Thunder boomed through Gatlinburg as we walked through town, long before the cheap arcades and dinky rides were open. The same streets that had been bustling with people the afternoon before were now completely barren as the first few rain drops fell. The dark clouds in the distance had swallowed the mountains surrounding us and we watched as lightning zigzagged across the sky. By 9:20am, we were sitting in the backseat of a van and our full-blooded Cherokee driver was telling about past hikers he had picked up and their stories. As we climbed out of the valley and back in to the mountains, the storm grew worse and Jake and I grew more and more nervous with each passing mile. As we came around the last few turns of highway before we were to get dropped off, however, the sky began to clear and by the time we started hiking the sun was shining and the sky was a deep blue.
As the hours past and the miles stacked on top of one another, we once again saw storm clouds on the horizon and somehow made it to a shelter right as the rain and hail began to come down. It was a short little building, made of stone on three sides with a tin roof. There was a fire place in the corner where a glowing orange fire made the entire place very dry and smell of woodsmoke. By the time we got there it was packed full with hikers but somehow we managed to squeeze in two places to lay down on the two tiered wooden sleeping platforms. The Swiss couple we had met earlier were there, a man from Australia, two Hampden Sydney guys, a couple other thru-hikers, and two guys from Petersburg, Virginia were all sitting around the fire, cooking their meals and talking about the worsening storm raging overhead. After a little while, I pulled out my guitar and the two men from Petersburg stood around me, throwing out requests and listening to me play. As we talked, I learned that the two of them had started at the Gulf of Mexico and had hiked to Springer Mountain and then had begun hiking the Trail. As I look back now, I realize that they were two drifters, probably homeless, escaping the real world for that of a life on the Trail but I didn’t feel the least bit uneasy around them. One of the guys called himself Pilgrim and my sleeping pad was laying right next to his. As it began to grow dark and the flashlights of the other hikers began to turn off, signaling that they were trying to sleep, I put my guitar away and laid down, trying to sleep as the rain pelted our roof with increasing force. Pilgrim climbed into his tattered sleeping bag near me and, in the dim firelight, I saw him pull out a very large and gleaming knife which he stabbed into the wooden floor next to his head. Strange as it seems, I was too tired to care and I once again pulled my sleeping bag over my head and tried to sleep through the thunder and hail. After a few hours, I awoke to an overwhelming smell drifting over from where Pilgrim lay. I slowly slipped my head out from beneath my covers and saw plumes of smoke coming out from his sleeping bag. I didn’t know what to do except watch and, after a few moments, I saw his head emerge and in his hand a small glowing pipe. Looking back on it now, I find it strange how little concern I had about the fact that I was sleeping next to a homeless guy, in the middle of the woods, with a massive blade sticking in the wood between our heads, who was smoking some unknown stuff in his sleeping bag in the middle of a thunderstorm. I just rolled over and closed my eyes and fell right back to sleep.
The weather was clear by the next morning and Jake and I woke up early and were the first ones out of the shelter. The entire day we followed a spectacular ridge line and for most of the day walked above the clouds. That day we left the Great Smokies National Park and hiked down to where the Trail intersected with I-40. From there we hiked out of a deep gap and up another two miles, nearing where we had planned to camp, completing a 20+ mile day of hiking. However, with a mile left, the rain once again began to fall and within minutes we found ourselves caught in a very violent thunderstorm. We found ourselves sprinting the last mile or so, desperately looking for the nearest campsite we could find. Soaked, shivering, and very tired, we hastily pitched our tents in a gully with two small creeks running on either side of the campsite. It turned out to be a big mistake and within an hour there was nearly six inches of flood water flowing freely through the bottom of our tents. By the time it was dark, everything I had was drenched and I’m sure the two of us were near hypothermia. It was the longest night of the trip thus far.
Once again, the sun was shining as we crawled out of our tents. We packed up and started moving and, within a few hours, were both almost dry. I realized then that there are few things worse than walking on wet feet for hours on end. That day, we climbed two amazing mountains with huge meadows on top, known as balds. The second of which, named Max Patch Mountain, had a parking lot near the top and was full of church groups and day hikers. We were told it was St. Patrick’s day and celebrated by sitting in the warm and drying sun for almost an hour. We then finished our day by hiking another ten or so miles to a rickety looking shelter, deciding to pitch our tents instead. We had finished up earlier than expected so I had time to light our first campfire of the trip.
Rain, our most persistent and seemingly ever present companion these last few days, once again pattered our tents the next morning and we got up and started moving as fast as we could. We were scheduled to meet one of Jake’s friend, Alex, fourteen miles down the Trail in a town called Hot Springs, NC in a few hours so we decided to do the entire distance without breaks. It took only four and a half hours of walking through the rain and fog to get in to town where we were greeted by Alex who then drove us 45 minutes into Asheville, NC. We ate at Taco Bell, loaded up on groceries, showered, and did our laundry, as well as had time to cook a whole bunch a cheeseburgers. It was a great night here in Asheville and we’re trying to get back on the Trail again sometime tonight. Our next resupply is in 70 miles at Erwin, TN where I will be able to register for classes for this coming fall. From there, we have another 85 to hike to our next resupply after that in Hampton, TN and then only another 42 miles until we are back in Virginia. All in all, we hope to cross the Tennessee/Virginia border in the next eleven or twelve days (March 31st).
Thank you to everyone who has contacted us and helped us along the way so far. Your words of encouragement and acts of friendship mean more than you know.