Saturday, June 6, 2015

Out of the Great Soggy Mountains and into the Hot Springs Vortex

We turned left at the road to wait for the impending storm to pass at Standing Bear Farm Hostel. We had heard cool things about it, and we had friends staying there, so we kind of wanted to pop in anyway!

When we got to the property, a nice guy with a clipboard showed us around the place. They had a bunk room, shared cabin, well-stocked resupply store, and a communal area to cook/eat.

We weren't sure about staying, since we wanted to get more miles, so we hung out and ate lunch waiting on the storm and hanging out with Toasty, Fire Devil, Buttercup, Moonbow, Lightning Bug, and Downhill.  The owner was smoking delicious smelling meat for a BBQ the following day, and it was tempting to stay.

When we had finished lunch, the storm still hasn't arrived, and we decided to just take our chances and push on to Painter Creek Campsite for the night.  We said goodbye to those of our friends who were staying for the BBQ the next day and hiked back to the trail.

There was a steep climb up to Painter Creek, and it was slow going. Of course once we got about a mile or so up the hill from the road, the rain started falling fast and hard. I didn't even bother with my rain gear, because it was hot hiking up the hill, and it all leaked anyway, so it seemed pointless.

I was thoroughly drenched when we saw what appeared to be the side trail to the campsite. We crossed a swollen stream and saw some other folks camped. They pointed us over a second creek and up the hill to more camping spots.  Forest and his companion invited us to sit under their tarp, but we declined, because we wanted to get our tent up, and I would have just made their dry space wet.

We have gotten good at pitching our tent in the rain! With all the practice, that shouldn't be surprising!  Putting the poles together first and using the rainfly loosely over the work space helps with the speed of setup and keeps more rain out. Then we just mop up the drips that do get in with a bandanna.

Mike, Jade, Shane, Akela and a couple of others made camp a little further up from us after the rain slowed to a drizzle.  We cooked, ate, cleaned up, and hung out with them for awhile before dusk came and it was time to sleep.

Despite the rain, I was just happy to be out of the Smokies and just a few days from Hot Springs, where we would be taking a zero at a luxurious spot called the Iron Horse Inn to celebrate our anniversary for real!  There would be good food, good beer, and a soak in the hot springs too!

The next morning, it wasn't raining, and we took our time getting ready to leave, because our tent was actually almost dry!!  We planned to head for Roaring Fork Shelter about 13 miles ahead.  Between here and there, we would summit the famous, Max Patch!

We hiked most of the day in dry conditions, and it felt so nice!! Patchy clouds moved across the sky, but nothing really looked threatening until late in the afternoon, when dark clouds started to gather behind us. I wouldn't have even noticed except that all the cute little white and pink flowers closed their petals like they had in the Smokies when it rained.

Muskrat said he didn't think it would rain. I thought it would, because flowers are good meteorologists!  As we were nearing a descent from the ridge, raindrops started falling.

I dropped my pack to put the cover on and grab my somewhat useless rain gear and the wind started gusting and thunder and lightning crashed and flashed! We picked up the pace to get down off the ridge!

By the time we hit the road crossing, the rain had slowed.  We stopped to get water at a stream in case the opportunity to camp on Max Patch presented itself.  

We started climbing up as the sun peeked through the clouds with golden fingers reaching down to the mountains.  It wasn't as hard of a climb as it looked on the elevation guide.

We came out of the woods at a gravel road and started up the last push to the summit just as a second surge of storm started! Rain, wind, and pebbles of hail came down hard! There was nowhere to go, and we were completely exposed.

Luckily, the squall blew over quickly, and we finished climbing to the summit and some of the most amazing views we had seen since the beginning!  We took a ton of photos, and started hiking down the other side to get out of the wind.

The edge of the trees was still a bit away when we saw a familiar tent pitched in the grass.  It was Shane and his dog Dudley!  We talked to him for a bit. He had pitched his tent before the hailstorm.  We had enough phone signal to check radar, and we decided to camp nearby!  A little later, Ranger also pitched his tent on the bald.

I snagged some wonderful long exposures of the sunset and our tent before the relentless wind drove me inside to get warm!  I'm excited to see them when we finish and I can post process my RAW files!

We cooked in the vestibule and ate in the tent. So reckless!! Especially since I knocked over our ramen when I went to take it off the stove! Gah! Bear bait all over the grass at the door to our tent!  I salvaged what I could for us to eat, because hello?! It's FOOD!! We eat stuff off the ground all the time.  The rest, I scraped out of the grass with a spork and put it in our trash bag to pack out.

The wind shook the tent all night! I thought it was pretty awesome, though it was really chilly and difficult to get moving in the morning!

We woke and packed up at 6. We hiked out with plans to cook breakfast at the next shelter.  We ended up being part of a lively and fun conversation with Sloth, Moonbow, Lightning Bug, Buttercup, Fire Devil, and Mr. Ambitious.  Mr. Ambitious even generously drank some of our dirt coffee from Walgreens.

I know I said I had nothing against Walgreens, but actually, I do. Their "Nice!" brand instant coffee tastes like dirt. It makes Tasters Choice and Folgers Crystals taste like fresh roasted gourmet beans.  Sadly, I know what dirt, Tasters Choice and Folgers Crystals all taste like for comparison.  Ew ew ew ew ew. Dirt coffee.  Mr. Ambitious didn't like it either, but we all choked it down, because coffee. Duh.

That afternoon, we got trail magic at Lemon Gap from a day hiker who left a cooler full of cookies, clementines, and granola bars.  He also left a trash bag! Yay!

We ate lunch at the side trail to Walnut Mountain Shelter with Shane and Dudley. Zebra was there too for a bit.

After some steep ups and long downs we made it to Deer Park Mountain Shelter for our last night before Hot Springs!! The shelter area was packed with awesome people, but we still found a good tenting spot.

