Day 36 – Thursday, April 14: Ash Gap to Stealth Camp (0.2 miles from US 19E), 18.6 miles, 393.3 total AT miles.

Motivated by yesterday’s good hiking, I woke early, ready to go. I was packed and leaving camp by 6:00. Certain others would soon be following, I started heading up Roan High Bald, hoping to catch the sunrise.

I was sluggish and moving slow. To make matters worse, the blister I treated last night was beginning to sting. I stopped after a mile and changed bandages – temporary relief at best.

While the trail was beautiful (I was again hiking through a spruce forest), I wasn’t rewarded with any views. The descent down Roan was steep – I somehow missed the shelter at the top. I eventually made it the 4 miles to Carvers Gap. My heel was starting to hurt again.

The trail crossed Carvers Gap and immediately starts ascending Round Bald, the first of many balds I would traverse today.

I continued following the ridge and paused at Jane Bald to take a break. I took my boot off and changed bandages again, this time taping my heel tighter and in different directions. After a short snack, I began pushing forward again.

After Jane Bald, the trail descends into the woods. I stopped just short of Stan Murray Shelter at 10:30, having only covered 8 miles on the day. I still felt a little sluggish and my heel was still hurting – although now only when I ascended. It was fine on the downhills.

I decided that I needed a hot lunch. I never make hot breakfasts or lunches, choosing to reserve fuel for dinner only. I hoped that a warm plate of food might give me that extra energy needed to start making miles. Regardless, it did feel good to sit and rest.

I passed Overmountain Shelter, a cool, old barn now repurposed for AT hikers.

Overmountain Shelter also marks the beginning of the ascent up Hump Mountain – supposedly the last mountain at this altitude for quite some time.

I finally made my way to the top of Hump Mountain and took a break. I was about to begin the long, steep descent towards Roan Mountain, TN (a tiny town just off the trail). I initially planned on camping a few miles short of the road crossing, but decides to try to hitch into town given my dwindling supply of Band-AIDS and athletic tape.

During the descent, I hit a milestone – I officially left North Carolina. That’s two states down – and I’ll only be in Tennessee for another three days before entering Virginia – pretty neat.

After successful hitches to and from Roan Mountain to purchase Band-Aids and tape (and a few more meals, considering how much I enjoyed today’s hot lunch) from the Dollar General, I made my way back to the AT.

I still had not seen any of my hiking buddies all day – I actually hadn’t seen anyone. I called Medicine Man on a whim and he picked up. Apparently, he was only two miles back and apologized for not catching up.

As he was descending Hump Mountain, he stumbled across an injured falcon (or hawk) – it had a broken wing. Apparently, he’s done this before – he caught the bird in his sweater and started carrying it towards the road crossing in hopes he’d get cell coverage.

He was now making his way towards me – with Shaggy and the injured raptor in tow. I set up my tent and started a fire. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, they arrive. I started helping Medicine Man construct a makeshift cage by jamming sticks in the ground and covering them with extra clothes.

What a day. Apparently the Carolina Raptor Society will be calling me at 8:00am and will hopefully come to get this bird. He/she really is a beautiful creature.

I made a quick dinner and hopped right in the tent.

When I took off my socks tonight, my heel looked a little better. I hope I got to it early enough.

Neither Shaggy nor Medicine Man know how far back the others are. I’m sure they’ll catch up – there’s nothing but flat ground ahead.

With the extra food I snagged from the Dollar General, I have more than enough to get me to Damascus – it’s 75 miles away and I have a solid four days worth of food.

I need to rent a car once I get to Damascus to get to an REI. It’s time to return my tent. It’s pretty beat up for only a little over a month on the trail. Plus, I need to buy new boots – my Merrells are starting to feel a little flimsy. Then there’s the summer sleeping bag I need to buy and new hiking t-shirt. I figure it’s better to rent a care and drive to an REI (where I have my member dividends to spend) than shell out bucks at some outfitter in Damascus.

Breakfast: breakfast mix, Clif Bar

Snack: bag of beef jerky, prunes

Lunch: Teriyaki Noodle Pasta Sidewith bacon bits and a dash of instant mashed potatoes

Snack: nut mix, 2 Little Debbie Raisin Creme Pies

Dinner: Broccoli and cheese Pasta Side with canned beef, wrapped in tortillas.

Day 35 – Wednesday, April 13: Deep Gap to Ash Gap, 20.3 miles, 374.7 total AT miles.

