Incredible, overwhelming, beautiful, all words to describe the Great Smoky Mountains. The first day hiking through was one of the toughest days I’ve had here on the trail. The sun beat down on us all day long through the still leafless trees and the incline after three days in town killed my legs. Despite the toughness of the work, that day is one of my favorites so far because that was the first time I could really feel and was conscious of the growth in my muscles and how much stronger I had become over the last few weeks. It motivated me beyond measure, and since then I’ve been more easily aware of the energy I put in my body, what makes me feel ready to hike and what doesn’t.
The next two days were full of the great weather and great mileage. The views from six thousand feet are extraordinary. From Thunderman Mountain I looked over the entire mountain range from the little ten by ten bald summit. The climb up was neat too, just zig zagging up this rock face.
After the first three days, I felt heavy hearted without Elan standing on the mountains looking over the valleys with me. I for the first time on trail missed home, and being comfortable, and locking my inner being away. I wanted him standing there on the summits with me, figuratively and literally. To look at all the valleys and chaos and know that we beat it and we were above it. Govna walked past and checked on me saying, “You know your brother is in all of us right?” I shook my head, “I know, I see it everyday and that’s what hurts most.”
Just like everything, that day and that feeling of being without passed and the Smokies became better and better. As we trekked through those next seventy miles, we watched Spring unfold and take over the landscape; the trees filled with bright green leaves and blossoms of red, yellow, purple, and white were scattered above us in the trees and below our feet lining the trail.
When I reached Newfound Gap, also about the midpoint though the Smokies I ran into trail magic provided by a couple who hiked the trail in the 60’s. They brought out all sorts of snacks and drinks for the hikers; they even let me use almost a full container of wet wipes to clean my legs. I thought it was a gnarly tan line but nope, just a dirt line from the lack of a shower in the last fifteen days.
They provided the hikers a free shuttle into the neighboring town Gatlinburg as well where I feasted at the Cici’s pizza buffet. While eating my second plate of pizza, Dana, a good friend of mine called to tell me he was at Newfound Gap walking to the next shelter, the same one I had planned to reach that same night. With him also walked Emily, an old neighbor of mine. It was a sweet surprise, I was missing home and then was provided with two great people from my hometown to hangout with. The trail provides, just like the two brothers, the dogs, the awesome crew supporting me back home, my “tramily”, the couple who resupplied Dirty J and I, even the couple I met at Clingman’s dome who encouraged me through my blog. Everything I have needed has been provided to me and I am consistently humbled by the magic of the trail.
We camped together that night and the next morning the two of them walked a few miles with me on the AT. We stopped by Charles Bunion Lookout and climbed out to the edge of the rocks, it was insanely beautiful. One of my moms students told me that it was her favorite part of the Smokies and for good reason. When you climb out you are sitting on a rock overhanging a valley but you are as high as the rest of the peaks, the view is out of this world.
We stopped for lunch and said our goodbyes and by then Bones caught up with me and we walked on. That day we set our personal best mileages for the whole trail. We walked twenty-three miles from 10am to midnight and it was a blast. I night hiked for the first time that night and I had more fun than I thought I would have. Except for the eyes. The eyes of some animal followed us along the trail; Bones would see them and stop abruptly (which made me jump every time) and call out “Aye we’re out here, just comin’ on through…” in a loud sing song voice. I stomped through hitting my trekking poles on every rock and root I saw. I was glad to not be walking alone that night.
When we stopped at the last shelter that was twenty miles from where we began, we searched for two camp spots to no avail. It was already 10:30pm and everyone was pitched and asleep. So we filled up on water in the stream that was filled with little baby salamanders, the first ones I have seen on the trail. There were three little brown ones and one big reddish orangish one with spots; they were neat!
We continued walking for about three more miles to Mt. Cammerer when we threw our tents down where it seemed someone else had already stealth camped. We snacked and then passed out; I was exhausted. Since we were avoiding rangers we had to wake up with the sunrise and put away our tents to avoid tickets, but it did get us moving enough to watch the sunrise from Mt. Cammerer Lookout.
It was Easter morning as I stood in the tall stone tower surrounded by windows. Bright blue and pink and orange lit up the sky and the rolling hills below. Behind us we could see the range of mountains we had just trekked, and in front of us we looked upon the five mile descent out of the Smokies to the river that we were to hike that morning.
After twenty-three miles the day prior, my feet were killing me. That next five miles hurt but reaching Davenport Gap and the northern boundary of the Smokies was a great feeling. I was always told the Smokies are the toughest range down south before arriving further north, so it was a good feeling to have accomplished them. We walked another mile up river and met Dirty J, who camped out with the dogs while Bones and I hiked through due to the no dogs rule and Dirty J’s sore knee. We sat and ate at his campsite before we headed down to the river. I dipped my head in the water trying to somewhat wash it, or at least rinse out some of the dirt and grease piled up over the last eighteen or so days. I splashed my face in the cold water. I had completed the Smokies, hit mile two hundred, stood on the highest point of the AT, Clingman’s Dome, and crossed into my third and home state Tennessee. I felt confident and excited for the miles to come.
The Smokies blew my mind just like everyone told me they would. The sights were incredible and enormous and overwhelming.