Four Days in the Smokies: What I Ate, Freezing Temps
I may or may not be writing this from the Fontana Dam ladies heated bathroom where I may or may not have taken a hot shower, washed and dried out my frozen socks, and laid my Therm-a-Rest to sleep for the night. It was almost 7 p.m. when I got to the dam and figured by the time I get to the road and call the shuttle provided by the Fontana Village Resort I’d miss the restaurant closing at 9 p.m., the only place to grab a bite. Near empty food bag, I decided to bunker down, hike the 1.9 in the morning and catch the shuttle for a big breakfast and resupply tomorrow.
I just finished the Smokies and I’m reminded of Maine when everything’s new and you’re totally stunned later at what you’ve just experienced. Even the terrain felt Maine-like with Dr. Seuss-like trees and untouched moss covering boulders around the trail. The steep ascents rewarded old muscle groups and I went wild loving every step, despite the snow. I knew snow was a big possibility but the single-digit freezing temperatures really threw in a wrench into the daily grind. I seemed to hit every shade of weather, viewpoint, and mind-set at exactly the right time as it was meant for me. Even if it was a little miserable.
I’m calling the Smokies a last hoorah for hard-core SOBOs before the walk into Georgia. I passed a section hiker crossing I-40 and he shouted, “Hey, enjoy the Smokies, man!” I flew a peace sign his way and thought, yeah, let’s enjoy this. After all, there’s only so much left to enjoy.
On the topic of prepping for the Smokies, everyone chimed in at hiker Thanksgiving—“Bring plastic bags for your feet” and “Once you’re in, you’re in until the end, so 75 miles with no resupply or way out” and “Definitely sleep with your Sawyer.” I learned later that you can find an easy exit at Newfound Gap and pop into Gatlinburg in a pinch, but I wanted to swing the Smokies without a break. I made a four-day resupply plan to finish in 18-22 miles per day. In the end the miles broke down to an 18, 20.6, 13, and a 24 to finish off this section.
One of my favorite parts about thru-hiking is the food culture and planning a resupply. I appreciate creativity and literally spicing it all up. I can honestly say I haven’t eaten a single ramen or Idahoan instant potato pack on this trip. I believe there are way tastier options to satiate hiker hunger. As you know, I started this thru-hike stoveless and kept it up for almost 1,500 miles before the cold rains got to me. While at Four Pines Hostel in Virginia and with the help from Old School Hippy, I made a DIY alcohol stove from two aluminum cans.
Standing Bear Farm offers a decent resupply right before the Smokies and I made the most of what they offered, gathering Butterfingers, corn chips, peanuts, and rice dinners. This time around I added a sage-flavored Stove Top stuffing mix to top into my hot dinners. In my last resupply from home, I had my personal favorite, Crazy Richard’s peanut powder. I’ll mix it into hot dinners, recreate peanut butter with a squeeze of Land O’Lakes, or make my signature chocolate drink that I’m now calling the Smoky Mocha—one to two hot chocolate packets, one to two instant coffees, and two to three spoonfuls of peanut powder. Drink hot or pour into a liter bottle and shake until dissolved.
Breakfast: Smoky Mocha and Butterfinger, Snickers, or Pop-Tarts
Snacks: Corn chips, peanuts, or crackers
Dinner: I picked up two 9.8 ounce packs of Bear Creek rice mix and planned to split them into three dinners plus add Stove Top stuffing, peanuts, and lots of butter. One night I sauteed the Tennessee River Smokehouse ham in butter and threw it into the rice dinner.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park Resupply
Two Bear Creek beef rice mix (split into three nights of dinner)
One Tennessee River Smokehouse value biscuit country ham
One Knorr Pasta Side Creamy Pesto
One Stove Top stuffing mix, sage flavor
One Clancy’s bag corn chips
three Pop-Tarts: one frosted chocolate fudge, two cookies and cream
Six Butterfingers, each king size
Eight Swiss Miss marshmallow hot chocolate
Five Starbucks Via instant coffee
Two Folgers instant coffee
Four Keebler Club & Cheddar crackers
Two Moon Lodge salted peanuts
Variable quantity, both items used by the time I got to Davenport Gap:
One Land O’Lakes soft squeeze butter
One Crazy Richard’s 100% peanut powder
Day One: Standing Bear Farm to Tri-Corner Knob, 18.1 miles
Davenport Gap serves up a gradual ascent, bringing you up to 5,000 feet in elevation, where you’ll stay for most of the Smokies, if not higher. So far, so great when halfway up Mount Cammerer I realized I left my ENO Helios hammock straps hanging to dry above the furnace at Standing Bear and I nearly threw my trekking poles off the viewpoint. Apparently you can hike over a thousand miles and still lose your gear left and right. Either way, Smoky regulations say no tenting outside the shelters, so I chalked it up to saved weight but another thing to figure out after this section. The Dr. Seuss-like trees and uprooted blowdowns were enough of a distraction to see that there are other priorities than losing stuff.
Day Two: Tri-Corner Knob to Mount Collins, 20.6 miles
The alpine forest after the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter was absolutely breathtaking and I’ve never seen such a varied and vivid color palette. I couldn’t stop taking photos of my favorite turquoise lichen and mustard yellow moss. Luckily, there was no one else on trail to see me gaping at all the pretty details.
