The Great Smoky Mountains
The trees were spitting at us like camels spit at zoo patrons, annoyed, and urging us to move on and leave them be. The thorn bushes wrapped around our ankles, grabbing at us with their sharp talons, as if to pull us underground. The Smokies were rejecting us.
Earlier in the day we meandered over Fontana Dam, amazed at the vast water reservoir below. We warmed up along the blacktop road leading us into the National Park. And we giggled with excitement when we placed our park permits in the thru hiker box at the entrance to the Smokies. We thought this would be the hardest section of our hike and we were pleased that in the week we would be in the park there was only one night when temperatures would dip to single digits.
The Smokies were full of fog but we found a section that wasn’t so dismal, plopped ourselves down on a log and ate our home-dehydrated apples and bananas. A twig broke in the distance. I darted my eyes to my left. I saw a mass coming around the bend in the trail. It was a hiker. It was Tadpole.
We hiked the rest of the day with Tadpole and ended up at a shelter that was already occupied by two gentlemen. On one side of the top bunk was Lucky, a 72-year old chap who hiked long miles each day. On the other was Stretch, a young Israeli. He had quite the story from the previous night.
In the Smokies, hikers are required to stay at shelters, except for one campsite near the southern entrance to the park. Stretch had decided to spend his first night at that spot. He set up his tent, hung his food in a tree and climbed into his sleeping bag. Hours later he was awoken to the sounds of breathing. Bear breathing. He convinced himself that he was dreaming, but he still blew on his whistle to scare them away. Then he heard a second bear and convinced himself that he was not dreaming. He blew on his whistle again, this time harder and longer. The bears were still sniffing around his tent. He took one long breath and blew on his whistle as best he could. Stretch made it through the night, but he was quite ready to sleep with a group in a shelter the rest of his time in the Smokies.
After hearing Stretch’s story, we voted and the decision was unanimous: we would all cook and eat outside of the shelter that night.
Our second day in the Smokies was longer than we expected. Still dismal and threatening to rain, the day was much like the first but we did have some picture-worthy views through the trees and the fog.
About halfway through the day we ran into a ridge runner who takes care of the trail inside the park. He gave us a weather report and talked to us for a while about how to get involved in trail work. He was a wealth of information and inspiration for Nate. The ridge runner also told us that the next shelter is the furthest one from any road on the entire trail. It was nice to know that once we passed that one, we’d be a short distance closer to civilization.
“Have you seen a blaze lately?” Nate called up from behind me. “No, but I also didn’t see anywhere else to turn.” We were walking up a creek bed with uncertainty, not knowing whether or not we were still on the AT. We thought we would hit the shelter at 4:30 and that it was now 4:20. We kept walking.
“I see it!” Nate cried. He had pulled ahead of me and when he delivered this message I sighed with relief. There was nothing I wanted more than to blow up our sleeping pads, pull out our sleeping bags and eat dinner. But when he pulled into the shelter and said, “It’s a full house!” my heart sank. I stumbled through the gap between the tarp and the shelter to see three men spread out along the top bunk. Not one of them moved. Nate and I stood in the front of the shelter and tried to make small talk while the three men gawked at us. When we revealed that we had four friends hiking behind us, all of whom were aiming for this shelter, one guy started hinting at something. “The next shelter’s only about 1.5 miles away,” he informed us.
“Actually, it’s 1.7,” I retorted, always trying to be exact.
“When we went by, it was empty,” another one of them encouraged us.
“It’s a real nice walk,” the first one chimed in.
Nate looked at me and he knew my decision in an instant. We were moving on.
It was unfortunate that we came across these trail bullies, as most everyone we meet along the trail is more than welcoming. But we knew that the ring leader of that group had been out for nearly three weeks and that this was only his third night spent outside. What else should we expect from someone with such little shelter experience?
On our 1.7-mile trudge up the mountain we were rewarded for the decision to move on. The views from the ridgeline were spectacular. We could see mountain after mountain for what seemed like hundreds of miles, and we were in the Smokies! Nate and I were proud of ourselves that we pushed the extra miles after already having walked 15 that day.
In no time we had arrived at the shelter and the joy that I felt upon seeing the jagged cut of the roofline amongst the trees was replaced with disappointment when I saw countless Nalgene bottles lined up along a bench outside.
