Day 1: 19 miles
We woke up to our alarm, and got out of our warm comfy bed for the last time in a while.
At 8:30AM, Jen came to our house to pick us up. Her kids are used to being strapped into the back seat of her car. An hour and a half later, we were at the NOC, and our trail friend Rob (trail name Donner) met us there with another thru-hiker (AT class of 2018),Russell (trail name Savage). The two of them are doing a ~60 mile loop with the Bartram and the Appalachian Trail, and they had just done a 20 mile day the day before to reach us.
We started the long ascent on the Appalachian Trail up to Cheoah Bald, a 3000ft ascent. Having only gotten going at 10:45AM, and knowing that we had almost a 20 mile day to do, I tried to set a decent pace. The climb, however, was relentless.
The Bartram Trail officially starts at the top of Cheoah Bald, so you have the choice of either an out-and-back on the Bartram, or starting on the Appalachian Trail (a slightly more gradual ascent). John felt hot spots on his ankles and stopped to tape them up. We took brand new shoes for this trip – something we never recommend that anyone does.
At the top of Cheoah Bald we had a terrific view, and stopped to eat a late lunch. Given that it was already 2pm and we had done less than 5 miles, I started to question our goal. But, since daylight savings was a week ago, we knew we had quite a bit of sunlight.
The Bartram diverged unceremoniously from the AT a few steps later.
It was like exiting a highway onto a dirt road. The trail was soft and covered in leaves whereas the AT was bare and hard, having seen thousands more hikers in recent months. We descended from the top of Cheoah Bald along a beautiful stream with many impressive waterfalls.
We reached a stream crossing, and Donner painstakingly took off his shoes and socks in order to do the crossing barefoot. John and I simply plowed through with our quick drying Astrals (basically water shoes). Before long there was another stream crossing… and then another. Donner and Savage tried over and over to keep their feet dry while performing impressive rock jumps and log balances.
We reached a road, and after a nice flat section on a paved bike trail, we got to a parking lot and quickly got disoriented trying to follow the blazes. Finally, a fisherman showed us the way, and we headed up our second large climb of the day. My shoulder and right hip started bothering me. Same old problems, different trail. I kept my head down and kept plowing forward.
As we reached the golden hour (the hour before sunset), we started descending amongst rhododendron thickets. Soon darkness started to fall, but as we got to a landmark, we figured out we had only a mile left to complete our 19 mile day. I was impressed.
I soon pulled out my headlamp. I’m always the first to put out a light because my night vision is not good. The four of us completed the last part of the last mile with the help of my headlamp. We got to a nice camping spot along a stream and set up camp and ate dinner. It got cold fast, and my fingers were numb despite my hands being in gloves. I didn’t take long to jump in the tent and crawl into my two (yes, we each brought two) sleeping bags.
John took off his shoes, and to his horror his socks were covered in blood. He had massive blisters on the back of his ankles and they had popped. This is the first time John has ever gotten blisters, and we guess it is because they redesigned the heel cup on the shoes he’s wearing. He put some Neosporin on his ankles and put them in some dry socks for the night. Hopefully we’ll stay warm.
Day 2: roughly 20 miles
I think I must have snored last night because I vaguely remember waking myself up snoring. That’s a first. I must be getting old. John tended to his feet and we packed up and got going.
We walked along the Nantahala River for miles. The trail was easy, but sometimes hard to follow, and the river was high, so when the trial got close to the river, it was sometimes washed out.
We eventually got to a paved road, and after crossing it, we started walking on a gravel road, diligently following the blazes. We walked fast, hoping to get to a promised gas station and restaurant before they closed for the day. Eventually, however, the trail dead ended at a concrete road completely submerged by the Nantahala River. It looked pretty daunting, but upon further inspection, we saw blazes on the other side of the river. We stood there dumbfounded for a while, checking our maps and wondering why on earth there wasn’t any warning about this.
We decided the best option was to attempt to ford the river. We prepared and linked arms. We got maybe 10 or 15 ft into the river before my feet started slipping under me. I was the lightest so I figured it was up to me to make the call to turn back. We got back to the bank and spent some more time staring at the map trying to figure out what to do, It turns out tat the Bartram Trail on the Nat Geo map is incorrect compared to the way it is blazed and also compared to the trail notes we were following. But we could walk 2 miles back to the road crossing and walk on pavement around this section. So, that’s what we did.
