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Rainbow Springs and through the Smokies

Volume 33: Mon May 12, 2003

I conquer the Smokies!

I left you hanging after having arrived at Rainbow Springs Campground, not far from Franklin, North Carolina. Getting ready to leave the next morning, I went to the camp store where I suffered perhaps my greatest setback so far on the hike: They had no frosted Pop Tarts, a fact that no thru-hiker would have missed. I grudgingly bought a box of strawberry (non-frosted) Pop Tars and hit the road back to to the AT.

It was a mile or two hike from the campground to the AT, so at the first vehicle that was passing by I stuck out my thumb and hoped for the best. I must be a natural born hitchhiker because the very first vehicle stopped for me.

The guy turned to have a rather colorful life story. He said he used to be a professional wrestler and traveled all over North America in the job. Not only did he know where San Luis was, he could even name several of the surrounding towns and even the highway numbers going into them.

Now days he runs a hotel in Franklin which he gave me a business card for. To my surprise, the card claimed they spoke Spanish, and I remarked, "Se habla espanol?!" at which point our conversation continued in Spanish. He was born and raised around Franklin, and I can't imagine there's a large Spanish-speaking population out there, so I was impressed.

He dropped me off at Wallace Gap, about a half mile north from my actual destination. So I had the interesting experience of hiking the wrong way on the AT for a half mile to get to the point where I got off the trail the day before.

I passed several hikers I had met earlier and when they saw me hiking in the wrong direction, I explained that: "I quit! I'm going back to Amicalola!" Keep in mind, when most people quit, they just hitch a ride into the nearest town and leave from there. They do NOT hike back over 100 miles to where they began! But I managed to convince one person of my implausible story. =)

Upon reaching Rock Gap, I turned around and retraced my steps back to Wallace Gap and beyond to the next shelter, Siler Blad Shelter, to end my otherwise uneventful afternoon.

The next morning I woke up to a surprise: I caught a mouse!!! There it was, laying dead in the mousetrap. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the prospect of actually extracting the dead creature from the mousetrap, though, but with the help of a trowel and clever maneuvering, I managed to do it without touching the poor thing.

I got rather a late start waiting for most people to leave before closing down camp myself. Anyhow, my sleeping bag was snug and warm—why mess with perfection? So I hit the trail at about 10:00, the last person at the shelter to do so.

One guy at the shelter had the trail name Detour, a name acquired a year ago from a hike gone astray—and is probably my favorite trail name I've heard so far. Looking at him, you'd probably be surprised to learn that he's a thru-hiker. Even after considering his trail name, he's got heft, and quite a bit of it. His stomach overflows the waist belt of his pack, but he's such a likeable fellow you can't help but admire his audacity.

When I caught up to him on the trail, he was sitting on a log taking a break and jokingly (I think) remarked that he was glad to see me because he hadn't been sure he was on the right trail anymore.

And I hiked. I hiked through streams and over mountains. I hiked into gaps and back up to lookout towers. I hiked until my feet fell off, just so I could get to the next shelter 12.1 miles away before most everyone else and assure myself a spot in the shelter on a darkening, ugly day.

I could not believe it. The shelter was practically bursting when I arrived at 2:30 in the afternoon, most of whom I did not recognize. However, there was a fire already blazing and I sadly cozied up to it to get warm.

Pulling out my copy of the Thru-hiker's Handbook, I learned that the NEXT shelter was another 5.8 miles away. Still being relatively early in the afternoon, I decided to go for it. That would make it an 18 mile day for me—the longest so far—and would probably make my feet howl.

I cook a hash brown dinner

Surprisingly, the weather actually started to clear a bit, and I made it to the next shelter basking in sunlight. And even better, there was plenty of room for me to sleep inside.

Four guys calling themselves the Sumpter Slinky Foursome where already there. They were hilarious and made for great entertainment. I thought calling them the Four Stooges would have been more appropriate. Two of them were pastors of all things, and I've now seen pastors do things I didn't think I'd ever see and kind of hope I never have to see again.

One of them was trying to dry his tent from the night before. He had the idea that if he left the door open and stuck his hand out of it, if it started to rain he'd wake up and be able to close up the tent before it got wet. He woke up all right, but along after a large puddle of water flooded his tent.

There were no bear cables to hang food near this shelter, so I pulled out some instructions for how to tie knots—something the Sumpter Slinky Foursome were quick to help out with. They taught me the useful knot called the Bowline Dragon. You first make a regular bowline knot, then drag it across the ground. Yeah, they were a real hoot. It IS a useful knot—if you want to give someone a laugh. =)

The next morning—at the Wesser Bald Shelter—I woke up to rain, a rather depressing development. However, by the time I ate breakfast and broke up camp, the rain had stopped—which it would conveniently do for the rest of the day.

