Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 6, The Smokies Part 1

Start: April 13, mile 152.9
End: April 15, Mile 202.8

I sleep poorly, the tent site slanted, and wake up early when I hear Amazon packing up. Ever since my first thru-hike the sound of others hikers packing up has the same effect on me as an alarm clock, maybe because I've learned that hikers take so long and make so much noise packing up that I'm probably not going to be able to sleep through it anyway.

I hike down the steep trail to Fontana Dam, and at the bottom I see Tex, whom I haven't seen since the third day of my hike. I am happy to hear that he followed my advice by opening and funding a Roth IRA before the tax deadline, and we walk down to the small store at the marina. I buy a few snacks to top off my foodbag, though I still have plenty of food from Hiawassi, and buy a frozen microwavable breakfast sandwich and PoweAde. 

I walk out of the Marina store onto the covered patio with my arms filled with my purchases, my poles and my pack. Tex is sitting with an older hiker of about 60, Gramps. "Come sit with us," Gramps says, beckoning me over. As I carry my things over to them, Gramps says, "Take off your mask, man, we're outside!" I don't immediately reply to this as I try to get situated, setting down my poles, pack and food. "What, you're not going to let us see your face? Wait," he says, turning to Tex, "is this the hiker you were telling me about?"

It is only noon, so I have been considering hiking on, up the steep trail north of Fontana Dam into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where camping is restricted to sparsely spaced authorized spots, enforced by park rangers patrolling on horseback. But what I learn that this is Gramps' and Tex's plan also, I think, well, stopping early doesn't sound so bad.

~~~

The shelter at Fontana Dam is known as the Fontana Hilton for its unusual trail amenities -- a hot shower and electricity. I take my first shower of the trail, wash my greasy hair and, having no towel, attempt to squeegee myself dry with my hands before putting back on my dirty clothes. I hand-wash my dirty socks and sun gloves in the sink, though no matter how many times I wring them the water still comes out brown.

I meet McQueen tenting by the shelter. We talk about the feeling of urgency to keep hiking. "I took one day off," he says, "a zero in Franklin, but I just felt so antsy." "Yeah, it's hard not to feel like the river of hikers is leaving you behind when you stand still," I say. "It really does feel like a current of thru-hikers moving north, and that you can get left behind," he agrees. McQueen is one of the hikers who can make me feel a little more relaxed just by being around him, and I stand there talking for a while. We talk about fire towers and I mention a book I read, Fire Season, about a modern day fire lookout. "That sounds awesome," he says, taking his phone out to make a note. "On sale for only $2 on Amazon. I'm doing it," he says, buying the ebook on the spot. We have both played the same video game about a fire lookout, firewatch, and we were both impressed by its visuals and storytelling.

Soldier Boy walks up from the trail while McQueen and I are talking, and I say hello, but he looks tired after a long day with his heavy rucksack, and be has other hikers to greet. I overhear him telling someone that For Sure has just gotten off trail with foot problems. I am surprised, and reframe my memory of the previous night, wondering if it had a similar poignancy for her as it did for me.

~~~

I hike over Fontana Dam as the sun rises, the mountain catching the morning glow before it finally reaches down to the dam. Then the trail is up, up, until I'm at Shuckstack fire tower, my favorite tower from my previous hike. This time I am greeted on the side trail to the tower by four bears, a mother and three cubs. The mother freezes and watches me suspiciously before finally edging away with the cubs. The tower itself is as spectacular as I remember, and in just as bad repair. At the enclosed top I can look through the holes in the creaking floorboards down 150 feet to the ground below. While I'm eating a snack in the tower Sunshine climbs up to join me. "If sketchy had a name!" he says, carefully holding both handrails. I point out a particularly spongey section of the floor, advising that he be careful if he stands there, but he says he's fine staying right where he is.

I catch up to Amazon shortly before the first shelter in the Smokies. I stop for water shortly after passing her, and she catches up a minute later. "I'm sure you'll yo-yo me shortly," she says, heading past the water. "I'll see you soon," I say, then wince, it being fine for her to acknowledge me hiking faster but gauche of me to do so. When I head back to the trail I see Amazon hike ahead of me with a bit more pep in her step, and she reaches the shelter before I catch up.

It's only noon, but the forecast has called for rain today and Soldier Boy had to go to the post office, which doesn't open until noon, and Amazon decides to stay at the shelter. Preferring to hammock but hoping to get out of the rain, she studies the shelter carefully for hammock-rigging options. A middle-aged hiker eating lunch at the shelter sees her Marine Corp Half Marathon t-shirt and offers commentary. "Climb that wall, soldier! Isn't that what you Marines are supposed to do, adapt, overcome, prevail?" Sunshine, also an ex-Marine, corrects, "Improvise, adapt, overcome." Amazon remains silent, studying the beams of the shelter. When she's still contemplating her options ten minutes later I ask, "Is there anything we can do to help?" She shakes her head, saying softly, "No, I'll let you know if I need help."

"Well, I think I'll hike on," the commenting hiker says. "I'll probably hike past the next shelter to the one after that." When he leaves Amazon tells Sunshine, "As a woman, it takes everything in my power not to punch him in the face everytime he opens his god-damned mouth." "Him? Nah, he's not a bad guy," Sunshine says, though Amazon looks unconvinced.

I hike on too, there still being hours of daylight left. I've also been eyeing the shelter two shelters down, but when Sunshine asks me what my plans are I shrug, saying I just feel like hiking while the weather's good. I tell them both I'll see them soon, hoping it's true, and knowing that the AT can always surprise you.

