April 11- 15: Fontana Through the Southern Smokies to Gatlinburg

April 11 – Cable Gap to the Fontana ‘Hilton’ shelter.

The radar looked like a god-awful giant storm was brewing last time we had signal but now we’re completely in the dark. It’s drizzling outside and was thundering overnight. We need to go another 5.2 miles then we can hit Fontana Village and resupply and we can sleep in a hotel room. I’m not excited. This is the last stretch Flamethrower and I will have with each other for a long time – as discussed she needs to go home for a week or two to help a family member so our team is breaking up. This sucks. Having the other person has helped in so many ways… not only are they are security blanket but they also help grab things out of your pack mid-hike so you don’t have to stop and take the pack off. Plus they’re fun to be around. Tomorrow, I hike alone.

Well, maybe tomorrow, cause I’m dragging my feet through all this fresh mud at the campsite not sure if we should venture off into this intermittently heavy rain. I we seen have a pretty significant slip, but not fall, on my way to the privy. Yup, today kinda sucks. Everyone around us bucks up and leaves during a rare patch of blue sky. Something Multi-tool originally refered to as a suckerhole. It was reference to pilots who take off in a brief patch of blue sky and quickly find themselves fighting bad weather to land. Welp, that was an apt description because as soon as they left the heavy rains came again. They couldn’t have been more than 1000 feet from camp and were probably already soaked. 

We continued hiding later Flamethrower was suprised to see me getting ready to make a run for it. “yes, really we’re leaving, but I’m leaving my phone on so we can see the weather as soon as we get signal, we might come running back”. So we get dressed in all our rain gear and make a break. For it durring a dry spell. We go.

So our hike starts with a 1000ft climb. And when we’re 1/2 a mile and 400ft into it Flamethrower stops and comments that she is ‘sous vided’ like a Thanksgiving Turkey (she actually originally said ‘Roasted’, but she insisted that I rewrite history here, I stood firm on keeping the Turkey reference – for you! Anyway, for those of you that don’t know, it’s incredibly hot under our rain gear so we were much wetter now than we’d have been if we hadn’t worn it – given the complete lack of rain. So we stop and take off our gear – so of course, before we can even take our next step there was a compete downpour, not even making this up, (because you wouldn’t beleive it). So raingear is hastily and haphazardly thrown back on and the hike continues. It goes on this way with us wearing rain gear in various configurations and finely taking it off as the rain is a split second away from starting. It actually becomes a joke and we laugh and blame each other for bringing on the rain which always begins immediately after one of us takes off our rain gear. Between the rain sometimes there are even small spots of blue sky (ya know, the sucker holes). Despite this on and off rain I’ve managed to keep myself and my new shoes surprisingly dry. With occasional intermissions of hiding behind/ under trees. (No leaves yet, but the trunks block the sideways rain).

 

We don’t have a long day but we’re walking slow to avoid falling. You can see the slip marks all over the trail where others have lost traction. At one mass off. I start taking pictures. She actually looks comfortable, not all pretzeled out like me after my fall a few weeks ago. I tease her a bit ( hey what are friends for? ) then she suggests that her pack is making her feel turtled and asks for a hand. I grab her by her pack and help hoist her to her feet. at first she says she didn’t need her poles and lets them fall aside, soon she’s gripping onto my poles while folded at the waist at a 90′ angle. Histerical laughter continues as she tried to get up and continually fails – the struggle was real – and bloody halarious. Now, mind you I’m standing right next to her so if somebody came around the bend it would look like she was totally just awkwardly standing there checking out my crotch.. since nobody came around the bend I’m now telling you all this story with the hopes that you picture this floundering mess. Eventually we get her straightened out -seriously, next time, just take off the pack. I’m not even sure how any of this happened. 

 

 Like a good friend I get het to turn around and take a picture of her briwn stains. She remarks that it’s not as bad as she expected. So from there we continue on down in the intermittent rain. Did it felt like forever and we couldn’t go that fast because the trail was slick and there were a few big sections of rocks to navigate too. Eventually, we cross a forest road signaling the spprosch to the real road. I spot some snails and beautiful flowers and take photos. We get to the road. About 8 supped up wannabe sports cars show up flying by and ignoring us a pedestrian. So we wait. Once the coast is clear we cross. There is a real bathroom with heat and hot water. The toilets flush, there is electricity. We’re overjoyed. They say is overjoyed too, because the sun is now shining and the skies are blue.

 

 Unfortunately, no cell signal. But the sign says the $5 shuttle will be here in about 25 minutes. So we freshen up and sign the hiker banner – these are everywhere. Communities put these out to welcome hikers and hiker ‘sign in’ with their trail name. It’s a fun practice and makes a fun piece of memorabilia/art.

