Last spring, I embarked on a backpacking trip through the Smokies. It was more than a hike; it was closure to the final chapter of my stagnated military career, and a bittersweet “last” adventure with a good friend before returning home. I’d been in Virginia a couple years, in a discarded position with the Air Force, alone … there had been too much uncertainty in force shaping to uproot as a family. While my husband and I struggled with distance, new local friends helped me to my feet … and were now “family”. I was anxious to get back to my spouse and my life, but I wasn’t completely ready to say goodbye. Sharing a week-long journey through a respectable (or, at least measurable) segment of the Appalachian Trail seemed just the chicken soup to settle my soul.
Robin, my fated instigator into backpacking, had started section hiking the Appalachian Trail the previous February, solo, during one of the coldest weeks of the year. I had met her after she installed a coworker’s Verizon and talked up a via ferrata trip she organized … somehow it was fate we’d all go on that trip and become great friends. It surely helped lure me out of my shell and back into a life, though it now seems very butterfly effect. So, that February, I was driving with another of Robin’s butterflies, Jenna, to somewhere around Franklin, NC, ferrying a handbag of fresh clothes and a tub of baklava, to pick Robin up from her first week on the trail.
This hadn’t gone exactly as planned … she finished early, we weren’t even close, the access road was gated off this time of year anyway, and several exhausting miles later she hitched a ride into town and called us from a stranger’s phone to ask which hotel we’d reserved. Jenna called the front desk to let Robin check in, describing a tall bedraggled woman who looked like she’d been in the woods for a week, and was probably jonesing for a coffee. She had just entered the lobby.
When we arrived, her sentiment seemed fixed on “never again”. A shower, fresh clothes, Chinese food, and a trip to Walmart to buy new footwear (she forgot to pack comfortable shoes and couldn’t stand another minute in the hiking boots), and she was mostly good as new. And apparently this backpacking thing was “like childbirth” because she was ready to go again by Memorial Day weekend. Except this time … misery wanted company. And we could all borrow gear.
Our little group of five piled our poorly packed stuff into two cars and drove the eight hours to Franklin. I’m not sure Bill knew what he was getting into—after all, North Carolina neighbors Virginia so we could have picked a much closer part of the trail … but it wouldn’t have been the consecutive section Robin planned we hike. That was closer to Georgia.
After a late night and early morning repacking, we had one final chance for adjustments, with Robin’s infamous luggage scale to inform us. The men competed for heaviest gear … Josh because he bought a large pack and took the same approach as furnishing a house, Kyle because he’s Robin’s son and Robin may have cheated a little, and Bill because he got annoyed during Robin’s packing lecture and passive-aggressively did his own thing. (As a side note, we all appreciated Bill’s fancy coffee press a lot more than he enjoyed carrying it.)
Three days later, for every moment of exhaustion and irritation … Robin cracking the whip to get us up the last godawful hill to Albert Mountain Fire Tower before sunset, and the pending inevitable loss of toenail(s) … there was a prevailing and opposite memory of camaraderie, beautiful scenery, comic interactions with other “unique” individuals on the trail, and shared recollections with good friends. Maybe they’ll work their way into a book someday. I was sold enough on the experience that I completed the next couple sections of trail with Robin and an assortment of friends, each trip its own rollercoaster with memories that still warm my spirits.
Now late March, we “slack packed” the final sixteen miles to bring us to the park’s southern boundary, and spent one last night basking in the warmth of a space heater at the Hike Inn before hitting the trail. A shower, hair dry and an unplanned early morning circuit breaker reset later, and our hosts dropped us off at the southern boundary of the park.
It started clear enough, cold, shielded from the wind until we reached the first “must see” viewpoint. Rickety old Shuckstack Fire Tower afforded beautiful 360 views for those willing to brave it. Its safety railings were somewhat lacking, and the top platform felt rotted. It may have swayed in the wind. Looking off to where we’d started, Fontana Dam and its lake gave us a great progress check landmark (as it would for much of our journey).
