Smokies Secrets: Revealed!
Some life experiences contain in them so much superlative that it’s hard to convey to others what they were like. We resort to hyperbole, or we simply shake our heads and close our eyes, cast about in vain for a summary: “That was intense.” “That kicked my ass.” Or we try understatment: “It was … a challenge,” we say, and hope our listeners will use their imaginations. But even if they do, we know they won’t really get it. We know because we’ve been in their shoes—lacking the experience we just had—and now we’re in OUR shoes—having the experience we just had.
Hiking the AT through Great Smoky Mountains National Park was that kind of experience for me.
The Smokies’ reputation precedes them and makes them, to many thru-hikers, this one especially, seem a formidable and questionable pursuit from both a logistical and a survival standpoint: “The weather can go from sunny and clear to snowing within minutes.” (I’d revise that to “does go” from “can go.”) “Don’t send home your winter gear until after the Smokies.” You have to sleep in a shelter in the Smokies—you can’t tent … unless the shelter is full, and then you can tent, but Smokies shelter areas have fewer flat surfaces for tents than do nonSmokies shelter areas. You need a permit to backpack through the Smokies, which costs $20, half of which you tear off and deposit in a metal box when you enter and the other half you carry with you in case you are stopped by a Ridge Runner and asked to produce it. The Smokies contain the highest-elevation hiking you’ll do on the AT, including Clingmans Dome, the AT’s highest point at 6,644 feet.
The day I arrived at Fontana Dam, right before the southern entry point for the AT’s 70 Smokies miles, it was raining and cold at an elevation far, far below 6,844 feet. If you’ve read any of my posts, you’ll know that rain makes me anxious and that cold is my biggest AT enemy. I hike in gloves and a hoodie with the hood up on days other people cruise along in tank tops and shorts. That morning, after packing my wet, cold tent up I had wiped my frozen fingers on my pants, put them back into my gloves, and was rubbing them together fiercely to get feeling back in them to be able to pack up the rest of my stuff when I caught two hikers still in their sleeping bags watching me with amusement.
“Is it that bad?” one of them asked.
“No, it’s just me; I run cold,” I snapped.
The other one took out her watch, which evidently had a thermometer on it. “It’s 44 degrees. Warmer than it was yesterday.”
“Yeah, but it’s wet.”
I got out of there and stormed angrily up the mile or two of incline through rain—and then hail (okay, itty-bitty, harmless, positively dainty hail but still HAIL)—before another four miles of slippery, technically challenging (and admittedly interesting) decline into Fontana and a shuttle ride into a warm, dry lodge. After looking at the forecast, which showed more rain and more cold the next day, I debated delaying the Smokies, either for another day or for a couple of months (I could yellow-blaze, i.e. skip, them now and come back when warm weather would be all but guaranteed) or for, you know, ever. Beyond my concerns about the weather, the logistics irritated me. I had so far managed to avoid sleeping in shelters and was apprehensive about mice, snoring, cigarette smoke, and lack of privacy.
In the end I bought an overpriced, extra fleece layer at the Fontana general store and delayed my Smokies’ start by just one day.
The day I started out was beautiful, which soothed my cold fears. I got a super slow start, as one does after a zero, ribeye-and-wine-dinner day and a buffet breakfast. I walked two relatively flat miles from the marina to the Fontana Dam and then entered the park and started to climb. After about a week of foot-pain recovery, I was dismayed to find my tendinitis flaring up aggressively. All my worries about cold, and foot pain is what’s going to make the Smokies tough? Yet another reminder of the futility of worry.
Originally I had planned to get off and pick up a resupply box in Gatlinburg, but that was only three days away and my food bag felt about seven days heavy. The food box in Gatlinburg was also about seven days heavy, and I was at the point in this thru that I was feeling ready to do more than four days walking/three days camping. I wanted to push through and finish the Smokies in one go, and it felt like enough food to do it. Plus, Inti was meeting me in a week to take me to Asheville for the weekend. When I did the mileage math and remembered how disappointingly generic and touristy Gatlinburg was when I’d passed through years before, the decision was easy: keep going.
How much and what kind of food to take for any given leg of the trip has been an unending mystery. It felt that morning like I had way too much, and every bit of it was hurting my foot, so I mentally rifled through the bag to find the heaviest items so I could later take them out to eat first. Apricots, tuna. Peanuts. Later, I would worry I didn’t have enough and, but for the kindness of others, would have run out.
