Appalachia, or the Appalachian cultural region, stretches across the Eastern United States and popularized for the long-distance national trail system that follows mountain ranges from Maine to Georgia. A few months ago, Nikki and I, chose to fastpack a short section of Tennessee and North Carolina. Via fastpacking we chose to cover the distance self-supported in 3 days, no resupplies, sourced natural water, and used shelters at night. I posted to Trail Sisters Philly asking if any ladies wanted to adventure with us and Kristina joined our pursuit.
Leading up to the trip, we made a pact to be honest and open with each other. This has served me well in past trips and invariably proved to help in emotional management as challenges surmounted and the occasional low. We carried additional food, just in case. All costs were split by three. Weather peaked into the highs in the 60’s during the day and dipped into the high 30’s overnight. Base weight totaled 16.6 lbs., add in an additional 4-6 lbs with a full bladder and filter (3L total).
Food: 2 Mountain House Granola meals, 2 Peak Fuel Biscuits and Gravy meals, 1 Backpacker’s Pantry Mac and Cheese meal, 3 Nature Valley peanut butter wafer bars, 3 Joje Lemon Blueberry Quinoa bars, 3 Spring Oatmeal Fruit packs, 6 Spring Koffee Gels, 6 Spring SpeedNut Gels, 12 Spring Endurance Drink powder packets (Pina Colada & Pomegranate Yam). 1 bag gummy bears. 1 spork. Note- liquid calories worked best. Granola & Oatmeal food worked well.
Gear: Montane 30L pack, 2L bladder, 1L Katadyn water filter, S.O.L. bivvy, Eddie Bauer Flying Squirrel 40 sleeping bag, Rock Sok bear bag system, aluminum emergency blanket, Kogalla night light with 2 battery packs, spare head lamp, GoPro, cell phone, Garmin inReach, Black Diamond Carbon Z poles with duct tape, Garmin Fenix 6 watch. Osprey ultralight fanny pack held incidentals- toothbrush, toothpaste, ChapStick, tums, simethicone, band aids, dog bags, trail toes, insect spray, hand sanitizer, wipes, cash, ID, sunglasses, and backcountry permits. Clothes- hat, buff, gloves, Patagonia H2No jacket & pants, Arc’teryx winter jacket, 2 sports bras, 2 pair Darn Tough wool socks, Hoka Mafate, a short sleeve and long sleeve shirt, Brooks leggings, and Dirty Girl gaiters. Note- Each piece of clothing was used. Gear was 100% dialed in. Could have lost weight with the GoPro. What’s missing? Bear spray/Knife.
Travel: Nine-hour drive time each way, without gas refuels, between NJ to Tennessee and returned via NC to NJ. On the drive down we split the time with an overnight stop as this journey began after a full day of work.
Day 1 Late Start. We treated ourselves to an amazing diner breakfast to pack on the calories. Southern hospitality shined through when “Tony, the trucker from Austin, Texas” paid our bill. What a way to start the day. We promised to pay our good fortune forward and shared a little overview of our grand plans with Tony and the waitresses. I was smitten by their twangy accents. We drove down to the hostel, left the jeep, and took the shuttle two hours to the trail head. Our driver Mike was eager to share Every Detail of His Life during Every Single Minute of the drive. I was kind, listened, and smiled. It was a very long two hours.
We arrived at the trailhead around 3pm. This set the stage for us to push our pace in attempts to cover 23 miles and 6,000+ feet of gain. We were treated to tough climbs and expansive views all while carrying 20+ pounds of supplies on our backs. We ended the day with 6 miles in the dark, yelling “Hey Bear”! We humbly negotiated the mountain terrain over 7.5 hours which included a dinner break at Mollies Ridge Shelter with about 30+ through hikers. The terrain, late start, and weight of our packs proved quite challenging, and we stopped at 17 miles. At this point I had and shed a few tears. Thank goodness my mood lifted shortly after dumping my emotions. Onward. We eventually called it a night at the more sparsely filled Spence Field Shelter. It was a beautiful night, despite the snoring chorus within the shelter.
