“The hero is commonly the simplest and obscurest of men.” – Henry David Thoreau
I broke camp and descended 1 mile to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a paradise for outdoorsmen. Across a sprawling campus with a river running through it, you’ll find an outstanding outfitter, restaurant, general store, white water rafting, kayaking, and more. It’s the kind of place that sucks you in and makes you want to stay awhile and raise a family and then retire.
My first stop was to the Outfitter to pick up my first food mail drop…3 days of food I didn’t need. Between Trail Magic food and eating less than expected on the trail, I way over-estimated food needs and wish I hadn’t sent either of my two food mailings. I then headed to the restaurant to chow down on some Fontana Hash Browns…onions, peppers, broccoli and tomatoes sautéed and placed over home fries with 2 eggs and melted cheese…and several shakes of tobasco sauce. As I devoured it, along with four cups of coffee and five glasses of water, I watched kayakers practicing their craft in the raging rapids below. I thanked God for carrying me this far on the journey and for this moment of being warm, full, and dry.
After a few rejuvenating hours at the NOC, I began the long…LONG…ascent up to Cheoah Bald. In fact, it’s rated the 5th longest climb on the AT…3000 feet of elevation gain over 5.8 miles. It’s not technically difficult…it just keeps going and going…like a hiker in the NOC restaurant bathroom after eating Fontana Hash Browns with tobasco sauce. On the way up, I came across Simba and Firecracker, aka the Weasleys of Hogwarts, the ginger brother and sister team with sparkling hair.
At mile 140, near Grassy Gap, I found the Wade Sutton Memorial. On December 7, 1968, about 783 feet southwest of the memorial, Mr. Sutton of the North Carolina Forest Service “gave his life suppressing a forest fire, that you might more fully enjoy your hike along this trail.” I stopped and paid my respect to this man and considered the horror he faced as he succumbed to a fire on that steep mountainside when I was two years old. He didn’t become a hero that day…he was already one because he was willing to go into harms way to protect lives and natural resources. I also thought about my nephew, David Watts, and friend, Les Rydl…two men who have made similar commitments to fight fires and respond to emergencies and are heroes as well.
After 7.7 uphill miles, I reached Sassafras Gap and tented behind the shelter. Around the campfire that night, I met some new friends including…
Stone – his trail name comes from 2 sources. First, he hikes really fast downhill, like a rolling stone. Second, he’s a Christian and loves Matthew 21:42, which reads, “Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: “ ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” So the trail name reminds him of who he is and whose he is. He is from Roanoke, Virginia, and is hiking the AT as a missionary, supported by his church.
Abbie – likes to rotate continuously around the campfire, but rejected my suggested trail name of Rotisserie.
Amelie – hails from Birmingham and Hoover High…friend of Abbie…teaches 2nd grade…just out here for a week supporting Abbie’s thru-hike attempt.
The Hikers Formerly Known as ABBA – from Switzerland or Sweden or maybe Swaziland. Individually, I call them Swiss Miss, Fernando, and Dancing Queen.
Moses – another Christian and fast hiker from Louisville Kentucky.
Stitch – a really fun, friendly hiker and ex-Army gal from Gainesville, GA.
Around the campfire, I learned that Wildwood, the 20-year-old special needs hiker, out here with his mom (Driftwood) injured his feet and had to get off the trail for X-rays and a couple days of rest. Also, Maia, my pastry chef friend, went to the NOC outfitter to get new shoes. The foot guy told her that her toes were infected and she needed to get off the trail for a couple of days. Please pray for Wildwood and Maia.
It was a rough nights sleep because I mistakenly thought that tenting at an angle would be fine. As I crawled onto my sleeping pad, I slid to the bottom of my tent like a fat man on a greased slip and slide. I basically had to keep my tired legs extended throughout the night to avoid being in a fetal position at the bottom of my tent.
I awoke on Sunday morning, Easter Sunday, and realized how weird it was to be out in the wilderness on Easter Sunday. As I crawled out of my tent, I heard someone talking over at the shelter and went over to investigate. Turns out it was Stone, giving a thoughtful, encouraging sunrise message about God’s love, Christ’s sacrifice, and the meaning of the resurrection. Great stuff! He also reminded us all that what Christ did is a gift, a present, and each of us has the option of whether to open/accept the present or leave it wrapped and in the box. What have you done with Christ’s gift?
Today I would hit the toughest, short, non-scramble section of the Trail so far…Jacob’s Ladder, at mile 151.7. Brutal! As I gasped for air and felt the burning in my calves, I did what any child of the 80s would do…I put on some Def Leppard and climbed the ladder! At the top, I looked back and told Jacob I was his new daddy.
After 15.2 miles I tented near Cable Gap Shelter with Stone, Moses, Stitch, the Hikers Formerly Known as ABBA, and Terrible Lizard…who got that name when a salamander somehow managed to crawl down into her 2-liter Platypus bag.
As I crawled into my tent, two thoughts came to mind: 1) I was less than 6 miles from the Fontana Lodge and all that would bring; and 2) I had unintentionally and creepily placed myself directly below the privy, giving myself an awkward view of the knees and ankles of hikers doing their business. I quickly zipped up the tent and put in my earplugs.
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