Week 3: Days 19-21; Nantahala Outdoor Center to Great Smoky Mountains

Day 19

Waking up at 4:45 a.m. is much more difficult when it’s 20 degrees and you’re snuggled into your toasty sleeping bag. We set off around 6 a.m. into the darkness with a clear sky of stars overhead. I was able to turn my headlamp off even in the dense woods around 6:30 after my eyes adjusted and the rays of twilight began. Night hiking proved to be quite fun, but it’s VERY hard to see the white blazes, so it’s easy to get lost at a junction if you’re not careful. The woods changed today from the typical deciduous trees we’ve seen since the beginning into a dense coniferous alpine forest.

We hit Clingman’s Dome about five minutes prior to sunrise and quickly ran up the observation tower to watch. The wind, no longer inhibited by the trees, goes right to your bones at this altitude and temperature. Our water bottles were partially frozen when we left and were nearly solid after standing in the wind. The sunrise made everything worthwhile!

After taking some pictures, we went back to the bottom in the tree cover to make breakfast and dispose of trash. We ran into the second ridge runner, Christine, who told us there are only about 40 days each year where it’s clear on Clingman’s, so we were very fortunate! Weather and pollution often cloud the scenery in this area. Coal plants and manufacturing in the area have polluted so much that this park has some of the highest concentration of acid rain in our country.

The trail today was in excellent form, and we seemed to move very quickly. Highly public areas tend to be easier to walk in our parks. I told my group the only thing that would make this morning better would be some trail magic. A mile later we reached Newfound Gap, where the First Baptist Church of Gatlinburg set up a table with snacks and drinks for thru-hikers! We stayed about an hour chatting with them and using the public facilities in the large parking area. This area hosts a large parking lot, but it once held thousands of people as they watched and listened to FDR stand on this ledge and dedicate the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We planned today to be short, so we were in no rush. We walked the last three miles to our site getting asked a lot of questions by day hikers on the trail. I was first to enter the shelter securing my place for yet another night, which is good because tomorrow we plan to push to our highest mileage day yet.

We only did 13.6 miles today but brought our total to 218.1 miles, which leads to this little accomplishment!

Day 20

Today our goal is 20 miles to get to Cosby Knob Shelter. We set off around 7:15 a.m., and I hit Charlie’s Bunion a few minutes after sunrise.

I took this picture from the bunion itself, and it’s about 1,000′ straight down to reach the valley below. The views all day proved to be excellent. Views coupled with a nice hiking temp in the mid 40s made it a great day to be on the trail. Today and yesterday have been my favorite on trail thus far. I’m really enjoying it and my new group. My body felt great until about mile 18 when my feet got a little sore, but even finishing the day as planned I felt great. My knee is at about 85% and getting better each day, so much of my speed and strength have returned.

As a rule only service dogs are able to enter the park, but his little guy pictured below, who is definitely only an emotional support dog at best, found my lap over supper. His name is Scuba Steve, and he’s walked every set of the trail so far except a very dangerous downhill over a rock face and part of a five crossing.

I’m glad for a dog’s company but feel bad as this little chihuahua really shouldn’t be out here. His owner’s name is “Sherpa,” as he is the sherpa for all of Scuba Steve’s things.

With a new record of 20.3 miles today, our total is now 238.4/2199.7.

Day 21

The man sleeping next to me in the shelter got up at 5:30 this morning, and my inability to sleep through any noise got me up shortly after. It ended up being a blessing, as the rain and snow that fell last night turned the trail into a river of mud, 3″-deep water, and slippery rocks. The first few miles were very slow going moving from rock to rock, but once I slipped and got a foot wet, it was irrelevant, and I trudged forward as normal. I emerged from the Smokies around 10 a.m. unscathed and without seeing a bear. I walked about 1.5 miles farther to the I-40 bridge where we planned to meet Neal, who is Paul’s neighbor, for a ride to Asheville.

Neal picked us up around 11:30, and we were off. He even took us to Taco Bell where I indulged in a crunch wrap supreme, two tacos, and six delights. Filled with dicey TexMex, we continued to Asheville and to Paul’s home. His home is in a beautiful neighborhood, and we feel bad dumping our hiker trash belongings on his front porch. The neighbors are curious about us for sure and ask him a lot of questions. We threw our clothes in the laundry for some much needed attention and jumped into some of Paul’s clothes from his old days as a fireman. We then went to Ingals and collected large amounts of junk food while Paul got groceries to cook supper and lunch tomorrow. I ate three glazed and chocolate-covered donuts while waiting for the rest to check out. I don’t feel remotely bad about the 1,080 calories, as I’ve now confirmed I’m down 7 pounds after just three weeks on trail. The reading below is pre-junk food but post-Taco Bell.

Paul was a chef originally and went to culinary school, which means basically everything he cooks is amazing. For supper we had blackened chicken Alfredo with Cesar salad, garlic bread, and vegetables. A dip in the hot tub in the rain enjoying some beers, and we chatted about our past few days on the trail with his house sitters. It is wonderful to be in a quiet and warm place for the evening knowing our friends on trail are getting about an inch of snow.

Our Nero day of 9.6 miles rolls our total to an even 248 miles!

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