Day 13 – April 2, 2020, A Story of Our Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
Another first for J Bird and I… sleeping in an igloo! Okay, so we didn’t actually sleep inside of an igloo. An igloo would likely have been warmer than our tent. We woke up to bright beams of sunlight shining in on us, reflecting off of the sheets of ice that had developed on the inside walls of the tent. The vestibule doors of the tent were frozen solid. I had to break the ice to get outside to get the food bags. We ate some hot oatmeal and packed up quickly to avoid being pelted with large chunks of ice and snow that began falling out of the trees as the sun’s warmth grew stronger. The low had gotten down to 24 degrees, and it seemed as though our sleeping bags provided no warmth whatsoever.
As we got into the groove of a steady hiking pace, we warmed up quickly. In fact, only a few hours into the day’s hike, the temperatures had risen enough that we felt comfortable to hike in shorts and tee shirts. It was a welcomed relief. Around mid-day, we stopped at a road crossing to have some lunch, catch up in the journal, and soak up some sun for a while. A forest ranger drove up the road and parked close to us. We felt anxious as we watched the ranger step out of the truck to post a “Trail Closure” sign at the trailhead. If he decided to ask us where we were heading or where we had come from, what would we say? Was there going to be a problem if we told him that we were continuing north? We still felt so uncertain about all of the rumors we had heard from other hikers about trail closures, fines, and non-resident ordinances in the small towns that we would be passing through within the next couple of days. We never intended to break any laws or disrespect the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, but again, we considered how we had literally invested our lives into hiking the trail. We couldn’t consider what we would do or where we would go if we were to be forced off the trail. From what we had read on the ATC’s website, they cannot actually close the trail to the public except for three of the parks that the trail cuts through. To our relief, all the ranger said was, “Good luck..”, and he went on his way. As soon as he left, we quickly packed up and got moving. We hiked at a fast pace to put some distance between us and the road, as we had become very uneasy about any road crossings and possible encounters with law enforcement.
Nervous about encountering more obstacles up ahead, I decided to call the post office in Fontana as soon as a bar of service appeared on the phone to assess our situation moving forward. The postal worker I spoke with was fairly friendly at first, but as soon as I responded “yes” when he asked if we were hikers, the tone of his voice instantly changed. He very quickly became hostile toward me and actually started to yell at me over the phone. He informed me that there were only thirty residents in Fontana, all of whom are elderly, and they have already lost three residents due to Coronavirus. He told me that everyone working in Fontana with the exception of the Sheriff, utilities crews, and himself, had been laid off. He also warned of a road block set in place at the edge of town, and any non-residents could incur a $1,000 fine if they were to enter the town. This warning was not taken lightly. We knew we would not be able to resupply in Fontana, but we still wondered if there was a way we could hike passed the town without being seen or causing any trouble. We also very quickly learned that we didn’t know who we could trust. The warning signs posted at the trailheads were all very vague and contained no actual citation number or any official documentation at all. Were they legitimate or were they just there to discourage people from hiking on the trail? It was confusing to us because we felt much safer in the woods social distanced from everyone than being back in the city. That said, we did understand the concerns of the small town residents who didn’t want long-distance hikers passing through their home from another location and possibly spreading the disease. Therefore, we continued to research the CDC’s recommendations for safety, as well as monitor the ATC’s recommendations for hikers every time we managed to have service and battery on the phone. We were willing to respect and follow all recommendations, except for: exiting the trail.
We kept moving. The terrain was very steep and rocky. Our pace slowed substantially as hiking became more technical. We trekked up and down some wildly steep switchbacks, and J Bird’s knee started causing her a lot of pain. The downhills seemed to take the biggest toll. We arrived at a large, slightly dilapidated old lookout tower. It creaked and moaned as the cold wind blew through it. As unstable and rickety as it looked, we had to climb up and check out the view, of course. It felt like we were climbing around inside of the pterodactyl aviary in Jurassic park 3. The view was spectacular. We stayed up in the tower just long enough for a couple of smooches and a few pictures, but we knew we had limited daylight, so we didn’t stick around long.
We entered a portion of the trail that gave us the impression that we were no longer hiking in North Carolina. It was as if we had stepped into another world as we traversed across several miles of highly exposed ridgeline with the path being only a few feet wide. On either side of us, there was a cliff face at least a couple hundred feet high. The winds howled as they came up the rock face and blew over the top of us in a constant chilly gust. There were burn marks scattered around on the rocks and small trees that had been scorched due to the frequency of lightning strikes on the ridge. We hiked past a huge rocky cave that we were sure was a black bear’s den. As it became later in the day, it was obvious that this environment was unsafe for tent camping, so we needed to descend quickly and safely. We held hands to help each other as we tiptoed our way down the incredibly steep and rocky path. We knew that a simple miscalculated step could result in an extremely dangerous fall. After what felt like hours of slow and methodical descent, we reached a small basin at the bottom of the mountain. The sun had started setting, and we were relieved that we had made it to a safer location to set up camp for the night.
We landed at Roofus gap. There was a shelter, a privy, and a large open area next to a mountain stream for tenting. Three other hikers had already made the clearing their home for the night. Thankfully, there was plenty of space to give each hiker distance and privacy. We set up our tent in a lovely spot down the hill from the shelter, close to the stream, and we began gathering firewood. We started a fire and sat down to warm our aching, weathered bodies, as well as cook up a pot of rice. Not long after we got the fire going, Donatello and another hiker came down the trail and walked over to join us around the fire. It was nice to see a familiar friendly face, as we had not met the other three hikers yet, and I had a bit of a nervous vibe about them when we had first arrived. Donatello was happy to see us as well. The other hiker who walked with Donatello went by the name “Beast,” and he was also heading northbound to Maine. We chatted with the two for them for a little while before retreating to the tent for much-needed healing and sleep.