Receding from Reality: Reflections From Week One of the AT

Well, it’s finally happening.

After five sections, three months, many pack shakedowns, gear switches, and resupply runs, we finally hit the trail full-time.

My chronicling on here has been pretty neglected the past few months as we attempted to section hike the first 150 miles of the trail. Balancing work as I finished my final year of teaching, paired with the reality of leaving for four months, put me in a bit of a writer’s block.

Unless you count anxiety-riddled notes I typed into my phone in the wee hours of the morning… I have plenty of those.

The Send-Off

But long story short, our sections ended, the school year came to a clattering close, and the next day we drove to Stecoah Gap to set off.

After a tear-soaked goodbye to my husband and my dog, Julia and I started hobbling northward into the unknown.

Julia and me, a bit teary-eyed as I head up into the woods.

The first few weeks went by in a blur of overlooks, town stops, shelter sleeps, and numerous Knorr Pasta Sides (so far, Broccoli Alfredo remains my favorite). I will try to encapsulate some of the highlights (and lowlights) in my next few posts. For now, I will reflect on entering the Smokies and how it began for us.

The Smokies (Mile 167-238)

Fontana Dam

The Smokies were beautiful and strange. Our first night into Fontana Dam, Julia and I had a huge miscommunication that resulted in a bit of a tense evening. I told her that once we got to the marina, it was an easy road walk to the shelter. This was not the case. I also told her we should skip the marina and walk back to it later for an evening snack. However, in my hyper-specific desperation for a cold beer, a bag of kettle cooked barbecue chips, and—oddly enough— a Snickers ice cream bar, I decided I would hobble down to the marina before going to the shelter and be on the lookout to beckon Julia in. Again, wrong choice. In my euphoria of crunching on my chips and scarfing down the ice cream bar, Julia whizzed past and continued on towards the shelter, alone and disgruntled that I was nowhere to be seen and that it was not in fact an easy road walk. We were reunited shortly after, me carrying her a beer and some chips and huffing and puffing out of the unexpected bit of trail. That night, we both were a bit shell-shocked. So much was beginning, so much of what we knew, what our routines had been, were fizzling out of our minds. The comforts of our “real lives” seemed to spin around us all night, haunting us and bringing forth a very specific type of homesickness. I couldn’t eat my ramen. I cried because I missed Miller. I missed Birdie. I cried because a man at the shelter had a lab that looked like her. All of this new reality felt thin and fragile, like new skin growing over a wound. I didn’t know what the newness would bring, didn’t know if I wanted any of it, but I knew that I chose this. So, we kept going.

Entering the Park

The next day, we walked over the dam and officially into the park. The permit box clammered shut after we slipped in our crumpled pieces of paper. I think we both expected the Smokies to be like entering a new world, but the trail was the trail. We climbed and climbed up into the higher elevation that brought the park its name. We had evenings smothered in the thick smoky fog and mornings where the light bled through it like a kaleidoscope. We hiked. We talked. We were still getting used to what it meant to be out there. We found solace in the people we met: friendly day-hikers, determined weekenders, and some other thru-hikers (Shoutout to Coyote and Nick, who gave us some much-needed laughs and commiseration at Mollies Ridge and Derrick Knob Shelter). We met a grandfather and son that helped us see the beauty and excitement in what we were doing… and they gave us Cheez Whiz and crackers and fuel to get us through to our resupply (Shoutout to “Dadpa” and Josh).

Morning light trickling through the fog

Clingmans Dome

A few days in, we made it to Clingmans Dome and mile 200. Lacking an official marker, we cobbled together some stones in the shape 2-0-0. We knelt around them and smiled. Another literal milestone. As we emerged from the trail to the overlook, I got my first taste of what many hikers before me have described. The heightened sense of smell. Every perfume, detergent, or trace of food lit my nostrils ablaze with sensation. There was a brief moment of panic. If they smell this strong, what do I smell like? I quickly pushed the thought away and embraced my reality. I stunk. I looked a bit deranged loaded down with my pack and trekking poles in a sea of normal clothes and selfie sticks and chattering families. A couple asked us about our hike and we told them we were trying to get to Gatlinburg. We had been stressing over getting a ride, and as if they sensed this, they said they are visiting her dad that works at the park but would love to give us a ride down when we are ready. We exchanged glances, baffled at our luck. The trail provides, as they say. We wobbled up the ramp to the observation deck and snapped a few pictures, hoping our stench didn’t ruin the experience of the other visitors. Then, we trudged down the paved path and found our ride. They treated us to homemade Rice Krispies and cold water bottles. We sat in euphoria as the wind slapped our faces and we rushed down and out of the mountains. The grandness of those mountains was so apparent then. They raced past us and enveloped us as we spun into the valleys below. It felt strange to realize the beauty of these mountains now, as I sat in the comfort of a car. I had been so up close, so immersed in them that I hadn’t gotten to step back, to look at all of the grandeur. To just say, “Wow.” We had come this far, whatever that meant. I felt contented in this fact, even though it all was very unsteady. I wrote a reflection the next day as we left town and headed back into the woods:

“My brain is flowing with ideas and memories and swimming in a mess of stifled tears. My daily 6 pm nostalgia hour. Gatlinburg was good but a little jarring. Emerging from the woods to chatter and lights and so many food smells made me realize the stark contrast of my life now. It feels strange to grapple with both. I feel the connection to the woods yet also a yearning to be back in the ‘real world.’ But tonight, walking through sunset and eating pad thai and listening to the wind whoosh through the trees like a hot breath feels right. I know that things will drag and speed and be good and bad but I’m glad I’m here.”

I am glad. I’m still here! And I am grateful to share these steps as I continue forward.


*If you want to follow a slightly more frequent chronicle of my hike, check me out on Instagram!

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Comments 2

  • Pete Smokestack Buak : Jun 9th

    Glad to see your update. We met at Gooch Shelter and talked a bit. I was probably working as a Trail Ambassador. Good luck to both of you.

  • Hiker : Jun 9th

    What date Fontana dam shelter? When I passed thru a few weeks ago there was a dude with a black lab and several other hikers reports of him being there a while. Shelters for overnights.. not for living…


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