Day 19: Fontana Dam (NC), 0 miles
I had an amazingly comfy bed and was really dreading starting the Smoky Mountains.. so I decided to take a zero and spend an extra night in Fontana. I had a lot of extra food, so I mailed some up to my next stop and tried to relax. That lasted about an hour, and I became really restless and started wishing I was back on the trail. I paced around my room, organizing and reorganizing my few belongings. The resort was a ghost town, and I really regretted taking the zero when the weather was so nice. I did feel a little lonely for the first time. I read on my nook for most of the night.
Day 20: Fontana Dam to Russel Field Shelter, 16 miles
(This is the exact first line quote from my handwritten journal):
“FML. I’m sleeping in a shelter”.
To be fair, I went in to the Smokys with a little bit of a bad attitude. I didn’t like the rules- especially the shelter sleeping rule- and I heard nothing but horror stories about the weather. In fact, the week prior to my venture in, a woman was airlifted out of the Smokys for hypothermia.
I ran out of time in the morning and was not able to have breakfast before the shuttle arrived. I was restless the night before, and felt very tired.
I spent the entire day hiking by myself. Didn’t see a single person.
The Smokys require all thru-hikers to have a $20 permit. No big deal. The permit requires you to sleep in the shelter, unless the shelter is full. If the shelter is full, you may then set up your tent or hammock. If you are in the shelter and a section Hiker arrives, you must vacate the shelter and set up your tent.
I have no interest in shelters. Actually, I would call it an extreme disinterest. Mice. Snorers. Farters. People touching me. Stinky hikers- I mean, It’s bad enough smelling my own stink why should I be forced to sardine-can sleep with other stinkers?
I arrived at the first shelter in the Smokys and it wasn’t full, so I decided to press on to the next- in hopes that I would arrive very late and it would be full, which would allow me to set up my private and comfy tent. I went another 3 miles and the next shelter was also not full. I did pass my pals Chuckles and Tall Tale, they were “slackpacking” southbound. Slackpacking is a way to get “bigger miles” by leaving your pack with a hostel or friend and hiking without the extra weight. A shuttle picks you up and drops you off. Lucky ducks!
There were just a few people at the shelter- Lanky, Sketchy, AAA, and a few guys that I did not meet.
I had most of the bottom of the shelter to myself, there was one guy on the far side with tons of space between us. So, I didn’t feel sardined. What I did feel was complete panic.
I started freaking out that a snake was going to get into my sleeping bag. This is an irrational fear for a lot of reasons, but the biggest is that I’m really not afraid of snakes! In fact, I actually remember getting into a lot of trouble in elementary school for catching snakes in a ditch and chasing boys with them. But, anyone that suffers anxiety can tell you that there is nothing rational about the panic. I started sweating like a beast, my heart was pounding out of my chest, and I felt nauseous. I started peeling off layers inside my sleeping bag trying to calm down, release heat, and catch my breath. I eventually talked myself down and slept a few hours. I did not encounter any snakes.
Day 21: Russel Field-Derrick Knob, 8 miles
One of the girls in the shelter woke up at 5:30am and had a hard time getting her things together without shining her light in all of our eyes. It was raining, but was supposed to stop later that morning so I set out anyway.
It never stopped. I had planned to make it quite a bit further, I wanted to climb the highest point in the Smokys for an epic sunrise the next morning. Alas, the weather had other plans. It downpoured, freezing rain, fog, wind, no views.
I stopped to try and make a coffee to warm up, but the wind was so strong I could not get my stove to light. I stood around in the shelter shivering for over an hour, and then finally asked if there were any open spots. I crawled up between sardines and tried to change into dry clothes inside my sleeping bag. Changing out of a wet bra is hell in itself- trying to do it inside of a mummy bag with some modesty is absolute ridiculousness. I was incredible pissy and could not stop shivering. I started swearing and the girl next to me made a funny comment. Her name is GinGin, and she just so happened to be from Michigan, so we became fast friends.
