Saturday, June 6, 2015

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!!

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