The early wave of thru-hikers was already in full swing, which made us feel a little guilty about our timing considering the National Park Service’s permit policy. We “section hikers” had to commit to a flight plan and reserve shelters for every night in the park, and were forbidden from satellite camping … meaning if a shelter was at capacity, thru-hikers would be bumped. Thinking about the chaos that accompanied arrival at every shelter, I’m not sure how anyone would decide who had been last if a section hiker with reservations arrived after the shelter was full … and we didn’t want to find out. Since we met almost everyone in passing a few times, they were our shared little community for this adventure, and it didn’t seem fair or hospitable to evoke this “privilege”. (Fortunately, because we had to commit to an itinerary, we kept our distances reasonable … there was hope we wouldn’t have to.)
We had already met a few of our sardine-mates. An older lady, “Blue Jay”, enjoyed breakfast in a rare patch of sun. A British couple, “Dirty Harry” and “Misty”, noticed an anonymous trail artist’s snow smiley blazes plastered on trees, and remarked “the trail get happier as you head north”. “Geared Up” inspired envy with his tiny 22-lb pack. And we looked forward to meeting one of the oldest women to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (which she’d done at age 72), as she was now 76 and would sync with Blue Jay to at least Newfound Gap.
Despite wind and mud, it was an otherwise nice day, and there were a lot of people on the trail. A woman in a large group traveling the opposite direction stopped to take our pictures. Robin was “33” and I was “34” … the 34th person she’d passed since leaving Russell Field Shelter. Since it was our reserved destination for the night, capacity 14, we hoped they weren’t all headed there.
One of Robin’s charms is her obsession with mushrooms, in particular, chaga. It grows on injured birch trees and looks like a tumor made of slag, but is a rich burnt sienna color on the inside. I suppose in some ways it’s the pearl of the forest. It’s said to contain miracle health benefits, but despite knowing it is not hallucinogenic, I was still wary to even burn it as incense after the Air Force banned Chobani blueberry yogurt because it can make you test positive for drugs. But Robin was always on the lookout. She can and has spotted it from the road … and veered suddenly onto the shoulder to get a closer look. It was much less dramatic when she found some on the trail.
At some point that afternoon, after playing the tortoise and the hare with Robin (she hiked fast on flats and downhill, I was slow and steady and usually caught up either on long hills or her snack breaks), I heard a hiker rapidly gaining on me and a “behind you” … and a flash of colorful gaiters sped past me. This was my first interaction with the 76 year old woman.
The shelter had a tarp over the front, a much celebrated seasonal addition to help block out the wind and cold. Industrious hikers already had a fire going. We staked our spaces then ventured the short distance downhill to a spring to reload on water. Our first hiccup—Robin’s steripen gave up the ghost, and what looked like AA or AAA batteries in its base were actually shorter than the standard batteries we brought. So my new filter pump, an untouched passenger in my pack for the last 70 miles of section hikes, spewed soapy foam as it finally lost its virginity.
H2O reloaded, we made dinner, gathered firewood, tiptoed carefully to/through the “bathroom” (the outhouse was a pile of lumber pending renovation), met our bunkmates, and listened to logbook excerpts. Robin went into show and tell mode with her favorite fungus, chaga. Our new friend Blue Jay shared tiny samples of chocolate and spirits with everyone. As the shelter exceeded capacity, people just squeezed closer together and everyone somehow fit. What sounded like hurricane force winds howled through the night, and the tarp over the front of the shelter seemed like a godsend.
The next morning was foggy and wet. The trail, worn down a foot or more in places, hadn’t drained of snowmelt and rain, and was a muddy slip’n slide. This may have been fun if immediately followed by a hot shower, but since that was a week out, epic wipeouts and soggy hiking boots equated to lasting discomfort, and pelting rain just added to the mess. Our next two “can’t miss” views, Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain, were shrouded in clouds, with dense pockets whipping across the rocks and vegetation in our short field of visibility. But, out of the wind, and without the distraction of spectacular vistas, we noticed mushrooms and ferns like something out of Princess Mononoke, and water beaded on tree buds, and tremendous vibrancy of color. It was pretty, in a miserable kind of way.