So we wait and eventually the shutte arrives and our plans are dashed. She tells us that their is a car convention and all hotel rooms are sold out – so we might as well not come to town, she offers a lift to the “Fontana Hilton” the next shelter, ³4 named as such because it’s huge, has a charging station, a great view, and a bathroom with running water, showers, and electricity. We decline the ride opting to walk the next mile or two to the shelter instead of yellow-blazing it. As the shuttle is leaving I comment that we’ll enjoy the walk because we can dry out. And this is where I’d like to remind you about the ‘sucker holes’ we talked about earlier. We were the suckers. As soon as the shuttle driver pulled away the sky darkened, and within minutes we were hearing thunder in the distance… So we stopped to put on our rain gear and thestorm quickly petered out.

 

We continue on and the views are great and we even see another rat snake – also black and about 6ft long… This time Flamethrower doesn’t call it ‘dinner’ so it stays and hangs out till we’re done talking photos. We bid it adieu and continue on. I stop to wipe some sweat from my body and tell Flamethrower to go ahead and I’ll catch up. When I catch her we’re pretty close to the “Hilton” we summit the final hill and a greated by an incredible view over the water. The shelter is packed so we make our way to the bathroom – we’d rather be close to the facilities anyway. 

 

A few folks that we met last night advise us that there is a tent pad on the next hill. We’ll actually be the only ones skeeping on this hill despite there being so many people around. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the 25-ish steps from the tent pad to the bathroom. We start setting up our tents on this pad (which means limited staking options, but it’s raining on and off so we’re setting up the best we can) when we see Lee and Dog (“Cujo”). We call out to them and they come up to say “Hi”. Lee didn’t expect to see us again, but our trip to the Eclipse let her catch up. She has been zeroing here for two days because of the weather. 

 

As we chat Flamethrower is emptying her bear canister to help me ‘resupply’ since we didn’t get to town so I have no snacks. I also don’t want to go on the 9am shuttle because then I can’t get back till noon. And I want to start early because the shelter is a long walk amd a lot of elevation gain. Flamethrower offers Lee some pumpkin seeds to feed Cujo – as before, Cujo is greatful for the snack. I ask where she is sleeping and she tells us that she’s in the Hilton. 

 

Overall, we chat and catch up and also explain our plight. Flamethrower needing to get home and all. Lee tells us about a man who is visiting his daughter and doing trail magic. Hot dogs, pizza, rides to town. All he wants in exchange is help gathering firewood. She tells us he is leaving tomorrow and heading back to Florida. I tell Flamethrower that ATL (Atlanta airport) is on the way. It’s not Ashville or Knoxville like she originally wanted but it’ll work. We finish setting up and tell Lee we’re going to make a put stop and use the facilities, but then we’re gonna go find Adam (Vulcan) and see if he can help. 

 

We arrive and find Lee in the Hilton and she directs us to Adam “the guy with the baseball hat” He quickly takes the hat off, jokingly. We go and say hi, he’s at the fire pit trying to get a fire started as a bunch of 20yos sit around watching. There is afire starter in the fire pit that’s burning but nothing is catching. I tell Adam my name was almost ‘Fire Starter” and I get to work building a loghouse over the firestarter. It takes some coaxing but as Flamethower and Adam talk I get the fire going. Eventualy, an older guy goes down the hill and brings a ton of firewood back, which helps shame the young adults also into getting wood. The fire is blazing – my work here is done. Flamethrower will ne getting a ride outnat 7:30am tomorrow, I’ll be alone, sqhe already found a flight.

Back to our tents we go to actually set everything up. So of course now it begins to pour and I hide in my tent as I work. Flamethower does the same. We both snack. I decide to cook my Kale and white bean stew and add a spam as directed by the outfitter. Second spam, still not dead. 3 cups of water needs to be added (I’m never going to finish this thing -and i don’t) . Over the next two hours I work on eating this meal. – also sometimes I hug it for warmth.  

 

Flamethower and I talk though our tents, I also send her memes saying “don’t leave me”. Emotional blackmail is always best. We’ve walked 166 miles together we’ve even side quested to the rapture (Eclipse), we survived that and Arkansas, and 1500 miles of driving. We’ve nearly never been apart for over a month. We’ve become so close that I’ve literally sent her text messages from the bathroom telling her “I’m pooping” so she could cheer me on… (ok, I might be exaggerated a bit, or not – it’s hard to tell with me). Anyway, point is, we’re close and I’m using that to guilt her. I know she has to leave, but I need her to come back, even if we hike apart for awhile. ( I might even be using this last line to guilt trip her – even though we’ve both known about this trip home since before we started.

 

April 12 -All By Myself, Why Am I Fixing a Printer, and If a Tree Falls in the Forest Near Me Do I Scream Like a Little Girl? 

So today is D-day. Departure day. Flamethrower must leave me. I decide in the night that I can’t go into the Smokies until I have a full charge on all my devices and that I need a little more snack food, because I don’t eat the packaged meals well.

So my new plan is that when Vulcan takes Flamethrower in the morning I’ll ask for a ride to the local store about a mile away. Then I’ll pay the 9am shuttle for a ride back. I’ll be on the trail by 9:30. It was a great ‘plan’ the real adventure was a bit different.