By about 2:30 p.m. I arrived at Birch Spring Campsite, the only non-shelter location in the Smokies where you’re allowed to camp. A sign pointed down a steep path to the site, 0.1 mi away, and a man sat on a log, leaning against a tree trunk, at the top of the hill. I started toward him and the path, and he stood. He wore a khaki shirt with AT patches sewn onto it and a name tag: Carl.
“Did you fill out a permit?”
“Did you put the bottom half in the box at the beginning?”
“Good enough. Planning to stop here for the night?”
“All right.” He described the campsite’s layout, including where his tent, the cooking/campfire area, and bear cables were, and said there had been bear activity around, and if I saw a bear I should let him know right away. He also told me that the second Smokies shelter, Russell Field, was closed due to aggressive bear activity (I had heard this already).
I made my way down the steep hill and found a flat, pretty tent spot. It was warm, sunny, and beautifully breezy, and for the first time I set up my tent without the rain fly and just got into it.
After two nights in a lodge, I was happy to be back out in nature. Plus, it gave me peace knowing Carl would be nearby and I would definitely not be camping alone that night.
A little while, one episode of Serial (the podcast), and a rain-fly installation later (it would get cold, I reasoned), I gathered my food and cooking items and found my way to the campfire-and-cooking area, where a group of Vanderbilt students who had just finished their finals was assembling with rental stoves, backpacks, cookware, and seating options (one student had one of those stadium-bench chairs that lets you lean back). It was too early to eat so I just sat and looked around. A few other thru-hikers were there, as well as Carl, who was getting his dinner prepared.
I looked up the hill then and saw the bear. He was ambling down toward our cooking smells, and I said, “Bear!” and pointed.
Carl set down his Jetboil and walked toward the bear, picking up some rocks as he went. The college students stood and took out their phones. “Cool!” they said. “Oh my god!” they said. I got my phone out, too. Carl hadn’t seemed scared, just businesslike, so I tried to adopt that demeanor despite being frankly alarmed. When he got closer to the bear he threw the rocks and shouted, “Go, bear! Get out!” The bear stopped its advance and seemed for a minute to contemplate this option. Carl threw another rock. His rocks all feel about 10 feet short of the bear, but it must have been enough because then the bear did—almost perceptively—shrug. It turned around, and, just as slowly as it had approached, it walked away.
Carl returned to the campfire area and apologized that his arm wasn’t what it used to be. He then recommended we hang our entire packs rather than just our food bags, telling us that bears associated packs with food and would take them out of your tent vestibule and destroy them. He described mutilated Nalgene bottles, perforated Jetboils, shredded tent flaps.
“They won’t bother you, though,” he said. “They’re interested in food, not people. You don’t have anything to worry about if you hang your pack and don’t keep food in your tent.”
Later I went back up the hill to the AT because Carl’d said you could get cell service there. I had brought three rocks with me up the hill and I set them on top of the sign. I kept my text conversation with Inti brief. “Hi, at camp, can’t text long because we saw a bear earlier and I feel safer with the group.” I told him I was planning to skip Gatlinburg and hoped to be at Standing Bear on Friday. He wrote back a leisurely, conversation-opening “Haaaiiii.” I started to reply, then glanced up.
The bear stood 20 meters away, looking at me nonchalantly.
I froze. I couldn’t simply stop texting Inti because I had mentioned a bear already; down the hill I’d have no service, and he wouldn’t hear from me till the next morning. Who knew what he’d think? For the same reason, I couldn’t simply write “Bear! Gotta go!” I wanted to take a picture, but I remembered a story about a guy trying to take a bear selfie and getting mauled for his trouble. All these thoughts happened in 3 seconds. Finally I wrote, “Getting worried about the bear, going back to the group, luv.”
Then I calmly started back down the hill. Then I remembered that Carl had said the worst thing for people to do when bears were around was nothing; it taught them not to fear people. So I found two more rocks and went back up the hill. I screamed, sharp and high-pitched (but firm and confident, not panicked), “Go, bear! Get out!” and threw the rocks at it. I was much closer to it than Carl had been, and the bear startled, turned, and ran away.
