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An Appalachian Trail Thru Hike: Part 10 - Erwin, Tennessee

Updated on June 19, 2013
We had images of pizza pies dancing before our eyes as we hiked toward Erwin, TN.
We had images of pizza pies dancing before our eyes as we hiked toward Erwin, TN. | Source

Nolichucky Expeditions

Dave and I had been hiking with two other thru-hikers over the past few days. Paul and Mark, our new companions, had told us about a place to stay near Erwin, TN. It was a whitewater rafting outfitter on the Nolichucky River called Nolichucky Expeditions. The previous day we had gotten out in front of Paul and Mark and camped by ourselves. We were in a hurry to reach Erwin because Paul and Mark had also informed us that there was a Pizza Hut in town with an all-you-can-eat (AYCE) special that lasted from 11:00 – 2:00 every day. With visions of pizza pies dancing before our eyes, we hiked 15 miles in five hours to make it to Nolichucky Expeditions. Nolichucky Expeditions differed from Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), the whitewater rafting outfitter where we had stayed earlier in the trip. Whereas NOC was on the main road and it had a festival atmosphere while we were there, Nolichucky Expeditions was located at the end of a long gravel road that branched off the main road, and it was a sleepy place during our stay. The last half hour of hiking was in the rain, and it was the hardest downpour we were caught in for the whole trip. The rain came down in buckets for a while. We carried rain gear – I had a poncho – but when I tried hiking with it on, it was uncomfortable. The rain had been falling for a while at a lighter rate before the downpour hit. We were already wet and the downpour hit so fast that we didn't bother trying to get our rain gear on. We did put black plastic garbage bags over our packs to keep our clothes and food dry. Throughout the trip we tried to avoid hiking in the rain. Sometimes that was unavoidable, but for the most part we were able to hole up somewhere during really rainy periods.


The Nolichucky River seen from the Appalachian Trail
The Nolichucky River seen from the Appalachian Trail | Source

" In a sense we were becoming like animals whose instincts always lead them to sniff out food where ever it is, and when it is available, to gorge on it as a hedge against hard times when there is little or none to be had."

Animal Instincts

We paid the four dollars per person that Nolichucky Expeditions charged for hikers to stay in their bunkhouse. We then left our packs there and hurried back to the road to walk the 5 miles into town. The Pizza Hut was there, but we ended up being too late for the AYCE. We ate there anyway, but it was a much more modest meal than what we were hoping for the whole day. As compensation, we also ate at McDonald's, and finally Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was fun, but we spent a lot of money. After our cravings were sated we bought supplies.

The skies cleared off in the afternoon when we were eating at restaurants and buying supplies in Erwin. We had gone into town before Paul and Mark arrived. They came into town separately and we ran into them when we were coming out of a supermarket where we had bought our supplies. Of course we told them all about our eating exploits, and they told us about their hike in. It turned out that the staff at Nolichucky Expeditions would make trips into Erwin just about every day with their van and they would let the hikers that were staying there know when they were going so they could catch a ride. Paul and Mark arrived at Nolichucky Expeditions just as someone from the staff was leaving with their van, so they were able to get a ride into town.

Somehow during our few days hiking with Paul and Mark we impressed upon them that we ate a lot. It probably had to do with how much we talked about food. We talked about what we ate at earlier stops, what we wish we had in our packs, and what we hoped to get at upcoming stops. They had also seen us eat at a few general stores along the way. At any rate, they seem like they wanted to witness a major feasting in Erwin. They had definitely been egging us on while on the trail, telling us all about all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut's and how much one hiker they had known ate at one place and how much another ate somewhere else. By the time we got to Erwin, Dave and I were even more psyched than normal for food and we went a little overboard, spending more money than we should have. There might have been some showing off involved, but regardless of any reputation we were trying to live up to, we were hungry young hikers who were constantly burning calories. Therefore we were constantly looking to replace what we burned. On top of that we were teenagers who were not yet full-grown. We had extra needs for calories due to that. I don't know how aware we were of that last factor. I suppose we believed we were pretty much full-grown at the time, but now I realize that I still had a lot of growing to do before I reached full size in my 20’s. The result was that our obsession with food was penetrating into our subconscious. In a sense we were becoming like animals whose instincts always lead them to sniff out food where ever it is, and when it is available, to gorge on it as a hedge against hard times when there is little or none to be had. That must have been the force at work as we stood on the sidewalk outside the supermarket talking with Paul and Mark, catching each other up on what we had been doing over the last day and a half. As we talked I absentmindedly unscrewed a peanut butter jar we had just bought. Unconsciously, I used my finger to scoop a little bit of peanut butter from the surface of the new jar and popped it into my mouth.