“It’s a full house!” I heard Nate announce for the second time that day. Wondering what group of hikers we could have caught up to, I was exhausted and ready to sit down, no matter how many people were already occupying the shelter. Then I went in.
Ducking under stinky socks hung on makeshift clothes lines while lifting my deadweight legs over piles of packs, I was unable to count them. But when three of them noticed our arrival, smiles burst across their faces. “We’ve saved this corner over here in case anyone came,” they pointed and moved gear out of our way. We were welcome.
The group of hikers in the shelter were twelve college students from Minnesota who chose to spend their Spring Break trekking through the mountains of the Smokies and exploring nearby caves. They were playing cards, cooking dinner, preparing a no-bake dessert and asking us all about our thru-hike. During all of that, Nate and I set up our sleeping pads and bags, gathered water and began eating. Soon enough, Lucky poked his head into the shelter.
“Lucky!!” Nate and I exclaimed. We didn’t think anyone in our party would follow us the additional 1.7 miles. The college kids scooted over to make room for him. Minutes later Stretch, Tadpole and Griswold (the fourth hiker we had spent the previous night with), arrived. Not using their Smokey Mountain section-hiker privileges and kicking the thru-hikers out of the shelter, the students once again made room. They squeezed ten people on top, an area made for six. We had eight sleeping on the bottom bunk. The shelter was full that night, making it cozy and warm!
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. We crossed it on our most miserable day yet.
The day began in the crowded shelter, packing up as we were elbow-to-elbow with our companions. We left wearing our ponchos in the rain and stopped to strap our crampons to our boots within a quarter mile from the shelter. Then we started going up. And up. And up. The climb never ended and Nate was handling it much better than me. Struggling behind him, I couldn’t believe that I had thirteen miles scheduled for the day.
Conditions were atrocious. Not only was it raining, the ditch-style trail had turned into a river, washing the rainwater and snow melt from the top of the mountain over our saturated boots and down the trail. In some spots we were relieved that there was still snow instead of water but when we stomped down on it we learned to hate it more than the water. It wasn’t just snow. It was six inches of snow atop four inches of sleet covering the river of water. We were soaked from the tops of our heads to the bottoms of our feet before we even reached Clingman’s Dome. Then we took the side trail to the lookout tower.
I knew there would be no view on this day, but when Nate enthusiastically dropped his trekking poles and ran up the ramp to the top of the tower, I, more like a wet sloth, followed him. The whipping wind threatened to pull our ponchos over our heads and threw freezing rain into our faces. Acknowledging that I was nearly too cold to move, Nate didn’t stay atop the tower for long. On his jaunt back down he noticed an open service door underneath the tower. He led me to it and we ate a snack, protected from wind and rain.
I don’t know how it happened, but when we got back onto the trail my gloves had become buckets of water. As they were only making my hands colder, I shoved them into my pockets and held onto my poles with frozen hands. When my fingers went numb, I balanced my poles below one arm and put my hands in my pockets, much to Nate’s chagrin. “If there is any way you could use even one pole, please do,” he begged me. This area of the trail was layered with ice, snow, sleet and water, and Nate knew that if I fell I would be even colder. “I’m already frozen,” I warned Nate, just before falling sideways into the snow-covered bank on the side of the trail.
“I’ve made my decision. I’m going into Gatlinburg.” Nate and I had vowed to make it through the Smokies without getting forced off-trail. Not only did we want to spend more than five nights in a row outside, but we had heard that Gatlinburg is a black hole for hikers. Nonetheless, I wanted out. My hands were frozen to my trekking poles, my pants were so heavy from rain and river water that they were falling off and my shoes held enough water to bathe a family. Dreaming of my dry and warm clothes stowed away in my pack, I was confident that we would be warm overnight, even though the ridge runner warned us that it would drop to zero degrees. But what would happen in the morning when my rain coat, hiking pants and boots were blocks of ice? We needed to get dry. Nate wasn’t convinced that getting off the trail was the right move, but he agreed to support me in whatever decision I made.
As the miles went by my hands warmed up and I was starting to reconsider the declaration I had made about Gatlinburg. I was ready to give in to Nate when we saw a hiker ahead of us. It was Griswold! She looked miserable. Nate mentioned getting off trail to her and she was sold. Griswold had already planned to head home in two days and she knew she couldn’t make it to the end of the park before her deadline. Newfound Gap, which leads to Gatlinburg, was the only other AT road crossing in the Smokies.
