Holy Smok(i)es!

Day 18
AT Miles: 14.9
Fontana Dam Shelter > Russell Field Shelter

Here we go!

We were all in good spirits as we began the day that would be our first day in the Smokies. It was a bluebird day, and the forecast was looking uncannily good for the Smokies for this time of year. Fresh Ground said he’d never seen anything like it! We got up early enough that we were able to enjoy sunrise over Fontana Lake, which BAM! captured in all its glory through a timelapse video. After packing up, it was off to the parking lot for breakfast a la Fresh Ground!

As usual, breakfast was wonderful and the group was abuzz with anticipation for the start of our Smokies adventure. People started heading out to cross over the dam and enter the park. We took a little longer to roll out because we were waiting for our power bank to charge off of Fresh Ground’s charging station. When we finally left a little after 9 am, everyone else was already gone except for Trouble who strolled in late. Before leaving, we heard some of his crazy stories from all of his time spent on the trail. The guy essentially lives full time on the trail these days from what he tells everyone, thought no one is entirely sure how he does this. Very interested and quirky soul!

We speed-walked the road section only stopping to quickly use the bathroom at the visitor center (which were so nice). Neither of us are fans of road walking, so we were both grateful when we finally got to the trail leading into the Smokies, triumphantly placing our permits in the box and heading up, up, up, up… you get the picture- it was a whole lot of climbing!

We pushed up to Shuckstack and were rewarded with some Incredible views – yes we did go all the way to the top of that rickety fire tower! When we came back down we met Journalist and saw Betty White and Lost Bells and Honey Badger. We continued on after pouring some water in our Food for the Sole cold soak lunches. We hiked for about 30 minutes and then sat down and ate our delicious meal. We had been making a big effort to hydrate and eat more food today and our bodies were grateful for it.

We got to Mollies Ridge Shelter, our planned stopping point, but everyone had pushed on the extra 3.3 miles to the next shelter. We debated pushing on, too, then BAM! had to dig a cat hole. When he got back from that adventure we decided to keep going to Russell Field Shelter.

Our Friend, Honey Badger, stayed at Mollies Ridge

We both pulled up some music, put on our headphones and crushed out the 3.3 miles in an hour and 10 minutes. It actually felt pretty good to do that. This was our first time using headphones while hiking, and we liked it for the sake of cranking out some mileage.

We got to the shelter and everyone was there milling about. We got right to work setting up our tent, getting water, and starting dinner. We knew we didn’t have much daylight left and the temperature would drop as soon as the sun went down. While we cooked and ate, we hung out with Oak, who came to sit by us. We’ve been really enjoying getting to know him better and seeing his wonderfully hilarious personality come out! At one point, two Southbounders (Vogue and Veggietoons) came through and we asked them questions about their time on the trail. They seemed like they were feeling ready to be done by the time we met them. Who could blame them- they’d endured being out on the trail during the dead of winter, trudging through snow and skating over icy terrain! Both of them are serious champions in our book.

We ate two dinners because we had extra food thanks to Fresh Ground’s feast the night before (not complaining AT ALL). Then we hung our bags, went for a quick walk to warm up and snuggled up for the night. We counted our first day in the Smokies as a huge success.

Day 19
AT Miles: 16.4
Russell Field Shelter > Double Spring Shelter

Big thanks to Food for the Sole for keeping us fueled on these big hikes!

We got up, had breakfast, and rolled out of camp around 7:50 am, which was good because we had a long day ahead of us. Fresh Ground had warned everyone that the second day going northbound in the Smokies was the hardest, so we were all bracing ourselves for that reality. To add insult to injury, we were all giving ourselves the added challenge of getting as close to Clingman’s Dome as possible so that we could wake up early the next morning for sunrise. To make this happen, we were going to try to go over 16 miles with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain.

It was a beautiful bluebird day, but still pretty chilly since we were heading up over 5,000 ft above sea level. We got up to Rocky Top and had beautiful views. The Family was up there at the same time as us, so we took turns taking pictures of each other. We continued over to Thunderhead which had no view and then down some before going up and down the rest of the day.