So Flamethrower and I are running a bit behind, but still get up to the car by 7:40am. Vulcan is nowhere to be found. I head down to the campsite and see him trying to start a fire. He gives me the car keys and says we can start packing the car. We wait. more people show up. He’s giving a few others rides to the store too. I’m getting scared. It’s approaching 8:30 by the time everyone is loaded. I’m not going to have enough time, but it is what it is.

Flamethrower and I are having a hard morning. We’re both trying to stay strong. I pat her upper arm while we’re in thr car to try to convey all the things that need to be said. We are both tearing up a bit, I can’t beleive how hard this is. Hugs are exchanged, it was a rough start to the day.

 

But it’s only 8:30am and the day must go on. I buy $12 worth of groceries for $25, but I’m just happy to have them. I charge my batteries on the front porch while confirming with two employees that the visitor center for the dam will have outlets. They assure me it will.  

I take the shuttle to the visitor center because it’s back on the AT. This is about .5 downhill/ flat miles from where I got on – all along a road, but I need time time today and I already walked up and down the trail between the ‘Hilton’ and the car a few time so I’ve already done the distance and elevation gain/ loss. I go inside and say ‘Hi’ and ask for a plug. The nice retired volunter couple point me to a power strip behind the counter. I profusely thank them. As an off hand comment the lady asks if I happen know anything about software. Why yes, yes I do. So I end up helping them bring their new printer online while my devices charge. 

 

After about an hour of chatting I realize my devices still need more time. I tell them I’m going outside to dry my gear. OMG, my gear was disgusting; so wet from the rains last night. It even rained a bit in my tent. Everything was heavy and damp. But today is sunny and windy and that was a good combination (at least when the wind wasn’t trying to blow away my stuff). Everything dried quick and I repacked. Still my gear feels far too big. Probably the food.

My batteries are still charging, wtf. Eventually by about 12:40/1pm everything is charged and I head out across the dam. It’s been a beautiful day so of course the second I set foot on the trailhead and put my permit in the box the dark clouds rolled in. I walked for about 1000 feet and began to be hit by the rain and winds. So I once again use my train skirt like a poncho and that helps. I wonder if I should turn back. But I think this these dark skies are like a metaphor for the seperation of my hiking partnership and I need to press on through the challenges. It seems that I am the only person crazy enough to leave this late. Today is a big climb and most folks left at about 9am, some left as early 6am. They’re trying to get some distance into the Smokies. I just want to get to the first campsite – 6.6 miles, 2660 feet of gain with the vast majority of that gain coming in 3 miles. I hope nobody is there but I suspect it’ll be full of the weaker hikers and/or folks forced off the trail due to weather. 

 

As I hike I’m passed by two small groups going the other way, then maybe 45 minutes later, as I pause to drink gatorade and adjust my rain gear (it doesn’t like the wind), a very tall skinny man passes me. We chat for a bit, he’s a day-hiker trying to get to the firetower. We discuss how this weather wasn’t on the forecast yesterday. I know I’ll see him again because I plan to stop at the firetower (*weather permitting) on my way up. 

So I walk through a few more storms and sucker holes then maybe an hour later I can see something nasty on the horizon. the mountains and everything in the distance has turned gray. I know it’s a big bad storm. I adjust my gear as the hail/sleat starts. Gentle at first, with just 2-3mm pellets, but quickly pounding the area with large 10mm balls of ice/snow. I hide behind a tree and record with my camera. Then it slows down so I press on. I can see the bigger storm still on the horizen, this is when the man passes me coming back. I ask him if he made it to the tower already (impressed). He said no, that he saw lightening on the horizen and was making a run for the car since we’re on a ridge trail and it’s not a great place to be with lightening around. 

 

 I tell him i don’t have that luxury. He’s confused by this. I explain I’m thru-hiking the AT then add “Georgia to Maine” as explaination – I tell him I need to get to the campsite up ahead. He bids me to be safe and I say the same. Then I see the storm is almost upon us so I tell him he really should get moving and he doesn’t hesitate. Goodbyes are exchanged as we walk away. It’s not clear, but it actually looks like the storm will be better if I keep moving forward, so I press on. The winds are getting intense I feel like they’re trying to blow me over. I keep walking.

Omg, the wind is just so strong so I choose a healthy looking tree and hid behind it, then I actually backtrack 20 feet to a different larger tree. I’m about to be blow over – these gusts are over 50 mph. Then it was like a gust on top of a gust. The wind picked up another 20-30 mph. Leaves are being flung over the hill at a ferocity that is a bit terrifying. I hide behind my tree – I bid it to be strong. I had already taken my poncho off to protect it from the strong winds, but it would have been long gone, ripped away by the ferocious winds, if I had not. Out the corner of my eye I see something yellow and I think it’s my AT tag may have broken off and flown away. I hope this isn’t the case, but I’ll find out later, for now just hide (and videotape). (Good news, the tag was still attached)  

 I’m still hiding behind my tree, unfortunately without cameras rolling when I hear a massive crack. So, for those of you playing alongbat home, no, if a tree falls in a forest and Caroline is there to see / hear it she doesn’t scream like a little girl – she does curse like a sailor though – ahh that wholesome NJ upbringing has taught me well. 