Day 2 Late Start. I’m not sure that either of us had more than a few hours of sleep, but we packed up before sunrise and planned on making up some time. The first six miles were technical with about 2,000 feet of gain. It took us close to three hours. The roots continuously stacked upon each other across the steep climbs. We were starving by the time we reached Derrick Knob Shelter, promptly ate breakfast, and filled our bladders. During this stop I switched to just liquid calories to avoid fidgeting with pockets throughout the day. Multiple pockets are an absolute must on the trail, but it doesn’t quite compare to the energy saved by constantly sipping the calories as you dig deep into the forward push across the mountains. It was absolutely the most time efficient choice to make that day.
We spend the rest of the day into early afternoon traversing the ridgeline. The features of the landscape slowly evolved into old forest during this section of trail. The dense trees encapsulated the climb up to the highest point of the Great Smokie Mountains and third highest mountain east of the Mississippi at 6,643 feet. Quite frankly, the climb up Clingman’s Dome had a demoralizing effect. I noticed that the mood had changed for Nikki, and perhaps for Kristina, as well. It was starting to dawn on us that yesterday’s late start significantly pushed our timeline off. After a short snack break, we started the six-mile technical descent down the trail. We knew that there was still going to be another 16 miles to go once we reached the parking area. Our mindsets had significantly shifted. I was personally still feeling optimistic but knew that realistically there were other options. My thoughts kept lingering to the previous night’s traverse where the bears must’ve been hovering in the treetops as our night lights glowed over the trail. At one point, I stopped and turned to the ladies and threw out some alternate options. We had a come to Jesus moment and opted to hitchhike into town with a return to the trail in the morning. Afterall, it would’ve been another challenging night of miles to reach the shelter.
Once the decision was made to alternate our plan, the mood slowly shifted. As we passed a construction parking lot, I saw a small crew (including a female worker) pulling in. I automatically yelled, “Hey! Do you have any room to take us into town?” Worker, “Yeah, how many?”. I quickly responded, “Three skinny girls!”. I didn’t want to take the chance of getting a told there wasn’t enough room. And this became my joke mantra. Skinny, tired, but strong as heck. This signified our journey. Worker, “Yeah, your lucky, we are just finished for the day!” And off we went into town where we filled our bellies, showered, and prepared for the next day.
Day 3 It’s a Beautiful Day! A complete energy shift occurred as we returned back to the trail. We started further up the AT in North Carolina and with only 20 more miles to go, there was extra motivation to attack this trail. THIS is what we came for. A long climb up to Mount Cammerer in NC, long smooth descents, waterfalls, and we met Katie from the Hudson Valley in New York. We even had an unusual use for Nikki’s first aid kit as we used the scissors to cut off my sleeves, it was hot! The trail was a brutal finish climbing 1,500 feet in 2 miles towards the end, but nothing could break our spirits. That is, with the exception of the long black snake crossing the trail in the last mile. It’s always comedic to see Nikki’s even-tempered personality spike up with surprise, or laughter, or excitement. The snake had to have been at least a few yards long.
Once we reached the jeep there was a huge sense of redemption. It was time to collect some rewards. Nothing could top spirits, food, and laughter. The elation was topped off with a visit to Tennessee Moonshine where we were treated to various flavors and mixtures of smooth goodness. Pulled chicken from Gill’s food truck was no ordinary affair. You see, Gill talked to us about the quality of his pork versus chicken for that day and offered up a bottle of mango habanero whisky to accompany our feast. We chatted it up with Walking Jesus and let me tell you, if I said it once I said it a hundred times, people are good and odd in the best ways.
The last leg of our trip took us to the isolated mountain town of Hot Springs, North Carolina. Dogs frolicking and kinship a plenty. Rest is always the most critical part of any training, so we expertly applied the theory. When asking about the lore, as told by a local worker, you can see the steam rising from the underground springs on cool mornings. On a historical note, “Then came the German internment camp. Hosted at Mountain Park Hotel in Hot Springs, this prison held more than 2,000 civilians. Most prisoners came from German and Austrian commercial ships seized when Great Britain declared war in 1914. The US government called these individuals ‘enemy aliens’.” – Lauren Stepp.
We spent a proper time checking out the town and in the natural mineral baths doing a trip review of daily peaks and pits. We even made time to tackle on some more trail time on the AT before heading out the next day.
Spirit has been filled. Legs feeling strong. Fast packing in the mountains while carrying 20+ pounds on your back is really humbling. Time to work on lightening the load.
Stats: 100 kilometers depending on who’s watch we followed. Over 18,000 feet of vertical gain. 3 days.