After nearly 10 miles of the up and down and all around terrain, we got to Derrick Knob Shelter and stayed awhile for lunch. The Family, Oak, and Chris were there, too, and we all reveled at the exhaustion we felt because of what we’d just been through. Eventually, we decided to push on. Shortly after bidding everyone else farewell and getting down the trail some, we put in our headphones and listened to music as we crushed the last nearly 7 miles to the shelter. We really wanted to make it to Double Spring Shelter as we were eager to join our friends for a sunrise hike up to Clingmans Dome.

We made it, but we were utterly exhausted, so we hurried up and sent up our tent and made dinner. The family trickled in shortly after us and BAM!offered Melissa (the mom) a trail name – Star Fish! He thought of the name because, as she is hiking up a steep mountain, she sometimes “starfishes” on the ground, but when she gets to the top with an awesome view, she jumps and “starfishes” in the air! She seemed to like it, and plans to try it out for a while.

After a little planning with the group for the early rise, we went straight to bed. We were very tired and tonight we would only have 8 hours to sleep as apposed to our usual 10. To be honest, we really don’t get a full 10 hours right now because of how often we wake up cold, or are jolted awake by intense wind gusts, etc… It happened to be a windy night, so sleep definitely didn’t come easily. That should have been a warning for the morning to come.

Day 20
AT Miles: 5.6
Non-AT Miles: 0.5 (to shelter)
Double Springs Shelter > Mt. Collins Shelter

Only 2,000 miles to go!

Somehow, after a very restless night (in which Hero at one point had to rescue the tent fly after a stake had been ripped out of the ground by the wind), we got ourselves out of bed for the sunrise adventure. We woke up to the sound of our alarm at 3:30 am, and as much as we were excited to experience seeing the sunrise from atop Clingman’s Dome, the wind that still lashed against our tent made us want to just bury ourselves deeper into our sleeping bag. Still, we got up and were actually pretty quick about it. We ate a small snack for breakfast and were on the trail by 4:25 am.

Hiking through the balsam forest in the dark was pretty cool and a little creepy at times. The quarter moon was out, but you couldn’t see it through the thick canopy for most of the hike. The wind was howling, but mercifully the trees blocked most of it. We hiked the 2.8 miles with over 1,100 feet of elevation gain up to Clingman’s Dome, arriving a little after 6am. Sunrise wasn’t until 6:53 am- plenty of time… maybe too much time. Scratch that- with the wind gusting hard enough to nearly topple us over, it was definitely too much time. Toodles, CVS, and Cryptic were already there getting bundled up in every layer they had- quite the feat of extraordinary determination considering that just about every piece of lightweight backpacking gear was liable to turn into a sail in that crazy wind.

Seriously, the wind at the top of the tower was gusting so hard we had to lean into it not to get blown over. We quickly wrangled on our puffy layers and our rain jackets for wind break… but we were still freezing! We tried to sit behind the wall for a wind break but we were already too cold. Toodles and CVS had pulled out their sleeping bags and now looked like fluffy multicolored Caterpillars sitting on the stone bench.

We decided we needed to move around for some heat, so we hiked back down the ramp and back up again… and again… and again…it helped a little. More people showed up: The Family, Batman, Betty White, Honey Badger, and Chris. Everyone was freezing and we still had 30 minutes till sunrise. We started dancing around. Bad Santa did laps around the tower, at one point yelling over the wind “GoPro, warm my feet!” (our GoPro is voice activated, so people have been coming up with funny alternate “commands” for it. Our favorite so far has been “GoPro, do my taxes!”). More people pulled out sleeping bags in an attempt to shield themselves from the relentless gale. Then Betty White chimes in and says “Wake up for sunrise they said, climb the tower they said, it will be fun they said” and we all have a little laugh at our collective misery.

