We Make It To Gattlinburg
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When we get dropped off at the Nantahala Outdoor Center to start our day Becky, Wolfgang, and myself take a minute to relax on the benches overlooking the kayak slalom course. Kayak outfitters are having an expo in the parking lot. The place is buzzing with people of all elements moving about. We are slow to get started hiking after our down day.
Inside the outfitters store Becky and I check our pack weights once again. Mine weighs in at 26 lbs. I have one liter of water and nothing new but food. Becky checks hers and registers a hefty 31 lbs. Her new one pound chair, more than one liter of water, and carrying more food are blamed for the extra weight.
When we cross the foot bridge to Big Wessers BarBQ and Brew we see Alex is still here. He says Bison and Potato are eating in the restaurant and he is going over to join them. They rented a house with a hot tub the prior night at about $10 a piece. Their plan for today resembles ours; hiking to Sassafras Gap Shelter. They have been known to make ambitious plans as a group. I am not sure that execution is their thing. If it was we would have fallen behind them considerably.
Hiking Is Tough
The hike to Sassafras Gap Shelter is uphill from Nantahala. We start at an elevation of 1700 feet and climb, climb, and climb some more to just above 4700 feet. A day after you gorge on pizza is not the time to tackle this lil’ climb. But that’s what we did. To be fair it didn’t matter what we did the day before, this was a tough hike. Then we get a little downhill before ending around 4300. It was a gruesome way to come off a zero.
I double-timed the last mile of the hike to try and beat a group of people to the shelter area. The flat spots for tents go fast when a new group of hikers start to hit the same spots as us for a couple nights in a row. Right at the shelter blue blazed trail head Wolfgang had setup shop. It was starting to rain and I put our tent right up next to him. It could have been too close on a regular camping weekend anywhere else. The ground was flat and Mother Nature was forcing me to make a quick decision. Although no apology was really necessary. We all know by now the flat ground is at a premium when a large bubble of tents go up on a mountainside.
We are in the tent lying in bed before dark falls. The weather overnight was the first time I was comfortable sleeping in my boxers. I also found a new use for the hooks on the inside of my tent doors. They get to hold clothes under the vestibule overnight to help them dry. A clothesline is becoming a valuable tool on the trail for me. With so few changes of clothes you don’t want cold, sweaty choices.
Waking up on my air mattress is always nice. It has done the trick for the first 150 miles. Oh man. The reality sets in that the equipment in use has only been used on a little less than 7% of the trail. Not even the 10% standard testing percentage I would use in my working life. I feel good about my choices in gear so far but understand that the final verdict is far from decided.
Plans Always Change
Becky and I get a slow start with the new day. Good news is water and privy were both a short distance away. Wolfgang gets packed up and leaves first. Becky, me, and Alex are almost the only ones left from a full shelter area the night before. Bison and Potato make the hike from where they stayed the night before and join us.
The plan today is to go nine miles. Becky keeps bringing up a cabin that she says is better than the bare bones bunkhouse we stayed in a couple nights ago. It boasts a resupply run and the thought of hot dogs, steak, and Potato claiming she is cooking homemade mac&cheese has us all thinking. Alex wants the miles but the notion that it is going to be cheaper to resupply now than in Fontana sways him.
Becky and I go about five or six miles and wind up at the pickup parking area for the cabin. There already are a few other groups here enjoying the picnic tables. Shortly after making a call Becky and I are picked up and whisked away to the cabin. The older gentleman with short silver hair and beard who picked us up was very confident in his ability to drive the curvy mountainous roads and he made his vehicle prove its worth. We get to the cabin and Becky and I claim the one bedroom on grounds we are the only couple staying there that night and most importantly in a hiker argument; we got there first.
Potato, Bison, and Fluffy Puppy catch the shuttle an hour or so later. For a moment at the cabin it was lousy. Full kitchen, grill, no food, no drinks. The confident driver told the last three no shuttle into town the remainder of the night. Then everything changed. The wife of the confident driving gentleman was going into the grocery and had room for three. Becky and me stayed back and made sweet tea while the others went to the store. They came back with hot dogs and steak just as we dreamed earlier. Potato had everything she needed to make mac & cheese. We feasted for the night.
We awake to a plan of some sort of slack packing. We get dropped off at our last location on the trail and hike to another location then get picked back up for another nights stay in the cabin. Problem with slack packing without experience is that you don’t know what to take and what to leave back. We rushed so much after breakfast to get packed for slack packing because all of a sudden that was when the confident driver shuttle was ready to go that we left too much behind. Bad decisions on the trail are punishable offenses.
Our slack pack experience starts off like any other hike, with an uphill climb. The forecast is possible rain with high winds. The wind was constant. Then the rain came. I was in shorts. It was cold. My slack pack contained some snack foods, water, and toilet paper. My lack of preparation mirrored our whole group.
