Immediately after the Smokies I spent a night at Standing Bear Farm, a hiker paradise tucked along a gravel road the AT crosses. I stumbled into it after a 19 mile day, and was immediately relaxed with an outdoor shower and a 'personal' pizza. The next day I hiked to Max Patch Bald, one of the best balds I've seen yet (that may have changed after going through the Roan Highlands.)
My next town stop was Hot Springs, the first town the trail actually directly crosses. I stayed at Elmer's Sunnybank Inn, which is an awesome guesthouse run by Elmer (obviously) and a few former thru-hikers. Hot Springs was a small and friendly town, and I actually took my first zero day (no hiking) there.
Leaving Hot Springs, I hiked my first 21 mile day, and it turned out to be over the toughest terrain I've had in a single day. Rock scrambles and steep inclines were the name of the game, and that combined with 20+ miles left my knees in some pain. A few days later I had a short hiking day and landed in Erwin Tennessee to rest. Erwin was unimpressive, but will leave a lasting impression on me for two things. First, the 'Erwin bug' rushed through the hiking community, knocking more than half of the hikers on their asses for a day or more. Thankfully I didn't get the bug, but those that did could look forward to 24 hours of their bodies rejecting anything that went into it. The second was a hostage situation turned to hiker heroics that happened a few days before I got there. You can read all about it in the link above, but I had the chance to read first hand from the hikers involved in one of the shelter registries. Quite the crazy story.
Photos below, as usual.
Elmer's Sunnybank Inn