Great Smoky Mountains National Park – The First Gauntlet
The Smoky Mountains are filled with beauty and terror that can change on an hour to hour basis. You can never know what to expect once you enter the parks terminus. Bears, Rain, sharp temperature drops, steep inclines and descents have stopped thru hike attempts dead in their tracks and the park is often referred to as the first gauntlet on the Appalachian Trail. Thru hikers from the past will preach that those who can make it through this test have the gusto to make it to Katahdin save for major injuries and power of will. I hope that I can join the others as they push on past the gauntlet and continue toward the promiseland in Maine.
Approach: Odysseus and I had an early rise from Fontana Dam to beat a rainstorm that ended up drenching us anyway. We approached the dam and took in the marvelous scenery of a forest alive with green. From a few points on the trail we could even make out the fog laden lake in the distance. We were almost to the smokies! We pulled into town after our relatively short hike and got trail magic to the village just as soon as we arrived. We finished up chores such as resupply, picking up boxes, laundry, dinner with Sam and I even took a nap on a chair in the Fontana Hotel lobby (I woke up once or twice to the cold stares of hotel staff shaking their heads in disgust at me…I must be hiker trash). I stayed up late tending a fire with Odysseus and met a sick dude named honey badger who was picking up where he left off a few weeks earlier. He told his story about getting lost in the snow on his first day and meeting army Rangers who got him back to civilization. He told if better than I could ever hope to. Also had a convo with dear old dad. It’s good to hear about home but patchy signal makes it more of a chore than it needs to be. Ended the night ready to take on the park the following day.
Day 1: First day in the smokies! Early rise, good poop, and a quick jet off to the Fontana dam. Boy what a view it was and a near perfect morning. The jitters started penetrating my stomach since my last trip to the smokies was so challenging but I feel ready and prepared this time. Took it slow today and soaked in the park. Stopped for numerous breaks, lunches, the firetower as well as a rock shaped throne. Odysseus and I parted ways Midway through the day and I got to fully experience the forest. It felt enchanted with the flowers blooming, the twisty trees and lichen. I ended the day by eating like a king and had an early bedtime….. We figured that we’d rise early tomorrow to spot some wildlife, hopefully luck would be on our side.
Day 2: Woke up at 5:30 and it by. Hiked in full layers until 10 and enjoyed my first taste of early morning dark hiking. No wildlife but we were treated to pink and purple stained skies and the crisp breeze of the early morning. Made great time, enjoyed a privy and ate a other amazing lunch this time at a rocky top. Woke a day hiker up with our victory scream upon reaching the summit and he came over and chatted us up about our adventure. Until this point the only people we’ve interacted with on the trail have been other thru hikers. In the Smokies, day hikers and sectioners are crawling out of the woodwork and they are always excited to hear out stories. We took a lunch and enjoyed some convo with camo/wildcat. Took it slow again today with tons of breaks and I took my first midday nap by a water source. An hour or so may have passed until I woke up to a group of sectioners and a new friend (Scout). Made great time regardless and got to shelter early enough to snag a spot and relax. Tons of great people out this way. Tomorrow looks like rain so it may be a late start. Loving my time in the smokies so far!
Day 3: Quick hike to clingmans dome and was treated to a clear view (pretty uncommon in the area). Tried hitchhiking into town but had to call a shuttle instead. We must have had our thumbs out for over an hour before we threw in the towel and called the hotel. We ended up fitting 8 hikers with full gear into the minivan which was well equipped with 3 air fresheners. Laundry, shower, and airing out our gear were the first things on our mind. Texas road house was the next. It was like eating 3 meals in one and was such a welcome sight. Caught up with drunk 1 and drunk 2 (Sweeps and dq) and had an awesome call home to my brother. We ended up hanging close to the hotel until later. We went out to resupply and I bought an ankle brace to try and alleviate the twinge I keep getting in my tendon. We welcomed our new friend Scout into the room and Camo ended up sleeping under the table after our brewery and beer festivities. Sweeps also weasled her way into the room somehow but the more the merrier….
