Days 26 – 30; Hurry Up and Wait

Day 26- 7.57 miles, 2,506′ Elevation gain; Mount Possible to Cody Gap area

After a gorgeous sunset and a decent night’s sleep we were back on trail by 0830. River hogged the tent all night but that’s not new. I shoveled a poptart down the hatch as we made our way down into Stecoah Gap; I may or may not have been hoping for some trail magic, as the trail crosses a major route there. Trail magic can be a double-edged sword; when we have enough food, most hikers say it’s a drag to carry an extra meal into town. When we don’t have enough food, it’s the most magical thing to walk upon. I never get my hopes too high, and this morning was for good reason. Stecoah Gap was empty when River and I made it the two miles there.

Still in the Nantahala National Forest, we continued north, hiking up and down, up and down without ever summiting any mountains. We had no views, just forest for miles and miles as we dropped into gap after gap. Sweetwater, Brown Fork, and finally Cody’s Gap. Ascending and descending from 3,400′ to 3,600′ throughout the day. I spend more time looking down at the forest floor than I do looking up the trail. I find beauty in the year’s prior fallen leaf matter that layers the forest floor. Leaves grow, fall, and decay, breaking down into organic matter fueling current growth. I also know but cannot see that there are tons of insects taking refuge amongst the leaves. I’m excited to see all the creepy-crawlies emerge from hiding as it begins to warm up. Also why I’m all set cowboy camping, I keep awake wondering what’s going to crawl over or potentially in me while in my deepest of slumbers. I do love the idea; however, it’s just not for me.

Day 27- 3.79 miles, 1,432′ elevation gain; Cody Gap area to Black Gum Gap

We woke up to rain and thunder and decided to wait it out. We didn’t hit the trail until 1400 and everything inside the tent stayed dry. It’s interesting down South here in the mountains compared to the Northeast. I don’t recall ever having thunder and lightning prior to 1500 back home. So, if we timed it right, we could get a day hike in before the storm. Here, the thunder hits late morning to early afternoon, and we can get our miles in in the afternoon and evening after the storm passes. I don’t understand how the weather works, it’s just an observation I’ve made out here.

As we wait for my partner’s time off to align with our entry to the Smokies, we turned in to a stealth site after grabbing water from the source down in Cody Gap. The water was so good and so cold. I feel like we could have gone another few miles when considering the trail for the day. It was mostly a cake walk, a nice change of pace. Or maybe it was just my perception. I’m also at a wicked riveting part in the book I’m reading, so setting up camp early was a great call. I do miss hearing the owls though, not too many in this area.

It has been almost four weeks since I left the archway at Amicolola Falls. I can confirm that thru-hiking is all mental. The power of gratitude and meditation is moving, life changing. I’ve been out here for four weeks or 28 days, with nothing but River and my thoughts as we walk north. I only carry a few chapters of the book I’m reading at a time and the powerbank I purchased for this hike is insufficient for both music/podcasts and blogging. I have very few distractions during the day and I’ve had some very profound realizations while out here that I’m still unpacking.

Most of us have realized that thru-hiking is the real world and the ‘reality’ we created as a society with capitalism is the rat race. It’s depressing. But that’s some post trail blues shit I realized in my prior backpacking adventures. And I’m not knocking those who are super career driven with multiple college degrees, that’s just never been me. I’ve also seen how short life is and understand we can go at any time. I know good things in life take time, and I’m relearning how to allow myself the time and space to pick up a new skill or complete a half year-long hike. Letting go of the idea ‘what’s the point if I may not be around long enough to see the outcome.’ Life out here is so hard yet so simple in different ways of comparison. Content warning, skip ahead to day 28; Carrying 45 pounds plus for 10 hours a day over mountains is hard, but so isn’t maintaining a household. Having zero distractions from our trauma is hard, but so is making life altering decisions like not calling 911 when your Dad begged you not to call them. It’s a different type of hard, and there’s beauty in every single aspect of life on the trail. I can say this, after 11 years my perspective went from ‘I killed my Dad and changed my sister’s life forever in the process’ to ‘I granted my Dad his dying wish, and I’m grateful to carry the burden for her rather than her for me.’

Day 28- 5.87 miles, 2,854′ elevation loss; Black Gum Gap to Fontana Dam

Ohhh wow!! The day has finally come for me and Steady. My partner is somewhere between Virginia and Gatlinburg with our other two dogs, and I can’t be more excited! The bond we have is something I’ll cherish and nurture for the rest of my life if she lets me. Rather than board Steady or flip past the Smokies, we’re fortunate enough for my partner to come down for a week, work while I hike through the Smokies, and spend some time together in the front country.

