Appalachian Trail 2021, Journal Entry 7, The Smokies Part 2
Start: April 16, Mile 202.8
End: April 17, Mile 239.8
Gatlinburg is a garish, unapologetic tourist town. I remember half-admiring the spectacle last hike, but this time I can't help but notice the God & Country store selling gun- and Trump-themed shirts and nick-knacks, and a man walking down the street in a t-shirt that says, "Just the tip, I promise" with the image of an American flag and a blood tipped rifle bullet.
Waiting for a free shuttle back to the trail I meet Syrup, young and freckled with long pigtail braids and a warm, bubbly personality. Syrup started hiking in early March but had to take three weeks off because of knee problems and now devotes an hour in the morning and another hour in the evening to a stretching routine. "I'm always the last one out of camp now, but that's okay. I don't want to try to just push through the pain again -- if I had taken time off when the knees first started to hurt I don't think they would have taken so long to heal."
Back on trail I take advantage of a patch of service to post my latest journal entry and Syrup hikes up behind me. "I always feel guilty about using my phone while hiking," I tell her, slipping the phone away, not mentioning that this guilt comes from feeling judgemental towards other hikers for doing the same thing.
"Just let me know if you want to pass," I tell her, keeping the pace slow with a freshly loaded foodbag from town, but she says she's fine, and we hike together up the steep trail from gap. Syrup just received her first covid vaccine dose in town, and I tell her about the shock of coming down to Georgia from Massachusetts and the difficulties I had trying to social distance in Georgia. She says that it was an adjustment for her as well. "Now I try not to be socially disruptive," she says, "if other people are wearing masks I will, but if they aren't I won't."
'Socially disruptive' is a good description of the first 100 miles of my hike, and still describes nearly all of my interactions in town. Despite my dramatic de-escalation of covid precautions, I am still by far the most cautious hiker I've met this year, the only hiker to consistently disrupt the decidedly non-socially-distant local norms when hitch-hiking or in hostels or towns.
Syrup is from North Carolina but has lived in Rhode Island for the past four years working on a PhD in geophysics, and hadn't realized how much she would miss her home state. I ask her if she wants to be a professor and she says, "Not anymore. They all have such a terrible work-life balance." I tell her I came to the same conclusion by the time I finished my own PhD in Computer Science.
"I want kids," she says, "lots of kids, and I don't want a nanny, so that means being a stay-at-home mom." I suggest finding a stay-at-home dad, but she says, "I think I'd rather just marry rich," laughing. "But I'll probably end up getting a job with big oil or big tech for a few years to save some money. Or there are options in between." "Like marrying sort-of-rich?" I say. She laughs again, "Sure, he doesn't have to be super rich, just enough to support a family." "Well," I tell her, "big tech does pay really well. Just in case you want to get a job as a software engineer."
Syrup is stopping after three miles, setting herself up to avoid the awkward shelter spacing caused by agressive bear activity futher up the trail. I haven't studied the shelter options, typically ignoring the guidebook until near the end of each day, and am tempted to stay to continue our conversation. But I can't bring myself to stop so early without feeling like I am hanging on, so I bid Syrup goodbye and head back up the trail.
The next shelter is one of the busiest ones yet, a rowdy group filling the shelter and tents tucked in nearly all available flat spots, including right in front of the privy. I set up my tent on a small overlooked patch in the woods and head down to the shelter to eat dinner. When I comment on how tall the cooking platform in front of me is, the taller hiker in his 30s next to me offers to trade places. I take him up on the offer, switching to the shorter platform he had been using. I complement him on the Montbell Ultralight jacket he's wearing, and when I mention that I'm impressed by how long my own copy of the jacket has lasted, he asks if I've thru-hiked before.
His name is Time Snake and he hiked the AT before me, in 2008, along with the PCT and the northern section of the CDT. "We were hiking southbound when a grizzly bluff-charged us, and I couldn't think of anything but bears for the next week until I finally got off." He asks me if I know anyone at the shelter and I shake my head. "Same," he says, "I've never seen any of these people before. I've been passing 15-30 people everyday so far." He started April 5th and has been hiking even faster than me.