We climbed a final mud slick to Derrick’s Knob Shelter and claimed our spots for the night, repeating much of the same routine. The outhouse situation was the same—there was a general area people were using, and some weren’t considerate. I went off in a different direction to search for wood, found a great supply some distance from the shelter, and hauled back several loads so I could sit in front of the fire and feel no obligation to go back out into the wet. I sat there barefoot (I didn’t think to pack “camp shoes”), half hoping for a hobbity trail name. As I tried to dry my stuff out, I conversed with a bushy-bearded redhead, “Lucky Leprechaun”, about trail magic, a pizza delivery at the “Fontana Hilton” (a shelter both very nice and easily accessible to do-gooders), and an unhappy disagreement with Jack Daniels. Before it got too dark, he grabbed his headlamp and said he was headed to “poopie holler” to grab more firewood.
The next morning was more of the same … rain, mud, wind … the trail a stream of muddy water. I’m convinced Vonnegut came up with ice-nine while slogging through something like this. “Three Thumbs” said the rain was forecast to move out by late morning, but Robin and I wanted to get to the next shelter ASAP and stake our claim before it got crowded. Many others chose to wait in optimistic hope.
Not minutes after our arrival at Double Spring Gap Shelter, which already harbored several souls, the sky let free all remaining restraint and unleashed a deluge. We hurriedly organized our sleeping areas, knowing chaos stampeded toward us, lashed by the pounding rain. Someone zigzagged 550-cord across the rafters, an improvised clothesline soon covered in wet gear. Our previous night’s shelter-mates filtered in, having eventually conceded the weather wouldn’t clear, just in time to get caught in the worst of it … they cursed “Three Thumbs” and surmised his extra opposable digit was retaliation for a previous weather forecast. Steam rose from their bodies. Wet clothes were everywhere. The shelter looked like a gypsy camp.
When the rain subsided, a few of us went scouting for firewood … I found a cool little enchanted forest and really wanted to take pictures, but it was a distance from the shelter, through a lot of wet muck, and by the time I dragged the third or fourth and final load, my will for heading back into the cold dark wet to take pictures was gone. Someone actually got a fire going, and it was gravitational. While most people threw their boots and socks in front of it and crawled into their sleeping bags, Robin and I took up residence and fed it for hours … even rotating socks, some that were stiffened with trail filth. I made one last pit stop before it got completely dark, and found the rain had turned to sleet and snow. We handed the fire off, filled water bottles with boiling hot water and tucked them in our sleeping bags (backpacking turndown service, a most welcome life hack), crawled in and went to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to a cold blast of air and blinding light when the early-risers opened the tarp flap. The storm had delivered between six inches and a foot of snow.
Most of the thru-hikers planned a bailout at Newfound Gap … to catch a ride to Gatlinburg, take a zero day, resupply, and get dry. Our reservations were for the shelter after Newfound Gap, meaning we’d probably have to break trail at the end of a long hike. A recent bad experience made this undesirable (we’d lost the trail in drifts and couldn’t spot white blazes masked by snow). There were other options … we could trudge to the next closest shelter, Mt Collins, about 6 miles … there would probably be space since most thru-hikers were headed off the trail. Or we could push to Newfound Gap and take a zero day ourselves. We opted to let everyone clear out and play it by ear.
People retrieved their stiffened ice-sheathed clothes from both indoors and out. As they departed, we noticed an abandoned pair of (presumably frozen) men’s underwear hung by its lonesome near the chimney. Guessing at their owner, we hoped “Wingin’ It” wasn’t ”Freeballin’ It”.
