The Humble Smokies
I’m writing this at Standing Bear Farm Hostel. Three days in the Smokies, and I need to put my feet up. Here is what happened since the last time I wrote.
I was dropped off at the NOC at around 9:00. A little later than what I wanted, but luckily I had rested legs and a stomach full of calzone to get me through the day.
I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do that day. I was about 30 miles away from the Fontana Dam Shelter which is the “start” of Smoky Mountain National Park section of the AT. Did I have 30 miles in me?
I decided I would hike until I got too tired. If I’m short of the shelter so be it. Sassafras mountain was my first big climb of the day. It was about 3000 feet of gain spread over 5-6 miles with a few false summits. What I’ve come to despise of these Appalachian mountains are the false summits. They crush morale. After Sassafras is a gradual decline with some pointless ups and downs until I got to Jacob’s Ladder. I had heard people talk about this climb at the hostel I had stayed at the night before. They had hyped it up to be this intense climb. In reality, I found it to be quite easy. I definitely built up a sweat, but I think the combination of the hype and the fact that I had just tackled Sassafras resulted in this being a little easier. Also there were no false summits so I just kept my legs moving until I reached the flat spot.
Everything else from the day was downhill. And would you believe it, I was at Fontana Dam Shelter at the end of the day. My trekking pole tent was unable to be accommodated at Fontana’s cement tent sites, so for the first time so far, I slept in the shelter. Mediocre sleep ensued.
I was now at the entrance to Smoky Mountain National Park. My plan for the Smokies was to get through them in three days. Ambitious I know. About 72 miles with 23,000 feet in gain. I felt like it was doable.
Day one of my three day quest into the smokies started off with a grueling 2000 ft climb to Shuckstack tower. Following this was a gradual climb to Doe Knob. The trails I noticed were substantially smoother than the trails I had seen previously on the AT (especially Georgia, I still get flashbacks to Blue Mountain).
There was one more tough climb and that was to the famous Rocky Top. I was giddy to get to this point because I planned on playing the song on my phone when I reached the summit (Rocky Top by the Osborne Brothers). I started the climb and actually didn’t expect it to be that hard. I had just done Jacob’s Ladder and Sassafras the day before. This should be easy, right? Well, Rocky Top has that name for a reason and the climb is no different than the summit. I was jumping from rock to rock going up. Eventually I did get to the top and was able to observe the view. No smoggy smoke, no corn growing, and of course, no moonshine still.
I got to Derrick’s Knob Shelter in the early evening and was greeted to a packed camping area. Over friendly bears had shut down an earlier shelter. Bear had apparently stolen someone’s backpack. Yikes. I met two men, Brad and Carey, who were section hiking the Smokies. Brad, after learning that I hiked 24 miles, was generous enough to gift me a whole mountain house meal. Nine days on the trail and roughly 100+ miles covered and this felt like I was being fed a steak dinner. I’ve been eating ramen, pepperoni, and tuna for dinner the past couple of days, so I was feeling spoiled accepting the Mountain House. Carey and I had a pleasant conversation about the trail and future trails he wanted to hike (a section of the PCT), and the fact he lived in Washington State for a time. Moments like these highlight both an encouraging and unfortunate moment for me. One one hand, hiking this trail has introduced me to generous, kind people, who have supported me through positive words, cold drinks, free foods, etc. The trail highlights the humanity in all of us. However, I can spend no more than a few hours with most of these people as I have to make another 20 mile day the next day and most sane backpackers opt for a more enjoyable, shorter hike. The mountain house gifted by Brad proved to be super important for the next day. I wish those two Michigan men good luck on their future trips, and again, thanks for the time and trail magic.
I decided to sleep in until 6:30. I was only going to do 21 miles today because I had to scale the almighty Clingman’s Dome (highest point on the trail and third highest point East of Mississippi at 6600 ft). I got to meet the other faces at the campsite which included a cool group of Iowa boys section hiking. They had all been friends since high school, and they all just graduated from college. I got to watch them play a game of Euchre. I also met a sweet older lady from WV who had the trail name Dixie Chicken.