The water was down a side trail on the opposite side of the AT. We hiked down to collect enough for dinner and the three miles into town in the morning.  A lot of people were making camp down that way. One was standing in front of a campfire that was mostly smoke in an odd meditative trance. Then there were two older gentlemen hanging bear bags. Then right down next to the creek were two young women and a guy. The women were wrestling with a tent while the guy was trying to bring down a small live tree by hanging on it. He was wearing goggles. Strange things.  We got water and got out.

We were so excited about hiking into town in the morning that we ate all of our ramen! FOUR PACKAGES!! Several other hikers commented that it was a lot of ramen. I thought it odd that other hikers were commenting on the amount of food we were eating. We eat food! We are hikers. Seriously though, I'd felt like crap since living off the ramen. I needed more nutrition, and all we had was ramen and dehydrated veggies, so I figured just eat more. We finished it in record time.

In the morning, we got up early to hike into town!! The trail goes right down the sidewalk on Bridge Street right through the center of downtown, and it's super hiker friendly!  We decided to wait to eat breakfast, because the first thing the trail passes in town is the Smoky Mountain Diner!  And we couldn't choke down one more cup of dirt coffee.

The trail down was probably less challenging than I remember, but I was starving and feeling sluggish and kept tripping. Finally, Muskrat convinced me to stop and eat a granola bar. Woah! Food!! I continued without further incident!

We located the Smoky Mountain Diner! There were packs all over the porch and hikers, some of whom passed us days ago, piled up at tables inside eating massive amounts of food and drinking gallons of coffee!  We nabbed the big picnic table out front and were joined by Mike, Jade, Shane, Akela, Ranger and the gentleman!

We ordered ridiculously inexpensive breakfast food in bulk quantities! You could add a pancake to anything for a dollar, so everyone added at least one pancake... Then more.  When the food arrived, Muskrat and I cleaned plates in less than 5 minutes. No exaggeration. The ramen week nearly killed our skinny butts!

When we waddled down the street towards our hotel, we passed the Dollar General, Hillbilly Market, Hiker's Ridge Ministries, Bluff Mountain Outfitters, Spring Creek Tavern (home of the $2 mystery craft beer), a Mexican restaurant, and the Wash Tub!  We checked in at the Iron Horse, conveniently located above a restaurant and next to a coffee/smoothie/ice cream shop! Oh yeah!!

We checked in to a phenomenal room with a claw foot tub, a beautiful comfy bed and a nice little table for organizing our resupply!  We snagged baths/showers and enjoyed the fluffy awesome towels! Then we walked across to the Wash Tub wearing rain gear and crocs to do laundry while drinking fantastic kale smoothies!

This town already had me in its clutches! We heard that there were hikers who had gotten jobs in town because they stayed so long. There was free camping at the Smoky Mountain Diner and on the other side of the French Broad River (I kept joking that it's named after some French broad), so some folks had made the place home.

With laundry in progress, Muskrat went to Dollar General and Hillbilly Market to get groceries.  We wanted to get all of the chores done so we could enjoy our anniversary celebration!  We were also invited to a taco party at the campground with a bunch of other hikers, but we didn't know of we would go or just hang with each other.

We ended up at the tavern for dinner. They had some good food and a great beer list. They had a mystery beer for $2. When you ordered one, they'd grab a random can out of a special cooler full of mixed craft beers and you got what you got!  Fun!  There were some really yummy NC brews in there!

The next day, after a luxurious night and another huge breakfast at the Smoky Mountain Diner, we booked an afternoon soak at the Hot Springs mineral baths! We brought a bottle of Portuguese wine (with a twist cap) and two plastic hotel cups for the soak.  We checked in and got an hour in glorious warm water pumped from the springs and circulated by jets in the tub.  Sadly, they really meant it when they said it was an hour soak. At 55 minutes, they knock on your little enclosure and suddenly the tub starts draining. 😫😢

We walked back to the hotel all blissed out. We got some ice cream at the little shop downstairs and headed to the outfitter for a fuel canister and to look around at gear!  They had Dirty Girl gaiters! I had decided I needed gaiters for when I zip the legs off my pants. As the weather warmed, I'd go for shorts and end up with boots full of debris. Gaiters would stop that.

We grabbed a mystery beer at the tavern and chatted with some hiker friends before heading back to the Iron Horse for our anniversary dinner!  We are bottomless pits for food, and we still have almost 2000 miles left!

Dinner at Iron Horse was wonderful! While we were eating, Mike, Jade, Shane and Akela walked in with another couple. When we finished dessert, we went over to say hello.  They'd met the other couple at the fire pit at the hot springs and they were super cool people. We all chatted for awhile, and when the server brought the checks for both tables, these awesome folks bought us all dinner!! Crazy sweet people!!  The restaurant was closing, so we headed upstairs to our room, and everyone else went to their respective lodging.

Oh man. We had to leave the next day.  I couldn't believe how sad I felt about that fact. Now I knew why people had been here for 4, 5, 7+ days and why the clerk at the campground store started a thru-hike a couple years ago and never made it past here.  He said he and his girlfriend stopped in Hot Springs and two jobs, a baby, and a house later, and they're still there.

The town isn't much. It's only a few blocks long, but there is something about it. Maybe it's the fact that you can easily walk to everything.  Maybe it's that you see hikers everywhere, and the bubbles all collide again, so you see people who got ahead and got behind, so there's a reunion feel.  I just knew that walking across that bridge out of town the next day would be very very hard.

In the morning, we had to hit the post office to mail my rain jacket back to REI for a warranty replacement. That jacket was no longer made, so they were sending me an Outdoor Research Enigma Gore-Tex Jacket with full length pit zips for poncho style venting! Oooooh! Fancy!  They didn't have anything to replace my leaky rain pants, so they said to call back in a few weeks.

