AT Day 15 – From Smokies To Smoke
Peck’s Corner Shelter to Davenport Gap
Livin La Vida Smokies Camp to NorCal PCT Camp
AT miles: 20.8
Total miles: 247.2
Elevation change: 3937ft gain, 7110ft loss
The temperature really has been ratcheting up these past few days. While the altitude, wind, and shady spruce had masked the significance of that change, there was no denying it today. As I exited the Smokies for good, losing tons of elevation in the process, I felt as if I was walking from Winter to Summer. At the beginning of the day, sunny patches were to be savored. By the time afternoon rolled around, I was searching for shade and feeling kind of roasted. The wildlife is out and the water sources more important. Has Summer arrived, or am I getting ahead of myself? What is going on here?
The classic list of chores got me up and moving after my 5:30 a.m. alarm. If that seems early to you, consider that I’m usually asleep by hiker midnight, or nine p.m. The only difference this morning was the warm air. My body took less convincing and cajoling to leave the warmth of my quilt. On the contrary, I’d actually been too hot in the night and was seeking fresh, fart-free air to cool my clamminess. With a burbling belly full of trail mix, I was back on the trail a little after seven a.m.
The early sun cast a polluted glow to my green world below the trees. It could just have been the natural warmth in the light, but I was suspicious that it looked a little too warm. The first view into Tennessee confirmed that the air was looking a bit hazy out there. Visibility was still decent, but the sharpness of yesterday’s view from Clingmans was scratched up and rubbed satin.
The trail picked up right where it left off, albeit with fewer sharp ridge traverses. I put my head down and made good time on the gentle slope. There were some slow uphills, but I knew that the bulk of the day would be spent pounding downhill, so I didn’t sweat it. Besides, it was still cold. While it had been calm and warm in camp, the wind was blowing on the ridge, making me move to stay warm. On the shady side of Mount Guyot, I filled up my water bottles next to a patch of ice that would probably linger for a few more days, if not weeks.
I managed to thaw out in a sunny meadow, marked as a helicopter landing pad in the guide. I ate my daily Bobo’s Bar while kneeling on my shins with my toes pointed. I don’t know why I decided to sit that way, but, in doing so, discovered that it provided exactly the stretch I needed to relieve my shin discomfort. I hiked away from that spot feeling refreshed indeed.
The long descent out of the Smokies then began in earnest. The trail remained mellow and overwhelmingly trended downhill. My mind wandered to a million different places, most notably back to my time living in the UK. Although I only lived in Bristol for one year, it was formative and filled with good memories and friends. And without Bristol, I would not have met SpiceRack. Without SpiceRack there would have been no CDT thru-hike. Without the CDT there would certainly not be an AT thru-hike. No Bristol, no AT. Where would I be? What a crazy world. I wondered when I would be back. I wondered if the vegan food would be as exquisite.
Speaking of food, I stopped for lunch after a short chat with another trio of Gen Zers, who warned me about another hiker from California a couple days ahead. This was the second time I’d heard him mentioned. I took it as a sign that I was destined to track him down so that we could bro-out about beaches and overpriced housing. I can’t wait.
Lunch came with a show, which was fantastically entertaining to the point that it wears the crown for favorite moment of the day. Two spunky squirrels duked it out in an intense game of tag for several minutes. Their agility and fearlessness was truly a spectacle to behold, and I watched, fully engrossed, until they noticed my presence. At that point, they joined forces to bark and squeak in my direction. Whatever effect they were trying to affect, I don’t think it worked. Maybe they were just saying hello.
As I continued the long descent, I got a little bit sad about leaving the Smokies. They had been good to me and represented a known quantity that I now lacked. Up until this point on the AT, everything was about getting through the Smokies. Now I was through, so what next? I’d been here before though on previous trips and took heart in knowing it would all work out. What’s next? The next step, of course. Whatever that may be.
The trail took an unexpected turn up as soon as the shady spruce turned to shadeless oak. I sweated up in the hot sun, my uphill muscles screaming at me for interrupting their siesta. But not for long. They settled in and the trail flattened out. The heat remained.
As a good tourist, I wanted to see what all the hype was about with the Mount Cammererererer fire lookout. It was half a mile off trail, but not to be missed if you believe the reviews. Aaaaand it was awesome. The view was a little hazy, sure, but the vastness was undeniable. I wandered around, gazing this way and that, and even spotted a fire or two. They didn’t seem to be in the direction I was headed, but they explained the smokiness. I chatted for a few minutes with Sylvia, an Italian flight attendant who hates living in New Jersey, out for a day hike. I appreciated the conversation because it kept me at the beautiful spot for a length of time closer to what it deserved. Time I wouldn’t have given if I had been alone.
But then it was time to get moving. I scorched back to the AT and bombed down the endless miles to Davenport Gap. My throat felt scratchy with the smoke, and my face warm from all the sun exposure. I stopped to fill my bottles twice within five miles to catch up on my hydration.
In the shadow of the Smokies, I kicked through deep leaves and ogled at the largest oak trees that I had ever seen. Truly immense, on a scale I’m used to reserving for ponderosa pine or redwood. I deposited the last half of my permit at the national park boundary, then hiked just far enough to find a flat spot to camp. The warm air and closeness of the forest brought me back to the long days on the PCT around Burney Falls. Those were good days. As I ate my beans and lay back, wearing just my shirt in the warm air, I thought the same thing. This was a good day. These are the good days.
This post was originally published on my blog hikefordays.com. Check it out for trip reports from my other hikes including the CDT and Sierra High Route.
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