Smoky Mountain Madness
There were only a handful of miles left between me and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Jose and I had pushed to a shelter about 5 miles from Fontana, and arrived pretty early in the morning. The original intention was to stay at the shelter just outside of the village, referred to by hikers as the “Fontana Hilton” because of the on-site showers and flush toilets. Alas, the call of a soft bed is sometimes far too tempting. We ended up splitting a room at the resort that night and gorging on pizza and wings from the hotel restaurant.
We were able to get some laundry done, which always feels pointless when the unpleasant aroma of body odor returns shortly after the first wear. With fresh bodies and minds, and sort of fresh clothes, we set off that next morning for a 3,000 foot ascent into the national park.
Up and Away We Go
My first stop was the Shuckstack Fire Tower. It was far too tall to seem structurally sound, and the floorboards at the top were starting to rot. Still, I wanted a picture of our starting point at the lake below. The view from the top was well worth taking that swaying staircase for.
We then made it to Russell Field Shelter, where we had the most wonderful surprise: a tarp! The temperature had dropped quite a bit once we hit those higher elevations, and this particular shelter had a giant tarp strung across its face as insulation. Radio built us a fire inside the shelter, which added even more warmth. It was then that we decided to take on the Smoky Mountains as a group, mostly because sticking together meant higher morale and more body heat at the end of the day.
My second day up there was, in my opinion, my most difficult hiking day thus far. I wasn’t feeling up to the miles, but didn’t want to camp alone that night. Additionally I was regretting tossing so much “excess” food in a hiker box to lighten my pack. I was already rationing my snacks, which put a mental strain on me. I got through, though, telling myself how amazing the views would be on Clingman’s Dome the next day.
And they were incredible views.
It was so windy and cold, even with the sunshine on my face, that I only took a few pictures from atop Clingman’s before rushing back down. I didn’t mind having to push on. The forest had changed into this gorgeous array of mossy rock and snowy pines. It was like gliding through a dream.
I found Coyote and Radio around lunch time sprawled out across an asphalt parking lot along the trail. The asphalt had absorbed the perfect amount of heat from the Sun, and so we laid out there to bask in the warmth while we ate some lunch.
Before long, we made it to Newfound Gap. We were disappointed that the bathrooms didn’t have sinks, and shocked at just how many people were buzzing about in the parking lot. We got some trail magic from a fellow hiker’s parents. Then we talked to a ranger about how fat the bears in Alaska get before hibernation.
Later, we spent the night in a crammed shelter with some weekend backpackers. Some of the hikers gave us the most delicious banana bread while telling us about their dreams to someday thru hike. With full bellies and smiles on our faces, we all nestled into our bags early to combat the freezing temperatures. We had no idea what was waiting for us on the other side of sleep.
Winter Shows its Hand
Those first strokes of daylight across the sky were dull and grey. The cold bit right through my clothes and down into my bones. Radio’s thermometer read below freezing, and yet rain trickled down through the forest around us. We all began our day dry and ready to zoom through the 12 miles ahead. But the mountains had a different plan.
The first obstacle was the ground. None of us were carrying crampons, but the ground was a rock-laden ice rink. Navigating over tiny, frozen waterfalls proved quite challenging. Eventually, the ground seemed to thaw a bit. Each step required just a little less precision, but I was still quite cautious at first.
The second obstacle? Gigantic frozen tree limbs. The scenery was reminiscent of an icy Narnia. I began to wonder if I had somehow slipped into another world. Large pine boughs were frosted with a thick coating of ice. The weight of the ice caused the limbs to droop low over the trail. I spent the day dodging these dense, heavy branches.
The worst thing of all was the moisture. The temperatures certainly never rose above freezing that day, but the rain persisted. By lunchtime, my rain jacket had soaked through, my gloves were so wet they were dripping, and my leggings bore a glistening layer of frozen mist. I pushed on, only taking the time to stop for water once that day. It was too cold, and removing my pack exposed my back to that biting winter wind.
Mental Strength is so Important
About three miles from the shelter, I began shivering. And roughly two miles out, I could feel my mind go hazy. My thoughts swerved in an unsavory direction. I was just so tired. My body didn’t have enough fuel or warmth. I considered finding a spot under a tree to rest for a while. After a little nap I will feel so much better and then I’ll fly through these last couple of miles.
I knew how alarming that thought was, and how dangerous the foggy feeling in my brain was. In the spirit of keeping my mind occupied, I began singing children’s songs aloud: Wheels on the Bus, Dear Henry, and some songs from my days as a Girl Scout. This got me to the spur trail for the shelter, and gratitude surged through me. As I approached the shelter, I tried to compose myself. I didn’t want to look broken in front of my new friends. I would put on a brave face, and focus on getting warm.
When I walked into the shelter, everyone else was there: Gummy Bear, Coyote, Radio, OG, Jose, and MacGyver. All the people I had come to enjoy the company of, and when they saw me they all cheered. Radio asked me if I wanted a cup of hot tea, and I broke out into a full body sob. My heart had never felt so much love from a group of basically strangers. But these people weren’t strangers. They were my family for the time being, and I wouldn’t have gotten through that day without them.
The rest of that night was all about getting warm. I stripped off my wet clothes and put dry ones on. My shoes were so wet that puddles formed around my toes when I stepped down, so I dealt with cold feet while I ate. I tanked most of the food left in my food bag, thinking that if I stuffed down more calories it would help me generate body heat. We all draped our wet clothes across lines strung through the rafters, which admittedly wasn’t the best idea.
An Icy Exit
By morning our clothes and shoes were all frozen stiff. Crunching those clothes up into my pack was plain awful. It took hours to pack because of the cold. Any time my ungloved hands were exposed to the air meant excruciating pain and numbness in my fingers. I would pack an item, then stop and shove my hands into my pockets before attending to the next item.
Our last day in the higher elevations, we decided to implement a buddy system; I ended up with Jose and MacGyver. Getting out of those mountains that day made me feel so lucky—I had been questioning my survival just 24 hours prior. Now I was bouncing down through Davenport Gap, under I-40, and into my first hostel experience: Standing Bear Farm.
Standing Bear was an interesting place. It was kind of what you would expect from a hostel; nothing grandiose, but perfect for the night. The “hiker funk” smell was somehow baked into the air, but I didn’t mind one bit. I got a hot shower and hung my wet clothes out to dry.
Everyone I had been hanging with decided to stick together until Hot Springs, where Jose would have to get off trail for a while. We ended up stopping at a shelter not too far from the hostel. Because we were finally allowed the privacy of our own camping space, we all decided to pitch our tents down the hill from the shelter.
Although we were no longer sardines in a wooden lean-to, we were still just as close. We ate dinner and shared laughs together until the temperature dropped and we all scurried into our sleeping bags. I didn’t know what the rest of my adventure would be like, but I discovered how strong I really was. I discovered how strong my new trail friends were, too.
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