By the time we did the post office, ate some snacks and talked to some newly arrived hikers at Hiker's Ridge, and bought my gaiters, it was time for lunch. We were about to head back to the tavern one last time when Mac and Pace came hiking into town!! There was much cheering and hugging and catching up!  We hadn't seen them since just after the NOC!  They tipped us off to $1 garden kneeler pads at Dollar General to use as seats in camp and on breaks!

After we parted ways with them, we went to get our garden kneelers at Dollar General then grabbed lunch at the tavern.  Then it was time. We had to hike out of town.

Loaded down with food to last us to Erwin, Tennessee, we walked back past the Iron Horse, past the Hot Springs Resort and Spa, past the campground, over the bridge, over a guardrail and onto the trail.  We followed white blazes along the river then through a series of steep switchbacks up the side of the mountain.   There were so many viewpoints to look back at the river and the town, and I kept lamenting the fact that we never ate tacos.  It was hard to keep going.

We encountered the Gentleman, Bearded Crab and another hiker playing frisbee in the woods a little after the trail dove back into the deep woods. They were drinking box wine from the bladder removed from the box! "Slap the bag and take a drink," they yelled!! Awesome.  We each took a turn then hiked on.

As if it wasn't hard enough to leave, 8 miles out of town, the trail intersects with another trail that can take you back to Hot Springs in 3.5 miles.  We kept walking north, but it was near there that we decided to make camp for the night at a little site just off the trail and just big enough for a couple of tents.

We cooked, and I made a fire and some hot chocolate. A few other hikers we didn't know passed us, but didn't stop. Three were section hikers who had just started at the intersection with the last road we crossed.  We read from the book we had been sharing since day  one, and went to bed when it got too dark to see.  It was the first night we had camped alone. Any other night, I might have been happy about that, but I wanted a big group around me to distract me from the fact that leaving Hot Springs felt like breaking up with someone really cool.

I went to sleep hoping that no other town ever made it so hard to leave or we would never make it to Katahdin!

Las Vegas, Tennessee to Davenport Gap! Goodbye Great Soggy Mountains!

The NOC Outfitter in Gatlinburg is nothing short of heaven for hikers! There are three levels of gear and clothing, hot showers, a bear cave, suspension bridge, huge rocking chairs and the most helpful staff ever!

Muskrat had an issue with the zipper losing teeth on his Mountain Hardwear rain jacket, and the manager took a look at it and handed him a brand new one, saying he would handle the warranty issue! He tried to work a similar deal with my "waterproof" Salomon boots, but Salomon refused to let them handle it that way. Grrrrr. With no dry days in the foreseeable future, it was looking like my feet were going to just be wet. 

We expected two boxes when we picked up our mail drops. One was a hiker box order of dehydrated veggies and the other was homemade granola from our friend Emily. I was confused when the woman returned with one box and an envelope with a return address for "Momentum Finanacial Services."

Our box had our veggies. A quick check of the tracking revealed that granola would be delivered later that day. I opened the mystery envelope to find a card from my friend Lisa Albrecht.  She must have gotten the address from the Facebook post about granola. The card was such a sweet surprise! She expressed how much she enjoyed following our progress, and how a thru was on her bucket list too.  As I read the kind words, all thoughts of rental cars and escape from the relentless rain slipped away. I remembered that we are doing something epic and grand and incredible. Each moment of the trail experience is a gift, even if it's a soggy, cold muddy gift a lot of times!  I'd be crazy to toss away such an opportunity!

We needed to find lodging.  Jade tipped us off to a good Priceline deal at a spot not listed in the guidebook. I called ahead to make sure they had laundry, because a look at the map told me that Gatlinburg is spread out and difficult to get around without a car.  They said they had guest laundry, and I booked the deal.

We grabbed massive amounts of food at Five Guys on the walk to the hotel. Tourists gawked at our gigantic packs covered in orange nylon.  One woman said, "oooo! Aren't those NIFTY!" I wasn't sure what she was talking about.  Another woman asked what they were for. I didn't know if she meant the pack or the pack cover. Odd conversations.

We tried to check into the hotel, and Muskrat was told that they didn't have our Priceline reservation yet, so we would have to wait. With limited time to dry gear, do laundry and grocery shop, we wanted to get showered and get at our tasks quickly.  We had heard that Gatlinburg could be less than friendly to hikers, and it seemed it might be living up to that reputation. A call to Priceline put things right, and we were able to check in, shower and hang our wet tent from the balcony, but not before we sat in front of the hotel to eat Five Guys.

We dressed in rain gear, grabbed two Yunglings (the best beer they served at the hotel bar) and hit the laundry room!  They did indeed have a laundry room, but  they failed to mention that both dryers and one washer were out of order. Oh, and they didn't have any detergent in the vending machine.

I pitched a fit to the woman at the desk, who first gave my directions to the laundromat just a couple miles from here. I explained that I was on foot and it was raining, so my dry laundry would be wet before I was able to walk back, and that I wouldn't have booked the room if the person on the phone had explained the state of the laundry room when I asked. 

She had housekeeping bring us a soda bottle full of detergent and a plastic bag. She said that we could put our wet laundry in the bag and they would dry it for us and bring it back when it was done.

We washed our clothes and drank our beers while texting with Mike and Jade about dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery for Mike's birthday, which had been a miserable trail day for them a few days ago.  Tonight was the redo!

While we waited for laundry to dry, I tried to get to the grocery store. The trolley would take me there, but wouldn't have gotten me back. Hitchhiking was a big no no in town, and the market marked in the guidebook as a full resupply option stocked soda, beer, chips and candy. 

