Sunday Oct 31st 2021, 1030-1840
Tellico Gap to Rock Gap Shelter, SOBO AT mm 2087.5
5260 gain, 5280 loss
It was another slow start. Sofie made delicious cinnamon rolls and eggs… a real hot breakfast for the 3rd morning in a row. From the Fontana Hilton to Franklin, we’d had a luxurious stretch on trail but it was time to get back to business. There were a total of 137 miles left and I planned to go all the way to the end by staying on the trail, no more hostels, resupplies or trail angel stops. It was time to get this done.
I’d just realized that I could make it to Georgia, the 14th state, on my 100th day and that seemed like a fun goal to shoot for. Originally I’d hoped to finish the whole trail in under 100 days. I’d ended up close enough, especially if I didn’t count my 4 zeros. I’d averaged more than 21 miles a day over the whole trip, a stat I was pretty proud of. I did wish I had spent more time with Sofie and Arthur, maybe even taken a zero. But I’d been so distracted by the trail, my blog, and the logistics of finishing, I didn’t have the capacity for being very good company. I was just too motivated and focused on finishing. I actually felt a little guilty, wondering if Sofie and all the other Trail Angels knew how much I truly valued their support and graciousness. Had I complimented them enough on their fantastic meals, thanked them enough for going out of their way to shuttle me around? I can never express how much they have all meant to me on this journey but I think about these friends when I’m on the trail each and every day. I reminisce about our experiences together for hours at a time as I hike, a mental exercise to pass the miles and also recognize my gratitude.
About a week prior to this, I’d come up with an idea to prolong my time time on trail and with friends. At the end, I thought I might just turn around to re-walk the last 100 miles back to Franklin. It seemed a little ludicrous and pompous to add more miles to an already long journey but the benefits were that I could see my friends again without the pressure of finishing the trail and have more time to figure out how I was getting home. It would also be fun and rewarding to do a reunion hike of sorts, running into all the SOBO’s that would be finishing in the next few weeks as I hiked north. But this plan involved a lot of logistics, like where and how I would resupply near the end at Amicolola Falls. It would also depend on the weather and my energy levels. Leaving Franklin, with all the good food and improving weather, I felt up to the challenge.
Sofie drove us back to Tellico gap while Arthur tried to beat us on his mountain bike…the car won out in the end. The clouds had cleared in the valley but the ridge was still socked in. There was a little drizzle but not enough to even bother with my umbrella or rain jacket. We were fairly confident the sky would clear by the afternoon (even though we’d been wrong about this several times before). Then just as I was going up toward Wayah bald, the clouds finally parted. It was a wonderful feeling after so many days of clouds and rain. It even brought tears to my eyes. I’d been so emotional in the past few weeks, thinking about what the end was going to be like. I was both ready to be done and yet I wasn’t…typical conflicting feelings nearing the end of a thru hike.
I caught up to Mud by the Wayah stone fire tower. He was changing into his Halloween costume…or rather he was taking off most of his clothes to do a rendition of Jesus as a thru-hiker. Between his beard, longish hair, skinny frame and pack sores, he was a ringer for the part. He’d even made a crown of thorns from some local brambles. I took pictures and video while he did his best poses. I’m not religious but even I felt a little awkward participating in the scene. Several tourists were out for a day hike to the tower and must have had some pretty strange thoughts. Ironically, with the sun coming out and the beauty of the mountains shining through, it did feel like we were living a miracle moment.
We continued down towards Winding Stair Gap, where I had one final Trail Angel visit planned. I’d accidentally left my camp shoes at Donna’s cabin and she was intent on getting them back to me. I’d tried to convince her to just bring them back to Miami with her, I could manage the final week without them. But I guess this gave her an excuse to go for another leaf-peeping drive on a day when the sun finally was out. She also wanted to check out a nearby waterfall. I’d estimated that we’d get to the gap at 5 pm, but then we took far longer than anticipated taking ‘Jesus of Wayah’ pictures. Wayah means wolf in Cherokee, BTW. I feared we’d be late but our ability to pick up the pace had become exceptional and we made it exactly by 5pm. Donna was of course there on the spot and sporting hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. So for the 4th night in a row, we had a hot meal provided for us. We were blessed. Thank you again Donna.
After wolfing down our sandwiches in the parking lot, we made a hasty bid for the nearest shelter, 4 miles further down trail. It was already getting quite cold and we arrived at dusk. There were no other people but we did join a healthy company of mice. It was nice to be back in the woods in such a quiet and peaceful setting. Sleep came easily, unlike the night before when I was lying awake, full of anxiety about the end and my plans being up in the air. For now, on trail was still where I belonged.