The Good, The Bad, and The Great Smoky Mountains

Let’s see…where did we leave off? We left the B&B in Robbinsville and finally had a beautiful day to hike, starting with a six hundred foot climb in less than half a mile called ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ (think the bipedal version of Lombard Street in San Fransisco). The next day was rainy and we needed to catch the shuttle to Fontana Lodge to check for Shane’s package, which had not yet arrived. Well we were already there, and they had a restaurant, so of course we stayed for lunch. And then we overheard some other hikers discussing an upcoming storm with supposed gale force winds and golf ball-sized hail. Well we were already there, and they had cheap rates for thru hikers! We got a room in the lodge, which was fancy by our standards, and waited out the storm.

Fontana Dam behind Travis and me

 

The next day we crossed Fontana Dam and officially entered Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which includes a 75 mile section of the AT that requires a permit and must be completed within 8 days. There’s only one official camp site within this area, and otherwise hikers are required to stay in shelters. You are only allowed to set up your tent if the shelter is full, which it always was, with one exception. At Spence Field Shelter we arrived before the shelter was full, and slept in it with about ten other people, side by side in our sleeping bags on two levels of wooden bunks like we were kids at summer camp.

Back when the AT was less popular than it is today, I imagine most people slept in the shelters along the way. I’ve read that some hikers did not even carry tents because they could always rely on sleeping in a shelter. These days that is no longer the case. Every shelter we’ve been to has been full, with many people setting up tents where there didn’t used to be campsites. Sleeping in shelters is more convenient than tenting because you don’t have to pack up much in the mornings, and if it rains, you don’t get wet! Some shelters, especially in the smokies where it’s usually cold, even have fireplaces built in and tarps hung as a fourth wall, which is cozy. It’s a more social atmosphere than tenting, which some people enjoy. However, more people in a tight space also means more noise, which is why I prefer to sleep in my tent. During our one night in the shelter I woke up every time someone snored, rolled over, or got up in the middle of the night. Plus, shelters have a reputation for attracting mice that may chew on your gear, and we even passed one infested with five- to six-foot long black snakes writhing beneath the floor of the shelter, presumably feeding on those very mice.

Hikers seem to be divided into two camps (pun intended): those who prefer tenting and those who prefer shelters, if they can get into a site early enough to claim a place in one. Regardless of preference, hikers this year are acknowledging one thing in common: shelters and campsites are consistently filled beyond capacity. Bear bag lines are weighed down with hundreds of pounds of food, likely putting them within reach of most bears. Privies are filling too quickly to compost properly. When good tent spaces are taken, tents are put up in new, virgin areas, mashing down grasses and wildflowers to make room for more people. Even in the backcountry, there is still overcrowding. There are many volunteers who work hard to make these sites and the trail safe and comfortable places for hikers, and I’m sure they too are perplexed by this dilemma. Of course it’s great that so many people are showing an increased interest in the parks, the trail, and in appreciating nature in general, but when does the influx of visitors impede the wildness of the wilderness?

GSMNP is the most visited of all national parks, so it makes sense that there are more regulations here than for any other portion of the AT. Shelters had signs saying bears had caused injuries and death in this area, so we made sure to follow all of the guidelines designating where we could cook and eat, so as not to leave any traces or smells of food near our tent. We also saw lots of signs saying ‘keep bears wild’ because the issue with bear attacks is not that black bears are vicious human-seeking creatures by nature. Rather, humans have entered their habitats so often and left so much trash and food waste that the bears have learned that humans are a source of food. I learned a lot about the parks system and about the effects of human interference while in the smokies, which has made me really appreciate Leave No Trace practices and efforts by park employees and volunteers to keep the parks wild.
 

Warning signs in the shelters

 

We really did have a wonderful time in the Smokies. The park is actually considered a temperate rainforest and averages 55 inches of rain annually, but fortunately we did not see any! We had great weather the entire time, cold but bright and sunny, which allowed us to experience the best views of the mountains. We hiked through pine forests and grassy balds, and experienced the peak of wildflower season. At first glance it appeared as though a light dusting of snow covered the forest floor, but upon closer examination, one could see that thousands of tiny white and pink striped wild flowers, called spring beauties, were blooming in unison. There were trillium in varying shades of pink, white, and wine red, yellow buttercups, violet dwarf irises, pink lady slippers, and tiny bluets everywhere, blanketing the ground. Spring had sprung in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Spring Beauties everywhere!