.I woke up to a hissing sound coming from outside of my tent. It was 6:15am and someone was deflating an air mattress. That meant someone in my hiking group was getting ready to leave. I immediately started packing up.

I emerged from my tent 20 minutes later to find Medicine Man in a similar stage of breaking camp and Moon Boots already gone. It was Moon Boot’s declared goal of reaching Ash Gap – two-thirds of the way up Roan High Knob at 5,500 feet and over 20 miles from where we were camped that evening.

I left camp at 7:10 with Medicine Man on my heels. It was cold – I started hiking in full winter gear as the sun was starting to rise.

The first summit of the day was Unaka Mountain, itself an impressive gain to over 5,000 feet. Unaka was very cool. As I approached the top, I found myself in a dense spruce forest – I wouldn’t have known they were spruces had the AT Guide not pointed it out.

The trail was difficult to find amongst all the trees – I found myself pausing several times, trying to find a white blaze indicating I was still on route.

About six miles up trail, I came to a road crossing and ran into some trail magic. Although I was now hiking in a t-shirt with my pants rolled up, I stopped to have coffee and chat – even scored a snack for down the road.

As I was packing up to leave, Medicine Man rounded the corner. He grabbed a quick cup and the two of us set off for a spring to refill water. As we were nearing the spring, I saw three deer – they took off running as soon as we approached. There was no chance of getting a picture.

After a quick break in what looked like an old orchard, we both set off again. Moon Boots was still ahead and it was nearing lunch time. Today was far from easy – there were several small climbs that really seemed to come out of nowhere and slow me down. We stopped a quarter mile shy of Greasy Creek Hostel and had lunch.

We were hiking again half an hour later, fully recharged, and ran right into Moon Boots – he stopped at the road crossing leading to the hostel to take his lunch. We were right behind him the whole time and had no idea.

The next few miles were fairly easy, but I wasn’t going to be fooled. The last third of the day called for the steep ascent up and down Little Rock Knob, followed by the three-mile ascent of Roan.

I handled Little Rock Knob fine – and was even rewarded with trail magic at Hughes Gap. This time snacks from another thru-hiker’s parents – it was good timing.

The three of us started pressing up Roan. Ash Gap was supposed to have an unreliable water source. That meant I filled up 4 liters (nearly 9 pounds) at a spring 2.5 miles away from camp. What can I say? I like water. But that made my pack heavy and I slowed down considerably.

The climb up was rugged and beautiful – it’s a good feeling knowing you’re only a mile from camp and can slow down. I’ll be honest, if had to hike any further that I did, I would have had to stop and eat. But I pressed on and made it into camp at 5:30.

The campsite is nice – there is actually water up here, too. I set up my tent and was getting ready to cook dinner when Clutch came in. The four of us ate with some other hikers stopping for the night and, after a peaceful sit by the fire, we all started to get ready for bed.

We had been debating for the last couple of hours whether or not the rest of our group would make it. As Moon Boots and I were extinguishing the camp fire, we saw a pair of headlights roll into camp. Savage and Canuck had finally made it.

They got distracted at by the promise of cold drinks and ice cream at the Greasy Creek Hostel and decided to make it a long day. It’s 9:30 now and Shaggy still hasn’t made it to camp.

Tomorrow looks like fun – I’ll be hiking at or near 6,000 feet for the first half of the day before losing elevation considerably as I approach camp – in all, probably close to another 20 mile day.

I’m still committed to reaching Damascus in five days now – that’s 96 miles away. While tomorrow may prove a little challenging, the next four days have some of the flattest terrain I’ve come across yet. I’m excited to see how well I move.

One area of concern is my left heel. I developed a blister today and treated it as soon as I made it to camp. I applied Neosporin and bandages before taping my whole heel up in athletic tape. It shouldn’t be a problem tomorrow – here’s hoping anyways.

Twice today, we ran across hikers battling shin splints – one was getting off the trail at the hostel and the other was trying to take it easy by slackpacking (hiking without your pack, often from road crossing to road crossing so someone can pick you up). Moon Boots is also suffering from a mild case. This trail is more brutal than I thought, for sure.

Breakfast: Little Debbie Frosted Brownie, Coffee Nut M&Ms

Snack: coffee, Banana Moon pie

Lunch: granola, nuts, bag of beef jerky

Snack: granola bar, almonds

Dinner: Salmon in butter pasta with Parmesan cheese and Ritz crackers.