Trail Update Four: Failed Hitchhikes, Five Guys, and Floods
I made it out of the Smokies with only a partial day of bad weather! Still feeling great, and I can’t believe I am in week four already.
Sunday, April 14: Day 16
My day off at the Fontana Hilton shelter (it has showers!) was a great idea, and I missed a whole day of terrible weather at the start of the Smokies. All the weather alerts warned about dangerously high winds above 3,500 feet, which is essentially lower than all the peaks I planned to spend the next week crossing. I didn’t want to risk anything blowing down, and I knew the camping would be cold even on a normal night, so better to skip and enjoy another shower and good food.
Quite a few other hikers had the same idea, and I met Ziggy, Booze Bag, Best Bear, Grinder, Mike, Ozy, his brother Spice, and a few others. The best new phrase of the week goes to Spice, whose old boss could “sell a ketchup Popsicle to a lady with white gloves,” which I found incredibly inventive. I also got some red wine at the Fontana General Store and split it with Frenchie (from Quebec), and we enjoyed a few patches of sunshine before the storm hit us. We got trail magic from an older couple (Lois and Cullen), who brought Bojangles chicken and biscuits. I had a few of the biscuits with honey because I love cards. Lois had plenty of stories to tell us about the locals, and she met one of the authentic natives in Deliverance (who has a great beard and a pet squirrel named Angel).
I read for a bit and turned in early as I wanted to do at least 12 miles on my first day in the Smokies, due to the shelter spacing. The hike looked like it would be straight up at least for the first few hours, which meant I wanted an early start. There was also a water snake in the shelter, but thankfully the guys chased him out with a hiking pole. Perhaps not as effectively as he immediately crawled up the outside wall and disappeared. At least there weren’t any mice.
Monday, April 15: Day 17
Why does everyone say the Smokies are tough?! I started out with some road walking and crossed Fontana Dam, which I believe is the first dam I’ve walked across. Earlier at the Fontana Lodge, I’d met Wanda, whose father helped build the dam. She is part of an organization called the Dam Kids, and they get together twice a year in Fontana as a sort of reunion.
Once I left the road and entered the Smokies, I had a great day and made it to the shelter I wanted to hit without much trouble at all, because the hills are graded for horses and are much less steep than I’d expected. During much of the day ice crystals were falling off the trees and hitting me, which was pretty and distracting depending on how large the pieces were. I was able to stop at an old fire tower and see the entire ridgeline from Fontana Dam on up, which helped add some accomplishment to the setting.
The shelter was packed, probably because a lot of hikers saw the weather warning and wanted to wait for more suitable conditions. In the Smokies, it’s possible to get a thru-hiker permit for camping along the trail, as well as making individual reservations if one’s hiking on a short section. The only problem is, the shelters fit 12-16 or so and there were probably 30 of us in the area. (The hiker bubble is real, and it’s annoying.) Technically, people with section permits are meant to take priority in the shelters, which seems a bit backward as we’re living out in the woods for six months and could use the break, while they are only camping for a few days. But I don’t make the rules. We managed to squeeze in 14 people or so and only had two section hikers, who complained a bit but helped make room. It was freezing in the morning, but someone had managed to build a fire in the shelter during the night to help keep some heat in.
Tuesday, April 16: Day 18
I changed my mind: the Smokies got hard! I pushed 18 miles so I could get to a shelter right before a good sunrise spot, and I was hurting. There were quite a few ups and downs, and the grading got steeper. Maybe that section hadn’t been used for riding? At least the weather was nice, which was a relief from the cold the night before.
Hops, Best Bear, Ozy, Grinder, Spice, Little Bear, and Burning Man were all at the shelter too, and we went through some wine and random candies from my food bag. All of us decided to wake up for sunrise at Clingmans Dome the next morning, which meant a 4:30 wake-up and a slightly under three mile hike in the dark. It was too tiring to write a lot more, and I went to sleep quickly.
However, given the mix of high altitude, wine, soup, and after dinner tea, I had to wake up around 1 a.m. for the obvious reason, and I was completely enthralled by the clear sky and stars. I don’t think I have ever seen such a gorgeous sky!
Wednesday, April 17: Day 19
I did manage to hit the 4:30 a.m. wake-up alarm before it went off, and I was in a bad mood. Perhaps the lack of sleeping, weird dreams, and wine the night before? I packed up quickly and started hustling on the uphill to Clingmans Dome, which was a harder hike than I expected but completely worth it once the sky started cycling through its morning glories. What did not work was making tea at the top to accompany the sunrise: windy in every direction!
