AT Day 9 – NOC NOC NOCing On Cheoah’s Door

Wesser Ridge to Cheoah Bald
Worth the Butt Kicking Camp to Cold n Clear Camp
AT miles: 13.25
Total miles: 153.2
Elevation change: 4377ft gain, 3494ft loss

With so many things going in my favor, today felt like a string of great moments. The weather, the people, the food, they all played important roles in making today one of the really good ones. They filled my cup so that even the hard parts felt to be enriching my experience rather than bringing it down. A good day on the AT indeed.

For whatever reason, I hadn’t slept well at all. I felt like I was just getting into it when the sky began to brighten, which usually means that it’s time to get going. And with a long stay planned at the Nantahala Outdoors Center (NOC), I really did need to get moving. No more snoozing. I packed up all my gear while still in my tent, a cramped task, because a light rain began rustling the dry leaves outside. With my umbrella out and my rain jacket on, I burst forth, hastily packed away my shelter, then started the long descent to the NOC.

Recycling, before it was cool.

And that long descent was not only long, but brutal and treacherous as well. The AT followed a narrow spine of rock, falling steeply away from Wesser Bald down to the valley far below. Sharp twists and rocky steps navigated me around small cliffs and jagged points. It didn’t help that the rain was making everything slick. The rock, mud, and leaves that covered everything could not be trusted to provide sufficient traction. I made careful progress, making sure to keep multiple points of contact with the shifting ground. Views were hazy and epic. I felt as if I was in the Lord of the Rings or something. It was hard going, but very cool at the same time.

Down the ridge to the NOC. Slippery and steep.

The trail grew smoother lower down and I made the last mile to NOC in good time. The rain started pelting down as soon as the roadside buildings came into view. Fortunately, it was easy for me to find exactly what I was looking for, a covered area with an electrical outlet. I joined fellow thru-hikers, Catfish and AKA on the dry concrete, our packs resting along the wall of the NOC outfitter.

Where did all these hikers come from? Where did they all go?

My main business in town was charging up my electronics. With that objective underway, I did a quick food audit while chatting with the other two. I still had plenty of food to get me to Fontana in 30 miles. Catfish waited patiently for the public restroom to be cleaned.

Some more hikers gathered, from where they came I do not know. I stretched and took it all in. For the first time I was privy to some bonafide hiker banter. Then, unexpectedly, the clouds opened up, revealing brilliant blue sky and bright sunshine. The wet everything seemed to instantaneously start steaming. I joined the others in unpacking our wet gear and draping it on every little protrusion. I basked in the warmth, feeling fine indeed.

I spent the next several hours repeatedly flipping my gear over, using the facilities, printing my Smokies permit at the outfitter, taking care of internet chores, and generally hanging out. I also polished off a whole can of Pringles and a large cookie, and washed my hands properly with soap and water for the first time during this hike. May it not be the last time either.

A nice place to spend a few hours.

As nice as the NOC was, with everything a hiker could ask for and a gorgeous rushing river, I started packing up around 2pm. With a favorable evening weather forecast, I wanted to hike 8 more miles to the top of Cheoah Bald for sunset, and hopefully an epic sunrise. I treated myself to one more luxury, a hot meal, also a first on this hike, at the riverside restaurant, then swung on my dry pack. Across the big wooden bridge, then back into the forest.

The conditions were perfect for an 8-mile climb of over 3,000ft gain. Sunny and warm, but surprisingly not humid considering all the rain we’d just gotten. This stretch of hiking was well known to all NOBOs by this point on the trail, so at least I was expecting it as well. I cruised up the gentle grade, feeling strong and surprisingly un-vommity considering how much food I’d just eaten. Cell reception allowed SpiceRack to join me for a few miles, which really made them fly by. A couple super steep spots almost had me convinced that I’d lost the trail, but my faith in my navigational instincts was always rewarded with another white blaze. These adventurous portions of trail were fun, but mercifully short, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was how the AT had originally been constructed. This stuff was OG AT.

Sunny rhododendron thicket during the long climb up Cheoah.

I stopped at a shelter for a water fill-up, saying hi to Catfish, AKA, and T again, before tackling the final mile to the summit. All the warmth was gone from the air now, with the sun low on the horizon. My thermometer read somewhere in the 30’s, and I believed it. Still, I was sweating when I gasped up the final steps to open view on top. I wasn’t the only one intending to sleep up here, and I joined Mischief and Just Mark in pitching my tent on the wide bald and enjoying the view.

With trees to the west, the panorama wasn’t quite complete, but no one was complaining. The folded hills glowed in the evening sun, and I tried my best to pick out the route we’d taken to get here. I perched on a log next to the other two for dinner with a view.

This is why we hike.

The temperature was still dropping, so I got into bed before all color had drained from the horizon. Lying back, snuggling under my quilt in almost all my layers, I tried to pinpoint my favorite moment of the day. I kept returning to that first blast of sunshine at the NOC, but so many others weren’t far behind. Just a great day, all around.

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