I have made it to Erwin, TN, 340 miles up the trail from Springer Mountain, GA. My hiking trip has taken a sharp turn. But, let me bring you up to that point before I tell you which way the turn goes.
I left you last at the conclusion of my first day in Hot Springs, NC. Because of a flood of hikers into the town after a spring snow storm, I was not able to get lodging at my preferred place: The Sunnybank Inn, operated by an Appalachian Trail legend, Elmer Hall. I stayed at the Iron Horse Inn up above the restaurant and bar that had the open mike night the evening before. First thing the next morning, I arrived at the kitchen door of the Sunnybank Inn to be greeted by a young bearded man who was preparing breakfast for what looked to be a large group of people. He told me to come back around 10:00 to talk with Elmer Hall. I left a letter for Elmer that I had been carrying for 164 miles carefully tucked into my food bag. The letter was from my friend Darry Wood who I had stayed with back on Buck Creek near Hayesville. I assumed that part of the letter was Darry’s way of introducing me to Elmer.
When I returned at 10:00, Elmer was in the kitchen. He was kind and welcoming, but I could tell he was checking me out. I had heard that he had the reputation of sometimes selecting his guests carefully. He told me I was on the waiting list and to return at 11:00 to see if they could fit me in. Elmer had a policy that everyone staying with him had to sleep in a bed; no one slept on the floor, couch, etc. I would have gladly slept anywhere.
While I was waiting for the 11:00 hour, I paid a visit to the public library in Hot Springs to send my last email to you. I then returned to Sunnybank. I was in! Elmer showed me to a private room upstairs with an adjoining bath. It was just like returning to my grandmother’s house! The room was furnished with antiques, and the bed was covered with a down comforter. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
I mentioned in my last email that I arranged with Elmer to have my daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, Matthew, join me and the other guests at Sunnybank for supper that night. Elmer does not usually let non-guests eat his famous vegetarian dinners, so I felt lucky. But I felt doubly lucky for another reason. Tonight, Elmer was preceding his dinner with a Seder, a Passover feast for the local Jewish community. You see, Elmer has a very ecumenical attitude about religion. He once taught in the Divinity School at Duke University, specializing in Middle Eastern religions. I figured this Jewish feast would broaden the religious horizons of my daughter, her husband, and myself.
This day, my first “zero day,” continued to work out like a dream. I had picked up a welcoming letter and some gift certificates the night before at the Iron Horse Inn. They were from Tyler Buckner, one of my old NCSSM students. One of these certificates allowed me to take myself and two others to the Hot Springs Spa for a mineral bath and also a foot massage. The mineral bath was exquisite with swirling 101 degree water from a natural spring next to the French Broad River. These treatments undid much of the abuse I had been heaping on my body for the first 271 miles of the Trail. When I returned to Sunnybank, Elizabeth and Matthew were just pulling in. The evening was a grand reunion. I was concerned that my appearance might scare Elizabeth since I had given up shaving for the Trail. I figured I looked like a skinny Robert E. Lee or maybe more like a wild Willie Nelson. But she said I looked great.
Over the next day I learned a lot about Hot Springs and the Sunnybank Inn. I learned that the town was first named Warm Springs, but a developer in 1890 convinced the town to change its name from Warm to Hot. A fabulous hotel and mineral baths were built at the same place I had taken my mineral bath the day before. People flocked to the new Hot Springs from miles around. In World War I, the hotel was commandeered by the US Military for use as an internment camp for more than 2000 German naval officers who were caught off the shores of the United States. Amazingly, the government allowed some of the wives of these officers to stay at the Sunnybank Inn. The Sunnybank at that time was operated by a Mrs. Gentry as a boarding house. Mrs. Gentry was also a collector of mountain ballads and stories.
This strange combination of POW camp, wife lodging, and mineral springs got even stranger when one of the German wives smuggled a letter to her husband in the camp. The letter was hidden in the collar of the couple’s German shepherd dog. A prison break was hatched! The woman rented a row boat and met her husband on the shore of the French Broad at 5:00 one morning. The prisoner got into the boat with the lady and the dog, and they slipped silently away. They took the French Broad to the Tennessee, the Tennessee to the Ohio, the Ohio to the Mississippi, the Mississippi to New Orleans, where they arranged passage to Mexico. The next Christmas, Mrs. Gentry received a letter from the German couple, now in Berlin, thanking her for her hospitality at Sunnybank.
