Captain Fantastic’s Diary of the Smokies, part 2
Windy, cold, wet. That was today in a nutshell. We actually got up 30 minutes earlier than normal to avoid having to pack wet tents. Everyone had checked atweather.org, which provides detailed forecasts by specific shelter, and knew the rain was likely to start between 9 and 11 am. An intermittent string of people were already hiking by either focused on the task ahead and not acknowledging us, or else cheerfully calling out the AT’s equivalent of “what’s up?”… “Happy Trails!”
Today would allow us to achieve two milestones, hitting the 200 mile mark and also summiting the highest mountain of the entire trail- Clingman’s Dome. At 6,412 feet this mountain had been visible for a week. The first time we saw it was on top of the viewing tower back at Wesser Bald, 70 miles ago. It looked formidable on the deep horizon, but Fontana Lake lay between those two points and took most of our attention since we were aiming to resupply and eat out there. Besides, Clingman’s Dome seemed unattainable at the time. Yet we were now starting this morning on its doorstep, 10 miles from the top.
Sapling and I had made the plan yesterday to stay together the entire way from start to finish. We often hike separately but with the altitude and impending bad weather we felt it wouldn’t be wise for either of us to face the conditions alone. Once we’d packed our bags we headed over to the almost empty shelter to have breakfast at the table. While eating my usual maple and brown sugar oatmeal I noticed that Sapling’s face looked quite puffy, especially around the eyes. This had not been the first time on this trip as it had looked like that most mornings over the past week. She felt it was allergies, either to the carpets of small flowers spread throughout the mountains or else to the camping equipment itself. That’s actually a thing. Some people literally react to the downs and chemicals used to fabricate the tents, sleeping bags, liners and quilts. The puffiness normally subsided by noon and she’d been taking a Benedryl at night.
With full stomachs we made the steep descent down to the water supply. There isn’t much available water above 5k feet and over the course of today’s long hike there’d be only one other water source. We were followed down by the only others left in camp, a former firefighter named Sleepwalker and two former marines named Gutter Punk and Just Sam. We’d gotten to know Sleepwalker pretty well by now. He walks similar to Sapling, a little slower than some but steady and consistent. In the end they had both been keeping the daily mileage of some very fast hikers.
Sleepwalker had been trapped in the first of the towers struck by the terrorists during 9/11. Then he worked tirelessly at the site for months thereafter. He’d suffered PTSD ever since and was doing his thru-hike for charity and peace of mind. The charity trains dogs that will be given to any interested servicemen who suffer the effects of job related trauma. The dogs are taught to notice when an especially depressive episode is coming on and help the owner snap out of it. He’s a really cool guy, but measured and holding a lot inside. Interestingly, he aims to finish his Thru Hike on September 11th. Thank you for your heroic service Sleepwalker.
The hike itself was tough yet beautiful. Sapling stated several times throughout the day that she hikes better in rainy conditions. It gives her a mental edge… and boy did she get her wish. A steady drizzle began over the second hour of the hike. We spent most of the day steadily ascending from just over 4k feet to the top of Clingman’s. But the wind was the surprise to me. It was by far the windiest day I’ve ever experienced, and that’s having spent 30 years living at the beach and riding out a few hurricanes. The higher we went the worse it got, and yes, at times I wondered if we should bail and retreat to the closest shelter. They were more numerous up here, presumably for the safety of hikers who found themselves in a tough situation.
One such hiker was Dragonfly. We had met her the night before at Derrick Knob. I’d seen her go by that morning in her pretty white raincoat, which was a unique color out here. So I was very surprised to come upon her in the middle of today’s hike sitting on a wooden log facing southbound, a bit dazed and confused in the cold and steady drizzle. She said she’d underestimated on rations and her food bag was empty. Her plan had been to gain the top of Clingman’s Dome and resupply at the gift shop. I’d read that wasn’t a good idea because candy bars there were going for the prices they charge at movie theaters. I hooked her up with a Jack’s Link Beef and Cheddar Stick, some soft tortillas and a Pop Tart. They helped her make it in to the next Shelter, where she decided to stay until the morning. She did have one dehydrated meal left and knowing hikers someone else would have provided her with more. In the morning she’d call for a shuttle into Gatlinburg, 15 miles to the west, to get to a grocery store. Good luck Dragonfly and see you up the trail.
When we were 2 miles from the top we finally had mercy from the wind in the form of a forest of Christmas Trees. It was gorgeous and I couldn’t stop taking pictures. It looked just like the area where the Ewoks lived in the Star Wars movies. The wind buffeted the tree tops and many small limbs and needles were falling. All that did was make it smell better, as in the scent of a tree lot in December.
Once we’d crested the summit we somehow managed to walk right past the futuristic looking tower at Clingman’s Dome. We assumed so when the trail began to pitched downward. So we backtracked a tenth of a mile and saw this otherworldly monument through the trees. There were probably a dozen brave souls (not as brave as us since they’d driven there by car) going up or coming down. It was about a hundred feet high and completely exposed. The wind was rocking, and I mean rocking! I’d never seen anything like it. They must have been blowing at 75 mph sustained. But this was our one and only chance and we were taking it.
You’ve heard of playing in the rain? Well we were playing in the wind. It was scary at first but once we realized when bigger gusts were approaching, which we picked up on by their roaring sound, all we had to do was squat down and take protection from the concrete side rails. We spun about, took pictures and videos, marveled at the power of nature and laughed a ton. And thanks to the kind fella who volunteered to take our picture, “Pano”(rama) style. That was a story unto itself.
There were 4 miles left to the Shelter so we got moving. With not much more to look forward to other than being done carrying our packs the miles dripped by slowly. It was getting colder as the cloudy skies brought on a premature end to the day. When we’d finally arrived at the shelter it was packed with mostly day and section hikers, which was surprising because it was a Monday. So we did our best to quickly pitch our tents in the damp twilight. Sleepwalker came in a few minutes behind us saying he’d not braved the wind to climb the tower because there wasn’t going to be a view. I slightly wondered if there was more behind it than that but didn’t want to ask. He joined us for the walk down to fill our bottles and then we joined him over at the shelter where he’d managed to carve out some space. We ate supper together and watched Sapling chat with the only other woman around in front of the fire made by some of the section hikers. They had it going really good and what a fitting way to end another fun but tough day on the AT.
Here’s a link to Sleepwalker’s charity:
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