Day 24 – Saturday, April 2: Standing Bear Farm (Hostel) to Roaring Fork Shelter, 15.4 miles, 255.7 total AT miles.

I woke twice during the night – not because of bad weather or my sleeping uncomfortably. I was awaken by a cat who just couldn’t seem to get enough of me. He/she kept curling up next to my stomach and purring loudly, wanting pets. It was really cute.

I finally woke to a rooster crowing at about 6:30 and quickly started packing up. Today, I would cross Max Patch – a huge bald that promises 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains. I’ve read about his section for years.

I paid Lumpy for my “room” and all the snacks I ate the night prior and was back on the trail by 8:00. At 8:30, I stopped at a turn in the trail close enough to I-40 to still get decent cell service and began the laborious task of uploading journal entries and pics.
Several hikers passed me, including Medicine Man, Moon Boots and Shaggy. Savage paused and had breakfast as I finished the uploads and the two of us began the 3,000 foot ascent of Snowbird Mountain. Not since leaving the N.O.C. have I tackled such a steep ascent. It was slow going for me and I quickly fell behind.

Having started hiking this morning at such a low elevation, it was nice to be reminded that spring was just right around the corner. I think I found Fiddlehead ferns, but I’m not sure. After an hour’s climb, I had ascended past spring and right back into winter’s embrace. I put my jacket on during the ascent and left it on for the rest of the day.

I summited Snowbird just after noon and found my hiking buddies having lunch next to a gravel road. I followed the road to the very top of Snowbird to get a look at an FAA radar tower, but was blown away with the view of the Smokeys to the south. They loomed large and cloudy over the surrounding mountains. It was cool to know I had just crossed the tallest mountains in the area.

The Great Smoky Mountains from Snowbird Mountain.

I paused and finished my breakfast. After a quick descent of Snowbird, I emerged into Brown Gap to find trail magic – a past thru-hiker had a great setup with hotdogs, drinks, cookies and comfortable chairs. I ate and relaxed. As I was lounging around, we got word of more trail magic at Max Patch. I packed up and hit the trail.

Just under an hour and half later, I popped out of the woods and found a large group stationed around an R.V., grilling and having a good time. The group running this trail magic stop thru-hiked last year. They were a very generous group. I was still full from lunch, but took some brownies for the road.

As I was leaving the trail magic for Max Patch, I was approached by an older man who asked if I’d like some crackers and oranges for the road. Absolutely, sir! He introduced himself as Melvin and had, apparently, been struck by lightning 12 times. He even wore an embroidered hat commemorating his feat. He says he’s famous – I’ll need to check this out when I get some reliable Internet access.
 

Hiking up Max Patch.
 

The hike up to the summit of Max Patch was everything I hoped it would be. We were greeted with uncharacteristically clear weather making for awesome views. I think we sat huddled in the wind for nearly an hour before pressing on.
  
The temperature was noticeably dropping and I began hiking towards Roaring Fork Shelter, our camp for the night. Having skipped out on the second trail magic stop, I ate a warm plop of mashed potatoes for dinner by the fire.

There’s a freeze warning tonight with more high winds moving in. I’m ready for Hot Springs. The plan is to camp outside of town after grabbing a hot dinner as we’re all running low on food. It looks to be a long day with town nearly 20 miles north.

While today was slow-going, my knees are getting noticeably better. I rarely take ibuprofen during the day anymore.

Breakfast – iced coffee, breakfast mix
Snack – the last of the breakfast mix
Lunch – 2 hotdogs with mustard, one brownie, one sugar cookie
Snack – Lance Nip-Chee crackers
Dinner – butter and herb instant potatoes with salmon, one beef jerky tortilla, the last brown sugar Pop-Tart

Day 23 – Friday, April 1: Cosby Knob Shelter to Standing Bear Farm (Hostel), 10.7 miles, 240.6 total AT miles.

Note: I’m currently sitting on the side of the AT at 8:30am. I can hear I-40 so I’m assuming this is the best place to upload. Cell service is still crappy – I’ll try to post those amazing pics from ridgewalk two days ago.

The thunderstorms came all right. At around 2:00am, I found myself wide awake, hard rain bouncing off my rainfly. I wouldn’t find out for several hours later, but at just around that time, the entire camp woke up as a lightening bolt hit close, illuminated the camp, then shook the mountain.

I slept on til 6:00 – when I re-awoke, I found that the rain had subsided a little bit. It was just enough to pack up and hit the trail quickly.

The plan for today called for a speedy exit from the Smokeys, a potential gas station mini-resupply, and camping somewhere before the summit of Snow Bird Mountain. I ate a quick breakfast as I hiked.

  

The 6 mile descent into Davenport Gap (my exit from the Smokeys) was uneventful, aside from my breaking a crucial piece of gear – my left gaiter. I snagged it on a submerged root and snapped the strap in half. I intent to take it to a cobbler (they exist) in Hot Springs, NC for a quick repair.

The trail, at times, was a river. While it was starting to clear up, the runoff from last’s nights storms turned the AT into a mess. It kind of reminded me of the tricky descent from Blood Mountain two weeks ago.

At Davenport Gap, Medicine Man, Moon Boots and I decided to follow a hand-painted sign a mile downhill promising a country store – and snacks, sweet, delicious snacks.

