The Real Deal: NOC to Clingmans Dome
What?! We are ACTUALLY doing this? I’m not sure at what point it hit me that we were actually starting our thru-hike. Maybe it was when a picked Jessica up at Huddle House in Franklin. Maybe it was as my sister drove away in my truck, leaving us standing at NOC with just what we were wearing and carrying. Maybe it was halfway up that giant hill coming out of NOC. Whenever it was, the reality is that we ARE doing this. For real this time.
In the beginning…
If any of you are avid AppTrials readers you’ve probably read about some of fellow blogger Jessica Georgia‘s adventures since her thru-hike “started” back in March. In short, she got off the trail because she lost her hiking partner. Well, we just so happened to connect and decided to hike together! Her husband and daughter drove her to Franklin to meet up with me. Since she’d not done the section of the trail around Franklin, we set out to hit some of the major landmarks. We did Albert Mountain and Wayah Bald, and another cool trail in the Standing Indian area called Pickens Nose that isn’t on the AT (but totally should be). We got to see a bear (on the side of a FS roads) and meet some thru hikers while we were out.
And We’re Off!
NOC to Sassafras Gap Shelter: ~7 miles
On April 28th at around 10:30am, my amazing sister dropped Jessica and I off at NOC and headed off in my truck. I headed into the outfitter for a passport stamp and to print off my Smokies permit. We planned a 7 mile day to get to the 1st shelter. I was worried about the elevation and grade because my fat butt is out of shape, and it was hard, but we made it! It was supposed to rain but ended you being sunny and hot. We had amazing views from the Jump Up, then had a rattlesnake sighting not far after. I was exhausted upon reaching camp and experienced my first ever stay in the shelter…. Not my favorite thing I have to say. Shelters are:
- Noisy – burps, farts, people rolling around, people getting up in the middle of the night, people coming in late, just lots of noise.
- Smelly – lots of burping, farting, sweaty people doesn’t exactly bode well for freshness
- Uncomfortable – shelter floors are HARD. Even my 3.5 inch thick Big Agnes pad didn’t provide comfort.
In short, I’d much rather be in my hammock. We did meet some cool folks at the shelter though. Superman (who we’d come to know much better later), Wrangler (because she got ran over by a Jeep), and Superfeet (who’s from Australia) were all in camp, in addition to others. Wrangler had her dog, which was a treat because I miss my pups badly.
Sassafrass Gap Shelter to Brown Fork Gap Shelter: 9.1 miles
Was again supposed to rain but we never saw more than a tiny drizzle. Coming down into Steccoah Gap we encountered our first trail magic! It’s amazing how such a small act of kindness can make such a huge impact on your mood and can affect your entire day. This magic was particularly well timed due to the impending Jacob’s Ladder. The soda and cookies gave us the push we needed to make it up without too much trouble. The trail magic was set up by 2002 thru-hikers Strong Fish, Loggerhead, and the Desert Rats (a couple).
I felt really good after this hike. Better than I did the day before for sure. I could probably have done more but we called it quits and I took the extra time to set up and adjust my hammock. No way I was going to spend another noisy night in a shelter. Some of the same cool folks ended up at the shelter tonight. Coyote (that’s her real name), who we’d spend most of the next few days leap frogging, was there, along with Waves and Carver, who is a fire magician.
Brown Fork Gap Shelter to Fontana: 11+ miles
Hammocking was a good idea. I stayed (mostly) warm and slept much more soundly. No hip pain this morning and no noise waking me up all night. I was glad I slept pretty well because this was going to be a big day for us. Over 11 miles to Fontana which would be our longest day yet. And it sure felt like it. By the end of the day I was beat. Made it down to highway 28 and could not go a step further. EVERYTHING hurt. Goldilocks spotted a vending machine near the marina and lit up like a lightbulb… That is until she realized it wouldn’t take her money.
I was trying desperately to get signal to call a shuttle, to no avail. Finally I spotted a phone on the wall of the public bathroom. A little sketchy but worth a try. The phone rang out to the lodge and they said a shuttle would be right there. We sat down to wait, and a few minutes later Superman shows up. We told him we had a shuttle coming and were trying to get a room for the night and he decided to join us. Forty-five minutes later the shuttle finally arrives and we get to town.
So, AWOLs guide is great. Not to knock it at all, but a few details are left out. Such as the fact that there’s a week long Mini Cooper convention held at Fontana Village every year about this time. Cool right? Of course. Except it meant that the Lodge and every other room for rent within a 60 mile radius was booked. We forlornly resigned that we wouldn’t get a room when someone came into the lobby and cancelled a honeymoon suite cabin… We’ll take it! We booked the room and happily bounded down to the restaurant for town dinner.