I needed to use a privy, so I started on the trail to find the next shelter with one. Six miles later I found Double Springs Shelter which fortunately had a very clean privy. There was a man at this shelter who offered me some advice on the future sections of the Smokies I was going to tackle. Essentially I had Clingman’s Dome and Mt. Collins and then the big climbs were over. Perfect. But of course, the world doesn’t always turn our way. For some strange reason, as I started the two mile climb up to Clingman’s Dome, my body just seemed to shut down. My quads and calves turned to jelly. I struggled to catch my breath quick enough to raise my foot up the next rock. It took my almost double the time to get to the top. Waiting for me at the top was a man named Ben and Elliott, two section hikers from Florida. I had met them the night before at camp briefly, and Elliot hiked with me briefly up Clingman’s. They were both going to Gatlinburg for a resupply and a zero, and to my luck, Elliot had some extra mountain house dinners and an energy bar that he no longer needed. He offered them to me and I gladly took them. Ben recounted stories of touring Washington DC when he worked there and gave me advice on careers after college. I departed them and wished them good luck on the rest of their trip.
I struggled down the rest of the trail. My legs felt depleted. But I had daylight, and I needed to get the 21 miles. When I got to Newfound gap, I was greeted by an older gentleman who saw how disheveled I looked. He brought me over to his car and told his wife to bring a cold water for me. As I started to make my back on the trail, he walked over and said he wished he thru hiked when he was younger. He handed me a box of cold cheese and ham and told me to get to Maine.
Hours later I got to Ice Water Spring Shelter. 30 plus people were at this site. I found a small space that I was able to squeeze into (thank goodness I have a 1 person trekking pole tent). My neighbors were a couple from Pennsylvania named Crow and Silkworm. Silkworm was a little bashful with this trail name so I mustered my Emperor Palpatine persona and told her “henceforth you will be called Silkworm.”
I now had a dilemma. I wanted to the Smokies in three days but I had about 30 miles left to do tomorrow if I wanted to do it in three days. And after what I did today, I didn’t think I would actually pull this off. I clearly didn’t plan well enough because if it wasn’t for Brad and his dinner gift to supplement my weak dinner, who knows if I would have made it to this shelter. Maybe I should do the smokies in four days. That would be safer and more enjoyable. But what’s a thru hike without taking a few chances here and there. Plus I had ace in my sleeve. Elliot gave me two mountain house dinners, and I still had my dinner for tonight. Could I throw all of my chips in for a big day tomorrow? Yes. I decided to go all in. I ate both a Beef Stroganoff and a Lasagna freeze dried meal. In addition I had a pack of Knorr rice meals with an additional two cups of rice doused in olive oil. The plan was to eat all of my food and reduce the weight of my pack. I will only carry a breakfast and some bars for tomorrow. I will also wear my puffy jacket to sleep to ensure my body doesn’t burn additional calories trying to keep me warm tonight.
I woke up at 5:30, used the privy, ate breakfast and zoomed on the trail. The light pack definitely helped as I got 10 miles before 10:00. The climbs were average but the descents were steep. By 12:00 I had already done half of mileage for the day. There was no doubt I was making it. I left the Smokies around 4:00 and started my way to Standing Bear Hostel. I wish there was more to report, but today was dominated by me speeding downhill. My hiking day ended around 6:00. I put my feet up and enjoyed a pizza and a coke.
The Smokies really kicked my butt. I was a little too ambitious and if it wasn’t for the generosity of fellow hikers I would not have made it. A day later and I’m still reminded of what that man I met at Newfound gap told me. I am very fortunate to be hiking this trail.
My Smokies chapter has ended, a little painful, but I got to see the majesty of this park. There is something mystical about the Smokies. From the fog that floats above and below the mountains to the intrepid black bears that inhabit its land. The jagged rocks and roots that shoot out on the trail to the steep gains and descents in elevation along its mountainous ridges. I will always remember the Smokies as a place of beauty and serenity. Walking those ridge lines in the morning and seeing the rolling hills below is sight seared into my memory. A place where I met some of the most generous people. I would not have made it out in the time I did if it weren’t for them. But above all else, the Smokies humbled me. Ambition alone won’t be enough for me to complete this trail. It’s going to take a lot more to successfully do this. What’s the more? I’m not sure, but I’ll learn as I go.
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