WEEK # 4
3/13 – 3/19
Week 4 is my time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was a tale of two dramatically different experiences separated by a two-day stay in the Disnesque city of Gatlinburg.
After a good zero day I headed into the Great Smokies with rest-empowered eagerness. Most like me who follow thru-hikers on YouTube or Trail Journals, etc. see this step as a major one. It’s almost as if basic training has ended and it’s time for combat.
Gadabout (who roomed next to me at Hike Inn for the same two nights) and I got dropped off at Fontana Dam and we were hiking by 7:30 a.m., just minutes before dawn. The day was pleasant, partly sunny and cold – very nice for hiking. Although the day’s hike was akin to climbing out of the NOC, the trail brought us up gradually. (Fontana Dam, at 1,700 feet is the highest dam in the east. We were to climb to over 4,700 feet over the 12 miles.)
The morning was uneventful (I skipped the steep side trail to Shuckstack fire tower because the clouds had appeared to eliminate any particularly good views. (Scars later confirmed the wisdom of my decision.). I felt strong and, I think guided by a good mental approach (similar to being prepared for the climb out of the NOC) I eventually reached Mollies Ridge Shelter, where I was reintroduced to and spoke with Maverick 71 as we both prepared lunch.
I moved on another 3.3 miles gently uphill and then downhill to Russell Field Shelter at 4,347 feet. It was quiet at the shelter so I prepared to settle in and sleep there. (Hikers must sleep in shelters if there is room.) A large group from U of South Florida showed up to fill the shelter. Maverick 71 and his son showed up and tented. A couple of section hikers with a dog were also tenting (and one was in a hammock). The group was social, but the bitter cold drove us to eat quickly and retire to our sleeping bags.
After my first evening in a shelter I was again first up and out on the trail. The morning was clouded in, cold and windy. The snow was much deeper than the prior day. The trail headed up from the shelter and the climb became more difficult (due to snow, wind and terrain) as it ascended Rocky Top and then Thunderhead Mountain. Although the sun suggested it might break through, there were no views other than the white of the snow and the grayness of the close cloud cover. There was a starkness and almost a Stephen King sense of foreboding created by the lack of color, fallen snow
underfoot, loneliness, the inability to see any distance or perspective, and the bitter cold and wind. I had not been overtaken, yet, by faster hikers from the shelter – itself unusual.
What most days was enjoyable solitude felt instead like uncomfortable loneliness (almost one of those – “what am I doing out here?” moments). The bitter cold meant I had no choice but to push on. At one time I feared I had left the AT
and then didn’t see a white blaze for what seemed like 20 minutes, also giving me a sense of uneasiness. But the fact that I WAS on the right trail was confirmed, and I thanked God at that moment for looking out for me.
The morning ended with a quick, late lunch at Derrick Knob Shelter. I was happy or relieved to see some familiar faces, Gadabout and others settling in for the day. The weather had also turned somewhat brighter.
I put on my Microspikes (these provided great benefit), gathered myself for a large afternoon push, and took on the last five and a half miles to Silers Bald Shelter. When I arrived (6:30 – my latest day for hiking) the shelter was generally full – Scars, Nightmare, and El Diablo were there. I quickly decide to tent – set up, gathered and boiled water, ate a Trailtopia meal, and with the bitter cold closing in on everyone, climbed into my tent (setup in the snow) and got ready for what I anticipated might be a brutal night.
After a night of tenting in the snow, I packed up on a cold and windy morning. I was first out of the shelter Ada where another dozen people spent the night. This day the objective was Clingman’s Bald, the highest point on the AT and the highest point in eastern United States. After a half an hour of hiking, which allowed me to warm up (and my frozen shoes
to thaw), the trail headed up through a forest of hemlock, pine and fir. I stopped at Double Spring Gap Shelter (1.7 miles) to filter water and grab a breakfast bar (and was met there for the same purposes by El Diablo and Nightmare).
With substantial snow (6 to 10 inches) on the ground and much still clinging to and suspended in the trees, the trail was essentially a beautiful tunnel winding upwards towards the summit. Sauerkraut (and then El Diablo and Nightmare) came by (he described his own nightmare of losing his phone the prior day – and running almost 4 miles south to retrieve it).
The first three or four miles were uphill, but the trail brought us up at a reasonable grade.
