- The Appalachian Trail runs for 71 miles through the Smokies (short for Great Smoky Mountains National Park)
- The Smokies lie within both Tennessee and North Carolina
- The highest point on the entire A.T. (Clingman's Dome; 6,655 feet) is found in the Smokies
- The weather in the Smokies can be unpredictable and vary greatly from one day to the next, sort of like The Whites!
- Thru-hikers are required to obtain an Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker Permit online before entering the park. Every thru-hiker is required to print out their permit and carry it with them while hiking through the Smokies or else be faced with a $125.00 fine. Permits, which are good for 8 days, cost $20.00. ALL overnight hikers (backpackers) traveling on the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies are required to stay in the shelters along the trail. There is no dispersed camping allowed and tenting outside of the shelters is only allowed when the shelter is already at maximum capacity upon arrival. Section hikers are REQUIRED to make reservations for the shelters, thru-hikers ARE NOT ALLOWED to make reservations for the shelters. The following is from the The National Park Service website:
Thru-Hikers may tent in the immediate area around shelters only if the shelter is full. Thru-hikers are required to stay in shelters when there is space available. Thru-Hikers must always give up bunk space in shelters to those with shelter reservations.
Yes, you read that last part right. Thru-hikers can be bumped from a shelter if a section hiker with a reservation shows up, no matter if it is 11 o'clock at night and said hiker is sound asleep. There are ridge-runners present at most shelters to enforce it too. What's worse is that the maximum capacity at the shelters along the A.T. in the Smokies are 12-14 people (including a spot for the ridge-runner). So when you add together peak thru-hiker season (anytime in from mid-March to late April for the Smokies) plus section hikers plus bad weather you get really over crowded shelters (most ridge-runners will allow over crowding if the weather is bad enough to warrant it). So going into the Smokies, I was less than thrilled at the prospect have having to cram like wet sardines into a can at night and not having the option to tent when and where I wanted to.
So, what went wrong in the Smokies? Here is a short day-by-day synopsis for my first few days in the Smokies:
It is hot. We had filled our water at the visitor center but had already drank most of it. The first water source we come to is dry, in fact it is so dry that we can barely even find a trickle. The second one, shortly thereafter, is a small puddle of putrid mud. Stagnant with flies hovering over it. We move on. More up. It is a little after noon at this point and I feel myself getting frustrated. I am hot, I am thirsty and I have no idea when the hell I will be able to get more water. We stop to take a break and to check our guidebooks to make sure we didn't miss something. I take off my pack which is fully loaded and at it's heaviest just coming out of town with a fresh resupply. I set it down on the trail and prop it up against a rock. I take out my guidebook and start looking to see where the next potential water source is. Then, I hear a noise, a shuffle of sorts. "What the hell...." I mutter and as I turn around I am horrified to see my pack rolling back down the hill we just climbed up. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO" I scream as I start running down the hill after it, yelling at it to stop as if it were a child running away from me. It keeps rolling. It eventually rolls off of the trail and into a small ditch where it comes to a stop. I catch up to it, my feet dragging and my throat dry and parched. I mutter a few curse words at it and give it a small kick. I look back up the hill with despair then look back down at my pack with sorrow. "Why did you do this to me? It's hot. I'm thirsty. Why can't you just cooperate with me?" I reluctantly pick her up and sling her on my back and trudge back up the hill. Thankfully there was a water source that was flowing less than a mile up the trail.
We make it to the first shelter by late afternoon. It was our plan to move onto the next one which was a little less then three miles away but we are too exhausted from the heat so we call it a day. The ridge runner there introduces himself, asks if we have our permits and tells us there is only two reservations for the evening so there is plenty of room for us. I have trouble sleeping that night as the wind picks up considerably. I can hear the bear cables clinking and clanking around in the wind which makes me wonder if it is actually the wind or is it bears trying to get my food? Every time I start to doze off a huge gust of wind comes and rattles the heavy duty tarp that covers the front of the shelter. At some point I think I start to hear rain then I finally drift off to sleep...
We hike at a steady pace all day in the rain. We are between 4,000 and 5,600 feet the whole day and socked in by the clouds. Thankfully it is not too cold as we are soaked to the bone shortly after our departure from the shelter in the morning. We normally stop and cook our lunch but on this day we were too wet to risk stopping for too long so we quickly ate a dry lunch on the side of the trail. We hike for almost 18 miles only to arrive at an already way-over-capacity shelter. The ridge runner gives us permission to tent which we gladly take even though the rain is still coming down steadily. I am exhausted and hungry. I crawl into my tent and change into dry clothes then crawl into my sleeping bag to warm up. I need to get warm enough so I can go out to the shelter overhang and cook my dinner. Before I know it, I am fast asleep.
"Did you eat breakfast?" he yells over to me. I shake my head no. "You need to eat, you didn't eat last night either."
"I'm not hungry, I'm cold. I just wanna get going and warm up, Then I'll eat." I reply though in my head I know this is a bad idea.