I headed for Walgreens and hoped for the best!  Since our laundry wasn't dry yet, I was still in the thru-hiker laundry uniform of rain gear over naked.  I had tucked my wallet into the inside pocket of my jacket, thinking it was a good secure spot!  As I checked out with my piles of ramen, mac & cheese, instant coffee, oatmeal, cheese and crackers and skittles (I know. Awful. You try grocery shopping at Walgreens!), I realized that I couldn't unzip my jacket to get my wallet without flashing the cashier. I awkwardly reached up the bottom of my jacket and maneuvered the wallet out to pay.

Muskrat met me on the sidewalk with our granola, which he had picked up from the NOC, and we walked through the drizzle back to the motel for our laundry.  I told him about my awkward jacket experience.  Ah hiker problems!

Back at the motel, we used the hair dryer to dry our not quite dry yet gear, including my soggy boots which Salomon had promised to replace in two weeks. Then we waited in the lobby until the laundry was dry and brought down to us.

The rain had slowed to a mist and we walked back across town to the Smoky Mountain Brewery to meet Mike, Jade, Shane, Akela and possibly the Gentleman and others for Mike's birthday dinner! We called our moms with an update on our status as we walked.

Inside the brewery, we hung out at a table with Tots and Splash for a bit while we waited for everyone else to arrive.  the porter there was pretty great!

When everyone arrived, we ordered dinner and Muskrat and I split a flight of tasters.  The food was decent, as was the beer. We skipped dessert, because we had our eyes on the homemade donut shop down the street, where you could get donuts topped with ice cream. Thru-hiking has its privileges! We eat like obese tourists, but get skinnier with every mile! 

We paid up and made it down to the donut shop. It was 9:10pm. The door was locked and the skinny teen behind the counter shook his head at the 7 hiker faces pressed against the glass. Jade knocked and stared until he came to the door. She made a good argument that they were just going to throw all the beautiful donuts away and make fresh ones in the morning. He should sell them to us. We promised large tips. He locked the door. 

We meandered up the block looking for dessert. Baskin Robbins? Maybe. Dunkin Dounts? Maybe. Wait. What!? Funnel cakes?! Topped with ICE CREAM!?! YES!! We all devoured the fried sugary dough soaked in melting dairy as if we hadn't just eaten a full meal. 

We discarded empty plates thanked and tipped the guy behind the counter, and walked back towards the motel. The rain had stopped for the moment.

I slept well, and was excited to see blue skies peeking through the wispy fog in the morning!  We packed our things, walked to the NOC, bought a knife to replace the one we had lost at the shelter, and ditched our packs in a corner to go across the street for breakfast!

Davy Crockett's Breakfast Camp served us a most delicious bottomless cup of coffee and had a menu full of things that made it hard to decide what to order! The Mexican egg skillet I got was fantastic, and I still dream about the biscuits there!

After breakfast, we saw Moonbow and Lightning Bug at NOC and ran around playing on the suspending bridge on the top level of the store for a bit. Then we finally hoisted packs and headed past the stoplight at the edge of town to hitch a ride back to Newfound Gap.

A woman in a Ford Escape stopped and picked us up. She was on her way to pick up two hikers from Clingmans to bring them to town and was happy to take us to the trail.  We thanked her as we unloaded our stuff and joined the gathering of hikers getting ready to dive back into the woods.

Just before putting pack to back, the rain kicked up again.  I sighed, thinking of town and our dry gear, but I felt ready to hike.  We covered our packs, put on our rain gear and started hiking north.

Back in the woods, we had our sights set on Pecks Corner Shelter, 10 miles north and past the famous view from "Charlie's Bunion." We hoped some of the clear sky from earlier in the day would make an appearance so we could see something.

The trail was still muddy and wet and slippery, and we got passed by everyone but Sloth, who usually leapfrogged with us at the back of the pack. Slow and steady.

We bounced around up and down the mountains and met the Gentleman coming back along the side trail to Charlie's Bunion. We asked about the view, and he told us to go! He said it was GORGEOUS!

We dropped our packs and carried only the camera down to the rock outcropping. The mountains stood dark and wet, surrounded by wispy foggy tendrils that floated by. It was beautiful.  It was one of those moments when I remembered with everything that I am why I am doing this.

We took photos, and watched as thick dense fog edged over the ridge, cascading down and obliterating the view.  The wind picked up, and we hiked quickly back to our packs and the AT. 6.5 miles to go to Peck's Corner.

The fog we had seen at the bunion closed in around us, and the wind blew fat raindrops into our faces. I felt the water seeping quickly into my boots, and little by little I felt it seeping through my waterproof jacket and pants.  I was quickly learning that nothing is waterproof on the AT.

This was the longest six miles we had ever hiked! We were on the windy side of the ridge the whole time, and the rain pelted and soaked us mercilessly!  Despite the effort of hiking, I was getting very very cold, and Muskrat was getting worried.

My numb hands gripped my trekking poles, and I shivered inside my soggy layers.  We started to think we had passed the turnoff to the shelter, and couldn't fathom hiking five more miles to the shelter after. Muskrat proposed pitching the tent in the middle of the trail, but we kept hiking.

By the time we saw the sign for the shelter, I was crying. I was frozen and frustrated and ready to go home... Again.  Muskrat said we could go home.

We reached the shelter and found it full except for a spot under a leak in the roof.  I shouted, "Isn't anything on this damned trail waterproof?!"  Our hiker friends all shared stories of their failed rain gear and footwear. The Smokies brings Gore-Tex to its knees.

Muskrat told me to sit in the shelter and get warm while he set up the tent. I sat next to Lightning Bug and we talked about all the stuff that we were going to ship back to REI. The Gentleman came in and rubbed my hands between his, then was struck with a better idea! He handed me his still cooking Mountain House meal to hold! The hot bag of food warmed my hands and my trail family, all of us wet, cold and worn down from challenges of the day, warmed my heart. There was nowhere else I wanted to be in that moment than with these fantastic hikers.

