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The Seasoning
Eased by kindred spirits on the way

Dick's Creek Gap GA - Wesser NC (The "NOC")

January is a bringer of new things - a new year, a new century, a new millennium, and the great joke of the 20th Century - the Y2K scare. On reflection it's laughable - if the heat fails, it'll still be warmer than our tent; if the water fails, we'll take our filter to the stream behind the house; if the power fails: well, frankly if all three of these fail it'll still be far more comfortable than the trail. Counting ourselves worthy of the AT winter, we set a southerly course, bound to complete the state of GA.

2/20 Dick's Creek Gap-Muskrat Creek Shelter (11.6 miles )

"The AT - where it's uphill to everywhere."
sign in Bear's Den hostel

It's a frosty morning as we pull in to the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) to meet Agnes, our shuttler. Quite the talker, her stories reflect some ancient attitudes of the deep south - a few that take us "Yanks" quite aback. We're afoot by 8:58, starting with a well-graded climb up Little Bald Knob (as the road accesses are always in gaps or mountain passes, our hikes always start with a climb). We've found the 1st climb of the day is always a "freebie" - we're envigorated and in winter it's a welcome warmup. So it is on this gorgeous crisp day, with skies of the deepest blue; and it's my 1st opportunity to try my sleevelets - a pair of sleeves cut out of a long underwear top that can be put on without removing my pack. We're being snowed upon in spite of the clear sky, and inspection find the trees above shedding frost in dainty flakes as the temperature warms - a magical sight.
The route is full of the deep greens of rhododendron and mountain laurel, and it's great hiking. We soon pass our 1st other hiker - "Redness Rushing", who started a thru-hike last year before falling victim to the "Virginia blues", and is now completing the GA section. At Plumorchard Gap, a couple hikers overtake us with great speed - Energizer Bunny & Downhill, part of a group of 8 that assembled on the internet to hike the AT together. He's retired military; she did a flip-flop hike (see AT Q&A page) over 2 summers before; and they've outpaced the rest of their group who are slowed getting away from the Blueberry Patch hostel. They seem like good folk, and before the weeks's over, we'll leapfrog with them for the entire section. After lunch it's a easy, well-graded path, passing a few trail workers just prior to the GA state line. NC to GA sign
We're sad to leave GA behind, but we've 12 states left.
There's a bittersweet quality about finishing GA, our first major state to complete. There's a sense of accomplishment, but there's also the sense of loss - the good times we've enjoyed here, the things we've learned, that feeling that we may never again hike this beautiful and seminal section of trail. Though the GA/NC sign is easily overlooked, the NC trail planners have prepared a much more impressive welcome. It is Courthouse Bald, still invisible behind a small rise to our left. After a quick break (EB & Downhill catch up and take their break here) we cross the small rise, turn right, and immediately see Courthouse Bald looming in our faces. The trail marches straight up the side, devoid of switchbacks in a game of brinkmanship between the NC and GA trail planners, as if to say: "That's not a hill - This is a hill". It's all it appears and more, with several illusions of success, only to find the real summit lies yet beyond. Worse, a hot spot on my right heel is becoming a substantial blister, so I duct tape the area (poorly), and continue in pain on the ups. At the top is a welcome downhill to Sassafras Gap, and finally a gentle, relaxing climb to Muskrat Creek Shelter - lying just off the creek it seems an ideal stop for the night.

EB & Downhill join us shortly, deciding on tents vs the shelter, and as the evening's chill sets in, we follow their lead (the tent is about 10° warmer than the open shelters). Once the fire is going, I set up the tent as Coleen cooks, making cups of soup and a Lipton rice dinner (the rice ending up crunchy in the bag, so we abort to finish it in the pot). EB & Downhill, on the other hand, prepare a gourmet feast, with tomato sauce, canned tuna, and grated cheese over the top. It all looks good, but heavy to carry, making our small repast look very Spartan. They offer to share, though when we decline, they clean it all out not leaving a crumb. We find EB a confident sort, having hiked the upcoming section in Sept, and a former private pilot as well. Downhill began a southbound thru-hike a few years ago, but when the cold set in, she deferred the bottom half until the following year. They're good folk, and we chat around the fire till the cold drives us to our sleeping bags, getting to bed by 8:00.

