Bleeding My Way Through the Smokies: Days 18–22

This blog covers the beginning of my week in the Smoky Mountains where I started my first on-trail period. I’m choosing to share my experience openly in the hopes it helps a reader out there. I don’t write about it in a ton of detail, but feel free to scroll on by if that’s not something you want to read about!

Day 18: Cable Gap to Fontana Marina; 5.3 miles

The Fontana shuttle was scheduled to arrive at noon, so I left around 8:00 a.m. from the shelter to allow plenty of time to get to the marina.

Four of us decided to go in on a hotel room for the night — the weather in the Smokies is calling for 70 mph gusts and thunderstorms with road closures. I know we can’t avoid rain on the trail (I’ve hiked through plenty of it already), but Fontana seems like a natural stopping point to wait out the storm.

Once we got on the shuttle from the marina to the lodge, Pigpen and I started our laundry, did our resupply, and sent out some postcards from the tiny post office. It’s convenient that everything is based in one building. Too bad the ice cream shop is still closed for the season, otherwise I would’ve experienced nearly everything Fontana Village has to offer.

In the afternoon, I sat on the patio of the general store in a rocking chair. American flags waved lazily in the breeze everywhere I looked, and the quiet conversation between thru-hikers charging their devices was punctuated only by a horse neighing on speakers every five minutes. At one point — I kid you not — someone started playing their banjo. America.

Plantasia, Honeybun, Pigpen, and I ate dinner at the bistro up the hill. I ordered a house-made veggie burger with ghost pepper jack cheese. The cheese was extra hot after almost three weeks of somewhat bland meals on trail. I also had a salad. Gotta get those greens in.

If you stop here on your hiking adventures, ask for the hiker rate!

Day 19: ZERO

Pigpen and Plantasia woke up bright and early to head into the Smokies. But Honeybun and I took one look at the weather and decided to take a rest day with Ladybug.

We watched copious amounts of Parks and Rec, ate lots of snacks, and started to plan out our first few days in the Smokies.

Not too much else to report, but my body is happy with this day of rest.

Day 20: Fontana Marina to Mollies Ridge Shelter; 13.3 miles

Honeybun and Ladybug took another zero, so I started the Smokies alone.

Walking across Fontana Dam felt like such a milestone to me. I started the park in high spirits.

Along the way, I saw people I knew, like Phoenix and Magellan, and met some new folks too. But I’m between two groups of my “tramily” and couldn’t help but feel a little lonely at times.

The Smokies are beautiful, and the trail is really nice here — not as many roots and rocks to contend with as in parts of Georgia and North Carolina (at least, so far). However, I could see evidence of yesterday’s storm in the freshly downed trees scattered around the trail and was glad I opted to stay behind, even if it means being a little lonely now.

I started my period during the hike up this morning. People have been bleeding in these mountains for ages, and that brings me some calm. But still, it was a challenging enough day without my cramps.

I decided I’m going to be open about my period here because it’s not a topic that everyone feels comfortable talking about. I think a lot of people have questions about managing periods on trail, though! All the in-depth bleeding-in-the-backcountry advice I got before the AT came directly from friends.

Today, I wore tampons since they were most easily accessible in my fanny pack and it’s what I was comfortable with in a hurry when I noticed I’d started my period.

I cried a LOT today. Like, snot everywhere kind of crying. Once again, strenuous hiking plus maybe not enough food (?) plus now a period makes for an emotional Mo.

Banjo saw me crying in the evening once I’d set up camp and asked if I needed a hug. Sometimes the norovirus risk is worth it. That simple act went way further than he probably thinks it did.

On a norovirus-related note: In the Smokies, hikers are asked to stay in the shelters unless they’ve already been reserved. The shelter wasn’t totally full tonight, but people with norovirus were staying in it. 😬 It’s running rampant here, and I’m not even in the heart of the bubble. Needless to say, I set up my tent for the night and feel comfortable with my decision.

Day 21: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob; 12.1 miles

In the wee hours of the morning, I could tell I had to change my tampon (IYKYK). Maybe it’s gross, but I changed it in my tent since there was no privy at Mollies Ridge. The NC shelters in the Smokies have privies; the TN shelters have “toilet areas,” which are essentially forested areas full of cat holes. Yikes. Anyway, the sun was rising, and I didn’t want to put on a whole bloody show for all the men camping around me. TMI? I put in a disc to see how that would go. I’d been using disposable Flex Discs pre-trail for a few months and really like them. Maybe I’ll invest in a reusable one after the trail.

On top of the strenuous hike today, I was super crampy all morning. I had it in my mind that I was going to make it to Siler’s Bald Shelter — about 18 miles. Well, I ended up at Derrick Knob instead. From the beginning of my thru-hike attempt, I’d promised myself to find the balance between pushing myself and listening to my body. Today I honored my body’s need for “rest.”

It was windy all freaking day, which was a huge sensory overload for me. Ram Dass’ quote kept popping in my head though: “You can do it like it’s a great weight on you, or you can do it like a dance.”

So today was a dance: A dance between pain and pleasure, inhales and exhales, gaps and summits, loneliness and sweet solitude.

I danced my way to Derrick Knob and decided that would be it for today.

I made mac and cheese for dinner and Banjo gave me a packet of hot chocolate. After eating and cleaning up, I met Ramen Bomb Tom, a fellow musician from NYC! He went to Juilliard around the same time I finished my Masters at Manhattan School of Music. The world is so small. I also briefly caught up with Dinger, Phoenix, Magellan, and Uncle (aptly named, as he happens to be Banjo’s actual uncle). I ended the night feeling so content. I’m not alone; this community ebbs and flows so naturally.

I had some cell reception near the Toilet Area (lol), so I got to text a few loved ones before heading to bed.

Clingmans Dome and 200 miles tomorrow!

Day 22: Derrick Knob to Mt. Collins; 13 miles

I didn’t take enough notes today! But here’s what stood out to me:

My disc leaked during the five minutes I got comfortable sleeping on my stomach, so I had to hand wash my merino wool leggings in the cold before dawn. 🙁 I let them air dry on the back of my pack and decided to use a tampon the rest of the day.

The whole hike up to Clingmans passed through the most incredible spruce-fir forest. Everything near the forest floor was covered in moss and lichen. Dappled sunlight danced across the trail with the breeze. It felt so ancient, so peaceful, verdant. There was no way my iPhone camera could possibly do the experience justice.

Uncle and Banjo

I wish you could smell this photo

Since Clingmans Dome doesn’t open to the public until April 1, I was happy to have it to myself for a while. The sky was clear and there was a little airplane flying around overhead as I took in the expansive view.

I had cell reception at the very top and called a dear friend for about twenty minutes. Then I hit the trail for three more miles to the Mt. Collins Shelter. The shelter was about a half mile off trail, but I liked my little tent site for the night and rested well having passed 200 miles on the AT.

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