One final hiker arrived at the shelter, cursing and angry. He threw his DSLR camera and lens across the shelter and declared that he was done.  We later found out that he had slept at Pecks Corner the previous night, had hiked out the wrong way on the side trail, reconnected with the AT, south of the shelter, and hiked 18 miles to end up back in the same spot he had left that morning.  As if that wasn't enough, the rain had ruined his camera.

We ate cold snacks for dinner in the tent and went to sleep hoping for more forgiving weather.

Morning brought more fog and drizzle, but in spite of the dreary weather we remembered to smile and wish each other a happy three year anniversary! April 17, 2012 was the day our lives changed forever, and was a spark that made this adventure possible for both of us.

We cooked oatmeal in the vestibule of the tent, as I watched a little mouse scurry in and out of a rotting log nearby.  We ate in the tent. Sometimes rules just get broken to keep yourself comfortable.

I nearly cried as I pulled on my still soaked clothing from the day before, but that's what had to be done. Camp clothes must remain dry.

We had nearly 13 miles to hike to get to Cosby Knob Shelter. We couldn't cut the day short either, because the following day we would be meeting our friend Kyle at Big Creek Campground for a trail magic spaghetti dinner on our first wedding anniversary!

There were no views this day, but the rain wasn't as relentless. It actually stopped actively raining for a good bit of the afternoon!  We ate lunch with some of our trail family and we made a grand dinner plan for Cosby Knob! We would pool our resources to make quesadillas over a campfire.

Tots and Splash brought a starter log that they'd been carrying since Derrick Knob and also team carried some prime looking logs in from the trail! These two are incredible!

We sat around sharing tortillas, cheese, veggies, pouch meat and dehydrated Sriracha! We also cooked some of our ramen with veggies added.  Wet boots and socks steamed around the edges of the fire, and we all enjoyed each other's company as we shared stories and discussed our plans for FINALLY getting out of the Smokies!

Most people were making a bee line for Davenport Gap the next day, so they could leave the Smokies in their wake. As spectacular as I'm sure the park is, we sure learned why most people never leave their cars!  If Kyle and a spaghetti dinner hadn't been waiting for us down a side trail at Big Creek, we'd have been running to get out of the Smokies too!

The next morning, it wasn't raining and it wasn't as foggy as it had been.  We were hoping for a dry day!  It stayed overcast as we packed up among friends from the quesadilla party! People who remembered started wishing us a happy anniversary! It was sweet, and it had me thinking about where I was a year ago...eating waffles, eggs and drinking a mimosa in a nice dry cabin!  That didn't make being here any less wonderful though!

We hiked out after breakfast, oatmeal and the horrible dirt coffee from Walgreens, but we were in good spitrits! We were going to be fed!

The weather held, and the sky remained overcast. The ground was still slick and muddy, and my clothes and boots were still wet and cold, but if it didn't start raining, I might have dry clothes by day's end!

We didn't hike as fast as we had hoped to originally, because it was just so slippery. We skipped the Mt. Cammerer lookout tower, because we were behind schedule to meet Kyle, and we had no phone signal to let her know.

When we finally made the turnoff on the side trail, it was past the time when we had originally planned to meet.  We still had two more miles to go.  At least the side trail was a little less muddy and only parts of it were steep.  It was going to suck climbing up out of there in the morning!

We crossed a stream over and over and finally walked alongside it.  We saw a black snake and met a couple hiking up towards the AT. They said there was a note for Ironjen and Muskrat at the end of the trail with directions to Kyle's campsite.

We chatted for a minute, and it turns out that the husband was Wingfoot!! Wingfoot wrote the first AT guidebook! If I had figured that out before we hiked on, I'd have gotten a photo with him!

After the LONGEST two miles ever, we reached the road to the campsites. We hiked until we saw tents and an RV. The campground host came out of the RV and asked who we were looking for. We told her Kyle's site number and she knew who we were. She gave us directions, and within a minute we found Kyle!!

It was so good to see her!! She had tried to reach us to tell us to hike to Davenport where she was doing trail magic for passing hikers, so we didn't have to take the side trail and she could drive us back to the campground.

Sadly, our lack of signal, lateness, and her bad luck in getting a flat tire made that plan not happen.  But we made it!! Kyle whipped up a delicious spaghetti dinner with meat sauce, bread, butter (REAL BUTTER!), and cold Cokes! She also gave us extra Cokes, chips, oatmeal passed on from Melissa, and cheese crackers! Yay for food to supplement our dismal Walgreens resupply!

Just to be clear, I have nothing against Walgreens. They just aren't a grocery store.  I should have hitchhiked to the real grocery store.

After we stuffed ourselves silly, (I have never seen a pot of pasta disappear that fast), we said goodbye to Kyle. She had to leave, because she had to find a place to get her tire fixed. The next day was Sunday, so lots of places wouldn't be open.

She left us the campsite for the night, since she had paid for it. We pitched our tent and enjoyed the picnic table, making a little first anniversary mint tea from mint another hiker had picked and given to us.

It felt really odd to be in a car camping campground without a car! At least they had a metal bear box for us to put our foodie, because there were no places to hang a bag or stash a canister away from people.

We enjoyed the flush toilets and running water, and we had a nice conversation with the host couple as they did their evening rounds. They even offered to slackpack us to Davenport Gap in the morning!  Yes!! Now we wouldn't have to hike back up the side trail with packs! Everything is easier without a pack!

We slept to the sound of Big Creek and cheered the fact that in spite of the persistent clouds, we didn't get rained on! My clothes were dry when I tucked them down at the foot of the tent. What a nice feeling that was!

We broke camp at 6am, because that wonderful dry feeling was about to end. More rain was on the way. Ugh.