We were nearly there when another hiker making his way back uphill towards the trailhead informed us that the store was closed. It was a huge letdown. To think my happiness could be contingent on a my buying a cinnamon bun might sound silly, but, in that moment, I was crushed. I slowly made my way back to the trailhead.

Savage had caught up and was making lunch. In my absence, it had been noted that our group was only a few miles from an off-trail hostel – Standing Bear Farm. It was rumored to have an honor-system-based hiker store full of snacks AND a cool cabin that was built over a small stream.

We decided to give it a shot. After leaving the Smokeys, the AT immediately dives towards I-40. This might not sound like good hiking, but the trail paralleled a beautiful mountain stream. I crossed over the Pigeon River and under the interstate and headed up a gravel road. For the first time, the AT followed a road – white blazes painted on the guardrail.

  

And this was the first time where I got turned around a bit. I knew that if I followed this gravel road around the bend, I’d arrive at the hostel. Medicine Man, Moon Boots and I plowed forward, passing the AT as it rose into the mountains. We surmised that we’d need to backtrack down the gravel road in the morning to reconnect with the AT. We were seeing white blazes along the road after all.

A mile or so later, I saw the AT again, this time descending the mountain. I instantly realized what I had done. Without saying a word, I turned and started hiking the section of the trail I had cut off.

This brings up an area of discussion amongst hikers – the “purity” of one’s hike. While I did walk parallel to the AT (and later found out the gravel road used to be the actual AT), it still wasn’t good enough for me. It may seem silly to backtrack a mile, but the way I look at it, I’ve PAID a lot to do this hike – I’m getting every inch out of it.

As I hiked (in the wrong direction), I ran into Canuck, then Savage, both amazed I hadn’t checked in to the hostel yet. In time, I hit that first trailhead I skipped, turned, and made my way to the hostel.

Upon my arrival, I was pleased to find that my hiking buddies did in fact secure the cabin over the creek. It was rustic, but nice. I met the caretaker, Lumpy, and was given the “nickel tour”. I could wash clothes in the make-shift laundry room, cook in the make-shift kitchen, and buy snacks in the very well-stocked store. The whole thing was indeed based on the honor system. I kept a hand-written tab to be turned in the next morning. I grabbed a frozen cheeseburger and headed to the campfire.

  
After attempting to find a cell signal and drying my tent, I decided to call it a night. I opted to lay here, on the front porch, and write. My hope is that the creek lulls me to sleep. I hope it doesn’t rain.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking these past few days – it’s good and to be expected. Still nothing relevatory (or that I choose to share). Just imagine what you’d be thinking about after you sweated your way up the side of a mountain or stared down an approaching storm from an unprotected bald. Pretty powerful stuff.

Tomorrow, I’ll cross Max Patch, a famous bald on the AT. I’ve been looking forward to hiking the Patch for quite a while. And I’ll definitely be in Hot Springs on Monday.

I should note that the hiking “family” I’ve acquired seems to be temporarily permanent – apparently Kodak and Kool-Aid send their regards to us from a day and a half behind. They’ve officially decided to slow it down and hike their own hike. Hope I see them in the future.
Between the closed country store and the skipped portion of the AT, I hiked 3.5 miles today for no reason.

Breakfast: brown sugar Pop-Tarts

Snack: breakfast mix (now with cocoa dusted almonds), handful of prunes

Lunch: Frozen cheesburger (510 cals), tortilla chips

Snack: slice of frozen pizza, beef jerky and yellow mustard in flour tortillas (delicious)

Dinner: two frozen cheeseburgers

Money: “room charge” – $25.00

Snacks – $23.50

Day 22 – Thursday, March 31: Pecks Corner Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter, 12.6 miles, 229.9 total AT miles.

Note: Not enough cell coverage to upload pics. I’m planning on leaving this hostel early and uploading by I-40.

I slept hard last night – I’m pretty sure I only woke up once. The first thing I remember hearing at 7:30 when I opened my eyes was the loud, roaring wind.

I emerged from my tent and saw grey clouds overhead. The rain hadn’t started yet, but it was obviously well on its way. I broke camp in a hurry and hit the trail at 8:30.

I continued the same ridgewalk with Savage and then Canuck. The wind was howling. I kept my eyes skyward, watching for falling limbs. The trail is covered in fallen logs – some of them obviously recent.

  
After three quick summits, I met up with Savage and Canuck at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter 5 miles up trail. I ate quickly. The weather was getting bad and no one’s had a reliable cell signal for at least 2 days.

As I got ready to head out, Moon Boots rounded the corner – I was pretty excited. The four of us quickly set off for Cosby Knob Shelter 7 miles away. The weather was getting worse – still no heavy rain though. I quickly fell behind.

  
The past few days, I’ve been clocking myself while I hike, checking the time and my GPS to see distance covered. On an easy grade, I can hike almost 2.5 miles per hour – that’s admittedly tough. With a medium grade (think rolling hills), I slow to right at 2 mph – I’m fairly consistent with this pace. During steep ascents and descents, I’m right at 1.5 mph. Savage, Moon Boots and Canuck are the fastest hikers I’ve tried to keep up with – they book it at 3+ mph.

About 2 miles in, the rain started – it was light at first, then picked up. The wind stayed gusty. I hiked quickly, but still took some time to admire how much these higher elevations reminded me of the Cascades.