Elmer Hall hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1976. He stayed at the Sunnybank Inn, then operated by the third generation of Gentrys. The next year, he returned and bought the inn from the Gentry family. He began his odyssey of providing meals and shelter to the thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail.
On my second, very relaxing, day in Hot Springs, I had a little extra time on my hands. I plopped myself down in the front yard of the Sunnybank Inn with my pad, pencil, and ink pen, and spent three hours doing a pen-and-ink drawing of the place. That night at the family-style dinner, the rest of the thru-hikers and I presented this drawing to Elmer in appreciation for all he has done for the AT hikers. He seemed touched.
I had now spent two zero days in Hot Springs. The Trail was calling me! The next morning, Friday, April 10, I shouldered my pack and walked out of Hot Springs in a pouring thunderstorm. I walked down the main street, crossed the French Broad, and climbed the trail that led up the high mountain outside of town. I hiked past a famed “Lover’s Leap” cliff and on to the Spring Mountain shelter. The next morning, I hiked in the rain down to Allen Gap and the paved road, NC 208 / TN 70. I noticed a sign tacked to a pole: “Trail Magic! Turn right on road, go 350 yards to ‘Welcome to North Carolina’ sign, driveway on right. Belgian Waffles, more. It’s worth the walk!” I had not experienced any trail magic since Fishin Fred, so I followed the directions to a beautiful log home. I was met by Hercules and FAL (Free at Last), thru-hikers from 1992. I was served a progressive feast of waffles, pork stew, and a banana split. I loved every minute of it. By the time I finished, the place was full of hungry thru-hikers. This was the Saturday before Easter. Hercules and FAL made an offer to all of us: stay the day and evening with them, they would feed us well, put us up, take us to church the next morning, and then put us back on the trail. Many of the group decided to stay. I decided to press on.
I noticed a pain developing in my right leg as I climbed out of Allen Gap. At the top of the mountain, I took 400 mg of Ibuprofen and headed on. I wanted to get to the Jerry Cabin shelter, another seven miles away. By the time I got there, the pain in my leg was pretty bad. The strange thing was that I didn’t remember any slip or fall that could have caused an injury. Was I being punished for not going to church?! The pain reminded me of shin splints I had gotten in high school and college, running cross country. I soothed the pain by stretching my ankle and trying to work the muscles on the front of my shin and get the blood circulating.
The next day, Easter Sunday, was absolutely beautiful. I was tired of hiking day after day in the rain. I dealt with the pain in my foot/shin and hiked 14.7 miles to Hogback Ridge shelter. The next day, I hiked over Big Bald Mountain in driving rain, winds gusting to 80 miles per hour, and limped into Bald Mountain shelter after 10 miles. That night, I worked my ankle and shin while inside my sleeping bag. The next morning, it felt better. I sucked up my stamina and courage and hiked 17 miles in the rain to Erwin, TN. This is where the AT crosses the Nolichucky River. There were beautiful views of the river and the town from the mountains above. I hiked into town alone but soon met up with thru-hikers I knew and got a ride to a motel. We put four people in each of three rooms brand cialis online pharmacy. We all took showers and most of us went next door to JD’s Market for double bacon cheeseburgers for supper. Remember, the doctor said I could eat anything I wanted on the Trail! Back in my motel room, I began a series of hot water baths in the tub for my leg.
The next morning, Wednesday, April 15, I decided to stay another day while all the other hikers hit the trail. After a down home lunch at JD’s, I took off on foot on what I thought was the back way to the uptown section of Erwin. I wanted to find the public library and send all of you an email. I promptly got lost. After walking through a residential neighborhood and arousing many fierce, barking dogs, I found myself at 1:30 at the Emergency Entrance of the Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. Taking this as a sign, I walked in and registered as an outpatient.
This is the sharp turn I referred to at the beginning of this email. I spent the next four hours waiting to be seen by a doctor. At 4:00 a nurse took my vital signs. At 5:00 Dr. Ken Trzil examined my leg. He said that I could be suffering from any of three different things: the worst case of shin splints he had ever seen, phlebitis, or blood clot. Blood clot! This got my attention. This could mean surgery. This could mean the end of my AT adventure! Dr. Trzil ordered a round of blood work. At 6:00, the good doc came back to inform me that the blood work pointed to something else than the worst case scenario, but to rule out the possibility of the dreaded blood clot, he wanted me to get an ultra sound of my leg the next morning. I was amazed when he informed me that a sheriff’s deputy was waiting outside to take me to a pharmacy to get prescription pain medication and then back to my motel. He wanted me to stay off the leg, elevate it, and start ice pack treatments. It felt weird riding in the back of a sheriff’s car. I noticed people on the street craning their necks to see who had been picked up.
