The One with the Smokies [AT Mile 165.9-239.1]
Day 18: 11.8 miles from the Fontana Hilton to Mollies Ridge Shelter
Day 19: 12.1 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter
Day 20: 13 miles to Mt. Collins Shelter
Day 21: 8 miles to Icewater Spring Shelter
Day 22: 12.6 miles to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter
Day 23: 15.7 miles to Davenport Gap
Day 24: Zero at Creekwood Farm RV Park
Total miles on the Appalachian Trail: 239.1
Entering the Smokies
After a great night in the Fontana Hilton, I set off across the dam and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I must admit to a little bit of nerves as I entered, I’ve heard many tales of terrible weather and deep April snow in this park. And our forecast was calling for rain for 4 out of the 6 days I would be within its boundaries. But I pushed up out of Fontana nonetheless and was soon enthralled by the mountains around me.
My first taste of the grandeur of the Smokies came from atop the Shuckstack fire tower. It swayed as we ascended, and the floor was doing a great impression of rotten wood, but the views were absolutely worth the risk of the whole structure collapsing.
Later, I rounded a curve in the trail, and discovered the forest floor on either side of the trail to be so densely covered in small white and pink flowers that it resembled snowfall in South Carolina— just a light sprinkling of white atop the leaves and grass. No picture would do it justice, but I will include my best one.
The Hiker Hunger Begins
I noticed in Fontana that I have begun to contract the infamous hiker hunger. Which wouldn’t have been a problem if the marina (the only resupply option that was open when I arrived) had had enough food. But unfortunately, on my first night in the Smokies, I realized that if I were going to be able to make it all the way through with what I had, I needed to tightly ration my food. I needed to get out of the Smokies in 6 days to meet my family on the other side, so I didn’t want to go into Gatlinburg to resupply and lose an entire day of hiking (and pay for a place to stay, Gatlinburg ain’t cheap!) So I divided my food into 3 snacks per day, with half of a pack of ramen for supper each night, to make my food last.
Over the next couple of days, I literally never felt full. And even while hiking across flat terrain, I felt very drained of energy. But I shrugged it off and kept hiking, committed to my plan. Until my friend, Vista, opened her genius mouth. She mentioned while we were at Clingman’s Dome (more on that later) that the next day, she and some others were planning to get in and out of Gatlinburg in just a few hours—not staying the night. I was already planning a short 8 miles for that day, so her plan wouldn’t make me late to meet my family, and would mean I could get more food. I jumped on board with that plan and immediately began stuffing my face with my previously rationed food. And wow what a difference it made.
I FLEW up and down the last 3 miles to our shelter for the night, feeling full and energized for the first time in 3 days. Feeling as amazing as I did after actually eating honestly made me a little worried in hindsight about how awful I had been feeling. I did the math later and realized I was only getting about 980 calories per day (the daily recommended value for the average person is 2000 calories, and as a thru-hiker, I am burning more calories than average each day). I feel perfectly back to normal now, with no lasting adverse effects from having eaten so little, but I will never ration like that again.
Clingman’s Dome and 200 miles
Before we cover those two things, I just want to take a second to explain the beautifulness of the trail leading up to Clingman’s Dome.
After leaving Silers Bald (there’s a Siler Bald and a Siler’s Bald on the trail, which is totally confusing), you enter a truly magical section of forest. The sunlight filters to the forest floor through the green needle canopy of hemlocks and firs in slivers of warmth only large enough to feed the moss blanketing literally every surface—tree trunks, rocks, fallen logs. It creates a beautiful composition of bright emerald green and deep brown, filled with the most delightful scents: rich, fertile soil, and evergreens baked in the warmth of the sun. Like Christmas straight from the oven. I took so many pictures, but yet again, the beauty just isn’t fully captured. At one point I just sat on a log for about 15 minutes, just looking and smelling. And this continued all the way to Clingman’s.
Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, and currently the 200-mile mark. And also filled with tourists. I have absolutely nothing against tourists, it was just weird because I hadn’t seen this many people in 20 days, and they looked at us like we were zoo animals. They’d stare at our grubby faces and oversized packs, sometimes sneaking a picture with their phones. Then one would approach and ask a question, and everyone would step closer to hear the answer, maybe asking a question or two of their own. I absolutely LOVE talking about the things I am passionate about, and the trail is one of them, so I loved answering all of their questions. I’m just not used to the staring.
