My Thanksgiving in a Shelter in the Smoky Mountains

Hello everyone!

A lot has happened since I last wrote (I even got my trail name!), and I’ll get to that stuff later. But for today I want to talk to you specifically about my Thanksgiving on the trail.

Now to be clear I did (very kindly) get invited to the hiker Thanksgiving in Hot Springs, NC, and I could have gone, but I felt impatient to get in miles and a little stingy about paying for a shuttle. Plus, I figured I’d already had plenty of Thanksgivings indoors, cleaned up, with electricity and the hot water. I wanted to try it out a new way.

So on Tuesday I headed into the Smoky Mountain National Park with some BBQ potato chips and fig newtons stashed away in my backpack- the idea being to eat them for Thanksgiving dinner.

On Wednesday, in one final push before Thanksgiving Day, I did my first 20 mile day. To manage it I woke up before light and walked until a little after dark; but I did it, and I’m pretty proud of myself.

And then Thanksgiving arrived, with all its festive and family-centric associations. And there I was, alone in the middle of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, carrying my home around on my back, dozens of miles from the nearest roasted turkey.

But you know… It wasn’t all that bad.

I woke up that morning and ambled up to Clingman’s Dome in warm sunlight and short sleeves- a rare treat in November. At the top I enjoyed the views from the tower for a while. Clingman’s Dome is, for those who don’t know, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, and it marked my 200th mile, or very close to it. So summiting on Thanksgiving was especially satisfying. I got some nice passerbyers to take my picture for me (shown below) and then I headed back down.

On the other side of the mountain I found myself not quite as warm as I had been ascending the dome. Chilly, in fact. I stopped to bundle up but I probably took that measure a little too late.

I kept walking, and eventually found myself at possibly the most beautiful shelter I’ve stayed in so far. It was set within a tall pine forest with very little undergrowth: think moss, logs, and pine needles. As I walked up the sunlight filtered through the trees, illuminating everything in bars of golden light and creating intricate interplay between shadow and light on the forest floor. I felt like I was in a book, where everything is too pretty to be true. And the shelter itself, all of brick with a chimney sticking out the top, looked the part of a quaint cabin in the woods if you ignored the massive tarp draped across one side. It was a good place to pass the night.

I wandered inside, set up shop, and had just settled in when I noticed a book lying in the shelter called The Mountain Between Us. And just like that, I had a buddy. I sat outside reading for the next hour until a hiker I’d met two days back, Evan, rolled into the shelter and we got talking. I was especially glad to see him, because it meant i wouldn’t have to eat my fig newtons alone.

Around this time I started to get cold.

Worryingly cold. Teeth chattering, bone deep cold. It wasn’t that the temperature was all that extreme… I’d just let myself get chilled that morning and never properly warmed up. And now the sun was setting and all I had was my sleeping bag and jackets to get warm. I decided to cook dinner in the hopes that the hot food would help.

And that food really was the extent of my Thanksgiving dinner I made some sausage and vegetables, threw in salt, and ate it. Then Evan had an extra instant meal so he gave that to me and I ate chicken teriyaki too, followed by my chips and fig newtons. It was good, but the Thanksgiving flare was a bit lacking. Plus I was still cold.

Meanwhile, five guys out for a section hike rolled into the shelter too, making a total of seven people there for the night. I was glad to see them too, but even more glad when they almost immediately bounced outside to gather firewood.

I lay there shivering in my sleeping bag, cuddled up to a Nalgene bottle I’d filled with hot water, and listened while they sawed up a massive pile of wood and built a fire in the hearth. Maybe I should have helped, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves just fine as it was.

By the end of an hour they had a healthy, crackling fire blazing in our little shelter. I crawled out of my sleeping bag to sit by it and felt the cold leach right out of my bones. It was beautiful to be warm again.

All that night they kept the fireplace lit up orange. I lay on my back and watched the firelight dance on the ceiling, and listened to the murmur of the other hikers talking to long, long into the night.

No one had really talked about Thanksgiving that day. It wasn’t that big of a deal. But as I lay there, my stomach full of food, a good book at my elbow, 200 miles under my belt, people to talk to, a place to sleep, and a roaring fire to keep me warm, surrounded by the mountains I have loved since childhood… I was very, very thankful.

Until next time,


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Comments 7

  • Ronnie lawler : Nov 28th

    Awesome thanksgiving on your own terms! No malls, no football, no nonsense. Love it! Mountains all around and brisk cold mountain air. Nothing like it to make you feel alive. Continue on with your great journey.!!

    • Eliza : Nov 30th

      Thanks, Lonnie! I definitely won’t forget that Thanksgiving like I have many others.

      • Eliza : Nov 30th

        *Ronnie. I swear I knew it was Ronnie, but I met a Lonnie recently and I just typed the wrong thing, haha.

  • firehound : Dec 1st

    Thanks and Happy Holidays, Good Luck

  • Bonnie : Dec 1st

    I have 2 baby teeth I’ll never lose. And one of my wisdom teeth never came in lol. So glad you had a good thanksgiving.

  • Sherpa Dan : Dec 2nd

    You never told your trail name.

    • Eliza : Dec 2nd

      That’s coming up in a future post! Look out for it. 🙂


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