We met the campground hosts at 7:30 and put our packs in the trunk of their car. They'd meet us at Davenport at 9:30, and we'd continue away from GSMNP! I wonder if I'll ever be so happy to be done with another section on this trail.

The hike back up to the AT was fast and easy with no weight, and the AT was all downhill to Davenport!  As we passed the shelter, the angry hiker from Pecks Corner, the one whose camera was ruined on his 18 mile zero day, came out to the trail and specifically asked, "Is this the AT? Are we going north?"  His name was Phoddo.

He told us he whole story of his zero and how he decided it wasn't the worst thing. He would continue hiking.  I told him about my wicked Nikon mirror less waterproof camera too. He checked it out and thought it might be a good replacement for his DSLR!  Yay Nikon 1 AW1!

When we made it to Davenport, the campground host was waiting there with our packs. It started to rain again. The host said there were big storms on the way.  We put on our rain gear and hiked on with Phoddo.  We gave him our last Coke.

We passed several friends who had camped just after Davenport Gap and didn't go to Standing Bear Hostel.  The rain fizzled and we stopped to photograph a waterfall. Phoddo continued to catch up with some friends of his.

Nearly four miles outside of the Smokies the sky got very dark and the wind picked up. We had enough signal to see the radar on our phones, and it looked like a big storm was on the way from the west.

We decided to go left on the road towards Standing Bear Hostel. We would eat lunch there, catch up with friends and decide based on weather if we would stay the night.

Ah! At least the Smokies were over!!

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Great Soggy Mountains to the Hell Called Gatlinburg

Our first day in the Smokies was a gorgeous sunny day! We hiked into the park, filed our permits, and started up the mountain.  The climb up from Fontana was tough and hot, but we were motivated and well rested.

Within the first few miles after crossing into the park, we were met by a very friendly ridge runner who was making sure that we had permits and that we had filed them properly in the box at the south entrance to the park. We were good to go!

I was nervous about the Smokies for a couple of reasons. The park regulations say that you have to camp in shelters if there is space available, however, if day hikers/section hikers with reservations arrive, thru-hikers have to give up their spaces. We don't do shelters. Our tent is our haven. It's clean, dry, and sealed off from bugs and mice. I spent enough nights in Girl Scout platform tents and glen shelters to know that I don't sleep when I share space with bugs and mice. I had also heard rumors of rangers and ridge runners enforcing the rules with $500 fines. I hoped that the shelters would be full.

We hiked up to a fire tower and ate lunch... At the bottom, because I don't do heights when they're rickety and shaky and have no railings!! Muskrat tried climbing up, but bailed on the idea after the second platform.

The views in the Smokies aren't just the broad landscapes over ridgelines, rivers and towns. We hiked up over one rise, and the late afternoon light glowed through the trees lighting up thousands of tiny pink and white flowers carpeting every inch of the mountain. Everyone we talked to had the same reaction when they saw the field of flowers. They stopped and silently stared. Everyone at the shelter that night was talking about the "enchanted forest."

We hiked to Mollies Ridge Shelter, a stone building with a tarp across the front and a fireplace inside. We saw six tents already pitched, and I assumed that the shelter was full, but a hiker named Shewee called out that there was plenty more room in the shelter.

We had a muffled conversation about whether we should wait to pitch the tent, suck it up and sleep with the mice, or just go for it and hope we didn't get a ticket. We decided to go for it and feign ignorance if anyone came along. It was the first time I had wished for my badge on the trail.

The wind up on the ridge was fierce that night, so we snuggled and slept in lots of layers inside our double sleeping bag.  We didn't sit long at the campfire, but we enjoyed being sung to sleep by hikers singing Billy Joel songs. We slept well and woke to another gorgeous day!

We had some steep climbs to slay that day, and some amazing views as the reward. We ate lunch on top of Rocky Top and were soon joined by several other hikers with the same idea!

A day hiker came upon us southbound over the summit. We all chatted for awhile. He was a local guy who frequently hiked the Smokies. He had tips on what our best upcoming views would be and, more importantly, tips on the weather forecast for the week.  He told us to enjoy sitting in the sunshine while we could, because "weather like this never happens three days in a row in these parts." We were looking at 10 days of solid rain coming.

The odd thing about rain and the challenges it brings is that it's abstract. I knew going into the hike that there would be times of extreme wet and cold and it would go on for indefinite periods of time.  I can tell you now that it's true, but even having experienced it, there is no way to convey with words what that's like. I can't even, right now from a dry hotel room feel the experience in my mind.

What I can tell you is that we hiked down from Rocky Top and pitched the tent among others at Derrick Knob Shelter, despite the shelter having space. We rescued another hiker's blowing stuff sack as it tumbled across the grass, tucking it outside his tent and letting him know it was there.

It was another windy night, ruffling the rain fly and the shelter tarp in a way that lulled me to sleep all snuggled with my warm Muskrat.  I hoped that none of the Smokies' notorious snow would result from the chill in the air.

A familiar tapping sound woke us in the still dark of the next morning. It was raining. A peek outside of the tent confirmed that the shelter area, clear and crisp in the stiff winds the pervious night was wrapped in the thick damp clouds of the fog for which the Smokies are named.

The hiker whose stuff sack we rescued was lamenting the fact that he hadn't brought it inside and was trying to figure a way to keep his down bag dry without a dry stuff sack. He kept saying, "I'm so screwed!"

Rain was nothing new to us. We started in rain. No big deal. It passes.

We packed up and cooked on the ground under the narrow overhang of roof on the side the shelter to stay out of the wind. We ate as little birds and chipmunks hopped and scurried around the wet woods nearby.  Then we bundled in our rain gear and hiked out for a short day to Double Spring Gap shelter.

We hiked over Silers bald, not to be confused with Siler bald which was just outside of Franklin, NC and wasn't fogged in beyond recognition.  We could see nothing all day except the inside of the cloud that continuously drizzled on us.

