My Race Through the Smokies
I found myself sitting on the side of a gravel road. My pack rested against a guard rail behind me. Sweat dripped from my dirty arms and pooled on my knees, forming little mud puddles.
In my hand, was a bottle of water. I knew I should drink it, but I just sat there thinking about drinking it instead. My energy was zapped. I felt light headed and, with less than half a mile to go, I couldn’t find the will to stand up.
So, how did I get here?
And will I ever leave? Subscribe and find out next week! Jk…
Sitting in a large leather chair next to a wall of windows, I charged my phone and chatted with a local hiker. The Fontana Lodge, with it’s air conditioning and clean furnishings, was an oasis. We talked about past and future hikes, and he wished me well.
My Smokies permit was printed and my bag was packed. But also, the sun was high in the sky and my new friends were on the upstairs deck soaking it in. I knew I needed to keep moving, but the idea of spending one more night in this resort village lulled me in.
My sun-bathing friends were a group of six – two college-aged groups of three that met on trail and have been hiking together ever since. They are fun people.
We walked to the local gas station, called the Pit Stop, and bought a cheap case of beer. We then spent the day doing nothing. It was fun, relaxing, and exactly what I needed. I slept in the Fontana Hilton shelter again that night, and woke up feeling recharged and excited to hike.
After leaving the shelter, before entering the wooded Smokies, the trail takes you down a paved road, across Fontana Dam.
On one side of the dam is the lake, where the sun was just starting to rise over the distant mountain horizon.
On the other side of the dam, water gushed out explosively – like 1000 fire hydrants – flowing into a river that disappeared into the foggy, looming mountains.
It was a beautiful area, and I took my time walking across the dam, taking lots of pictures, and catching the sun as it crested the mountains.
Across the dam, I reentered the trees, dropping my permit in the box, and officially entering Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Camping in the Smokies, you are required to stay in shelters. There are no dispersed campsites, making each day’s mileage less flexible.
I hiked 18.2 miles that first day to Spence Field Shelter. The college 6-pack ended up there too, along with some other familiar faces. In total, there were probably 15 or so people staying there. It was fun.
The next day, my option was to go 19 or 27 miles.
Feeling strong, and wanting to make up miles, my plan was to go for the 27 mile day. This would be 7 miles longer than the longest day I’d ever hiked.
I woke up early, leaving camp at 5:45 am. It was still dark out and, guided by my headlamp, I walked through the dark, dewy forest only able to see a few feet in front of me. I was nervous to start, but quickly found it peaceful and enjoyable.
Walking higher, I came out of the trees, and unexpectedly caught a beautiful sunrise at the first peak.
The section I hiked that morning was the hardest section in the Smokies, made up of consistently steep, rocky ups and downs. Multiple people warned me of this; regardless, I had a long way to go, so I powered through it, treating that section and the entire day as a race.
This made-up race provided motivation and was fun at first. But it quickly tired me out and caused me to rush, skipping breaks and not eating enough.
By the time I got to Mt. Collins shelter, it was 5pm and I’d gone 19 miles. This was 8 miles shy of the race finish line, but I was beat. In my current state, I estimated it would take me 5+ hours to get to the next shelter, so I stopped there and called it a day.
Not deterred, I decided to try for high miles again the next day. 28 miles to Cosby Knob Shelter. But this wasn’t going to be an attempt – I would go that far no matter how long it took me or how tired I was. I saw the day before as a failure, which is silly, but nonetheless I needed to do it.
I planned to get up earlier today, but when my alarm went off, I just couldn’t get up. Still exhausted from the day before, I didn’t leave camp until 7am. Whoops. No headlamp needed today.
Learning from the previous day’s mistakes though, I treated the day like a marathon rather than a sprint.
About 5 miles into the day, I stopped at Newfound Gap, where there’s a scenic overview and parking lot alongside the road. I threw out my trash, made use of the indoor plumbing, and took an awkward picture with a nice man who had never met a “real hiker” before.
The rest of the afternoon went by at a steady pace. I enjoyed a few podcasts, stopped when I needed to, and overall walked in a manor that felt unrushed.
Around mile 20, I stopped at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to make dinner and get water before continuing on. There was a good crew there with some familiar faces. They thought I was crazy for continuing on. They would later propose the trail name “Captain Marvel”. (Before accepting this, I need to consult Mason and see if that’s a cool superhero or not..).
I left there around 6:30pm with 8 miles to go. The race was back on.
I started out strong, doing the first 3 miles in an hour. I stopped at an overlook, took my pack off, and stretched. It was a beautiful time of day. The sun was setting over the mountains, casting pink and orange glows over the peaks’ dark silhouettes.
Because I was walking along the mountain’s ridge, the sky stayed light until around 9pm. That’s when I turned my headlamp on. Something about the woods at night feels spookier than the woods in the morning.
