging out for a week now, sucked in by the creature comforts and Johnny’s afternoon beer run. It was late afternoon when I left. The climb out of Erwin was steep but manageable with the switchbacks. Every few hundred yards, a better view opened up, looking down at the Nolichucky River. As I turned away from Erwin at the last overlook, a train rumbled through town, blowing its sharp whistle. Today it was hauling pickup trucks, yesterday coal.

After the climb, the trail proceeded smoothly, often tunneling through thickets of rhododendron. Wind gusts swooshed the floppy leaves. Two hikers coming my way said No Business Knob Shelter, about a mile ahead, was full. I would have to sleep under my tarp tonight. Before that thought had time to percolate, a shadow descended, and dark clouds roiled above. A fat raindrop hit my head and then another. I scanned for options. Nearby was a clearing with two pine trees close together. Thunder cracked. I tied my tarp to the two trees, staked the four corners, and climbed under—one second before the storm let loose. From under the tarp, I extended an arm to stake down the sides. An intense pine scent breezed through as wind and rain whipped the evergreen boughs.

The view out the open end of the tarp beyond my feet was of the tree trunk that the tarp was tied to. The Appalachian Trail cut perpendicular behind it. On the other side of the trail, pine trees stood widely spaced to the edge of denser and darker forest, which my vision could not penetrate. That’s where I imagined a bear would come from. With the storm raging and darkness upon me, I didn’t venture out to hang my food bag. I skipped supper, so as not to send out cooking odors, and ate the last Snickers bar. The rest of my food was vacuum sealed.

During the night, I dreamed a bear sniffed at my ribs. My arms and legs felt paralyzed. I startled awake and pricked my ears. Branches clattered; rain pelted the tarp—no snapping twigs under paws, no grunting. The night grew cold; I was eager for sunrise.

Near No Business Knob Shelter to Bald Mountain Shelter, 10.8 miles

Trees shook off drops in the steamy morning. It wasn’t raining, but it seemed more was coming. I stowed the wet tarp in an outside pocket of my backpack and ate breakfast—raisins and granola—on the go. I also found a Snickers bar in my pack that I had forgotten about. It was dusky all day as I walked through dense forest under clouds. In one dark spot, a stream of white sunlight escaped the clouds and angled in through a hole in the canopy—lighting up a tree that stood alone in a cove. If I had stepped into that light, I surely would have been transported somewhere else.

Past Spivey Gap, there was a clearing by a stream with a log to sit on, so I took a lunch break—turkey with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. The stream churned with excess flow from last night’s deluge. I hiked mostly uphill the rest of the day. Passing through a flat spot, I started whistling while slapping my hiking poles together for rhythm. Later, I learned this flat spot was called Whistling Gap.

The trail passed through an old-growth forest of ash trees. Their trunks were massive. Some were dead, or near dead, standing with their innards rotted out, limbs scattered about the ground. As saplings, they grew straight with opposing branches, but eventually limbs fell off while others bent and twisted. Time furrowed the smooth bark of youth. The area reminded me of Hansel and Gretel’s walk to the witch’s cottage.

Bald Mountain Shelter was empty when I arrived. I was hungry for something sweet, so I made chocolate pudding with nuts and granola. The shelter was framed of wood, not gingerbread. When I came back from filtering water from the spring, a couple of thru-hikers named Juke Box and Hot Chocolate strolled in, and we cooked supper together—macaroni and cheese with beef and vegetables. Hot Chocolate said his food bag had been stolen by a bear at Blood Mountain in Georgia. I had heard about that bear. It started pouring during supper, and three more thru-hikers hustled in out of the rain—a father with his son and daughter. They cooked instant mashed potatoes flavored with onion soup mix. The shelter had an overhang in front that provided cover for cooking, and it was spacious inside, with two sleeping levels. The others slept on the lower level; I slept alone up top. Rain pelted the tin roof all night long.