2/21 Muskrat Creek Shelter - Little Ridgepole Mtn campsite (14.5 miles)

"How many times it thundered before Franklin took the hint! How many apples fell on Newton's head before he took the hint! Nature is always hinting at us. It hints over and over again. And suddenly we take the hint."
Robert Frost

The night was a beautiful but cold one, bright as midday under the full moon; though sleep was tough. Our campsite's slope kept us sliding down towards the door, and Coleen was cold despite all our leftover clothes draped over her. We're up at 07:00, with extra joe to stave off the cold, and don't get away until a late 09:30, though we're trying hard to get to Franklin in 3 days for a town night, a strong incentive. We're powerfully hungry today, and our first break occurs in just a mile, at the Chunky Gal trail (apt for us, if we keep taking breaks this frequently). We settle into a good pace (the trail is level and mercifully hard frozen, lest it be mud). It's also full of the small, magical "ice pipes", and I snap a pix in hopes of showing it to someone who knows the correct name for this common feature.

At Deep Gap we start the long but well-graded climb up Standing Indian Mt, passing EB & Downhill heading back south, having left something at Deep Gap. Lunch is midway up the mountain, and we make good time on the pleasant path, now adorned with frequent hemlock glades, the occasional grouse hiding within.

We stop for water at the Carter Gap shelters - both the new and the old remain (set in a beautiful coniferous forest - we hate to leave, but we need a few more miles). The spring is far further downhill than I'd like, and I'm freezing as the evening chill falls, but we take a moment to leave a note in the register for our pals before continuing. The trail soon becomes a small level tunnel through a dense rhododendron thicket, and while it's great hiking, it's too dense for camping. Soon the ridge widens though, and after a little search we spy a perfect area off in the trees, with a level tent area, a fire ring, and a huge sitting log just along the edge of the ridge.

It's our perfect idyllic campsite, with calm winds, clear blue skies, and shimmering lights from the valley as the sun sets in the west and the moon rises in the east. Firewood is plentiful, our tent is up (though one of our tent poles breaks, making me lash a stick to it for support), and soon the water is boiling for our chicken teriyaki dinner. We can't get over what a nice site it is, and how great it is to savor the beauty without wind. We really enjoy sitting by the campfire at night, and tonight Coleen breaks out her marshmallows to roast with our cocoa. It's so serene that we don't retire until 10:00, dreaming of a town day tomorrow.

View down Albert Mt.

2/22 Little Ridgepole Mtn campsite - Franklin, NC (13.9 miles)

"There came at night into that lodging-place twenty-nine in a group of sundry people, by chance fallen into fellowship, and they were all pilgrims wanting to ride toward Canterbury."
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

After getting up once at 05:15 (with the brilliant moon I can't tell if the sun's up or not), we're up for good an hour later. I have to drag Coleen out, but the hope of a town day helps, and the sun rises in a thin band of blue sky to the east, though soon replaced by a dismal gray. Today's challenge is the climb of Albert Mt, a short but steep climb that proved the first Waterloo for Bryson (in his book, A Walk in the Woods - he and Katz end up taking the logging road around it in the snow). We slab the side of Big Butt Mt. on a precipitous trail of minimal width, often with vertical drops of over 100' just inches to our right. It recalls the Pinnacle trail we used to hike in Bar Harbor ME, and the rock face on our left is covered with luxurious green and red dripping moss. Though overlooks are frequent, it's too hazy for good pix, and soon we leave the cliff face and return to the woods, with one last break before the assault on Albert.