 

Shortly after entering the park, we summited Clingman’s Dome, which is the highest point in elevation on the entire trail, at 6,655 feet. We arrived from the trail while tourists walked the paved approach from the parking lot huffing and puffing about how steep it was. If only they knew!

At Newfound Gap we were greeted with trail magic in the form of sandwiches and a ride into Gatlinburg from some very kind ladies from Noah’s Ark Widow’s Ministry. The town was much different than I recalled from my childhood. It was almost as if the boardwalk from Myrtle Beach had been plucked from the beach and nestled between the Smokies instead. It was the antithesis of the trail: swarms of tourists crowding the sidewalks, t-shirt shops, bars blaring country music, candy stores, moonshine tasting tours, putt-putt courses, and about two hundred places where you could have your photo taken while wearing old-fashioned clothes and poised with a plastic revolver in front of a saloon backdrop. It was overwhelming after having been in the woods for so long. The only trees visible from the main strip were miles off in the distance. Where were the chipmunks and the wildflowers? Didn’t people visit this area to see the scenery? The raw beauty of the mountains seemed to be lost on the tourists.

The one thing we could not find in Gatlinburg  was a grocery store to resupply. We ended up having to take the last trolley of the evening (yes, they also have trolleys) to a store miles away and walking back to our hotel after dark and carrying arm loads of food for the upcoming week of hiking. When all was said and done, we’d probably walked over ten miles throughout the day. So much for our Nero day. We were more exhausted than when we’d arrived in town, and decided to stay another night for only our second actual zero day of the entire trip.

The second day was much more relaxing than the first. We showed a breakfast buffet who was boss (is four plates of biscuits and gravy too many?) and even caved in to the tourist atmosphere and played mini golf alongside the visitors. We only got a few sideways glances at our hobo-esque baggy, permanently dirt-stained hiking clothes.
 

Shane and Travis enjoy a bit of beer in Gatlinburg. Also, Shane’s beard has a mind of its own now.

  

Time for some tourist activities!

Making time for what’s truly important: Big Buck Hunter

    

Oh did I mention the giant donuts? This was after the breakfast buffet.

Back on the trail, we prepared to amp up our mileage, traveling out of the smokies and nearly 70 miles in the next five days. We had increased our daily average to 14 miles per day, which was a big improvement from the 8 we averaged in our first couple of weeks.

On our way to Max Patch we ran into trail magic from a blues band called The Accomplices, comprised of some thru hikers from 2008. They were visiting the upcoming trail town of Hot Springs, NC for a music festival and had food and beer from their hometown of Savannah. It was a grand party, where we stayed for over an hour catching up with hikers, eating, drinking, and listening to the band play. Then on to Max Patch, which is a grassy bald with a gorgeous view of the surrounding mountains.  It would’ve been a beautiful place to camp for the night, but we decided to push onward a few more miles so that we could make it into Hot Springs a day ahead of schedule.

And here we are! We were lucky to get a room at Laughing Heart Hostel, considering most every place was booked on account of the music festival. For those of you keeping track, we’ve now hiked 274.4 miles, which leaves only 1914.8 to go!

  

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Lessons Learned in the First 10 Days

Pre-Approach Trail…not even sweaty yet!

The day before we officially began our trek, we stayed at the Amicalola Falls Lodge, which required a 3/4 mile steep uphill climb on a breezeless 80 degree day. We stumbled over rocks, wiped sweat from our eyes, and adjusted our too-heavy packs every couple hundred feet. We hadn’t even made it to the unofficial start of the trail and we already felt like we were being pushed to our limits. What had we gotten ourselves into?

