The weekend started off like any other thru-hiker weekend, indistinguishable from the rest of the week. On the trail, hikers don't think about time in terms of days of week rather days between resupply. Our hiking stints between resupply are four or five days.
We got off the trail to resupply on Thursday afternoon in Roan Mountain, Tennessee (the name of the town, not the mountain which we climbed two days earlier). For this resupply we were hosted by a wonderful family who lived literally one mile off the trail. They were incredibly gracious and hospitable, driving Damien to get groceries and stove fuel and feeding our hungry family.
By early Friday afternoon our food was packed and the laundry was done. Damien and I were just finishing up our internet work and online food orders for our next resupply in Damascus Virginia
In this benign environment, sitting safely in a chair, Damien incurred our family's first trail injury - a yellow jacket sting. It didn't seem too serious at the time, we've all had bee and wasp stings over the years and none of us are allergic. And though it ached something fierce it wasn't serious enough to delay our plans to get back on the trail. I poulticed it with plantain and we left early afternoon to get back on the trail.
The weather was overcast and grey, a bit muggy. Our packs were especially heavy with an increased amount of food from our last resupply. The hiking was pretty easy though and for the first time since the start of the trail there was a significant amount of flowing water - rivers, creeks and small waterfalls. It was beautiful hiking.
Damien's foot was in pain but he's not a complainer so he didn't mention it but he was quieter than usual.
The next day was Saturday of Mother's Day weekend. I was not expecting anything for Mother's Day, except another fourteen mile day of hiking.
The AT guidebook we follow showed a cluster of several hostels and hiker services in the area. Since we had just resupplied and stayed with a family for free we had no need to pay for an off-trail accommodation. But still I had a small tinge of "missing out" feeling. The area was full of unique opportunities and mountain hiddie-holes which I knew we weren't going to experience.
Saturday dawned grey and proceeded to rain as the trail rolled over some rather uninspiring wooded terrain. Late afternoon we came to a decrepit barn, which we thought was pretty cool. We were coming up on Dennis Cove Road, where two hostels are located within about one mile of each other. I was sort of disappointed we wouldn't be able to check them out. Hostels can be a great place to relax, meet other hikers, and often get cold drinks.
Then we smelled the grill. The smell of a grill near a road crossing is the fragrance of trail magic. We didn't want to get our hopes up but sure enough, there it was. A kind family, right off the trail, feeding hungry hikers on a Saturday afternoon. All of a sudden, it felt like a real weekend.
The couple hours reprieve from hiking was much needed for Damien. By this time his foot had swollen significantly from all the miles of hiking. The trail angel who was providing the meal also found a tenser bandage for Damien in his medic kit and Damien spent the next couple hours with is foot propped on the porch railing. We ate like trail kings and queens before moving on to our evening campsite.
The rolling rhododendron forested terrain of the previous day did not prepare me for the beauty that lay ahead. And because it was so unexpected it was that much more amazing.
The trail coming out of Dennis Cove Road took us to the most beautiful waterfall and river trail we had yet experienced on the trail. Some people say Laurel Falls is the best waterfall on the trail. I was totally unprepared for its grandeur, which is hard to capture on camera.
The beauty of the waterfall and the constant sound of gushing water through the valley gorge was accentuated by newly blooming rhododendron, mountain laurel and unidentified berry brambles. Delicate lady slippers bloomed precariously close to the trail.
We set up camp along the river at one of our nicest camp spots yet and fell asleep to the lullaby of rushing water.
The next morning was Mother's Day but I felt I had already received my gifts. Trail magic, Laurel falls, the blooming flowers and the river campsite had overflowed my well.
The trail took us out of the valley with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet up Pond Mountain. It was tiring but there were so many more gifts along the way. A snake, a turtle and blooming azalea trees. It was a beautiful Mother's Day morning.
Watauga Lake was our midday break destination. We arrived weary and backpack laden, experiencing a taste of Sunday picnicker culture shock; our scruffy attire, hiking boots, and bags of dehydrated food out of place on a beach of bathing suits, flip flops, and grills.
Damien took off his boot and his foot did not look good. We could literally see the blood pulsing beneath the swollen skin. Our hard hike that morning hadn't helped. "I think we should rest here for a day" he said, "while we still can".
The stretch of miles we had just hiked were populated with hiker resources - hostels, trail angels, shuttle services and a small town. All the services I felt bad the first time through about missing out on. Most of the areas we've previously hiked through have been much more remote. If we were going to take time off the trail to recover from an injury, this was the perfect place.
While the kids swam in the lake and Damien rested, foot elevated on the picnic table, I called hostels and hotels inquiring about rates and making plans. After a quick and friendly shuttle from the folks at Black Bear Resort on Dennis Cove Road we had found a place to rest and for Damien to heal.
Here we were, returned to the very hiker hostel I felt bad about missing the first time around. This time with a good reason to get off trail.
We secured an inexpensive, small private cabin for our family and settled in.
With Damien laying down in the bottom bunk, foot iced and elevated with a rolled up Thermarest I was free to attend to something that desperately needed taking care of - taking a rest.
Long distance hiking is a very physically demanding undertaking. Our regular resupplies are intense work of a different sort. In fact, at one resupply I was advised by a friend to actually sit while eating. There's just so much we have to do each resupply that going into town or to a person's house is not really a break, it's just a different kind of work. The change is nice but it's not a rest.
I hadn't taken one afternoon nap or experienced a stretch of non-sleep relaxing hours since starting our hike. I was overdue.
Damien's swollen yellow jacket sting afforded our family two of the most relaxing days we've had in 40 days on the trail.
The kids and I went swimming in the creek in the hot afternoon sun, and I don't remember the last time I've had so much fun with them. I told them it was my best mother's day yet because it truly felt that way. I was expecting nothing and instead I got a mini-vacation at a creek-side, mountain resort.
In our thirty six hour break while Damien's foot was iced, elevated, compressed, and peppermint oiled, we watched movies, ate camp-store food, read books, swam in the creek, played games and plundered the hiker box for extra free meals of ramen noodles and microwaveable pasta dishes. (We couldn't eat too much from our food supply bags since we needed those for our trail miles.)
I sat (sat!) and watched the many butterflies, hummingbirds, red cardinals and yellow finches fly around the property, thoroughly enjoying the Tennessee mountain spring and my Mother's Day weekend.
Ironic how a misfortune gave us the permission we needed to take a much needed break.
If you go: The section of Appalachian Trail from Roan Mountain, Tennessee to Watauga Lake, Tennessee is both beautiful and very accessible. There are many road access points. Dennis Cove Road in Hampton, TN is one of those. Black Bear Resort is on Dennis Cove Road and as a home base for local adventuring you can't go wrong. This family-run resort is clean, affordably priced, and friendly.
Laurel Falls is an amazing hike and relatively easy (there are some steep rock stairs to access it though). You can walk in and out or camp out further along the river, which is a great experience. If you were planning a first backpacking trip with your family this area offers great hiking, beautiful scenery and natural features, with easy access road crossing and shelters not too far from road crossings.
Your best bet for healthy food is stop at a large town like Elizabethton or Johnson City before arriving in the area. There isn't much in the way of great grocery stores or health food stores nearby.
This post was published from the Appalachian Trail, in Marion Virginia. To follow the story of our hike subscribe to the Beyond our Boundaries video series (to see what resupplies, rest days and everything in between look like). See also FIMBY Facebook for thru-hike photo albums.