From Wesser Bald we saw the Smoky Mountains – distant, snowy, and taller than all the rest of the Appalachian chain. Saturday we entered the Smokies.
We spent Friday moving our car up the trail past the Smoky Mountains and shuttling back with Steve Claxton, trail name Mustard Seed, who thru-hiked in 2016 and survived open heart surgery and two strokes this year. He and his wife are in the local 900-miler hike club where members aim to hike 900 miles of trails in the Smoky Mountain National Park. His wife hikes 30 miles a day. He’s not quite there yet – what with his body still a bit sore from the sternal fracture and all.
Friday night we stayed at Nancy’s place, The Hike Inn, the longest continually running hiker motel under one owner. Nancy’s loving energy permeates the property. If you are hiking (or motorcycling or angling) nearby, don’t miss staying here. She and husband Jeff ran the place for decades. Then cancer took Jeff. The Trail has a sense of romance though. A hiker named Tom, trail name High Loon, came through recently and stayed in room 5. Later while hiking down in Florida, Tom planned a trip back to the AT and emailed Nancy signing off with “PS: May I take you to breakfast sometime?” Now the Tom helps Nancy run the place, shuttling hikers into nearby Robbinsville for resupply trips and dinner of the trail.
Saturday morning we hugged Nancy goodbye and (L to R in pic below) K2, High Loon, Stacker, Doo, and Spirit Man headed to Fontana Dam.
Tom dropped K2 and I off across Fontana Dam at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park southern boundary.
We deposited half of our park registration papers into the box by the Trail and began climbing from an elevation of 1,862′ around 9am.
A mist clung to the trail enlivening the lichen, somehow quite suitable for this Saint Patrick’s Day hike.
We reached the Shuckstack fire tower (elevation 3,889′) at about 11am – not a bad pace considering K2’s pack had enough food for five days. Chivalry lives.
I learned from my first 60-odd miles in Georgia and managed to lighten my pack from 27 pounds down to 24 (a reduction of 0.21 stones or 1.36 kilograms). I cast away the insect repellent, the muscle rub, the Desitin, and all the Leukotape and moleskin. Zero insects bothered me on the Appalachian Trail so far. I have only seen a handful of them – mostly flies and ants, one ladybug, no mosquitoes. While my muscles would love a rubdown after every hike, the logistics of that make no sense on the trail. Save the salves and ointments for off trail. As to foot care… certainly everyone’s feet are unique. My feet do not want anything adhering to them. I tried Leukotape and specialty blister bandaids (plasters) and they ended up gumming up my socks, making them unwearable.
I left my pair of micro spikes behind after accidentally carrying those heavy things from Amicalola to Unicoi – oops. We intended only to carry spikes if necessary for the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail, Clingmans Dome. Due to the warmer weather neither of us opted to carry them into the Smokies.
I also started trusting the abundance of water on the Appalachian Trail. Rather than set out with 1.5 liters of the Hike Inn’s tap water, I felt secure setting out with 1 liter, which saved me over a pound in pack weight.
Just before 1pm we had climbed 2,658′ of elevation in 7 miles – the grade suits horses, which rangers use for rescue missions as well as trail and shelter maintenance. With a sense of accomplishment stopped for tea and a micronap. The mist cleared giving us a glorious day in the upper fifties (13-14C).
After 10 miles we reached Mollies Ridge shelter. We both felt energetic and we had the weather on our side. We took a another break, rehydrated, and chatted with Black Dog. Then K2 and I headed for the next shelter 3.1 miles up the trail making it a 13.3 mile (21.4 km) day.
When we arrived at Russell Field shelter we met only two other hikers – newlyweds from Sevierville, TN, thru-hiking on their honeymoon. Black Dog had already come and gone signing the log book, “Where’s the pool?”
Surprisingly no other hikers came along. The four of us had the shelter to ourselves.
After sunset K2 and I sat together on the narrow wooden table bracing the columns made of tree trunks to listen to our Bruins play the Tampa Bay Lightening. We each wore a down jacket (otherwise known as a puffy, a must-have piece of gear for backpacking in March). I unzipped the down blanket out of my North Face One sleeping bag and we both curled under it. While we listened to Tuukka and Torey shut out the Lightning on the ice, we watched a lightning storm roll closer to the Smokies. We decided to turn in at the end of the second period.
I headed to the “toilet area” – that’s right most of the shelters in the Smokies have no privies – to tinkle before crawling into my bag. Mini trails crisscross through this hill down from the shelter with some trails terminating into underbrush. I got turned around and lost my sense of direction, but I could see K2’s headlamp shining through the shelter’s polycarbonate roofing material. These Smoky Mountain shelters usually have corrugated roofs of tin and plastic. I headed that way and then… I was lost again! I could not see any light from the shelter. I could see lights from my own headlamp, from a distant town, and from the lightening storm, which seemed like it was getting closer. Then it started to sprinkle. I kept moving up hill, came to a trail, then lost it somehow, and completely missed the shelter. I came to a clearing where K2 and I had initially considered tenting. How could I be so lost and still be this close to the shelter? It stopped sprinkling, but the wind came up. After at least 20 minutes, I had to admit it.
Hello HELLO HELLOOOOO!
I’m wicked lost!
After calling for over five minutes and flashing my light, eventually I heard K2 calling back to me and saw his headlamp. I yelled at him to stay on the trail and crashed through brambles to meet him. We embraced and I burst into laughter and tears at the same time.
“It was a rescue not a recovery.” – K2 announced to the honeymooners once we made it back to Russell Field
Not twenty minutes after finally tucking into my bag, the storm came over us. Lots of lightning and thunder with hard driving rain. Then the soundtrack changed from storm to freight train. Nickel-sized hail. We screamed to gauge how loud the storm was. We couldn’t hear ourselves against that din.
The storm passed after about forty-five minutes, but I stayed awake fueled from adrenaline of the unplanned night hike and the unexpected hail.