Steady and I spent another sunset-less night down in Black Gum Gap, a tradeoff to be near a water source. We only have a four liter carry capacity and I’ll withhold water for myself in priority of River. Camping right near the water source was ace with as warm as it’s been. Knowing I was packing up for the last time before a zero and forced shelter staying in the Smokies, I literally tossed everything I didn’t need for the day in my tent, packed up the poles and stakes and shoved my tent with everything inside of it right into my pack. We had a place to be, and I was going to get us there.

Steady looking at Fontana Lake

The trail dropping down into Fontana Dam was everything I’ve been waiting for. Luscious greenery lines the forest floor, wildflowers such as trillium flowering along the low-lying creek areas, large patches of moss coats trees and rocks dripping with water. It even smelled different as the forest begins to warm as we descend lower and lower into the valley.

To get me from Fontana Dam to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, I used Zach G over at Traveling Lite. He was prompt, kind, and full service. I felt safe and heard while in the back with Steady. An hour and a half ride and he even gave me more time with my love by swinging me to the grocery store to stock the AirBnB before she got there. I appreciate you Zach, which by the way is his trail name.

Steady and Zach from Traveling Lite Thank you!

Day 29- Zero at AirBnB

The idea of sleeping in a real bed was nice and all, but damn did I sleep like shit. Two big dogs and two humans squeezed into a king-sized bed. River slept on both dog beds my partner brought or on the floor. It was so nice to enjoy a morning with all of my loves minus our kitty, but he’s holding down the fort back home. We ate, relaxed, ate some more, and simply enjoyed each other’s company. I’m not looking forward to hitting the trail tomorrow, if I’m honest.

Dinner with my Love. So delicious!

Day 30- 40.29, 9,659′ ascending, 12,979 decending; Newfound Gap to Fontana Dam

Welp, love makes you do some wild things. Like driving through the night to get another day together. And also like hiking, or better put, trail running 40 miles in 15 hours. Another display of thru-hiking being more mental than physical. This was never my intention when Tara dropped me off at 0655, but here I am writing about it from the hot tub. I hurt physically for the first time on trail. I didn’t think about the pain but rather thought about fast could I possibly go when every day I see how slow we can go.

Slow at Newfound Gap Slow and Tara at Newfound GapCan’t thank her enough for believing in me! <3

My pack was packed with my cold weather gear, water, and food. I left my tent behind because the Smokies requires hikers to sleep in shelters, gross. I also left my stove behind to reduce weight. Meat and cheese wraps were on the menu. After saying goodbye to Tara and all three dogs, I turned and strutted up the trail, feeling so beyond fortunate for Tara to see me off. Not three minutes later, I went to set up my trekking poles and I shit you not, the lock lever snapped off. I was down a trekking pole on the toughest section yet. I didn’t let it phase me, though I was mad to have to carry it for what I thought would be two days. I put some tunes on and turned out six miles in less than two hours. An hour later almost 10 miles down. I did the math, if I kept up with my pace I could be back at the Dam by midnight at the latest. I communicated this with Tara, and she was down to drive the two hours to get me on a work night. So commit I did, and I took off like I was chasing three-year-old puppy Steady up the mountains of the Whites.

It was wicked cool flipping 40 miles up and seeing the same faces from the days prior that are faster than I. I stopped and talked to everyone I had chatted with before. I knew it was very unlikely I would catch back up with my planned zeros in Gatlinburg.

I had Clingman’s Dome and Charlie’s Bunion all to myself and I couldn’t believe it. Charlie’s Bunion has been my favorite stretch of trail to date. I wish I had more time to spend on it, but I knew I was going see many other parts of the park I wouldn’t have had the chance to if I wasn’t doing the Smokies unconventionally for a thru-hiker.

Steady on Clingman's DomeView from Clingman's Dome Views from Clingman’s Dome. Me considering my decision. No photos of Charlie’s Bunion.

I didn’t see any wildlife or much greenery, or even thru-hikers honestly. After 40 miles I was back at Fontana Dam where I crossed my steps from two days prior. I hopped in the driver’s seat of good ol Swamp-Barrel Subie, and drove us back to our home for the week through the GSMNP seeing my first coyotes in the wild. They were HUGE and it was wicked cool.

…and still we’re headed home.

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