Day 11: Mile 73.5 | Plumorchard Shelter
Whisperer and I got a shuttle at 10am from the Holiday Inn Express at Hiawassee with Sally, a local who works with her partner Joyce to shuttle hikers. The rain had started early that morning. For some reason, my anxiety was off the charts that day. My heart was pounding and my head hurt. I was really nauseous. Before we left I ate a bowl of fruit loops and chugged some whole milk.
We hiked the short 3.5 miles in the heaviest rain I had seen yet. At this point I only had shorts. My legs were freezing. Every time a branch stuck out into the trail I avoided it like the plague. Everything that touched my legs felt like someone slapping me with force. My red legs felt like they were getting a whole other ice bath. Like an idiot, I sent my brimmed running hat home thinking I wasn’t using it and didn’t need it. Rigging my umbrella to my pack was out of the question due to high wind gusts. The rain washed my contacts out of my eyes within the first half hour.
We got to the shelter. A beautiful triple decker shelter. Shivering, I pulled out my food bag and left it on the picnic table where we met Maverick, Buck ‘99, Hott Dogg, Pioneer, Turbo, Sleeping Bear, and Purple Haze. I pulled my pack back on and climbed the ladder to the third floor where Sleeping bear was also set up. I pulled out my new Klymit Insulated sleeping pad and blew it up. I set up the rest of my sleeping gear and changed into dry camp clothes (it was a struggle with slightly wet skin...).
Back downstairs we all made our dinners early and used some extra fuel to boil some water for hot chocolate. We got water in the pouring rain. Thankfully, the water source was close here. I headed to the privy after dinner and realized upon my arrival (TMI WARNING...) I had gotten my period that morning. My mother had called that one... We put our food bags in the bear box and I headed to bed around 6pm at sunset. I was cold.
In my sleeping bag on my new sleeping pad I began to feel the same issue that I had with my last sleeping pad... my top side of my body was hot and the bottom side of me (the side that was in contact with the pad) was FREEZING. I began to shiver and realized this wasn’t going to work. I pulled out the footprint/groundcloth for my tent and put it under my sleeping pad, hoping to block some of the air coming through the plywood floor. I tried again for 30 minutes and could not get warm. Frustrated, I went downstairs and asked the other hikers what to do.
After some joking around, we decided to try putting a Mylar blanket over my sleeping pad. Crinkling all the way (VERY LOUDLY) I went back upstairs and tried it out. Whisperer told me to let him know if it didn’t work. By now it was almost 8pm...
I was homesick and frustrated and I really just wanted to cry at this point. I wanted to call home but there was no service. I knew I needed to ‘embrace the suck’ as they say out here and rely on my family less because I came out here to be independent. I kicked myself for feeling like this. Eventually I realized. If my family is what I need right now, that’s ok! But if I want to be independent I some day need to be less reliant on them. But I also made myself realize: ITS ONLY DAY 12. If I still want to call my mom then I can. I can’t expect change over night.
By 9:30pm I was still FRIGID. Shivering, I LOUDLY (thank you Mylar) got out of my sleep set up and crawled over to Whisperer. He was still awake.
“Rob, this isn’t working!” I whispered from the third floor to the second.
“Come down here!” He said.
I moved down next to him and we laid as close together as possible. The body heat kept us very warm, almost too warm. There were no mice on this night. We made it through the night and woke up to a 35 degree rainy morning.
Day 12: Mile 80.8 | Muskrat Creek Shelter
Getting up this morning was annoying. I awoke before sunrise with Whisperer and began packing. I put on my hiking clothes, still wet from the night before, and immediately felt cold. Putting on cold wet clothes at 5am in the dark SUCKS. With the cold and rain today we knew that we would be fighting for a spot in the shelters today. With a plan for an 11 mile day we left at sunrise in the fog with our headlamps still on.
This day sucked. I woke up with some intense nausea. Just the smell of other people’s breakfast made me feel like I needed to throw up. It was cold, my legs were bright red and cold, my hands were wet and would stiffen and cool every time I stopped, I felt every blister on my feet (3 of which had popped in the short 4 miles stretch we did the day before), I was homesick. I put my headphones in and listened to music while Whisperer hiked ahead of me. Not far behind me were Hott Dogg, Turbo, and Pioneer.
At the first moment I got cell service I called my mom. I heard her voice and immediately started crying. My homesickness was intense, I felt sick, I was over tired (I had slept a collective 40 hours since Amicalola), and I was hungry but I couldn’t eat.
My mom told me she thought I might have a protein deficiency. She put together some meals for me under suggestion from a former thru-hiker named ‘Chronic’. She said she was sending them to Franklin for me. I felt better after talking to her. Renewed, I kept hiking.
Hott Dogg, Pioneer, and Turbo caught up to me and we leapfrogged for a while. After about another hour we made it to our very first state border!! Whisperer waited for me there. We crossed into NC with little fanfare and many photos.
After 3 peaks, one state border, and 4 hours of rain, I arrived at Muskrat Creek Shelter where Whisperer was waiting. Only 7 miles from the last place we stayed. I wanted to keep going but the wind and rain had gotten out of control and the forecasted low of 19 that night was concerning. We needed to stay in a shelter and we couldn’t guarantee a spot at the next shelter (3 more miles and an hour and a half away). This shelter had 2 open spots. With heads hanging low Whisperer and I took the last two spots. It was only noon... Cold and wet, we set up our sleep stuff. We dug out our dry bags of camp clothes and looked sadly at the flooded trail to the privy.