One of the things that frustrated me during the day was how I leave camp earlier and see all the guys pass me, which is silly because 1) they have faster paces, 2) mostly longer legs (except Little Bear), and 3) generally similar or lighter packs on heavier body weight, all of which mean of course they’ll go faster! I worked on breaking the habit of comparing myself with other hikers and reminded myself to hike my own hike. Still gets to me sometimes. Also along the trail, we’ll commonly ask each other when we started to gauge our relative speeds: generally I’m on pace or slightly ahead, but that’s another habit I should try to break. It’s not a race! It’s a very, very, very long endurance test.
After the sunrise, I hiked with Hops, Little Bear, and Burning Man to get to Gatlinburg, which is an odd and touristy metropolis in the middle of the mountains. We took a little trolley to the grocery store, spent hours at Five Guys, stopped by a brewery, and then completely failed to get a hitch back to the trail! We tried different combinations of people (Little Bear + me seemed to be the most pitiful and harmless combo) but to no avail: the police actually pulled over to tell us hitchhiking was illegal, and we ended up splitting a hotel room for the evening. We spent $15 none of us had planned to spend, but we got to shower, relax, and listen to music. I also got a huge mood boost when an Instagram follower offered to send a snacks resupply box to our next spot, and we got excited thinking about all the food!
Thursday, April 18: Day 20
The First Baptist Church of Gatlinburg (or the area) runs hiker shuttles, and I headed there in the morning to hop back on the trail. I ended up in the trunk with a fellow NYCer named Wobbles, and we packed so many people into that van and into another car carrying everyone’s packs. The hike was another nice day in the Smokies (I think they’re hard only because of the weather, not terrain), and since rain was coming, we hiked about 16 miles to hit a shelter and position ourselves well for a hostel the next evening. I was looking at 18 miles in the morning, but the prospect of a roof and dry clothes was powerful. The terrain was gorgeous, and we did a short side trail to Charlies Bunion. Even the rocks started looking more blue and different.
After setting up at the shelter, Grinder, Ozy, Hops, Little Bear, Burning Man, and I split some leftover wine, chocolate, and other snacks while catching up and talking about our days. Another lower energy day with not too much left in me to write when everything was unpacked for bed.
Friday, April 19: Day 21
Well, the rain finally arrived and we got a taste of bad hiking in the Smokies. It was windy and pouring in the morning, and the weather was meant to continue all day long. Grinder had lost his poncho somewhere, so he rigged together my umbrella on loan, a rain fly clipped up to cover his pack, and parts of a garbage bag for a hat (we’re testing out Plastic Peter Pan or Triple P as an alternative trail name). I figured I would get wet anyway and at least I had a rain jacket, so probably no need to use the umbrella myself.
Once I got warm and moving, the hike was actually fine: there were huge sections where the trail turned into a river, and it was kind of fun to slosh around and hop through the different sections. The last two miles of the hefty 18-mile day were different: some deep river crossings (tiny stream now up to my mid-thigh area) due to the storm. I ended up catching Ozy at the first river crossing and had some company as we picked our way across. At the last river crossing we saw a high water trail and took it, which was good as it turned out Grinder had fallen in, lost both his trekking poles, and totally went under (he’s 6 feet, 3 inches). Probably wouldn’t have worked out for me.
The hostel, Standing Bear, turned out to be a wonderful mishmash of various huts and cabins, and there was a lovely hot shower. Ozy, Hops, Grinder, and I stayed in the “Llama Pen,” which was a very much unfinished wooden shed with someone living in the back room. Definitely not up to code, but we were warm, dry, and happy.
I heard from some of the Southern crew I’d started off the trail hiking with that they had to stay in the Newfound Gap bathrooms, as all the roads to Gatlinburg were closed due to downed trees. I’m glad we were able to avoid that issue, even if the town was odd to visit. Because the weather seemed iffy and we wanted to camp at Max Patch, Hops, Grinder, Ozy, and a few other folks decided we would take a zero day.
Saturday, April 20: Day 22
Today was raining in the morning, and not only was it our zero day, but it was also coincidentally the annual giant party Standing Bear and neighbors put on, so there was a huge evening potluck, bluegrass music galore, and plenty of camp fires. I helped finish some wine and did a bunch of dishes, which knocked my two-night bill down to $20. Not bad at all.
We got the snacks resupply box Kate (from Instagram) sent, and there were several hours spent eating various snacks around various campfires with different hiker groups. Some people didn’t want to take the day off and pushed through the rain, which seemed silly as they would be missing one of the best views on the trail at Max Patch. I definitely felt warm, dry, and happy, and I managed to get through some tea and read a lot. I also got to meet hiking personalities Miss Janet, who is generally known around the trail, and Odie, who runs the Hiker Yearbook.