The weather tempted us to stop at Silers Bald Shelter. We stopped in to get out of the wind and rain for a bit, but the shelter was packed well beyond capacity. People were crammed in every available space and several were making camp on the dirt floor. Dripping clothes and gear hung everywhere, and the smell... Well, it was strong!

We stuck with the plan to continue to Double Spring Gap, less than two more soggy miles away.

At Double Spring Gap, there was one spot left in the shelter, so we legitimately pitched our wet tent behind the shelter, close enough to cook under the roof out front.  I thought of all of the people stuffing themselves into Silers with a more spacious option just a short hike north to here.  Rain makes hikers crazy and desperate.

Muskrat went down the side of the ridge to get water from the better of the two springs. He came back with the entire back side of his pants soaked through. It was raining, but not downpouring! It turns out that the wind comes up the ridge and blows the water from the spring right up your backside as you face the pipe to fill your filter bags. To everyone's amusement, I dubbed the spring "the Appalachian Bidet!"

We met some section hikers and some really fast thru-hikers, one woman who was doing her THIRD thru!  They built a fire in the fireplace that night, and I almost wished we were in the shelter.  It was hard to get warm with the dampness combined with the chill.

When we woke, it was still raining, and the entire inside of our rain fly was coated in condensation from both of us breathing all night in the already over saturated air. The condensation had dripped into the tent, making the sleeping bag damp and creating a river down the edge of the tent floor. Uuuuuuugh. I wanted to go home. Not really actually go home, but I did feel majorly frustrated.

We took forever to get up and packed and eat. We were silently hoping that the sun might come out or at least that the rain would stop, but no. We hiked out in our rain gear, sweating ourselves wet on the inside and rain soaking us outside.

Today we would hike over Clingmans Dome! It's the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail at 6655 feet above sea level. The common joke is that it's "all downhill after this!" Ha.

It was a long, but not particularly steep uphill. It was slick and muddy though, so we picked our steps carefully. Hiking like that is so tedious.

We kept venting our jackets and putting our hoods down when the rain let up to a fine mist and zipped and hooded ourselves when the big drops started again.  At least there would be a visitors center at Clingmans! It was a half mile down a paved walkway, but there were potentially snacks and definitely a trash can! I had my mind set on a hot beverage, but sometimes a place to unload trash is all a hiker needs to make their day.

We finally made it to Clingmans. There is a huge tower at the summit that allows visitors to get the views over the tops of the trees. Despite there being absolutely no view, we climbed to the top of the tower to say that we had done it.

On top, we met a dad and his son who asked us lots of questions about our hike and took photos of us. I felt like a bit of a badass saying that we walked here from Georgia... A soggy, freezing, smelly, badass.

The wind was whipping up on the tower, so after the photo op, we practically ran down the path to the visitors center hoping for something hot and delicious!  We saw a soaked tourist woman wearing shorts and a thin jacket walking up towards the tower, and I couldn't muster any sympathy, because she was not going to be wet and cold at the end of the day. She was going to get in a car and get warm and dry somewhere.

My mood wasn't the best, and it was even worse when we discovered that the visitors center had nothing but bottled water and overpriced chocolate bars with black bears on the wrappers. At least we stood in a dry room for a few minutes.

We ran into a girl, Rainbow, who we had met at Springer Shelter back on day one. Here we were back in the same weather. She was waiting to slackpack to Gatlinburg with another hiker. We were planning to run into Gatlinburg the next day and get back out as quickly as possible without an overnight in town.  I jealously wondered when I'd next be clean and dry.

After emptying our trash into the bear proof trash cans at the parking lot, the rain picked back up again and the wind grabbed at our waterlogged pack covers.  We hiked back up the hill to the trail to find that it had become indistinguishable from a stream. Water ran swiftly over rocks and mud, making the descent slick and precarious.

We came upon the Gentleman, Moonbow, and Lightning Bug taking a break. They asked if we were heading to Gatlinburg, and Muskrat explained that we planned to go tomorrow morning for a "smash and grab" resupply.  Moonbow especially (I love her), tried to convince us to hike to Newfound Gap to get to town tonight.

Muskrat was stressing and really didn't want to go that far and didn't want to abandon our plan to skip the hotel stay in the tourist hell of Gatlinburg.  I just wanted to be dry even if it was a fleeting night of comfort under a roof with climate control.  I got pushy. My mom knows how that goes... Muskrat caved. It really wasn't fair of me, but the five of us started hiking down the slick hill at a speed we weren't accustomed to.  I felt guilty for pressuring Muskrat, but we pushed on... Until he stepped on a wet log step across the trail, and I watched from behind as his foot slid along the log out from under him and he fell on his side in the mud, like an upside down turtle with his pack holding him to the ground.

I cried, apologizing for rushing us and for being pushy as I freed him from his pack and helped him up. The girls came upon us, and we let them know that we wouldn't be racing to the road to town tonight. It wasn't worth the risk of slipping again and having a less forgiving landing.

We slowed our pace, hiking through ankle deep water towards the side trail to Mount Collins Shelter, a half mile west of the AT.  I thought I might have felt water leaking into my new waterproof boots at the toe, but I couldn't be sure if it was wet or just chilly.

We discussed possibly trying out shelter sleeping tonight, because the idea of pitching our wet tent in the rain again was almost as painful as the thought of mice running over us in our sleep.  We decided to do it if there was room, just so we could pack up easily and early to hike to Newfound Gap for our smash and grab resupply at Gatlinburg. We had a Hiker Box order and a gift of homemade granola from Emily Colman at the NOC outfitter. Then we would hit the grocery store and the brewpub for lunch and get back to the trail in time to make it to Icewater Spring Shelter for the night.

