Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Smokin' (Part 1)
I left Fontana dam on a cloudy wind swept day around noon with my father in tow. All the maps had indicated that I could expect to be walking uphill most of the day. I felt good, no pains, plenty of energy and raring to go. My pop and I shortly said farewell and I was off alone again. For some odd reason I have been able to walk at a pretty fast, steady pace while going uphill. This time was no exception either. I just kept chugging like a train up, up, up.
In Great Smokey Mountain National Park you are mandated to stay in a shelter or camp in the vicinity of one, so my goal for the first day was a shelter just under ten miles in. I had routinely been doing fifteen mile days and even one twenty, so I didn't foresee ten to be an issue. Along the way I came to an old fire tower called Shuckstack. I made the decision early on to make sure I stop at these little place along the way because I most likely will never be there again to see them. So with the cold wind howling I ascended the rickety steps of the tower and tried not to look around for fear that I would be blown off and meet a messy demise on the rocks below. The tower consisted of rotten plywood floor boards and glass windows that at one point in their life had latches to secure them shut but were now freely creaking and moving in the high winds. The views were spectacular, but I was definitely risking my life to give you these pictures.
Moving closer and closer toward the shelter I noticed a little pinch in my left leg. The pinch slowly got sharper and sharper until it was excruciating. About three miles from the shelter I passed a couple named "Santa Clause" and "Gnome" who I met several days prior. They were sitting on a log and asked "How's it going?" Not wanting to make a big deal of things I casually told them "I have a slight limp today". Saying slight limp was putting this pain very mildly. I was letting out audible moans every time I put weight on my left foot. Three miles normally isn't a far distance to walk, but I was in a never ending misery. My goal was to somehow hobble into the shelter, take some ibuprofen, sleep and make all my decisions in the morning. That being said, if I made it to the shelter I couldn't imagine going on. I would have to turn back, hike the nine miles back down the hill and call to be picked up. I was imagining having a permanent limp for the rest of my life. What was I thinking trying to hike the Appalachian Trail? Look what I have done to myself, I have finally broken myself completely. I might not even be able to make it back down in the morning without being devoured by carnivorous squirrels.
Up head the shelter finally appeared and I deliriously gimped into camp. There were many people I recognized from the previous days so I said my hellos and informed them that I was not doing well. They all looked at me like dying puppy and went about their business. That night I slept in a place called Mollies Shelter, named after a Cherokee woman who, one winter long ago went looking for her missing husband and froze to death on this very spot. So as night fell and the temperature plummeted I was left thinking about Molly who probably developed a limp somewhere along in her search and could go no further than where I was laying my head.
Morning came and I was still alive, so I tested my leg out around camp. It was sore and there were slight signs of pain, but nothing like the agony of the day before. "Santa" and "Gnome", who camped outside the shelter, were leaving late that day so I planned on staying with them for the morning and giving my leg some more time to rethink its previous day's objections. They are from upstate New York so we chit chatted about this and that and everything in between. Really genuinely nice people.
When noon came I made the decision to try for another shelter only three miles away. Amazingly, once I started walking, I had no pain. Three miles came in a flash and I pushed my destination to the next shelter another three miles down the trail. The sun was out and a cool wind blew all day long, I met up with a guy named "Boot Strap" at the next shelter and we sat to eat lunch. While we were sitting there a group of six day hikers came marching in and started talking to us. The group were all from Japan except for Diane who was teaching them English and showing them the amazing Smokies. They asked us all sorts of questions about thru hiking and what we had experienced to that point. We all took pictures and "Boot Strap" and I departed. I felt great when I finally stopped at Derrick Knob shelter for the night, twelve miles from frozen Cherokee lady shelter. Again, I was amazed at how different my body can feel from one day to the next.
The next day was supposed to be just like the last, with beautiful weather uncommon to the Smokies this time of year. When I left the shelter in the morning I shortly came upon "Boot Strap" in the middle of the trail motioning me to be quiet. I hope you can view the video because it really was amazing how close we were.
The trail was magnificent this day. It wound its way through groves of spruce trees, which was dramatically different than what we have been previously walking through. The smell of pine in the moist warm air was intoxicating. Then there would be an amazing view as I walked high on a ridge line with hazy mountains in every direction. Towards the end of the day I began a steep ascent toward Clingman's Dome, the highest peak on the whole Appalachian Trail. I tend to sweat profusely when I exert myself and this was no different. What made this different was that just as I was approaching the top I popped out onto a paved walkway crowded with tourists. So there I was, with sweat dripping off my scraggly beard, probably smelling like a water buffalo, walking with a clean horde of people to the very accessible summit of the mountain. I ate lunch with "Boot Strap" and some other hikers at the base of the tower erected at the end of the path. People occasionally were snapping pictures of us like zoo animals.
After leaving Clingman's it was a short hike downhill to camp for the night and I reflected upon how only a few days ago I was in so much pain that continuing was not even a thought. I wound through tightly spaced evergreen forests and little babbling brooks and ended for the night at Mt. Collins shelter.
The next morning I met my father five miles down the trail at Newfound Gap, the halfway point of the Smokies.
Posted by Matt French at 7:12 PM