We made it as a group to the next shelter. When we stopped hiking and the wind picked it up a bit it got real cold. Sitting still I was freezing. Becky asked a couple other hikers if they would rent out their sleeping bags so she could get warm but they didn’t take her seriously. Even after she said, “I’m serious!” We back ourselves into the corner of the shelter but the wind still makes it back there. Becky had the foresight to bring her emergency bivy and she breaks it out. She gets in it first and then I squeeze in. Alex looks at us. I think he needs something to keep him warm also.
Hard Lesson Learned
I’m about to fall asleep when part of our shelter crowd let’s out a cheer. Becky asks enthusiastically if it’s the sun coming out. It is and we waste no time in finding direct rays to shower our bodies in. Alex says what we all felt when he states that he thought he could have gotten hypothermia right then. We start to hike to help our bodies warm up and try and cover the miles we want to do before getting picked up.
The time spent hunkered down at the shelter zapped our time. The near hypothermia zapped our collective gung ho. At a parking area short of our goal we called the cabin shuttle for pickup. The confident driver seemed unamused with our hiking prowess. That night, dry and warm back at the cabin, we feasted again with a large garlic bread addition to the same food from the night before.
Who Was That
The next day we schedule our shuttle back to the trail at 10:30. I call to reschedule it for 11. After reminding me that checkout is 11 and it can’t be after that I proclaim, “Then 11 it is.” As the shuttle shows up promptly at 11 I am the only one ready to go. The drive, as you can imagine, goes quickly. The shuttle driver spins the vehicle in the the loose gravel of the parking area, the doors including the tailgate fly open, out fly us and our gear onto the side of the road, and without stopping the confident driver just keeps barreling back down the road. We spent so little time together I forget his name.
Nancy Drew Knows All
Today we walk to Fontana Dam, NC. Our second resupply box from my mom should be at the Fontana Village General Store. Once again we make our hike just in time for the last shuttle in from some boat dock shuttle telephone. The phone is on the outside of a boat dock bathroom the trail passes nearby. Somehow Nancy Drew knows of its existence and makes a call from it. A van quickly picks us up and deposits us at the General Store and Post Office right before closing. Boom! Resupply box is loaded with goodies.
Alex is with Becky and me. While I stuff snacks in my mouth Becky states that this is the place where we possibly agreed to share a cabin with Wolfgang. We have not seen him the last two days since before our latest cabin adventure. Seeing someone after two days is an event. Both Alex and I each buy a 12-pack of Bud. Nancy Drew somehow has directions to Wolfgang’s cabin from the shuttle driver or the lady at the grocery or possibly that strange phone. I don’t know how she finds these things out.
Everybody’s Hike Is Different
It’s a short walk to Wolfgang’s cabin. Or what we think is his cabin. We sit on the front porch and drink beer while watching the Mini Cooper club members who are in town ride around the village roadways. When Wolfgang walks back from dinner he is delighted to see us. We learn of his last two days struggle. He somehow got on another trail and walked a mile and a half before coming to a dead end. Then his estimate for the cabin he thought was a total turned out to be a per night charge. His last two days almost made him quit and go home.
Stay Calm And Hike On
The next morning Wolfgang is feeling good about a zero. Becky, Alex and me feel like hiking and saddle up with the Hungry Hiker Breakfast from the local restaurant. We say our goodbyes afterward, and tell Wolfgang he can’t quit, before catching the General Store shuttle back to the trail head we left off at. We walk only a mile before running into the Fontana Dam Shelter. The shelter is nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because it boasts a separate building that has both men’s and women’s bathrooms and showers, a solar charging station for your electronics, running water beside the shelter, room for 20, and a great view of what I think would be named Fontana Lake.
Bison and Potato are there. They, along with Becky want to stay. I can’t feel good about a one mile day. Alex seems like he is torn. The weather is rain all over the place very soon. It takes much convincing to get Becky on board. The good weather to hike in wins out but our desire to party at the Fontana Hilton eats away valuable sunlight time during the decision process.
Our hike starts with us walking across Fontana Dam in the sunlight. We stop to ask a couple guys on motorcycles to fetch us a six pack of beer but they decline our request. We again waver on our journey. Cold beer is only a mile back at the Hilton. To proceed is to intentionally not have beer.
We go a little farther and come upon the thruhiker pass deposit box. The Great Smoky Mountains require thruhikers to register and obtain a pass. You deposit half the pass when you enter the Smokys in this box attached at the trailhead. The other half remains on you in case a park ranger requests it. Both are dated with your entry date into the Smokys. In theory, they want you to hike through the Smokies in eight days. In practice, it takes a little longer sometimes.
We deposit our passes and into the Smokies we go. No beer for us tonight. We must make a designated camp area or shelter because there is no stealth camping allowed. Stealth camping is when you just find a flat spot somewhere off trail and setup shop. All of the daylight we wasted comes back to bite us as we have to do our last hour in the dark.