The steady rain persisted as I rolled into Cosby Knob Shelter at 3:45. I hiked hard averaging just over 2 mph – that’s good for me. I set up my tent in the rain and huddled near the shelter to make dinner.

As I was eating, the rain picked up. It’s a nice feeling when you’re already eating hot food when the storm finally hits. I was organizing my stuff in my tent when Medicine Man and Clutch came into camp. I finished dinner with Medicine.

A short time later, the rain stopped and the clouds parted, revealing a deep blue sky fading to sunset. What was rumored to be a raging thunderstorm turned out to be rain associated with a “high wind advisory” – this itself another weather-related camp rumor.

I’ve loved the Smokeys, but am excited to leave tomorrow. Although I’ve successfully tented each night I’ve stayed here, all hikers are forced to stay near shelters – no rouge camping (known as stealth camping) allowed. There’s been at least 30 hikers at every shelter – 10 inside and about 20 tents scattered about in odd places. I’m sleeping on a slight hill next to a drainage ditch – it’s prettier than it sounds.

Tomorrow, after I exit the Smokeys, I cross under I-40 (rumored to have a gas station nearby), and begin the steep ascent of Snowbird Mountain – there’s campsites 12 miles in and a shelter at 17. But that doesn’t matter – I can camp ANYWHERE I want starting tomorrow. I’m elated.

In all, the Smokeys have been amazing. I’ve hiked and tented in every weather scenario I can imagine aside from blizzard and heat-wave.

I’m looking forward to the next 50 miles and my arrival in Hot Springs in three days. I severely need to do laundry.

Breakfast: brown sugar Pop-Tarts

Snack: Cocoa dusted almonds

Lunch: more almonds, lots of raisins, bag of beef jerky

Dinner: the same thing I ate last night (Mac and cheese spiked with instant mashed potatoes, bacon, salmon and lots of black pepper)

Day 21 – Wednesday, March 30: Fork Mountain Trail to Pecks Corner Shelter, 14.2 miles, 217.3 total AT miles.

Note: I haven’t had cell coverage in two days. I’m posting this from the side of a country road next to Standing Bear Farm.

Note: I still don’t have enough cell coverage to upload pics. I am hiking in the backwoods after all. I’ll post pics ASAP.

I woke first at 8:00 and took a nice long shower. I slept fine. Apparently the Grand Prix has extended stay units very close to our room – there was a loud screaming match followed by lots of laughing at around 1:00am.

I grabbed my pack and headed to McDonalds before catching the shuttle at the N.O.C. Savage, Canuck and I hopped off at the first road crossing before Clingman’s Dome to resume our trek – Medicine Man, Moon Boots, Shaggy and Owl needed to start at the Dome and stayed in the shuttle.

While Savage and Canuck headed north, I backtracked a quarter mile to Mt. Collins Shelter – the note we left yesterday for Kool-Aid and Kodak had not been removed from the trail marker. Here’s to hoping those guys catch up.

I should mention our moving ahead of Kool-Aid and Kodak is something that’s been discussed amongst Savage, Canuck and I. It’s regrettable, but totally inevitable, that groups get separated. The philosophy is called “hike your own hike”. The miles the three of us are putting in daily fits our needs, as far as personal fulfillment goes. I think I’ve said this before, but my getting satisfaction out of a hard day on the trail isn’t necessarily better than someone taking their time. I’m just hiking my own hike.

Note: “Hike your own hike” also applies when people engage in “gear shaming” – attempting to verbally one-up you on weight and/or who’s being more lightweight. It’s unfortunately common.

Out plan was to hike 14 miles to Pecks Corner Shelter – the grade looked fairly level despite hiking consistently at 5,500 feet. I set off at 11:30. 

My first stop was four miles ahead at Newfound Gap. I remember seeing a table full of snacks (trail magic) from the shuttle as we headed toward Clingman’s. Medicine Man gave me a sweet roll before we departed Gatlinburg – it was gone before I even started hiking. I was booking it towards Newfound for those snacks.

When I arrived, I was sad to see the trail magic was no more. Instead, I found myself in a giant parking lot surrounded by day hikers. I crossed the lot and approached the trailhead.

I came across a huge informational display about the AT and thru-hiking just as I was about to hop back on trail. At least ten folks were standing there reading along with me. I instantly found myself PART of the display – I had become a human zoo animal. I took it in stride, even though some family from Kentucky thinks I’m “crazy and insane” for walking to Maine.

  
Leaving Newfound Gap, the AT climbs to 6,000 feet at Icewater Spring Shelter and then begins the most amazing ridge walk to Pecks (where I’m tenting tonight).

  
I still didn’t realize how awesome the day was about to get, even as I was leaving Icewater at 3:30 after a quick lunch. I hiked over to Charlie’s Bunion, a monolithic rock outcropping with amazing views. I was elated. This was cool.

   

  
I checked my maps and the time – I had about three hours to hike six miles if I wanted to make Pecks at a decent hour. I started hoofing it and was instantly floored.

At times the ridge (the actual TN/NC border) dropped off sharply on both sides leaving two amazing views to the left and the right. I can’t tell you how many times I stopped today and took pictures.

