The Lure of the Trail, and the Pleasures of Town
Hello from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Life is getting normal on the trail and my trail family seems to have solidified. Odysseus, Big Money, and I have been together for over a week now and are gelling together quite well. We’ve taken on almost all the Smokies, we’ve stayed with some of my favorite people, and we’ve strengthened and healed our weary legs. Here’s the rundown of the last nine days.
Day 12: Thursday, May 3 (16.5 Miles)
The previous night was my first in a shelter since the beginning and it definitely made me appreciate my tent. The crew there was just a little socially awkward and it was harder to recharge mentally with conversation constantly going. Admirable Awesome and Big Money made it in time for dinner, but Moxie never made it back. It turned out that he’d completely lost his phone and ended up taking a few days to reset and get a new one. Big Money, Odysseus, and I got moving and cranked out all our miles from about 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and made our way down into the Nantahala Outdoor Center on a beautiful spring day, hiking down from the land of barren trees into a world of warm green. We found a cozy porch on the river to eat tacos and drink beer while we enjoyed some shade and cool breezes from the river. We found a little hobo hiker camp where the three of us put up our tents and enjoyed a beautiful night sky right next to the river.
Day 13: Friday, May 4 (16 Miles)
This was definitely our hardest hiking day. Even though the miles weren’t huge, the uphills were absolutely relentless, and the last few were the steepest of the day. The majority of the day was uphill, and we may far gained the most elevation over time. We came to a shelter that was mostly empty and enjoyed our time there quite a bit as we recovered from our tough day. I can’t remember water ever tasting so good.
Day 14: Saturday, May 5 (12.8 Miles)
This was a relatively easy day hiking back down to get to Fontana Dam. We had made a friend we kept running into in the last few shelters, a section hiker named Tony, who had offered to take us out for beers when we got to town. We made it right around 2 p.m. to the visitor center that day, and he and his wife were kind enough to let us shower there (they had them for free) before we squeezed into the car and went into town for an early dinner. To our delightful surprise, Fontana was hosting the largest Mini Cooper convention in the world that weekend, so we got to feel extra out of place as we were not only hikers in a non-hiker world, but also in a non-Cooper world surrounded by passionate Cooper drivers. Tony bought our drinks with dinner and then he and his wife dropped us off at the resupply spot before we said our thanks and farewells. We took a shuttle back to our campsite and settled into bed in time to enjoy the rainstorm dry.
Day 15: Sunday, May 6 (17.8 Miles)
This was my day of redemption, the day I would take on the same stretch of miles that destroyed me on my first ever backpacking trip nearly seven years ago. Things kicked off well when we came across four beers at the base of the last road sign before entering the Smokies section. We’d come across so many free beers lately that Odysseus and I were inspired to spend the entire day coming up with a formula and challenge for people to calculate their beer stats over the course of a thru-hike. It’s still a work in progress, but it’ll be something special by the time we’re done. After breezing through our miles for the day, we were all pretty put off by our company at the shelter that night: six other hopeful thru-hikers that each had the worst trail etiquette we’d come across yet. (Note: in the Smokies, all hikers are required to stay in shelters each night due to the high bear population. As a matter of fact, we saw three bears this day.) Our greeting of “Welcome to the party shelter!” was not misplaced. There was almost constant cigarette smoking inside the shelter, obnoxious, loud vulgar discussion for hours, a movie night featuring Avatar for the whole shelter to enjoy, multiple alarms starting at 5 a.m., and to top it off, a couple loudly fighting inside the shelter before 6 a.m. After that night, we decided to really push the next day so we could keep our distance from the “party” crew.
