Good afternoon from Gatlinburg, TN "The Gateway to the Smokies!" If you've never been to Gatlinburg (or Cherokee, or Pigeon Forge), you're really missing out on a true piece of Americana. Today is our twentieth day on the trail, and fourth day in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After seeing so much nature on foot, it's been weird remembering that most Americans experience nature in their cars. The Smokies get 9 million visitors a year, most of which never (or very rarely) leave their vehicles. I think that's a shame. Nevertheless, we're enjoying a "near-o" day in this little Tennessee version of Vegas. With over 100 motels, 70 restaurants, and dozens of side-show attractions (so far we've counted eight different "Old-Timey Photo" shops), being in Gatlinburg is like being on another planet. Plus, they have a Shoney's! Jackpot! All joking aside, the folks here are hospitable and welcoming to thru-hikers, even when we're smelly. We thank them for that.
A lot has happened since we last posted. It's hard to think we've already hiked more than 200 miles--close to 10% of the AT. After weeks without trail names, we think we've settled on Veggie (Lara) and Square (Zack).We've met some fantastic people and have started to settle into a group of sorts. The trail attracts people from all walks of life, and it's been a real pleasure getting to know some of them. We're already dreading the day when we get separated due to injury, vacation, or pace. One fellow hiker, Bluefoot, has described this as "the most non-linear linear experience of our lives." Everyone hiking their own hike, intersecting now and then, but all still heading north.
Here's the day-by-day:
Hiawassee to Muskrat Creek Shelter (12 miles)
Severe thunderstorms delayed our departure from Hiawassee until late morning. Thankfully, the shuttle driver was willing to wait with us at the Budget Inn until the rain cleared. The hike out of Georgia and into North Carolina was brutal--12 miles nearly entirely uphill. On days like this both Lara and I are particularly grateful to have a hiking partner. Mid-afternoon we unceremoniously crossed into NC, stopping instead at an iconic, gnarled tree a few hundred yards later for a photo-op. Our joy was short-lived as the NC side of the AT gave us a big ol' butt whoppin' with two extremely steep climbs, sin switchbacks. When we finally made it to the Muskrat Creek Shelter, heavy-footed, we quickly ate a mashed-potato dinner, hung our bear bag, and crashed.
Muskrat Creek Shelter to Carter Gap Shelter (12.5 miles)
The hiker's prayer, according to our friend Buzz Saw: "Lord, if you pick'em up, I'll put'em down." In a way, our prayers were answered today as we found ourselves rewarded with an easy, gradual day 9. The highlight of the day was lunch at the summit of Standing Indian Mountain.
Carter Gap Shelter to Rock Gap Shelter (12 miles)
Day 10, our second big milestone after the 50-mile mark. It's safe to say we're really starting to feel like thru-hikers. Our appetites are kicking in! Early this morning we weathered some heavy rain and lightning, which we observed from inside our tent. (Lara points out that we spend nearly 16 hours a day in that tiny space. Good thing we aren't claustrophobic!). After a hand-over-hand climb to the top of Albert Mountain, we lunched at the top of the observation tower with a new friend, Jackrabbit. Jackrabbit tests snowplows for a living. When was the last time you met someone with that job?
Rock Gap Shelter to Wayah Shelter (15 miles)
Glorious, blue-sky day. We decided to bypass Franklin, NC and push on into the Nantahala wilderness. If I haven't mentioned it before, the forest service signs here resemble either the Rosetta Stone or a newspaper from the Flintstones. See here, then here. We received our first AND second real, bonafide bits of trail magic today. The first came from a sweet representative of the Nanatahala Trail Club who ran up to us as we emerged into a parking lot and exclaimed, "Happy Easter from the NTC!" We each received a bag of goodies containing candy, applesauce, and hard-boiled eggs--everything a thru-hiker could ever want. We devoured our packs on top of Silar Bald, which offered spectacular views of the surrounding region. Later in the day we began to hear whisperings of beer and hot dogs atop Wayah Bald, our final destination for the day. Sure enough, Topper, an '05 thru-hiker, and his friends were waiting next to the stone observation tower there with a tent full of goods, including fresh fruit, cold soda and SmartDogs, which are vegetarian-friendly franks. So thoughtful.