  
Words can’t describe how cool this part of the AT is. It was the first time I wanted a close friend, loved one, family member, ANYONE out there hiking with me. Pictures just don’t do this part of the world justice. If I had the opportunity, I would certainly hike this section again – truly amazing.

I eventually pulled into camp at 7:30. Savage and Canuck were already set up – they had even saved me a spot to pitch my tent. Having had a light appetite all day, I ate a great dinner and promptly went to bed.

Tomorrow calls for heavy rain with thunderstorms moving in on Friday. This might delay my expected arrival in Hot Springs to Monday. That’s fine – I have plenty of food now.

I decided I’m getting a haircut in Hot Springs, but continuing to grow my beard.

Breakfast: McDonalds chicken biscuit, hashbrowns, coffee

Snack: Mrs. Freshley’s Cinnamon Bun (450 calories – gas station food)

Lunch: beef jerky, almonds, brown sugar Pop-Tart

Snack: Peanut M&Ms

Dinner: Geez. Box of Kraft macaroni and cheese (and instant potatoes) mixed with bacon, beef jerky crumbs, two mustard packets and a lot of black pepper. It was delicious – I’ll probably eat it again tomorrow.

Day 20 – Tuesday, March 29: Double Spring Gap Shelter to Fork Mountain Trail (Gatlinburg, TN), 6.4 miles, 203.1 total AT miles.

Note: I need wifi. I’ll update with pics over breakfast.

My alarm went off at 5:00 to remind me I committed to summit Clingman’s Dome for sunrise. The problem was that I wasn’t going to leave my sleeping bag. The thermometer on my bag (in my tent) read 30 degrees. There was a sheet of frost/ice on my rainfly – it was stiff to the touch. I slept on til 7:00, hoping sunrise would warm things up a bit.

The problem with sleeping in gaps between mountains is that sometimes the sun rises parallel to the ridge you’re sleeping on – meaning that, while it was full-on bright outside, the sun still had to rise above Clingman’s Dome to illuminate Double Spring Gap.

  

I emerged from my tent to break camp wearing everything I own – that includes full rain gear AND socks covering my gloved hands. It should have taken me 30, maybe 45, minutes to ready myself to hike – this morning took 2 hours. I’d do something, then pace around for 5 minutes trying to warm myself up. I finally left camp to summit Clingman’s Dome at 9:00.

The hike up to Clingman’s was well-maintained and very hikable. When I got to the top, I understood why. The AT runs parallel to the trail visitors take to hike from the parking lot to the top of the mountain. I ran into so many folks deviating from the beaten path, if only for a half mile, just to officially walk on the AT. It was kinda cool.

Approaching Clingman’s Dome.

When I got to the dome, I dropped my pack and spread my saturated-but-thawing tent in the sun to dry. Keep in mind, I’m knee-deep in tourist central. I raced to the top of the tower to take the obligatory photo and promptly returned.

Looking north from the top.

After a trip to the privy and gift shop, I was elated to find Savage and Canuck waiting by my pack. They were ready to make it to Gatlinburg for a resupply. Unfortunately, they still had not heard from Kool-Aid or Kodak – still hoping all’s well.

It was 2:00 by the time we were ready to go. We set off with greater ambitions, but decided to use daylight to our advantage and hitch out of Clingman’s Dome at the first place possible – Fork Mountain Trail.

We hitched a ride with some college students from Chicago, kind enough to take the three of us to Gatlinburg. They dropped us off at the N.O.C. – yes, the same outfitters I had lunch at a week ago. This was their flagship location. I was able to snag a new dry bag for my tent (the wet, icy tent soaked through its stuff sack and saturated my bag) as well as a Mountain House Pad Thai meal – a trail classic, reserved for special times.

While at the Gatlinburg N.O.C., I reviewed the shuttle schedule and saw some familiar names slated for an early morning departure – Medicine Man, Moon Boots, Shaggy, Owl. We had friend in town! That settled it – we checked in to the Grand Prix Hotel (my grandparents probably thought it was nice in the 60s) and headed off to find our friends.

We actually ran into them around 5:00, just in time for dinner. The eight of us (we picked up a Swiss-German, Clutch) feasted. After a moderately successful resupply at Walgreens (our only option), we headed back to the hotel room to relax.

  

It’s late and I’m packed up, ready to go first thing. Shuttle leaves N.O.C. at 10:00. A townie told me there’s a proper Southern breakfast a few blocks up the street – given my new appetite, I’m already stoked.

Tonight in the hotel room, before Savage and Canuck went to bed and I to the balcony to type this thing, the three of us marveled at the fact that, aside from a food resupply, we didn’t really need to be in town. I mean, I did need a dry bag for my tent, but I could have made do until Virginia (hammock season). I didn’t even need to do laundry – still plenty of clean(ish) socks and undies to get me through to Hot Springs, NC, still another 4 hard-hiking days ahead.

The point is that I’m learning. The fires have been put out. I’m totally confident in my gear and can’t wait to lighten my load once springs hits. That’s still weeks, WEEKS, away.

In all, I am still having an amazing time. Today was the first day I met a large group of tourists. The questions they asked were the same questions I asked myself eleven months ago when I committed to doing this thing – “Why?” or “What about bears??”.

I am having the time of my life.