Now the real climb of Albert begins, all we'd expected. At the base a few steps are cut into the hillside - to the uninitiated these might indicate a well-prepared path; but on the AT, they mean the opposite - the path too steep and unstable to negotiate any other way. The step pitch is tall, and it quickly turns to a rock climb. It has good hand and toe-holds though, and only a short portion requires our hiking poles be stowed to use all fours. By 10:30 we're atop the summit, taking a few minutes to climb its fire tower. The observation deck is padlocked, but even from the top of the stairs we have a panoramic view.

Still, we've miles to go, so we're off, stopping at Big Spring shelter to replenish our water. From here it's a gentle descent (a sign says we're in the Nantahala bear sanctuary, but alas, we didn't see any) with lunch by one of many beautiful streams. Our small-scaled map makes navigation difficult (many have gotten lost on this stretch), and as we pause at Wallace Gap to confirm our position, we see an odd creature staring from across the road - to our best abilities, it appears an emu. We've no idea why it's out here in the NC wilds, but it looks calm enough to allow an approach for a pix (thinking, "if this thing charges me, my sole defense - my hiking pole - is back with Coleen, and she won't even have the camera to capture the carnage on film").

Albert Mt - looks pretty benign once you're on top
Albert Mt. Fire Tower
I emerge intact however, the emu watching curiously as we begin the day's last climb. Coleen tires and starts carping, but all is couched in the sure knowledge that less than three miles away lies the road into town, a shower, bed, and a town meal. It's a featureless section, but soon we're at Winding Stair Gap, audible well before. A truck pulloff here looks perfect for a hitch, though it proves otherwise - 14 cars later we're still standing with thumbs out. Finally a truck parked here there pulls over to offer a ride, the driver having been walking his dog. Coleen joins driver and dog up front as I ride in the bed, counting our fortune good

Franklin is far larger than we'd imagined, and after trying the suggested Henry's (closed), we end up at the Franklin Motel across the street. It's a better option anyway, a modern motel with all the facilities at a hiker-friendly $32 rate. In no time we're in a huge room with all the comforts of home. We clean up quickly and set out for dinner, after a quick walkabout ending up in La Normandie. Lest the name fool you, it's a typically southern small-town café, (the waitress knows everyone but us by first name), with the high-fat menu we crave. We revel to chuck-wagon steaks and barbecue, not leaving a crumb, and all the joys of civilization keep us up until 10:45

Emu at Wallace Gap
Now let me get this straight: we're still in North Carolina, right?

2/23 Winding Stair Gap - Burningtown Gap campsite (14.6 miles)

" Afoot and lighthearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose."
Walt Whitman

Over breakfast the Weather Channel promises good weather for the week, so we're elated. It's warming nicely out, and Dick pulls up as promised at 08:00 (from a list of shuttle providers the hotel keeps). Dick's an elderly and amiable guy, and the chat flows freely, mostly about the trail until I find he's a B-17 pilot from WWII. It'd be nice to talk with him more, but soon we're there, bidding our goodbyes and we're off.

The trail starts with a climb towards Swinging Lick Gap (someone has altered the L on the sign to a D), where we find EB & Downhill breaking camp on the stream just before. They'd camped just past us the night before last, and had made a quick mail stop in Franklin before returning to the trail. The highlight of their evening had been dining on a pizza that they'd bought there, having warmed it on a flat rock heated in their campfire.

A deer watches our break at Panther Gap from the hillside, and we continue the gentle climb towards Siler Bald. Breaking out of the woods at Siler Bald we find the 1st meadow we've encountered in this section - a surprisingly welcome change. We're taking a leisurely break here when the sound of voices (more correctly, one voice) announces the arrival of EB & Downhill. We'll leapfrog with them all day, heading back downhill into a forest peppered with White Spruce, and stopping for lunch at the Wayah Crest picnic area - there's a stone picnic table here, warmed nicely by the midday sun.

