Day 14 (April 20): Still wanting to rest our tired joints, we decided to take a nero (near zero mile day) just outside of Franklin along the trail. This would end up being a great idea since while my Achilles pain recovered in Franklin, Nadine’s knees had become more stiff and painful. We took our time in the morning, packing our now heavy backpacks and grabbing some coffee in town. We headed out of town on the 11:00am shuttle back out to Winding Stair Gap and hiked a quick mile to some campsites just below Swinging Lick Gap (mile 110.9). Spent most of the day eating, chatting, sweating from the mid day heat, and napping. Chilled some whiskey that others had brought and the fireball I had bought in the nearby stream with the salamanders and crawfish. Ended our night around the campfire with Schnitzel, Pyro, Dead Weight, Thor, Sam, Johnny, Charlie, Charcoal (because he is always dirty), sad guy from Boston, and Natalie from Austria. Slept in the tent without the rain fly since it was such a nice night.
Day 15 (April 21): Cinnamon and bacon pop tarts for breakfast after a good night sleep. Had a long, heads down day of hiking to Wayah Bald ahead of us. Found a forest floor full of small, white wildflowers on our way over one of the ridges. Caught Schnitzel hitching a ride to the top of the mountain.
Enjoyed the view at the top of Wayah Bald and the fire tower with Thor, Schnitzel, Sam, Johnny, and Charlie Dog. We could see the smoke from a forest fire that closed the trail behind us at Rock Gap.
Also got a glimpse of Standing Indian and Clingman’s Dome off in the distance. After a short 1 mile hike down the other side of the mountain we arrived at the shelter, but not before Nadine unsuccessfully limboed a tree across the trail. She ended up crab walking under the tree and I had to lift her up by her backpack. Slept in the Wayah Bald Shelter (mile 120.8) with Dead Weight, Sam, Johnny, and Charlie Dog, who snuggled by our feet. Started raining before dark and continued all night.
Day 16 (April 22): Woke to on and off rain that would turn into a downpour for most of the day. Pyro stumbled into the shelter with a soaked tent and wet feet. Threw on our rain gear, which included my patented rain skirt made from a trash bag, and head out into the rain. The trail was already a river of water and it didn’t take long before the rain began soaking under our rain gear. By Cold Springs Shelter we were soaked. Stopped for lunch at the shelter which was already crammed with hikers avoiding the rain. Heading back out into the rain after resting and we were quite cold, almost numbing. Warmed up quickly after a few ups and downs. Passed the Hiking Viking heading south towards Springer, what a beast. The rain stopped a few miles before we ended our day at the Wesser Bald Shelter (mile 131.4). Nadine’s knees were not happy with her from all the ups and downs. It began raining and hailing when Pyro showed up and tried to setup his tent. Poor guy. Team Mobile (always on his phone) showed up and barely got off his phone to let us know he was hiking to find a sense of humor.
Got to see an awesome sunset over the privy as it continued to rain. Shared the shelter with Dead Weight, Curly hair guy, and Endless, who showed up late after a 20+ mile day. The mice got into some chocolate covered coffee beans that night and were jumping like trained circus performers, to and from our packs hanging in the shelter. One chewed a hole through Nadine’s food bag to snack on some trail mix.
Day 17 (April 23): Took our time in the morning since we had a short, but steep downhill to reach the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) (mile 137.3). We had made reservations the night before for a bunkroom and were excited for a hot shower and craft beer.
The hike down was steep but quick and we arrived a bit after noon. To our excitement, there were cold six packs waiting for us in the general store, which we purchased and enjoyed by the river’s edge with Sam, Johnny, Charlie, Dead Weight, Pyro, Derek, and Luke (Derek’s friend from home).
The sun was shining while we soaked our feet and watched the kayakers navigate the white water. After enjoying the sun for some time, we did some laundry and headed to our rooms for showers. Once we were clean and had fresh clothes on we headed back down to the water to grab some food at the restaurant. I had a double patty cheese burger and fries while Nadine had an open face burger smothered in chili and milk. We left stuffed. Afterwards, Nadine headed back to the room while I enjoyed a few more beers with the guys, played cornhole, listened to some live music, and enjoyed a bonfire by the water. Later that night we crash another campfire with some locals while Charlie Dog chased around some tail, which was ironically named Easy.
Day 18 (April 24): We slept in as long as we could with a 10:00am check out before packing up our backpacks and head back toward the river to. We each had a huge breakfast and lots of coffee at the restaurant to prepare ourselves for the steep climb out of the valley. One last beer and we headed up the hill. It was not a good idea to start our hike in the mid day heat, especially since there was no tree cover to block the sun. A half mile up I was already sweating buckets.
We felt very strong most of the way up to Sassafras Gap Shelter (mile 144.0), but I was exhausted by the time we reached the top of Swim Bald. We arrived to a circus of tents and an already half full shelter. I guess the rain and the stops at Franklin and the NOC had created a bubble of hikers. Nadine and I decided to pitched our tent behind the shelter before more hikers showed up and filled all the available room. Played rummy with the guys before dinner and bed. Pyro was huffing and puffing when he made it to camp, but he made it.