The next day, Day 0 (since the trail doesn’t actually start until the summit of Springer Mountain) proved to be more strenuous, of course, since it was 8 miles of literally climbing to the top of a mountain. It was a tough day with a rewarding view from the summit (see above). We had finally made it to Mile 0! We set up our first camp near the summit and realized maybe we should’ve ‘practiced’ camping a bit more…We had a lot of logistical questions that we had never considered. Should one wash out a cooking pot with sterilized water? How far away should we walk to brush our teeth? Can bears smell Chapstick? Luckily we weren’t the only unseasoned hikers. In the end, we decided to put anything remotely scented into our bear bags.

We woke to a snow-covered ground. Travis’ thermometer read 18 degrees, for which we were unprepared. Packing up our gear in freezing temperatures is infinitely more difficult than in nice weather, but not quite as bad as packing up in the rain, which we would soon learn.

Our muscles were already sore from one day of hiking. We were later told by a park ranger that the approach trail is really just to weed out the early quitters, and I believe it! It certainly was not easy. We met our first Trail Angel, Mountain Squid, at the base of Springer, where he was giving out juice boxes. He said many people had already asked him if he would drive them into town because they were leaving the trail for good, before it even really began.

Day 1– We hiked through a section of a fairly populated park where we detoured a bit to see a Long Creek Falls. We stayed at Hawk Mountain shelter, where there were so many hikers that the bear bag lines hung so heavy with food bags that they were only suspended ten feet off the ground-I presume easily reachable by any bear who could stand on two legs. Lesson learned: if there are enough people camping to populate a small town, bears probably won’t come close.

Day 2– We hiked up and over Sassafras Mountain, and at the bottom were met by Courtesy, another Trail Angel who had set up a food station with snacks, hot drinks, and weather reports and maps for the few miles we were about to enter. We were quickly learning that Trail Angels can really make your day! We stayed at Gooch Mountain shelter, where it poured down rain overnight. Our stuff was dry, more or less, but Travis had lost his tent poles the day before and his makeshift shelter had proven itself unseaworthy.

Day 3– Woke up with one boot filled with nuts and shredded paper…maybe a mouse home for the night? Lesson learned: even forest critters need somewhere cozy to get in out of the rain. With wet gear and cold, damp clothes, we caught a ride into Suches, GA, where we stayed for the night at the hostel at Wolfpen Gap Country Store. We got to shower and do laundry and eat pizza and play with kittens, which of course made it a good day!

Day 4-We did a fairly easy 7 miles down to Lance Creek, where we had to bear bag our food without pre-assembled lines for the first time. Travis and I watched (and filmed) as Shane repeatedly attempted to suspend our likely 30 pounds of food on a one-inch wide branch, bending the tree itself down to nearly ground level-We must’ve been in the only section of Georgia without horizontal tree branches-but eventually he succeeded, and yet again we awoke to food bags unravaged by any critters. Hey, this camping thing’s not so hard!

Day 5-“Hiker Appetite” starting to set in. For breakfast, Shane made a concoction consisting of a 12-inch flour tortilla stuffed with Nutella, peanut butter, and a two-pack of mashed up chocolate fudge Pop Tarts neatly rolled into one diabetic nightmare burrito, later claiming it “might’ve been a little much.” We hiked up Blood Mountain, which had a beautiful view, and back down to Neel’s Gap, which is the only section of entire AT where the trail actually runs through a building. They have an outfitter, a hostel, lots of friendly thru-hiker employees to give you advice, and of course, food. As we stocked up on candy bars for the evening, someone told us that the ‘hiker appetite’ doesn’t really set in for another week or so on the trail. Uh-oh.

The hostel was booked, but they were nice and let us camp on the edge of their property with lots of other hikers, and we had nice bonfire and sat around talking for the night. It had been a full day of hiking, but it still felt like a day off when we got to relax for a while.

Day 6– We did our longest day yet-nearly twelve miles-into Low Gap. It was a dreary day of not-quite rain, since we were so high in the mountains that we were actually just in the clouds. Wetness permeated through every layer in a dense fog, rather than actual droplets falling. It was beautiful and eerie, as I couldn’t see more than fifty feet or so in any direction, and even when I could hear voices of other hikers nearby, I would turn around and see no one. The day was broken up by more Trail Magic, this time from King Tut, who had hot drinks and knitted hats made by local church ladies. They’re ‘breathable yet warm,’ and since then I’ve seen lots of hikers with these identical hand-made hats in many colors.