“How long ago did Tadpole pass you?” Nate asked Griswold. We couldn’t believe he would have left her behind, but we hadn’t seen him yet. Her eyebrows shot up to her hairline. “You guys didn’t pass him?!” she realized, “He was behind me last I knew.” We all concluded the same thing: Tadpole was lost. We just hoped he hadn’t pulled ahead of us somehow because we knew he was stubborn enough to push to the shelter we had all planned to meet at that night. Worried about his whereabouts, we tried to call him but we didn’t have cellular service. We continued up the trail.
Two miles and one more fall later, we arrived at a seasonally-closed road with a fiberglass information board and a trailhead sign. Using a piece of paper from my waterproof notebook, we began a letter to our fellow hikers. A noise in the woods made us stop mid-salutation. It was Tadpole!
“How does a warm motel room in Gatlinburg sound?” I called out to him. He came out of the tree line with his hands clasped in front of his face, grateful that we mentioned leaving the trail for the night. “I wanted to go into town so bad, but I wasn’t going to mention it,” he confessed to us. We finished writing our note, now addressed exclusively to Lucky and Stretch, duct taped it to the trailhead sign and continued toward the road to salvation.
When we got to Newfound Gap the wind hit us so hard that we might have been picked up and carried to town. We found refuge in a women’s restroom and called a few shuttle services to obtain a ride. One company quoted us a $125 fee! We passed and found a place that would retrieve the four of us for $55. Relieved that we had a ride, we took off our packs and wet jackets and waited.
Tadpole’s phone rang again. It was a park ranger. He said he had been informed that there were four of us at Newfound Gap looking for a ride into town. “Is anyone hurt?” he inquired. Tadpole told him we were all fine, just cold and wet. He informed us that the road to town was closed. Nobody would be able to get us. If a ranger was available he would send him our way, but he could not guarantee that. We all looked at one another with saucer-sized eyes, realizing that we might be spending the night in a public restroom.
Tadpole started cooking food. Griswold spread her ground cover on the floor. Nate and I snacked on dried fruit. We had come to terms with the fact that we may have to spend the night here and I was actually not too bummed. It would allow us to keep our clothes from freezing and we could hop right back onto the trail as soon as we woke up. If we went into town and the road remained closed the next day there would be no way for us to get back on the trail.
Just as Tadpole began contemplating filtering and boiling toilet water (because he had already cooked so much that he was out of water) his phone rang again. It was the ranger, telling us that another ranger was in the area and would be gathering us into his vehicle shortly. All previous rationalizations that the toilets would be an acceptable place to stay escaped my thoughts. We were going to Gatlinburg! However, we had still not made contact with Lucky or Stretch and we were quite worried. Lucky had reached our note and tried to call nearly an hour and a half before Griswold obtained service and her cell phone displayed the voicemail. He should have crossed the road at Newfound Gap by now, but when we called back he did not answer. We had heard nothing from Stretch. Our only hope was to let the ranger know that our friends were still out there.
We rapidly gathered our gear when we heard a car horn honking and ran up the blacktop path toward the headlights. I made it to the middle of the incline before looking up and I could not believe my eyes. “He has Lucky!” I half-laughed, half-shouted back at Nate. On the drive into town Lucky told us his story.
Before seeing our note, Lucky was determined that he would make it to the shelter three miles beyond Newfound Gap. After seeing our note, Lucky was determined to make it to Gatlinburg. He got to the empty road, didn’t notice the sign for the restroom and turned toward town, sure he would be able to catch a ride from someone driving by. It took him ten minutes to realize that the road must be closed because he wasn’t seeing any cars. Still set on going to town, Lucky continued to march down the pavement, telling himself he would camp on the brim of the road at 5:30 if he hadn’t reached civilization by then. What he did not know is that Gatlinburg, and every gas station, store and house, was over fifteen miles away. As the ranger drove up the mountain to our bathroom haven he plucked Lucky from the side of the road.