But we stick it out and see the sunrise! Toodles even had “Circle of Life” from the Lion King cued up and ready for when the sun broke the horizon. It was beautiful, but most of us still aren’t entirely sure it was worth it. Everyone ran down from the tower as quickly as we could and started hiking to try and warm up. While most of the tramily was hiking further that day, we were glad that we were doing a Nero and only had a few miles to go to get to the Mt. Collins shelter. We were a little slower than usual because we were so tired (and we had an emergency cathole situation) but we still made it to the shelter by 10 am. Toodles was already there, along with Oak who stopped by before heading down to Newfound Gap for a ride into Gatlinburg. 

The sun was hitting the grass in front of the shelter so we found a sunny spot and took a nap after Oak bid us all adieu. At one point, BAM! tried to make a fire, but without a whole lot of dry firewood (everything was frozen to some degree up there) options it didn’t persevere. But we had a chill day, and even though we got a little restless at points, we know our bodies were grateful for the rest. As we were settling in for bed, Fifteen came in- it was good to see him again. Since it was a big shelter and there were very few people, we decided to try out the shelter for the first time. It was nice not having to set up the tent, but we did miss the privacy of having our own space. And we noticed we slept a bit colder, too.

Day 21
AT Miles: 15.4
Non-AT Miles: about 1 (to a from shelters)
Mt. Collins Shelter > Pecks Corner Shelter

Such a wonderful day with our Amazing friend – Justine!!!

Today we hiked to Newfound Gap and got resupplied by our dear sweet friend, Justine! We were so elated to be reunited with her, and so grateful that she drove all the way out to Newfound from Asheville to help us out. In addition to bringing us and Toodles our re-ration, she also had vegan breakfast bagels from Ultra- what an awesome treat! Toodles liked them, too, and was even excited about the fact that napkins came with the bagels. It seems like a silly thing to be excited about (and we all definitely got a good laugh out of that), but it’s one of those things you realize you don’t think about when you’re not thru hiking. As soon as you’ve had the opportunity to be immersed in an experience that limits the amenities that are usually so readily available in “the real world,” you start to get more of a grasp on the things you once took for granted.

Because it was a beautiful Saturday, Newfound was packed with people. But that in no way shape or form stopped us from embracing the “hiker trash” within and spreading out our re-ration in the grassy area next to Justine’s car. We sorted through our “loot” and organized it into our food bags before stuffing everything back into our packs. The crows of Newfound were very interested in our operation.

We loved hiking with Justine!

Justine had brought her boots and a daypack and hiked with us out to Charlie’s Bunion. The climb was pretty gradual with just a few icy patches, allowing us the opportunity to talk and enjoy each other’s company as we walked. It was so great getting to hang out with her- after the hard days we’d had in the Smokies leading up to this point, seeing and getting to spend time with her was so rejuvenating to our souls! Plus, Charlie’s Bunion offered us incredible views- one of our favorite spots on the trail so far!

It was beyond hard to say goodbye, but eventually Justine had to turn around and head back to her car parked at Newfound. We’re grateful that this was truly more of a “see you later!” since we’d be getting into Asheville for a few zeroes less than a week later. We then pressed on, walking along a ridgeline with astounding views on either side much of the way. Absolutely one of the most beautiful sections of the AT thus far.

A massive Nurse-Log Leading into Pecks Corner Shelter

We got to the Pecks Corner Shelter a little after 5pm and started setting up our tent and getting dinner going. Oak made it to the shelter a little late because his ride slept in… but he brought Toodles a Cherry Vanilla Coke and he shared it with us – it was AMAZING!

Day 22
AT Miles: 19.8
Non-AT Miles: 2.7
Pecks Corner Shelter > Davenport Gap Shelter

We woke up early this morning- 5:45am – because we had a long day ahead of us. It was the coldest morning yet, and everything was freezing as we took stuff out of our sleeping bag. Our water, our filters, our batteries, our phones, our hands and our toes… all of it started to freeze! At least, we thought to ourselves, it was not raining cats and dogs. Still, with how cold it was, we decided not to try to cook and just ate a cold breakfast so we could hit the trail faster.

