We stayed at the Fontana Lodge the night before entering The Smokies. Muffin Man, WildCard, and I all shared a room. Q-tip elected to hike on into The Smokies instead of taking the day off in Fontana before hand. As our group continues to change, I’m at peace with meeting these incredible people and watching them go their own way. They’re hiking their own hike, and even though we’re separated, we still share a common goal that unites us.
My recent break up with Katie has still been weighing heavily on my mind, some days I’ll wake up and feel fine with how things are, accepting what’s already been done. Then other days I’ll wake up feeling miserable. I’ll question why I’m even out here, thinking that if I never would’ve committed to this hike we may still be together. In my heart I feel as though these are my weakest moments. That day in Fontana, I cracked. My pride got the better of me and I reached out to her. I knew it wouldn’t do me any good, I knew that letting things be was the right thing to do, but I texted her anyways. How can this be so easy for her? I selfishly thought. I was angry, dead set on confronting a problem that is best resolved by walking away. I’ve been here before, but apparently I haven’t learned from my mistakes. I’m never the best at taking my own advice.
We tacitly presume we know the right thing to do, and most of the time I think we’re right about our moral presumptions. Don’t call your ex. Don’t chase someone who isn’t chasing you. But even though we know this, we abandon reason and favor selfish pride more often than not. It wasn’t until someone looked me in the eyes and told me what I presumed to be the right thing to do, did I realize the invaluable quality of the words. WildCard and Muffin Man helped me break down a wall that night, metaphorically, of course.
“No one wants to be the person who loves the other person more in a relationship. It never works. You’ll get hurt over and over again.” That hit me hard. I swallowed my spit.
“The right person is going to be head over heels for you. And she’s not.” I hung my head and nodded in silence.
These are things I tacitly knew to be true, but was unwilling to let myself accept. In my weakest moments, pride and selfishness won. But hearing my friends tell me these things gave me clarity. The truth in their words hit me like a freight train, and I felt so small. Then we talked more; about our pasts, our dreams and aspirations, why we were out here walking well over 2000 miles through the mountains, our internal struggles that we hope the trail may alleviate, and anything we wanted to get off our chests. Things that would never be spoken of unless you were truly comfortable with someone. I felt like I was on top of the world, getting all my thoughts out and hearing my friends express themselves to me with such sincerity. Going to bed that night I felt like I was ready to conquer the world.
The next day we crossed the Fontana Dam and began our journey through The Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail stretches about 70 miles through The Smokies, but The Smokies in their entirety span about 800 miles worth of trails. It’s a sprawling national park that was in large part shaped by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s. Being one of the first federal job programs put forth by Franklin D. Roosevelt as apart of The New Deal program, the CCC employed three million workers. With a militaristic like work regime, men built roads, trails, shelters, campgrounds, and buildings all over the mountains. Their backbreaking labor is still able to be seen by all those who visit the park today.
The most poignant fact I learned while visiting The Smokies is that park visibility has declined some 60 percent in the past 40 years. Meaning that when you’re looking out from atop Clingmans Dome 6667 feet, you’re seeing roughly 60 percent less than those who stood in the same place 40 years ago. Research has shown that sulfates, produced by burning fossil fuels such as coal, are to blame for the widespread air pollution. While the mountains seem to exhibit an everlasting beauty that will be observable for countless generations to come, this is actually contrary to the stark reality of climate change. As we continue to alter our environment with the burning of fossil fuels, we should expect widespread devastation in various ecosystems all over the globe as the flora and fauna are forced to cope with the drastic changes brought about by a rise in global temperature.
Without digressing too far into politics and climatology, I shall return to my own experience on the trail, which seems trivial when compared to such a disheartening international issue. We climbed up into The Smokies on what was becoming a beautifully sunny afternoon, perfect weather for hiking. Things quickly turned grim about five miles in, as the wind began blowing at a rate strong enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Trees were swaying and creaking, forcing me to keep one eye on their massive trunks and one eye on the root systems that pervaded the footpath below me so I wouldn’t trip. As I walked, I envisioned a tree falling in my direction, but my keen eyes and quick reflexes would save me as I dove to safety just in the nick of time. This never happened, but the mental preparation was surely had. That night when Muffin Man, Wildcard, and I reached Russell Field Shelter, it was filled to the brim with other thru hikers and section hikers alike. WildCard was able to secure a spot but Muffin Man and I were forced to camp out. I awoke the next morning to find my tent shrouded in snow, and I unzipped my tent to find snow covering the ground all around me.
We spent that day walking through a winter wonderland in the month of April. It was beautiful to see the lush green cones of the coniferous trees juxtaposed against the white snow all along their branches. Walking through the shade of the evergreen forest as rays of sunlight glimmered through the treetops, the snow illuminated everything in sight. The beauty of the forest in this icy condition made me stop and audibly whisper “wow” to myself as I gazed at my surroundings. The trail remained easy enough to follow as the slushy tracks of other hikers led my way. That night became the first night I’ve ever slept in a shelter. One of the restrictions put upon hikers in The Smokies is that they’re forced to utilize the shelters whenever they’re not full. And when they are, hikers must use the designated campsites around the shelters. This is a contrast to the normalcy of being able to camp wherever you like. Thankfully shelters aren’t spaced too far apart, with the average distance being five or six miles between them. This restriction put forth is to help preserve the natural habitat, a respectable but sometimes annoying limitation.