When we got to the road, I was worried about the amount of extra time and miles we were adding to Donner and Savage’s hike. They already had planed a 20 mile day followed by a 4 hour drive back home before work the next day. A 24 mile day sounded painful. As we walked the road, I stuck out my thumb.
Time passed, but eventually a pick up truck pulled over and drove us to the gas station. That probably saved us a mile or two, and a bunch of crappy uphill road walking. We were happy. Sadly, however, the gas station was closed. It was a good thing we weren’t counting on it, but it would have been nice to stop in for some more snacks.
We carried on, and followed the trail back into the woods straight uphill towards Wayah Bald. The trail was steep and we were all a bit tired at this point. My neck/shoulder problem was bothering me, as usual, and I tried to focus on one foot in front of the other, but I eventually stopped and took some Advil.
Before we got to the top of Wayah bald, we intersected with the Appalachian Trail, and this is the spot at which we had to bid Donner and Savage farewell. They would hike another 2 miles downhill to their car, and we would continue on. It was so nice to have other hikers join us for a stretch of trail, it was sad to see them go. But, as a parting gift, Donner gave us a few of his extra snacks. I downed two to three granola bars on the spot.
After they left, we continued uphill to Wayah Bald. There is an observation tower on top, and the views were phenomenal.
The cold wind drove us off quickly though, and we scurried down to start looking for a campsite. The Bartram soon diverged from the Appalachian Trail, and we carried on. Soon we found some flat ground to call home for the night. We’re above 5000 ft here, and I know it’s supposed to drop below freezing down in Asheville and Franklin so we’re in for another cold night. I’m so glad I have two sleeping bags!! I have no shame.
Day 3: 14-ish miles
We were warm last night, perhaps even warmer than the night before. It’s all about campsite selection. We picked the perfect spot – not in a valley, not near a stream, and somewhat protected by bushes.
We started what I had imagined to be a 10 mile mostly downhill section towards Franklin. I guess mostly downhill isn’t completely inaccurate as we did wind up at a lower elevation than when we started. For those of you veteran AT hikers reading this blog… do you remember the section of the AT they called “the roller coaster” in Virginia where the trail went up and down about 13 times? Well, that’s what this was like. We went up and down so many “PUD’s” (pointless up and downs), that I actually started to get annoyed.
I mean, I’m a hiker, I don’t generally mind going up and down a bunch, but I think what got to me was that trail was often times slightly steeper than was actually comfortable (like you had to climb on your toes, and descend slowly and carefully). Admittedly, my mind was also fixated on the all-you-can-eat Asian buffet that I knew awaited us in Franklin. My mouth watered.
At least I still had some Doritos left in my pack to polish off. I sat down and rummaged through my pack.
“Where are the Doritos?” I asked John
“What Doritos?” He replied
“MY Doritos!!” I barked
“I thought we were sharing” He said sheepishly.
“There were TWO bags!”
“They’re all gone…”
John looked at me with big puppy eyes.
“What do you mean they’re all gone?! You unceremoniously polished off two bags of Doritos without offering me any!?!”
I sighed. The Asian Buffet lingered in my mind for a minute as I swallowed a few spoonfuls of peanut butter can carried on.
As we descended, the first wildflowers started to appear: blood root, a beautiful while flower. And another strange green plant we didn’t know (if you know it, please tell us!)
We reached a road, and started the long road walk through Franklin. Road walks are boring, but I don’t mind them as much as I used to. I guess New Zealand changed me. As long as I don’t have to walk down a busy highway with no shoulder, I’m happy. Not that I want to be walking on a road. I’d happily skip it. But I understand that sometimes in order to connect two bits of trail, a road is sometimes the only way.
Before we knew it we were at Walmart resupplying. We bought five days worth of food and then dragged our heavy backpacks into the Asian Buffet and gorged ourselves.
We’re now spending the night at the Microtel. The lady here made us sign a piece of paper specially for hikers noting that if we got anything dirty, they’d charge us for it. They also handed us some non-perfect towels so that we wouldn’t get their perfectly white towels dirty. I wish all hotels gave towels like that to hikers. I was happy that they knew how to treat hikers, so I went back to the front desk and asked if they also had non-perfect sheets because John has bloody blisters on his heels and we didn’t want to get blood on their sheets. They told us no, but if we got blood on their sheets, they would charge us for it. I went back to my room with a somewhat sour taste in my mouth. I kind of wish they just put on their website that they don’t really want hikers staying at their hotel. I would have gone somewhere else.