So I also turned my music on, loud, playing Taylor Swift through my phone’s speaker. I walked in the dark like this for about an hour. But then, my phone died. So I just started talking to the bears, like full on conversation style, letting them know I was coming and telling them to please stay away.
When I arrived at camp, sometime after 10, I expected everyone in the shelter to be asleep. Instead, I was greeted by multiple headlamps. Turns out, there’d been a bear issue earlier in the day and a couple of people were taking shifts through the night to make sure the bear didn’t come back.
That was my last time hiking in the dark, I thought.
The next day, I woke up the most tired I’ve been on this trip. I wanted to sleep for a few more hours, but today I was picking up Bonsai!
While I was out hiking, Bonsai was getting the full spa treatment.
The plan was to meet Elizabeth at Davenport Gap at 10am. The gap was only 6 miles away, and I felt confident I could make it in 2.5 hours. So I spent a little extra time stretching and waking up, and left camp at 7:30am.
As I left camp, I saw a sign that made me double check my map. I realized then that it was actually close to 8 miles to Davenport Gap. My phone was still dead so I couldn’t text Elizabeth and let her know I would be later than planned.
Instead of resigning to the fact that I’d be late, and also not wanting to worry or inconvenience her, I thought – ok, let’s see how fast I can do this. And a new race was on.
I thrashed the uphills and jogged the downhills. I checked my watch, like an athlete trying to beat pace. There was no way I could do 8 miles in 2.5 hours, but I sure was trying.
I arrived at the gap, sweaty and completely exhausted, at 11:00, and was greeted by my sweet little baby, along with Elizabeth and Andy (surprise!). They were like the crowd at the finish line of a race, except they didn’t know there was a race. They asked if I wanted to go to lunch, and, after getting lots of puppy kisses, I was all in.
We enjoyed delicious sandwiches on a patio by the river. It felt great to sit down and relax, and it was wonderful to see them. They joined me for the next mile or so, hiking together from Davenport Gap to where the trail intersects with the road.
We parted ways at this point, and I continued on. The trail follows the road for a little while, crossing under the I-40 overpass, and continuing up a gravel road. Most days, we are walking in the woods, shaded from the harsh afternoon sun. But for this portion, we were exposed and it was hot.
So I was happy when I saw the trail re-enter the trees. We crossed the road and climbed a large set of steep, stone stairs. At the top of the stairs, hot and exhausted, I needed to sit down.
But as I took my pack off, and went to sit on a nearby log, Bonsai started growling. It was his bear growl.
I turned around and sure enough, not even 30 yards away, was a mama bear with a cute little cub next to her on a tree. I quickly picked Bonsai up. He was growling and barking. The bear was not deterred.
In this situation, I needed to back up and move away from the bears. But that meant I had to go back down those stairs and into the sun. Ugh.
I retreated down the stairs and ran into a trail friend, Tim. He was going to a hostel nearby and said we could get there by just continuing up the gravel road.
I wasn’t intending to stop at a hostel until Hot Springs, but this was tempting. It was only one mile away, as opposed to the three miles I had to go to camp. And there would be a bed. It was an easy decision.
I followed Tim up the gravel road, but he was moving quicker than me, and I trailed behind. I can’t overstate how hot the sun was. Tim seemed unbothered by it, but I felt like I’d been living in a cave and this was my first time seeing daylight. Soaked in sweat, with heavy legs and blurry vision, I couldn’t keep going.
I spotted a patch of shade along the road, took my pack off, and plopped down, leaning back against the guard rail. Exhausted and likely dehydrated, I felt like the last few days had suddenly caught up with me. I knew I didn’t have far to go, but just the idea of standing up and putting my pack on felt hard. So I stayed put.
This is where I stared at my water bottle, trying to will it to my lips. It’s where I contemplated the entire hike in front of me.
There was very little traffic on this road, so I was surprised when a truck pulled up. It stopped, and a trail friend, Craig, hopped out. He checked to make sure I was ok and said hello to Bonsai. He told me I was very close, and gave lots of encouragement.
It’s funny how a small gesture can have such an impact, but this was exactly what I needed. So I stood up, put my pack on, and finished out the walk to the hostel. Sometimes the first step is the hardest.
The Smokies were beautiful. There were scenic overlooks galore, and the lighting around sunrise and sunset felt majestic.
But my body was not ready for the race. 3.5 days might be plenty of time for some (I’m sure Quadzilla did it in less), but now, a couple days later, I feel like I’m still recovering.
Physically, I’ll bounce back and be fine. But mentally, it made me realize how much longer and more difficult the journey ahead of me is.
The lesson I took from this, though, is that it’s not a race. Individual days aren’t a race, nor is the journey as a whole a race. Maybe I’ll make it to Katadin before it closes. Maybe I won’t. Either way, I’ll enjoy the journey.
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