Breakfast: Sorry, I was too cold to eat

Snack (Clingman’s Dome): beef jerky, breakfast mix, 2 packs dried instant oatmeal

Lunch: half gallon of lemonade, pork rinds

Dinner: combo fajitas, side steamed broccoli

Late-Night Snack: half-pound of Canuck’s peanut M&Ms

Money:

Grand Prix (total room fee, $15)

Walgreens (resupply $44.15)

Dinner (Bailey’s fajitas $12.98)

N.O.C. $42.90

Day 19 – Monday, March 28: Spence Field Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter, 13.4 miles, 196.7 total AT miles.

I didn’t sleep well. I woke up shortly after midnight to howling winds and driving rain. The storm persisted in keeping me restless until it finally blew over at around 6:00. I decided to go ahead and get started.

Thankfully, I stayed dry despite the best attempts of the storm. The same could not be said for Canuck. His hammock’s first night in the rain failed the test. Chalk this one up to user error – Canuck left the tent takes for the rainfly back in Fontana and resorted to using sticks. He ended up completely drenched, huddled on the shelter floor.

It was another very cold and very foggy day. I started hiking right at 8:00. The trail today was tough. As it approaches Clingman’s Dome, it seems to strictly follow the same ridge line, ever ascending (and then sharply descending) in elevation. Instead of walking around mountains, today I walked on top of them.

The trail was also a mess. The heavy rains left puddles and slick mud in abundance. In little time, my boots and gaiters were thickly covered in black mud. It was slow going – I ate snacks as I hiked.

  

Despite temps in the low 40s and a fierce wind, the landscape today was stunning. Today was the first day I spent the majority of my time at or above 5,000 feet – pretty high for the Appalachians. I once again hiked in the clouds.

  

By the time I rolled into Derrick Knob Shelter for lunch and water, it was noon – I only hiked 6 miles in 4 hours. The steep ups and downs coupled with the muddy trail were really slowing me down.

As I was returning from “spring”, I ran into Canuck and Savage. They left substantially after me and were making great time. I reiterated my desire to summit Clingman’s and moved on. Still no word from Kool-Aid and Kodak at this point.

 

I filtered.
 
Just as I was about to leave the shelter, the most amazing thing happened – the clouds parted and for the first time in a few days, I saw blue skies. It already felt warmer! I powered on.

I finally got to see what all the fuss was about – the Smokeys are amazing. It’s the diversity of trees that gets me. For nearly the past 200 miles, I’ve been hiking in oak forests, the trees still bare from winter. Today it seemed like each mountain hosted it’s own little ecosystem dedicated to a different type of forest.

Despite my best efforts, I was not that quick making it to Silers Bald Shelter 6 miles up trail. I pulled in at 3:00 to eat again and check out my options.

 

Finally, the Great Smoky Mountains, as seen from Silers Bald.
 
I could continue trying to summit Clingman’s or I could stop in two miles at the last shelter before the summit and go for it first thing. It was windy and hovering in the 50s. My feet hurt.

I pulled into Double Spring Gap Shelter at 5:00 and quickly set up my tent. I filtered water, ate dinner, and, just as I was getting ready for bed, a hiker entered camp and asked if anyone knew a “cool dad”. I smiled and waved. She told me the others weren’t too far behind and will try to meet me tomorrow (she thinks).

The sun is just now setting and I’m already in bed. I’m beat. I think the cold, wet weather and gnarly trail really took a lot out of me today. I’m hoping for an early start – Clingman’s Dome is less than 3 miles way. I’d love to catch the sunrise from the watch tower.

The temperature tonight is getting to near freezing and the winds haven’t let up. I’m anticipating hiking out tomorrow at 6:00am and wearing everything I own. It’s going to be a brutal “up and over”, but I’m hoping it’ll be worth it.

And 8 miles after Clingman’s, I’ll hit Newfound Gap – and the pickup point for Gatlinburg, TN. In order to make it to Hot Springs, NC in five days, I’ll need an additional two days worth of food.

I’m going to try my best to make it in and out of Gatlinburg as quickly as possible – it’s all up to timing. I’d prefer to get back on the trail tomorrow evening with enough time to make camp. I’d also really like a burger.

Breakfast – coffee, 2 mini pasta/potato burritos from last night

Snack – three packets of dry instant oatmeal

Lunch – almonds, beef jerky, dried cranberries, sunflower seeds, 1/4 chocolate orange

Snack – beef jerky rolled up in flour tortillas with yellow mustard, dried cranberries, one whole (real) orange

Dinner (here we go) – I mixed a beef stroganoff Pasta Side with some generic instant mashed potatoes, the rest of that turkey summer sausage and a handful of bacon bits. I ate the whole pot. Then another 1/4 of the chocolate orange and coffee.

Day 18 – Sunday, March 27: Fontana Dam Shelter (the Fontana “Hilton”) to Spence Field Shelter, 17.3 miles, 183.2 total AT miles.

Happy Easter everyone! Today was an all-around, great day to be hiking the AT. The morning started early – I woke at 6:30 and made a mad dash to the privy. When I returned to my tent, I started breaking camp. The sun was just starting to rise. I silently left the tentsites, stopping by the shelter to wish Canuck (the only other one up) a nice day.

Leaving Fontana.

