A Day of Hurting and Learning in the Smokies
I ended up going back to Gatlinburg and renting the worst hotel room ever. It was way too much money because it was the Saturday of Easter weekend. I did this because I wanted space to dump everything out of my pack and repack it with necessities. My plan was now to do one night of backcountry camping. My backcountry permit for Sunday night was to stay at campsite 13 atop Gregory Bald. Originally I was going to hike Abrams Falls Trail to Hannah Mountain Trail and stay at campsite 14, which is approximately the midpoint of the Hannah Mountain Trail. However, since I needed to get to Gregory Bald in one day, I had to change plans.
I drove around the park to the North Carolina side and parked at Twentymile, right off Lake Cheoah. The road there was full of twists and turns, ups and downs, and plenty of crotch rocket motorcycles. The new plan was to hike the Wolf Ridge Trail up to Gregory Bald. Just as I started hiking I ran into two men coming down from the bald from their overnight. They told me the sights are beautiful.
I was all alone on the trail, unlike the day before. Along the trail were several stream crossings, with bridges, though. One of the bridges was cracked in the center, so that made for a fun cross. My mood improved due to walking a slower pace and carrying a lighter load. The weather was perfect that day, but I quickly became sweaty. I had to tie a bandanna around my head and then put my brimmed hat on over it to keep the sweat from getting in my eyes.
Going up the mountain was difficult, but the grade was gradual so it wasn’t too bad at first. As it became steeper, I took my time and rested more frequently. After about an hour, I passed a group of four hikers and we exchanged a quick, polite greeting. Then, I saw a trail marker that reassured me I was going the right way as I made good time. Maybe I wasn’t paying attention, or maybe it was the sweat in my eyes, but I should have stopped and paid more attention to that trail marker.
Losing the Trail
I hit campsite 95, which I knew was along the trail. I was happy with the progress I was making and I felt a new burst of energy. Now comes part of the story where I tell you what I should have done. I should have taken the opportunity to sit down, rest, and check my map, which I hadn’t looked since I started. I was on “the trail” so I just kept going. For some reason, I feel the need to do things the hard way. Just like the day before, when something seems odd I should take that as a sign, not think “that’s just how it is.”
I had to hop over a stack of small trees that were down, but I was still on a path. As I hiked along I was essentially walking on the side of a slant, my ankles were at a 45 degree angle. As I continued on, I started to wonder if I had lost the trail. The trail I was on seemed impassable. Initially I thought it was because it was early in the season and there had not been a lot of time for trail maintenance, but now I had doubts. My ankles and knees, which I had wrecked the day before, really began to ache. Then I realized what I should have done the night before: ice my ankles and knees. I really need to work on forethought opposed to afterthought.
Searching for a trail began to wear me out. It became clear I had lost the trail and hiking up and down the side of a mountain was getting me nowhere. I turned around and trudged through the brush and over the fallen trees. When I finally reached campsite 95, I took a break, took my pack off, and realized that my shirt was completely soaked with my sweat. Wearing sweat-wicking clothing, I hadn’t noticed it while hiking. When I was settled, I took out my map to see that the trail did not go through campsite 95, but it reaches the campsite and makes a sharp turn right and gravitates upward. After eating and resting I wandered around looking for the actual trail.
After at least 90 minutes of getting lost, resting, and looking for the trail, I was done. My ankles were swollen and my knees were throbbing. This is when I realized the magnitude of the damage I did by hiking with an overloaded pack the day before. I decided to just head down the mountain. About five minutes after I left the campsite, I hit the trail marker and realized the arrow I thought was pointing straight was pointing right. So there was the trail the whole time.
Finding the trail actually gave me a feeling of hope, so I decided to head up to Gregory Bald as I had initially planned. This portion of the trail, however, was very steep and narrow. In my original plan I was going to hike from campsite 14 to campsite 13, which would go from a 2,400-foot elevation to a 4,900-foot elevation. Being from Illinois, a very flat state, I didn’t think about elevation when I made the new plan and I was going from about 1,300 feet to 4,900 feet.
I slowly hiked up the trail and every step was agony on my ankles. Then I experienced something new – my heart was racing. I rested for about five minutes to get it to drop and then I started again at a much slower pace. Two minutes later my heart was racing as if I never rested at all. Again I rested, and again the same thing happened. I still had about four to five miles left, but I was worried. I felt like I couldn’t go three steps without my pulse pounding. So, I sat around on the narrow trail, looking down while I pondered what to do.
Nevertheless, I went back. I wasn’t sure what my heart was doing, but it had me concerned enough to turn around. My ankles and knees were trashed and I was very slow going on the way down. I can’t say I wasn’t disappointed, but I also can’t say that I didn’t go on a beautiful hike. Chalk it up to another learning experience, but I still got a lot of joy out of my time spent alone amid the beauty of the Smoky Mountains.
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