The side trail to Mount Collins was beautiful. It traveled through old growth forest made even more beautiful by the way the water had made the colors of the trees deeper and darker.  The rain let up a bit as we arrived at the shelter.

Surprisingly enough, there were two spots left in the shelter right in the center of the lower level. We decided to go for it and set up our sleeping system. A 16 year old girl and her mom were set up next to us and the girl marveled at our bed setup commenting, "it's like a HOTEL!! You have PILLOWS?!"  She offered us some chocolate and I cringed at the thought of mice coming in the night for the bits that fell to the shelter floor as she broke pieces off.

The rain stopped completely just before we cooked dinner, and I took the opportunity to duck into the woods to bathe with baby wipes and change into my camp clothes.  I started to feel okay, like maybe we would get some sun again.

We hung our rainfly, our wet gear and my wet socks (yep, my boots were leaking after less than 100 miles), on the lines strung under the shelter roof. Muskrat got water and I cooked dinner.  As we cleaned up, I asked Muskrat not to forget our knife, but we ended up leaving it and never saw it again.

We were down out of the wind and fog, but it was still extremely humid, so nothing dried. We gathered stuff up and packed it away for the night.

Just then, Shane, Akela, Mike and Jade rolled into camp! We hadn't seen them since Fontana, and it was a nice reunion!

They gave us wary glances when we said we were trying out the shelter for the night. They're as committed to tenting as we are, and we admitted to being nervous about the shelter experience.  They pitched tents behind the shelter in the only patches of ground not totally waterlogged.

We all chatted and caught up as they cooked and ate. A hiker named Two Sticks gave us the lowdown on Gatlinburg, because he had already been there the previous day from Clingmans.  He said that meant he was now "in the future," which has now become the common way for us to refer to people ahead of us. People behind are in the past.

We were the last hikers in bed in the shelter, and I hoped that meant that everyone would be up early and ready to rock, so we wouldn't be THOSE people who go to bed last and get up first.  We whispered nervously to each other as we cinched every cord on the sleeping bag around us both for warmth and to give mice as little space to come in as possible.

A little after we started to doze, there was a gust of wind and a loud clatter on the tin roof! The rain had returned with an epic downpour! Muskrat and I peeked at each other under the hood of the bag and smiled at our shelter decision!  Then he whispered that we should get a hotel in Gatlinburg. When I asked him why, we said he couldn't figure out how to appropriately change back into hiking clothes in the morning while the shelter was occupied by a 16 year old girl. Good point. Ew.  One more reason we like the tent best! Privacy!

We slept well! There were no mice, no snoring hikers and no wet tent to pack up... Because our went tent was already packed!  Our silent Fitbit alarms went off at 6, and nobody moved but us. We whispered deep inside of our bag about how long we should wait before we just got up and got going.  We hoped people weren't going to sleep in just because the rain continued to tap on the roof.

After about 15 minutes, a guy from the top platform finally got up. We considered that our cue. We packed up as quickly and quietly as possible, ate a snack and started trekking as fast as we could towards Newfound Gap!  I was excited to get to town and experience dry!

Like I said before, it's really hard to convey the experience of hiking in these conditions. If you want to try to get a feel for it, take a super sweaty workout shirt and pants; cram it down into the bottom of the laundry hamper, and leave it there for a week. Pull it out; wet it down with cold water and wear it, wetting it periodically throughout the day and keeping the thermostat at a balmy 50 degrees. Make sure to exercise vigorously while wearing a "breathable" rain jacket and rain pants. Part of the exercise should include walking up a wet sliding board or other slick inclined surface... Then back down... Several times. At the end of the day, wet your outfit thoroughly, and place it in the refrigerator. Repeat for a week or until you pass out from the fumes.

It was slow going from Mount Collins to Newfound, but we finally made it out of the woods. The trail was clearly having an identity crisis, because it couldn't decide if it was a trail or a water source. It was literally a stream.

At Newfound Gap, there was a church van handing out sodas, snack cakes, bananas and cookies. We each grabbed a soda and some snacks to eat and headed over to the road to call for a shuttle. There were tons of shuttles listed in the guidebook.

We tried number after number. One was booked up. Another was just voicemail. Another didn't actually have a shuttle. Another didn't know where their driver was, but they weren't answering the phone.

We all took turns sticking our thumbs out and hoping someone wouldn't mind soggy muddy hikers in their vehicle for 15 miles. The first few pairs got picked up easily, but we stood there in the frigid wind and rain for another 40 minutes on top of the time we had already been out there making futile shuttle calls.

When another group of hikers walked out of the woods and were immediately picked up by a car in the parking lot, I lost it. I was so angry and cold. I picked up my pack, fully intending to walk down the middle of the road towards Gatlinburg until someone either ran me over or gave me a ride. I was shivering, soaked through and had absolutely zero dry clothes left.

Muskrat kept his head. He begged me not to walk in the road, but I wasn't going to listen. Again, my mother is probably nodding along right now.

Muskrat asked me to wait while he talked to the driver of a pickup pulling a fifth wheel RV trailer that had pulled in.  Moments after he approached the man, he waved me over. We had a ride!!

The couple were retirees from Minnesota who had no clue what craziness we were up to with this thru-hiking thing. They actually thought Muskrat had said we were "through" hiking and needed a ride. We explained, though I was totally thinking of how tempting it would be to rent a car like Bill Bryson and GTFO of the Smokies!

They made us hot chocolate in their RV kitchen and returned with huge steaming mugs and homemade oatmeal chocolate chip bars! Then they offered to let us change in the back, but we didn't have any dry clothes. They offered to let us borrow dry clothes. As sweet as the offer was, we declined.

They drove us down the mountain, out of the park and into the Vegas of Tennessee, where they dropped us off at the outfitter and handed us a card with their email address for updates from the trail.