The terrain reminded me of leaving the Roan Highlands and Roan High Knob Shelter, the highest shelter on the AT, which looking back, felt like a good precursor to the Smokies. I started to see why they called them smoky, since every dismal viewpoint was clouded over. As the day went by, the trail gradually accumulated more snow and/or rime, whatever was blowing around in the 15-20 mph winds that day. The trail went from dusty snow covered to completely clear, depending on whatever rolling peak you were on.
Day Three: Mount Collins to Derrick Knob, 13 miles
Mrs. T, Just Dave, Mantis, Toots, S.O.S, and I all stayed at Mount Collins Shelter and we all agreed this was the coldest night we had spent on trail. Morale works wonders in numbers and I was thankful to share the experience with optimistic hikers, even if it was self-deprecating. Just Dave saved the night and built a raging fire we gawked about all night. Mantis made a good point saying that this will be the last highest elevation on the AT that we’ll camp and that it’s all downhill from here. Mrs. T makes me laugh so hard, I get cramps. S.O.S.’s comments on the weather are the perfect combination of stand-up comedy and actually good meteorology. And Toots is, well, Toots. We got through the cold night together and I can’t imagine it without them.
Leaving the shelter I was pumped to get to Clingmans Dome. Maybe it was the wind chill or just my excitement, but my face was frozen into a goofy grin on the climb up Mount Collins and up into Clingmans.
Clingmans Dome felt like this eerie sci-fi winter wonderland and hardly a tourist trap the day I cautiously walked up the rime-covered ramp. I was the only hiker there until Mrs. T, Just Dave, and Toots rolled up. Every time I pulled out my phone to snap a picture, I would count ten seconds before the battery died and had to toss back into my pants to warm up and turn on again. Safe to say I’ve never felt such cold than I did there on the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.
After leaving Clingmans the temperature barely warmed up despite the sunshine. Stopping to break for more than seven minutes and you’d have to rally both mentally and physically to warm up again. At least the descent gave us clear views to the east and we continued to traverse across icy crunchy trail.
Intense is the only way to describe day three in the Smokies. Originally planning to hike 19 or 22 miles, later changed when the day’s high of ten degrees and a wind chill of -4 shorted my willpower and day’s miles. It was 3 p.m. and only seven miles on the day when I stopped to break at Siler Bald Shelter. I also blame the slow, cold mornings out of camp, which never got easier. Guesstimating the rest of the day, there would involve some night hiking in seven-degree temperatures and a few more climbs, so I decided against a longer day and made Derrick Knob Shelter, only six more miles, the new goal.
Day Four: Derrick Knob into Fontana Dam, 24.1 miles
I couldn’t feel my toes the morning I left Derrick Knob and jokingly said to Toots, “I don’t want to lose my toes!” but by the time I was at Thunderhead Mountain and Rocky Top, I was peeling off layers and gaining the warm, wet feeling again in my feet. In this climate, shoes freeze overnight every night so plugging into stiff Altras is habit until thawing halfway into your morning climbs.
On the plus side, this was the best day for views, by far. At some point, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the infinite horizon and pointed blue mountains despite the fresh snowfall beneath my feet.
I had eaten everything in my food bag except a Knorr pasta side, Pop-Tarts, two packs of crackers, half a king size Butterfinger, and two hot chocolate packets. I decided to eat the pasta side for breakfast and save the snacks for the day and then grab dinner in Fontana Dam. However, by the time I got to Fontana Dam, I knew I’d miss the restaurant closing and that rushing into the village would be a waste of a hotel room. Cue the heated ladies room slumber party and dinner consisting of cheese crackers and peanut butter.
More memorable than the Smoky Mountains landscape might have been sharing a couple nights with new SOBOs that I haven’t hiked with before. We got along like we’d been hiking together since Pennsylvania, but instead of rocks, we griped and joked about the freezing cold and the “problem bear” shelters where we slept. New faces on trail bring me back to the beginning and wish that it wasn’t almost over. Basically, I wish I still had more trail to hike, even after the freezing Smokies.
As of tonight I’m at mile 2,025.6 with 165 miles left to go until Springer Mountain. After this many miles SOBOs can handle the literal ups and downs but the changes in weather and social circles are the better stories to tell.
I’m seeing friends who I met in the 100-Mile Wilderness finish their thru-hikes and I couldn’t be happier. I love that I observed and shared in the accomplishments of others, even though they’re done and I’m still a week or so until I complete my own hike. I knew I could be finished by now but my attitude over the pace and experience has evolved significantly since the beginning. I became more interested in the side experiences and people alongside the trail rather than crushing big-mile day after big day. Now, I’m in a groove and I don’t really know what to call it. I want the big-mile days but I also love this trail and everything it offers. I want more thru-hiking culture and living a minimalist and intentional life. I’m incredibly grateful for this experience and the life lessons only the trail provides.
In Unicoi, I asked Rob Bird, a legendary retired hostel owner and trail angel, what happens when the hike is finished and he pulled a drag of his Marlboro Special Blend cigarette and said:
“Well, you’ll go on making day to day choices, you’ll make plans, and most importantly, you’ll live self-sufficiently. Just like you did on trail. The trail carries on.”
Rob’s advice was just what I needed to hear and I’m pretty excited for what post-trail life will bring as the miles get smaller and smaller each day.
Here’s to the final homestretch!
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