April 9th – 18th on the AT
22 Days and 207.7 miles since Springer Mountain
All right, I last wrote in this thing on April 9th so it’s been a little while. Let me catch you up.
That was a productive little day with a somewhat counterproductive evening. I met up with the Irish boys (now going as The Lucky Charmer and The King), and we checked in to see how the brewery was doing that night. We had a handful of beers and retired back to my room for a few more before bed. It was a fun night but went a little late for the early Sunday shuttle I had scheduled for myself.
It wasn’t a problem though. The shuttle driver even showed up fifteen minutes early and I was ready to rock. The driver just takes $25 total per trip from Franklin to Winding Stair Gap, which is eleven miles. He picked up four more hikers after me so we all owed five bucks. Not bad. The other four hikers spent the ride telling this kind man from Franklin how terrible Franklin was. It was unnecessary and pretty tough to listen to. I thought Franklin was perfectly lovely. More importantly, it was fully in line with anyone’s reasonable expectations of a rural hiker town with a population of less than 4,000. Outdoor 76 outfitters, the Baptist church daily free breakfast, and The Lazy Hiker brewery can’t be missed. Anyhow, I jumped out of the truck at the gap and trudged through 15.8 miles of muck from all of the melted snow. Beautiful day but some pretty sloppy hiking at times.
The next day was good. Just put my head down and hiked. It was still muddy occasionally but some solid views. The Wayah Bald Tower was especially worth the climb. I was within earshot of a guy from New Orleans who had hiked this stretch before as he pointed out the upcoming Fontana Lake and beyond that the Smoky Mountains. It’s cool to have these landmarks to know how far you’re going and how far you’ve been. Because much of the time the insane distances we are walking and planning to walk are difficult to get one’s head around. That day I had planned to walk straight through the Nantahala Outdoor Center and keep on going a few miles. But a $30 bed was too enticing to pass up. The NOC is an outfitter, river kayaking school and haven, restaurant, bunkhouse, and general store. It was worth the slightly early stop.
This Monday at the NOC was the night that I sent a picture of my black and blue toes to my wife, my mom, and my dad. Noting the toenails I’d be losing and my projections for the order they’d be disappearing. My old man was really the only one to react. Immediately telling my mother “this is not good” and “we need to send Michael new shoes.” It wasn’t the reaction I was expecting and it was actually quite moving. This is the same dude who once hit himself in the thumb with a hammer, creating a bad blood blister under the thumbnail. He then took his power drill and bored a hole into the base of his own thumbnail in order to relieve the pressure and get back to work. He’s a badass and his reaction made me take pause regarding my ongoing foot care regimen. Very wise too. These are my vehicles and without them, there is no hike.
Tuesday morning some fella had his alarm go off at 5:30 for a few minutes and then got up, opened the door from the bunkhouse into the common area to illuminate those of us still sleeping, and then started talking to people at full volume. Among other things, he wanted to discuss how it was supposed to rain until 10:00. This had been part of my reason for wanting a bed. To sleep comfortably through the rain. But after 90 minutes of him rummaging through his noisiest belongings, seriously an hour and a half, we all got up. Just in time for him to say “I’ll turn this on if everyone’s up,” turn on the light, and walk out the door. The four of us remaining just stared at each other and slowly began starting our own routines. Mindset is imperative while hiking, I’ve found, and this guy destroyed my mood before I ever had a chance that day. I spent the better half of the hike in a sullen state, unable to properly appreciate the incredible world around me. The fact that I couldn’t shake my funk only compounded it further. However, that night I finally crashed in my tent for the first time! Big Agnes Tiger Wall UL2 is highly recommended by someone who doesn’t know much about tents! Oh, there was a bear in camp last night too. I didn’t see it or hear it but I heard a dog going nuts about it and then people were chatting about it later.
The next morning I felt great. Tent went off without a hitch, the drizzle and fog of yesterday had given way to a crisp clear air that is ideal for hiking. I left Locust Grove campsite and only walked three miles before entering Stecoah Gap to find some of the most thought out and well-timed trail magic so far. These guys had brats, fruit, chips, candy, soda, water, Powerade, phone chargers, and a Wi-Fi hotspot. It was pretty incredible and I wish I had written their names down. It gave me the power boost to put in my biggest day so far as I knocked out 17.3 miles and got all the way into Fontana Dam. Granted I got a little spun around with my map and walked the wrong way on the highway for about three miles, unable to get a hitch. But shortly after I figured out my blunder and just before the dark of night was to come, I was picked up by a generous motorist and brought to Fontana Village where I had decided that a night or two in a bed was in order after my giant day. I checked in, showered, and slept like a rock for ten hours.
I awoke on the 14th and immediately gave myself permission to just do another day in Fontana Village before taking on the Smokies. I had breakfast, resupplied, did laundry, and made a reservation for Gatlinburg in a few days. I know, I’m doing too many hotels but my miles are fine so far and the rests are doing me well. Then I play some mini-golf and throw back a few beers. It’s really nice. There is guilt today and I can’t shake it though. It feels like a holiday here. This little village is a resort and everything here is designed for relaxation, enjoyment, and excess. The guilt keeps tapping me on the shoulder and reminding me this is the kind of thing my wife would love, and that she should be here. Sometimes the hiking is just work and I want it to be more fun, but on days like this part of me feels like I shouldn’t be having quite this much of a good time. It’s a goofy sensation, but it’s definitely gotten in my head once or twice. Luckily I’m finding the hiking to be a sustainably balanced dose of fulfillment versus painful exertion most of the time. I get why people dig it.
Back on the trail Friday and I’m looking to make a dent after my little vacation Thursday. I throw my permit into the ranger’s box on the south side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and as I feel my energy surge and motivation climb to an apex, I start taking my long sweeping strides in the direction of the north. Considering this national park as a huge personal test to my own merit, I’m ready to take it in all at once. Knowing that on the other end I’ll be able to look folks in the eye and say with confidence “I’m a hiker, and yeah, I’m thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
Friday I cranked out 16.1 miles and Saturday 14.7. Easter Sunday I simultaneously crossed the 200-mile mark and the highest peak on the entire damn trail at Clingman’s Dome. It’s a bit of an attraction, being the highest peak, so there’s tons of tourists. I hear people say “that guy’s walking all the way to Maine.” I turn around and smile and they wave. I guess I’ve got the look down. It felt good going into a slightly lighter day as I wanted to position myself close to Newfound Gap to get up early Monday and maximize my time in Gatlinburg.
It rained like a bastard on a shelter roof that was made out of the same thing they use to make snare drums I think. So each raindrop sounded like a friggin avocado pit falling from the sky but I fell asleep feeling pretty good about myself last night. Knowing that it’d be raining tomorrow too and that didn’t matter. Because I think I’m getting the hang of this hiking thing.
Tonight in Gatlinburg! Thanks for reading folks!
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