During the March to May thru-hiking season, many of the local residents supplement their incomes by providing shuttle services between the towns and the trailheads. There is actually a list of registered shuttle providers on the ATC website and the hotel had a list of recommended drivers as well. After calling several numbers, I finally contacted Gene who agreed to pick me up at 8:00 am for the 11 mile ride to Dick’s Gap for $15 (he was returning to take G2 and Spotted Hen to Unicoi Gap after dropping me off). CCOTT agreed to share the ride with me, but after Gene was 25 minutes late, they decided to try and hitchhike to the trailhead. Just as they put their arms through the straps of their backpacks, a guy walks into the lobby and says that he is headed to Dick’s Gap and just stopped by to see if anyone needed a ride. Wow. So cute that they don’t even need to stick out a thumb! I can’t keep track, but for those of you that are keeping score, add one more to the trail magic tally.
Just then, Gene arrived and we added the Swiss girl and the German man to the passenger list (they hike together because being multilingual, they can find a common language with which to communicate), so the ride was only $5 apiece. We all arrived at the trailhead together, and with the adrenaline pumping, took off to stay ahead of the expected crowd. Even the obligatory climb out of the Gap didn’t seem to bad.
The wind was sharp, and there was some ice on the trail, but I had a fairly steep climb up Buzzard Knob to keep me warm. After 4.5 miles, however, I turned the corner to face a sight I will never forget. Starting at Plumorchard Gap, began a 1.3 mile trail section that was devastated by last year’s forest fires. Still smelling like a fire pit, the sight was so ugly and so sad that it was gut wrenching. The only saving grace was that it appeared the the fire roared through so fast, that the larger trees were barely scorched, so there is hope for a full recovery. Pictures cannot do justice to the actual experience.
At mile 78.2, I reached the first major milestone of the trip when I crossed the state line while leaving Georgia and entering North Carolina. One state down and only 13 to go! I have seen many pictures online of that border crossing sign, but somehow, my expectation was for something more. I mean where was the marching band, cheerleaders, and fireworks? Since I hadn’t taken a break since I started that morning, I decided it looked like a good place to stop for a snack and some water. Within a few minutes, over a dozen other hikers arrived and the state line became an impromptu party spot on the trail. It was one of those wonderful moments where everyone was laughing and cutting up while sharing a well earned milestone together.
The jocularity ended a mile later when we arrived at Bly Gap. Some folks had planned to camp there, but we had reached an altitude above the snow line for the first time, and the wind was blowing in excess of 30 mph over the snow covered campsite. Continuing on, we immediately encountered our North Carolina Welcome Wagon gift in the form of a freezing 900 foot climb straight to the summit of Courthouse Bald. You would think that we would be getting used to these by now, but the Courthouse found us guilty of overconfidence. Another one of those climbs for the books.
Following the descent, we arrived at Muskrat Creek Shelter where, apparently, everyone coming from Hiawassee (and then some) planned to spend the night. In the end, there must have been 25 tents and a full shelter for our outdoor reunion. Not only did we have a couple of section hikers from NC there, but also Cousin Eddie, Peacewalker, Tada, Chuckles, and Boo Boo. Even 5 Star joined the party having braved the Wednesday weather while walking from Unicoi Gap. She reported that the rest of the original bubble had taken a shuttle from Helen to Unicoi Gap, got out of the shuttle for a minute, then got back into the shuttle for a return to Helen.
Thankfully, Cousin Eddie and Boo Boo are aspiring professional arsonists, so I enjoyed my first campfire of the trip. We enjoyed the warmth of the fire until hiker midnight (sundown) and then retired to the warmth of our sleeping bags. The thermometer in my tent says it is already down to 27 degrees.