Leaving Fontana, the AT followed the shoreline until I reached the dam. While the visitor center was closed, it wish really cool to walk across the dam and into the Great Smoky Mountains. It had been overcast all morning, but as soon as I dropped my permit at the gate and started gaining altitude, I found myself hiking in the clouds.

  
It was stunning – for about 15 minutes. By the time I heard the wall of rain approaching from the distance, I was too late. I got caught with my pants down, struggling to strap on my gaiters in the middle of the rainstorm.

While the heavy rain was short-lived, it continued to sprinkle throughout the remainder of the day. I’m truly finding that the best way to tackle the rain is in my shorts with gaiters protecting my socks and boots (I still wear my rain jacket).

The ascent into the Smokeys is steep, but wasn’t exceptionally rough. I really felt great today. My legs and back have felt really good – I made really good time today. This is the third day without a knee brace and the right knee is doing fine – still hurts just a little if I land wrong or slip, but really not even an issue anymore.

As I stopped to refill water from a trickle of a spring, a few of the hikers I rented with last night passed by for the shelters ahead. Just as I was wrapping up, Canuck appeared. We actually hiked within a few minutes of each other most of the day.

  

The scenery was truly stunning today. I haven’t hiked in forest like this in the Southeast – today reminded me of the Pacific Northwest. For the greater part of the day, I stayed walking in clouds. At times, the visibility was reduced to about 100 feet – it was awesome.

Having been off-trail for 36 or so hours, I was surprised to see that the forest floor had come alive with tiny green shoots pushing through the dead leaves. I really am walking into spring – things are changing every day. Pretty incredible!

  
A couple of miles before Mollie’s Ridge Shelter, Savage caught up to me. She said she left Kool-Aid and Kanuck behind at the Hilton and started hiking about 45 minutes after me. Within a few minutes, we caught up with Canuck and a Ridgerunner, Grey Beard. A Ridgerunner is often an ATC volunteer who makes sure hikers stay safe and the campgrounds stay clean.

We’ve know for a while now we’d be likely staying in shelters, as they’re essentially mandatory in the Smokeys. Grey Beard confirmed our suspicions and attempted to allay our concerns regarding Norovirus. Wash your hands, folks.

The three of us stopped for a quick snack and Mollie’s Ridge, then again at Russell Field Shelter. The three of us made it Spence Field Shelter at 5:45 – that’s 17 miles in just under 10 hours. Not bad.

When I walked into the shelter area, I was surprised to see folks setting up their tents. Savage saw me and confirmed that the shelter was full – unless we wanted to squeeze into the shelter, we HAD to tent. Thank God. I really don’t want to stay in a shelter in the Smokeys. No Noro.

After I set up camp, I gathered water and scrubbed up for dinner. I made a filling dinner at least and chatted with other hikers before retiring to my tent. Kool-Aid and Kodak never came in – hope all is well.

There’s a good chance for heavy rain tonight and into the morning. I’m hoping to get a good night’s sleep and start early again tomorrow.

There’s a few logistical issues that I’ll need to figure out in the coming days. Hot Springs, NC is 90 miles ahead – that’s 5 to 6 days strong hiking with no problems. Gatlinburg is only about 25 miles up trail, but hitching into Gatlinburg to ensure I have enough food to reach Hot Springs will probably mean I’ll end up staying there. Or I could just roll the dice and press on. I might have enough food.

I’m not opposed to getting off trail to buy food and supplies in Gatlinburg, but it’s pretty well-known that resupplying in these mountain towns has a way of sucking you in. I’ve been wanting to be out here for longer than 4 or 5 days at a stretch. I’ll get there.

Tomorrow, I’ll more than likely summit Clingman’s Dome in the early afternoon. It’s the highest point on the AT at 6,667 feet. While, it’s probably gonna be completely socked in with clouds, I still want to climb the tower.

And big news – today, totally unbeknownst to me, I crossed into Tennessee at Doe Knob (mile 174.2). The trail apparently had been straddling the NC/TN border for most of the day and I had no idea. That’s three states down – feeling pretty good.

Breakfast: breakfast mix (I’m getting really sick of almonds)

Snack: beef jerky

Lunch: the rest of today’s breakfast mix

Snack: half a Snickers, beef jerky

Dinner: It started with turkey summer sausage and broccoli and cheese noodles. I used too much water, so I added instant potatoes. I ended up spreading my food paste on tortillas. It really wasn’t that bad. I saved a few for breakfast.

Day 17 – Saturday, March 26: Fontana Dam to Fontana Dam Shelter (the Fontana Hilton), 1.2 miles, 165.9 total AT miles

I woke first this morning and took a long shower. By the time I was done, the rest of the guys were mulling about, packing scattered gear into packs and organizing food bags.

I went to the lobby and utilized the only good wifi location to make some calls and upload a few posts. It’s nice to be in contact with loved ones – even a few minutes on the phone really lifts my day.

I sat with the guys from the adjoining room and watched as they, and many others, caught the shuttle to the trailhead to enter the Smokeys. At noon, we (Kool-Aid, Canuck, Kodak and Savage) walked to the Pit-Spot, a gas station/”country pantry” for a quick resupply (and breakfast). We then quickly snagged a shuttle to the trailhead.

The beautiful Fontana Lodge .

While I was excited to enter the Smokeys, I have to admit – I’m a little banged up from the hike so far. I’m old, far from my prime.