He's planning a 24 mile day in to the next hostel. "I'll probably get there by 2pm," he tells me laughing as he heads off to bed and I don't doubt it. I have no such ambitions, though I do find myself in the same pickle that Syrup was able to avoid, with legal camping options limiting me to a 5 mile day, a 20 mile day or longer. The problem isn't the mileage so much as the number of other hikers in a similar predicament. In addition to the 40+ hikers at this shelter we hear that there are 60+ at the next one, more than 100 hikers competing for the same limited shelter and hostel spots.
I wake up well before sunrise to try to get a head start but half of the hikers at the shelter are already packing up or gone, Time Snake's tent spot empty. When I reach the shelter 5 miles in, a woman packing up tells me it was even worse there than I had heard, "dozens and dozens of tents crammed on every even slightly flat surface." The shelters in the Smokies cluster hikers even at the best of times, but with one of them closed on a weekend during the busy thru-hiker season the results aren't pretty.
I hike hard all day, leap-frogging with a group of six other fast early risers intent on securing a spot. The group is impressively fast, barreling past me on the downhills, each hiker in the group tucked behind the hiker in front like bike racers. I pass them on their breaks, they pass me again on the downhills, and the day takes on a frenetic, anxious feeling, each encounter a reminder of the tsunami of hikers coming behind us. The terrain for the day doesn't help, rising to above 6300 feet before dropping all the way to 1300.
My left foot begins to hurt on the 5000 foot descent, but I am already committed, in the 15 mile dead zone. I feel the urgency to keep the pace up if I want to find a place to sleep, thinking that Syrup's plan was the smarter one. By the time I complete the 20 miles to the shelter, arriving shortly after the group of six, I have what feels like a blister on the heel of my left foot and am walking with a slight limp, the top of my left foot twinging and feeling like it might give out with each step.
There are still a few shelter spots left but most of the shelter is already taken by a group of weekend hikers. The weekenders come equipped with saws and a chainsaw, and we learn that more of them are the way. The nearby terrain looks to be the most inhospitable to tenting yet, steep, wooded sidehill. I try to weigh my physical need to stop against my mental need to leave, and after a water break decide to press on, the group of six still deep in their own deliberations.
A mile later find a flat area on the other side of the trail from a lively stream. I toss my pack down on one of the two flat spots and take off my shoes to soak my feet in the ice cold stream.
The group shows up a few minutes after me, temporarily claiming the other flat spot while they debate their options. I walk over to greet them, but whether because it feels like we have been competing all day for the same spots or because of the insular nature of the group, I feel an awkward tension when I try to strike up conversation and eventually give up, drifting back to my spot and the stream to wash my sweat-soaked socks.
Two more hikers show up swelling the group to eight. I hear some of the hikers declare that they are staying, but when the others start to leave they all follow suit, the group hustling down the trail together, and then there is just me.
When they leave, I feel myself start to finally relax. It is only 3pm but I'm more mentally and physically spent than I've been this hike so far, and feel like I've just survived a gauntlet. After years of dissuading hikers from their fears that the Appalachian Trail has too many people, it is strange to start to agree with them, at least when it comes to areas with limited camping like the Smokies. I know, however, that things will thin out as hikers drop out and spread out, and that the alternate to hiking peak season is likely a lonelier, less social hike, especially in the northern section.
As I relax I begin to appreciate the spot I have stumbled upon. It is in a narrow valley between steep, lush green hills and feels almost like a jungle after the alpine biome of the last few days, the new flower varieties exotic. Though I am only a few feet away from the trail, the spot feels more secluded by the protection of the loudly babbling stream. My foot is sore and I am too tired to write, but it is a beautiful, magical jungle campsite to have to myself, and I sit there for the afternoon letting the sounds of the birds and the stream wash over me.