Day 20: It’s All Downhill From Here
Math & Philosophy
It’s simple logic. Since Clingman’s Dome (6,643 ft. msl) is the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, then it must all be downhill to Maine. I will test this hypothesis in the upcoming weeks and months.
We woke to a forecast of rain, but the sun was shining in Gatlinburg, with a gorgeous display of debris clouds sliding down the green mountain slopes under a deep blue sky. A local Baptist church offers a free shuttle up the mountain, leaving at 8:30, 11:00, and 1:30. Yesterday, we watched a bunch of hikers get turned away after arriving too late and finding the shuttle capacity already exceeded. I hoped to avoid the same fate.
Survivor, Wheels, and Machina were too late for yesterday’s 1:30 shuttle, and looked simultaneously despondent and elated to not to be hiking out. Not only did they miss out on a late start and 18 hours of near-constant rain, they had to endure another night in a warm, dry bed in Gatlinburg. But on the positive side, Survivor had a extra day to chase down his namesake “Survivor” buff that went missing at the laundromat. Last I spoke with him, he had tracked down the attendant, gotten access to the security tapes, and had identified someone he was convinced was the culprit. Now he only had to find the anonymous person amongst all the locals and visitors in Gatlinburg and convince him/her to return the missing piece of cloth.
Quite a few hikers managed to find an excuse to stay an extra night in Gatlinburg, though everyone we spoke to denied enjoying themselves. Last night, we waved to a hiker we saw across the street and he called out “Don’t tell anyone I’m here again” and pulled his hood over his head, as if anyone else cared. As I’ve always said, when life throws you lemons, go back to the brew pub for another huge hamburger.
Hoping to avoid Survivor’s fate, I arrived at this morning’s shuttle pickup at 7:15 am. At 7:45, eight of us stood in line. I texted Survivor that he better hurry, unless he needed another day for his buff investigation. At 8:15, the line exceeded the van’s capacity. Just then, a big Texan with an even bigger white beard sauntered up and said he could take three or four of us right then. Survivor, Wheels, Machina, Brian, and I jumped at the chance, and squeezed into “The General’s” Texas-sized pickup. The General, a 2018 AT thru hiker, had just arrived to help a friend David from his 2022 PCT attempt. David is the father of the family I’d met at the Springer Mountain parking lot. The family was still hiking and were due to arrive at Clingman’s Dome in the next day or two. Amazing.
Clingman’s Dome: 0 for 4
I’ve visited Clingman’s Dome four times, including this week’s visits. I never seen the sun from the peak, or the view, unless you count the inside of wet clouds as the view. Gatlinburg’s blue skies had disappeared by the time we hit the trail in the fog and rain, though we still climbed the tower just to say we did it. From there, we retraced our steps back to the trail, walked a few hundred yards to the 200.0 mile mark, and started the 7.7-mile descent to Newfound Gap.
The Appalachian Canal: A Footbath For Those Who Seek Fellowship With The Wilderness
I should have brought a canoe. Most of the trail was either a flowing stream or ponded up behind the log steps. Note to the GSMNP: The mountain’s misting system works well. The drainage system could use some work. All the water made the roots more slick, the mud muddier, the rocks more slippery, and the foliage drippier. With everything wet, we walked straight through to lunch avoid having to sit on the wet ground in the rain. Brian and I were tired, soaked, and muddy when we got to the US441 crossing at lunch time. But at least we had trail magic to brighten our day.
Nope. Not today. Just a parking lot full of wet tourists gawking at the idiots who walked out of the woods with huge backpacks, sat down, and pulled out a sad, little lunch of tuna and cheese on a pita. A few came over, having just seen a sign about the AT, to ask if we were hiking to Maine. But then, having gotten a “Yes” out of us, they had no follow-up questions ready and stood there awkwardly staring. I tried to fill the gap, but what to say? “Are you hiking? Have you been to Maine? Nice weather? Did you check out Ripley’s in Gatlinburg?”. So I went with, “Nice day for hike, huh?” A conversation killer if ever there was one, but at least I got to finish my pita before it got soaked.