And being in town (or, in this case “town”) isn’t as relaxing as you might think. Imagine having to do all of your errands in one day – then imagine doing them on foot OR relying on the kindness of strangers for a hitch to get from place to place.

So when Kool-Aid suggested stopping at the Fontana “Hilton”, the supposed best shelter on the AT, and tenting for the night, I was right on board. And I’m very thankful I stopped. While I feel like I’m hiking strong, my body is very sore and tired. I got a good look at myself after my shower this morning and I am dropping weight – not a lot, but it’s a little noticeable.

We made camp at 1:00. Savage, Kool-Aid and I decided to hitch back the the Pit-Stop for pizza and snacks while Kodak and Canuck watched camp. We immediately caught a ride from a friendly section hiker.

Upon returning to camp, I devoured the pizza and found myself making a second dinner. After some great conversation, I said goodnight.

I’m happy I took some time to rest and recupperate. This hike is a whole lot harder than I expected. You know, when I was working at Elliott’s in Seattle, I considered my walk to work enough training for this thing. I was dead wrong. This trail is kicking my ass.

Tomorrow will be no exception. I’m planning on an early rise for Easter Sunday – I want to get started as the sun comes up. My plan is to hike a decent couple of days, with a potential resupply in Gatlinburg. If not, I’ll press on to Hot Springs by week’s end.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’m hesitant to say exactly what the outcome/s are or have been. I think it’s enough to say I’m happy. I’m learning how to be present – to enjoy the moment without worrying about tomorrow or lamenting yesterday. It doesn’t come natural. That’s enough of that.

Food! An efficient resupply is obviously a big deal. For me, the issue is making sure I have enough protein. Protein is heavy compared to carbs and I often find myself protein deficient/carb heavy right before I head into town.

 

Four to five days of food. Also a nice shot of my stove, bear bag rope and camp shoes.
 
So when I say four to five days worth of food, it’s really four to five days worth of protein. I snagged three bags of instant potatoes from the hiker box this morning – carbs are easy to come across. Right now, I’m consuming 90 grams of protein and 4,000 calories per day. I eat a lot.

Breakfast: Sausage dog with sauerkraut and onions.

Snack: Powerbar vanilla protein bar, Lanch PB and cheese crackers.

Lunch: 8″ pepperoni pizza

Dinner: Beef Stroganoff, s’mores.

Snack: Gooey Butter Cake (not as good as the 5 Spot), handful of almonds.

Day 16 – Friday, March 25: Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam, 5.5 miles, 164.7 total AT miles

I woke early and packed quickly, excited at the prospect of heading into town. As I packed, I did a quick inventory of my gear and decided I would send a few things home when I reached Fontana.

The descent into Fontana Dam was rugged and foggy from all the rain during the night. Before leaving camp, I decided to take two ibuprofen and not use my knee brace today. I’m glad I did – I think somehow the knee brace was doing more harm than good. While I still had to take it easy, I was able to move a little quicker without the brace limiting my range of motion.

  
After a series of switchbacks, I emerged onto Fontana Dam road at noon. I quickly caught a shuttle and checked in to the lodge. I hiked down to the “town” to do laundry and resupply. Fontana isn’t a real town, more than a resort with stores. There is no cell phone reception anywhere and the “campus-wide wifi” isn’t strong enough to make outgoing phone calls.

  
As the other guys poured into the Lodge, we found out pretty quick that our next door neighbors were the group Savage had been hiking with the past few days. Pretty cool – our group now included Medicine Man, Moon Boots, Shaggy and Owl.

We all sat down to a nice dinner and mingled with other hikers afterward.

I’m very tired, but ready to go – I received my mail drop that included enough food to get me to Gatlinberg as well as my zoom lens. While I haven’t had luck uploading pics from my camera to the website (I need GOOD wifi), I’ve been taking a lot of nice pictures. I promise.

I can’t wait to start the Smokeys tomorrow. I’m planning on hiking in about 10 miles and tenting (hopefully) at the first shelter. There are rumors of bear sightings.

Breakfast: nothing

Lunch: Ray’s Dill Pickle Potato chips and French’s Creamy French Onion dip

Dinner: No burger. I went for the meatloaf plate with and extra side of fries.

Late nite snack: Chex Mix

Money:

Shuttle: $3.00 plus $2.00 tip

Laundry: $4.00

Fontana Village General Store: $32.20

Lodge restaurant: $15.90 plus $5.00 tip

Post Office: $28.01. Canuck finally received his hammock and was about to donate his very nice Marmot tent to a hiker box. Instead, I paid for his room and shipped the tent to my storage unit in Seattle.

Room: $15.56 (times two)

Day 15 – Thursday, March 24: Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter, 15.2 miles, 159.2 total AT miles.

I woke up frequently throughout the night. It wasn’t until I finished typing and tried to settle down for bed that I realized my tent was in an extremely awkward position for sleeping. I ended up sleeping like a macaroni noodle – my body bent at the middle with arms and head falling to one side of the tree and legs to another.

I still got up at 6:00, ready to go. I packed quickly, hoping to catch the sunrise on Cheoah Bald. I raced uphill, pausing only once to shed layers as I was sweating. I reached the top and was greeted with both a beautiful sunrise and a blast of cold wind racing over the bald. I redressed quickly.