We were dropped off at the Microtel and graciously waved goodbye to the ranger. After cleaning up we all headed out to the local barbecue restaurant, a recommendation of Gator’s. He was also stuck in town. We walked up to the barbecue’s door and saw a handwritten sign. For the third time this trip we were denied at the door of a restaurant that had closed due to weather. Unsure of where to try next, the five of us walked another block further from our hotel where we found a Texas Roadhouse. We were sold on their unlimited peanuts and baskets of bread, of which we ate at least fifteen. We were all full to the brim and everyone except Tadpole had leftovers to take back to our micro fridge when the waitress asked about our desire for dessert. Both Nate and I said no, but Griswold ad Lucky decided to each get one scoop of vanilla ice cream. When she returned with two mounds of the delicious-looking treat, I was a little bit jealous. The waitress winked at us, “I told them y’all looked hungry!”
Zero days are not our favorites, especially when we are forced to take one instead of relaxing by choice. The road was still closed at checkout time and Lucky, Tadpole, Nate and I agreed to share our room for one more night. As previously planned, Griswold was heading home that day with plans to return to the trail shortly. Gator, who had been staying in a room by himself in a different hotel, would join us in her place. We did not know that the road would open back up in the afternoon, after we had already paid for our room.
Shortly after Griswold left Tadpole received an encouraging text message from her. She had seen Stretch! On her way home, she convinced her husband to drive past Newfound Gap so that she could get a picture. After she snapped her shot and her husband was pulling away, she felt the urge to turn around and look out the back window. When she did she saw Stretch crossing the road! We concluded that he must have stopped at an earlier shelter and not even seen our note the previous day.
Nate and I piddled around in town for an hour or two but we quickly got sick of the touristy tee shirt shops and overpriced souvenir stores. We missed the mountains.
In the late afternoon we got a text from the Franklins inviting us to dinner. Eddy had been one day behind us in the Smokies and our zero day allowed her the chance to catch up! Of course, we accepted.
When Mr. Franklin (Joe) let us know that we would be eating at a Japanese restaurant I thought it was a joke. We had previously discussed the fact that I did not eat foods that I consider “weird,” which is basically anything that I’ve never had before. He was not kidding and he offered to take us somewhere else when we inquired about his intentions, but I decided to bite the bullet. I’m glad I did.
The Japanese place turned out to be a hibachi grill, something I was willing to try. The ability to watch the cook make the food right in front of me eases my qualms with “weird” food quite a bit. Even though the dinner made me change my opinion on Japanese food, the best part wasn’t the meal, it was the company. Eddy, Nate and I laughed and joked like old friends and her brother, Jerome, provided entertainment with tales of tipping fast food workers and watching tourists take drive-by pictures instead of getting out of their cars at Newfound Gap.
Joe returned us to our hotel and we found our roommates huddled around a pizza, stuffing their faces. We put our leftovers in the fridge, knowing that we were not done eating. To surprise Lucky, Tadpole and Gator, Nate and I snuck out of the room and pranced down the street to the Walgreen’s. We chose two half-gallons of ice cream and jetted back to the room. While passing through the breakfast area we grabbed five bowls and five spoons.
“Surprise!” we sung as we flew through the door of the hotel room. “Is this trail magic?”
“Do you think we can finish all of this?”
Each of us ended the night with a belly full of ice cream and a head full of dreams of hitting the trail the next morning.
The Franklins carted us back to the trail in their pickup truck, which meant that Lucky, Tadpole and Gator had to ride in the bed of the truck, and it was not a warm morning. Halfway to Newfound Gap Joe slowed down and asked if they wanted to stop at the visitors’ center, thinking one of the buzzing tourists would be willing to give them a seat in their car on the way up. They said to push on.
The day could not have been more of a contrast to two days prior when we got off the trail. The sun was shining, the trail was (mostly) bare and the views were spectacular. We sat in our t-shirts on the edge of the mountain to eat lunch. Two days before we didn’t have the desire to delay our frozen, rainy hike even for the few minutes it would take to wolf down a snack.
Once when Nate and I were admiring the terrific views atop the narrow ridge lines, I caught a glimpse of what was below us. Peeking through the thorn bushes that lined the trail, Nate confirmed what I saw. Inches from where we were standing the land disappeared and what remained was a very steep, very long fall into a ravine. As always, he begged me to be careful and I paid close attention to my step until we were on a wider section of solid ground.
