…I heard that sentiment more times than I can count in the past week. I heard it bouncing around the walls of the overpacked shelters, echoing down the snow-packed trail, and among hikers huddled around A.T. Guides – all trying to plan their next moves.
I don’t know what it is about the Smokies, but it really motivates people…to push forward and get the heck out. And when I say I don’t know what it is, I really mean that I do know what it is and experienced it firsthand. (But never you fear, I had a smile on my face
the whole most of the time.)
When last we left our protagonist, she and her friends decided to take two Zeros at Fontana Lodge to wait out the most recent snow storm.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park creates a bit of a logistical nightmare for the collective clan of thru-hikers. First of all, hikers are only allowed to stay at shelters as opposed to camping. In addition, shelters are inconveniently spaced and not necessarily directly on the trail. So, when dozens of hikers poured out of the lodge as soon as the snow storm abated, my friends and I decided to wait it out another day to avoid the logjam.
When we finally made it out, we were rewarded with beautiful weather. Even the ranger waiting at Fontana Dam to take our permits was deceived, declaring it was a perfect day to start a thru-hike through the park. And the frolicking deer we saw were also deceived.
The first several miles up, the terrain was clear and warm. Sweat beaded on my brow as I climbed. I took off first my jacket, then my hat. Soon I tied my hair back away from my neck.
I should have known better.
A few more miles on, the trail was lined with snow. Then I was actively hiking in a snow bank. Ok. No big deal. It’s just a little snow. And you know what? The ridge runner we ran into said that the following day forecast was calling for 50 and sunny. And to boot, that night my friends and I lucked out in that the shelter – capacity 12 – was shy of being full.
Well, folks, I have to say I was a little surprised in the middle of the next day when it started to snow…heavily.
First lesson of the Smokies: if the forecast calls for warm, sunny weather, it really means to expect either warm, sunny weather or cold and snowy. Incidentally, the second lesson of the Smokies is never to ask a thru-hiker what terrain to expect ahead. The answer will inevitably be, “Up,” whether or not the elevation profile looks foreboding.
But I digress.
Back to the unexpected snow. I’m pretty sure my fellow hikers were also surprised because everyone seemingly stopped hiking and holed up in the same shelter. In all, 29 people cozied up in the shelter – capacity 12 – as I did that night. People were sardined on both bunk levels as well as on the floor, not to mention hanging from the rafters. I kid you not.
See? You thought I was exaggerating, right? It was a madhouse. I was on the top bunk and – of course – got up in the middle of the night to pee. I ended up pulling an Indiana Jones, shimmying down the ladder, leaping to the four square inches of clear space on the ground, and then toeing between two bodies to get to the entrance. It was a fun evening with people tending a fire and a lot of energetic talking in addition to the Hollywood action scene; so, I can’t complain.
The following day the sun came out, and I was feeling pumped. Once my toes defrosted, I was more or less frolicking down the trail. I made it seven miles in about three and a half hours, and I thought, “Clingman’s Dome, here I come!” (ie the highest point on the AT). Granted that in short order all of the fir trees lining the trail began raining down melted snow, but at this point (wet boots and all) I was still euphoric.
And why not? At Clingman’s Dome, I was treated to a much coveted clear view of the surrounding mountains. However, the last four miles to that night’s shelter were a slushy mess. Upon arrival at the shelter, Lentil and Techie were completely soaked through, including all of their gear, and the two decided to go to Gatlinburg the next day to dry out. I was pretty soggy myself but not yet sure about the detour.
The next morning the two of them left out early, and Zen and I lollygagged in the shelter for a few hours, eating breakfast…and second breakfast, for good measure. I was still thinking about pressing onto the next shelter when I put on my pack and stepped onto the trail.
You know when you jump into a frigid body of water and lose your breath? Imagine that feeling, and you’ll know how the first step onto the trail felt (or as I like to call it, the Ice Water Bath) that morning. Now multiple that by about 10,000 steps, and you’ll know how my first two miles of hiking felt that day.
Yeah, Gatlinburg was sounding pretty good.
When Zen and I arrived at Newfound Gap five miles later, we were greeted by two pairs of trail angels, Beth & Bernie and Mountain Momma & Godspeed. After offering us plentiful Easter-themed treats, the former pair gave us a ride to the Grand Prix Motel in town, where Techie and Lentil were already checked in.
The four of us ended up Zeroing in town the next day, recuperating and enjoying the gluttonous Mecca that is Gatlinburg.
I was glad to find live bluegrass music to sit and enjoy, but one full day in Gatlinburg was definitely enough. The following day we moved on, vowing to get the heck out of the Smokies as soon as possible.
Each of the following days we put in 15+ miles. The first day we were treated to an icy trail as the ice water bath we’d left behind had refrozen. The second day started out much the same but cleared up as we came down in elevation.
By the end of the second day, the trail had cleared, and the weather was beautiful. The Smokies were all but forgotten, at least the cold, slippery, crowded-shelter part of the Smokies.
That last night, Techie, Zen, and I ended up staying at Davenport Gap Shelter (or The Cage), which greeted us with a chain link fence. If that’s not enough to scare hikers about potential bear attacks, I don’t know what is. And what a way to end our glorious stint in the Smokies, trapped like a bunch of, um, hamsters? Yeah, let’s say I felt like a hamster that night. Or maybe a chinchilla.
The following morning we three packed up and hiked out early to join Lentil, who’d hiked on the night before, and claim one of the few beds in the Standing Bear Farm bunkhouse, about four miles away. By the time we arrived, the rain was pouring down, and shortly thereafter hikers were showing up in droves to get out of the heavy rain storm.
Oh, the Smokies. Of course we hoards of hikers made it through to hike another day, but it was as though the Smokies had to have the last laugh.