 

So here is what happened. A tree downwind and about 50 feet off trail just sheered in half with a large Y shaped top portion breaking away. I hear the crack then see this broken tree top falling straight down practically in slow motion next to the tree tunk maybe 1-2 feet off the tree trunk. Large cracks emanate from the tree as it shatters. I get hit in the face and eye by some small things. It might be part of the tree or it might be other debris being blown by the wind. I don’t know, but I duck back behind my tree till things calm down before literally running up trail to get away from this area. Within 5-10 minutes there are blue skies and calm winds. I’m completely bewildered, how did that storm come in and out so fast, is this even real? I walk on into this nice day. I text Flamethrower and tell her the storm tired to kill me. 

 

I still have another 1000ish feet of gain so I press on. The trail is following a ridge line and the views through the trees are beautiful. It’s also obnoxiously steep in places. I want to go to the fire tower (a short spur trail), but the wind picked up and I won’t be able to climb it in the conditions so I walk on.

 

Eventually, I get to camp, everyone else here has clearly been here for hours, I find a not too slanty spot by a few other tents and set up camp. I’m glad for the warmth and shelter even though it isn’t much. It’s dropping into the 30’s tonight. At camp the sleet continues. I snack on cold foods – a bar, a tuna packet and candy then I go to bed. I don’t want to fight the elements even though I’d love a hot beverage. Notice – my complete lack of eating dinner… yup this is common out here.

 

Today’s miles 6.7 with 2641 feet of ascent. (almost all ascent was in a 3 mile section though…. rough.

 

April 13th – I did it all for the Privy 

Do you know that not all shelters in the smokies have Privies? While chatting with somebody yesterday I was told that shelters in NC have Privies while shelters in Tennessee don’t. I don’t know if this is true, but this means today I’m heading three shelters away. I’ll walk 11.9 miles with 3261 feet of ascent (including spur trails) to get to Spence Field Shelter where I can satisfy all my bathroom needs without hiding behind a tree and/or digging a cat hole. Oh what luxury y’all with easy access to indoor plumbing have. 

 

Packing Camp.

 

I’m a discombobulated mess today. I manage to only put one contact lens in. Some stuff gets left out of my packs. I have no idea what’s going on. I fill my water bottles and head out.

 

The Bear Bag Eating Bear Box?

On the way into camp there is something that looks a lot like a bear box along the trail. I even tried to open it last night but couldn’t figure it out and gave up. Apparently, two women managed to open it to store their food (in lieu of using the bear cables). The problem was that the next morning the box could not be opened. Oh, and the next road crossing is Clingman’s Dome – miles 200.3. We’re at 172.6. This is a problem. I later find out one woman was able to continue forward. I hear somebody may have given her some food as he was leaving the trail due to heart issues. The other woman returned to Fontana Dam to resupply. I ran into the woman who pressed on later that day and gave her a meal packet. Other hikers, hearing of her plight, also contributed. It also helped me lighten my load by 7ozs. I should be eating my food,I just can’t. 

Passing into Tennessee 

Hooray – this is my first time in Tennessee on this hike. Going forward the trail will wind its way through both states as it meanders through the mountains at the border. In fact today, I crossed back and forth more times than I can count and at times it looks the trail is on the border itself. I wish Flamethrower was here to cross this border with me, but at least she’ll be able to cross it upon her return.

 

A Field of Flowers

 

Soon after passing into Tennessee the trail changes from a thin ridge trail to one that meanders through old growth forests lined with grass and flowers. Part of me wanted to frolic though the fields stirs up the fairies and butterflies. The thirty pound pack on my back prevented me from frolicking however. The day continued like this with lots of small wildflower lined fields.

The Bargain I Lost (?)

 

Important info –

From camp to Mollies Ridge = 5.5miles, 1,700ft of gain

Mollies to Russell = 3.2 miles and 650 feet of gain

Russell to Spence is 3.1 miles and 850 ft of gain.

So I’m walking from Mollies Ridge shelter where I had lunch to Russell Field Shelter I tell myself if I get there by 4 pm I’ll go on to Spence. If i get there between 4 and 4:30 I’ll see how my legs feel. 

 

I arrive, I look at my phone clock and watch it flip dmffom 3.59 to 4:00pm. I curse in my head and trudge on. I actually make good time clearing this last section in 90 minutes (excluding a 10 minute break to refill my water). But boy was I tired when I got to camp.

 

So Many People –

 

OMG – yes I’m all alone out here, just me and the 5000 or so people who are part of the NOBO bubble that leaves Springer for Maine between March 1 and April 15 – Of these 25% quit in the first week and only 40% are left after Damascus (Mile 470). I’m at mile 184. This campsite is crowded. There must be at least 80 people. These are the people who have managed to not get hurt, run out of money, develop a new (and healthy) hate for hiking, or otherwise choose to go home. Some are in groups, many are alone but then part of the bigger group. 