I’ve always shied away from sleeping in the shelters. They belong to the mice and other local rodents, the hikers are but humble guests in their wooden abodes. I heard a story, probably a lie, that a girl sleeping in a shelter woke up to a mouse gnawing on her lip. I can’t confirm or deny the veracity of this tale because I wasn’t there to hear her screaming out in horror, but along the AT one hears many rumors that turn out to be false. Regardless, I prefer my tent. Being crammed up in a wooden shack with fifteen other dirty hikers coughing, sneezing, and farting all night seems like breeding grounds for sickness. This still seemed more appealing than pitching my tent in the snow, and I didn’t want to upset park rangers by pitching my tent by a shelter that’s only half full. I slept like a baby that night, no one snored too loud, and if mice were scurrying across my sleeping bag while I was dreaming, it went unnoticed. It was nice to be able to wake up and not worry about breaking down my tent, but it was ice cold, even from my sleeping bag. I retreated to the depths of my synthetic cocoon until it was time to face the day.
We ran into this hiker named Scarecrow at the shelter who we had camped with us previously on the trail. He walked with us that day and has been with our group in The Smokies ever since. We reached Clingmans Dome, the trail’s highest peak, and soaked up the 360 degree bird’s eye view of the snow covered mountains. Then we trudged down the mountain, slipping and sliding across the slushy ice covered trail all the way into Newfound Gap. Having heard the weather was supposed to drop well below freezing once again, the group agreed to get a room in Gatlinburg for the night, the tourist mecca of Tennessee. It was like New York City in the south. The streets were overflowing with pedestrians carrying coffee cups and souvenir gift bags. We resupplied at Rite Aid after eating lunch at Five Guys. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and a large fry, to which the woman taking my order replied, “the large fry serves four people.” I thought for a moment, looked at her and said, “I’ll take it.” I ate every last fry in that greasy brown bag and scarfed down that bacon cheeseburger like my life depended on it. “Serves four people” suites to my appetite nicely these days. If I were to eat like this back home, I would be too guilt ridden to show my fat face in public, gaining five pounds a sitting. But on the trail, exorbitant calorie consumption is of the essence.
When we returned to The Smokies the next day, almost all the snow had melted. Only a few spots remained where the sunlight had yet to tread. The trail was muddy and and dangerously slippery in the ice covered sections. My fast twitch muscle fibers were tested repeatedly, and they came through for me every time I nearly fell on my ass. At one point when I was daydreaming about my next meal our group came to an abrupt halt as we all heard muffled growls from off to our left. It sounded close. Everyone simultaneously thought we had heard a bear. We watched and waited in silence. We all turned to look at each other with eyes widened. We heard rustling in the bushes, but saw nothing. We slowly turned and walked on. When entering The Smokies, I read a sign that stated that, on average, there are two Black Bears for every square mile. They don’t want to be seen.
During my time in The Smokies, it was as though we had walked through two seasons in a week. During the first couple days the mountains were covered in a blanket of snow, and this blanket was swiftly lifted to reveal the green foliage below. Moss and lichen covered logs and rocks in shades of green. Red Spruce and Hemlock trees lay uprooted to expose the beautifully intricate network of roots that once supported them. It was particularly interesting to see these roots coiled around displaced rocks, some that must’ve weighed several hundred pounds.
Just before sundown on what was our last night in the smokies, our group, which now consisted of Muffin Man, Wildcard, Scarecrow, and myself, concocted a plan. Well, it was Muffin Man’s plan, I fervently supported it and the others acquiesced to it with little hesitation. We plotted to wake up at eleven at night, and hike nearly eleven miles to the Standing Bear Hostel and hang out there all day. The motive for our plot came when we caught word that there was supposed to be an all day torrential downpour starting in the morning. In an effort to avoid that, this idea was hatched. Get to the hostel before the rain gets to us.
This night hike wasn’t like the first. The sky was covered with clouds and you couldn’t even see the moon. If we didn’t have headlamps it would’ve been pitch black. We heard an owl, the shrieking of coyotes, and rustling in the bushes that brought us to a halt. I hoped it was a Black Bear. I wanted to see one up close, in a lackadaisical disposition of course. But nothing came of the obscure rustles and we walked on. Those eleven miles were exhausting. Maybe because I was running on four hours of sleep, or maybe because I had walked thirteen miles well into the evening prior to our night hike, either way, my legs felt like they were anchored to the ground and my back felt stiff and spastic. We came to a sign that marked our arrival at Davenport Gap, the northern boundary of The Great Smoky Mountains. We stopped for a moment to shed our packs and relish our exit. It was probably 4AM. I began feeling delirious when we arrived at the Hostel. At sunrise we were reunited with our old friend Q-tip, who started his trek through The Smokies a day early when the others and myself stayed behind. Exhausted, we greeted him with smiles and stories on the small porch of the hostel’s bunkhouse. I then laid down on the gravel road that led there and closed my eyes. Rain drops began pelting my face and I peacefully drifted into a dreamlike state, I didn’t have a care in the world.
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