Gator in the Snow – A Week in the Smokies

First Things First

Ok, so I’m a little behind posting about my thru-hike – a LOT behind.  You, my dear readers, deserve better.  I’m currently wearing shorts and a t-shirt in Damascus, VA – mile 470.4, but let’s go back in time to a colder time and place – up above 5,000′, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…

It looks cold – but felt even colder. Walkin’ in a winter wonderland…

Planning is Hard, Y’all

Since my first day on trail, I was on a deadline.  One of my best friends, a poor working stiff, scheduled PTO to hike with me from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap (the ~75-mile section of the AT through the Smokies) starting Sunday, March 20, exactly two weeks after I started.  During that time, I got caught in a snowstorm, missed a shuttle in Hiawassee that set me back a half-day (Macon County Transit follows their published schedule very loosely), and had to take it a little slower than anticipated while my feet adjusted to the daily pounding.  So by the end of the first week, I found myself up late at night long after everyone in camp was asleep, stressing over how I was going to make it to Fontana on time.  Jake “Gator” Skillings, my aforementioned pal, had been looking forward to this trip for months, and I couldn’t let the guy down.  Complicating everything was my strong desire to stay with “The Homestead” for as long as possible, the tramily I found almost immediately and was reticent to part ways with.  I ended up changing my plan three times that second week, and finally said adios to The Homestead around the Nantahala Outdoor Center (the NOC) so I could pull a couple big days and be ready for Gator to meet me at Fontana.

By the time I got there, I was bushed.  Completely wore out.  Gator very generously suggested we start out of Fontana on Monday instead, saying we could always do a “big-ass buster day” to get through the Smokies in time.

Boy, did he get his wish.

Look at these handsome devils 😉 From the top of Clingman’s Dome.

Elevation Matters

The first two days, we covered 32 miles and nearly 10,000′ of elevation gain.  The second day especially was no joke: 18 miles and 5800′ of elevation gain, as well as 3500′ of descent, from Mollie’s Ridge Shelter to Siler Bald Shelter.  That stretch was serious bidness – between Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain, I was completely gassed by the end of the day, despite my constant snackpacking.  I like to ignore the elevation change and just focus on mileage, but there was no ignoring my heart rate when it hit 170 BPM. Gator’s in phenomenal shape, but there’s no way to prepare for that kind of mileage without hiking all the time.  Which is, you know, hard when you have a job (the poor sap).  Buuuuut he still kept up with me just about the whole way, an impressive feat considering all the “comfort food” items he was carrying at the time – mini pizzas, quesadilla supplies, one full jar each of peanut butter and Nutella – you name it, he brought it.  We took it much easier after that, doing no more than nine miles a day, as the weather worsened and we got the FULL range of Smoky Mountains weather: rain, mist, sub-zero wind chill, and of course, plenty of snow.  Through it all, we laughed so hard our faces hurt, ate like kings, and marveled at nature’s majesty together.  Couldn’t have asked for a better hiking buddy.

Great to have my own personal photographer on the trail. Courtesy of Jake “Gator” Skillings.

Gatlinburg – Sensory Overload

Possibly the funniest bit of the week was Gator’s total shock at the volume of food I was consuming by this point.  He was positive he brought seven days’ worth of food for two people, but it was all gone by the end of day three.  I can’t even begin to describe how much food I’ve been eating – it’s like I have a tapeworm, but he’s a 420 lb. starting center for the tapeworm NFL.  So despite my best efforts to avoid it, we ended up sucked into the foul vortex of Gatlinburg, TN. Now, don’t get me wrong: I bet some people really like Gatlinburg. I am simply not one of those people. Being on trail makes any town a little bit overwhelming, and Gatlinburg is a hellscape nightmare of sounds, colors, and (bad) smells. If I didn’t have Gator with me, I don’t know if I would have made it through without collapsing on the sidewalk in a puddle of tears and anxiety. Thankfully, we got the best kind of trail magic at Newfound Gap – Packrat and his brother Smoky Bear loaded us up with snacks and drove us into town (and even waited for us!) to resupply and eat lunch before driving us back to the Gap.

Smoky Bear – whataguy.

So really, it all worked out for the best. I had a blast with one of my best friends. We got to do some hard days together, but also some easier days.

BUT – if you want to join your favorite thru-hiker anywhere on the trail – please understand if they have absolutely no idea where they’ll be one to two weeks in advance. Best laid plans of mice and men, and all that. There’s just too much variability to make a real plan. Just bring Nutella and a smile.

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Comments 7

  • Bob Kemp : Apr 16th

    Wet Willy – you’re one bad ass dude. Good at ya.

  • Ed Shanahan : Apr 16th

    Willy I am a friend of your dad’s from Virginia. Your dad shared your blog on FB. What an adventure! And you are a great story teller. Best of fortune as you go forward. Btw what is your trail name?

    • Willy : Apr 28th

      Thanks Ed! My trail name is “Catchup” – because I’ve never quite mastered the art of breaking camp early, but I’m still quick enough to catch anyone that starts ahead of me (usually).

  • Donna Gallo : Apr 22nd

    Life’s too short! Good for you…love to hike on the weekends w/my hubby in the Blue Ridge Mountains but am from NY where we loved the Appalachian Trail too. Godspeed to you and may you make many new trail buddies, good memory’s & a decent living doing what you love.

  • AyJayKay : Jul 4th

    This is one of the best outdoor adventure blogs I’ve ever read!

    I love how specific and vivid your descriptions are. Makes me feel like I’m hiking right alongside.

    Really really great. I hope the rest of your journey is fantastic. Beyond that, I hope The Trek signs you up for a whole lot more writing. A great talent that really stands out from the pack!!

    — AyJayKay (we met on Friday outside a tiny refreshment shack)


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