Joking aside, you start to appreciate how vulnerable you are when you wake up to frozen gear. The propane canister, water pump, and a few other non-muddy things had been tucked in the sides of our sleeping bags and still worked. But our socks hadn’t fully dried and now were rigid, and our boots were frozen. Robin fired up her jetboil and stuck a hot water bottle in her boots, while I sat on mine. Eventually both methods thawed them enough we could force our numb feet into them. The drinking tube on my camelback was also solid. We set off into the cold white world, anxious to get the blood pumping to our frozen appendages.
For all of Mother Nature’s unwelcome deliveries of rain, mud, cold, slush and snow, this day was a beautiful peace offering. A fresh blanket of purity covered our world in softness and silence.
Clingman’s Dome is normally a tourist trap. Because the road to it was impassable and there were so few hikers, we had it all to ourselves. It’s a bit of an eyesore, in my opinion, but the view from above the trees was extremely beautiful. It was also very exposed … we didn’t stay long.
Patches of sunlight warmed our torsos, but simultaneously melted snow under a thin layer of ice and ensured soaked feet. Mt Collins Shelter was further off the trail than the other shelters had been, but we still opted to stay there and make it an early day. A half mile detour later, down a trail covered in several inches of ice water, we were spent. There was just one other person there, and none of us could find the spring … so we pumped water from a clean footprint in the snowmelt on the trail. We boiled it and rallied our spirits over hot soup.
Robin had it in her head that she could and would get a fire going no matter how wet the wood, and since she is even more stubborn than I am, I didn’t doubt her. It was well beyond my skills, but I could be useful finding firewood. So I set off on a mission.
Everything near the shelter was picked clean, but a quarter mile away I found fallen trees with long dead branches, and a goldmine of broken limbs buried in the brush and snow. I made piles of combustibles. I had several trips-worth gathered before I took the first load to the shelter.
Two hikers, a couple from Minnesota, arrived about this time. They had started from a further shelter and broke 6 miles of trail before they even reached where we’d started. Completely exhausted, their first priority was a hot meal … they pulled out their propane burner and started cooking.
Enter the Ridge Runner. We’d heard of them … we’d even met one in passing. They patrol the park trails for everyone’s safety, poised with radios to call in help if needed. But this was the first one we’d encountered at a shelter, and we didn’t initially recognize what he was. He wore shorts, seemed pretentious, and condescendingly chastised these hikers for being “so inconsiderate and disrespectful” as to cook in the shelter … which, of course, we had just done. The girl nodded, rolled her eyes, and ignored him. That’s when he identified himself as a Ridge Runner. Robin renamed him Ranger Rick.
I went back to dragging firewood, Robin to staging piles by dryness and size, with help now as people arrived and dropped their gear. Robin used wetfire and got a small fire started … she coaxed it and gave it her complete attention, but it petered out anyway. She tried again. Again, promise, but it just wouldn’t stay lit unless she was actively blowing on it. Caring more about a fire than girl power or our egos, we let someone else try his skills … to the same end. We stared at the piles of wood. If we couldn’t get this fire going, someone would inherit a nice stash. In a rare act of pure optimism, I continued to break it down. Robin christened me “Woodchuck”.
Not quite ready to give up, Robin shaved a good pile of tinder off a thick dry branch, and we pooled our wetfire in one final “all or nothing” attempt. She started the fire once again, gently blowing in a sort of cadence for a couple minutes, then tapping me to take over … and back and forth a sort-of tag-team CPR until the fire finally came to life and breathed on its own. And it felt glorious. We didn’t think to get a picture of our moment of victory.
With Ranger Rick overnight in the shelter, everyone grudgingly boiled their water outside the next morning. The reason behind not eating inside was to prevent crumbs and smells from attracting mice and other varmints … but boiling water outside seemed overkill. Robin retrieved our bear bags and made coffee, and was now baiting one of these tiny instruments of destruction closer for a picture when Ranger Rick emerged. She flicked her cheerio into the snow and looked innocent. He made a remark about the troublesome red-headed squirrel, which I’m not sure, may have been targeted at Robin instead of the cute thieving rodent. Since Red-Rocky tried to abscond with my cliff bar, I can sort of understand Ranger Rick’s position. I still think it was a little overboard.
