Snow, Mice, and Sisu in the Smokies

The Calm Before the Smokies


Familiar Faces

On our first day out of Franklin, we came out to a large stone tower and beautiful panoramic views of the mountains at Wayah Bald. In a dash of trail magic, I found a craft brew at the trailhead which I enjoyed while on the bald, basking in the sun with a bag of Cheetos and listening to our new friend Stefan sing German folk songs. Stefan deserves a complete profile in a future post. He has a real mystical presence, and his legend continues to grow the more time we spend around him. From starting the trail with pounds of potato and onions, to occasionally walking the trail completely barefoot, he is one of the most fascinating people I’ve met out here so far.

We’ve started to get into a rhythm of seeing the same hikers at camp at the end of each day. One of these people is Uncle Nomad, a man of many subtitles including The Peaceful Primate, Blueprint, and many more that now elude me. We met him on only our second day on trail. He is a triple crowner who has spent the last 3 years bouncing around the country living completely on trail.  He’s not only a wealth of experience, but also a fountain of positivity and energy. Anytime we run into him it feels like taking a shot of espresso. We were happy to find him at Cold Spring Gap after trying to avoid the crowds at the nearby shelter. 


What Goes Down Must Come Up 

Cold Spring Gap to Cheoyah Bald was a very unique 20-mile day for us. After waking up to a beautiful sunrise we spent nearly the entire first half of the day descending. Although our knees were getting pulverized, we were too distracted by the beautiful terrain to be bothered. From an old fire tower, we descended directly down the spine of the range. The trail often felt alpine, with small pines, wind-beaten trees, and expansive open views on both sides of us. To make the moment even better, Stefan appeared with a backpack full of cookies and a GoPro strapped to his head.

At the bottom of the descent, we reached the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), a large complex situated on a river with an outfitter, a general store, and a few restaurants. Being surrounded by such a large number of tourists there made me uncomfortable. Looking and smelling as dirty as we were, you tend to feel a bit out of place in these situations, but it was a great place to smash a 700-calorie honey bun and iced coffee before taking on the few thousand-foot ascent up to Cheoah Bald which would make up the second half of our day. With the weather in our favor, we set up our tents at the summit of the Bald to reward ourselves with a sunset in the evening and a sunrise the next morning. 

After Cheoah Bald we made some quick miles to meet up with Joe’s college friend Mike and travel to Asheville to recover the legs a bit and resupply. Fried fish, mushrooms, veggie burgers, and some brews will not only recover the body but also the soul. After watching Joe and Mike’s Alma mater, Purdue, put the beat down on Tennessee to reach the NCAA men’s basketball tournament’s Final Four, we were ready for our own battle against Tennessee in the Smokies.


The Saga of the Smokies 


Entering the Park 

We took the few miles before the Smokies at Fontana Dam pretty slow, stopping for an extended break 3 separate times. Maybe we were learning to go with the flow and loosening our grip on strict planning and goal setting or maybe we were scared to face what was ahead. We were carrying a heavy 5 days worth of food for the 72 miles of trail through the Smokies and the forecast showed rain, snow, and thunderstorms in the days ahead. The Smokies had been an ominous presence looming in front of us for the past several days. 

Eventually, we crossed Fontana Dam and started climbing our way into the park. The climbs were long and steady and it turned out to be a bluebird day. Aside from a panoramic view at an old fire tower, the views were limited. This was made up for by beautiful white wildflowers that covered the forest floor. At times you could forget you were on a 2,200-mile trek through the mountains and just enjoy a frolic through the flowers.

We tried to wake up early on our second day in the Smokies, determined to get some miles in before rain was projected to hit in the afternoon. Like many of our early-rise ambitions, these fell through, but to our surprise, so did the rain forecast. We went on to have a long and physically tough day of hiking with some technical climbs and descents on Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain. We ended our day meeting up with our friend Quick on the Draw at Silers Bald shelter. Apart from a late-night straggler, we enjoyed the whole shelter to ourselves. A little while after sunset the most violent rainstorm I’ve ever experienced broke out, with wind and rainfall that sounded like a hurricane, but we remained warm and cozy inside our shelter. When we woke up, the storm had passed and a beautiful morning was taking place.

