Days 8-11 – March 28 – March 31, 2020, A Story of Our Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike
We awoke on our 8th day on the trail to what seemed to be the start of another beautiful day of hiking and exploration. We were excited that we had made it, safely, into state number two out of fourteen–North Carolina! A whole new landscape of sights and sounds awaited us as we continued north. We had set a lofty goal of making it all of the way to Winding Stair Gap, 31.6 miles north of where we had camped. Our bodies were, of course, very tired and sore, but we were counting on our enthusiastic energy and ambition to keep us moving forward. It was only our 8th day on the trail and we were already becoming very tired of the food we had packed with us from the beginning. As healthy and energizing as our date nut balls, granola, dried fruit, oatmeal, and protein bars were, we were very much looking forward to enjoying something different. In fact, we couldn’t stop obsessing over food. We were craving food that was not all brown and of similar consistency, and we were looking forward to what we were putting in our mouths to not look identical to what was coming out the other end…
We knew the town of Franklin was coming up and we figured perhaps if we could hike into town, we would be able to resupply on some foods that were more appetizing. It was around this time that we were also beginning to hear more and more rumors from other hikers that COVID-19 was growing exponentially into a situation that could greatly impact our journey in a negative way. Hikers spoke of dangerous road crossings ahead where thru-hikers were being attacked by locals, having their packs ripped off of their backs. There was talk of journey-ending fines that we may incur for entering towns of which we were not residents. Many of these mountain town’s locals did not want for hikers to enter their town having just hiked in from another state in fear of hikers bringing with them coronavirus, and then spreading it from town to town as we hiked north. We could understand their concern as many of these small towns are home to a small population of elderly individuals. That said, we knew we did not have many options moving forward. It was either continue our hike or turn around and head back south. But we didn’t know where we’d go after that. Would we just hang out in the woods until the crisis was over? Where would we find food? How long could we hide in the woods? Again, we had already committed so much of our lives to completing this hike. We also knew that we could not count solely on these rumors to make a decision as to what the right thing was to do. So we pressed on.
We hoped upon arriving in Franklin we would be able to do some research of our own and figure out the best plan of action. The terrain was much friendlier to us this day, with minimal elevation change. The scenery was spectacular. Everywhere we looked, the forest was covered in life–colors of green, red, and orange mosses and plants blanketed the Earth.
We had another brief encounter with the lovely Fine Line. She informed us that Franklin, NC was 17 miles off trail. We looked at each other and realized that hiking into town would mean we would need to hike 17 miles, restock, and then hike another 17 miles back to the trail in addition to however many more miles we would need to hike to get to a campsite. In addition, we didn’t know what hiking on the road would be like and how dangerous it could be, especially at night sharing the road with traffic. Fine Line also shared with us that there might be a shuttle taking hikers into town for a very inexpensive fee, but that they were likely shutting it down soon due to coronavirus. While we had vowed not to shuttle or hitchhike into towns, we thought this might be a scenario where it would be necessary. Therefore, we realized our ambitious goal of hiking to Winding Stair was no longer a personal goal–it was necessary to get there before the shuttles were shut down and we had to be there before 9:00 a.m. the next morning.
Later in the day, we also encountered another hiker named “Music Man,” who gifted us a Clif nut-butter bar. Even we were surprised by our own reaction, as we accepted his gift offering as if he had just saved our lives. By this time, we were down to only date nut balls in our packs. We never knew what it felt like to be so wholesomely grateful for food. And as a result of his kindness, the stranger instantly became a friend in our perspectives.
Continuing on, the sun began to escape beneath the mountain and the trail started to dim in our vision. Nighttime was falling upon us and we still had 12-13 miles to hike to get to Winding Stair. Concerned about sneaking up on a bear during their roaming hours, we decided to sing as we hiked. Hikers were starting to thin out on the trail and besides Fine Line and Music Man, we hadn’t seen anyone else on the trail, so we had no shame in singing our hearts out. Singing, “You Are My Sunshine” at the top of our lungs, all of the sudden, we heard the tune being whistled back to us. A man startled us as he walked out of the woods from where he had set up camp in a hidden area. It was very dark at this time. He told us him and his brother were camping for the weekend, and that he comes to that spot every year. He asked us where we were going at night and we shared our plans to hike into the night. He urged us to stop. “You’re about to go over Albert Mountain. If I didn’t give you my warning, I would feel responsible if something happened to you two,” he said in a very concerned voice. We looked at each other, knowing that we both were very uncertain in that moment regarding what to do. Was it more dangerous to hike over Albert Mountain in the dark or to hike into town on sketchy roads with traffic?
“I have an idea,” I said. I remembered that my uncle had said he owned a cabin in Franklin, NC. Maybe, I thought, if we hiked into Franklin to my uncle’s cabin, we could sleep on his porch before hiking back to the woods. Plus, it would give us time and we would hopefully have cell service to figure out what was happening with coronavirus and we could do some research to find out how it might affect our hike.
The man offered for us to use his phone, as ours was dead (as usual), and we gratefully accepted. I tried calling my uncle, but he did not answer. I left a message and hoped that I would be able to get a hold of him the following day. As we returned the phone to the man, he decided to throw out an offer to take us into town in the morning, if we promised to camp where we were and to not continue hiking at night. We were weary to accept his offer, but we didn’t know if we had another choice. If one of us was to get hurt going over Albert Mountain, we felt we would have been foolish to not have taken this man up on his offer. At the same time, the two men were strangers and we were a bit suspicious of their intentions. The one brother did not say a word.
They generously handed us two beers and wished us a good night and told us to come find them at their site in the morning. J was never really a beer drinker, but we were both grateful for any food or beverage on the trail, as long as it was vegan. We set up our tent a couple hundred feet away from where the two men were camped. There was a view of the city of Franklin and I believe it was one of the most spectacular views at night we had seen yet. The image below was taken by B Squared’s 2017 Appalachian Trail Journal. We weren’t able to get our own photo, since the phone was dead.
Around 10:00 p.m., just as we were about to go to sleep, the two men walked by our tent to lookout at the view. They acknowledged us briefly and as they turned to head back to their site, I accidentally panned across them with my headlamp, revealing a gun tucked in the waste band of the quiet brother. I felt my heart skip a beat, realizing how vulnerable we both were in the woods alone with two strangers who had a gun and were camping a couple hundred feet away–strangers who we accepted a ride from in the morning. J could tell I was uneasy. “Should we pack up quietly and keep moving?” she whispered. “I don’t know,” I said. “What if they’re just carrying a gun to protect themselves in the woods? What if we hike over Albert Mountain and fall off a cliff?” I decided to drink the rest of the instant coffee I had and stay up all night to ensure we weren’t ambushed in the middle of the night. Was I paranoid? Probably, but we heard talk of there being a murder on the trail last year and I wasn’t going to take any chances…
You will need to get a hold of our book when it becomes available to find out about the drama that unfolded on these days!