At least three people greeted me by name when I got to the campsite. Hey Forager! Hi (person whose name I forgot the instant you told it to me)! (Sorry, I’m bad this). I also spent the day leap frogging with about 8 women. So even though I’ve only been back on the trail for four days, I’m already part of this crowd. It seems that it also pays to be part of the shelter crowd – it’s a lot more social as you are with a lot more people than when locked away in your tent. But tonight they only had upper level shelter spaces and I wasn’t feeling it (i get up to pee a lot – you must have noticed). Anyway, so I go find a tent site. My site is actual at the horse tie up. It didn’t look like it’s been used this year and it’s clean and scent free. Side note – there were three horses on the trail today, I didn’t see them but i saw their droppings and prints. Others reported coming face to face with the horses on a turn – always fun if you aren’t expecting them. I was a bit jealous.

 

Camp Chores –

Once one gets to camp you must secure your tent site. I try to find some place flat and near the bathroom. I succeed. My site is actual at the horse tie up. It didn’t look like it’s been used this year and it’s clean and scent free. Side note – there were three horses on the trail today, i didn’t see them but i saw their droppings and prints. Others reported coming face to face with the horses on a turn – always fun if you aren’t expecting them. I was a bit jealous.

 

Back to chores – So first you pitch your tent, then you pitch your pack into your tent then I get into my tent (removing my shoes in the vestibule) and inflate my sleeping pad. Next I fluff out my sleeping quilt and lay that on my pad. I inflate my pillow.

 

I organize my tent. The tent stuff sacks go into a ceiling mounted pouch, as does the inflation bag for my sleep pad, camp sandals are placed in the vestibule. Toiletries, electronics, bottled water, and toilet paper/kula cloth goes in designated places near the tent head, a small towel is also placed nearby and will serve as tissues (so much pollen).

 

The food bag is removed and is waiting for me to go to the shelter to eat. To this I add the cooking pots /fuel – left over daily snacks, and a ziplock bag of snacks that I want to avoid crushing ( see honey buns). Tooth paste and other smelly toiletries should be added to this bag. It won’t come back to the tent. Instead it will be hung and hoisted on bear cables – where I will retrieve it tomorrow for breakfast (yet another meal I probably won’t eat).

 

Now it’s time to change. My tent is tall enough to sit up in provided I’m not sitting on my sleeping pad. Tonight is actually warm enough to stay undressed for a few minutes. I spend time checking for ticks, bites, scratches, and anything else that needs attention. I apply powders and creams as appropriate. I haven’t showered in 5 days. It’ll be at least 2 more until I’m in town. My clothing has a funk to it but they’re is nothing I can do about it till I’m in town. 

 

Dinner –

After a quick trip to the privy (yay no peeing behind a tree while in view of at least a dozen people). I go back to the shelter with my swollen food bag. I’ve been telling myself all day that i need to eat a honey bun but i haven’t had the appetitte. I snack on Swedish fish, eat combos and pretzels, then eat the honey bun, I boil water and add a cube of broth. I hope I ate 1200 calories. I can’t eat more. I have 5 meal bags in my pack, I know i won’t be able to eat / finish any of them. I have a new plan though. I’m going to start only eating 1/2 of them. Maybe pour the first 1/2 in my pot and cook it so i don’t get stuck packing out uneaten food (see the green curry incident). I jealously look on at the woman who lost her bear bag to the box easily eats the donated meal packet that I’ve been carrying for 100 miles. I’m happy it’s gone that was 7oz in my pack that i wasn’t going to eat anytime soon.

 

After dinner I find a bear cable and hoist my snacks far out of the reach of hungry bears. Then it’s back to bed, it’s 8pm. The sun is setting and there is a chill in the air and I adjust my clothing to be warmer. The sun won’t rise for at least 11 hour, around 7am. The nights are getting shorter. They used to last 12 or more hours and you’d go to bed early because it was too cold to stay out and hang out. So this is an improvement (also this is when I’m writing my daily updates. I typically write until I pass our with fatigue then wake up and write some more later often this process is iterative and lasts through the night.)

 

April 14th – Things That Go Bonk in the Night

 

I wake up for a few hours hungry in the night but manage to go back to sleep until about 8:30. I make a morning privy run then notice one of the tents next to me is gone. This belonged to the ladies with the missing food; I know they were trying to hike out asap so I’m not surprised they took off. Me, on the other hand, I’m beat. I want to make it to a shelter 12 miles away but may have to call it at the shelter 6.1 miles away. I’m moving slow and take my time in my tent.

 

By the time I emerge, nearly everybody has gone and there might be 8 people left. The two girls near me are leaving, and then I see Judge leaving camp. I need to get water before I depart, which is a 500-ish foot down a side trail with some elevation loss then gain. But first, I bring my pack to the shelter and grab my food bag off the bear cables – it’s the last bag up there. As I’m about to go for water, I see a large garmin on the ground and pick it up. I call out to the woman who is leaving, and it turns out it’s her Garmin. This is the ridge runner I met the night before. She came back saying she knew she was forgetting something but couldn’t figure out what. We chat; then she takes off. She’s a digital nomad like me, but now she spends a lot of time in Asheville while working this job a few days a week.