Later, I saw another gal (Little Dipper) that I get along with also pop her head out of her sleeping bag, a few sardines down from me.
I took my nook out to read and distract myself from feeling frozen, only to discover that it wasn’t working. As I was pounding on it, I heard a voice I recognized outside of the shelter- my pal Solace from Franklin! As crabby as I was, it did cheer me up to have 3 friendly faces in the crowd.
The rain eventually stopped, just as Gin Gin had promised me. Gin Gin led Little Dipper and I through a little yoga session, as we watched a brilliant sunset. I eventually felt slightly less frozen and spent my second night in a shelter, this time very sardined.
Day 22: Derrick Knob-Mt Collins, 13 miles.
I woke up about 6:00am and took my time getting ready. I enjoyed 2 cups of coffee and hit the trail. My clothes, shoes, and socks were still drenched, but it was sunny and windy so I hoped to dry on the trail. I took a break at the first shelter, about 6 miles up and had lunch and laid my things out to dry. While I was relaxing in the grass, I managed to swallow a bee. I heimliched myself and coughed it back out, and waited for my throat to close up. It became itchy and sore, but I was still able to breathe so I figured I better get back in the trail.
I stopped again at the next shelter 2 miles up and debated staying there for the night. It was a beautiful day and I decided I had to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted, so I hiked on.
GinGin was ahead of me and had gotten off at Clingman’s Dome (the highest point where I had wanted to watch sunrise), and headed in to Gatlinburg. She messaged me to get there and hitch down to hang out with her.
I made it to Clingman’s and it was incredibly odd- there were children running around and so many people- it was actually quite a shock after seeing so few people and absolutely no kids in so long.
I think I saw the famous couple hiking with the baby.
I met a few new hikers: Pick of the Litter, E-Rock, and Cody. They sat with my pack while I walked up the path to Clingman’s. Without my pack I felt like I was riding an escalator! It really felt like floating!
There was no shuttle or townspeople offering rides, and I had never hitched before so I just hiked on. The hike from Clingman’s to Mt Collins zapped my energy, and I was starving when I finally arrived at 7 pm.
There were a group of older guys on a family trip that were section hiking at the shelter, so I got to sleep in my tent- woohoooo!!!!
They were hilarious. They actually had a debate on whether or not there were two sunset times each night… I cracked up and didn’t even hide the fact that I was laughing at them. I nicknamed their group “Barrel of Monkeys”.
I was thrilled to be in my tent and relished the fact that I had survived 3 weeks and 200 miles!
Day 23: Mt. Collins-Newfound Gap, 5 miles
I had a pretty easy hike to Newfound Gap, which is the shuttle point into Gatlinburg. It was incredibly beautiful with a lot of giant overturned trees and fields of flowers.
At Newfound Gap, there was a church providing trail magic. Little Dipper was there, and we both enjoyed a coke- we had just talked about it the night before because neither of us drink soda in the “real world” but we crave it often on the trail. One of the church members, Ken, provides hikers with free rides into Gatlinburg.
Ken drove me in and I was shocked to find that hotel prices had tripled since the previous day when I had looked them up. I met a hiker named Greg on the shuttle, when I checked into my room they told him his wasn’t ready so I let him store his things in my room. I ran into a lot of locals that were not friendly- I definitely wasn’t in Franklin anymore! After a lot of searching, I found a place to do laundry and Greg and I shared the cost of a load.
After the laundry was done, I strolled around the town in my fresh clothes and found the brewery. Shelley got a ride down from Clingman’s and met me there. After dinner we took a trip to the Moonshine Distillery. We enjoyed entertainment and samples of Flavored Moonshine. We met up with Gin Gin, Adam, and Powder Keg at the pizza place next door and had second dinner. Shelley and the rest planned to take a zero the following day and tried to convince me to stay also- I was determined to get out of the Smokys as fast as possible, so I fought their advances (Shelley tried to trick me into going to “Dollywood”) and called it an early night and headed back to my hotel room.