I led a small group of Boy Scouts and two leaders on a backpacking trip this past weekend. I hadn’t planned it this way, but the location and time were perfect for meeting north-bound thru-hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
There was a steady stream of them coming out of Hot Springs, N.C. They all seemed to be happy, well-fed and clean, but that’s not surprising.
By the time a thru-hiker reaches Hot Springs, he or she has been on the trail for nearly a month. The Smokies are done and now the body has turned into a hiking machine.
And Hot Springs is a great place to take a zero day. For some hikers, make that two. It has a popular hostel and, despite its small size, a few of excellent restaurants.
The eight boys, two leaders and I started our hike just across the French Broad River from Hot Springs. We headed up the Roundtop Ridge Trail. At one time that was the AT, and today you can still see in a few places the familiar white blaze that’s used to identify the AT. The trail is a continuous climb for the first three miles, but it never seemed too steep and the smaller boys handled it well. The trail then follows a ridgeline for much of the remaining distance until it connects to the AT.
It was here that we met our first thru-hiker. I’m sorry I wasn’t able talk with him long enough to get his trail name, but at that point the boys were anxious to reach the campsite, so the conversation was cut short.
Our destination was a campsite about 100 yards past a side trail that leads to a fire tower on Rich Mountain. Next to the campsite is a spring.
We were also in a hurry to set up camp because we knew the weather forecast and it didn’t look good. For the last couple days, forecasters had predicted heavy rain and high winds, so we wanted to get in and prepared before it arrived.
By dinner time the rain did come, but it wasn’t heavy, so it didn’t bother us. And by that time what breeze there had been had calmed down.
It was also about this time that two thru-hikers arrived in camp. As they looked around, I told them there was plenty of room just below where we were, and promised we’d try not to bother them.
Later while refilling my water bottle at the spring I had a chance to talk to one of the hikers, NOBO Hobo. For those of you not familiar with AT hiking terms, NOBO is a hiker acronym for North Bound. He was hiking with Matterhorn.
Overnight, we did get some heavy rain, but by 6:00 a.m. it ended. That was just enough excuse for one of your younger scouts, who has — shall we say, an over-abundance of energy — to get up and try to get everyone else up. To waken us, he shouted repeatedly that he had seen a bear.
So much for my promise to NOBO Hobo and Matterhorn.
Getting the boys organized and going in the morning is often a laborious challenge and this time was no exception. But we managed to get on the trail by 9:15 and still without too much rain.
For the return trip we stayed on the AT. Though it’s nearly two miles longer returning this way, the route is primarily downhill and the views near the French Broad River are beautiful.
Well, in clear weather they are. This day, there were no views. In fact, for most of the return trip the rain and the temperatures came down steadily.
But the stream of thru-hikers didn’t stop either, and I had a chance to speak to a few.
The first I talked to was Little Red, who’s hiking partner was, not surprisingly, Wolf, as in Big Bad. From their description of their zero day in Hot Springs, it seems they took good advantage of the restaurants.
I also talked to Castanets, an older gentleman with an unlikely trail name. He explained that his name was chosen because it was the only instrument he could play. After we joked about that he added that he was hiking with Clem, who was, and I’m not kidding about this, carrying an 8 lb. French horn.
In his journal, Castanets explains a little about Clem and his French horn:
I should tell you that Clem is a UGA music major who is on an academic and music scholarship. He was given a 5-6 month sabbatical from his major professor to hike the AT if he would continue practicing his french horn as he progressed north on the trail. As days passed, he would serenade us each evening (when his valves and mouth piece weren’t freezing) helping alleviate much of the daily stress for all thru-hikers. Clem’s instrument and case weighed 8 pounds – a significant additional burden on top of his normal hiking gear.
When Castanets first told me about Clem, I pictured someone just a notch less obnoxious than an accordion player. But that is apparently not so, as Castanets described this part of his journey last month:
Let me tell you, this was the most difficult, tiresome, and demoralizing last stage of any of my hiking days thus far. I felt I had no energy, was completely out of breath, and constantly stopping as I tried to make this last stage of my day’s trek to reach Brown Fork Gap by nightfall. I finally reached my destination and knew I was getting close as I heard the sounds of Clem’s french horn echoing through the hills and gap as I approached the shelter. Never before had music sounded so uplifting and spirit-raising – a real experience for me.
After descending the steep cliff with several switchbacks (where the non-existent view swere) down to the river, we met Tom-B near the parking lot.
The Trail had modified my trailname. “Too Many Birthdays” was too long, so I used the initials, “TMB”, but the number of accents on the Trail range from British, Southern, New England, Swedish, and Canadian, so “TMB” never was heard the same way twice, so I inserted an “O”, which resulted in “TOMB” which seemed rather dark, so I inserted a dash, and became “Tom-B” which works on a lot of levels. Also easier for me to answer to! Nice to be “Tom-B” instead of Tom do!
Finally we reached our cars, soaked and cold but none too worse for wear. The boys did well.
It’s all fun and games until someone falls off a cliff, and because that didn’t happen I’m glad to say it was a successful outing.