We still had three miles and a long climb out of Newfound Gap to get to our intended destination, Icewater Springs Shelter, so we shouldered our packs and headed out. Brian was feeling the climb, the rain, and the forecast. I felt all those things, but more than that, I felt like Sam in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” as he prepared to leave his part of the Shire for the first time. At Newfound Gap, I stood at the edge of all the AT miles I done before, and faced 1,990.7 miles of new trail. To heck with the forecast, all I felt was sunshine, rainbows, excitement and hope.
With the overnight rain forecast, we decided to stay in the shelter to avoid having to pack up a wet tent in the morning. Fortunately, we arrived #5 and 6, and claimed primo spots on the lower deck next to the wall. Within an hour all 12 shelter spots were taken, and at least twice that number showed up later and ended up pitching tents somewhere in the woods nearby. Each hiker who claimed a spot immediately hung up their wet gear and packs, creating a labyrinth of dripping obstacles between the people-shelf and outdoors. We all had to duck and weave around the wet gear whenever we left our bunks.
As per GSMNP rules, section hikers can always ask thru hikers to vacate their spots, so as each new hiker arrived, all of us shelterites sized them up as either thru hikers (poor saps) or section hikers (our ticket to a wet tent). Around 8:00 pm, an older couple walked in dripping wet and looking with intent at the lower deck. “Are you sectioning?” I asked. The older woman replied, “Yes, can we squeeze in?” When the hiker next to Brian gruffly answered “We’re full! There’s no room,” someone gently reminded him that meant one or more of us would have to leave. He then suggested the upper level had room. In fact, they had one more than us, and since he was one of the last to arrive, it looked he’d be heading to a tent.
Suddenly, he decided some space was available, but was still pretty surly about it. The older couple apparently anticipated this response, and hauled out a bribe of what must have been 10 pounds of oranges, candy bars, honey buns, and something else that disappeared before I got there. Suddenly, we all felt better about section hikers.
The weather cleared briefly around dinnertime, treating us to a sensational Smoky Mountain sunset, which brought 20-plus 20-somethings out of the woods onto the grass in front of the shelter. Suddenly, I was at a frat party with loud, forced laughter, youthful exuberance, flirting, and, of course, weed. I always hated frat parties, or would have if I were the sort of person that got invited to one. Being 45 years too old for them doesn’t make me hate them any less.
But being that old does make me deaf enough to block it all out and fall asleep as soon as the sun sets. But not deaf enough for all the other night noises. At one point, I counted five different snores, each with its own cadence, pitch, timing, and volume. And then every time anyone rolled over, their sleeping pad crinkled like they were sleeping on a bag of potato chips. Not to mention the coughs, farts, sighs, and zippers opening and shutting whenever someone went out to pee. But, at least we were dry.
We plan to spend three more nights in the Smokies, so perhaps we’ll get used to shelter life. So far, I’m not a fan and am longing for a lonely, quiet night in the woods.
- Start: Clingman’s Dome (Mile 199.9)
- End: Icewater Spring Shelter (Mile 210.8)
- Weather: Rain, fog, mist, and then a little sunshine before more rain
- Earworm: It’s back. Hall & Oates, Your Kiss
- Meditation: Jn 12:35
- Plant of the Day: Moss
- Best Thing: New trail (for me)!
- Worst Thing: Shelter frat party
PS – Less than one hour from Clingman’s Dome, I modified my downhill hypothesis. The 2,600-foot descent from Clingman’s Dome to Newfound Gap, included 1,000 feet of climbing. I guess I’m living in a “down is up” world. For that matter, along the AT, up is also up. Who knew there’d be more mountains to climb between North Carolina and Maine?
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.
Jon, I hate to correct you, but, it is not all downhill from Clingman’s Dome. As everyone knows the downhill does not start until NJ.
Good luck and enjoy.
As per GSMNP rules, section hikers can always ask thru hikers to vacate their spots, so as each new hiker arrived, all of us shelterites sized them up as either thru hikers (poor saps) or section hikers (our ticket to a wet tent).
I don’t understand this, why would section hikers have any priority over anyone else, much thru hikers.
Looking forward to more from you!
section-hiking and I remember the hostility from thru hikers…and the frat parties. thru or section they were a pain in the neck for a good night’s sleep. priorities realy do shift as you age. hike on.
What Do You Think?