(Random view from the second half of the Smokies)
The First Half
Most of my low moments were at the beginning of the Smokies. The first day was uphill to get up to the ridge of the Smokies and the mountains looked the same as Georgia and North Carolina. On the second day the wind gusted at 25 miles/hr constantly and the mountains were still the same. Rain and winds as high as 45 were predicted for the third day. I woke up at 7 am and walked my slowest pace yet. At Thunderhead mountain the wind was almost blowing me over. I took lunch and 20 minutes later it was raining and soon I was soaked through my rain jacket. When I got to the shelter I saw tents up and I was worried I’d have to set up but there was still room in the shelter. I also got to see my friends Firecracker, Terrible Lizard, Tumbleweed, and Foot Long again. So far the Smokies were proving to be place where I had either short days or long days (there is a rule in the Smokies that thru hikers must stay in the shelters unless they are full), a time line to get thru them, and a place where instead of a privy there were areas called “toilet areas”.
The Scene Change
Although we were obligated to stay in the shelters they were in pretty good shape in the Smokies. They were made of stone with fire pits inside and most were wind protected by tarps in the front. If it hadn’t been for them my first few days could of been a lot worse and I was very lucky to get spots in them. The day after it rained things instantly became better. Although more rain was predicted the sun was peaking through the fog. After a mile into my walk the scenery started to change. Moss was covering almost every surface, evergreen trees became regular, grass lined the trail. There were even views of the surrounding mountains as I hiked up towards Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. When I got there I was blessed with a 360 degree view from the observation photo. I saw my friends going down the road to the visitors center and followed. They had gotten a ride to Gatlinburg. I was planning on going there from Newfound Gap, but one of the volunteers found me a ride I could not turn down, so I was soon being driven down through the giant mountains into the valley below and the tourist town I hadn’t visited for years.
That lucky day in Gatlinburg
The nice lady who gave us a lift dropped us off at the NOC. Once I hit town I was on a mission to get to the post office which was on the opposite side of town and closed in an hour. I hurried down the street towards the aquarium which was the main location for catching a trolley. I was wearing my pack winding through the tourist occasionally asking if I was going the right way. I took the trolley and got to the post office with 5 minutes to spare and shopped for cheese while waiting for the return trip. I hadn’t realized that Gatlinburg was booked everywhere and when I showed up at the hotel without a reservation I was told there were no rooms left. I must of looked stumped because the man told me there were two guys in a 4 bunk room and I quickly asked if I could sleep in one of the bunks. They agreed thankfully and I was super happy to have a place to stay the night. I was starving so after putting on my crocks I set off to eat at the first place I saw which happened to be Texas Road House. I had been craving a margarita for 2 weeks so I ordered one. When carded I pulled out my hiker Waller (a plastic zip lock bag) and the woman next to me at the bar excitedly asked if I was a hiker. Her name was Andrea and her husband Mike had hiked 600 miles of the AT. They bought my drink and offered to drive me back to the trail the next day. (Thank you guys! You’re great trail Angels!”) Afterwards I ate ribs and veggies and headed back to my bunk pretty content with all the luck I had run into that day.
The Second Half
The rest of the Smokies were a breeze. The lovely couple drove me back to Clingman’s Dome, where it was super windy and cold, but I hiked through it and was hit with some trail magic at Newfound Gap of sandwiches, which helped me get up the last hill of the day to stay at Ice Water Shelter, where I ran into the two cousins Moose and Raw again. The next morning I got a glimpse of an amazing sunrise and my water froze per the name sake of the shelter. The rest of the day was full of mossy fairy like forests and views of the valleys below including a pretty incredible view at Charlies Bunion. The next day was my last real day of the Smokies and I relished in every moment of trail. It was very chilly but the scenery made up for it and I felt like my hiker legs were finally coming in. There was a long steep downhill out of the park and as the elevation changed there were many white flowers popping out everywhere. As I got further down, however, it became the same leafless trees once again. I had one more mile in the Smokies to do the next day and that night there was one last campfire in the shelter provided by Lord Bearclaw, and I went to sleep without my sleeping bag liner for the first time that week.
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