On the morning of Day 21, me and five friends hiked 5ish miles to Newfound Gap where we were met with lots of trail magic in the form of food and a free shuttle into Gatlinburg (thanks FBC Sevierville!) The first order of business in Gatlinburg was lunch because no one resupplies responsibly when hungry. After much indecision, we finally picked Smith and Sons because it seemed to have everything you could possibly want, but then they said it was going to be a 30-minute wait (everybody and their grandmother was in Gatlinburg that day, it was a Saturday, during Spring Break, with a cheerleading competition going on).
We put our names down and then split up to each take care of our top priority. For some that meant beer, for others that meant a bathroom, for me and Woody that meant an arcade. We found one that was pretty cheap with a ton of different pinball machines (which we learned we are really bad at) and other games. We only had time for a few games before our table was ready, but it was long enough for Woody to set some high scores on Guitar Hero and me to fail miserably at Stranger Things pinball (yes the Netflix show).
Lunch was amazing. I had chicken and broccoli alfredo and the BIGGEST piece of chocolate cake I have EVER seen (and eaten). It did take two sittings (took it to-go and ate the rest while waiting for our shuttle back to the trail) but I did eat the entire thing.
After lunch, we hit up Walgreens for resupply, and then split up again, which meant Woody and I returned to the arcade to use the rest of our credits. We played a ton of games, but my top favorite was when we figured out two-player Guitar Hero. I was playing at a much easier level than Woody, and I still sucked, but it was awesome. And followed by the world’s best most solid high five ever.
Around 5 pm, we got a ride back to Newfound Gap where we hiked the remaining 3 miles to the next shelter. A good day full of great food and even better friends.
More Views, More Friends
The last two days in the Smokies were filled with even more amazing views, and I spent most of the time hiking with friends rather than by myself as I usually am. I learned all about the Australian Football League from Dingo, which is apparently like football, soccer, basketball, and rugby all combined. And I was thoroughly educated on musicals my uncultured self has never heard of by Woody. In addition to having people to talk to throughout the long miles, it was also fun having people to share the amazing views with. Sometimes I love the solitude and peace of hiking solo, but other times it’s wonderful sharing it with like-minded people.
On day 23, I hiked the last 15.7 miles out of the Smokies to meet my family for resupply and a zero. They hiked 1 mile in from Davenport Gap and met me at the shelter with trail magic for my fellow hikers. I got to introduce them to some of the people I’ve been telling them about, and my friends got to meet “The Monkey Toes Family” as Little John called them. After a while, we hiked the last mile to the car and drove to Creekwood Farm RV Park where my parents had parked their RV and I got to spend a lovely zero with my family, two of our dogs, and my cat.
See Ya Laters and Nice to Meet Yous
One thing I really enjoy as a solo hiker is the independence I have when making decisions. I only have to consider how my body is feeling when deciding how far to go each day, and I don’t have to make compromises to make other people happy. The downside to this reality, is that I meet a ton of really awesome people, hike with them for a bit, and then have to leave them because one of us is hiking at a faster pace, or decides to take a day off while the other continues. I’m only 3 weeks into my trip, and I’ve already had to say goodbye to many awesome people, but there are two things I’m learning that make this easier.
The first is that with the goodbyes often come hellos. Each time I’ve left (or been left by) people I’ve really enjoyed hanging out with, I’ve always met another group of people equally awesome in their own ways. For example, at Fontana, two of my friends decided to zero before entering the Smokies, but I wanted to press on. I was sad to leave them, but on my first night in the Smokies, I met a new group of hikers and ended up staying with some of them all the way through the park. Without leaving the first two guys, I wouldn’t have met these other people. This has become another perk of hiking solo—I can jump between groups of people, making more friends than if I stuck with just one.
The second thing I’ve learned is that our goodbyes are more like see you laters. This is a loooong trail, with infinite options of places to take breaks and sections to speed up in. I’ve already run into people in town and on trail I’ve left/been left by, and it is so exciting to see them again. It’s actually kind of crazy how exciting it is, because usually I’ve only known these people for a few days, and maybe have only spent a few hours with them. But the trail connects us in a way that bonds us deeper and faster than most things in the ‘real world.’ We have this shared desire, determination, and struggle that unites us. And now I’m seeing that the trail also reconnects us in ways we do not expect, giving us hope in the goodbyes that this isn’t the end.
I have made so many amazing friends since starting the trail, and I am thankful for every moment with each of them. And I hope for many more. In a similar way, I am sad to be leaving the Smokies, I’ve been so blessed with the amazing weather and views I’ve encountered. But I so am excited to see what lies next down the trail.
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