We got into camp later than usual, and fell asleep immediately after getting out tents set up, sleeping from 7pm to 8am. Nothing like a full day of backpacking to ensure a good night’s sleep, even when you’re soaked through!

Our shantytown setup to dry out our wet gear

Day 7– A warm and buggy day, we hiked our 7 miles to the shelter quickly so that we could start a fire to smoke out the gnats that clung to our faces when we stopped to catch our breath. We spent the afternoon hanging out our wet gear to dry, looking forward to going into town the next day.

Day 8– We took the shuttle to the Budget Inn in Hiawassee from Unicoi Gap, and showered for the first time in 6 days…lukewarm water never felt so heavenly! I watched bits of leaves wash down the shower drain, wondering how much extra weight in dirt I’d been carrying on my person all week. We had meant for this day to be a rest day…but we saw that there was a pizza buffet a little over a mile and a half away from our motel. It was hot, we were already famished, and we got sunburned on the walk to the restaurant, but it was totally worth it. After eating our weight in pizza we nearly fell asleep at the table from our calorie-coma, then dragged our tired bodies back to the motel with our bellies full. Lesson learned: Let’s be real, there was no lesson here. We will always walk miles out of our way for a buffet.

Day 9– Shuttled back to Unicoi Gap and hiked over ten miles, which was relatively easy since we were still coasting on yesterday’s calories for energy. The forecast predicted rain, and sure enough, when we awoke on Day 10 all of our stuff was wet again. (We do keep our clothes and gear in dry sacks, but when it’s damp out everything seems to get wet no matter how hard you try to keep it dry.)

Day 10– Less than half a mile out of our campsite, we stumbled upon the biggest Trail Magic we’ve seen yet. At Addis Gap we were greeted by a host of jolly and boozed-up campers known as ‘The Home Team,’ who had camped there for the whole weekend and traveled from states as far away as Wisconsin. They had a roaring fire and an entire kitchen tent, where they were frying up eggs and pancakes, and brewing coffee for anyone who wandered down the half-mile trail to their site. Some hikers had camped there the night before and enjoyed homemade stew and whole roasted turkeys and hams for dinner! If only we had continued a little farther last night, we could’ve joined in on the fun! Lesson learned: if you stick it out long enough, something good will come your way, even in the rain.

We continued on down into Dick’s Creek. Somewhere along the way I brushed against a tree branch hanging in the path, and absent-mindedly said to it, ‘excuse me,’ which made me chuckle. Lesson learned: If you stay out here long enough, you really do become one with nature-either that or you start to go a little crazy.

Has it really only been a little over a week since we began? It feels like a lifetime. I really do learn new things every day, some small things and some more profound. Overall, I try to remember that the rainy days will eventually give way to sunny ones, and all uphills must eventually come back down. I can feel myself getting stronger (or at least my pack doesn’t feel quite as heavy, hopefully it doesn’t have a hole in it) and I’m always excited to see what’s around the next bend.

An Introduction to the Odyssey

If you’re reading this and you can’t say you know me very well, it’s probably because I don’t like to publish my daily thoughts and activities on social media like so many are wont to do these days. Of course, if you do know me then you already knew this. Perhaps this is why it has taken me months of planning a blog in my head before I actually committed to posting…at least once, anyway. Nothing like waiting til the last minute to get the ball rolling! I am a person of slow build-up in nearly every capacity, I suppose. I don’t make hasty decisions, no matter how small. I need to read the entire menu before deciding what to order, I don’t like to be in charge of what to watch on Netflix, and usually I take too long to offer up my opinion during conversation because I want to be sure of my own thoughts before I put them forth for others to ponder. Please don’t ask me about my five-year plan…we could be here for days! But this, this blog and my reason for writing it, is somehow different.

We had tossed around ideas of an adventure for a while last summer, wondering what we were capable of (half physically and half financially). Maybe we should buy a camper and drive across the country? That seemed poetic but a little too cliché, and besides, I’m fresh out of VW vans in working order (the only acceptable mode of cross-country travel for Shane). Continue reading