AT Thru Hike: The Smokies Nearly Killed Me

Rearview Mirror

Day one of my Appalachian Trail Thru Hike – I’m feeling and looking fresh with a big smile stamped across my face. I feel a sense of wonder and excitement. I’m tramping like Mathew Wilder “Ain’t Nothing Gonna Break My Stride”. I wear pink running shorts, a light grey sports tank and barely broken in black and neon green Salomon Sense Ride 5’s. My hair is in two pigtail breads underneath a white and green Smokey the Bear “Only You…Can Prevent Wildfires” baseball cap. As you can see, I like color. It brings me joy and will keep me feeling upbeat throughout my hike.

I don my electric blue Osprey pack, take a few steps and break through the stone arches at Amicalola Falls like the Kool Aid man through a piece of fake poster board. I’m told by a fellow thru hiker, “you’re too happy for me. I need to go take mushrooms”. I’m on fire!

Now let’s fast forward….20 days and 166 miles later, I enter the Great Smokey Mountains. They nearly break me and threaten to kill my spirit….

Anticipatory Anxiety

You see, I was dealing with anticipatory anxiety about the Smokies. I heard stories about hiking through this area. I feared the elevation gain, the unpredictable weather and of course, the bear. I had heard of people waking up in their tents being stuck under piles of snow. Bear coming to camp and stealing their food. Remember those Sunday morning cartoons where bears would pluck people out of tents and eat them like a snack? Yeah, me too. Turns out, I didn’t have any run ins with bear throughout the Smokies, but I did have an unfortunate experience with another creature…

A Dam Sad Goodbye

Here’s how my journey through the Smokies began. I’m dropped off at Fontana Dam Marina by Wendy from Gorgeous Stays hostel. I have been at the hostel for three nights and enjoyed a chill atmosphere, fireside chats, and even a church BBQ. My time at the hostel and meeting Wendy and her family has been one of my favorite times on trail so far. Leaving the safety and security of the hostel contributes to my ambivalence of heading into the Smokies. I don’t want to leave the warmth and love that abounds at Gorgeous Stays.

We depart the hostel around 7:30 am and Wendy drives me and a group of three other hikers to Fontana Dam to begin our ascent into the mountains. It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend, one that I had only met three days earlier. That’s how it is on trail. We meet people, become fast friends, and are often forced to move on swiftly from that friendship.

Enter…The Smokies

We enter the Smokies mid-morning and there is a volunteer collecting our permits. Thru hikers are required to purchase a $40 permit to enter the Smokies. Side note, we’re also required to give up our spot in the shelter to a section hiker (or day hiker) should the shelter become full. This creates a rift between thru hikers and other hikers. A section hiker is one who hikes the trail in sections whereas a thru hiker is attempting to hike all 2,200 miles in one shot. Bear in mind, there is no way of traveling the trail which is better than the other. In my opinion, if you’re out here hiking, you’re a bad ass.

However….imagine coming into the shelter after many long days of walking (maybe in the rain, or with sore feet). You put down your mat, roll out your sleeping bag and inflate your pillow. You kick off your shoes and slide into the warmth of your bag. Only moments (or sometimes even hours later), a section or day hiker enters the shelter and there’s no more space. You were the last thru hiker to get into the shelter and now you have to pack up your shit and go set up your tent. Maybe it’s raining and your feet are even more sore because your muscles have cramped from resting. I dreaded having to deal with this scenario but as I’ll mention later, it was inevitable.

The Biggest Climb of All

We arrive at the parking lot for the marina, walk over Fontana Dam, take a quick snack break and then begin our big climb. This will be the biggest day of climbing yet on the AT. We begin at 1,898 feet elevation and climb up to 4,583 feet. After we hike for approximately 12 miles, we arrive at Mollies Ridge shelter….which is full. It was a long hard day but since there is no room in the shelter, I set up my tent nearby. I’m not worried about sleeping in my tent. I hadn’t planned to stay in shelters as my last shelter experience resulted in being awake all night afraid of mice and ultimately, bearing witness to a sick hiker vomiting out the side of the shelter.

