9.9 miles, 31.7 overall (Neel’s Gap hostel)
Around 5am there are thunderstorms but I stay dry. Unfortunately this means that I will have to pack a wet tent, but the rain stops before I get up at 7:00 and JB and I agree that packing a wet tent is far preferable to packing a tent while it is raining.
We eat breakfast and watch the sun rise from the rock outcropping only a few yards from our tents. A coffee and some packing later it is just before 9:00 and we set out.
Hiking feels great. My knee is slightly sore, but it is sore in a good way that feels like it is getting stronger, not in a painful way. We pace around 2.5 mph and get to Lance Creek before the Georgia boys are done packing up. Because I’m feeling so good I don’t worry about calling ahead to Neel’s Gap, figuring if it is full I will get a shower and push on an extra mile or two to a campsite. We push on and keep a fast pace, passing several day hikers and even a few Boy Scout troops who are out for the weekend. Before long we pass Bea and Brian, a couple from Maine who have insanely heavy packs. They are struggling up the beginning of Blood Mountain, a notoriously difficult climb. A while after passing them when JB and I stop for water and some food Bea and Brian only catch us 20 minutes after we stop.
We get to the top of Blood Mountain and I stop to sign the register. There is another thru-hiker leaving as we arrive. JB doesn’t want to wait and hikes on. I take a minute to look at the infamous shelter but don’t stay long, hoping to get to Neel’s in time to get a spot in the hostel. I start down soon, pausing long enough to take a few quick pictures on the way down. I quickly catch the other hiker who left when we arrived. Her name is Sam and she seems like one of the friendliest hikers I’ve met yet. We spend the rest of the hike into Neel’s chatting and arrive right around 1:00.
I check inside only 3 bunks in the 16 bunk hostel are taken. When I sign up and pay for both the night and laundry I am given soap for the washing machine. The stay also includes a shower and I quickly take advantage so I can start my laundry.
The hikers who are staying hang out outside drying their tents while we watch others arrive. Pretty soon we have a full house. Among those staying are Bea and Brian, Sam, IBS (indecisive bastard Steve), Ultraviolet, and a couple named Red Fury and High Life.
Neel’s gap is an interesting place. The outfitter here is staffed only by thru-hikers. Several hikers take advantage of the complimentary pack shakedown where they will help you shed pack weight. None are very successful though with the most weight lost being 3 pounds by Brian, getting his pack down to a sleek 50 lbs. Sam is the biggest winner, only shedding 1 pound but learning how to pack her gear more efficiently.
Dinner is cooked and served by Pirate, an intriguing guy who is quick with a joke or a story. Word is that donations are suggested for dinner but that breakfast is only served if enough money is donated. We donate enough to get a “breakfast bonus”, but nobody knows what that means.
Dinner is luau themed with chicken, salad, and a Hawaii themed Pee-Wee’s Playhouse playing on the tv. We all sit around joking and learning about each other. This is exactly how I pictured hostels on the AT, and I go to sleep tonight very satisfied with how the day turned out. I got good mileage, had good company, got cleaned and fed, and my knee feels strong. I don’t have a plan yet for tomorrow, but I know it will be a good one on the Appalachian Trail!