Smoky Mountains, a Hiking Guest, and Overcoming the Mental Challenge of Bigger Miles

Day 21: Fontana Dam to Mollies Ridge Shelter

After a zero in Gatlinburg, Mike and I drove to Big Creek Ranger Station parking area on the back side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We met our shuttle driver, Tom, who drove us back to Fontana Dam where our Smoky Mountains adventure was to begin. In our two-hour car ride, Tom shared with us the wisdom he gained from his Appalachian Trail thru-hike. His insight was much appreciated. It’s always good to hear from those who have gone before me.

Excited to enter the Smokies.

It was a rainy morning as Mike and I started our trek into the Smokies. Returning to trail after a day in Gatlinburg was refreshing but I struggled to stay motivated as we hiked up. Right off the bat, Mike was hiking faster than me. I was a little surprised as I’ve been out on trail for three weeks and thought that, if anything, he’d struggle to keep up. I was wrong. His training efforts are apparent and I think he’ll do just fine on his SOBO hike in July.
We stopped at the Shuckstack fire tower for lunch. The climb to the top was kind of sketchy in the rain and wind but we were eager for a dry place to take a break. Even in the foul weather, the view from the top was breathtaking. I’m not sure if mountain views will ever get old for me; for the sake of my thru-hike, let’s hope not!

Shuckstack fire tower. Photo credit: Mike Joyce

We arrived at Mollies Ridge Shelter around 5:30 p.m. and I was able to introduce Mike to some of the others I have had the pleasure of hiking with thus far. Fossey and Zia had set into the Smokies the day before and while it was nice to be with some of my other hiking friends, I missed the girls more than I would’ve expected.
After reviewing the shelter opportunities, Mike and I decided that we would attempt 18 miles tomorrow. I’m a bit nervous as I’ve only been averaging 12-14 miles a day, with my longest hike being that one 15-mile day. We’ll see how it goes!

Day 22: Mollies Ridge Shelter to Silers Bald Shelter

Let me first say this: I did it, I hiked 18 miles today! That said, today was the toughest challenge mentally I’ve experienced yet. I knew this day would come and I’m sure I will experience many more mentally tough days in the future but for now, today takes the cake on the mental challenges of the AT.
Mike and I set off around 8:30 a.m. with the 18 miles in mind. We lunched at a beautiful spot overlooking the mountains and for the better part of the day, I was feeling good about the miles ahead. Then things began to tank.

Those Smoky Mountain views.

Around 2ish I had a big climb, the kind where you scramble over rocks and carry the fear of a deadly fall in the back of your mind. It was also around this time that I realized I still had nine more miles of hiking till we reached our intended shelter. When we had started I thought we would be done hiking around 6 p.m. By lunchtime, I had adjusted my expectation and thought our arrival would be more like 6:30 p.m. At 2 p.m., I realized it’d be more like 7 p.m., maybe even later.
The thought of such a late arrival and the remaining nine miles seemed daunting and robbed me of my confidence. I was growing weary and began to slow my pace, hung up on the nine miles I still had to hike. Though a bit fatigued, I had to acknowledge that my body didn’t hurt and physically I was capable of continuing. So I pushed on.

Trying to keep the positive vibes going.

By 4 p.m. we were nearing the Derrick Knob Shelter and I said to Mike, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” I was implying we may need to stop here for the night. Mike, who had already gotten into the rhythm of hiking far ahead of me, only stopping on occasion for me to catch up said, “I think you made that decision some time ago.” I felt like he had slapped me in the face! Truth; it hurts.
Mike’s comment really got to me and I began to cry, feeling sorry for myself. I felt weak and pathetic. Twelve miles, was that all I could give? Why did it matter? Why was I suddenly so upset? The terrible things we tell ourselves when we are tired, hungry, and hurt. I needed to break free of my negative self-talk.
I stopped and thought for a few minutes, playing the tape through. How would my future self feel if I stopped at the 12 miles when I had intended to hike 18? I would be disappointed in myself. This was all too reminiscent of my first backpacking trip when I had tapped out. No, I wouldn’t have that.
I dug deep, and with the help of a peanut butter and jelly tortilla wrap and some good tunes, I booked it. I literally began running, passing Mike and staying a head of him for most of the six remaining miles.
I did it, I conquered my first big mental block.

Day 23: Silers Bald Shelter to Icewater Spring Shelter

We hiked 15 miles today. After yesterday’s 18, a 15-mile day is easy to conceive.

The trail through the Smokies was so enchanting.

Our morning was blessed with great weather and an incredible mossy green forest that reminded me of my time in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the whole day was filled with gorgeous greenery and mountain views. We took our time taking pictures and soaking it all in.

200-mile marker!

We passed the 200-mile marker and went to the top of Clingmans Dome. Though my legs were feeling yesterday’s miles coupled with today’s, I remained positive and kept an even pace. At Newfound Gap we stopped to take a break and were approached by several tourists curious about thru-hiking and the Appalachian Trail. We were happy to answer their questions and some even took our picture. I think it’s neat that people took an interest in learning more about the trail and thru-hiking.

Crossing state lines at Newfound Gap.

To my surprise, I found Fossey and Zia at the shelter that night. I knew I was catching up but I had thought I was still at least six miles behind them. It was nice to be reunited with my girls once again.
At camp, I learned that there was a serious bear problem at Icewater Spring Shelter. The bear was undeterred by the hikers yelling at it. So clever, it jiggled and pulled on the bear cables and climbed a nearby tree to paw at the food bags, knocking one down and taking off with someone’s food. We crammed all 18 hikers into the shelter that night for fear of the bear’s return. Fortunately, he did not.

My favorite picture of Mike in the Smokies.

Day 24:  Icewater Spring Shelter to Tricorner Knob Shelter

Another day graced with desirable weather and epic views. We took a short side trail to Charlies Bunion. It is well worth the .2 walk! The best mountain scenery I have experienced yet. I could’ve sat there all day taking in the views.

Mike and me at Charlies Bunion.

Dav 25: Tricorner Knob Shelter to Standing Bear

Another 18-mile day! I think it’s fair to say hiking 18 miles is within my wheelhouse now.

Eerie mornings.

We woke up at 5 a.m. and left the shelter at 6:30 with the hope of getting to the car early enough to catch dinner in town. The morning was foggy and brought with it an eerie feel. I found the terrain to be very gradual and the miles came easy for me. Though it was a particularly windy day, I found it peaceful to hike as the gusts rushed past my face, so strong at times that it moved my entire body.  My time in the Smokies was coming to a close and I wanted to savor every moment.

Trying to keep my feet planted with wind gusts as high as 30 mph.

We got down to Davenport Gap around 3 p.m. and I was feeling so good that I left my pack with Mike and I slackpacked the additional 2.5 miles to Standing Bear Farm where Mike picked me up. Then we ventured into Pigeon Forge and pigged out at Golden Corral.
It’s my understanding that several hikers leave the trail after trekking through the Smokies. The reason for this is beyond me. Reviewing the previous days, I felt a new appreciation for my Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I learned so much about hiking bigger miles, about what it would be like to hike with Mike come July, about overcoming mental obstacles. I am excited for what the trail has in store for me next.
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