That night, I had a strange supper. On a grassy plot beside the motel, I lit my alcohol stove and prepared a macaroni and cheese dinner. This act made me feel strangely connected to hikers on the mountains I could see from the parking lot. I polished of a quart of pralines and cream ice cream for dessert and returned to my room for elevated ice packs and something very rare, TV. I watched two episodes of Andy Griffith before drifting off to sleep.
This morning, after a big breakfast at JD’s (Yes, all the waitresses are recognizing me now and calling me honey.), I headed out on foot to the uptown section of Erwin. Besides directions, I had learned a few things about Erwin by talking with the locals. The town was founded as the county seat of Unicoi County, TN in 1876. I was told that Unicoi was the Cherokee word for “fog draped mountains.” I had certainly seen a lot of these. The town I was in was first called Vanderbilt. In 1879, the name was changed to Ervin. Because of a mistake in naming United States post offices, the V in Ervin was replaced with a W, and the name became Erwin. At first, every person I talked to wanted to tell me about a very strange thing that happened there. This is not something I would want to remember or be proud of. In 1916, in nearby Kingsport, TN, a circus trainer was tragically killed by an elephant by the name of Mary. People were outraged. Something had to be done! Lynch the elephant, people cried out! With the tragic history of lynching just starting to die out in the South, there was still a lynch mob mentality in the air. But no oak tree, no rope could lynch an elephant. Then it was remembered that Erwin, TN had a huge railroad yard, and railroad yards had industrial cranes. The elephant was transported to Erwin by train. The lynching was carried out in the rail yard next to the station which is now the Public Library. This is where I am typing this email. I could have looked out the window and seen this mad spectacle! Mary the elephant was killed on the second try, because the first chain broke. Sad, so sad. Over 2500 people gathered to bear witness. People are strange.
I typed on this email for as long as I could, leaving myself 25 minutes to walk to the hospital for my 10:45 scheduled ultra sound. I only spent a few minutes in the waiting room before Betty, the ultra sound technician, came to get me. Betty lubricated most of my right leg and then began exploring my blood vessels with a strange looking stethoscope. Images started to appear on a monitor. Every once in a while, Betty would take a picture. She worked her way down my leg, from top to bottom, front and back. When she got down to my ankle, she switched off the machine and said she would be right back.
Dr. Trzil and Betty came into the room. The doctor said, “I’ve got good news. You don’t have a blood clot. But you are not out of the woods yet. Your leg is suffering from overuse. you need to go slow getting back on the trail. Hopefully, with an ease back into things, your leg can adjust, and you can walk your way out of this painful condition.”
This was the best news I could possibly have hoped for! I felt strangely liberated, happy. But before he let me go, Dr. Trzil wanted to straighten me out on a few things. “I don’t want you only telling people about Erwin being famous for hanging an elephant. We have so much to be proud of here.” He went on to tell me that this area of Tennessee is famous for the Over the Mountain Men. These mountain men volunteered during the Revolutionary War to fight for the colonists against the British. They chased the British troops all the way to Kings Mountain on the border between North and South Carolina and defeated them there. Thomas Jefferson declared that the efforts of the Over the Mountain Men provided the turning point of the war. Our war for independence could have gone the other way if it was not for them. Dr. Trzil also pointed out that, in nearby Elizabethtown, the first representative governing body in America was elected. They were called The Watauga Assembly and predated anything that happened in Philadelphia, Boston, or anywhere else.
As I walked the mile from the hospital back to the library, I noticed trees blooming everywhere, cherry trees, apple trees, plum trees. The world seemed more beautiful than it had earlier in the day. The dogs didn’t even bark at me. In the business district, I stopped by the Choo Choo Cafe next to the rail yard and had lunch on an outside table. I was soaking up the goodness of life. That goodness is always there, but sometimes we are too distracted or worried to see it. On to the library to finish up this missive.
Whew! I know it has been a long email. But I composed much of this while waiting in the Emergency Room. Following emails will necessarily be shorter. My future has no guarantees in terms of completing the Appalachian Trail. I am in a delicate state right now. I will rest up. I will treat my leg with ice packs and elevation. I will ease back into hiking in another day or so. Damascus, VA will be my next major stop, if I can make it that far. It’s 121 miles away. Maybe I can find a place to communicate with you before then. I will hope for the best. That’s all any of us can do.
All my best,
Braid, AKA Joe Liles