We set off early before the sludge thaw, intent to make up mileage and get back on track—with at least fifteen miles to our reserved shelter. The weather had cleared and it was a beautiful day. We draped our wet clothes over our packs in hope our returned prodigal friend, the sun, would finally dry them.
As we crossed the parking lot at Newfound Gap, a gentleman with a thick Sam Elliott mustache pointed us toward a white pickup truck, where his wife showcased a sizeable buffet … every sandwich ingredient and condiment imaginable (even wasabi mayonnaise); plus cokes, homemade cookies and brownies, and an assortment of hiker supplies. Trail angels! We learned later Beth and Bernie take a week of vacation every year to drive up from Florida and perform this kindness, all with tips Beth earns from hairdressing. It made me hope karma is real.
We took a break at Charlie’s Bunion, the next of the “must see” viewpoints. “Mountain Mama” and “Mama’s Boy” rested there (she was thru-hiking, he was just along for the section). We found they were also headed to Peck’s Corner Shelter, and thought to ourselves “probably along with everyone else coming off a zero day”. This gave us some urgency.
After a very long day, and an additional 0.4 miles down a side trail that seemed like a streambed, we finally arrived at Peck’s Corner Shelter. It was already over capacity, but people let us cram in without having to play the “section hiker” card. About a half hour later, Mountain Mama and Mama’s Boy arrived … and there really didn’t seem any way they’d fit. But, Mountain Mama pleaded, and while Mama’s Boy said he’d camp outside, the bottom shelf gave way enough to let them both wedge in.
There were people we hadn’t met yet … “Thunder Mountain” (we were in for a noisy night) and his son “AMP” (Angry Middle-sized Person), “Mary Poppins” (had everything in her backpack), and “Shakespeare” and “Rochambeau” (recent college grads I can only guess were roommates and named each other). I thought Shakespeare should write his trail blog entries in iambic pentameter.
Everyone turned in before nightfall, the shelter dark, save for the annoying blinking light of Mountain Mama’s emergency locator. I briefly woke some time later when the tarp flap opened and a tiny bit of ambient light from late dusk filtered in, followed by headlamps. I’m sure others heard it too, but nobody stirred. Whether the unhappy voices were thru-hikers or section hikers that might have bumped someone, they left the “spoon drawer” undisturbed. We saw them the next morning, sleeping a few feet off the access trail. Unofficial Count: 19 inside + 3 outside // Official Capacity: 12.
Our last full-day leg of the park was to Cosby’s Knob Shelter. It was another beautiful day, but the trail was still a mess. I experimented with plastic bags between my socks and boots, which did little if anything. We stopped for lunch at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, and to our great surprise, discovered the FIRST standing outhouse of the entire journey, and it was HANDICAP ACCESS. Never mind that trail to get there is not handicap accessible, it was probably too much red tape to fight … and possibly why every privy to this point was materials-only, under a tarp, pending construction. Government bureaucracy …
Later we were serenaded by a guy with a harmonica on a weekend hike, playing/singing a catchy tune about walking in two states at once. He had a message for “Daddy Long Legs” and “Baby Steps” (a couple traveling together with great disparity in stride length, apparently) … there was a CD waiting for them at Damascus.
Cosby’s Knob Shelter was dry, warm, uncrowded, and had an outhouse. We got there early, and decompressed.
Our next morning was a short hike, with a short detour to the final “must see” view, Mt Cammerer Fire Lookout.
From there, we called our hosts at the Hike Inn and arranged our ride, then ambled downhill to the park’s northern boundary for pickup. Showers, fresh clothes, and Chinese food, and we’d be mostly good as new.