Two years ago today I was sitting out front of the Alpine Inn in Hot Springs North Carolina, enjoying a cloudless, cool day. I had just spent five high-mileage days getting there from Fontana through some of the toughest hiking on the Southern half of the AT. Somehow I had managed to fly through the 75 miles of the Smoky Mountains in just 3 days...averaging almost 25 miles a day. Heading out of Fontana was certainly a reality check. Whatever small step back towards real-life I had experienced, dissolved quickly on that first climb up into the Smoky Mountains. The first day in the smokies was tough, but I had great weather for it. Each time I passed a shelter caged in with bear-proof metal doors, I thought to myself, "I can go one more". About 7:30, I came up on completely packed Derrick Knob Shelter. It occurred to me that it was the weekend....I had kind of lost track of days. Generally, you are not supposed to tent in the smokies, but seeing as all of the shelter spots were full, I pitched my Lunar Solo, away from all of the crowds and made myself a nice dinner. At this point I was starting to become pretty accustomed to the Mountain House Spaghetti and Meatsauce dinners.
Later, I made my way down hill behind the shelter, cleaned up, and filled my water bladders/bottles. The next day was going to be long, but I was somewhat excited about it. I looked at it as a challenge. Up to this point I was still really trying to follow my "itinerary", and I had actually penciled in to hike 28 miles. Of course when I came up with this brilliant itinerary, I didn't account for things like elevation gain...or...going up and over the highest point on the entire trail. *ugh*
I hightailed it out of the shelter at the crack of dawn, excited to finally break 6000 feet and set foot on top of the highest point. About an hour into hiking, a fellow thru-hiker from the shelter had actually caught up to me. He told me his name was 'Nature Boy' and he also wanted to try and knock out 25-28 that day. I kind of felt like some hiking company, so I stuck with him. He was a much faster hiker than me, but I managed to keep up. Being almost two weeks into the hike, all of my muscles and joints were really starting to ache and it was hard to keep a quick pace. Somewhere around lunch time, we finally popped out at the top of Clingman's Dome and made our way to the observation tower. At the top, I took a panning 360 video and you could really see how much the high altitude pollution is killing the trees in the area.
360 View from Clingman's Dome (Nature Boy can be seen at :25 with baseball cap on)
View from Clingman's Dome Observation Tower
At some point around this time, I was finally greeted by my first genuine trail angels. There was a couple that started asking the two of us about our thru-hikes. We told them all about the past two weeks and how our appetites were skyrocketing. (little did I know that this was actually called yogi'ing). It was then that they informed Nature Boy and me about the fully stocked cooler they had in their car that they weren't going to eat. They told us we could eat as much as we wanted, we just had to walk the .5 miles down to the parking lot. I don't think I can recall a time that I walked a half a mile that quickly. I guess I figured what's an extra mile round trip, when I was hiking 28 that day anyway. Needless to say, we devoured the contents of their cooler, and whatever was left, we stuffed into our packs for later.
We pushed on and eventually split up. I pushed on the to the Peck's Corner Shelter (My planned 28 miles), and Nature Boy held about 5 miles back at the previous shelter. We both had planned on hiking into Standing Bear Farm Hostel the next day anyway. I ended chatting far in to the night at the Shelther with 'Hulk', another thru-hiker.
The next day, I hiked out early in order to make it out of the smokies, and into the Hostel by 5 pm. It was about 23 miles, and I knew it was some tough hiking. The day went by fast, and I past over the last few 6000 ft peaks in the smokies. At about 5 o'clock I came out of the woods onto a road and made my way towards the Hostel. From what I read in the Thru-Hikers companion, the hostel was a bit 'eccentric'.
After rolling in, and meeting the owner, I decided to go all out and pay an extra 10 bucks to get a full bed in the extra 'cabin', as opposed to the bunkhouse. I was then informed about the junkfood house....literally a small cabin full of junkfood that you buy on the honor system.
I dropped quite a few bucks in there, and then spent the evening doing a small load of free laundry, and trying to send some updates from the 14.4 modem speed computer. *ugh*
At some point around 9 pm, Nature Boy rolled in and we talked for a while about the Long AT map on the wall of the bunk house. It was cool to finally be able to see some progress that we'd made. It was also that night, that I started noticing I had some swelling in my left big toe. It looked like it was getting a little infected. I put some neosporin on it, and forgot about it.
Standing Bear Hostel
The next day was pretty uneventful. It was rather rainy day of moderate hiking. I did get to hike up and over Max Patch. It was a rather interesting experience seeing a completely bald, grass covered mountain in the middle of no where. That night I stayed in the Walnut Mountain Shelter with a great group of folks including Nature Boy. The Walnut Mountain Shelter ended up being the worst shelter on the entire trail, but I didn't know it at the time. I just remember thinking...."this shelter looks like it's about to fall apart"
The next day I bolted out of bed early, because I knew it was an easy 14 miles into Hot Springs....a town I couldn't wait for! I couldn't wait for a bed again, I couldn't wait to make some phone calls, and I was finally considering taking my first zero day. I had heard a lot of good things about Hot Springs. I rolled in to town about 11 and met up with Nature Boy at the local greasy spoon diner (which turned out to be one of my favourite food stops on the entire trail). I ordered a fully loaded breakfast, got the completely wrong thing, but ate it happily all the same! I didn't care. Good coffee, good people, good food, and good relaxation => good stuff.
The local hostel was all booked up, so I got a room at the Apline Inn, and turned the rest of the afternoon into an easy day of relaxing. I called home, did my laundry, and had some good town food. I made a couple trips up to the outfitter, and even hung out at night with the same crew from the shelter the night before watching a basketball game on TV. It was a great town, full of great people, and I was excited to be relaxing....but also excited to be thru-hiking.
The only bad thing was that damn toe was getting worse....arggghhh.