Day 19
Icewater Spring Shelter - I-40 underpass
30.2 miles

Today was the most miserable day of the trail yet, but I broke another personal record.  Until today, 20 miles was my longest hike.  I blew past that like it was nothing to make it a 30 mile day.  The rain started before I even got finished eating my cold oatmeal.  As I slipped my wet t-shirt back on, I was already dreading the 20 miles I had planned.  Once I started hiking it wasn't even a trail.  I was hiking down what I began to refer to as the Appalachian River.  I was literally walking down a stream, stopping every five minutes to defog my glasses, although even with clear glasses visibility was still bad.  Today was supposed to be the best stretch of trail with numerous views and I didn't get to see a single one.  (Hence the lack of pictures from my time in the Smokies).  There was no need to stop so I got done with the twenty planned miles by 3PM.  Maybe it was the cold, or the rain, but about a mile before the shelter I started thinking that I would just hike that last 10 miles of the Smokies and not even have to bother with another shelter.  When I got to the shelter, the rain finally stopped and I even saw my shadow.  It had been so long that when I first saw my shadow it scared me.  At the shelter, I stopped long enough to make sure I had a ride to my family cabin, where 2-Step and the pups were waiting for me.  I then ran down the trail with one thought...get me off the damn trail and into a dry house.  I was a madman cruising down the trail.  I didn't even know it was possible for me to do 30 miles, but I wasn't going to stop to debate my decision.  When I got to the I-40 underpass, I was so happy, and someone had left a bag of candy for hikers where the trail came out to the road.  It was awesome!  Then I realized my phone was out of batteries.  Not to worry though, because the first car I stopped was heading to where I needed to go and they had thru-hiked the trail, so they understood the situation I was in.  Thanks again to Rockafeller and shout-outs to 1-Pace and Mizunga.  You'd been there before and you knew exactly how to make a tired hiker feel welcome.  Thanks for all the help.  When I finally make it to the cabin, 2-Step was waiting with a big, fat plate of bacon pasta.  I'm pretty sure I cried a little bit I was so happy.  I went from miserable to more excited than ever about the miles I'd hiked, the food I was eating, the shower I took, and being with 2-Step and the pups again.  I wen to bed with a full belly and knew we were going all the way to Maine.

Day 18
Silers Bald Shelter - Icewater Spring Shelter
15.5 miles

The wind had picked up overnight and the clouds were so low that I was walking through them.  There were no more views to be seen and I was dreading feeling that first drop of rain.  It didn't take long before the rain started and I shut my brain off and just turned on cruise control.  I did get excited when I passed Newfound Gap and saw the NC-TN border (ha, one of many though, but still exciting).  I also saw a sign with the total miles left before Katahdin and got really pumped when it showed less than 2000 miles.  The next good thing was that I only had three miles left in the day and about 1.5 miles from the shelter, the rain stopped.  Since it was so early, I dropped my pack at the shelter and hiked another mile to a viewpoint called the jump-off that someone had recommended.  I thought since I had seen a break in the clouds I might get a view...nope.  It was a good way to cool my legs off before dinner.  Back at the shelter, i started getting to know my shelter-mates.  Shout-outs to my buddies from Florida, that scotch made my day!!  And guess what...they gave me my trail name.  I'm now known as "The Man With No Name" or "No Name" for short.  It comes from a Clint Eastwood movie.  We'll see if it lasts or if someone will find another one for me.  Thanks guys and I hope the rest of your hike wasn't too wet!

Day 17
Mollies Ridge Shelter - Silers Bald Shelter
17.5 miles

It's different hiking without 2-Step and the dogs.  I have my goal for the day planned out and I don't really stop until I get to camp.  I did see a wild boar, rattlesnake and turkey today.  The views weren't much, since the rain they had been calling for was getting closer.  Every time I got to the top of a climb, the clouds had crept in a little closer.  Eventually it started raining right before I stopped for lunch.  It didn't last long and I started back up as soon as the rain stopped.  I finished up the day pretty quick and had plenty of time to lounge around the shelter before dinner.  I packed only Mountain House dinners, since they are easy to make (boil water and wait for the dinner to re-hydrate).  The shelter was fairly packed by the time it was dark, but I was glad I didn't have to give up my spot.  They don't allow you to camp on the AT in the Smokies.  You have to stay in shelters so I was glad I still had the half-pad that I was carrying for one of the dogs.  It was another early night for me, even though tomorrow was my shortest planned day for the Smokies.