Day 16: Monday, May 7 (19.2 Miles)
After the morning listed above kicked off our day, we were pretty ready to just put our heads down and crank out miles so that’s exactly what we did. We met a girl named Early Bird a few miles into the day who was the first hiker we met who was faster than the three of us were. Come to find out, the AT will complete her Triple Crown (meaning she’s already completed the PCT and CDT), so she is an extremely experienced hiker. The day wasn’t too difficult, and the climb up to Clingmans Dome was actually the most beautiful section we had seen on trail yet. It was beautifully green and mossy, unlike anything we’d seen so far. It got pretty steep the last little bit, but the view from the highest point on trail was totally worth it. We snapped a picture there as well as at the 200-mile marker shortly after and then made our way down to the shelter where we met a crew of five other thru-hikers we quite liked. Even though it was a long day, it meant we only had five left to do the next day, which was a huge comfort to us.
Day 17: Tuesday, May 8 (4.9 Miles)
Easy and restful day. We knocked out our miles and were to Newfound Gap by 10:15, where we waited for a family friend of mine, Liz, to pick us up and take us to her house for Knoxville. The whole experience was absolutely fantastic. Liz bought us fast food on the way to her house, and the two of us thoroughly enjoyed showing the two non-locals the ridiculousness of Pigeon Forge on the way to her house. We got showers, washed our clothes, and enjoyed an absolute feast her husband, George, put together for us while we played fetch with her dogs in the sunshine. We stayed up and socialized into the night on the cool spring porch before finally turning in. It was one of the best days of the trip.
Day 18: Wednesday, May 9 (Zero Day)
We woke up around 8:30 (very late for us) and enjoyed pancakes with Liz while we socialized one last time with her before she left to study. We had arranged to stay with my sister Grace that night, so her other half, Savannah, came and picked us up from Liz’s around 11. We got back to their house, met the roommates, then took Grace’s car to do a few errands and explore Gatlinburg. We were a bit overwhelmed, as even in the middle of the day on a Wednesday it is completely packed and overwhelming. We settled for a cheap game of mini golf as our way to spend the afternoon, so we went to Cooper’s and spent $5 each on 17 holes of awkward “Dukes of Hazzard” fun. Let’s just say we got what we paid for on that one. We then went back and spent the evening with Grace and her roommates, eating pizza, watching standup comedy, and going out to a bar for karaoke. It was a laaaate night for all of us as we didn’t get home until almost 3, but when we did, we crashed hard and well. It was an excellent zero day.
Day 19: Thursday, May 10 (10.5 Miles)
We slept in until about 9:30 and took our time getting out, finally getting back on trail around 2. We ran into a few familiar faces from earlier on and caught up on hiker gossip a bit before getting moving. We crushed our 10.5 miles with our fresh legs and lifted spirits, even though we ran into a 15 minute downpour that included chunks of hail. We got to a full shelter around 6 and settled for decent campsites a little close to the privy. By this point, though, we were all pretty excited to be setting up our tents again, as none of us had really had many moments to ourselves lately. The night of being back in our own spaces was extremely welcoming.
Day 20: Friday, May 11 (16.4 Miles)
Last night, there was a pretty heavy downpour for about an hour, but even so, all three of us got fantastic sleep after a few late nights. We got up and moving right around 8 to dark skies, but as the day progressed, the clouds lifted, and we enjoyed an incredibly beautiful last full day in the Smokies. There have been so many breathtaking views and refreshing ridge lines to walk on. We’ve seen open views of mountains for miles as well as damp mossy forests. The three of us agree: it’s been our favorite scenery of the trail so far. We finished our miles by 4 and are currently all camped out in a really cool watchtower on top of Mt. Cammerer, where we just caught the most beautiful sunset. It’s a perfect ending to our time in the Smokies.
It feels like a different lifetime and trip that I set out on almost three weeks ago. So much has become normal out here, and I’m really used to hiking. I’m even getting used to the culture shock, which goes both ways, I’ve found: it’s a shock getting back into town and seeing people living normal lives, but also a shock getting back on trail after taking some time off and getting reacquainted to running water. It’s a life that keeps me constantly on my toes, constantly meeting new people, and constantly happy (so far at least). As much as I was on day one, I am absolutely loving the thru-hiker experience.
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