Smokies to Hot Springs
Our last post left us at the Fontana Dam, the last trail stop before officially entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Our adventure in the Smokies was filled with new friends, cozy fires, and lots of precipitation.
One unique thing about the Smokies is that you are not permitted to stealth camp (camping in a non-designated site), so all hikers must camp at or around the shelters. On the southern end of the park, AT shelters were close together, so crowding wasn’t an issue. As we moved further north, the shelters spread out and one was closed due to bear activity, so a LOT of hikers were squished into a small space.
On our third day in the park, we woke up to howling winds, pouring rain, and temps in the high 30’s. It took all of the energy and strength I could muster to pull myself out of my sleeping bag and out into the elements. Jet Pack and I trudged miserably through the rain to the next shelter, only 5 miles away, where we were greeted by a roaring fire (courtesy of a new friend, Hot Wheels, whose fire-making skills earned him his trail name). We peeled off our wet clothes and pulled out our sleeping gear, calling it a day at 11 am. Hikers tried in vain to dry socks and clothes by the fire, many sporting new singe marks on their clothes afterward. One hiker’s socks split right along the seam after cooking too long near the flames.
Because Clingman’s Dome, a popular tourist spot on the Smokies known for its beautiful views, is accessible by vehicle, we had one of our first on-trail interactions with people from the outside world. It had been three days of rain, everything on our person and in our packs was soggy, and the sun was finally beginning to peek through the clouds. Jet Pack and I delightedly sat on a bench, took our socks off to let our feet dry, and began to prepare our tuna-on-tortilla lunches.
It took a few moments before we realized some people wrinkling their noses and ushering their children away from us. We looked at each other and finally saw how dirty and ragged we actually looked. It had been about six days of hiking through the mud without a shower and we felt like monkeys in a zoo exhibit. Some people clearly found us off-putting, while others were mildly fascinated by our journey and wanted to chat, but not stand too close. On the AT, thru-hikers lovingly refer to one another as “hiker trash,” and that title never rang truer than it did that afternoon.
While marked with good times and beautiful views, we saw the Smokies as a section to “get through” as quickly as possible. I did, however, leave the Smokies with a trail name! I am now Pepper, like Pepper Potts from Iron Man, who quietly handles the logistics behind the scenes.
Standing Bear to Hot Springs
After the Smokies, we stopped by the iconic Standing Bear Hostel for dinner, groceries, and some cold beverages. We gathered around the campfire with other hikers and enjoyed some home-cooked pulled pork.
Our few days between the Smokies and the town of Hot Springs were some of the most beautiful that we had seen yet on trail. We camped on top of Max Patch, a giant bald (treeless field on top of a mountain) with gorgeous views in every direction. The trillium bloomed all along the trail. The trees finally turned green instead of the early spring brown we had seen in the weeks prior.
The AT actually runs down the Main Street of the town of Hot Springs and we excitedly stopped in the Smoky Mountain Diner for a long-awaited southern breakfast. Jet Pack and I watched in amazement as our friend Yeet demolished a 10 oz breakfast steak, an omelet, biscuits and gravy, and a side of hash browns. The hiker hunger is getting real.
Our overnight stay in Hot Springs also marked the end of my new record in time spent without a shower (9 days, very gross). My calves had mud caked in so deep that I rubbed my skin raw to get clean. We enjoyed a long nap in our hotel room at the Iron Horse Inn, snacks from the dollar store, beers from the Iron Horse Restaurant (below our hotel), and strolling around town in the sunshine without our packs on.
The buzz cut
I can’t wrap up this blog post without also mentioning the fact that I finally shaved my head in Hot Springs. It has long been a dream of mine to shave off my hair and after meeting Crook, a hiker from West Michigan who shaved her head before setting out on the trail, I finally had the confidence to do it. In front of about 30 other hikers at the Laughing Heart Hostel, Jet Pack shaved off my hair. It was both a terrifying and liberating moment to feel my newly buzzed hair for the first time. Not only is having virtually no hair convenient as heck out here on trail, but I feel brave, strong, and more confident than ever with my bald head.
Expectations vs. Reality
Expectations: hair doesn’t play that big of a role in keeping your head warm.
Reality: oh but it really does.
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