ONLY BY THE SOUND OF YOUR VOICE

Miles hiked thus far: 343
Current location: Nolichucky River near Erwin, TN

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I took an unexpected day off when I reached Hot Springs, NC, mile 274.4. I had packages waiting at the PO and because the snow had slowed me down(and rumor had it that the snow shut the PO all together that friday), I didn’t walk through the quaint, hiker friendly town until 6pm on Saturday evening. What was a girl to do? Well, first I walked up to the Sunnybank Inn, a 200 year-old Victorian home that now serves as a hiker hostel. The price was fair, the ambiance welcoming and by morning, I’d sit around the table with Elmer, who is the owner, host and hiker himself(he hiked the Appalachian Trail in 76′), in addition to a handful of other day hikers. He made up one of his famous vegetarian breakfasts: omlet, with a side of bread, fresh fruit and granola to ensure every hiker was fed and full.

I decided to call my friends Jolie and Carl in Ashville, friends who lived in Bend up until that summer until Carl took a job as a brewer at Oskar Blues. They spoiled me silly with fine, crafted brews and endless plates of food. Sautéed brussel sprouts with pork belly in a porter cream sauce…kale salad…roasted beets with cheve and pistachio. And then later after I was showered and lounging in cotton pajamas, we watched TV and ate big ol’ bowls of a delicious mexican beef stew. It was hard leaving the next day.

Back to the trail, this last section hasn’t been the most eventful one, similar to this meal that I’m currently trying to ingest. I found it in a hiker box, as the assortment of dried vegetables was enticing, but it included white rice and the type I suspected was no two-minute rice, but more like the twenty. Thirty minutes later, I’m still trying to palate this unappetizing meal. Seriously, what kind of hiker leaves non-instant rice in a hiker box? That’s just cruel. Which for those unaware, hiker boxes can be found in hostels, outfitters, and other common hiker hangouts. It’s a take some, leave some sort of thing, where you leave behind extra food, gear and unwanted items. This meal being one of them. I vow never to eat rice on the trail again unless it’s with my delicious and easy to rehydrate Backpacker’s Pantry Meals.

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I also vowed to not hike after dark if there is snow, which there has been since Clingmans Dome in the Smokies, ten days ago. I broke that vow a few times and fortunately ended up fine, but it’s something I don’t want to do, even if that means I’m chugging away 16 and 17 mile days. The nature of the trail is generally pretty easy to find during the day, but that’s because I know what to look for. This section hasn’t been well-blazed, and more often I look for the impression of the trail beneath the snow, or fallen wood that has been cut, because as of lately, the popularity of white blazes have become few and far and sometimes what you think is a blaze is actually grey lichen miraculously in the shape of a rectangle and at the appropriate height of the would-be blaze. Sneaky! Plus, hiking at dark instills this lonesome feeling in me. I know, big shot hiker is afraid of the dark and gets a little lonely out here at times. Nothing a little music and a warming shot of whiskey can’t cure!

Some of the highlights of the last few days included bumping into another northbound thru-hiker, Blizzard. By now, I’m several miles ahead, but for a few nights, we shared one another’s company. Funny thing is, neither he nor I could identify each other effectively in daylight as for the most part, we only know one another by the sound of our voice. Either he or I would show up after hours, the miles always taking longer than predicted. We’d laugh about the boldness of the shelter mice, or recall the whereabouts of the trail, or talk about remedies for knee pain. It was fun catching up at the end of the day. But then there was the night he showed up, by the light of his headlamp, with a dog. Blizzard doesn’t have a dog. Who is this dog that immediately got on my bad side because it came into the shelter and knocked all my stuff over and tried to eat my dinner, and otherwise disturb my peace? And who is this dog that now had Squackers in it’s mouth. Squackers, I have failed to mention, is the mascot I’ve been carrying ever since Springer Mountain when a southbound hiker gave it to me. Squackers is a plastic orange duck, with pocodots and rides on the top of my pack. He squeaks like a plastic duck should, but of course he’s a duck that would quack if he could, hence the name that I embedded upon him, Squackers. And Squackers doesn’t belong in some random dog’s mouth! The story is that this dog started following Blizzard, and that he had an impossible time telling the dog to go home. I honestly don’t think he tried very hard (you’re a very kind, polite and patient man Blizzard!), and most certainly he did not use effective commands to get the dog to stay back near those log cabins on the aptly named log cabin road. I know that dog wouldn’t have lasted a heartbeat with me, but poor Blizzard having to put up with this dog, hungry and cold and shivering all night against his poor sleepless soul. I’m not sure what came of the dog, or Blizzard, but I suspect that he called the number on the collar when he reached the next road crossing and the dumb animal went back to one of those log cabins on log cabin road. (I’m not the biggest fan of dogs these days, especially when I’m tired from a day of miles and I have a territorial defense when it comes to food).

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But today was good, the highlight being Big Bald, a 5,516 foot peak with 360-degree views. There’s a decent snowpack leading up to and down from the bald, making for real slow progress, but once you get a few miles north, the miles get easier and you can really get into a nice little groove, weaving in and out of all the drainages on the canyonside.

And now, just before hiker midnight, I realize that I have not seen another person today. Hopefully it will yield a good night’s sleep and the shelter register’s entry doesn’t prove true: apparently this area is haunted.

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