Well! That was gratifying!
I hurried down the hill and told everyone what had happened. Some of the college students, the ones who’d missed the first bear sighting, cursed their bad luck not seeing one, and we passed the rest of the evening uneventfully.
The next day broke beautifully and I had another great-weather walk, starting the earliest I had yet, at 6:50 a.m. My foot felt better, the views from Rocky Top were gorgeous,
and my confidence about handling the Smokies grew. That evening I came into the prettiest shelter site I’d seen in 200 miles of Appalachian Trail: Spence Field. The 0.2-mile side trail to it was meadowy and flat, with pretty white-flower trees turning the whole scene into something out of a fairy tale, I smiled my whole way in. Wow, I kept saying to myself. Just, wow.
Still, there was that little worry about how I’d sleep in a shelter, precisely how full it had to be before I could justify tenting, etc. I walked up and looked at the shelter—double decker, slept 12-14. Flies everywhere, sloping floorboards. “I just can’t,” I said out loud. Another hiker, Nathan, was watching me, and as soon as I decided and headed down the hill to the only flat area around, which was under the horse-hitching posts, he hoisted his pack and followed. Apparently, a lot of other hikers shared my shelter sentiments; within a couple of hours, there were six tents packed cheek-to-jowl around mine, as well as about four more balancing precariously on the hill. With five occupants, we had all decided, the shelter qualified as “full.”
Smokies Day 3 promised not to be too bad. I planned on 13.5 miles from Spence Field to Double Spring shelter, and the elevation profile looked tame compared with the ascent out of Fontana and Day 2’s climb up to Rocky Top. But this was when I learned about Smokies Challenge #1 They Don’t Tell You About: steepness. It was like walking on saw teeth all day. There was never a flat moment. The ascents and descents were steep but short, which sounds like it might have been a good thing—giving you the break you need just when you need it, but it wound up being so exhausting that at times I couldn’t remember whether I’d just been ascending or descending; they were both so difficult. And then, as sometimes happens, the afternoon got really long and lonely; clouds came in; wind picked up, and when I hadn’t seen another soul since an early lunch at a shelter, I started to wonder whether somehow everyone but me had gotten news of some storm and decided to stay put at that shelter.
Such relief when I rolled into Double Spring shelter and found it busy as a beehive!
After three days though, the food bag that had seemed impossibly full and heavy suddenly didn’t seem like enough to last me four and a half more days. I reasoned I could stop at the Clingmans Dome gift shop the next day, but a backpacker told me it was about half a mile off the trail, “straight down.” Hmm.
Smokies Day 4 is when I learned that instead of “can change” they should say the weather “does change” in an instant. A cool, breezy morning turned into get-blown-off-a-ridge-if-you-didn’t-eat-a-big-breakfast gusty, and panoramic views turned into whiteout fog. Clouds skimmed across the path, and I stopped to put on my rain gear. Dainty hail suddenly pitter-pattered on my rain hood and bounced along the path in front of my feet. Then, just as quickly, it stopped.
I reached the Clingmans summit and tower, and, well:
After no more than 15 seconds up top, I raced back down and resumed my hike. Within 20 minutes, all was sunshine and enchantment.
I planned to hike another 13.5, the first three and last three of which were uphill (the first three up Clingmans, the last three up out of Newfound Gap (US 441, the road to Gatlinburg). I contemplated and feared those last three. Would I cave and go into Gatlinburg? How would I feel, how tired, did I really have enough food? Was I making a mistake to skip it?
A woman, fifty-something-ish, came along, though, and we shared about five miles of conversation and companionship. A UVA religious studies professor and Episcopal priest, she also maintained a 1.3-mile section of the trail near her Charlottesville, VA, home, and had section-hiked the entire AT over fifteen years. We shared stories of teary times on the trail, low moments (a red M&M eaten off the dirt played a starring role in one of her stories), and the sacred quality of time in the woods, time on the trail. When we rolled into Newfound Gap it was early enough and I felt strong and energetic enough to know I would conquer the last three miles.
At some point I also learned Smokies Challenge #2 They Don’t Tell You About: the distance between water sources. Most of the AT is pretty watery—you don’t have to carry too much because you seldom go more than two or three miles between streams. In the Smokies, though, five or six miles is more typical. At 2.2 pounds per liter, this matters. A lot.