I headed down a treacherously steep slope to civilization: NOC, short for Nantahala Outdoor Center. It wasn't a city, but it felt like one after a week and a half in the woods. I resupplied my coveted Frosted Cherry Pop Tarps. It hardly seemed like life could get any better, but it did.

I wandered over to Slow Joe's Riverside Cafe pushing my way through kids and tourists to order The BBQ Sandwich and a Coke. And there were tourists. Bus loads of them. Actually, I think most of them had recently gotten off a scenic railroad that stopped there.

And I didn't really have to push my way through the tourists. They seemed to keep a respectable distance from me—probably due to my relatively smelly and unclean body odor radiating from my body at a high velocity. Or it may have been the wild look in my eyes while reading the menu, the talking to myself, or the disshelved appearance, unkempt hair, and stubbled face. Who can tell what motivates a tourist?

Stomach full, I pulled on my pack and continued my journey up to the Sassafras Gap Shelter, possibly the longest, most strenuous part of the trail to date. It seems to me that they've designed the trail to get continually more difficult each day. Or maybe I'm just becoming more exhausted each day so it SEEMS more difficult.

The folks at the Sassafras Gap Shelter I didn't much care for. One girl that appeared to be hiking by herself (ChickFlick) claimed she wasn't when I asked. When pressed, she said she had met lots of hiking buddies that were on the trail, which clearly was not what I meant and as much as I'm all for women going for it on the Appalachian Trail, this was one I was happy to see with agonizing-looking blisters.

Another shelter companion, from North Carolina or something like that, made comments about how wonderful it was to meet all the variety of people that are on the trail.

Within the hour, I'd be in a torrential downpour—hard to tell it from this photo, though!

I've been on this trail for nearly two weeks now, and 90% of the people I've met come from one of the 14 states that the Appalachian Trail runs through. Maybe if I'd never traveled more than 100 miles from my birthplace I'd feel the same way, but I haven't. I've been to Africa, Eastern Europe, and Central America. I've traveled throughout most of the United States, and if anything, the people I've met on the trail are embarrassing themselves when they talk about how everyone is so different—especially when it's a guy from North Carolina referring to a guy from Georgia.

Another urksome feature on the trail are previous thru-hikers that are out to do it again, either in part or in whole. Everyone reveres them like gods, and I want to shake their puny little frames and say, "He's human too! I bet he's even been known to pee in the woods." Granted, successfully thru-hiking the AT is quite an accomplishment, but that doesn't turn them into gods!

And those that HAVE thru-hiked seemed to universally hate A Walk In the Woods. One person (Mother Nature) who I mentioned the book to and how funny I thought it was shot out, "But Bryson didn't even finish the AT." Besides thoughts of strangling her for such a stupid comment, I calmly asked, "And what does the lack of success of his attempted thru-hike have to do with how funny the book is?"

Most thru-hikers I met are so full of themselves I want to puke, and if I ever start acting like that, please, kick me in the butt.

So the next morning I gladly said my goodbyes and hit the trail. My mousetrap didn't go off during the night where it was a couple of feet from me, but I knew the mice paid a visit because my bait was gone. These were some clever mice. In previous shelters there was graffiti warning that the mice could fly and in one case could see through walls, but this mouse was the Mighty Mouse in the mouse world if you asked me.

It wasn't more than an hour into the hike when I twisted my ankle and had to slow my speed down to a crawl. North Carolina continues to have an amazing lack of switchbacks even on the steepest of mountains. After climbing 2000 feet up, you'd think there would at least be a great view for such an effort, but alas, it's blocked by trees and leaving you sitting there feeling like you've been had.

And finally, I reached the next shelter, a strange one with half the floor missing. It was obviously designed and built that way, but for a reason unexplicable to myself. One thru-hiker theorized that it was a "porcupine trap", which wasn't really very plausible, but it was the only theory proposed so it would have to do.

I continued on, this time planning to spend the night at Cable Gap Shelter. In all, five thru-hikers stayed the night here, one of the least number I'd seen so far. It was a cozy atmosphere and a beautiful night.

The AT goes over Fontana Dam, the highest dam east of the Mississippi

The next day would be Fontana Dam—the tallest east of the Mississippi, and a beaconing beacon for thru hikers.