This Guy was waiting at the Grill. We’d been passed by him earlier and mentioned the possibility of splitting a cabin. We explained we had one, but only with one bed, and he agreed to join us. A salad, a soda, and a hot meal did wonders for how we were feeling. Headed out of the restaurant, we ran into Doodlebug who had not yet decided where to sleep. Upon hearing that we had a cabin, she said she’d go in on it if she could sleep on the floor. That settled, we headed out to find our home for the night.
no miles 🙁
Morning started great. The night before, Goldilocks and This Guy had bought breakfast foods so we woke up and they cooked while I headed to do laundry and meet Katie, our new hiking partner! Katie came down from Indiana to do a 3 month section hike with us beforegoing back to nursing school in the fall. We had to wait for the post office to open to get our resupply packages, and turns out the PO didn’t open at 8:30 like we were told, but at 11:45. By the time we got our packages and got a shuttle back to the trail, it was early afternoon. We had planned to go into Birch Springs campsite, but Goldilocks had a gut instinct moment and insisted we just stay the night at the Hilton and head up to the first shelter the next day. It ended up a good decision (more later).
Since we weren’t going anywhere, we decided to head back to town for dinner. A cool fella named Gadget wanted to join us so we walked up to the road. Not sure how to call a shuttle and with no cell signal, we were at a loss for what to do when two adorable Mini Cooper’s pulled up. Goldilocks wasted no time making friends and asking for a ride to town, and they obliged! Our first hitch!
In town, Gadget insisted on buying our dinner at the Lodge… Which isn’t a cheap restaurant. His kindness was overwhelming. He said another hiker had done the same for him and all he asked in return was to pay it forward. I’m constantly overwhelmed by the kindness shown by complete strangers out here.
Fontana Hilton to Clingman’s Dome: ~33 miles
We headed out Saturday morning with a grueling 11 mile day ahead of us. I was worried about my ability to do another 11 mile day, but what is there to do but walk? We headed out early and ran into a cloud of down at Fontana visitor center. Wondering what on earth was going on, I voiced my confusion. A lady walked up, also covered in down, and explained that the evening before, she and her hiking partner had planned to camp at Birch Spring Campsite. After setting up their tent, they took their food bags and cookware away from the tent area to eat and hang bear bags. While they were gone, a bear came, destroyed their tent and one of their sleeping bags, and ran off with their packs! We were completely shocked to hear this news and thankful for Goldilocks’ foresight to stay at the Hilton the night before. We headed off to face the day, thankful the two women had not been injured.
Today saw fantastic weather, Shuckstack Tower, and, wait for it, my first 14 mile day! Holy cow! The plan had been to stop at Mollie’s Ridge shelter but I felt so good I just kept on going to Russel Field. I blame it on the fettuccine Gadget fed me the night before. Katie and Goldilocks stayed behind with a plan to meet up the next morning when they came through. Honeybee, Cold Blood, England, the Germans, and Sterling (real name) were at camp tonight. I also ran into Chief and Toad, who have been married 35 years and are thru-hiking together. Wow!
The next day started out very pleasant. I had a 9 mile day planned, weather was beautiful, and we were surrounded by wildflowers. Then, we were surrounded by grassy fields and apple (I think) orchards. Then it was big grassy balds followed by Rocky Top. Finally it was a grueling descent down a veritable rock slide that left every single bone and muscle in my body aching. Still, I kept telling myself that this beats sitting in an office any day. I ran into Indy, who I met in Franklin before I started, on the way up a particularly steep incline. It ended up being the toughest day so far, and one of the most beautiful.
We woke early the following morning to head out for 10 miles up to Clingman’s Dome. It was a hard day but thoughts of town food and a shower kept us all in good spirits. My mom, aunt, and uncle came into town and were waiting on us at the dome to take us into Gatlinburg. A friend of my mom’s generously offered use of his condo while we were in town AND paid for our meal that night. Again, I’ve been BLOWN AWAY by the generosity shown so far during this trip. We decided to zero here and rest our feet and ankles before heading back out.
We hiked about 60 miles in 6 days, have now taken two zero days, have accomplished several double digit days, have met tons of cool people, saw a bear and a rattlesnake, shared camp with a deer and a couple of wild turkeys, spent three days walking through a swarm of dreadful, biting flies, are sore, stiff, covered in bug bites, swollen in places we didn’t know could swell, have grown to a group of FOUR badass lady hikers, and are ready to hit the trail again tomorrow. Next update most likely from Hot Springs!
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