Grinder took a turn during the day and got sick, which many people have been on the trail. Potentially norovirus, maybe some other stomach bug. Thankfully everyone else has been staying healthy.
Sunday, April 21: Day 23
I reluctantly headed out of Standing Bear (I see how people can stick around there forever) with the intention of camping on Max Patch to see the sunset and sunrise the next morning. The day wore on a bit, even though it was sub-14 miles and not even that hilly. My energy kept flagging, and I wasn’t sure what was wrong. For a while I thought I might not be eating enough, so I had some extra energy bars, and I hit some trail magic and ate more there. Later I realized maybe all the trail magic candy could be giving me a sugar crash. Plus, I didn’t have time for morning tea!
The walk was absolutely worth it when I hit Max Patch, because it’s so green and we could see for miles and miles! I had flashbacks to being in Ireland with my siblings because of all the green. Ozy rigged up a clever wind screen with his tarp (and in exchange I let him split my tent as he uses a hammock), and we made dinner and set up camp to stay on top of the mountain for the night. Best Bear, Hops, Ozy, and I caught a glorious sunset, along with random townsfolk who drove up for the evening. The mountain was extremely windy, but wearing a sleeping bag (and looking like a giant walrus, apparently) helped with that. I was quite pleased with my two-person tent as it turned out to be pretty roomy for us and some gear. Plus, the four of us tried to strategically pitch our tents so we’d be able to see the sunrise without getting up in the morning.
Monday, April 22: Day 24
We woke up at 6:20 to see the sunrise, and we had those tent angles down! Full viewing experience from our sleeping bags, and I was even able to make some tea without too much pain, which helped with the earlier wake-up. I also was pleased because the day’s hike wouldn’t be too long and would put us at the shelter right before Hot Springs, so the next day would be a short hike straight into a diner and hostel stay. Hops went on ahead to get more time in town, and the rest of us made it to the shelter by 3:30 p.m. I didn’t want to be tempted to stay two nights since I’d just done a zero day in Standing Bear, so the shelter was enough for me.
I also checked in on the average pace schedule Postholer.com puts out, and it looked like I was four to five days ahead based on my start date. That was a good feeling, especially because a few days before I was stressing because it felt like everyone else was moving faster. I’ve already brought my average up to about 13 miles a day, and it’s been less than four weeks!
At the shelter, we met Scout (who I’d actually met before; he was part of the sick crew at Standing Bear), and Turtle, who was doing the trail for the second time (last go he made it to Fontana Dam) after learning a lot from his first attempt. He started in early March and is still trucking along in style. I tried to eat what I could out of my food bag because I keep packing out too much, but there’s no hope. Maybe my hiker hunger will kick in next month, and anyway it’s a better problem to have than too little food.
In a stressful moment, I noticed a small rash on the arches of both feet. At first I thought it was poison ivy (but it wasn’t itchy), and then I remembered an old House episode about flesh-eating bacteria and worried that my feet would fall off. Ozy pointed out that it might be a heat rash, which made me feel better. Everyone went to bed happy because we knew it would be a short Tuesday with lots of food and drinks to come.
Tuesday, April 23: Day 25
After a short three-mile hike to Hot Springs, Ozy, Best Bear, and I dropped our packs at the Laughing Hart hostel and then eased into town to a diner to have a huge breakfast. The place was full of local charm, and we could tell which people were regulars and which were passing through. The diner was famous for breakfast skillets, which none of us got but I decided I might try the next morning on my way out. There were newspaper articles and memorabilia about a gentleman who was a great shot on the slingshot, and I guess he built an eight-foot-tall slingshot outside his house that said “Straight Shot to Jesus” or something similar? Might need to take a closer look on another visit.
We did laundry, showered, and put on some unique loaner clothes outfits and explored the town. I got a new box of tea from my favorite tea company, some new soup packets, and a tasty iced coffee at a local artist gallery and café. Hot Springs is absolutely worth a visit, even if we didn’t check out the actual springs at all. Ozy, Best Bear, another hiker, and I got salad, veggie, and pasta ingredients and made dinner so we could have more money for drinks at the local brewery, where I sat by the river and typed up this most recent edition of Katharine’s AT experience. (Some good porters to be found!)
Next installment coming in a week or two, as there won’t be a town for a while.
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Great read. Hike on! DMFINO
Appreciate the update – Nothing quite like kitschy/tourist trappy/red neck riviera of the Mts. Gatlinburg, in NYC I would wager. If it wasn’t your favorite place, you will also want to avoid Myrtle Beach, Tombstone, AZ, South of the Border and the list could go on….Happy Trails !