After lunch we have an 1100' climb, and it quickly becomes tough, between the increasing temperature and the cruelty of the trail planners. The first mile parallels USFS 69, which winds gently up the hillside. The trail, on the other hand, climbs and descends every hill and vale in sight, often in sight of the gently graded road. It's a test of our purism to the trail, but finally the two diverge, and the trail follows a small fire road steeply up the hill. The broiling sun is now our adversary, though after a couple stops to catch our breath we finally summit Wine Spring Bald, finding EB & Downhill taking a break. After a 200' dip the trail climbs Wayah Bald, where the guidebook advertises a macadam path to an observation tower; but Coleen, having never heard of macadam, asks what a "make-a-damn" path is. It's a cheap laugh, and soon we're at the macadam (asphalt for you city folks), heading to the observation tower.

A hiker sits by his pack at the tower's base reading a book, but otherwise, the site is empty - we climb the tower to survey the trail behind and ahead (always yields some surprising insights). We'd planned to get water at a spring just beyond; but it somehow escapes our notice and now all the steams we've crossed all day are nowhere to be seen. So, we push on to Burningtown Gap to camp, with a couple of streams advertised immediately prior. The trail turns precipitous on the ridge face once again, mostly devoid of campsites. We find the streams and the gap, where Coleen and I scout out different areas for a possible campsite, her site within a pine grove proving best.

It's so much warmer than our previous nights that everything goes easier, and soon Coleen's back with the water, by which time the tent's up and a fire pit built. We've got a good sitting log for our final night out, with dinner cooking, a good fire, and a warm enough night to change clothes outdoors. It's a great evening, with hot chocolate and marshmallows, and the moon soon rises, auguring against the predictions of late night rain we've heard on the radio, turning in at 10:00.

Wayah Bald tower
Wayah Bald (not so bald as we were led to believe)

2/24 Burningtown Gap campsite - NOC (12.7 miles)

"We choose our joys and sorrows long before we experience them."
-Kahlil Gibran

We each shed clothing all night, getting up early (and with our car waiting, we're packed and fed quickly), and hiking by 07:52. It's a moderately difficult climb up Copper Ridge Bald, although in the cool of the morning it's not bad, and re-taping of my right heel has quenched its pain. At Cold Spring shelter, we meet two late risers in their sleeping bags, both up, but in no hurry to get out. One is a rasta-looking sort, complete with dreadlocks, and his buddy brags of their trapping two mice last night. They're going from Dick's Creek to Clingman's Dome over a couple weeks, although with a week behind them, it appears they'll come up short. EB is just ahead, looking for water, having camped just past the shelter. The trail is easy, and they pass us descending to Tellico Gap, where the trail turns back uphill for our last major climb. We push up to Wesser Bald - topped by an observation tower, and here we find both EB & Downhill and a couple of section hikers. EB & Downhill are looking for a ride into Bryson City from the NOC, and we're happy to oblige.

After sampling the tower's view, we start the long downhill, showing a steady grade on the profile, but in reality jumping straight up and over every knob or hill. We exhaust our water in the process, which drags on and on with the extra uphills. At the "Jumpup" the descent begins in earnest, and I barrel down the hill towards the car, though Coleen lags behind. At the bottom I find EB and Downhill thumbing a ride, with Coleen emerging from the woods as we start to chat. As I wave to her, an approaching pickup reads this as a hitching signal and pulls over (where are these guys when we're trying to hitch?), leaving me to bid a quick goodbye to them before they head in. Our car awaits, with a note from Downhill that they'd be trying to hitch; and we toast our completion with surprisingly cold Diet Coke. We beat a hasty path to the Sleep Inn, and by 5:00 we're cleaned up, with 47 emails downloaded, and off in search of town food.

We dive into a Mexican feast with reckless abandon, and Coleen into a huge margarita. We're satisfied, but not stuffed in spite of its size, and thence head around town looking for the Scenic View motel where EB and Downhill were staying. We never find it, and return to our hotel, finding another hiker looking for a ride back to his car. We offer our help, setting up an 08:00 am dept, and settle back to our "civilized" mode, Coleen falling asleep at 10:30, and me at 11:15.

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