Strolling thru the Smokies

View from Fontana Dam: much more beautiful before I knew I had to climb it

View from Fontana Dam: much more beautiful before I knew I had to climb it

After crossing Fontana Dam, we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for over 80 miles of challenging hiking. The Smokies are more regulated than other sections of the trail. Hikers are required to purchase permits before entering the park, they must sleep in shelters (not tents), and must pass through the park in no more than eight days. On our second morning, we were stopped by an armed park ranger checking permits. A tense moment followed as Carsoni had trouble finding his permit. After a few seconds, the ranger’s right hand slowly worked its way to his hip. Luckily, Carsoni found the permit just as the ranger unbuttoned his holster. Crisis averted.

Obligatory sign photo

Obligatory sign photo

That night, we camped at a shelter three miles from Clingman’s Dome. In the morning we arose at 5:30 and silently packed up our gear and hit the trail before dawn. The goal was to get to Clingman’s for sunrise both to experience the beauty of daybreak at the AT’s highest peak (6,625 feet) and to avoid the crowds which flock to this vista. With our headlamps on, we trekked through freezing temps and snow covered paths to reach the peak. It was worth it.

From the day we arrived on the planet...

From the day we arrived on the planet…

From Clingman’s, we carefully made our way down the icy descent to Newfound Gap where my awesome cousin Mollie was nice enough to pick us up. Not only did she drive all the way from Knoxville, drive us to Gatlinberg, and treat us to lunch, but Mollie also convincingly disguised her repulsion at the aroma of our hiker stink (although I did notice that my window was locked in the down position during the drive).

Gatlinburg is an interesting town. From reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, I was somewhat prepared for the culture shock one experiences upon transitioning from the quiet wilderness of the Smokies to the over-the-top tourist mecca that is Gatlinburg. As Bryson describes it, “For years it has prospered on the confident understanding that when Americans load up their cars and drive enormous distances to a setting of rare natural splendor what most of them want when they get there is to play a little miniature golf and eat dribbly food. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular national park in America, but Gatlinburg… is more popular than the park.” The Main Street reminded me of a Jersey shore boardwalk, filled with crowds of tourists, loud arcade games, and the smell of fried dough.

Not pictured: Ripley's Believe It or Not Odditorium, multiple Old Tyme Photo shops, and more than one life-sized biblical scene

Not pictured: Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium, multiple Old Tyme Photo shops, and more than one life-sized biblical scene

Just outside Gatlinburg, we received a bit of “trail magic” from a former thru-hiker, Godspeed, in the form of a lift back to Newfound Gap in his pickup truck. Trail magic is a term used to describe acts of kindness that a hiker receives during his/her journey. So far, I have come across about half a dozen spots on the trail where locals offered food and/or drink for hikers. I also experienced some less tangible trail magic when during a long uphill climb in the rain an older female day-hiker heading in the opposite direction smiled and said, “You’re an inspiration. God bless you.” The pain I was feeling in my legs suddenly disappeared and I attacked the climb with a new sense of pride.

This proved to be a far cry from my initial interpretation of the term “trail magic.” During my planning for this trip, I kept reading about how much thru-hikers loved trail magic and got very excited by it. Naturally, I then spent a few weeks studying magic instructional videos on YouTube and preparing a fairly solid four minute routine of card tricks and sleight of hand. Quite early into my hike I realized my mistake when after amazingly making someone’s Snickers disappear, all he said was “Dude, can you give me my Snickers back now?”

It was a Saturday when we started hiking again at Newfound Gap and there were numerous day-hikers on the trail who stopped us to ask about our crazy adventure. Some people were very encouraging and excited for us, while others were more subdued and asked about the dangers and practicality of leaving the “real world” for half a year. After a few of these encounters, I realized that I tend to match the tone of the person with whom I’m talking. For example, a teenager hiking with her family excitedly exclaimed, “Wow, you guys are awesome!” to which I thought, she’s right, we are pretty awesome. Alternatively, a group of middle aged day-hikers stopped me and after a few questions, they said, “that sounds like it’s going to be really tough; and who has the time for this?” I gave a low-key response along the lines of, “yeah, it will be tough, but hopefully it will be worth it.” Afterwards I thought about these encounters and decided that I don’t want to let anyone else’s reservations or personal views on the merits of such an adventure affect my attitude towards this journey. Even if I share these thoughts at times, I’d rather focus on the positive ones and send them out into the universe to manifest.

Album Cover

Album Cover

Next stop Hot Springs!

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