Suddenly Paul pointed at me and cried out, “My God! He’s still eating!”

Everyone looked at me with my finger in my mouth. They all laughed. I was somewhat embarrassed. I hadn’t even realized what I was doing.


"I was reminded of the story of Peter Jenkins, the author of the famous book, “A Walk Across America”. "

Stories Heard Along the Way

That evening back at Nolichucky, Dave and I were in the bunk house loading the food into our packs. Once again we had loaded up on cans of food such as green beans, corn, peaches, pears, turkey with gravy, and Denty Moore beef stew. A couple of the staff at Nolichucky Expeditions had started hiking the AT the year before. They had started in Maine and had hiked south until they reached Nolichucky Expeditions where they found out they could stay and make a little money while living in the bunk house. One of them came around and saw us packing. His name was Kat. He was a friendly, talkative guy. When he saw us packing, he stopped and shook his head.

"Whoa, that's a lot of weight,” he said.

We gave him our standard explanation about how was worth it to us to have an extra heavy pack for a few days so we could have some good meals with fruits and vegetables and meat while on the trail. Kat listened to our explanation with a dubious expression like others had done before him. He dropped the subject, however, and he moved on to other topics. He had a lot of stories to tell. He had hiked from Maine along the trail, but he had stopped a few times along the way and had taken temporary jobs. I was reminded of the story of Peter Jenkins, the author of the famous book, “A Walk Across America”. He had set out to walk across America and had supported himself along the way with jobs he found along the way. Sometimes he stayed in places working for months before he decided to move on. Kat, it seemed, had the same mindset. He talked for a long time and we mostly listened.

I don't remember most of what he said, but one story of his stuck in my mind. He was sharing a shelter or a cabin somewhere with an older guy who was an ex–marine. The older guy cut his finger with a knife. There was no first aid kit and they were in a remote place without a way to get him to a doctor. There was blood everywhere. Kat knew he had to clean the wound, but all they happened to have on hand was a bottle of whiskey. So Kat told the older man to grit his teeth and he held the man's arm with one hand and poured the whiskey all over the bloody cut with the other. The man screamed and tried to pull his hand away.

Kat struggled with him a while, until he finally said “Hey I thought you marines were tough.”

As soon as he said that, Kat told us, the old man buttoned his lips and held his hand out as steady as a rock while Kat poured the rest of the bottle over the cut. Then he just wrapped it up with some clean strips of cloth and they both hiked out to civilization the next day. That is an example of the kind of stuff Kat told us that evening in the dimly lit bunk house of Nolichucky Expeditions while we loaded and reorganized our backpacks.

"Clash of the Titans"

We stayed another night at Nolichucky Expeditions. Around 10:00 the next morning we went into Erwin again. We ate lunch at the Pizza Hut AYCE and then just walked around town. After returning to Nolichucky Expeditions we spent the rest of the day lazing around reading. While in town we had seen that “Clash of the Titans” was playing at the movie theatre. At about 6:30 Mark and I decided to go back into town and see the movie. The van wasn’t going in to town so we had to walk. We ended up seeing the late show and we got back at about 12:30 in the morning. Since we weren’t carrying our backpacks and it was a nice evening, it didn't seem like such a long walk. The movie was a fun diversion. “Clash of the Titans” starred Harry Hamlin as Perseus, the mythical Greek hero who killed Medusa, flew on Pegasus, and saved a princess by killing the Kracken. Sir Lawrence Olivier played Zeus. It was recently remade with updated special effects.

The fact that we chose to stay at Nolichucky Expeditions for the entire next day indicates that we were getting more comfortable with the idea of hiking for distance in spurts and taking time off for recharging in between. At the beginning of the trip spending a perfectly good day not hiking might have bothered us but by this time we had developed a different outlook.


An example of a terrain profile.
An example of a terrain profile. | Source

Terrain Profiles

The next day was easy hiking. We met the newlywed couple we had originally met our first night on the trail on top of Springer Mountain. We hadn’t seen them since the Smokies. We talked for a while about what was coming up on the trail and they gave us a look at their guidebook. It appeared that hiking up Roan Mountain was going to be quite a climb. The guidebook they had was one of the highly detailed guidebooks published by the ATC covering the AT in sections. Those guidebooks are sold along with topographic maps that cover a corridor around the trail. Like all topographic maps, they showed how steep the terrain was. The closer the topo lines were, the steeper the slope was, but those maps had one additional feature that Dave and I had never seen before – terrain profiles. Along the bottom of the maps were graphs that showed elevation plotted against mileage with elevation on the Y-axis and mileage along the X-axis. A continuous line represented the elevation change with distance hiked. The effect was what looked like a sidecut of the mountains and ridges that we were hiking. It was a graphic depiction of the slopes, both up and down, that were coming our way. Dave and I both thought the profiles were pretty cool, and we resolved that when we got the chance, we would purchase some of the detailed sectional trail guides that came with maps and terrain profiles.


