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An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike: Part 8 - Hot Springs, North Carolina

Updated on February 5, 2013

"We began our day with a big goal: to hike from Mt. Sterling Village, just outside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, 34 miles to Hot Springs, NC."

The Appalachian Trail turning off a Forest Service gravel road near Hot Springs, NC
The Appalachian Trail turning off a Forest Service gravel road near Hot Springs, NC | Source

Big Goal

We began our day with a big goal: to hike from Mt. Sterling Village, just outside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, 34 miles to Hot Springs, NC. We started hiking at 4:45 in the morning. The moon was full, but we had to watch our step anyway. The weather was nice – clear cool and no wind. We were helped out by about 5 miles of hiking on a dirt road. By one o'clock we had gone 19 miles. We kept going, but we didn’t make it to Hot Springs. We did, however, hike 27 miles.

It was dark when we started out. The trail went up and down for a while and brought us close to Interstate 40. We could see the glow from the streetlights and hear the whining of the big truck wheels. The sky brightened as we hiked to reveal a blue sky. We move fast throughout the morning, and we finally took a lunch break at one o'clock after we finished the five-mile road walk. The road was a remote backwoods road with a variety of homes along it. We passed everything from tidy ranch houses with well-kept yards, to trailer homes, to ramshackle shacks with rusting cars and machinery in the front. At one point we saw man next to a weather beaten house that needed a lot of maintenance. We both nodded and said hi. He didn’t speak. He just gave us a long hostile stare. He was holding a shovel or a broom or something. After walking past his piercing eyes for a very long couple minutes I was glad he wasn't holding a shotgun instead.

Over lunch we were pleased at how far we had come. We started out again with the aim of hiking another 15 miles to Hot Springs. I think Dave could've done it, but my legs didn't have too much left. We made another 8 miles by evening time because I kept falling behind. In the end we stopped and set up the tent about 7 miles out from Hot Springs. I could tell Dave was disappointed that we didn't make it all the way, but he shrugged it off. Still, at 27 miles, it was the most mileage we had traveled in a single day so far on the trip.


A sign greeting hikers as they enter Hot Springs North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail
A sign greeting hikers as they enter Hot Springs North Carolina on the Appalachian Trail | Source

"The small towns that the AT runs through are one of the most unique things about the trail. For Dave and I, the trail towns gave the AT a special cultural characteristic that was unlike any other backpacking trail that we had ever hiked on."

Trail Towns

The next day we hiked through snow to Hot Springs. We went 7 miles without taking a break in two hours and 45 minutes. The snow fell quite hard, and it was pretty on the branches. We got into Hot Springs, did our laundry, and got a hotel room for $25. Hot Springs is a pretty little town situated along the French Broad River in the middle of the Pisgah National Forest. The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs right through the middle of the town. The white rectangular trail blazes change from being painted on the trunks of trees to being painted on telephone poles and occasionally on the road surface. The AT runs through a number of small towns along it's 2000 mile length and when hiking from south to north, Hot Springs is the first small town a long distance hiker encounters. A case could be made that Wesser, N.C. is, but since that is really just a whitewater outfitter's complex and there are no residences, I consider Hot Springs to be the first.

The small towns that the AT runs through are one of the most unique things about the trail. For Dave and I, the trail towns gave the AT a special cultural characteristic that was unlike any other backpacking trail that we had ever hiked on. It's difficult to describe the feeling of hiking for a morning in cold wet snow through woods and over mountains and then have the path lead you down through some fields and onto a small country road that in turn leads past more and more buildings until you find youself toting your dirt and sweatstained backpack down the main street of a small town. The townsfolk in these places are quite familiar with AT hikers and are very friendly. Often AT hikers lay overfor a few days in hiker hostels that exist in all the trail towns. Because of that many long distance hikers end up congregating in the trail town hostels and many friendships are made. It is often a good way to finally put faces to names. Often hikers will read notations in the shelter logs from hikers that are ahead of them, and they can never seem to catch up to meet these other people who are attempting the same thing they are trying to do. It is often at a trail town such as Hot Springs where they finally catch up and get to meet the people they have been reading about for days or weeks.

Laundry

There was probably a couple inches of snow that fell during our hike into the town. Because of the cold and the snow I wore my long jeans on the hike into Hot Springs. They got wet and muddy on the way.We had heard there was a hostel in town for a thru hikers, but once in town we found the hotel before we found the hostel, and we decided that by splitting the room we be able to afford it. Besides, that way we got our own shower and a TV. Doing our laundry at Hot Springs was a big event. The last time we had done laundry was at Wesser, and there we had washed clothes in the bathroom sink. Hot Springs was our first visit to a Laundromat. Our method of dealing with dirty clothes essentially came down to separating the dirty from the clean. I kept my clean clothes in one black plastic garbage bag and the dirty in another one. Over time the clean bag would get smaller while the dirty bag got larger. I carried about two weeks of socks, underwear, and T-shirts. I also carried a checkered wool shirt, a windbreaker, a wool cap, my long jeans, and my cutoffs which I wore almost every day. I wore two pairs of socks when I hiked, so I had about 20 pairs of white gym socks with me. I tried to change my socks and underwear every day. On some occasions, where we hadn't been to a Laundromat in a while, I had to get back into my dirty garbage bag to find the least dirty socks and underwear to use. With the amount I used to sweat, within an hour I couldn't tell the difference anyway, except that I'm sure it smelled pretty bad. During the trip we were aware that we smelled bad as a rule, but we were so used to it that I don't think we normally noticed it unless we took a close whiff of our socks at the end of a hot day of hiking. In the mid-90s I took a trip over the Harpers Ferry West Virginia, the location of the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) headquarters. There were some long-distance hikers hanging around( the trail goes right past the headquarters). The first thing I noticed about them was the acrid smell of BO. I realized then that Dave and I must have smelled the same way to people we met back in ‘82. I was unaware of how strong and noticeable it was when I was a thru hiker but it was made clear to me on that later visit to the ATC headquarters.