  

I paused to take a few photos, eat breakfast and brush my teeth. A few of the hikers I met last night eventually made their way to the top of the bald and headed north.

I was content being towards the end of the pack today as my knee was already starting to hurt. I knew there’d be a couple of tricky descents today – starting right away with a 1400 foot descent into Locust Cove Gap. My knee started hurting but I hiked on.

I had another tricky descent into Stecoah Gap at a road crossing and was met by about 15 thru-hikers taking a morning break. Fontana Dam/Smokey Mtns is similar to Blood Mountain/Neel’s Gap in that they both act as bottlenecks on the trail. Due to limited camping options before major town stops, hikers sort-of bunch up on the outskirts of town, in hopes they’re up early and in their hotel/hostel as soon as possible.

Descent into Stecoah Gap.

As I sat and had a quick snack, I realized everyone had the same plan – to sleep at Cable Gap Shelter about 8.5 miles ahead. Great. This bubble of hikers I had wandered into moved a lot quicker than me.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, Canuck and Kodak popped out of the woods. I set off, trying to get a head start, but was passed within the hour by every single hiker I took a break with.

I don’t know how I missed this last night, but I soon found myself in the middle of Jacob’s Ladder – arguably the steepest ascent I’ve met so far. It’s 600 feet gained in .6 miles in one straight line. I paused halfway up and let people pass. After I made it to the top, I stripped off my boots and put some tape on my left heel – I was starting to get rubbed a little raw.

I stopped at Brown Fork Gap for water – 3 liters, just enough to get me to Cable Gap without stopping.the next 6 miles into camp were great hiking. I was back in shorts and enjoying the gentle grade. I felt like I was making good time.

After Jacob’s Ladder just before Brown Fork Gap.

About two miles away from Cable, the sky started getting dark. I started hiking faster. At a road crossing less than a mile from camp, the sky opened up. I was quickly forced into full rain gear and pack cover for the last mile in.

As I came into Cable Gap at 5:00, I quickly realized my suspicions about being in a hiker bubble were correct. The shelter was full and at least 20 tents had already been set up at various terraced levels around the gap. It was still pouring.

I set my pack down outside of the shelter (standing room only) and grabbed my tent and poles. I figured the sooner I got my tent up, the sooner I could getting dry. I put it up as fast as I can. I tried to save time and focus on the rain fly instead of the tent stakes. Bad move – a gust of wind started to carry it down the mountain.

I finally got it up and secure from the wind and driving rain. I walked back to my pack at the shelter. I grabbed my sleeping pad and two camp towels back up to my tent. I wiped down the inside as best I could, spread out my sleeping pad, and collapsed. I laid there for about 20 minutes, listening to the rain. I eventually brought my other gear up to the tent and got ready to cook dinner down at the shelter.

Shelters are interesting. A half-full shelter with people you know is kinda fun. A shelter full of strangers looks awful. As a row of hikers sat cooking on the edge, the lucky tenants of the shelter sat silently in the shadows, their backs against the wall. I ate quickly and said little.

While the predictability of hiking in a small group is comfortable, I do enjoy these times when a large group of hikers gets stuck somewhere for the same reason. And everyone’s headed into Fontana Dam tomorrow.
There’s little I need to buy in the way of food – I’m getting a mail drop at the perfect time. I do need to get some smaller compression sacks for my tent and clothes. And I’m looking forward to a burger.

I’ve been thinking about a burger ever since I ate that healthy lentil dish at the N.O.C. and everyone else gorged themselves on tasty food. I really want a burger.

I’m also interested in weighing myself. I feel like I’ve been eating enough carbs and protein to maintain this level of activity. If I have lost anything, it assuredly will be very little.

Tomorrow’s hike is only 5.5 miles down to Fontana Dam. I’ll take the rest of the night off and enter the Smokey’s Saturday afternoon. I might take the opportunity to visit Gatlinburg, TN sometime next week for a resupply if necessary. That’s all I know now.

I’m looking forward to warmer weather and more time between stops in town. It seems like it’s harder to stay clean in the cold – I’m bundled up in the same clothes for days on end, changing only socks and underwear infrequently. Sometimes I’ll catch a whiff of myself – it’s terrible. But we all smell like this. Everyone has dirt under their fingernails. It’s fun.

Despite my knee (which felt better as soon as I stopped all the descents) and the wet weather, I’m truly having a great time. I still pause and smile at the top of every mountain I summit. I need to put getting up early back into practice – I really enjoyed hiking towards the sunrise this morning.

Today was a music day – I didn’t really ponder much of anything. I do feel noticeably better, and have a better day on the trail, when I’m up early. We’ll see how that goes.

I know the norovirus outbreak was reported back home in Atlanta – for us hikers, informational leaflets are posted at trail heads and in privies. All I can do is stay as clean as possible AND as far away from everyone as possible. 

It’s getting late for me. The rain has finally stopped but the wind has picked up. Despite the fact I’ve had to rig my tent to keep it up, I’m still surprised that it keeps me dry. I might hold onto it for a little while.

Breakfast: breakfast mix

Snack: beef jerky

Lunch: breakfast mix

Snack: beef jerky x2

Dinner: about three cups of couscous with salmon, bacon and powdered mushroom gravy