We left Franklin, North Carolina a week ago but it seems so much longer than that. The Trail winded up and out of a place called Wallace Gap and Jake and I found ourselves traversing more and more rugged terrain with each passing mile. Up until this point, neither one of us had been very sociable with the other thru-hikers on the Trail but as the mountains grew steeper and the towns grew fewer and farther between, we began to get to know more and more of them. We met “Buckets” from New Jersey, “Plus 3″ from Maine, “Strollin’” from Florida, “Napoleon” from Louisiana, “Swiss Miss” and “Alien” from Switzerland, and a few other people from all over. It has certainly been nice talking to someone other than Jake for a change.
After a few days, the two of us found ourselves walking down to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a whitewater rafting and hiking place with a little general store, some bunkhouses, and a restaurant. We got to do our laundry and eat some great, inexpensive food, as well as shower for free. When night time came, we were invited to a guide school graduation bonfire party which was awesome. There we met two guys, Ross and Johnny, and they offered to pick us up from the Trail and take us in to town once we got to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was tough leaving the N.O.C. but we both felt healthy and wanted to knock off some miles as fast as we could.
About ten miles past the N.O.C., a tired and obviously dehydrated dog trotted up behind us and we phoned its owner (it had a collar) who told us that they’d pick it up at the next gap. So for about eight miles, this dog, who looked identical to Shadow from Homeward Bound, followed us down and out of the mountains and in to the truck of its thankful owner. A few other thru-hikers had walked the dog down with us and together we left joking about how we had all hoped we’d come out of the woods to see the smiling owner standing next to a charcoal grill, cooking up hot dogs and burgers as a reward for saving his dog.
The day after leaving the N.O.C., we found ourselves standing on Fontana Dam, the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains. Staring out across that man-made lake, we saw the highest mountains on the Appalachian Trail, as well as rows upon rows of endless ridge lines, infamous for their insolent and unpredictable weather. At this point, we had been very lucky with the weather in Georgia and North Carolina so far. Other than low temperatures and some light snow, we had experienced mostly warm days and sunshine. Our second morning in the Smokies, however, we awoke to find a damp, wet mist clinging low to the ground and a light rain falling from sunless skies. The Trail quickly became a flowing stream and the slippery mud made hiking even more treacherous. As the day wore on, the rain and wind picked up and we found ourselves cold and soaking wet, as well as being continuously whipped by an unrelenting crosswind. By the time we finished our day, the two of us stumbled in to a shelter packed full of day hikers who had built a fire and offered to dry our clothes, get us water, and even gave us a little food. They we’re certainly great people and that night we slept warm, dry, and comfortable.
By the next morning, the weather had only gotten worse. Days before I had been completely overconfident in my food supply and, by this point, found myself almost completely out. So we set off, twenty miles from the next town, with very little food and in horrendous weather conditions. At one point, the storm got so rough and visibility was so terrible that I walked straight in to a tree on the side of the Trail. It was certainly a miserable time for the two of us. Within a couple of hours, however, the storm suddenly ceased and the North Carolina sky opened up to reveal a glorious blue sky and a warm sun that quickly dried our clothes. Probably looking like we had just come out of a war zone, Jake and I stumbled upon a shelter with a young couple from Memphis, Tennessee sitting out in front of it. After talking to the man for a little while he offered me a bag full of sugared dates and, oddly enough, some OxyContin. Regretfully, I only accepted the dates.
We then proceeded to climb Clingmans Dome (6,643 ft.), the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Other than the mud, it was a fantastic climb up to the top where we found a swirling concrete ramp leading up to an observation tower. From there we were shown the true ruggedness of what we had just travelled across, as well as what we still had left to do. So, down to our last few pepperoni slices and spoonfuls of peanut butter, we set off for the last eight miles of the day. On the way, we called our whitewater rafting guide friends from the N.O.C., Ross and Johnny, and they said they’d drive an hour to pick us up from the next gap and take us into Gatlinburg, just like they had promised. So we raced down Clingmans Dome, trying to get there as fast as possible. In those few hours of amazing weather that we had, the true beauty of the Smokies became evident. Up where we were, the evergreen forest grew thick and dark green moss covered everything. The whole Trail smelled like Christmas and the needled trees grew so thick, you could only see about ten feet in to the dark woodlands on either side of the Trail. As we were coming down, we hiked through about a mile of wild bore sanctuary, as well as numerous flowing creeks.
By the time we made it to Newfound Gap, we were exhausted. We had raced through twenty miles in one day on very little food through some very harsh weather conditions. There were quite a few people who had driven up there and a bunch of them came up and asked us about our journey, many giving us pats on the backs or offering us words of encouragement. Then we saw a most gorgeous site. Rumbling up the paved mountain road came a big white truck with Johnny at the wheel. They pulled up and we couldn’t stop thanking him and Ross as we loaded up our stuff and climbed in. They drove us all the way to Gatlinburg and we took them out for burgers and then found our hotel. We walked in to the lobby and were taken away by a massive mural of Jesus kneeling down and kissing the Liberty Bell with an American flag and bald eagle in the background. It was a little strange but, tired as we were, we just went to our room and fell asleep.
This morning, we decided to take a zero-mile day and we resupplied and I got a new, very nice and durable raincoat. Walking around Gatlinburg was strange after being in the woods for as long we have. It is like the entire town is a carnival, each shop selling henna tattoos, air soft guns, or other stuff like that. As we were riding the trolley through town, however, I met a Korean War veteran who was passing through town with his wife when their camper had broken down. After talking for a little while, he realized I was a thru-hiker and we leaned in and began talking as if we were old friends, right there on the moving trolley. He told me that he had come home from Korea and, only a week later, him and his brother started hiking the Trail. Together they hiked close to four hundred miles before he was forced to get off due to appendicitis. His brother past away in a car accident three years later and he had never been able to bring himself to try it again since. He said, now that he was as old as he is, not going back to finish was the single biggest regret of his life. He also said that he and his wife were staying in a motel and the camper had been fixed so Jake and I could stay in it if we needed to. I told him we already had a room in town but that I deeply appreciated it. He smiled and wished us luck, begging us to be safe but to never give up and to make it all the way to Maine. Our stop came and I shook his hand and left, realizing that neither one of us had asked one another’s name.
So tomorrow we set off for Hot Springs, North Carolina which is about a seventy mile journey. We have plenty of food and are well rested so we plan on it taking about three and a half days. Jake’s sickness has long since left him, however his knee is still giving him trouble at times. I am doing great except for my left ankle has a tendency to ache in increasing intensity as the days wear on. The weather forecast shows warm weather but terrible thunderstorms heading our way for the next four days so this next stretch will certainly be challenging. However, with our new gear and gained experiences thus far, I’m confident we will make it to Hot Springs without incident. More to come as soon as I can.