Stories from the Smokies and Beyond
Silent but deadly
Day two in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park felt like a marathon. The Smokies are beautiful but today was a treadmill up and down knob after knob. At lunch I asked Hummingbird to hike with me to boost morale. I felt exhausted.
I’d be warned about the challenge of the Smokies. But I wondered how challenging it would really be. We lucked out on weather. There was no concerns for snow or big storms. The terrain and elevation gained wasn’t of any concern. Maybe the Smokies are challenging because you hit the three week wall where your body feels… tired. A little tired of pushing through injuries, it yells at you to just stop. Yesterday I felt I got my trail legs and was flying. Today I was counting the miles and was hoping with every crest of a hill I could see the next shelter.
I was grateful to have Hummingbird’s company. He’s a kind, gentle soul named after his ability to identify any bird. He has a habit of quietly humming while hiking. He speaks in a hushed tone with a calming energy.
“So did you hear that bear last night?” Hummingbird asked me while I was horizontal on the ground after lunch.
“No. But the guy in the tent behind me said a bear came sniffing around our tents. I’m so glad I didn’t wake up, I would have been so scared.”
“Yeah… so….” His voice cracked as he looked at the ground.
Hummingbird began to tell me about his night with the bear. At 2 am, he heard it wander into the shelter area. Wide awake, he listened to the huffing and wheezing as it tromped up the knob and meandered to our tents. I was blissfully unconscious and unaware. Unbeknownst to me, Hummingbird was fighting for his life.
See, Hummingbird had eaten a rehydrated three bean chili backpacking meal that night for dinner and was navigating some particular gastrointestinal upset. He said his farts were so potent, he was afraid it was him who had lured the bear up to the shelter. He struggled to be silent as the bear circled his tent. He stayed absolutely puckered, trying to hold in the toxic bean gas so as to not invite further exploration from the bear.
I laughed so hard I cried. Then I laughed some more that night inside the shelter when the story intrusively popped into my head as folks fell asleep.
A lesson on the water cycle
For every down there is an up and I did start feeling better halfway through the Smokies. Climbing up and up brought a new landscape of spruce (I think) and mountain vistas reminiscent of the San Bernardino Mountains of California. The air smelled like a crisp Christmas candle. I hiked a couple hours with Iroh, a Thru hiker I had given my knee brace to back at Siler Bald Shelter. We discussed the heightened body awareness one gains while hiking. He noted gratitude for his legs and the necessity to be in tune with your body’s needs. It’s a constant puzzle— carefully tuning your water intake, calories, stretching, and resting— figuring out what your body needs to continue.
That night at the shelter there was concern about the approaching rain. Hobbit, Gromit and High Route came up with all different options of plans and miles should xyz occur with rain. I began to feel decision paralysis around planning out my day. I also felt anxious thinking about another morning of wet and cold. Amidst the slight panic Bumbleebee interjected:
“Tomorrow, I think I’m just gonna hike.”
We laughed, but it truly did settle my thoughts. Sonic rolled up late. Everyone in the shelter cheered. Everyone is happy to see Sonic Boom.
Woke up and it wasn’t raining. But heard 60% chance after 10 am. I set off high in the ridge line of Mt. Gyout. The wind was whipping the trees violently and I had thoughts of being blown off the ridge. The wind would come, building into chaos and then abruptly die down. The trees fell still as if it never happened.
I filled my bottle at a crisp mountain spring. I felt a drop of rain. “Fuck”. Then I felt the irony of drinking from the spring but dreading the rain. I can’t be grateful for the water and curse the rain.
“Thank you, rain”.
Goodbyes are hard
The view from Max Patch provided the opportunity to look back and reflect. I wish in life I took time to enjoy the summits, to look south in wonder at the peaks and gaps and the pure mileage we have covered.
I Facetime’d my Dad up here. A bittersweet feeling of wishing I could share even more of this experience with him. It is because of him I am able to do this.
The next morning I started hiking in the dark at 5:30. I wanted to get to Hot Spring early. Brian would be waiting for me there, ready to join me for a couple days before he moves to Idaho. The sunrises I’ve seen from the balds have been magnificent. But this sunrise was special. The brightening glow of the forest calmed my nerves. I was surrounded by a chorus of birds awakening. The lavender sunrise illuminated a field of trillium. The fragrance was intoxicating.
It was the second time I had been up on Lover’s Leap (just past Hot Springs) with Brian. We had gone up there the summer of 2020 while driving home from the Smokies. I remember passing two Thru hikers camped along the river. What did I think of the AT at the time? Had I thought about doing it? Did I think I ever even could?
“This is fucked.” I said.
“No, no, you gotta say it more light heartedly. Like you’re laughing at the situation.” Brian corrected me.
“This is fucked!“ I repeated, facetiously.
The cold rain hadn’t stopped in two days. I felt bad, this was Brian’s last adventure with me before moving across the country and I had hoped for better weather. But as always, Brian kept an optimistic attitude and level head even when I was terrified about being struck by lightning on the exposed ridge lines.
On our last day together, I had started crying the moment we hit the trail. Beginning the hike meant the beginning of our goodbyes. The emotions made my throat feel like it was closing so I wheezed up the mountain. I stopped crying eventually. Then we hit a view of a meadow that was so beautiful, it made me cry again.
Brian had been so calm these past couple days when the thunderstorms stressed me out. I felt so grateful he had joined me even if it meant he only saw the inside of clouds and no views.
I’d stop crying and then start again. We’d talk about random things; school, friends, and climbing. We got to the steep part and I knew the top was approaching. I cried harder. We got to the top and it was peaceful, covered in a thick cloud. Birds flew across the meadow. We said our goodbyes. When we set off our separate ways, we both turned and waved, twice, before disappearing into the fog.
Not long after we parted so did the clouds and the sun came out. I texted him that I hoped he had good views on the way down.
“Sorry to call you crying on Mother’s Day” I half laughed half sobbed.
“A lot of people go through these things on trail, I heard.” My mom said.
I was glad to have signal to talk to her while I hiked. I thanked her for the resupply package she had sent me. It was stuffed full with my favorite Trader Joe’s snacks and homemade dehydrated vegetable curry stew. It smelled like her house. I imagined her and my sister laughing in the kitchen while measuring out my oatmeal and curry into little wax paper bags.
I looked forward to the week ahead. I’d be hitting the Roan Highlands then Virginia and the Grayson Highlands. For every down, there is an up.
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