AT Day 27: Exiting The Great Smoky Mountains


Many of you know this already, but the Smoky mountains are a major part of my inspiration to take on the Appalachian Trail. My family and I visited in the summer of 2009, a transitive time for me (the year of the hole dig, for those in the know), and the first I heard of the AT. Beyond amazing views, crisp waterfalls that broke summer heat, and my first bear encounter, I could feel a magic in the place which I’ve found has not disappeared in the passing years.

We knew as we headed North we’d be walking into Spring, and sure enough the birds were chirping and trees were sprouting their sprigs. In the Smokies, though, it’s two seasons forward, one season back. It was our hottest day so far on the walk into the park, followed by a splendid day of mountain springtime. Then this past weekend we hiked in our first snow.

All of it has been beautiful. At lower elevations, grass has grown to outnumber last fall’s dead leaves, dotted with enough white flowers (Spring Beauties, I’m told) to turn the ground a lighter shade of green from a distance. Higher up, moss covers the ridges like a blanket, wrapping around the bases of trunks and enveloping stumps and fallen trees. Some days we follow the ridgeline and looking out across the valley it feels like we’re crawling across the edge of the known world. On others we’re deep in the woods fragrant from strong winds tunneling through the pines (firs?) towering above us. Here, like no where else on the trail so far, I’ve felt in my element.

On our third day in the park, it rained overnight and didn’t stop come morning. We set off for a short day that ended cold and wet before a fire we built in the shelter nearest to road access for the next day. Around 2:30 the next morning I arose to examine a tree and alerted the shelter from outside: “Hooo, holy moley!” It was snowing.

Winter hiking - real winter hiking, with snow and ice and frigid breezes - was a new and novel thing to me. The color had drained from the landscape: treetops were dusted gray, tall grass was frosted white and any moss not covered by snow was encased in ice. The observation tower at Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT, felt like an abandoned dystopian monument; winding, gray, and dripping with icicles.

Beautiful bleakness aside, it was fun. Each of my steps crunched with new flakes beneath it. We had a snowball fight where no surprise the Ohioan is much better than the native Austinite. The roads at Clingmans were closed so we pushed ahead, closing the day sleeping cozy with 8 or so other hikers in a heated trailhead bathroom. The next day we treated ourselves to a hotel split with some friends, won 2nd place in trivia (Gatlinburg sets the bar low), and were back on the trail in higher spirits than our fellow hikers that were stuck in town instead of on the mountain.

Our pace is still on the rise, slowly but steadily. The rules in the national park required a typical minimum 12 miles a day to make sure we slept in or next to shelters without overstaying our permits, but we’re still not likely to really amp up to those 10-20 mile days until Virginia. Walking has improved, as one might expect, but for a couple reasons beyond the simple “we are stronger:”

Firstly, I hadn’t intended to buy new shoes in Franklin, but given the blisters on my littlest piggies from a tight toebox and the soles falling off, it was maybe time. The experts found some of my feet measurements were “off the charts” so they brought me their largest shoes; all three pairs of them. I opted for a mid-cut hiking boot that so far seem like they’re waterproof. The freedom of ankle movement has allowed me to widen my stride from a stair-like march to a natural and more comfortable walk. My old boots, incidentally purchased shortly after I decided someday I’d hike the trail, were given a proper burial in a potter in front of the outfitter’s.

Second is a change in frame of mind. “Strider,” a thru-experienced retiree with the air of a guru but a humility only surpassed by his daily mileage and affinity for strong, quality grass, assured us that human feet are not designed to walk on flat ground, and to keep that in mind. Soon, the trips and imperfect footing became steps in the dance, rather than errors.

I’m still slow up hills, but a younger wiseman, 13 year old “Mountain Goat” reminded me that a slow hill is better than a painful one. It’s true, and I am grateful to be free of any recurring muscle or joint pain.

The road closure has caused a bit of a “re-bubble” where we’re mostly seeing new faces on the trail, including some folks who aren’t on the trail for the right reasons – trail vagrants, social media stars, athletics/gear bros looking to compete – but soon enough our pacing will put us back with the closest we have to “traimily,” at least those that haven’t passed us up yet. We’re making lots of friends and as near as I can tell, no enemies yet, but there are certainly folks we’re looking to avoid.

I still haven’t broken out the mp3 player (we did listen to Pasta & Sunglasses while packing back in Franklin) but the jams won’t stop. Jason can no doubt begrudgingly confirm I’m still whistling the riff from “Town Business” some mornings, but here are the fresh mental tracks:

  • Interplanetary Music (Sun Ra)
  • I Get the Blues When It Rains (NRBQ)
  • Otha Fish (The Pharcyde)
  • Hot Smoke and Sassafras (Bubble Puppy)
  • Martha My Dear (The Beatles)
  • Chiquita Banana Obama (Eric Andre and Hannibal Buress)
  • Water Get No Enemy (Fela Kuti)
  • Captain Stupido (Thundercat)
  • Three Coins in the Fountain (Frank Sinatra)
  • Early Morning Cold Taxi (The Who)

We have another weeks and some to crawl the TN/NC border, and past the last suspected very cold point. Then we’ll be in Virginia, and summer will follow close on the miles’ heels.

See you soon,
Patrick (AKA Boogerbear)

Read the Rest!