"It is a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine so there are plenty of sections that have to go through private property, or when permission for that cannot be obtained, along roads."

Relocations

That night we ended up staying at Cherry Gap lean-to along with Paul and Mark. It was 15 miles from Nolichucky Expeditions. One of the main topics of conversation when we camped with Paul and Mark was the trail ahead of us. With their earlier experiences, they knew a lot about the trail and about old sections of the trail. The trail is constantly evolving. It is a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine so there are plenty of sections that have to go through private property, or when permission for that cannot be obtained, along roads. Both these situations are not considered to be ideal since private property can always change hands and road walks are not considered conducive to the wilderness experience. As a result, the collection of local ATC chapters are frequently constructing new portions of the trail whenever more secure land access is procured. The new sections cut out old sections by linking one spot to another via a different route. Often these new sections (or relocations as they are termed) are only a few miles in length, but sometimes they can be very long.

The various trail guides were full of relocation descriptions. There were two types of trail guides. First were the official trail guides or data books that were and still are published by the ATC. The second were unofficial trail guides that were typewritten sheets that contained a lot of information that the official guides didn’t always contain. Often this included helpful tips about where good snacking opportunities were or helpful people or stores to visit. Dave and I eventually figured out that many of the tips Paul and Mark passed on to us such as the AYCE Pizza Hut in Erwin, or that Nolichucky Expeditions let AT hikers stay in their bunk house for $4.00 per night, came from what they read in the unofficial trail guides that they picked up earlier on the trip. One that they were particularly fond of was a stapled packet of Xeroxed sheets called the “Bootlegger’s Guide”.

The shelter logs contained a fair amount of complaining about relocations. As with any new trail the footpath on relocations tended not to be packed down and was sometimes difficult to follow. Sometimes there was mud since experience with the new path hadn't yet exposed spots susceptible to getting muddy so that footbridges, corduroy, or stepping stones could be placed. In many instances the relocations took convoluted routes, adding mileage in order to put the trail on property where the access rights were more secure, or so the trail could lead through the woods instead of along a road. In some instances viewpoints or pleasant hiking was lost. Hikers familiar with those circumstances would vent their frustrations in the shelter logs or face-to-face with other hikers. The “Bootlegger’s Guide” offered alternatives to hikers that preferred the way the trail had gone prior to the relocations. Paul and Mark liked to take advantage of those opportunities and often Dave and I ended up following along. The more we found out about Paul and Mark, the more interesting they became. Mark, we discovered, had been in the Navy when he had been our age or slightly older. When he wasn't hiking the AT, he worked as a restaurant manager. Paul had been a navigator in the Merchant Marine during World War II, and he had traveled the world. Just prior to starting his hike he had worked as a cook in a cafeteria. All our lives the relationships Dave and I had experienced with adults had been that of adults being authority figures. This was the first time we were dealing with adults as peers.

Looking back on it, I see that the venom in the shelter logs aimed at the trail clubs wasn't fair. Their concern was for the long-term viability of the trail. They were dealing with legal realities as well as physical realities. Just because a few farmers were nice enough one year to allow hikers to traverse their lands, that didn't mean they would be as nice the next year, especially if a few bad apples came through and tore down a fence, did something stupid with a fire, or just created more erosion on some of their fields than they expected. If a farmer decided to sell some land, the next owner might not be as accommodating. Then there was always the threat of development. At any time landowners could decide to sell their property to developers with the purpose of making maximum profits from their land. This often meant subdividing parcels, building houses and selling them. In that case the trail would have to be relocated, not out of choice, but out of necessity. The more development that took place in an area that the trail had to pass through, the more difficult it was to find a viable passage without traveling over more and more roads. Therefore whenever the ATC chapters, assisted by state and federal agencies, had an opportunity to purchase land or to obtain development rights from landowners, those opportunities were pursued. When such arrangements were made, the trail would have to be rerouted to take advantage of the opportunities. Hikers, 99% of whom didn't know the full story, then started complaining. Actually, we did understand in a vague way why it was happening, and I suppose others did as well, but that didn't stop us from complaining and looking for ways to follow the older, more established routes.


This is an example of a volunteer maintaining a trail. On the AT, volunteers maintain and sometimesconstruct new sections of trail for relocations.
This is an example of a volunteer maintaining a trail. On the AT, volunteers maintain and sometimesconstruct new sections of trail for relocations. | Source

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