Rain, Rain, Go Away

I sleep through the night knowing that rain is coming in the morning. When I awake, I hear the rain gently tapping against my tent but it’s getting louder and louder. By the time I gather all my belongings and exit the tent, it’s pouring. One of the perks of staying in a shelter is that you don’t have to pack up your tent in the rain or carry a wet tent on your hike. I make a mental note of that for the future.

I begin to walk in the the rain. There is no waiting for it to lighten up as it is expected to rain hard all day. Instead, I trudge forth and embrace the suck. The trail is one big muck fest. Deep, wet puddles pool in the middle of the trail creating a muddy pathway. My feet slip, slide and slosh through the mud. I stop at Spence Field Shelter, about 6 miles in, to grab a snack and change into dry clothes. The rain has finally stopped and I need to dry out. I’m delighted to see that someone at the shelter has started a fire. I put my gloves on a rock near it and sit down in front of the fire to warm my toes.

Meet Daddy

I’m re-introduced to a thru hiker I had met briefly at Gorgeous Stays who goes by the trail name, Daddy. He and I began talking and formulate a plan to get out of the rain for the night. We plan to hike to Clingman’s Dome, a 22 mile hike, and get a shuttle into town to stay at a hotel. It’s only an additional 16 miles from my current location, right!? I had never hiked 22 miles in one day but the idea of a warm bed and dryness is irresistible so I happily agree to the plan. We talk of hot pizzas and hot showers.

I gleefully leave the shelter but I’m directionally challenged so I start walking down the wrong side trail. Luckily, Daddy is leaving the shelter too, spots me and yells to alert me that I’m off trail. Embarrassed, I turn around and correct my course. Unfortunately, this won’t be the last time I get turned around when leaving a shelter.

Further up the trail, I run into Daddy again. He forgot his pants at the last shelter and is heading back 1.1 miles to get them. I feel bad that he has to walk back but also grateful that  I can get a head start because I’m a slower hiker. I walk and walk and walk. It begins to rain again.

A Mini Meltdown…Sans Pizza

Daddy and I meet again way up the trail. He asks if I’m still up for Clingman’s Dome but at that point, I’m close to tapping out. He says he is going to hike on but I bow out and head for the next shelter, Siler Bald. The light at the end of the tunnel has been dimmed for me.

I’m at mile 17 with only .8 miles left to get to the shelter. Earlier on trail that day, I had thrown my pack down in the middle of the trail, put my feet up on it to ease the pressure in my feet and rested. I had been feeling very fatigued for the last several miles. Now, my left lat muscle is in a painful spasm. I throw my pack down in defeat and sit down in the middle of trail in tears. Why is this the longest .8 miles of my life? Why is there always a climb to get to the shelters? I can’t take another step. Can I just curl up under a bush, wrap myself in my Mylar blanket and sleep right here on trail tonight? The Smokies are breaking me.

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

When I get the short cry out of my system, I stand up, put my pack back on and continue northbound toward the shelter. I have no choice but to get there. We are in the Great Smokey Mountains and I can’t camp in undesignated spots. My resolve grows stronger. I tap into my martial arts training – perseverance, practice and embrace discomfort, attachment brings suffering. I can do this.

When I arrive at the shelter, Daddy is there too and I’m pleasantly surprised to see a familiar face. I use the bathroom area (there is no privy at most shelters in the Smokies), set up my tent and resign myself to cold soaked mashed potatoes for dinner. There will be no hot pizzas or shower in my future…at least not tonight.

Setting Up for the Night

If you want to geek out with me on how I set up my tent to sleep for the night, read on. Otherwise, skip a few paragraphs to the section titled “Rustling Bear”.

