Wednesday was awesome.
For our last day in the Smokies, Beast and I pushed a little over 18 miles, mostly relatively easy downhill, at least for me, to the Standing Bear Farm hostel. This was our selected destination because where we were coming from, it was the most reasonable stopping point, even though Beast hates the place with a passion, and had been planning the entire first leg of the AT to avoid the place. I'll not go into details on why, except to say that he's entirely justified. The place has potential to be really awesome, and it's not. The most charitable description I can give is that it's "rustic".
It's been said that the three things a hostel needs to be great are beds, hot showers, and laundry. Standing Bear has beds. The showers are, apparently, prone to needing their pilot lights reignited mid-shower. And the "washing machine" is a washing board and wringer. ("Don't use the wringer on clothing with buttons or zippers, it'll rip them off.")
After a lousy day yesterday, we fled Tri-corner Knob as quickly as we could, to ensure that we could get cell reception quickly enough to reserve spaces at Standing Bear. One hilltop later, we found they don't take reservations anymore. So began a race between us, our shelter (which by then we were entirely ahead), and the next two shelters to get to Standing Bear while there was space. Even though we didn't really want to be there.
As I mentioned before, this was our last day in the Smokies. This meant downhill. Lots of downhill. Most of the 18 mile day was downhill.
Have I mentioned how much I like downhill?
I put some music on (for the first time in the hike), and proceeded to rocket down the trail. Fortunately, the Smokies provided a few bits of great scenery on the way out.
By the time I reached Standing Bear around 3, I had averaged 2.8 mph, including breaks. Without breaks factored in, my speed was over 3 mph. (Not bad including several miles of uphills, and a 40 lbs pack.)
About 3 miles before Standing Bear, right at the exit of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at Davenport Gap, was a welcome bit of trail magic. One of the park's volunteer tree trimmers was there, with chips, candy bars, and a cooler full of soda. (Thanks again!) I got one of the last three sodas (horray, Dr Pepper!), and the other two went to the next two to arrive, Geo and Fast Eddie, after which he gave us the rest of the candy and left.
The soda turned out to be more welcome than I initially realized, because about half a mile later, I ran out of water. So close to today's destination, I didn't bother stopping to collect and filter more water, and just charged through, following a wide, beautiful creek for about half a mile until I reached the I-40 underpass (the first major road crossing so far). I suppose, since this was the first major road crossing, the trail maintainers really wanted to call out the path the trail took. Five blazes marked the turn.
Past I-40 was a steep uphill slog with an awful stone staircase right after the interstate. But, shortly after, I made it to my destination.
I showed up, in want of water, and inquired about it from someone who looked like they knew where water might be. She noticed I was limping (I had rolled my left ankle twice and slipped and fell on a slippery, muddy log, all in relatively low-speed conditions), and offered me a water bottle, bag of chips, and half a ham sandwich intended for someone she was waiting at the hostel for. (Turns out that person had come off the trail earlier in the day due to a problem with their heel, but we didn't know that at the time; she was starting to get concerned, since I would have had to have passed them to get to the hostel ahead of them.)
After eating my (quite delicious) sandwich, which was the envy of everyone who passed by my rocking chair, I met the manager of the place, a suffers-no-fools man by the name of Lumdy, who gave me the tour.
About half an hour later, I received a surprise text message from Beast. His superparents took pity on us, given how much Beast hates Standing Bear (which, incidentally, autocorrect insists is spelled "Stabding Bear") and had been trying to avoid it, and were on their way to spirit us away to a hotel (with a real shower, washer, and dryer made sometime in the last century).
I replied, and then tried calling Beast (who didn't answer my first call because he was climbing up the horrible stone stairs I mentioned earlier), who called me back a few minutes later in dire need of water. Turns out, he had run out of water eight miles back (!!) and his water filter was missing. He suspected (correctly, it turned out) that it was probably in his sleeping bag (to keep it from freezing overnight; freezing temperatures destroy our water filters), but he didn't want to risk the time it'd take to pull the bag out, find the filter was missing entirely, and then have to pack everything back up just to continue.
To him, that beautiful creek was like a torment of Tantalus.
I filled up a water bottle and walked back down the hill from the hostel to the AT, and met Beast just as he was coming off the trail; it was perfect timing.
We waited at the hostel, had some food, chatted with the other hikers, and played with the dogs that were there. (Two of them were expert fetchers, and even changed up who they were bringing rocks and sticks back to, as if to give everyone a turn.)
Beast's parents showed up, and took us to the Best Western in Newport, TN, where we washed our clothes, got dinner, aired out tents and sleeping bags, and slept (relatively) luxuriously in beds.
Continuing the trend of us having the same equipment, Beast got a new tent, the same Big Agnes Copper Spur UL2 Tent I have (due in no small part to realizing how awesome my tent was when he helped me set it up the other day).
Yes, it was a great day.
Tomorrow: 10ish miles to Brown Gap. We considered 15 to Max Patch (popular for stargazing), but the weather looks to be cloudy tomorrow night, and that'd be three big uphills (instead of just two) coming off an 18 mile day, so we don't feel the need to push further unnecessarily. Ultimate plan is to be in Hot Springs, NC on Saturday; when we get there will depend how far we make it on Friday.