North Carolina/Tennessee, Part One: Days Like Smoke

Days 23-26:

I woke up in Fontana buzzing with energy and excitement. With a shower, fresh KT tape on a decreasingly painful knee, and one of my most looked-forward-to sections waiting just ahead – I couldn’t wait to get going.

After depositing my permit in the self-clearing permit box (I’d purchased and printed this out at the Nantahala Outdoor Center,) I hiked just over 8 miles to the first tent site in the smokies – wanting to get one last night in my tent before I had to sleep in shelters.

The first snake of the hike was guarding the entrance to the Smokies. Spooky.

The Smokies are a very popular backpacking destination, and because of this, you’re only allowed to sleep in the shelters or (if the shelters are full,) in the shelter area. This helps rangers keep track of who is hiking where, and consolidates human impact on the park, along with a host of other benefits I’m likely not aware of.

There’s a lot of good-natured grumbling in camp about this system (especially about the rule that, if a section hiker walks up to a full shelter, thru-hikers are technically supposed to vacate to make room for them…) but there’s also a general sense that the rules are for the good of the park, and we’re all about preserving and protecting wild spaces out here.

Because I did low miles that day, I had some time to sit around the fire, leisurely make dinner, and catch up with some friends. As we sat around the fire chatting, a dull roar echoed in the trees and we all fell silent, heads cocked, listening. Then, the roar grew deafening, and rain swept through the campsite. We all scrambled for our tents, and that was the end of socializing for the evening. It rained all night and throughout the next day.

The mud that greeted us the next morning was unbelievable but, I suspect, just a small glimpse of what is waiting for us in Vermud (Vermont.) The trail was, in a word, treacherous. It was either swiftly running water or a mud pit the entire day. I experienced my first good fall here, and luckily didn’t hurt anything but my pride. It rained the next day too.

On day 25, I got a break from the rain, decided to push it, and cranked out my first 20-mile day of the hike. Past Clingman’s Dome and the gawking tourists (a couple hilariously even took a picture of me as I took this picture of my pack,) past the 200 mile mark, into the beautiful mist-laden pine forests I’d been dreaming of.

The next morning, I walked through the misting rain to Newfound Gap – one of the most personally significant places to me on trail.

What’s In A Trail Name?

When I introduce myself as Newfound on trail, I also have to explain how I got the name. Everyone out here has a story behind their trail name. Some are funny, long-winded stories, others come from previous trails, many are given; some are names that people have given to themselves – and all are meaningful in some way, even if they’re silly on the surface.

Our names are part of us, and their stories are one of the first exchanges you make when you meet someone new.

I chose my own name for a multitude of reasons, but this is the elevator-pitch version I tell to new acquaintances on trail:

In 2017, I stood on the Appalachian trail at Newfound Gap… and knew that one day, I would be there again, thru-hiking.

I knew it in a strange way, a deep-down-in-your-bones way that surprised and terrified me and thrilled me all at once. I’m staunchly agnostic after a Southern Baptist childhood and Catholic convert young adulthood (got all the church out of my system;) I am not spiritual or religious at all.

But that moment at Newfound Gap is etched into my memory as only the most significant memories are – even though all I did that day was go on a pretty insignificant day hike along the AT. It wasn’t a “Hm, I would like to do this one day, maybe?” moment. It was a deep, sudden, lightbulb-moment realization that one day, I would thru-hike.

It was especially strange considering that while I had car camped for years, I had never once backpacked at that point in my life.

Sometimes, I’ll tell new trail friends a lighter, more amusing version of this story: how I got back into my car at Newfound Gap in a daze, turned to my then-husband, and expressed a desire to thru-hike. How he’d laughed it off and discounted the idea immediately. And how my thru-hike then became a bit of a post-divorce “victory lap.”

Which is all just as true as the lightbulb moment story, but these days… this journey has pretty much less than nothing to do with my previous marriage, since 1. This journey is mine, not his, and 2. We separated for a variety of other reasons that had nothing to do with my desire to thru-hike.

Also, the divorce was very difficult (as most are,) and every time I sign “Newfound” in a register… I remember that while the trail is hard, I’ve already lived through something far more difficult and honored the promise I made to myself that day: that one day, I would walk the trail… and I would have to do it alone.

But I have since learned that while I take every step out here by myself, I don’t have to be completely alone either. This has probably been one of the most difficult post-divorce lessons: learning to trust that your partner can, and should, have your best interests at heart… and want to see you chase your dreams, even if it might scare them a little or means that there will be time spent apart.

My current partner, who’s never once tried to discourage me from hiking, picked me up from Newfound Gap for a few days in Wilmington for our anniversary.

Days 27-30:

Days 27-28 were zeroes. On my last zero day before returning to trail, I twisted my leg, eyeing my injured knee from all angles, taking in the raw patches where the KT tape had taken a layer of skin with it when I peeled it off in the shower, chuckled over the irregular tan lines.

But most notably, as I twisted it, it didn’t hurt, and I gave it a couple deep squats for good measure. Nothing, no pain, no popping sensations.

I think I’m going to hike without the tape, I thought hesitantly, as if I spoke the words out loud, they would jinx it.

And so I stepped back onto the trail at Newfound Gap on day 29 without a brace or taping or knee pain for the first time since Neel’s Gap. Out of an extreme abundance of caution (and because my partner and I had slept in and he’d delivered me back to the trail just a couple hours before sundown,) I hiked only 3 miles to Icewater Spring Shelter.

In doing so, I also retraced the route I’d taken 5 years ago on that fateful out-and-back day hike. I remembered inspecting the bear cables, not knowing what they were, and checking out the curiosity of the empty shelter before hiking back to my car. That night, I slept in the shelter.

On day 30, we woke up to a steady, drizzling rain that grew colder as the day wore on, with whispers spreading on trail of keeping your water filter close so it wouldn’t freeze and break overnight.

Days 31-32:

Day 31 was the most difficult day on trail. My water bottles were frozen, my shoes and socks were frozen and had to be thawed so I could cram my feet into them, and the trail was an ice rink that made me long for my microspikes (which are safely tucked away in my storage unit.)

But, the trail was gorgeous. Sunlight shattered off of frozen pine needles; needle ice bloomed from the mud. I hiked to Davenport gap shelter that day.

Day 32: I woke up at first light and walked out of the Smokies, right into trail magic by 2019 thru-hiker Sofarsogood.

I poked around Standing Bear Farm for one dinner and stove fuel, charged my devices, then hiked on to Groundhog Creek Shelter where I spent my first night alone in the shelter. I didn’t get a wink of sleep – every noise woke me up.

I’m learning that I sleep best with at least a few other people around, though I hope to get over that because I enjoy the idea of solo stealth camping.

What Happens When This Is Over?

As I passed through the Smokies, lost the persistent knee pain, and hiked another 100 miles, I really got a sense of how fleeting and short my time out here is. As my body gets used to the demands of the trail, the miles feel shorter. As the tasks of setting up and breaking down camp become routine, it’s becoming harder to envision a life after this.

But then again, all of this was new and difficult and strange just a short time ago. Thru-hikers are nothing if not adaptable, so I suppose I’ll figure out how to fit back into the “real world…” eventually.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 3

  • JhonYermo : May 4th

    Great article. I must say THANK YOU. Beyond good.

    • Newfound : May 4th

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! Appreciate it. 🙂

  • Boatman : May 4th

    Hey Mary I really enjoy your articles I’ve read all kinds of stuff about hiking. I’m an AT section hiker myself. you have a great way with words it’s inspiring, fun, and just wonderful ! keep us posted.


What Do You Think?