I woke up early and cold again. In Hiawassee, I sent home the heavier of my winter clothes. I was a little worried I had done so prematurely, but to my surprise, I was plenty warm with all of my remaining gear on.
I retrieved our bear bags and quickly packed up. Similar to the drive to make Unicoi Gap last week, I set off in the early morning fog to hike 22 miles.
I finally decided to stop and have breakfast and then lunch 10 miles later in Betty Creek Gap at noon. I was making good time as the trail leaving Standing Indian was gentle, but that would soon come to an end.
The Albert Mountain ascent was easily the most difficult I’ve experienced on the trail. The trail literally went straight up the mountain. I put the trekking poles away for the first time and scrambled up the boulders. It was exceedingly difficult but a lot of fun.
At the top of Albert Mountain, I climbed an old fire tower for some amazing views. And the group still hadn’t caught up to me.
North Carolina has been absolutely beautiful so far. The size of the mountains and valleys are so much larger in NC than in GA. I passed Long Branch Shelter and paused at Rock Gap. It was about 5:30. I had just under 2 hours to make the final 4 miles to Winding Stair Gap.
I thought about bears. I thought about hiking in the dark. But I pressed on. I really wanted to complete my first 20+ mile day. And I wanted to be at Winding Stair when I went to bed so I could be one of the first in line to catch a ride to Franklin, NC.
The hike to Winding Stair was surprisingly gentle. I emerged from the woods to find a gentleman in a Jeep waiting at the trailhead. I didn’t even have time to take my pack off before he asked me if I was looking for a ride to town.
Truthfully, I wasn’t. I was content waiting at the gap til morning. Plus, my hiking buddies were still miles behind and presumably meeting me here soon. I explained the situation and the gentleman told me he’d give me a ride back to the gap after buying snacks at the store in town.
I graciously accepted his offer and bought chips and Powerade for myself and my hiking buddies (if they made it all the way as we had planned).
As he was dropping me off at the trailhead, I noticed four headlamps standing in a circle. I hopped out of the Jeep and into the excited embrace of my hiking buddies. They were as shocked that I hiked the 22 miles by myself as I was.
We made an impromptu dinner buffet in the parking lot and set up camp on the side of the road.
I’m looking forward to a day off in Franklin tomorrow. I need to make a few gear purchases and mail some (more) unnecessary gear home. I’ll also need to buy some sort of a brace for my knee.
While my knee feels better than it did yesterday, I’m still using caution as it hurts from time to time. My feet, on the other hand, are doing great – no hot spots, no blisters.
Breakfast – The last of my almonds, dried cranberries and beef jerky.
Lunch – Couscous with spam, also the last of both.
Dinner – Powerade! Chips! Instant mashed potatoes!