Let’s just get the heck out of the Smokies

…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Meandering on,

Jordana

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20 thoughts on “Let’s just get the heck out of the Smokies

  1. Very happy to hear you made it out without being smoked of the trail, as many do in the Smokies.the weather this year I hear is the worst in years. Thank you for keeping us all up to date and I hope the weather improves.

    • jordana…………..your momentum has me bedazzled. i hope i will be able to make it that far…..question…knowing about the snow,etc. would you have chosen a later date to start like april 1, 2013 or would u still pick march? god speed,morningstar(the old woman)

  2. Moving forward constantly at your defined pace will get you through. Of course, a positive attitude is even more important. Keep it up. Thanks for the pics.

  3. OMG..Clingman’s Dome..no view because of heavy rain, Newfound Gp…smelled like cucumbers…copperheads?…bears drive us out of camp in the morning, rain so hard the trail is a rushing river…foot bridges out…ahhh the Smokies. Gatlinburg looks like the gates of heaven…Be careful girl…

  4. Hi Jordana, I’m still enjoying reading about your adventure on the AT, & look forward to every new post! Your attitude is one that I’m sure can be very helpful to those who can’t always maintain the same positivity (is that even a word?). Happy trails!

  5. I like bluegrass. I like Clingman’s Dome. I love your blog, more please. I started re-reading Bryson’s book to hold me over until your next installment. Keep up the good work. And Hey, better to be a hamster than bear chow!! Godspeed.

  6. You met Beth and Bernie, how cool, best trail angels on the trail. Did you get to meet Mamaw B, she was giving trail magic at Fontana Dam, and Newfound Gap around the time your were there? Thought the cold might be getting to you. I give your credit, no whining , even though you had all kinds of concerns about the cold and your hands. I believe that any of you who made it through the weather you’ve been through, will FINISH the trail.

  7. Hubby and I enjoy reading your posts and all the great progress you are making on the trail! We can’t believe you are already in TN – you are just a little machine! 🙂 Did you do a lot of hiking to prepare for this long journey? We are just so amazed that you can pull 15 mile days!

    PS. We booked our trip for the summer and will be in Killington, VT from 16-23 August for some day hikes. Chances are you’ll be out of VT by that time already given your quick pace! But if not, would be cool to say hi in person.

    Stay safe and dry out there 😉

    • Killington’s beautiful. I took the short .2 mile side trail from the AT to the peak of Killington last year. At the time, it was one of the tougher trails I’d ever hiked, but it was well worth the effort and helpful in preparing for the Whites. There’s another good side trail just before Gifford Woods State Park that leads to a rock outcrop with a view towards Rutland. Great scenery north of Killington too, a short section of the AT is on the original road from Boston to Montreal, there’s an old cabin with a small rooftop deck, a general store with cold drinks and ice cream very close to the trail, and an abandoned farm on a hillside.

  8. Every year seems to bring its own unique challenges when it comes to weather. Last year we had a brutally hot summer, the year before was virtually non-stop rain in the spring. With a little luck, maybe you’ll have nothing but nice 70 degree days from Damascus to Katahdin…

  9. Peanut it’s missing from your post this time…you’ve introduced us to so many characters…we need to stay in touch with each one! Amazing journey you’re on!

  10. I thought the snow was over. A photographer I follow, Rick Braveheart, is on assignment in the Smokies. He blogs at The Great American Landscape on WordPress. His photos are amazing. I hiked the Appalachian Trail at the Delaware Water Gap last weekend. When you get to the Water Gap look for Sunfish Pond and scan the shores for the rock sculptures. If you are so inclined you can see pics I took at http://rite2run.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/keep-it-fresh-switch-it-up/ I’m enjoying your journey. Travel safely.

  11. Pingback: Itinerary for Great Smokey Mountains Nat’l Park | Fabulous 50's

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