I take a break at the next shelter with Elyse and her partner Bernie. "Look at these contradictory instructions," Elyse tells Bernie, reading the shelter guidelines. "First it suggests that you hang you pack and then it tells you to never leave your pack unattended. What are you supposed to do, stand there watching it all night?" "Well no," I tell her, "you only need one person watching at a time -- you take shifts." "Last person to the shelter takes first shift," Elyse suggests. "I'd rather first shift than last," Bernie says. When I decide I will press on, the rain having held off so far, Bernie says, "If the next shelter is full you can always hike back here. We could use more pack watchers."

The next shelter is not quite full, and I arrive just as the rain is starting to fall. I grab an upper-level spot at the edge of the shelter, my personal favorite, and am grateful for my luck when I see other hikers arrive soaked not long after me. Like most AT groups, this is a partying one, with multiple joints passed around. I normally don't mind, but when a gust of wind blows a plume of exhalation into my face I start coughing and the offending smoker apologizes, relocating to the covered awning by the side of the shelter.

~~~

I sleep well in the shelter, no impressive snorers, until 4:45am when someone's alarm goes off. I assume this is as accident and try to go back to sleep but I soon hear the tell-tale whoosh of deflating sleeping pads and the rustling of what sounds like half dozen early-rising hikers packing up. It is only 5am, but I figure that sleep is no longer viable so if I can't beat 'em, I may as well join 'em, and I whoosh out my own sleeping pad, having no idea why we are all leaving so early.

As I wait in the dark for my turn at the privy I ask the exiting hiker why they are all up so early, trying not to shine the red light of my headlamp into his face. "We're hoping to catch sunrise from Rocky Top," he tells me. "Seems like there won't be much of a view with all this fog," I tell him, and be shrugs. "Yeah, we were worried about that." I finish packing up while a group of five is standing around by the shelter, waiting. It is difficult to see anything even with my headlamp, the dense fog reflecting back the light the same way that it does a car's headlight.

When no one seems eager to lead, I decide to set off myself, and head out from the shelter up the trail. The rest of the hikers follow, it being easier to follow a light ahead of you than to figure out the twists and turns of the trail in the dark yourself. It is challenging navigation but I keep a good pace, trying to stay warm. When I reach a trail junction I pause to point to a white blaze with my trekking pole, offering evidence of having not led us astray. When the trail starts getting steeper -- the start of the rumored Rocky Top, perhaps -- the others start to fall behind. I know I should wait for them, but I am cold and annoyed by having not been warned of their pre-dawn shelter plans, and I keep my pace. Their lights grow more distant behind me, and then they are gone, left to do the route finding on their own.

When I reach the summit of Rocky Top it is dark, foggy and windy. There is still more than half an hour to sunrise, but I get cold in the minute it takes to snap few pictures, and without much prospect for a view I decide to press on. I don't see the sunrise group for the rest of the day, and wonder what their experience was like, if they huddled together on the chilly summit, waiting for the fog to burn off and wondering what became of their runaway guide.

~~~

I take a side trail up Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the AT. It is a weekday but the weather has cleared up and the summit tower is crawling with tourists, more than a hundred of them, and I don't see any other thru-hikers as I walk up the winding ramp to the top and back down. The next shelter is almost half a mile off trail, and I hope that this will discourage hikers, but dozens are already there, the woods dotted with tents, and dozens more show up after me, filling the shelter and wandering the woods for any available flat spot.

When Quadro shows up he's the first hiker I recognize, having seen him the last two nights. "I don't know anyone else here," he tells me. He had been hiking with a group but has been pushing bigger miles and is surrounded by new hikers everyday as a result, a lonely experience. I tell him I'm planning on stopping by Gatlinburg tomorrow, which he's planning on skipping. "Well, I probably won't see you tomorrow then," he says. "Maybe never see you again!" I say, waving goodbye as we head back to our tents.

Quadro and I are both experiencing the social isolation that comes from hiking too fast, rocks skipping across the top of the river of hikers flowing north, making fleeting impressions on hundreds of hikers but not the deep connection with a few that is possible when you see the same people everyday. It's a danger I've been well aware of, one I warned Yeti of on day one, but as with my last hike I find it difficult to escape.

It must be strange, I imagine, to be on the outside of this struggle looking in. Like Scream and her 65 lb pack, I know that I do this to myself. Why don't I just slow down? It is not an easy question to answer. At first this year it was a deliberate choice to change my surroundings, escaping "the obnoxious party bubble," as my brother puts it, to enter a new unknown section of the current. And now that I'm passing through one new section and then another, how do I know when -- and with whom -- to stop? It feels like a large commitment to make, the imagined compatible hikers always just a little further up the trail.

There is another reason, harder to fully describe because of how simple is. It feels good to hike. It feels right to move and wrong to stop, and so when I have the daylight and energy to keep hiking I do. Because I carry a pack that's dramatically lighter than the ones most hikers have, even with my five pounds of camera and electronics, when I give in to these urges to keep moving I tend to hike faster and longer than most hikers.

I struggled with this last hike, finally succeeding in slowing down at the half-way point. Having taken 2 months to hike to that point, including a knee injury, I took a full month longer to hike the second half. While both halves of the hike were rewarding, the second was more relaxing, the feelings of urgency and anxiety mellowing to a calmer, steady ease. Since that hike I have assumed that it was the slowing down that created this ease, but now that I am reliving this same struggle, I wonder how much was the reverse, the finding of ease enabling the slowing down.

These are abstract musings. The sun will rise and I will wake, pack up my things and hike, and as long as I keep moving the world will make sense. I will try to hold on to this, not want to let it go until something finally loosens and relaxes, and then I will lie back, spread my arms and float wherever this river takes me.

Comments

  1. I think the whole "hiker family" experience is overrated. It was always just about being outside, walking north. My favorite moments on any trail are when I stop in a nice place and hear nothing but silence, or the wind.

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