Day 16 - Part 2
Fontana Dam Visitor Center - Mollies Ridge Shelter
10.7 miles

I set a new personal record, 10 miles in 3 hours!!  And it was uphill!  I started the last 10 miles at 5PM and when I checked my phone it was 8PM.  That was enough time to get water and some wood to make dinner.  I was pretty pumped about that, but didn't stay up too much longer after dinner because I had an ambitious few days ahead.  As I was falling asleep, I thought about the most exciting part of the day, which happened to be when I saw a momma bear and her cub.  I was running down the trail on a downhill, with headphones in, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black object on the trail.  I was so startled, I jumped back about five feet and gave a yelp.  When I finally saw the cub, I started backing up immediately, looking for the mother.  I had backed up about nine feet and looked down to my right, to look for the cub again.  I saw it clinging to the trunk of a tree, staring up towards the trail, looking for me.  When I looked past the cub, over my shoulder, I saw the mother, about six feet away from me, looking at me from the trunk of a tree.  When I saw the mother, I started talking to the bears, letting them know I was just passing through.  After that, my mad dash to the shelter was a little less eventful.

Day 16 - Part 1
Cody Gap - Dam Visitor Center
10.2 miles

Part one of the day was a lot of little ups and downs, until we started our descent to the dam.  Not much happened until we got to the Fontana Marina, where we got sick on candy and soda (always worth it)!  We finished the 1.4 miles to the Visitor Center after gorging on candy and I started the sad job of emptying my pack of all items I didn't need, since I wasn't hiking with 2-Step and the pups.  Although my pack felt good, I had heavy feet and didn't want to have to spend the next few days alone.

Day 15
Stealth Camp outside the NOC - Cody Gap
17 miles

Since we had to get to Fontana Dam for 2-Step's ride to my family's cabin on the Northern boundary of the Smokies, we had a long day to keep us on track.  There were a lot of climbs, and that means a lot of descents.  For some reason, when the trail was built, the trail crews felt that hikers needed to see the top of every mountain in all the states it goes through.  And most only have a view of the trees, not the most motivating factor when climbing a mountain.  Climb after climb after climb got us to camp just before dark.  We had enough time to set up before it was too dark to want to even bother.  But we made it our goal and we slept well.

Day 14
Cold Spring Shelter - Stealth Camp outside the NOC
12.4 miles

What a day!  The six-mile, 3000-foot descent to the Nanthahala Outdoor Center (NOC) was the worst!  And we weren't the only ones complaining.  One of the only good things about today was the dank ten-inch pizza and burger that we split, once we arrived at the NOC.  It was also great to soak our feet in the cold river and to get a refreshing Pabst from an awesome couple from Durham, NC; and the pleasant conversation we had. (We never caught your names, but you helped brighten our day, many thanks!!)  When we finally left the NOC, we only made it about .7 miles out before we saw the first campsite and called it quits.  We had received the advice to camp as far away from towns as possible, as sometimes the locals of towns can give you more trouble than any wild animals.  We did camp close to town, nonetheless, and when we rolled into our campsite, we were a little spooked to find a large knife stuck into a tree.  Our imaginations were going a little wild, but our logic and experience were telling us we would be fine.  We went to bed, but were woken up at about 2AM, by a bright light and a disembodied voice exclaiming, "Hi there, I'm just passing through.  I don't mean to startle you, but I live on the other side of the ridge, and I usually come this way after work."  I thought I was dreaming, especially when the voice told us we had picked a good spot to camp and they would be out of our way once they got up the hill from our site.  Little did I know 2-Step was in her hammock ready to help me take out whatever "serial killer" was coming to get us.  Fortunately, that wasn't the case and that was the last event in a long and weary day.  So much for only having weary feet, but hey, that's the life of a thru-hiker.

Day 13
Winding Stair Gap - Cold Spring Shelter
15.8 miles

The climb out of Winding Stair Gap was long, but the day mellowed out afterwards and we made good time.  Stopped for lunch at a small creek and had some cold coffee that helped freshen us up for the rest of the day.  After lunch, we got to an old stone tower that gave us a view of the Smokies, and the highest point on the trail; Clingmans Dome.  It was pretty exciting to be able to see our next goal on the trail.  We were still nervous about not having a plan for the dogs, but we had faith something would work out.  We got a few pictures and were feeling good about the day, so we decided to hike further than planned.  After an uneventful afternoon, we got to the shelter and met back up with Robert, another hiker we've been hiking on and off with.  We also met Punchline, a new face to us on the trail.  We got set up and had a fire going in no time.  So we boiled some water for our dehydrated Pad Thai and listened to The Beatles while we hung out with Robert and Punchline.  We also made a phone call to our friend, Rich, and he was happy to pick up 2-Step in Fontana, so she could spend time at my family's cabin in Cosby with the dogs.  All in all, it was a good day on the trail.  To echo a quote from the Civil Rights era (which we heard while hiking the trail) "My feets are tired, but my soul is rested."

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