Currently sitting in the Hot Springs library...
After yesterday's brutal mileage, I thought I had earned an extra hour of sleep. Believe it or not, I find it harder to sleep after a tough day than after an easy one. It's like I'm so exhausted that I can't sleep. Eventually, sleep did come, and I was awakened by my alarm in the moonlit pre-dawn. Soon, Danko and the two section hikers were rustling around as well. I set my gear out on the picnic table to get ready, with the moon making my headlamp less than necessary. I got going in almost record time, hobbling farther down the descent that I began yesterday. I wasn't exactly in peak form, but I felt remarkably good considering what I went through yesterday. At a road crossing, I walked off the trail a bit to see if the nearby convenience store was open. It wasn't, so I went ahead to trudge up the 1000-foot climb ahead. It was over soon, and a couple of smaller climbs brought me up to Spring Mountain Shelter. No, not Springer Mountain, but close. Ahead, someone yelled hello and asked if there was water at Jones Gap (the road crossing). After a second, it clicked that this tall person was Danko. He had passed me when I stopped at the road without my noticing. We hung out for a bit, then in an uncharacteristic move for both of us, we decided to hike together for the remaining 11 miles into the town of Hot Springs. I let Danko lead. It was a good thing, too, because he took off at a pace that I only match on my good days. In his wake, however, I was able to keep up. We chatted as we went, talking about music, reasons for hiking, home lives, and northbounder gossip. We concluded that southbound was the right way to go. Perhaps we are a little biased after 1900 miles.
We followed rocky switchbacks, catching views of the French Broad River and Hot Springs below. The miles had flown by with company, and we had made awesome time. We loped across the bridge into town and took in the sights. This is another trail town that I previously visited. In fact, I own a tie-dye shirt from Hot Springs' own Bluff Mountain Outfitters. Danko and I exchanged phone numbers and headed off in our own directions, planning to meet up later. I hit the library and did my normal internet trolling; he went to the post office and outfitter. We met up again at the Laughing Heart Lodge, where we found two girls who have been southbounding from Pennsylvania. Another surprise was finding Mercury. I had never met the guy, just heard legends from other hikers and read his shelter log entries. Three-time Pacific Crest Trail hiker. Wakes up early and hikes late. His logbook entries ooze sageness. So when I met the short older guy with a big grin and goofy laugh, I was pretty surprised. Not what I expected, but that's not a bad thing at all. We talked for a while, but he was off into the woods again. There are still mileage goals to be met. Before I went back into the hostel, he stopped me. "Everyone's been saying it to me, but now I get to say it to you. You're number one, man! No one out here started later than you. You're the fastest!" I assured him that being first had never really been my intention, but I was pretty flattered nonetheless.
After a shower, Danko and I went to the laundromat, where I sat around in my rain gear as my stinky hiking clothes went through their cycles. Later, we met up with the Pennsylvania girls, Hummingbird and Moose on the Loose, for dinner at the Smoky Mountain Diner. It was nice to have an audience that laughed at my jokes, good and bad, to reassure me that I am the funniest person. We were excited to watch movies back at Laughing Heart, but the lounge area had been rented out as a private room!! Despondent, we all went back to our own quarters to twiddle our thumbs and complain about being bored. But that's what towns are for: getting you bored enough with real life to hit the trail even harder!