Shoeless Smokey Shenanigans

I stumbled up to the shelter in late afternoon, as the rains died.
“Dude, did you seriously just hike through that?
Tired and Drenched to the bone, my mind scrambled to come up with something funny or clever.
“Uh. Yeah.”
“Holy crap, are you still wearing crocs!?”

Achilles Bursitis

For a week or so before Fontana my left Achilles’ tendon had been giving me grief. Tight and sore, I figured either I was developing tendinitis, or perhaps my feet were still getting used to the zero drop heels of Altra trail runners. The climb up into the smokies changed all that. By the time we reached the shelter at Mollies Ridge, my Achilles’ tendon was on fire. A break for lunch and some relacing of the shoes helped, and we ended up pressing on to the next shelter. I’d hoped that was the cure, but thirty minutes into the next morning and it was agony.
For a moment I flirted with despair; was this a hike ending issue? Standing in the cold winds at the foot of Rocky Top without any other real option, I took off the shoe and put on my camp shoe; a croc knock off. Surprisingly, the pain was immediately gone. I went on to climb Rocky Top, then Clingmans Dome the following morning. After that I switched to both crocs full time.

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Gatlinburg

Oh Gatlinburg. I really wanted to like you. It’s a fun town to be sure, but I heard at least three people call it Hillbilly Vegas, and I’m having a hard time arguing it. It’s also the first town that wasn’t overly friendly to hikers that I’ve been in, which felt strange. There I was, strolling down the street with a giant bag of groceries, about to cross paths with a young kid playing on the sidewalk. His mother took a long look at me, from the crocs to the floral print shorts, to the puffy and goofy hair, then reached out and grabbed the kid, yanking him close to her as I passed. I flirted with the notion of shouting “stay in school,” but didn’t want to ruin hikers for her forever. Instead I went back to the hotel to organize my food bag. Besides, there were distilleries to investigate.
Gatlinburg isn’t all bad, of course. It’s also a mixing bowl of thru hikers, many I hadn’t seen since the Fontana Hilton or earlier. At one point we had a good group of ten or so, dancing and carrying on to live bluegrass and fake moonshine.

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Lightheart Gear

It was also in Gatlinburg where I caught up with Backtrack (now Firefly, named so after one of the greatest prematurely cancelled television shows ever). She had recently purchased a new Lightheart Gear Solong 6 tent that was supposed to have been factory seam sealed. She found out it wasn’t so after a classic awful night in the Smokies, and was staying in town to dry out all of her stuff. Being the good friend that I am, I slept on the floor of her hotel room, then spent the next morning cracking jokes while she tried to seam seal it herself.
I’m not sponsored by or afffiliated with LIghtheart Gear in any way, but what happened next was the coolest thing I’d ever seen in regards to customer service, ever.
Firefly emailed Lightheart Gear about the tent, and in two hours Judy, the founder of the company, showed up with a brand new tent for her and spent a half hour going over details while the rest of us looked on, sipping beers in the parking lot like true hiker trash. Then Judy drove her and another hiker back to the trail.
So, if you’re thinking about making a purchase from her, totally do so. And, while you’re at it, pick up an excellent quilt (they’re lighter and more versatile than bags) from Mid Atlantic Mountain Works or Loco Libre Gear, because they’re high quality, have kept me warm every night, and because I’m actually affiliated with them. You guys rock.

Back in the Smokies

The first day back after Gatlinburg was perfect. Grunting and grumbling under packs stuffed with too much food (and moonshine) we climbed back into the mountains under a brilliant blue sky. After chatting with one of the rangers (who, to our surprise, actually checked our permits) we hiked a few miles on to Charlie’s Bunion, a small rock outcropping offering epic views of mountain faces and far off plains.

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the best part of this flattering picture is not the action shot of the eagle in the background, but the fact that I look ready to Kung Pao the crap out of anyone who speaks ill of my colorful ensemble

In what was easily my favorite full day on the trail since I started, I spent the next few hours Ridge walking between and over peaks and marveling at views. Another park ranger met and joined us for a bit, and filled the miles with stories both harrowing and hilarious before we all set up camp down in a small gully by a stream.

But when you’re in the Smokies you must be punished for having a good day. It started raining about a half hour after I had packed camp the next morning, and never really relented. I took a break at the next shelter, five miles distant, to eat lunch and commiserate with fellow hikers. In the end I couldn’t stand sitting around for the rest of the day and pushed on. It really wasn’t so bad at first, but around two or three in the afternoon I heard the first crack of thunder.
Soon I came to a bald ridge, 20 to 30 yards with no trees. It began to occur to me that hiking on a mountain ridge at over five thousand feet during a thunderstorm just may be a foolhardy enterprise when a searing, white hot gash of light cut through the mist to my right.
“Sorry mom,” I said aloud, and dashed across; running low and holding my trekking poles near the ground. After an hour or so it was getting pretty scary, but I was miles from a shelter in either direction and so had no real choice but to press on. Fear begets fear, and I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder and scanning the trees for a bear (I don’t know anyone who actually saw a bear in the Smokies). The thunder grew more frequent, cracking overhead like gunfire. After another flash of lightning I actually covered my ears against the coming crash, but the ensuing echo of the thunder bouncing back off mountains hidden by fog almost made me jump out of my muddy crocs. Startled and shamed into defiance, I threw my arms back and bellowed at the sky like an obstinate lunatic.
Almost immediately, the rain fall intensified.
That did it; I cracked into a smile, then started laughing as I tramped down the trail, now flowing like a river with rain water. Hoping to record the moment, I pulled out my phone to take a video. “Isn’t this fun!?” I shouted into the camera. Another crack of thunder and burst of rain. “THE WEATHER IS GROWING SEVERE!” I cackled.
An hour later I slid into camp with style, and joined a few other hikers in triaging our poor feet.

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“Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!”

The next day was as perfect a day anyone could ask for, and after a few hours I found myself, quite suddenly, at the northern boundary of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It was on to Standing Bear Hostel, where, after giving myself a merit badge for croccing the Smokies, I performed open heel surgery on my trail runners.

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hey, whatever works

Now it’s onward to Hot Springs, and into Virginia!

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