All fired up on the AT

Walking with Stumble day in and day out affords itself many surprises. Before her trail name was Stumble, I lobbied for Snail Magic due to her unbiased resolve to rescue all snails from impending trail, boot-smashing doom.

That short three-picture movie was a daily occurrence in Georgia when we started. Not that it hasn’t happened since, but she definitely stumbled at least twice for every snail saved and the name Stumble persisted, and not without proper reason. Often, the trail will cut back going up or downhill in a switchback, and on multiple occasions walking behind her she ambles onward as if the trail just continued straight. It happens so naturally it seems right. My imagination runs wild with where she might have ended up by now if one of her trail-skirting field trips just continued onward. Want to know something else fun about Stumble? She often exclaims to me while we’re walking, “I hear voices!” I gently let her know that meager travelers health insurance doesn’t cover meetings with shrinks, unfortunately, but she insists that the voices are real. Sometimes they are, and we come upon a shelter with people at it, other times I’m convinced they’re all in her head. She’s a fun companion in the woods, that’s for sure.

My last post found us drenched in the pleasant warmth of Hot Springs, NC, a town that the AT literally walks right through the middle of. It catches many hikers like it did us and I think we’re all the better for it. I even got to watch a little playoff hockey at the one tavern in town! Since then, things have gotten heated on the trail: 

A friend behind us on the trail took this shot from the Main Street in Hot Springs looking towards the mountains that the AT continues into north out of town. And nope, that isn’t a lovely mountain mist (paging Doctor Bear to the burn unit, Doctor Smoky the Bear). Forest fires have been terrorizing many areas in the south east as it’s been dry and hot out, prime conditions to set brush ablaze. The fire shown above broke out the day that we left town, and as we were a couple hours out of town the trail took an eerie tint as the plumes of smoke filtered the sunlight of the afternoon. Stumble and I were probably some of the last hikers to make it through before they closed a section of trail north of town while crews worked to contain the blaze. 

This was our view looking over the French Broad River and back on Hot Springs as we left that afternoon. Strikingly different from the scene that engulfed these views just a couple hours later.

At that point, we were still a couple days from Roan Mountain where another fire forced officials to close a portion of the trail as they worked to contain it. We camped about 13 miles north of town that night and awoke the next morning to some much-needed rain. So much so in fact, we were drenched during our hike and decided to cut it short, stopping at the Little Laurel Shelter only 6 miles away. We soaked up the afternoon in the shelter out of the rain, commiserating with other hikers, reading, writing, and eating. During our slumber that evening, I woke up at one point and as my eyes opened my hand instinctively whipped out and flicked. My eyes caught sight of a mouse flying through the air and I realized I woke up because it was trying to befriend my hand. His advances were denied. We’ve heard the mice in shelters before (they’re true ninjas, able to access your food in the most protected manner), but this is the first time I’ve truly encountered one. And with that, I’m starting a petition for kittens at all shelters.

We pushed onward the next day with more favorable weather, crossed the 300-mile marker, and found one of the most beautiful camping spots so far stop Big Bald 

During our hike up to this spot, I met a Dutch hiker who goes by the name Once A Day. She’s a cultural anthropologist who happens to be from a small town that is only 10km from the smaller town where I stayed when I studied in the Netherlands! It’s a small world, even with camp sites that proclaim how huge and awesome it is.

A couple days later we accomplished our longest hiking day yet, pushing through 19.1 miles of trail, which included Roan Mountain! The weather was excellent and the fires had been contained. The trail has been weaving along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee since the Smokies, seeming to stitch the two states together until the other side of Roan Mountain where we finally put another state in our rear view mirror. With North Carolina officially behind us now, we have a short stretch through Tennessee before we hit Virginia, the longest state on the trail. During our 19 mile day, Stumble gave me some sprees to hold in my pocket and munch on for some sugar bursts. Forgetting that I had picked up someone’s lost compass the day earlier and stashed it in my pocket, and also forgetting that it was the exact size and shape of a spree, a unknowingly tossed it in my mouth without looking and crunched down hard on it. It did not taste good. I spit out the cracked remnants and lamented my mistake. We camped at the border crossing that night and as I was just finishing my mashed potatoes and star noodle tortilla wrap, another hiker named Wooki came over in some distress asking for tweezers. I offered him my pair and through drags off a cigarette he exclaimed that a bug had flown directly through his long, shaggy hair and into his ear! He could feel and hear it moving around. I looked in his ear but couldn’t see it, and told him I didn’t feel comfortable going in there with tweezers without seeing what I was after. I still shudder at the thought of this happening. We ran into him a day later and he showed us a picture of the bug a doctor pulled out. Eugh! It’s not the bears you should fear out here, it’s the creepy crawlies!

We should be in Damascus, VA later this week, a town like Hot Springs where the trail meanders directly through town. Until then, I leave you with a question and a thought:

Can woodpeckers become concussed? I’m seriously asking.

Peanut butter is the paste that holds life together.


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About Ben Stark

My name is Ben Stark, no relation to Tony or the House Stark. B.A. in Sociology from Calvin College Preferred mode of transportation: Bicycle, Ice Skates, Feet Currently pursuing Adventure as Vocation Let's cross paths!
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