It had been hours since we’d seen the Franklins crawling up the trail behind us. We had crampons to deal with the occasional ice patch and they did not, so we walked a bit faster. At 2:30, we passed a shelter that was ten miles from where we had all started that morning. Afraid that Eddy and her father would stop there because of ice delays, Nate had a brilliant idea to make the additional five miles to the next shelter worth their while. He pulled out a piece of duct tape and stuck it to the sign. On it, I advertised, “Free foot massages 5.2 miles north!” Hoping that this would get them to continue their hike but not willing to give them massages, we included an already-expired expiration date in the fine print.
For the next five miles Nate and I jaunted down the trail, figuring our average daily miles and how many miles we would have to average each day to make it to Katahdin by July. We enjoyed the mental math challenge as Nate wanted exact numbers and he didn’t want to stop to use a calculator. Before we knew it, we had arrived at the shelter where Gator and Tadpole had been relaxing for nearly an hour. Two weekend hikers came in shortly thereafter, followed by Lucky. Everyone had made dinner and crawled into their sleeping bags when two more thru-hikers arrived. But still no Franklins.
It had already been dark outside for a while and Nate and I were worrying about our friends. We were sure they would push to this shelter but we had no way of knowing. And if they were still out in the dark, on the ice, with no crampons, anything could have happened. I assured myself that both Eddy and her father are smart hikers and that they would set up their tent in an emergency if necessary. We pulled two candy bars out of our food bags, setting them aside for the Franklins. And we waited.
Yawning, I looked at my clock. It was nearly eight. Just then, the tarp on the front of the shelter rustled. People were laughing. It was the Franklins! They had seen our offer at 4:30 and knew they had to push to catch us. At 5:00 they stopped to cook dinner along the trail. They continued to hike for three more hours, fighting the dark but drooling over the mountain-top views of the sunset and the cities below. They inhaled the candy bars we rewarded them with, assured us that neither of them like foot massages, set up their beds and said goodnight. It had been a long, lovely hiking day.
“Eddy, your dad dropped his glasses somewhere,” I announced as I stepped back into the shelter. He had discovered this after telling me that there was a “historical site” next to the shelter, but the sign really read “restoration site.” He and Nate began to tiptoe around outside while Eddy and I searched the shelter. Within a minute, Eddy had found the spectacles.
Nate and I were the last to leave the shelter that morning. We walked for a few miles before we caught up with Lucky, sharing laughs as he cleared the path to allow us to pass. Another couple of miles later, we stumbled upon the Franklins, sprawled out on top of a grassy knob, gobbling down a snack. They were just finishing up and Nate and I had a few clothing adjustments to make so we let them surge ahead once again.
This was another beautiful day and we were again down to one layer as we glided through the green tunnel of the trail. With dirt under our feet and splashes of sunshine sneaking through the full rhododendron branches we enjoyed every turn of the trail.
It didn’t feel very long before we found the Franklins eating again. Thinking they must be enjoying their lunch, we plopped down beside them and pulled out our dehydrated fruit. Before we had eaten three bites, Lucky entered the clearing and uncharacteristically decided to have a lunch, though he was done before the rest of us. A little while down the trail we caught him munching on sausage and cheese and this time we joined him.
All throughout the day we traded places with Lucky. First he would be leading all of us, then we would catch him. When we stopped for a snack break he would pass us. Eventually he passed us for good.
We figured we were less than a mile from the shelter when we heard an unnatural sound from around the next turn. Slowing my steps, I peaked my head around the corner. It was a group of college-aged kids chopping up some trees that had blown over, blocking the trail. The sound we heard was a hand saw. Grateful that these folks were volunteering their time to keep the trail clean, we were beyond words. Orchestrated by Mr. Franklin, we sang “Happy Trails” to the workers and thanked each and every one of them on our way toward the shelter.
The north-most shelter within the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the only one that still has a cage across the front of it. The chain-link fence was placed there to prevent bears from entering, although I would still be terrified if I awoke to a hungry bear with drool dripping from his fangs rattling the fence five feet from my head.
During dinner, Mr. Franklin heard a group of horseback riders clomping along the trail and he ran out to greet them. The shelter was situated in a ravine, so that Mr. Franklin could see them and hear their echoes though they were still hundreds of yards away. Hoping to make them laugh, he tried to shout them a joke:
“Knock, knock,” he called to them.
“Who’s there?!” they returned.
The last two lines were repeated countless times until Mr. Franklin finally gave up, worried that he may have offended the riders when he just wanted to amuse them. The rest of us taunted him from. The night was another full of laughter and friends, spent one mile from the north end of the park. We were home free.
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