 

I start out slow, huffing and puffing, and honestly really confused by my exhaustion. The weather is good. I ate a whole honey bun (710 calories) for breakfast and some combos and some gummy candy. I should be flying through these woods like cocaine bear. BUT. I. AM. NOT. I’m dead. Completely and utterly exhausted. The hill is steep, but I’m too tired even for this. I slog up the first mile with 700 feet of gain and practically crawl up the last bit. The views are stunning, but I’m not interested in that right now. Instead, I’m going to lay down.

I ‘fluff up’ a nearby rock and kick back against my pack. The sun is so bright and the day is so warm, and I am so tired. I greet a few people as they come up, but I’m practically delirious. I’m exhausted, both hot and cold, sweating, nauseous from the exertion. I sit my water bottles next to me, make Gatorade, then find my contact lens case and take out my lens. Flies are everywhere; I assume I stink, so I just put my jacket over my face and try to rest. I see one of those closed-eye illusions where there are colors and movement, so I double up my jacket until it’s dark.

 

About an hour later, I emerge as more folks are summiting. I try to make polite conversation with a brother/sister +1 trio originally from Illinois (Tin Man, Caboosr, and Season One) as I shove some food down my throat. I don’t remember all of what I ate, but I know it ended with a full-sized Snickers. Within about 10 minutes, I’m recovering, and I’m ready to skip down the trail – but for the heavy pack and the low-blood sugar hangover I’m experiencing. Low blood sugar usually comes on for me at night, but I realize afterward that I missed all the obvious signs… as I usually do, because low blood sugar makes me too stupid to know that I have low blood sugar. It also makes me nauseous and tired and completely disinterested in food. Yup, a winning combo for somebody that just needs to eat a Snickers bar.

It’s 12:45 pm – I’m one mile into my day, and I’m moving at a snail’s pace and lagging badly when any significant exertion is required. The whole day goes by like this. I’m running on an empty fuel tank, again. It’s warm, and I’m sweating so I need to carry extra water, so my pack is heavier than usual.

 

Familiar Faces

About 2.5 miles into my day, I stop at a spur trail for water and notice that not only are the trio I hung out with at the top of Rocky Top up there, but there are two other girls I had seen up there who were having their lunch, and I see Blaze hanging out by a pack. Blaze is the trail name for Thor, the seeing-eye dog for Shades. Shades is down by the water with the trio. Generally, dogs aren’t allowed in the park, but service dogs can typically go anywhere their human goes. Blaze is laying in the sun with his dark fur shining. It takes all my effort to not give the good doggo some pets as I pass by to collect some water to replenish my depleted reserves. But you never pet service dogs.

I go down and say hi and chat for a bit. Y’all might remember Shades from the trail magic on top of Wayah Bald that brought me back to life one day. But today we’re deep in the woods, so no magic is to be had, which is a shame because a can of coke could have really made a difference in my life today. Anyway, after chatting about life, the trail, and Blaze, it’s time to move on. I warn her about a nasty section of trail coming up – the trail seemed like it’s a dry riverbed – it was 3-4 feet deep, lined with rhododendrons and full of awkward rocks and roots. It didn’t look like they even pretended to maintain this section of the trail for a very long time. Shades says the trail in front of me is pretty bad too (oh joy!)

 

I should add that Shades’s pack is huge because she’s carrying for both herself and the pup. They leave first as I still sit there resting and snacking. I spill my snacks but just eat them right off the ground – I’ve gone feral. A lady arrives a few minutes later exclaiming “that was Shades.” Everyone is in awe of her; most of us are struggling with all five senses intact.

 

The Hike Continues –

Today was tough. I wished for a ride to my destination, an elevator, a cheat code, anything that could make it easier. People passed me from much further campsites; I just didn’t have the strength today. Some parts of the trail ahead required scrambling. This didn’t bother me too much, but I can see it being problematic for others. Often, due to the nature of the nearby trail, you just sort of know the trail goes up a steep rock face even without a blaze. I’m within the last mile, and there is a cruel straight-up climb reminiscent of Kelly’s Knob. I curse my life and struggle up it. I hate not having a cheat code, but then I realize everything would be hard forever. Everything is hard if you haven’t overcome anything.

 

Arrival:

 

I arrive and am completely spent. I can’t believe that up until the last mile or so I was entertaining the idea of going further. I have a friend in town tomorrow, and I’d love to see her; being 6 miles closer would mean only a 4-ish mile day to Clingman’s Dome, not the 10+ I still have before me. It’s about 5 pm, I want to eat and actually make a meal packet, but first I pitch camp. While the meal cooked, I obtained water from a spur trail maybe 400 feet long and 60 feet down. I hate having to climb down to get water.

I eat the meal packet, all of it and even chase it with a kimchi packet I got at Ingles. Very low calories but it always helps my stomach to eat fermented foods. Speaking of my stomach, it’s not feeling very good. Sometimes I get like this after drinking too much water; today I drank over 6 liters. There is no bathroom here; I end up down the non-water side of the mountain digging catholes twice that evening. I take Imodium to hopefully calm everything down. I’m hoping this isn’t early Noro as I’m 10 miles from getting out of the woods. I think it’s just the water, but I can’t be 100% sure yet.