Even with Alex’s headlamp going out we make the campground without trouble. Some hikers greet us from the communal fire and we get directions to open campsites since it is dark. We find flat spots and start to setup. Full of adrenaline from our first night hike we must have been to loud because someone yells for us to be quiet. It might be 10 o’clock. Hiker midnight is usually 8pm. We finish setting up and then Alex and I struggle with locating and opening the bear box. We move to the bear cables after determining that the bear box is locked and not in use. Rolling into camp after dark certainly complicates things.
Where Did The Warm Weather Go
The next day we blast out just over 11 miles. The wind is fierce. There is some rain. We settle in late at the Spence Field Shelter. It has a tarp covering the shelter opening to block the wind. Only three people other than us are holed up there that night. The next morning Becky, Alex and myself are by ourselves. The shelter has a fireplace so we build a fire to dry our clothes and boots.
The forecast doesn’t look good: snow, rain, cold temps. I feel confident with Becky and I having our full packs at our disposal. Alex and I continue to get firewood to feed the warmth of the shelter. All three of us move before others show up to the top floor closest by the fireplace. As others begin to trickle in they start to gather more wood for the fire. I crawl in bed after our first zero without going into town.
When we wake up there is snow on the ground and ice covers most everything. We know the only thing to do is keep moving and everything will work itself out. After hiking six miles we come to a shelter that’s packed full for the night. We linger long enough to score a couple regular size Snickers candy bars from a trail angel staying in the shelter that night. The next shelter is almost five miles away and that would give us another 11 mile day.
Have To Adapt
Becky and I commit to the additional five miles hoping to find shelter space instead of stopping at the full shelter and tenting nearby. The hike is a walk through a mud slushy. Since we keep moving we don’t get cold. We make the shelter just before dark. It is also full. Shit. Alex is there and committed to the floor of the shelter. Becky claims the last spot on the floor and I say I’ll tent next to the shelter. Only one other tent is on the other side.
I set the tent up on snow in the dark. After making sure no food and no anything else with any smell is in the tent I hang my food bag. I catch deer in the fog with my headlamp just feet from where my tent stands. The deer are not concerned with me being so close so I find myself ignoring them back. Inside the empty tent I find some quiet time to catch up on the blogging.
The next morning I have to shake off ice from both the outside and inside of the tent. My sleeping attire did not let me down and kept me warm regardless. One of the most crucial things we have learned on the hike is that by all means necessary each person has to have one dry change of clothes and a dry sleeping bag for nighttime. Without dry clothes it gets dangerously cold for us feeble humans.
The hike to Clingmans Dome isn’t very long but the melting snow has the ground saturated and it continues to be a muddy, slushy mess. We make a fateful mistake by stopping at the last shelter before Clingmans. A Ridge Runner is there checking on the shelter and finds an abandoned backpack and sleeping bag. He is looking for some help in carrying the items out and I offer assistance.
My job will be to carry the left behind sleeping bag out. Sounds easy. It was not easy. As I tie what is now the heaviest item I have to the top of my pack the Ridge Runner offers me a karma necklace for helping him out. It is a worn Appalachian Trail necklace that I can pass along to the next person who does something for the betterment of the trail. Of course, I wonder how much it weighs.
The sleeping bag now throws my dimensions off. After a month of hiking I have gotten used to the height of my regular pack. As I now try to pass under branches the sleeping bag hits the limb and dumps whatever melting snow remains down the back of my neck inside my jacket. I have to wear my rain jacket hood up to avoid the cold sensation for the remaining miles. The only reason I don’t throw the sleeping bag off the mountain is the karma I’m banking.
Once Becky and I make it to the Clingmans Dome parking area Alex has already lined us up a ride into Gattlinburg. Two ladies who we have already seen on the trail before take us to Walmart to resupply, then McDonalds, and then drops us at our hotel. We have survived our first month on the trail.
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Good to see you all having your time. Do you think you are going to make it to the end in 6’ish months?
Take care and stay warm.
Great blog James! I enjoy reading about the trek.
Stay dry. Stay warm. Stay thirsty my friend!
Great to hear you and Rebekah are on our beloved AT. I ran into Barbara and Uncle Jimmy at dad’s (your Uncle Joe) surprise 75th bday party this past Saturday, May 20th. Lisa (my sis) mentioned that you were hiking. I thought I’d shout out and give you all the encouragement I can muster. As you might or might not know, Lydia (my wife of 25 yrs this July) hiked roughly 700 miles of the AT in 00′. We started at Springer then flip flopped at Erin, TN hiking south from Katahdin to NH. Our trip was cut short due to a serious illness of a close friend. Anyway, we are very excited for you and I am particularly jealous. I think of the trail everyday. Every. Day. It’s a life changer. Be safe. Wash your hands. Peace be with you both.