The Smokies almost smoked me (238.1m)

I’ve not slept a solid night whilst hiking the Smokies; my Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XLite Sleeping Pad felt like sleeping on a block of granite (despite trying different firmness options), and I would turn over 45° every 15-20 minutes: back, right side, front, left side, back… and so on, all night. My knees and ankle would flare up in pain all through the night and I would spend 10-20 minutes awake trying to “think” through the pain. I’d listen to my own breathing, anything to try and get me to sleep. I’d get a rhythm going and it would be interrupted by a rumble of snoring. Seriously, it was an exercise in futility.

I sensed the typical nuance of hikers waking and I felt dead-like. The worst of hangovers without a drop of alcohol passing my lips, and my eyes looked like sheeps’ fannies. St. Croix was, as ever, chipper and smiling. “Morning, Jolly!”, came his salutation. I grunted with a wry smile – he understood. For the next 20 minutes I was in and out of fatigue and mental failure, I felt completely smoked and ready to go nowhere… except home.

Blue, SC, and Bitter Goat asked in succession how my ankle was — it had been a topic of conversation the previous night — I kept the conversation small, and through one side of my mouth I muttered “I’m ok.” I wasn’t.

It felt like an eternity between me waking and getting around to packing, and I remember SC asking how I was – I stood up and turned away from him while simultaneously responding “I’m good, man” – I was fighting back some tears by this point as I’d started to succumb to the fact that my AT thru hiking days were over; I was still in pain. It was extremely upsetting. I’d failed.

We said our goodbyes (they were packed and ready to hike) and I was alone – two other hikers left at the shelter that I’d met only the previous night. I made coffee. Slightly better.

I’d been texting with the missus about my condition and where my mind was since the night before, and this morning she sent me something I was not expecting: one hell of an inspirational and motivational message:

“First of all, get that negative vocabulary out of this conversation. U are tired and in pain. If you weren’t. We wouldn’t b having this conversation. Tomorrow is a new day. U just have a little more pain to go. In a few hours you will b closer to comfort. You can do this. You’ll bitch about It in your head. But tomorrow you may think differently. U will always remember it was hard but u will b glad u stuck through this. This is part of the trail. U knew this would happen and CAN get through it. Be my little engine that could. Come on David. I’m rooting for you.”

I changed gear.

I finished packing and hauled arse up and north and I’d caught up with St. Croix, Blue, and Bitter Goat pretty quickly.

High fives were thrown and I felt good; it felt good to be amongst friends again.

After the 2.1 miles of ascent, it was time for the 5.2 miles downhill. Downhills are brutal, especially with such sharp descents and rock littered trails. Every step was a concentrated step, there was no way I was going to rush this and destroy my ankle with another roll. I had Bitter Goat and Etch-a-Sketch (met her the night before at the shelter) sign my ball cap.

I got to Davenport Gap around 1:15pm and was blown away by trail magic: cold sodas and chips of every variety. Epic times.

I called Melissa Browning from the 2013 AT Guide (page 32) and she picked me up and dropped me off at the Motel 6 in Newport. It only took her about half an hour to get to Davenport Gap which was superb. I threw my pack and poles in her trunk and we were off. I waved goodbye to my hiking buds and they disappeared in the dust kicked up from Melissa’s car as we curved downhill.

Melissa was awesome; we shared stories and I took in some of the local info. She has an incredible shuttle service that covers most areas around this part of the trail but draws the line going as far as Clingmans, for example. It’s best to call her and ask: (423) 623-7074.

Melissa will be dropping me off again day after tomorrow. She’s making my zero day extremely easy to navigate.

I did laundry at the Motel 6 and afterwards walked 0.5 mile to Walmart to buy some ankle support and pain meds. I bought some shaving foam and a razor, too. My face is getting messy.

On the way back I stopped off at Sagebrush Steakhouse – small cup of chili and a burger, just perfect.

I wasn’t too pleased with the group of locals that walked in two hours after me and flipped the channel to a baseball game they never even watched.

Twats.

Whatcha gonna do, huh? I’ll behave. They’re lucky we’re not in Donny or NY, I’ll leave it at that. They’re noisy and obnoxious.

It’s 8:51pm and it’s time for bed. Icing the ankle shortly, then shut eye.

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Mollies Ridge to Derrick Knob (188.8m)

I got out of the gate quite late this morning, and was one of the last few to leave Mollies Ridge Shelter at a touch after 9:00am. Quick Change and I sped over the first steep climb and down into Little / Big Abrams Gap before the climb to Spence Field Shelter; myself, Quick Change, Tie Dye, Captain Dan, Bucket List (Mike), Camel, Alfalfa, and Tom dropped out packs for a very well deserved lunch break lying on a wide patch of long dry grass. It was warm, and it was a great opportunity to dry out and take a break. After refueling and enjoying a hiker siesta we hauled our arses up some of the steepest trail I’ve hiked in a while – hand over feet rock scrambling and up steep ascents to Rocky Top. I still had no cell service and I was anxious to call home, it had been almost two days since I’d spoken to my beloved, and I missed her more than I’d done since Springer. Bucket List had service so I used his phone to call my wife at work, and she was surprised to hear from me. Apparently my mother had also been worries as no word, and there had been no updates on my blog into days, too. We talked quickly as we had to keep walking, but all I wanted to do was drop my pack and spend an hour talking to her; the Smokies are bad enough, but with no signal I feel completely cut off from my wife, which is difficult. I sensed from her that she wasn’t happy that we haven’t really talked since Fontana — even there the cell coverage was spotty — all I could do was apologize for the lack of service; it sucks that I can’t call home when I want to, completely fucking sucks.