It snowed a couple inches during our hike into Hot Springs, NC
It snowed a couple inches during our hike into Hot Springs, NC | Source

"In short, he knew how to make a connection. We didn't know it then, but Paul's people skills would prove quite beneficial to us in weeks to come."

Making an Aquaintance


I don't remember much about the Laundromat at Hot Springs except that we saw two other thru hikers there. One was a guy we recognized from the big shelter we stumbled through in pitch blackness at Fontana Dam. We had met him the next day. His name was Chris. The other was an older man we had never met. Chris was sitting on one of the long folding tables while the older man tossed him items of clothes from a dryer so Chris could catch them and lay them on the table next to where he was sitting. The man tossed the clothes in a rhythm, saying hup, hup, hup… at every hup he tossed an item of clothing. Dave and I said hi to Chris and went about our business at the Laundromat. Soon with their dryer emptied, the older man came over to talk with us. His name turned out to be Paul, and he said that he and Chris were staying at the hiker’s hostel. There were other thru hikers there as well. It didn't take long for Paul to become familiar. Within moments he had laid a kindly hand on our shoulders and had found out all about us – where we were from, that we were thru hiking also, how old we were, when we started our trip, and what other hikers we had met so far. He was also a font of information. It turned out that the cold and the snow that we had encountered over the past few days, had hit hard in the high country of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and several hikers who weren’t prepared for deep snow and bitter cold had bailed out of the Smokies at Newfound Gap. In small groups they had made their way to the next sizable town along the trail to get clean and dry and to resupply. That town was Hot Springs. We had been lucky to zip through the Smokies ahead of the bad weather. Now many hikers who started behind us had caught up. We would end up meeting more of them in the days and weeks to come.


Paul made an impression on us as someone with experience and knowledge of the trail especially in the southern portions. He had started a thru hike two years before but had broken it off at Harpers Ferry, about the halfway point. This year he was determined to make it all the way to Maine. Paul was short and stocky he had white hair and a short white beard and gold wire rimmed glasses. He wore a maroon knit cap on his head and a pair of blue jeans. Paul, we quickly discovered, had a way with people. He took an interest in everyone he met. He would look straight at whomever he was talking to and make them feel as though they were the most important person in the world at that moment. He had a habit of gently laying his hand on a person shoulder or back as he talked to them, and he could mirror people's emotions in his own face. In short, he knew how to make a connection. We didn't know it then, but Paul's people skills would prove quite beneficial to us in weeks to come.


"Very few people are so iron-willed that they can completely eschew all modern conveniences for such a length of time."

Thru-Hikers and the Modern World


In the morning we watched TV until 11 o'clock at the motel. We saw the CBS morning show, Donahue, One Day at a Time, and Big Valley. After that we ate at a drive-in hamburger place and bought supplies. At about one o'clock we left and hiked 5 or 6 miles. The day was mostly cloudy and still cold. We both agreed we would be glad when it warmed up. That night we slept under the stars.

It is interesting to look back at our activities that morning as recorded in my journal. When we left on the AT thru hike we, at least partially, envisioned ourselves in the tradition of the famous mountain men like Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, those trappers and explorers that opened up the great American west. With such role models one would think that as soon as we took care of our business in town we would be quick to shoulder our packs and get back to the wilderness and the simple, rugged pleasures of the trail. The truth is that when we got the chance, we chose to linger in our motel room, crashed out on the real beds in front of the TV right up until check out time. I can only speak for ourselves, but I would say that there are limits to most thru hiker's ideas about getting back to nature. Whether it is a TV, a real bed, showers, restaurant food, a ride in a car, or any combination of modern conveniences, most thru hikers welcome them when they come into contact with them after a week or even a few days away from them on the trail. Long distance hiking motivation is a complex thing. Very few people are so iron-willed that they can completely eschew all modern conveniences for such a length of time. For us it was great to be out on the trail, to enjoy the scenery, to travel in a such a physical mode, and to really feel like we were getting to experience the country in a visceral way. But when we came across moments where we could take advantage of the modern world, we were able to appreciate those conveniences more than we ever had before. In other words the trail taught us not to take things for granted and just how special a simple thing like a shower or a few hours in front of a TV was.


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