This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
I wake sweating in my sleeping bag. I don’t need to look outside the shelter to know ragged clouds are racing across the stars. I push my bag to my waist and try to sleep. The storm is coming.
I leave the Fontana Hilton in the morning. It’s the nicest shelter on trail so far, featuring hot showers, a flush toilet and a solar charging station (it doesn’t work, but the thought is nice). From here, the trail climbs to Clingmans Dome, the high point of the AT, some forty miles away. And all 40 of those miles seem to be uphill. I’ve left before the boys, so I have the trail to myself. I climb the first big hill, stopping to check out the fire tower. The wind howls, clouds racing. I put my head down and walk hard. The first shelter is 12 miles in and I reach it just as the rain starts. Research is there, eating lunch and I chat with her for a while, til the boys come up. We’d only planned on another 3 miles to the next shelter (in GSMNP, thru hikers have to stay in shelters), but Research is planning to do another six. I decide to go with her- I’ll see the boys again the next night. We hike fast in the rain, mostly dry under our umbrellas. The shelter is mostly warm and dry, but loud. The rain pings off the plastic roof and the tarp flaps in the wind. I think it will be too loud for me to sleep, but of course I do. It’s nice in the morning, despite the weather supposed to continue to be bad, so I linger over coffee with Research, chatting. We head out into the mist (This is, of course, the AT definition of nice) Its not too wet, but the wind screams like a jet engine. It starts to rain a little, but it’s too windy for umbrellas. I put on my mostly nonfunctional rain jacket and hope for the best. The boys pass us in a blur, and the rain strengthens, so I put down my head and charge after them. We all stop for lunch at a shelter, but my jacket is already soaked through and I get cold quickly anyway. I shovel down my bagel and head out into the storm alone. My world shrinks to the 20ft I can see in front of me, and the wind. I hike fast for seven miles, not stopping to eat or drink, until I get to the shelter we’d all planned to stop at. I duck inside just as the rain starts to pour. The boys limp in just as I begin to get bored, and Achilles doggedly tries to start a fire. The rain falls all night. In the morning, I get up to pee, slide my bare feet into my shoes and squeak a little. They are frozen. My bear bag, hung high, is also frozen, and it takes me 15 minutes of pawing at it and warming the knots with stiff fingers, to slide a pack of M&Ms out. I grumble about knowing how bears feel, and Zack jokes about having to hang food higher to keep it away from me. I head out first, climbing on the icy trail. Clingmans appears almost deceptively easily, and by the summit, my bag has thawed enough for me to be able to eat a more substantial breakfast. I descend on icy trail. The weather has broken completely and I almost dig my sunglasses out of my bag. I dry my wet things at lunch and do food math- I’m a little short to get to Hot Springs, but there’s a hostel where I can at least buy Snickers bars, though I don’t want to stop. I pass the highway where you can hitch to Gatlinburg and it is crawling with tourists. But there is a tote of food- trail magic! My first of the trail, at mile 200! I eat a banana and drink some apple juice, but there is resupply food too. I take a few things- hopefully enough to get me all the way. The trail provides! I cross the North Carolina - Tennessee border. I’ve actually been crossing it all day, but this is the first time it’s been signed. Families huddle around it, taking photos, so I don’t stop. The trail to Icy Springs shelter is equally crowded, but I don’t care. I got trail magic! The weather moves back in overnight. It’s misting as I head out, past socked in Charlie’s bunion, and onto the ridges beyond. The wind is roaring though, and it strips all the heat from my body. I hike fast and don’t stop, not even for lunch, til I get to the shelter. The boys are close behind, then Giggles, a Southbounder, then Research. Dear, sweet Research cooks stuffing for dinner and gives me half the pot when she can’t eat it all. Maybe I do have all the food I need, if I fly. I say goodbye to everyone in the morning. Research is getting off at Davenport Gap to get her dog, and Zack and Achilles are doing the same in Hot Springs (Just my luck to hike with people who normally hike with dogs in a National park!) So our little group is breaking up. Freed from trying to stay with my friends, I need to do big miles to make it before my food runs out. The day is downhill, at least to start. I practically run, dropping below the clouds to the sunshine. I detour 0.6 miles to a firetower, with views over the valley below and my first cell service in almost a week. I check the weather. Thunderstorms are forecast tomorrow. Crap. Tomorrow I have Max Patch, a famous bald. My Guthooks description basically just says “Don’t be up here in bad weather.” I do some mile math. If I do 25 miles today (26.2 really, with my firetower detour), I can hit Max Patch around 10am. Okay. Time to run. I drop down to the interstate. Of course, what goes down on the AT must come back up. I climb a few thousand feet. I sweat in the late afternoon sun. It’s over 70 degrees. I reach the shelter within seconds of needing a headlamp. My first AT marathon. I wake at 4am with a dehydration hang over. Ugh. You’d think I’d be better at hiking by now. I sip my water, sweating in my sleeping bag. Part of me is tempted to just start hiking, but I feel awful. By 6:30, I feel a little better. I pack by headlamp, heading out just as the sun touches the clouds racing above. It’s a long climb to Max Patch. I look at the clouds through the trees. The Smokeys behind me have a wall of black above them and it’s racing my way. I hike fast- after Max Patch, there are gaps where I can hide if I need to. I crest Max Patch before 10, then drop down and down. I watch the sky carefully. There are two lines of dark clouds on either side of me, but above me, only sun. This isn’t the CDT, I remind myself. The AT has training levels. I climb Bluff Mountain, fear pounding in my veins that the clouds will shift, that I’ll hear the awful reverb of thunder. I think I hear it in the bass notes of the wind, the sound of distant airplanes, but the sky itself is silent. The trail drops for 11 miles from Bluff Mountain to Hot Springs. Fatigue makes my feet heavy. 25s are hard on the AT, and following my longest day so far with an equally challenging day is exhausting. Now the thunderstorm danger has passed, the thought of town food keeps me going. I reach hot springs an hour before dark, where a shower and a cheeseburger wait for me.