First, there's the free showers at the Visitors Center. That little piece of luxery gave the Fontana Dam Shelter the nickname "The Fontana Hilton". Which after the last 170 miles of hiking is exactly what it feels like. Flush toilets everywhere. WITH toilet paper to boot! Drinking fountains. And even a little shuttle that will take us two miles to Fontana Village where we can marvel at other beautiful sights such as laundromats, grocery stores, and restaurants where people will even wait on you.

So its not surprising that it's a stop all thru-hikers can't wait to reach and have been thinking about for over a hundred miles.

After checking out the well-named Fontana Hilton, I walked down to the Visitor Center for the promised free shower. As far as showers goes, it wasn't all that great, but as far as free showers go, it was fantastic. The water shoots out at a painful 500 mph. Possibly under the theory that that's the only way to get 150 miles of dirt off our bodies. There are four nozzles for people to shower, but only enough room for a single backpack in the 'lobby'. But I was by myself, so that wasn't a problem.

After the quick but painful shower, I took a shuttle to Fontana Village to wash my clothes. ALL my clothes. Since walking around naked is generally frowned upon in town, I first washed all the clothes that I wasn't wearing. Then, quickly—before anyone came into the laundromat—I changed into my clean clothes right there and washed the dirty ones in a second load.

When you've been hiking for a couple of weeks, it's amazing the things you'll do under the protective flag of "if it needs to be done, do it." I'd never have thought myself capable or daring enough to actually undress in the middle of a public laundromat, but I did. I'd have used a restroom if there was one, but I couldn't find one, so I did what I had to do and figured if anyone caught me, they'd understand.

But nobody caught me. I did other little chores while my clothes were washing such as pick up a maildrop, picked up more Frosted Cherry Pop Tarts, sent some postcards, and so forth. And finally when all was done, I took the shuttle back to the Fontana Hilton.

At which point I realized that I left my trekking pole back at the laundromat. Ah, carrumba! Rather than taking the shuttle back again, I decided to walk the two plus miles back.

The view from the top of Fantana Dam

Fortunately, the trekking pole was still there, and since I had arrived after 5:00, the restaurants were open for dinner. I dropped by one and ordered a cheeseburger, one trip to the salad bar, and unlimited sodas for less than $7.00—an absolute bargain as far as I was concerned. I'd have paid $7.00 for the salad alone!

And then I walked back to the Hilton where I shaved my ten-day-old stubble down the restroom sink. Speaking of which, the restrooms had an interesting feature, or rather lack of a feature as the case may be. None of the toilet stalls had doors. Anyone wanting to expel certain substances from a particular orifice would have to risk the eternal embarrassment of being caught red-handed on the pot. How one forgets the doors on a bathroom stall may be one of the biggest questions of the new century.

Sleeping at the Hilton was great, although at around 5:00am, we woke up to the whole shelter shaking. Was it a bear? Did the dam blow up? No, nothing that dramatic, but rather an earthquake. It's strange, but I've lived in California nearly my whole life and didn't get to feel an earthquake. I move to Oregon, though, and bam, there's one. I leave to Central America and there's another one. Now I leave for the AT—and the eastern states aren't even known for being earthquake prone, and bam—another one. Later a ranger told me that he heard the quake was centered in Alabama and measured about 4.5 on the richter scale.

A fire lookout tower next to what's left of the house that housed the guy who looked out for fire

At sunrise, it was off to the Smokies for me. I filled out the backcountry permit needed to cross the Great Smokey Mountains National Park—the first I've had to fill out on the whole trip thus far.

And the trail was great! Yes, there were ups and downs, but the trails were very well graded—a welcome change from before—and maintained.

Now the shelters in the Smokies are a bit different than the ones I've seen before. First, they're made of stone. Except for the one on Blood Mountain, they've never been of stone. And the most interesting thing about them is that the fourth wall that's usually open to the elements has been closed off by a chain-link fence to keep the bears out.

According to the registry at the first shelter I stayed at in the Smokies, there was a bear encounter two nights before, although nothing that a little duct tape couldn't fix. So I had high hopes that I'd see my first bear (from the safety behind a chain-link fence) that night, but alas, it did not happen.

A view of Fontana Lake from a viewpoint in the Smokies

The next day was rather non-eventful as far as hiking went. The weather was beautiful—at least until I reached the safety of Silers Bald Shelter at which point it started to rain, thunder, and lightning.

I was one of the last to leave the shelter the next morning—a combination of not wanting to get out of my nice, warm sleeping bag and not wanting to fight my way through the many others that were already up and about.

The highlight of the day was going to be Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet above sea level. Us folks from the west coast laugh at such small milestones, but east coasters take it seriously.

