“I’m a hiker, not a thru-hiker. You can’t go for a jog and then call yourself a marathoner…or take a few courses and then put a “PhD” after your name. I’ll be a thru-hiker when I reach Katahdin.” – Sir Fob
I awoke refreshed, re-charged…and to a roaring campfire. (Thanks, Night Whisperer!). Albert Mountain notwithstanding, this had the potential to be a big mileage day. My heels felt much better and I wanted to get within striking distance of Franklin and a hot shower and meal.
I ate a pop tart and half a Baby Ruth candy bar, turned on my AT Playlist, and motored out of camp. I played Leap Frog with Once a Day…not the actual game as that would have been awkward and inefficient…rather, we kept passing each other as we stopped for water, snack time, etc.
As we approached Mooney Gap, I spotted a car, some chairs, and a table of food…yes, it was time for some Trail Magic, courtesy of The Wanderer! I had a Coke, a glazed donut and a hot dog with 2 Advil and mustard on it. Bert arrived shortly after me, and bummed 2 cigarettes off The Wanderer…gutsy move. As I sat there in pure hiker bliss, I told myself that somehow, somewhere, someday, I’m going to set up a magnificent trail magic stop along the AT and encourage others the way these stops have encouraged me. Little did I know I would shortly be burning every one of those calories to conquer Albert Mountain.
Albert Mountain…where to begin? I measure difficult climbs by the number of times I have to stop, catch my breath, and wipe the dirt off my tongue. Albert…Big Al…Fat Albert…takes the prize, so far, as the toughest climb for me. It was also the first time I had to scramble, i.e., put the trekking poles up and climb hand over hand up and over boulders and things. I climbed to what I thought was the summit, only to find there was another section. After grinding up the second phase and thinking I was done, I looked up and saw a fire tower still another quarter mile ahead and straight up. Halfway through the vertical scramble, as I gasped for air, 2 young day-hikers with Fannie packs blew past me talking and laughing. I tried to trip the second one with my pole but wasn’t quick enough. In another moment of exhaustion and moral weakness, I may have, under my breath, called them “loser punk kids.” My reward for grinding it out was a magnificent view, although the top of the fire tower was locked.
On the long descent off Albert, I paired up with Maia, the pastry chef from Indiana. Over the next hour, I learned more about the pastry business and kitchen drama than I ever thought possible. As she talked, I seriously considered changing my trail name to Creampuff or Strudel Steve. I also learned that Maia hasn’t slept well and has way too heavy a pack…so she’s wondering whether to continue. I tried to encourage her and we discussed ways to lower her pack weight.
I stopped for the night at about mile 108.2, on the mountain between Wallace Gap and Winding Stair Gap. It had been a fun 17.5-mile day, my longest yet. And I had positioned myself for a short hike to Winding Stair Gap in the morning to catch a shuttle into Franklin.
I zipped myself into my cocoon and put my earplugs in. Then, as I laid there alone on that mountain top, my thoughts turned to my wife…and warm pastries.
I awoke highly motivated to get to Franklin, my next trail town. I broke camp and hiked 1.6 miles to Winding Stair Gap. As I approached the parking lot, there was a couple set up to provide some Trail Magic!!! Not just any magic, but piping hot breakfast burritos, courtesy of Jim and Beth! He is a former Special Forces soldier who worked at Joint Special Operations University…so we knew some of the same people and shared some stories. Really cool of them to be out on a chilly morning feeding hot food to hikers.
A short time later the shuttle arrived, driven by the one and only Ron Haven. Talk about an interesting guy. He’s been a professional wrestler. He promotes gun shows. He’s run for County Commissioner. And he’s well known to hikers for offering a free shuttle and owning a hiker friendly hotel and hostel in Franklin. On the drive in, he gave us an overview of Franklin and key points of interest. He made it clear that he offers the shuttle to one and all, regardless of whether you stay at his Budget Inn or hostel.
I ended up getting a room at Ron’s Budget Inn and began working the trail town checklist…hot shower…check. Laundry…check. Chopped sirloin steak wrapped in bacon + fries + salad + bread + 2 waters + 2 diet cokes at Normandie restaurant…check. Re-supply at Ingles…check. Outfitter to replace carabiner I gave Matt…check. Print $20 Smoky Mountains National Park permit…check. And then I spotted a t-shirt shop across the street and had an idea…I’ll leave that one for you to figure out. I returned to the room to rest and get caught up on March Madness.
Being a Wednesday afternoon, I researched options to attend Bible study that night. I found a Westside Church of Christ and called its contact number. John, the preacher, answered. He and his wife, Joan, were not only willing to pick me up, but insisted I let them treat me to the restaurant of my choice. Wow…just wow! God is so good. I chose a local Mexican place and devoured 5 scrumptious enchiladas and enjoyed chatting with then. We shared a lot about our respective families. One of their sons has written a Christian evidences book, Unraveling Evolution, which I plan to read. Another son has faced some challenges related to his prior military service and time in war zones. I plan to call him to tell him about his awesome parents and see how he’s doing. After dinner, I enjoyed our Bible study…ironically, it was on benevolence. As John taught the class, I kept thinking here’s a guy who, along with his wife, just practiced what he preaches. I’m thankful that, once again, God has put people in my path to encourage me.
Verdict: A+ grade to Franklin, NC…this town loves and supports its hikers. And they would have one final parting gift the following morning…
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