Day 4: Woke up early with the beer shits and hangover from the night before but that’s nothing a solid gas station gatorade won’t fix. Was about to pay for a ride up the mountain but a former hiker named FM did some trail magic and drove us to Clingman’s Dome. On the way up we heard his stories and even saw a bear! I have a video of the sighting but the video isn’t uploading to youtube for the moment….hopefully I’ll be able to get it sooner rather than later. FM asked us how we answer to tourists who ask if we’re going all the way to Maine. Until this point we’ve always answered with uncertainty. We say things like, “That’s the plan or I’ll go as far as my legs will take me”. He said were within a few hundred miles of answering with a firm “Yes” instead. A point where Maine becomes the only option. I can’t wait for that day to come. We got out and began our hike to the next shelter which began at the parking lot for Clingman’s Dome. I admit, the tourist hike to the overlook might have been the toughest part of the day and I have to give those day hikers in jeans some credit. We took off from there and I did a slow 10 miles to the next shelter… Ankle was really bothering me I but I think it might have just been me getting used to the new brace. We’ll see in time.
Day 5: Woke up very late and tired today. Peeped my head out of the tent to see an abandoned campground. Rain was still coming down and I was bummed out that I might have to hike alone in the fog and not even get to enjoy Charlies bunion (a landmark I saw 2 and half years ago on my last trip through the park). Fate had other plans though and the clouds lifted just as I got to the bunion. I enjoyed an hour of deep thought, solitude, music, and tears until a day hiker came stumbling through. I ripped hard today after my break at charlies bunion and all day my ankle felt almost back to 90%. Even with the hour break and random snacks that I stopped for, I finished the 12 miles in 6 hours. I’m almost back!!!! Just gotta keep up with the medicine and care of my feet at the end of the day and my foot problems could be a thing of the past! Stayed in the tricorner shelter (the same one I stayed in for Thanksgiving 2 and a half years ago) and we squeezed about 27 hikers and gear inside due to a tornado warning for the area. It was a scary night full of sidways rain, gale force winds, thunder, and lightning but we’re almost through the smokies!
Day 6: The Ridge Runner at our shelter stirred the masses this morning no later than 7:30. It felt as though we were in kindergarten and he was asking some of us if we were taking Zeros since we didn’t leave by 8….people were not happy and many were speaking of mutiny…some of us don’t even leave until 10 if it’s bad weather and it was sort of unsafe to ask people to leave during the heavy point of a storm. Either way, we got started in the rain with camo and met up with DQ and Sweeps. The rain started to lift and I got the opportunity to hike with them for once and learn a little more about them outside of camp and town. This hike was way overdue but their pace has my ankles begging for rest. Luckily when we made it to the first shelter we all decided to stop off and relax (best part is it was only 1 o clock). Eventually we reached the consensus that this was where we’d stay the night… No sense pushing hard and only doing 3 miles out tomorrow. We ate Gluttonous amounts of food and I came up with a new concoction… Teriyaki rice with Teriyaki beef jerky. Then I finished off the day with mashed taters and summer sausage. Good vibes, good convos, and a little bit of harmonica practice….. Unfortunately after walking far away from camp for some privacy the folks at the shelter still said they heard me practicing when I came back. They said they enjoyed it though so I suppose I’m getting slightly better. Should be an early evening and a rainy start tomorrow. I had options out of the smokies but my dad was nice enough to make the choice even easier…. I’ll be set up with some points for a day at the holiday Inn in Asheville…. Hopefully the rest will have me back to 100% to get me moving to trail days (and catch up with the cuddle puddle). I’ll miss them dearly but I hear that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Day 7: Woke up at 6 am and left camp. Only 30 minutes after beginning my hike I heard a crash no more than 10 yards ahead of me. I peered around the brush to investigate. Only 30 feet away, a bear was staring straight at me…we locked eyes for a few moments and I whispered reassuringly to the bear as I stepped away. The bear seemed just as scared as I was and although it was full grown, it hid behind a tree as though it was a child on it’s first day of kindergarten. It was incredibly moving to see an animal so powerful be so scared in such an encounter. I continued to back away and the bear faded further and further from my view. Storm clouds brewed overhead and the winds literally shook the ridge line that I was hiking across. I made it to the Mt. Cammerer trail and weighed my options. I could skip the summit and regret my decision (since it was only .6 miles off trail) or I could go and possibly be struck by lightning/get stuck 0n a summit during a heavy downpour. I chose adventure over safety and the gamble paid off big time. I enjoyed the view all to myself and the pictures will never do it justice. I hauled ass down the hill to escape the stormclouds and made my 10 mile hike out of the park in only 4 and a half hours. The hike ended at the Standing Bear Hostel where I got a package full of goodies from my family and met up with the cuddle puddle that I thought I left behind! We were all invited to stay with Odysseus’ family for the next day so I cancelled my reservations in Asheville to spend time with old friends in Knoxville and hopefully make some new ones. We conquered the Smokies! Next stop, Trail Days!