 

I go to bed. The temps are warm, and I’m comfortable. I hope I don’t get sick in the night.

1 am update – stomach is rumbly, but I’m still ok. I hear Ms. Janet’s voice in my head saying you don’t have enough clothing or toilet paper to get Noro in the woods. I know she’s right. I really my want to get to town tomorrow. Even if it’s nothing.

 

Narrator note: It was the water. She’s fine and hiked a killer day once she woke up.

 

April 15- The Kat at the Dome, Unplanned Biowarfare (read, I need a shower), and Hitting the 200 Mile Mark.

 

Kat, a friend, will be visiting the Smoky Mountains today. The only problem is I don’t know if I’ll make it to Clingman’s Dome in time to see her when she gets here around 2 pm. I’m 10+ miles away with 3400 ft of gain. For those of you playing along at home, that makes 11,145 feet of gain (plus spur trails for water and shelter) since entering the park 4 days ago. It also turns out that almost everybody was destroyed by yesterday’s hike, even most of the folks that left early. I’m not happy they are suffering, but I’m happy I wasn’t the only person broken by these hard days. 

 

So today, I’m good. I’m up and out of camp by 7:15 am and hiking off into the sunrise. It’s a beautiful morning. Last night I gave myself a camp bath, so I hope I don’t stink too bad (Narrator: OMG she reeked). A camp bath is where you hide in your tent and use a cloth to wipe down all of your skin. I removed a surprising amount of dirt, I’m longing for a real bath. It’s been 7 days since I showered or washed my clothing… and you only have two pairs of clothing out here, one for day, one for night.

 

It’s a beautiful hike, fairly gentle climbs, and I even run into a deer on the trail. I’m almost 5 miles into the hike when I’m passed for the first time, it’s a man from my last campsite. He’s a speed demon, we chat briefly then he’s gone. 

I arrive at the next campsite Silar Bald (6 miles) by 10 am, the last couple from the night before is still packing up their camp and they nicely show me where the water is. Not as bad as the last few nights, it’s a short trail with some minor elevation loss. I take a steeper path back up than I took down. I decide I’m going to eat breakfast (err lunch?). This will either keep me fueled for the day or shut my body down. But I go for it. I eat a dinner pack of beefy marinara. It’s great. I actually finish it. It had 1000 calories. I’ve never eaten two meal packets in 24 hours. This is amazing. 

 

I press on with my restocked water supply. Now I have 4.5 miles and 1700 feet of gain to get to Kat. If I make it today, it will total 10+ miles with 3400 ft of gain. By all accounts a very difficult day. I press on to the next shelter, Double Spring Gap – this one actually has a privy… Yay. I don’t actually need it, but I’m happy it’s there, it means that the site isn’t a grenade field of partially buried human feces.

 

I sit for a few minutes and chat with the girls who arrived ahead of me who are having lunch. I drink some water and pour some over my head. It feels amazing and I press on. I fantasize about all the delicious food (read pizza and soda that I hope Kat is bringing me – though I didn’t actually ask her to bring anything). Narrator (She doesn’t bring anything, please folks if you are meeting a long distance hiker at the trail head bring real food.)

 

The Race Is On

 

Kat is heading to Clingman’s Dome and I just need to hike 2.9 miles with 1237 ft of gain to meet her. Then I’ll make her (err ask her) to take me into town so I can eat all the foods. Yup, I’m gonna eat Gatlinburg out of food. At least that’s my plan (Narrator – she pathetically could barely even finish a 10-inch pizza). I have about an hour to make the climb. So I’m off. I clear the first 2 miles in under an hour, but it’s hot and I’m really suffering when the pine trees aren’t shading me.

Let’s Talk Forests

 

Let’s take a quick minute to talk about the pine trees. This is new. Since we’ve started there have been two types of forest, it’s mostly a hardwood forest with no leaves this time of year and little cover. Then occasionally we run into a rhododendron section that is thick with low-lying plant cover. Since coming into the Smokies we’re seeing some primary forest with beautiful flower-lined “meadows” underneath and today we entered into thick pine forest. These forests seem to moderate the temps and moisture levels leaving stunning landscapes covered in moss and pine leaves. It’s cooler in these forests than the surrounding land too, sometimes by 10 or more degrees. This part of the forest also smells sweet, it’s a cross between pine bark, sap, pine needles, moss, moisture, soil, etc. Making a wonderful forest patina and it’s actually lovely to smell and experience. I really liked these zones. Unfortunately, they were intermixed with dry areas exposed to direct sunlight. By comparison, these were like the desert with the dry air, direct bright sun, and yellow dead grasses – these areas were rough to walk through when you are already overheated and they leave you longing for the pines.