Hott Dogg, Turbo, and Pioneer soon showed up. We all turned away from each other in a circle and changed into dry clothes in the shelter. They all decided to stay, too. We made room for Turbo in the shelter and Pioneer and Hott Dogg thought they might stay in the covered picnic area in front of the shelter. We made our dinners and socialized with the three women who were there when we arrived. One said she was calling a shuttle to make arrangements to be picked up at the nearest forest road. She was having sleeping pad problems and all of her clothes were wet. With serious despair, we asked if we could tag along. We wanted to keep hiking, but we were cold and wet and dangerously dancing with hypothermia.
We checked the weather again. Low of 19F that night. High of 40F the next day with strong winds. All of our clothes for hiking were wet. Wind + wet clothes + low temperatures + little sun = hypothermia risk.
The shuttler called the woman back. He said the forest road we wanted to use was closed. The gates were locked for the winter. But if we were willing to walk the 5 miles down the forest road he would pick us up for $20 per car. The next access road was at Rock Gap, 25 miles ahead. We knew we couldn’t make it. We took the shuttle. We had until 10:30 to get to the second gate where Mike, our shuttle would pick us up.
With these arrangements made, we made our dinners and tried to stay warm. Some younger hikers who had hammocks and were a bit unprepared showed up. Rowdy, they took over the picnic table that Hott Dogg and Pioneer were going to move to make room to sleep on the shelter floor. Frustrated, Pioneer went out into the rain to set up his tent for him and Hott Dogg to share.
Whisperer, Hott Dogg, and Turbo called the Budget Inn in Franklin to reserve rooms for the next night. Buck ‘99 and Maverick showed up later. Maverick moved on to the next shelter and Buck stayed with us. We squeezed him in next ya on the shelter floor along with a girl called Nightmare.
We all hunkered down in our sleeping bags for the night. My sleeping pad was still not working well to keep me warm so Whisperer and I slept close together. I put my legs over his and we stayed quite warm. The storm was loud and everyone in the shelter stayed up and talked. Whisperer and I stayed up until almost 11 (far past hiker midnight) talking. Eventually we fell asleep. Once again, no mice were seen.
Day 13: Mile 84 | Budget Inn @ Franklin
Whisperer woke me up at 5:45am. We had to hike 9 miles this day to get to our shuttle. Granted, 5 of this was supposed to be on gravel road we weren’t sure how it would go. We packed up as best we could. Our water bottles were frozen. Our wet shoe laces froze straight up in the air where we left them. Our piles of wet clothes were unwearable. Our trekking pole straps were frozen and painfully cold.
Hott Dogg, Pioneer, Turbo, Whisperer, and I set out at dawn with our headlamps on. The rain had stopped. It was 30F and the wind was blowing 10-15 mph gusts. We hiked in our camp clothes because they were the only dry, warm clothes we had. We got to Deep Gap early. It was just barely 8am. We snacked and then got moving. The road felt like it would go for an eternity. There was nothing exciting about it. Flat gravel road. Closed, in my mind, for no reason at all. It was set to open again April 1st... we were all frustrated. Morale was low. My heel hurt. So badly that I changed into my crocs. I thought my shoe had gotten messed up or something.
After we passed the first gate we began to hear the rumble of cars and trucks. A road. Hott Dogg and I were at the back of the pack. My heel was really bothering me. When we heard the road we both gasped. Excited, we looked at each other.
He said, “Did you hear that, too?!” The others were pretty far ahead. “Yes! I squealed” A road! We rushed around the next corner and there was the second gate and Mike!
All five of us and our packs piled into his Nissan Sentra. He was very generous to allow all of us in. I sat on Whisperer’s lap and Hott Dogg and Turbo joined us in the back seat. Pioneer got the front seat with his pack in his lap.
We made it into Franklin and checked into the Budget Inn at 11am. Hott Dogg and Pioneer shared a room. Turbo got a single and Whisperer and I got a double room. Some of us showered. I was too lazy and hungry and worried about my feet. I wanted to get to the outfitter. I didn’t want to go hangry, though... I grabbed my shoes and put them in my slackpack to show them later.
We were going to go get a beer and lunch at the Lazy Hiker Brewery but we decided to stop at a diner that was on the way called Motor Company. It was so good. We all got the burgers we were craving and I hd a huge glass of chocolate milk.
After lunch we headed over to Outdoor 76, the local outfitter. I told an employee about my problem and they looked at my shoe. They asked me to wait for Rob, their guru.
15 minutes later Rob came around to the shoe area asking about my heel problems. He kind of speaks in metaphors so it was a long conversation. But the gist was, worst case scenario: I may have a torn Achilles (highly unlikely) and best case scenario: I have Tendonitis. He told me to 'be my own manager' because, unlike a professional athletes, I don't have a manager. He measured my feet and said, "Come back on Monday. But, I'll tell you right now you're shoes are too small." That was Friday morning.
With tears in my eyes I left the store to meet my tramily at the local brewery. With help from Michelin, who had left due to a knee injury. He talked me down from tears and told me I already knew what the right decision was. The right decision was to take a few zeros (days that you don't hike at all) and heal before it gets worse.
That night Whisperer prepared to leave the next morning to make up what we missed from Deep Gap to Winding Stair. We hung out and ate gummy bears one last time while icing my Achilles.