We hit Derricks Knob Shelter after two brutal downhills and one long ascent; I unpacked my bag and pad, and then I cooked up some Idahoan taters which were bloody delicious. Quick chat around the campfire and I’m sat on the edge of the bottom bunk writing my journal. Tomorrow is a shorter day, something around 7.2 miles and Clingmans Dome on Thursday.

I’m going to write a long “love letter” when I get to Double Spring Gap Shelter tomorrow.

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Entering the Smokies (176.8m)

Ever since making the decision to hike the Appalachian Trail, I’d heard and read so much about Grand Smokey Mountain National Park: The Smokies.

I’d shared a two-bed room with Tie Dye at the Fontana Lodge, and waking at 7:00am I let out a large yawn; I didn’t sleep much between midnight and 1:00am, TD was snoring like a chainsaw with such voracity that I swear I could hear the windows rattle. After a few choice curse words, I dragged my arse out of bed and fished out the earplugs from my first aid kit. After 20 minutes I was out.

I half-packed and headed to the restaurant for breakfast. Biscuits and gravy along with a plate of “Hillbilly Benedict” (basically biscuits and gravy with sausage and fried eggs), coffee and a cold glass of water; they eat a lot of biscuits and gravy down here! After breakfast we finished packing and hoisted our packs into Mike’s car – Mike is a friend of Captain Dan’s and is joining us for the Smokies section.

Mike dropped us off at the trail head and off we hiked to Fontana Dam which was 1.2 miles from Fontana 28 AT Crossing. We rounded through some forest trail and came out by the Fontana Shelter, and hanging a left, we strolled over Fontana Dam. It was incredible, massive, impressive. Over the dam, it’s a long curve right and upwards to the Smokies southern boundary; here we had to deposit the bottom half of our permits in a brown metal box with a lid and two slots inside.

We were finally here. I’d been fretting over this mountain range for weeks; it’s said to be some of the toughest miles on the trail with incredibly steep and prolonged ascents with equally brutal rocky descents. They weren’t wrong.

Climbing up to 4,000′ from 1,800′ took about 2.5-3hrs to cover the 4 miles – and it was hot outside. It was another 3 miles to summit Doe Knob, then a steep descent over 800′ then bam, back uphill for a final quad buster to Mollies Ridge Shelter. I slept in the shelter per the Smokies’ rules; if the shelters aren’t completely full — they sleep about 12-14 hikers — you must sleep in the shelter. If they’re full then you’re free to pitch your tent/hammock outside. I slept fine until Quick Change started to snore. Quick Change (Barbara) whom we’d met coming out of Fontana Shelter was named after we witnessed her change into her hiker gear within a minute inside her sleeping bag.

My sleeping bag was toasty and the Klymit pad worked very well; it was a little too firm so I let out some air through the night.

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Fontana Village (164.6m)

A hearty breakfast again courtesy of Donna at the cabin, and Phill dropped us off at Stecoah Gap.

Uphill again and it wasn’t too long before we hit Jacob’s Ladder, one hell of a long climb, straight up – no switchbacks. Given we were slack packing today it was a little easier (read: didn’t kill ourselves), and we were making good time.

We’d made Cody Gap in great time and crossed paths with St. Croix, a man who dons a beard like a man should – and he said he’d been growing it for about a year. We stopped for a bite and to hydrate before setting off again and over some rocky sections of the trail before hitting the very long and steep downhill.

We still had about three miles to go before reaching Fontana but we could see the lake and dam to our right the whole time, growing in size as we hiked closer. It was a gorgeous sight.

Cap and I had our stride and literally jogged down the final two miles, making the entire 13.9 miles in 5hrs 50mins, which included our two breaks of about 20 minutes each.

Knees busted and bellies rumbling, we checked into the Fontana Lodge and walked over to the restaurant which wasn’t open, but the bar was and Tie Dye insisted on a shot of tequila. I’m not a fan so I took a sambuca, fantastic.

Once the restaurant opened we filled our faces and I pigged out on a plate of spaghetti carbonara and some wings, which were fantastic. I hit the sack at around 9:00pm, tomorrow is a big day as we hit the Smokies. Wow, I’m amazed how far I’ve hiked. 20130411-075059.jpg20130411-075107.jpg20130411-075117.jpg20130411-075134.jpg20130411-075141.jpg20130411-075154.jpg

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