The observation deck turned out to be one of the most remarkable I've ever seen, curving in a large spiral that even wheelchairs could navigate easily. The view was nice—the clouds even parted long enough to enjoy some sun at the top, but my feeling of "Well its all downhill from here!" didn't really materialize as I admired mountaintop after mountaintop as far as the eye could see.

While admiring the view, I also learned something interesting: People were treating me like a celebrity. There is a road up to Clingman's Dome, and it's a major tourist area.

It's a strange feeling having this crowd of people gawking at you like you're a super hero asking how long I've been hiking so far, what do I do when it rains, when I expect to finish the hike, blah, blah, blah. By the time I was ready to leave, I was ready to run for cover! While hundreds of folks milled around the top of Clingman's Dome, almost none of them took even a hundred steps on the well-marked Appalachian Trail where I once again found solitude and peace.

At least until I reached Newfound Gap, another tourist mecca that requires no hiking to reach. However a trail angel left behind a bag of oranges for us thru-hikers that we devoured as if we came from a desert island. The bag even said they were from California. =)

These tourist meccas do have advantages besides the occasional orange. For instance—running water. And restrooms. Things no thru-hiker takes for granted anymore.

One tourist asked about the shoes I was wearing—running shoes rather than boots and why I'd use the shoes I do. I swear, us thru-hikers really are treated like celebrities! Or zoo creatures. It's a fine line, at times....

The Icewater Spring shelter—one of the nicer shelters in the Smokies

After washing up from the orange juice drizzling down the side of my face, I escaped once again into the forests of the Smoky Mountains and my destination for the night: Icewater Spring Shelter.

The Icewater Spring Shelter turned out to be full of non-thru-hikers, a fact that was obvious to any thru-hikers. We had now traveled about one-tenth of the AT—over 200 miles—and thru-hikers by now have ditched every extra ounce of weight possible.

Non-thru-hikers haven't figured this out yet as they pulled out lounge chairs (lounge chairs on a freaking backpacking trip! *rolling eyes*) and sleeping bags the size of a small car. I guess I was feeling a little haughty because as I told one of them, "No thru-hiker would be caught dead carrying THAT" as I pointed to the lounge chair with the same disgust I'd reserve for a cockroach. They laughed. They thought I was joking.

Strangely, I probably ate better than any of them after I finished baking my cinnamon-raisen muffins for dinner—a fact that several of them wanted to learn how to do for themselves. Just because I'm in the wild doesn't mean I have to eat like a savage! =)

It was here I met the couple calling themselves Fatman and Peanut. I wrote a limerick in the registry about Fatman being better than Batman and going out on a dare to wrestle with a bear—something other hikers that would catch up to me later would comment on with the most glowing terms. Fatman had actually lost over 30 pounds so far since starting his adventure 200 miles to the south. At that rate, we'd be calling him Leanman very soon.

I got another late start the next morning while waiting for most others to leave, and ended up hiking most of the day with an Israeli fellow.

The hike from Icewater Spring Shelter to Tricorner Knob Shelter would be the most scenic yet crawling up dramatic ridges with large, vertical cliffs on both sides of the trail and views that extended for a hundred miles.

The Israeli guy takes a break. Later, he picked up the trail name Hungry Hiker, which was my idea. =)

The last 20 minutes of hiking degenerated into a massive rainstorm with rivers of water running along the trail. I pulled out my trusty umbrella, but it could do nothing about the biting cold wind. When a shoelace became undone, I stopped having fun and knotted the lace in five different places to teach it a lesson.

But at last, the welcome sight of a shelter came into view, which I quickly stormed into shouting something like, "Goddamn fucking rain!" because nothing makes a guy feel better on a cold, wet day than a little cussing. The two guys already in the shelter laughed and said they said the same thing upon reaching the shelter. I immediately felt better. Life was good again. =)

I quickly changed into warm, dry clothing and decided a nice, hot dinner would really hit the spot.

There are signs proclaiming that one shouldn't cook in the shelter because it attracts animals, but it's a well-known fact that rain preempts that rule, and I pulled up a rock and whipped up some hash browns. They probably wouldn't win any awards off the trail, but I had more than one hungry looking hiker eyeing my food. =)

The rain eventually died down, and I'd have one of my quietest nights in the Tricorner Knob Shelter, sharing it with just two other people. One was the Irsaeli while the other was a Ridge Runner, which is someone that basically hikes through the Smokies every week cleaning up the shelters and making sure everything stays clean.

I got an early start the next morning since I heard rumors of "huge cheeseburgers" down the trail near Davenport Gap and I was definitely interested. However, my handbook warned that the grill closed at 5:00, and I still needed to get 15 miles to get there.