Wayah Shelter to Wesser Bald Shelter (10.5 miles)
Easy day today up and over Wesser Bald. Had a great chat with Journey, a second-time thru-hiker, whose partner will be teaching at Whitman next year. We very much enjoyed this small-world moment and gave her our authoritative perspective on Walla Walla.
Wesser Bald Shelter to Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) (6 miles)
Sad news today entering NOC: Buzz Saw and Gramps, two of our favorite hikers, have left the trail. As they were one step ahead of us, we weren't given the opportunity to say goodbye or discuss their reasons for stopping their hike. We knew going into this that most hikers attempting to get to Maine drop out before they get there, but Buzz and Gramps' departure really brought this statistic home.
Spent the day today at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, a hub for river rafting companies situated right next to the river (and right on the AT). We showered, shopped, and ate three hefty meals here, including the "best pizza on the trail" at the River's End Restaurant. Best pizza we've had thus far anyways. Will need to wait until completion to release a final verdict.
NOC to Sassafrass Gap Shelter (7 miles)
Two weeks on the trail. After a mere 18 hours in civilization, and a sweltering night in the NOC bunks, we were eager to get back on the trail, where our options for regulating temperature are much greater. The climb out of the NOC is a doozie, but we made it to Sassafrass Gap by 1:00. Met up with Journey there and decided to spend our first night in a shelter, which was a beautifully crafted, double-decker with a skylight and no mice.
Sassafrass Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter
Awful storm tonight, that we--thankfully--survived unscathed. In retrospect, we were probably safer in the mountains than anywhere else it the Southeast. Pretty scary stuff.
Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter
Another taste of society as we "near-oed" in Fontana Resort. Stayed the night at the Fontana Dam shelter, affectionately known as the 'Fonatana Hilton' due to its size and proximity to real bathrooms. We were treated to luxuries all day--trail magic from Chimp's parents out of Knoxville, a mail drop from mom and dad, and a warm, happy evening with about 28 other hikers preparing to venture into the Smokies. Our time at Fontana felt a lot like a frat mixer. Only differences: we just met these people a week ago, and no one threw up. My kind of party.
Fontana Dam Shelter to Russell Field Shelter
Our first day in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The trail in this section crosses over the Fontana Dam (and no, it's not the dam from The Fugitive--we asked). Friends and family may recall that our last camping trip in the Smokies was 4 days of rain, followed by my car breaking down (but we still had fun!). Today we had uncharacteristically blue skies, great temps, and amazing views. Met a very nice trail-runner named Carl who works the section around Fontana from February-May. He's in his late sixties and his ninth season as a trail-runner. Nice to know these guys are around.
Russell Field Shelter to Silar Bald Shelter
Planned a short day today, but decided to push on and meet our friends at Silar's Bald. Many pushed on to catch a sunrise at Clingman's Dome, but we didn't have the 4:00 AM departure in us.
Silar Bald Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter
Slept in a bit this morning but eventually emerged to a blustery sunrise atop Silar's Bald (the one in the Smokies, not the one in the Nantahala. They seem to have run out of titles when naming the mountains around here. I think we've seen 3 different Sassafrass Gaps at this point). Summitted Clingman's Dome today, which at 6,643 ft. is the highest point on the Appalachian Trial. The view was hazy, but hey, we're in the Smokies. Lots of tourists. Cell phone reception in one spot. Just enough to get a text from dad that said "I bet you guys look good." For your information, we looked like we hadn't showered in 5 days.
Mt. Collins Shelter to Newfound Gap/Gatlinburg, TN
Out of the shelter at 7:00 this morning to catch a ride into Gatlinburg. Got our first hitch in the parking lot--a fellow from upstate NY, his father, and his uncle heading back to town after a week of familial bonding in the Smokies. Neither of us likes asking for rides much, but you do what you gotta do.
Missing you all. Feel free to write us, via post or email, and let us know what you're up to on the other side of life.
Zack (and Lara)