On prior hikes, I planned my days so that I would stop for the night at the Nantahala Outdoor Center or NOC. The complex of buildings sits at the intersection of the AT and the Nantahala River and is dedicated to a wide range of outdoor activities including hiking, white-water rafting, kayaking, and zip-lining. A 2,500ft descent into the NOC followed by a 3000ft climb out also makes this a great location to split a hard hiking day into 2 easy ones.
Since I’d hiked extra miles the day before in order to get dry at the Aqoune Lodge, I planned to stop at the NOC for lunch, then continue hiking to a shelter on Sassafras mountain. The early morning views as I descended into the gorge were amazing. I love looking down at the mountain tops that poking through the low cloud ceiling before the sun burned them away. I imagined that Monica was hiding in the trees to make the view perfect.
After a quick lunch at the NOC, I began the relentless hike up to Sassafras shelter. It rained most of the afternoon. I should be getting used to hiking in wet clothes, but after a few hours, I’m thinking about being dry even more than food.
Sassafras shelter is a large 2-level shelter with covered tables, benches for cooking, and plenty of nearby camping. I arrived around 5:00pm to find that there were already 15 hikers in the shelter, and several more congregating around the tables. I wedged myself into the upper level, having decided earlier that day that I was going to give “sheltered life” another try. Besides, I didn’t want to set up my tent in the rain. I changed into dry clothes and snacked while listening to 2 drunken section hikers (fortunately southbound) discuss solutions to the worlds problems. I also recognized the familiar faces of the Hiker Bubble from my earlier attempt to stay in a shelter. I learned that this group were calling themselves the “Hootin’ Hoodlums,” and all 9 of them were present and accounted for. Those pesky kids…
I went to sleep late, enjoyed the thunderstorm and rattat-tat pelting rain on the metal roof. Then the symphony of snoring, farting, shifting sleeping bags began. It was oddly comforting to be part of the pack.
I woke just after sunrise feeling well rested, but too lazy to get out of my warm sleeping bag. I was only 21 miles from my next stop at Fontana Dam, but saw no point in pushing myself to get there in one day. Hiking in the morning mist was beautiful, and cool, and peaceful. The birds even sounded echo-ey. Green was annihilating Brown in the war of color dominance over the landscape.
I ran into several of the Hoodlums at a road crossing called Steacoah Gap. Some kind soul had left a pile of bananas and apples which we all ate together. Trail Magic like this was becoming so common that I barely thought about how unusual it would be to discover that someone had left free fruit for a group of homeless-looking people to snack on if we were back in the city.
The calories from the fruit went to good use as we climbed a section called “Jacob’s Ladder.” There was never a point that it was steep enough we had to use our hands as well as our feet to climb, but it was steep enough to feel like an accomplishment when we reached the summit. There were periodic owl-like sounds echoing from the forest above and behind me. A pair of the Hoodlums (Rabbit and Tim) that happened to be hiked with me answered back with a hoot of their own. So, this is why they call themselves the Hootin’ Hoodlums, I thought, and well…I guess it’s a more natural form of noise pollution than honking horns and cell phones ringing. I couldn’t resist the urge to sound my own barbaric bray. I knew it might be presumptuous to include myself as another Hooter, and hoped that my “Hee-Haaw” would conjure images of a valiant pack mule, rather than a stubborn Jackass.
The “Hootin’ Hoodlums” joined me at a shelter just a few miles away from Fontana Dam. This time, I was firmly entrenched in the shelter by the time they arrived, we hadn’t had rain all day, and space wasn’t much of an issue. We had all hiked the same terrain, under the same conditions for several days and my social barriers were fading (a bit).
Several of us gathered firewood, and soon we had a cozy campfire going. Stories, and trail names, were exchanged. One hiker, named Mountain Goat (so named because he carried the skull of a goat that had been poached on his property) noticed that I didn’t have a zip-lock bag big enough for my iPad and gave me one as extra protection from the rain. This time, when the “does anyone want to try this?” questions started floating around, they looked at me too. The dehydrated beef stroganoff is delicious.
Those pesky kids…