 

But I Will Walk 200 Miles…

Back to the hike. As I approach Clingman’s Dome, the mountain, as usual, gets rockier and steeper. The steps built into the mountain are larger too. I pass the sign for the bypass – this is the 200-mile mark on the trail. There is no 200-mile sign. I’m bummed but I selfie anyway. Then I press on. I see day hikers ahead of me through the trees. I know we’re at the top. I remember how much the day hikers suffer with this beautiful, smooth, easy path, I giggle a bit. I get questioned about my pack. I explain that most people coming this way with large packs just completed their first 200 miles of a thru-hike and have 1997.4 miles to go. This blows over many people, but some talk among themselves about how they would do it or who they would do it with. Update: I just did the math I’ve done over 50,000ft of elevation gain since this started (that’s 40 empire state buildings straight up (no spire).

I was once a day hiker, stunned by these strange creatures emerging from the woods after a 200-mile hike. Now I answer the same questions I had originally asked so many years ago. Seriously 200 miles – holy poop!

 

The Scent of Success(?)

 

I hang with some thru-hikers and wait for Kat. She arrives, I warn her I haven’t bathed in 7 days. She suggests an air hug. I don’t think I smelled that bad (Narrator: she was so very wrong). We climb the tower. I speed away from Kat and up the tower, only slowed down by walking backwards to chat. I take pictures and selfies. Kat’s reactions tell me I smell, a lot, but I kinda think she was messing with me. (Narrator: she was not). We take a few pictures then head down. I pick up my pack and we hike down to the parking lot, passing thru-hikets on the way. It’s feels like being sprung from prison. I drop my pack in the car, hit the privy, then head back. I suggest air conditioning and open windows, Kat arranges the ventilation in the car.

 

So apparently I smelled, a lot. It quickly became apparent that there was no farce. Kat was coughing, eyes watering, and otherwise dying from my stench. Every time the wind blew through the car from my window she died a little bit. I feel awful and try to cram myself as far away from her as possible. I also can’t stop laughing. Then somehow I catch a whiff of myself that I’m not nose-blind to… OK, I get it. I smell like laundry that’s been left in the machine wet for a week and on top of that pungent BO. Again I’m so sorry for my stench. It’s starting to look like the flies were circling me at camp for a real reason.

 

Banished to a Bath

 

So we want to go eat but Kat insists I get to the hotel to shower first so I do – but not before buying a full sugar pepsi at a vending machine – is not quite a shower beer. but it’ll do. After the shower, I toga up in a bedsheet and I gave Kat an opportunity to smell-check my clothing before I go out in public. My shorts get a pass but my night shirt is not ok – much to my suprise. I’m given a fresh shirt to wear – oo cottony soft and odor-free.

 

We hit the pub for dinner and order pizzas. I start eating voraciously but soon my appetite dwindles, the pizza isn’t large, but I’m dying. I explain this happens all the time and it’s why I can’t get enough calories. This really might end my hike someday (but not this week).

 

Time to get the Dehydrated Hiker Drunk

 

We then go to a moonshine and bourbon tasting spot and order 13 mini tastings. We are met by an internet friend of Kat’s and his wife and Skene some time hanging out. We get at least 20 tastings. Everybody else is fine. I’m dying. Straight moonshine, flavored moonshine, moonshine pickles, moonshine pickle juice, creamy moonshines, bourbons – so much booze. So now I’m a bit tipsy (but at least we know I’m not driving). I ask if there is a place in town where one can self-order a hydration IV.. But instead, I’m just given water.

I like Chatting Too Much! 

I get returned to the hotel and decided I’m going to Zero tomorrow (i.e. not hike and do chores instead) So I book an extra night. Then I end up talking to the Jamaican hotel clerk for the next 90 minutes about American society and how things really are which basically means nobody cares if you are poor because the individualistic society deems people responsible for their poverty as opposed to those that exploit their labor, etc. I’m not holding back here. I probably should have been in the hot tub or doing my laundry, or both, but I guess that is something I can do tomorrow.

I grab a cocoa and head up to the room. Tomorrow, I need to do laundry, enjoy the hot tub, buy groceries, eat, eat more, eat more still, and plan a shuttle back to the trail for the following day. I guess I also need to shower about 74 more times and wash down my gear that can’t go in the laundry machine. I’m expecting to buy a large bottle of Febreze.

It’s late, night all. (but first a candy bar).

Fun facts:
(1)I just spent $110 on groceries (& febreeze) for 4 days
(2) There are almost 100 grams of protein in a pound of shrimp – Which is what I ate while waiting for the town shuttle.
(3) Hikers buy two types of groceries/(1) crazy heavy protein and fruits / veggies to eat while in town (2) lightweight food for the trail.
(4) Hiker food gets repacked wherever possible to ditch packaging – we go through a lot of ziplocks.
(5) The longer you are on the trail the more ‘heavy’ food items find their way into your food bag. I’ve noticed this with other hikers, I’m not sure if this is a drift or if only these hikers have survived this long. Apparently, one can not hike on ramen alone. Actually, this is my first Ramen purchase of the trip, not sure if I’ll even eat it, but if I’m starving…)

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