Views of the surrounding mountains on this clear blue sky day were more frequent than usual. The snow in the mountains and in the foreground made the vista especially beautiful. The day was cold, still below or at freezing, but I was comfortable due to the heat generated by the climb (and I continued to hike in rain pants and jacket (especially good for the wind). The last mile or so to the summit was more vertical, but I eventually hit the access road (covered still by snow) and made my way the last few hundred yards to the iconic observation tower.
With 35-40 MPH winds and 14 degrees, it was hard to spend much time in the tower, but I took a moment to enjoy the views and take photos and video. I was told that there are probably only 40 days a year where it’s clear atop Clingman’s Dome. I hurried down and ran into Scars heading for the tower. We spoke. Both of us planned to zero in Gatlinburg. It
was too cold to linger so we moved on.
The hike down to Newfound Gap was a substantial descent of seven miles with a few smaller uphill segments along the way. The trail was beautiful, but my pack was feeling particularly heavy and my left hip was hurting some. The weather warmed mostly from the bright sun and the trail continued to be beautiful. I ran into a number of day hikers making the 14 mile round trip hike from Newfound Gap to Clingman’s Dome. Scars caught me and hiked on as I tired – my pack felt uncomfortably heavy and a sore left hip slowed my progress. Eventually we made it to Newfound Gap.
I caught up with Cheryl for awhile until my shuttle (A Walk in the Woods) arrived and then I settled into the Hilton Garden Inn.
I spent a “zero” day working on getting some documents notarized for a Randolph Square closing. Five hours later I was a new customer at Tennessee State Bank and had my signatures properly acknowledged.
A benefit of coming off the trail when I did was – – March Madness. I love the basketball tournament and watched history as the 16th ranked team beat a #1 seed for the first time ever. [Sorry John, Wally]
I took another zero day to (hopefully) rest my hip. I visited the outfitter (NOC), which mailed a box for me back to Richmond. I ran into Hot Dog, Pioneer, and Turbo at the outfitter. I had a nice steak and watched more March Madness (including the incredible Michigan buzzer beater over Houston) and worked through my plan for the rest of the trip through the Smokies.
I had an early a.m. shuttle come to take me back to the trail. It was amazing how much better my hip felt after two days rest. I was hiking by 7:30. Initially it was cold and breezy as the gap was still clouded in. Within in an hour the temperature moderated and the sun was trying to show itself. The trail was of good quality (clearly well-travelled, likely due to probity to the gap and the reputed views at Charles Bunion). The morning’s hike proved to be primarily a very pleasant ridge walk. At Charlie’s Bunion the sky was still clouded in, but the sun appeared before noon to create a beautiful and mild day. Scars caught up to me (after a tough fall) and I got an update on his medical issues. (Sounded as if the two days in Gatlinburg were as beneficial for him as they were for me.)
Scars and I had a quick lunch together. We then ran into Hot Dog, Pioneer, and Turbo – who I would see most of the day. Tri-corner shelter was pretty full – with Mike & Alyssa, Peaks, Izzie and Fin (“Hans and Franz”), a girls group from Calvin College and Scars. Hot Dog, etc. showed up at the shelter late due to the cold weather, but we enjoyed dinner together and had time to talk.
Scars and I tented. It was an uneventful evening, but rain was expected the next day.
I was, unusually, out of camp late, mostly due to the temperatures being mild – which made it easier to cook breakfast – and for people to socialize. I ran into Hot Dog, Pioneer and Turbo fairly quickly and would see them most of the day. Scars left early and I would not see him until evening.
The trail was iced over and therefore very slippery in many places. I was happy to be able to use my Microspikes again.
It was to be an 18 mile day with most of that downhill as I left the GSMNP. I only had two tough climbs and I handled both surprisingly easily – do I now have hiker legs? The final descent seemed to go on forever. There was nothing special about leaving the park at Davenport Gap. I did have a good signal and spoke with Cheryl as I hiked a very pretty section between Davenport Gap and I-40. The final mile and a half to Standing Bear was tougher than expected.
I finally arrived and was greeted by Scars, the Professor, Izzie and Fin. They shared pizza with me and we had a beer together. Also there: Bearbait & his wife. Hawk (the proprietor, apparently) gave me and each visitor a tour of the collection of buildings and the local accounting system. An interesting (and “iconic”) place (some of my trail friends
accurately called it a “dump”). It rained early in the evening as we settled into our cabin.
Last modified: March 28, 2018