A fellow thru-hiker takes a much needed rest

Despite my earliest start time yet of 7:30, I was still the last one out of the shelter. The Israeli was even more excited about the 'huge cheeseburgers' than I was (and out of food to boot) and started on the trail at the first sign of daylight.

Except for a half-hour break at Cosby Knob Shelter, I hiked non-stop to Davenport Gap downhill almost the whole way and made it by 1:30 in the afternoon. Except I was discouraged to learn that the 'highway' at Davenport Gap was nothing more than a gravel road in North Carolina and a virtually unused two-way byway in Tennessee. I guess I should point out that almost since I had arrived in the Smokies the AT follows the NC/TN border for hundreds of miles, and it was clear the road became gravel just as it changed states.

It looked like hitchhiking 1.3 miles to the huge cheeseburgers wasn't going to work, and I was loathed to actually walk so far if it wasn't adding AT miles. Taking another look at my Thru-hikers Handbook, I decided to continue another 2.4 miles on the trail to a small hostel called the Standing Bear Farm just 200 yards off the trail. My guidebook also said the owners owned a Mexican restaurant in Newport that they would shuttle people to, and a Mexican restaurant sounded almost as good as a huge cheeseburger.

Davenport Gap marked the end of the Smoky Mountains, and I crashed back into the woods. The trail followed a nice, sparkling stream further downhill—one of the nicest sections so far on the trail—until it came back out into civilization near I-40.

I-40 was a rather surreal moment with heavy traffic flowing at high velocities—by far the fastest moving things I've seen since the day I left Atlanta. And it was the first road I 'recognized' since I could have turned west on it at walked all the way to California. Heck, I've even driven on large sections of that road, although obviously not in this part of the country.

The trail became somewhat tricky to follow at this part. It wasn't very well marked as it crossed over a bridge spanning the Pigeon River, up a freeway onramp, swerving at the last minute under I-40, and back into the woods on the other side.

A short while later I found myself at the Standing Bear Farm, a small, cute little place along a babbling brook. I made myself comfortable by taking a long, hot shower. It was a very nice setup in the great outdoors with walls for a little privacy, but space below where everyone can see your feet and know the shower is occupied. And there wasn't really a roof, so you could admire the trees and mountains around you as you cleaned up. It was one of the nicest showers I'd ever taken.

Hiking is an exhausting, dirty business—we needed lots of rest!

Later, Maria drove us out to The Front Porch, their Mexican restaurant—possibily the only one in the entire state of Tennessee. We got into what Maria dubbed the 'Tennessee-mobile', a van the likes of which I haven't seen since leaving Central America. One door didn't stay closed by itself and another door was eternally locked. There were doubts if the great beast could even be started, but alas, I did, and we continued on our way.

Maria dropped us off first at a gas station to buy beers and whatever alcohol we wanted to. It seems they had not yet been able to acquire a liquor license so it was well-known that if you wanted to indulge, you had to bring your own beer.

Of course, I'm not big on drinking and could do without, but everyone else-sick of all the dry counties we've been hiking through—were all very much excited about drinking. Those dry counties—seven consecutive ones according to the trail talk, was always a discussion by very frustrated thru-hikers in the shelters, and some people even hitched rides into the next state for no other reason than wanting to get drunk.

The sign outside the restaurant proclaiming live Bluegrass music assured us it would be a Mexican dining experience none of us would ever forget. Naturally, rural Tennessee isn't exactly a hotbed of Mexicans, and all the employees were middle-aged white people that probably didn't know a word of Spanish, but spoke with that distinctive Tennessee twang. I joked that in California, we used 'real Mexicans' at our Mexican restaurants.

We noticed other customers coming in with their own full-sized ice chests bulging with alcohol. In fact, most tables brought some sort of ice chest with them—this place was getting more interesting by the minute.

We ordered while the band was setting up. I pondered how a banjo ever made it into a Mexican restaurant as the band began to play. It was a memorable experience, but I did enjoy myself.

The food actually tasted like you'd expect from a Mexican restaurant—a rather delightful surprise.

By about 10:00 in the evening, we were ready to call it quits. We piled back into the Tennessee-mobile. One hiker volunteered to get out and help direct Maria backing out of the parking lot, but she waved him aside and said she'd 'feel' her way out—whatever that meant.

She did a remarkable job of backing out of the parking lot managing not to hit a single car in the process-not a bet I would have won.

Besides nearly driving up an off-ramp to a freeway, Maria explained she'd be driving the 'scenic route' for our benefit even though it was pitch black outside by this time.

But we made it back okay, and I fell asleep as soon as my head it the pillow.

And alas, my library time is over, so until next time, farewell!

— Ryan

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