I arrived thoroughly tired, but happy, to Icewater Spring shelter, where I found a sweet flat tent spot and didn’t even bother to ensure “fullness” of the shelter.
If Spence Field shelter has the prettiest setting of any AT shelter, Icewater Spring has the best view.
While I was setting up my tent I was chatting with Atlas, the son in a mother-son thru-hiking team, when I heard “Is that Notebook I hear?” shouted from up the hill. I looked up and saw Grits tearing down the path to my tent. We laughed and hugged and I introduced him to Atlas. We were giddy; it had been days since I had seen him or anyone from that pack, but they were all coming up out of Gatlinburg that day; they’d spent the night and had far too much free moonshine at this or that tasting. By two hours later, the shelter was officially full. Padfoot had way too much trail mix, so my food shortage problem was solved, and although it rained briefly it also got nice again, and the social part of hiking the AT filled my heart.
Next was a 12.1-mile day I’d been really looking forward to after two 13.5s, but again the Smokies did an evil ninja thing and surprised me with how difficult it could be when you least expected it. The afternoon was long, and I was discouraged by how many people passed me (and how quickly), and I was about to face my biggest challenge of all—a legitimately full shelter, a true paucity of flat tent sites, the coldest night yet, and worst: a report of a bear attack on a man in his tent two days’ prior at Spence Field. My tent’s slope, my fear of the bear and my sense of betrayal that exactly what they’d said didn’t happen had happened, meant I did not sleep. Oh, plus rain. 🙁
I skipped breakfast the next morning; I skipped putting in my contacts; I just jammed everything willy-nilly into my pack and got the hell out of there. So many of us were planning to get to the same shelter the next day, and mice, snoring, and cigarette smoke were infinitely preferable to a bear attack, so I was determined to get a berth in that shelter. It disheartened me how quickly nearly everyone caught up with and passed me, but then it heartened me to learn from almost all of them that they were pushing beyond that shelter and to Standing Bear Farm, the hostel I aimed to reach the next day. I briefly considered trying to do that, too, but at 14.8 miles, it was already going to be my longest day yet, and, 90% downhill or not, I expected 18 would be truly beyond my capacity.
About two thirds of the way down, I encountered Chloe, another Ridge Runner, who confirmed the bear attack rumor and said it was “a shame something like this has to happen to make us bear aware.” She also informed me that Davenport Gap Shelter, where I was headed, had seen a good deal of bear activity as well, but that it was different in that it had a cage (to keep bears out); we kept our food inside since there were no bear cables.
Thunder rumbled all afternoon as I walked on, and about 10 minutes before I reached the shelter, the sky finally opened up completely and the rain, which would last until the morning, started in earnest. I got my umbrella out just in time and was happy to get to the shelter by about 4 p.m. and find it occupied with a handful of folks from last night’s shelter—folks whom I warmed to a lot as the evening wore on. I blew up my air mattress next to and officially met Caroline, Nicole, Alice, and Eric (and later Daniel, whose knee injury prevented his arriving sooner). By 7 p.m. everyone was silent and either sleeping or reading in his or her bag as the rain pattered on the tin roof. For a first shelter night, it went amazingly well. Knowing my tent and I were assured of keeping dry and that the cage would keep out bears made for a very solid night’s sleep.
The next morning I walked 3.7 miles to Standing Bear Farm, received two packages, shared a 1.9-lb bag of Swedish Fish with the gang, and ate until Inti arrived, scooped me up, and couldn’t stop saying, “you’re so skinny!”
We’ve now spent most of the weekend together enjoying Asheville, being showered, eating, drinking beer, snuggling, and simply being together. I’m trying to process the Smokies experience, but I’m not sure I can articulate yet just what it meant or how it grew or changed me.
I think sometimes these things take a while to really take hold or show up in our lives. What I want from it is to be less afraid overall–less afraid (but of course intelligently cautious) of actual threats such as bears and less afraid of mere inconveniences such as rain. I feel like going forward, it can only get better. Of course other challenges await me, but it’s not likely to get colder and I know I’ve already summitted the highest AT peak.
I’m looking forward to enjoying more of my trail time and continuing to trust in the process of transformation via self-imposed adversity and discomfort. Thank you for reading!
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