Everything is harder when it’s cold. It still took us about an hour and a half to get out of camp. As we were getting ready and packing up, we had to stop every few minutes to rewarm our hands by swinging them rapidly or shoving them under our layers and pressing them against our bellies. The tent stakes were all frozen in the ground – we had to use rocks to knock them loose and pry them out of the ground. We left all of our puffy clothes on for the first half mile side trail back to the AT just so we could warm up. We managed to build some warmth, so we took off our puffy layers and continued on our way. It was still very cold. We learned later that it had gotten down to 15 degrees that morning and the windchill was likely in the single digits. The water in our water bottles continued to freeze as we hiked. We kept a brisk pace to keep ourselves warm.

The views were beautiful and we also went through more of the balsam forest blanketed in mosses. It was magical! But still very cold! BAM! took out his phone to take a picture. While doing so, his phone went from 52% battery life to 4% battery life- the cold just completely zapped the power. Our GoPro wasn’t working either because the SD card had an error, and Hero’s phone battery also dropped dramatically when she didn’t have it buried in her puffy layers. So, now we had no good way to take pictures. It was hard, but we had to release that impulse to capture it and just enjoy the Beauty in the moment. It was a stunning hike, a continuation of what when’d seen the day before.

We arrived at Tri Corner Shelter six miles into the hike and ducked in to get water and use the privy. We made the stop quick because we were already getting cold. Oak came in as we were about to head out. He decided to make himself some oatmeal because he’d skipped breakfast earlier as he hurried to get hiking. While we were all there, it started to flurry snow. Oak looked at us with a distressed face and said – “Y’all, we gotta get out of here!!!” We chuckled at that. Then we got moving and said we hoped to see him at Davenport Gap tonight.

We hiked hard and fast and made good time. We unknowingly passed Toodles who had left the shelter before us that morning. He was having lunch at Cosby Knob Shelter and got going again shortly after we had passed by. He snuck up behind us with Jersey (not to be confused with the Jersey boys) and passed us as we got water.

We had a moment of reflection when we got to the point where the trail intersects with the Mt. Cammerer trail. We’d done the section from Davenport Gap up to Mt. Cammerer and back as a training hike back in November, so we couldn’t help but feel nostalgic as we looked back at how far we’ve already come on our journey. Hero remembers being at that same section months ago reveling in the fact that in just a few months they’d be back in the very same spot as a thru hikers. It was a powerful moment, to say the least.

We didn’t see Toodles again until we got to the Davenport Gap Shelter, where we also met Travis the park ranger and showed him our permits. He was really nice and talked with us a while before going on his way. He also let us know that Fresh Ground was at the road!

The Family showed up and told us Fresh Ground had texted them and that he had dinner for us if we wanted to hike the 1 mile down to the gap. Obviously, we all hiked down to the gap and enjoyed a wonderful dinner, not minding at all that we then had to hike back up to the shelter to spend the night. Absolutely worth it!

That evening, with our bellies full of delicious Fresh Ground dinner and the promise of a lovely FG breakfast just a couple Zs away, we all settled in for our last night in the Smokies. One of the Trout kids has been reading aloud from a story called “Brother Band” every night right before bed. We enjoyed listening to her read to us, the kids of our eyes growing heavy as the witching hour of Hiker Midnight drew near. We went to bed grateful for all the experiences we have had so far on the trail, all of the incredible people we have had the chance to call tramily.

Happy Trails,

Hero and BAM!

One thought on “Holy Smok(i)es!”

  1. Your writing is incredible! You capture the agony and the ecstasy of the trail and I find your account riveting. If this isn’t the beginning of a book, it should be. Keep writing, please! You both are doing amazing hiking. You should fly the further north you get based on the miles you are doing on this difficult southern part. Keep on Truckin and BE SAFE!! DooDahMan

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