Week 3: Days 15-18; Nantahala Outdoor Center to Great Smoky Mountains

Day 15

Leaving the NOC was an arduous affair. The NOC sits at 1,732′, and we climbed to 5,062′ in just a few miles without any real switchbacks. The view from Cheoah Bald was clear and open with a beautiful sunny day overhead. I took the time to enjoy my lunch with my feet up and FaceTime my parents. The hike in this area was unseasonably dry, and I didn’t pass any water. I finished my last drink as I entered Stecoah Gap, where low and behold there was trail magic of gallon jugs of fresh water.

The saying, “The trail will provide,” is a true testament of God’s hands in action. Nearly every day I’ve found myself wishing or hoping for something, and then it seems to come true in a few miles or less. I’m starting to contemplate asking for giant bags of cash to try my luck. Jokes aside, I’ve never seen such a direct and fast response from God in my life, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I arrived at Brown Fork Shelter almost an hour ahead of my group. My knee has been feeling better, and today was my best day on the trail ailment-wise since starting. I think the others are suffering from their own issues as well. I am starting to get a string of new blisters from these new shoes. They may be working wonders on my knees, but my feet are struggling to adjust to brand new shoes on trail. Red Coat shared his Compees blister patches with me, and they are amazing. They are the only thing that actually stays in place, and they help heal and protect the blister. I’m hoping to get some sock liners to assist with the blister prevention, as they are quickly becoming my biggest concern physically.

I am very much starting to enjoy my hike at this point despite the physical pain. I especially enjoy my alone time while hiking. Our group, though we may leave together, spreads out quickly, and we all hike our own pace alone and meet up at the end of the day. It allows me a lot of time to meditate and reflect. I’m very thankful to have such a great group of guys to hike with, and I hope we can stick together for a great deal of time to come.

Today we walked 16 miles, making our total 160.4 miles.

Day 16

Today was nothing overly difficult but felt like a grind nonetheless. We stuck relatively close as a group in pace. Our group has since grown to six, now including Paul who was a firefighter and chef and who is also married to Jen Swearington, the clothing/textile designer of JennyThreads.

We made it to the road crossing near Fontana Dam where we were planning to shuttle in to town to get our resupply boxes from the post office. We then found out that the shuttle wasn’t running for a few hours, so we began to walk our way into town two miles away. We got a hitch after about a quarter-mile from the Shirley dubbed Shirley Temple. Shirley is actually the wife of the first of three ridge runners in the Smokies, and they live here seasonally for his work. He is 75 and still running up and down mountains in the Smokies!

At the post office, we all got our packages except for Red Coat. For whatever reason his didn’t arrive despite sending it along with all of ours. We sat outside the post office for a few minutes debating how to handle his sudden lack of food when the postal worker came out and said she got a call from someone who had quit the trail recently and wanted to give their supply box to a hiker in need. She brought out the box, and he was thankfully able to supply himself as well as supplement most of us as well. Yet another unbelievable prayer answered! We hit the general store next door to further supply ourselves, as we decided to push through the Smokies in five days and no longer stop in Gatlinburg but instead go to Paul’s house in Asheville.

Unfortunately, I now have six days’ worth of food (I always carry an extra to be safe), and my pack is incredibly heavy again. The Smokies begin with a 3,500′ incline, and the weight will be an incredible burden.

When we got back to the Fontana Shelter, dubbed the “Fontana Hilton” for its addition of flushing toilets and a free hot shower, we noticed we missed about 1.5 miles of the trail from where we hitched in. As we are purists at heart, we quickly setup our camp and walked the trail back to our hitch point and then returned to camp. We did it without packs and chatted as a group, so it was a nice evening walk. I tried out the “hot” shower, and it was one of the coldest showers I’ve had in my life. I should have suspected, as the area was overrun with dozens of hikers, some of which had been there a week for no reason. There are definitely a large number of drifter types out here, which I suppose makes sense. I hope the trail can help them find some semblance of direction.

Fontana Dam did lend itself to this wonderful sunset!

Our journey today logged 12.8 miles, for a total of 173.2 miles.

Day 17

Today our group of six finally enters the Smokies! A quick walk across Fontana Dam, and we begin our ascent into the park. The vast majority of our time in the Smokies will be spent over a mile high in altitude.

Precipitation is forecast for almost every day of our journey through the park, so they should live up to their name.

The Smokies handle hikers a bit differently, as everyone is required to sleep in the shelter for bear safety and vegetation reclamation reasons. The only time we are able to tent is if the shelter is already full. Day hikers often come to spend the night and have reservations and thru-hikers are required to give up their place in the shelter to accommodate on a last-in-first-out basis. Bear cable use is required as well due to the high density of bears and frequency of bear-related issues. The first campsite is already closed, as a bear tore up a few tents a few days ago.

On our climb up, we ran into Shirley again with her husband Carl the ridge runner. These ridge runners are some of the few paid employees on the AT, and they report to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Carl is on his day off and is day hiking with Shirley. We chat for a bit, thank Shirley again for her ride yesterday, and head further up into the mountains. We climbed the Shuckstack Fire Tower, and we were blessed with an amazing 360-degree view of the park.

Tonight is actually my first night spent in a shelter, and I’m excited to try it out. I’m especially excited as we are supposed to get a thunderstorm and 1.5″ of rain overnight. I was second to arrive, so my spot is pretty secured. Today was my first day actually missing parts of home like my house, bed, warm showers, and friends. Thankfully today was also the first day my knee didn’t hurt while hiking!

Day 17 brought us 14.9 miles closer to Katahdin, making our total 188.1/2199.7.

Day 18

Last night’s thunderstorm was pretty intense bringing lightning strikes within a 1/4-mile of our shelter (based on the timing between light/sound). I heard one of the older guys at the shelter scream when it hit and found it incredibly difficult to hide my laughter.

Today we summited Rocky Top, TN, and thunderhead both in incredibly dense fog, making the views rather dull. Climbing up Rocky Top was a very strange experience. It was all fog and grass, and the sun, which was just above the trail itself, suddenly birth through the clouds washing everything in a bright light or silhouette. I tried to take a picture, but the sun hid behind the clouds prior to the shot taking. It was eerily reminiscent of a scene someone describes during a near death experience or after being brought back from death.

The fog lifted over lunch, which gave us hope for our sunrise summit in the morning! I discovered a mouse had chewed through part of my camp towel last night. As far as I can tell, this is the only item it’s happened to. Tonight is dipping back down to about 20 degrees, so yet again we need to sleep with electronics and water filters. I’m starting to get irritated by my facial hair, which hasn’t been shaved since the day I left. I’m probably going to leave it until it gets a bit warmer, but it will need to go when ticks start to come out.

Today we marched 16.4 miles, now totaling 204.5 miles! This still includes the approach trail, so AT-specific miles are a bit less. I’ve heard the approach trail will be inducted into the AT next year, as I feel it should, and it will then officially count. Since we hiked it and it was worth it, I will forever include it in my estimates!


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