We are just shy of 5 miles from Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the entire A.T. As we gain elevation the rain changes to sleet and then to a wintry mix of sleet, freezing rain pellets, and wet heavy snow. I am sluggish to say the least. I have no fuel in my body and I have my period which makes me lethargic even when I am not hiking 20 miles a day. I am wet, I am cold, I am shivering and did I mention I have to poop too? Oh yes, this is total discomfort at it's worst. As we climb higher the wind picks up and instead of the wintry mix falling on us, it is now coming at us from the side. Tears start to stream down my face as the ice pellets sting my legs. I am not prepared for this! I have no winter gear! I am in shorts and trail runners for Christ sake! What the fuck?!?! I start to breath heavier, perhaps because it was breathing mixed with sobs. Kenny knows what is going on with me physically; he knows I have not eaten, he knows I have my period and he knows I have to go to the bathroom and that I refuse to cop a squat and reveal my rear to these harsh weather conditions. What he doesn't know is the panic going on in my head. What we both don't know is that hypothermia is setting in.
"I think the guidebook said that there are bathrooms in the parking lot up here," Kenny yells to me from behind.
"Okay," my voice quivers.
We come to the junction with the Auto Road and turn down onto it. We are completely socked in with maybe 20 feet of visibility. The wind is howling and now it is full on heavy snow coming down. After walking down the road for what seems like an eternity, there is no sign of a parking lot or a bathroom.
"What do you want to do?" Kenny asks me. "Do you want to keep walking down this road in hopes of finding a toilet or do you want to turn around and go back to the trail?"
And without even thinking, I blurted out "I want to go home." I was shocked those words came out of my mouth, because I didn't mean them. But I said them. And then, much to our surprise, we see a day hiker coming up the road towards us. He informs us that the bathrooms are open and just a little ways further down. After what felt like a mile or more we reach the parking lot and the bathrooms.
"I'll wait right here," Kenny says to me as I go into one of the pit toilets.
I take off my pack which is covered with 2 inches of slushy snow. I burst into tears. I want to change into dry clothes so bad but what is the use? Those will get wet as soon as I leave the bathroom and go back out! Then, instead of going to the bathroom like most people in my situation would do, I start to scope out the area in the bathroom. I think to myself, "There is enough room in here to pitch my tent! I can pitch my tent, change clothes, eat and sleep here until this storm passes! Yes!" Then there is a knock on the door.
"Hey," Kenny says, his voice muffled through the door. "Take your time, I am gonna go wait in this guys van. He said I could wait in it and warm up while you were in here. I'll be across the parking lot when you are ready."
His voice snaps me back into reality. "Oh, okay. I'll be out soon," I reply in a barely audible voice. The feeling of despair creeps back into me as soon as I realize Kenny would never go for my waiting-out-the-storm-in-the-bathroom idea. I go about my business and then put my jacket and pack back on. I walk out of the sanctuary that is a pit toilet back into the stormy winter hell that is happening in the parking lot. I stand like a zombie staring at the only three cars in the lot. A man gets out of a van and waves me over. I walk over, feet dragging and the wind pushing me around like a plastic bag.
"Get in," the man says to me.
I look inside and see Kenny in the front seat, happily chowing down on a bag of pepperoni.
"Put your pack in the back and get in," the man says to me again. I look up at him confused, wanting to ask him who he was but no words would come out of my mouth. He slowly motioned to my pack straps, "Here, let me help you" he says as he takes my pack off my shoulders and puts in it the back of the van. He opens the side door for me and I get in. He closes the door and gets in the driver seat. He puts the van in drive and we start moving. He turns to Kenny and says "Where ya wanna go?"
"Off this mountain," Kenny replies. "We need to get off this mountain."
"OK," the man says. "I'll take ya into town. Y'all are lucky you got to the parking lot when ya did. They gonna close the road here shortly. This snow ain't gonna stop til late tonight." He and Kenny proceed to have a long conversation about anything and everything. I can hear most of what they are saying but can't manage to jump into the conversation. It is like my tongue and lips are paralyzed. I don't care, the heat is blasting and I feel like I am going to be okay. I am mentally spent and physically exhausted. I feel like a complete zombie. I slumped myself against the window of the van and watched as we drove down the auto road through a winter wonderland into Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
The Rest of the Smokies
The rest of the Smokies were, thankfully, pretty uneventful. I saw a wild boar which ran away quickly (good thing too, turns out they are pretty viscous animals). We saw a few deer but no bears. We saw less and less ridge runners which was nice. And the weather was pretty mild for a day and half before it turned back to rain (warm rain this time). We cranked out some high mileage days at the end just to get out of the park and to Hot Springs faster. I felt a little let down by the Smokies but I learned an extremely valuable lesson which was NEVER to skip a meal on the trail again. That was the beginning of my demise that day which probably could have been avoided if I had eaten dinner the night before and breakfast that morning.
So now, some pics from the Smokies. Looking back I wish that someone had snapped a few pics of me at my low point just so you could see. But that someone would probably have been Kenny and I would have most definitely taken his camera and thrown it off the side of the mountain :) I hope that I painted a clear enough picture for you.