The process of setting up my sleeping system goes like this. In order:

  1. Tie Kula cloth (my pee, pee cloth) to the zipper outside the tent for evening PP runs and put my sandals in the vestibule
  2. Put down Mylar ground cloth inside my tent
  3. Lay down 3/4 length closed foam cell pad on top of Mylar
  4. Take my clothes out of dry bag/mattress inflator bag and put them in nyloflume bag that’s in my backpack
  5. Use dry bag/mattress inflator to Inflate sleeping pad
  6. Inflate pillow and attach to pad with rubber strap
  7. Attach rubber strap to pad for quilt and then position quilt on the pad
  8. Change into sleeping clothes- a moisture wicking tank top and fleece pants or cotton shorts (depending on weather). Put on my fleece if it’s cold
  9. Put glasses, headlamp and headphones in mesh pocket of tent so they’re accessible
  10. Put sawyer filter in a ziplock back and put it inside my sleeping bag liner together with the battery bank and my phone to conserve battery. I sleep with my filter every night just in case the temp drops below freezing as that will damage the filter
  11. Stuff down puffy jacket into dry bag and put buff around it as a pillowcase so it’s an extra pillow
  12. Slip myself inside the fleece sleeping bag liner, inside the quilt. Tighten the 2nd quilt band around me and snap the top 2 buttons
  13. Lie down wide to sleep and pop my eyes open, wide awake because now I’ve woken myself up after all this activity. Toss and turn all night with restless feet and an overstimulated mind. Also, I think I have to pee

Rustling Bear

I start to fall asleep when I hear rustling in the woods near my tent. There are only 2 other tents set up outside the shelter so I’m a little nervous. I cautiously unzip my tent vestibule wall to take a peak outside. I use the red light on my headlamp so I don’t disturb my neighbors. I don’t see anything. I must be hallucinating. Go back to bed. Wait…I hear it again. It sounds as if it’s creeping closer. I peak out again, this time with full bright light. I see nothing. Go back to bed. Then suddenly, I hear it again even closer still. Why does it only creep closer after I’ve zipped my tent? That’s it! I’ve had it. I unzip my tent, pull out my sleep system and bring it over to the shelter. I’d rather sleep with the mice than the stalking creepy forest creatures!

Dawn Breaks

I wake in the morning after a terrible night of sleep. I heard mice running above my head in rafters all night long. I don’t actually know if that creepy forest creature was a bear but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. My feet ache from my big mile day yesterday. I’m ready to get the heck out of here but not before I walk up another 1,000 feet of elevation to Clingman’s Dome. It’s a short 5 miler, but my feet are done. I feel every rock and every root beneath my feet. My ankles are tired so I rely heavily on the support of my trekking poles.

God’s Brilliance

I feel moldy and I’m dragging but walking through the forest this morning is one the prettiest sights on trail so far. Call it God, Spirit, Higher Power or an unexplained energy. It feels as though God’s speaking to me through the beauty of the forest. The sun peeks through the trees sending brilliant streaks of light toward me. The lush green moss covers everything like a scene out of Lord of the Rings. It’s finally a sunny day and I can see the clouds floating over the mountains like a transient bed of cotton. A light fog creeps through the landscape adding to the mood of the sun’s rays.

Reunited with Daddy

I make my way to Clingman’s Dome where I’m reunited with Daddy. Cell service is spotty so we intend to hitch into the town of Gatlinburg to fulfill our thru hiker dreams. We’ll reserve a hotel room, shower, do laundry, eat Pizza and ice cream, sleep in a bed!

We walk down the long paved road from Clingman’s Dome toward the parking lot. I’m wearing flip flops because I don’t realize it’s such a long walk. We get to the end of the parking lot and raise our thumbs. A few cars drive by and some smile at us while some turn their heads away from two smelly hitching hikers. We formulate a plan of how long we will wait before we give up. We wait and wait. Finally a car stops, rolls down its window and says…..

Tune in to Part II to find out if we’re given a reprieve from the claws of the Great Smokey Mountains…

Check out my YouTube video for Part 1 of the Smokies

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