Our weather luck in the Smokies continued. As we hiked higher in elevation toward the AT high point, Clingmans Dome at 6612 ft, we exited the forest of wildflowers and entered an encapsulating forest of pines and moss-covered logs that reminded me of Mirkwood from Lord of the Rings. Fog and light snow took away our chances of scoping out any views, but added to the ambience of our new terrain and sure beat the miserable downpour we had anticipated. When we reached the summit of Clingmans dome, Quick on the Draw was waiting for us at the top rather poetically. We had met for the first time at the AT 100 mile marker at Mt. Albert fire tower in the pouring rain a week earlier and here we were celebrating the 200 mile mark, once again at the top of a tower in the rain without a view to be seen.

Quick on the Draw loves to mention how fast me and Joe are, but we always seem to find ourselves behind him trying to play catch up. He is not only quick on the draw, but also on foot. He’s a mountain runner, and Ironman distance triathlete, and he’s told us stories of riding his motorbike into the Australian Outback. He’s a pretty badass Brit. 

Snow Covered and Cold 

Several miles after we hit the summit of Clingmans Dome we reached our shelter in a sunny spot among a grassy field. An hour later the temperature dropped and the field was covered in a beautiful layer of snow. Just before I shut my eyes a mouse ran right next to my face and that settled how much sleep I would get that night. Hiking is hard, but the bigger mental challenge is sleeping outside in sub-freezing temps with mice running around when you know you have a memory foam mattress back home with a significant other to snuggle up to and a cat curled up at the end of the bed. 

We awoke the next morning to a snow covered trail and spent the first 5 miles of the day admiring the beautiful open views of the mountains around us. The snow-covered pines and jagged ridgelines felt reminiscent of larger mountains out west or in Europe and completely made up for the view deprivation of the past few days. However, after we were 10 miles into our 20-mile day, our socks began to soak in the snow and our dwindling food rations began to take a toll on our energy. These challenges take a hit on your mentality. The negative and frustrated voice comes back into your head to tear you down, but with a little presence and Sisu, I worked through the challenges and turned the tide to finish off the day. I notice myself getting mentally stronger as I progress down the trail.

After waking up the next morning at Cosby Knob shelter I was happy to have had a good night’s sleep amidst the freezing temps. However, when I sat up from my quilt I saw down leakage out of a mouse-sized hole in my foot box. The mice had bested me again. You’ve got to accept the things you cannot control, so I let it go, patched it up with some tenacious tape and we hit the trail. More snow had accumulated overnight, but as we descended lower and lower out of the last 10 miles of the Smokies, the snow began to dissipate and the moderate temperatures we were used to began to return. Toward the end of the day, we looked behind us to see the snow-covered peaks of the Smokies far in the distance. We had made it through.

We finished our day by hiking right into Standing Bear Hostel, a funky little village of cabins and shacks with everything we needed to recover from the Smokies. Only a quarter mile off trail, It felt like we were walking into an Appalachian Oasis. With goats, treehouses, fire pits, and a spring running straight through, the spot has some real character and whimsy. Best of all, after getting to our room Joe found a cat lying in his bed. It’s the first trail cat we’ve seen since arriving in Tennessee and a good omen for what’s to come next.

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Comments 4

  • thetentman : Apr 6th

    Great post.
    Thx and good luck.

  • Ryan : Apr 8th

    You rock Mika! Love reading about your journey. Take it all in my friend.

    • Mika Byar : Apr 11th

      Thanks so much Ryan! Missing the whole CRO crew. Hope everyone is doing well!

  • Quick on the draw : Apr 11th

    I really like your writing Tomcat. I am at Irwin now, so maybe see you soon.


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