Walking across the Fontana Dam, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
The weather had called for rain, but for now, our rain gear was stowed in our packs alongside six days worth of food, a few liters of water, and a variety of necessary backpacking gear.
As we walked along the Appalachian Trail (AT) toward the southern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we followed a paved drive that gently curved upward and away from the Dam. While scanning the area for the footpath that would lead us further into the woods, Luke came to an abrupt halt at my side, held out an arm in front of me and said in a hushed voice: “BEAR.” Looking up the path about a hundred feet or so, I saw two big fuzzy ears poking up over the thick vegetation. Slowly, the black bear lifted its head to gaze in our direction, a calm and calculating look on its face. Luke and I took a moment here to re-group. We hadn’t even stepped onto the dirt footpath yet, so we weren’t exactly in “bear-mode.” Having encountered a number of black bears in the past, we lifted our voices a few octaves and I clanked my trekking poles together. Slowly and tentatively, we began to walk along the drive again, making noise and projecting a confident (well, confident-ish…) “we don’t want to bug you, so please don’t bug us” kind of a vibe. As we drew closer the bear continued watching us, but also went back to what it was doing, glancing up and then looking back down again. Quite abruptly, we heard a crash as a second bear came falling (ass-first) out of a tree, a little further into the woods from the first bear. It hit the ground with a thud, and then they both ran off into the woods.
Luke and I stopped again, exchanged “Did that really just happen?” looks, and after the initial adrenaline surged past, we both started laughing hysterically.
This was pretty much perfect timing to pass a sign declaring: “Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
We veered left as we followed the white blazes that marked the trail, beginning our climb up and into the mountains.
From Fontana Dam to Clingmans Dome (the highest point on the AT) it is a whole lot of UP. The first day on the trail would only be about 11-miles, but we would climb about 2700-feet in the first two or three miles. We would continue going uphill until we reached Mollies Ridge Shelter, where we would stay for the night.
It always takes me a day or two to catch my pace when it comes to backpacking. Not just physically, but mentally as well. All the prep work aside, when you get out there, you are simply walking. For hours and hours, you walk. I tend to meet this with three phases:
First phase – “WOW, it’s so beautiful!” During this phase, I can’t stop smiling and looking around.
Second phase – After we’ve been hiking for a few hours, my mind begins to grab at anything it can to try to fill the time. This typically leads to the following flow of thoughts: “WOW, it’s still so beautiful, but I wonder when we will see the first big view…? Should I have a snack? Maybe Luke wants to talk about something? Okay, Luke doesn’t really want to talk. Hm,… I could use this time and think about planning a yoga sequence… maybe we could do yoga at the shelter! Actually, maybe I should have that snack. I wonder if things are arranged in my pack in the best way? Should I reorganize it quickly so I can grab things easier…?” And on and on it goes. After the busyness and over stimulation of day-to-day life, I will stay in this phase for anywhere from a few hours to an entire day.
Third phase: WILD CONTENTMENT. In this phase, I am happy to simply walk and listen to the sounds around me. Sometimes Luke and I will sing songs or we’ll talk about whatever pops into our heads. If nothing pops into our heads, we walk quietly. I become perfectly happy – thrilled, really – to simply watch the root structures beneath my feet and notice the tunnel of green leaves slowly flowing past me. It becomes very effortless.
You can’t force phase three, but when it comes, ohhhh boy, it’s total bliss.
We left the shelter at Fontana Dam early so that we’d have plenty of time to tackle the climb to Mollie’s Ridge. Shortly after turning into the woods (…in the opposite direction of the bears, I am happy to report), the trail began to ascend. The weather was warm, still, humid, and sticky. The climb was hot work and I was sweating in no time, but my legs felt strong and my breath felt clear and full.
As we walked, I was met with the glorious realization that I was free in nature for a whole week. HELLOOOO phase one! YAY! Everything was beautiful! And holy crap, other than keeping myself (and Luke) alive and trekking onward, I had no obligations. My task for the week was simply to embrace my place on this earth as a human animal. This moment is a surge of the most potent and impactful stress release medication. I smile even thinking about it.
The climb was relentless, but it wasn’t as bad as we expected. We didn’t encounter any more bears, but we did see some wild turkeys which was pretty cool. As the day progressed a thick fog settled on the landscape and all of the sudden we were walking through a cloud. When we reached spots along the trail meant to showcase views that rewarded all the up-hill climbing, our range of vision was met with a sea of white. Despite this, luck was on our side and we arrived at the shelter about 15-minutes before a heavy rain began to fall. It was about 3:30 in the afternoon.
Watching the rain from Mollies Ridge Shelter, we took in our surroundings and removed our boots. The shelter is quite a place – stonewall construction, a fireplace, a two-tier sleeping platform and a separate covered area to sit and cook. Typical of all AT shelters, one side remains open to the outdoors, offering beautiful views of the surrounding woods.
Even with the beautiful surroundings, I sat in phase two unsure what to do with myself. Running through our tasks for the afternoon, I knew we needed to collect and treat water, cook and eat dinner, hang our bear bags, blow up our sleeping pads and set up our sleeping area. This only represented an hour or so of tasks and it was pretty early in the day. In the Smokies you are required to sleep at shelters (and need a permit to do so). Even if the permit wasn’t an issue, the next shelter was too far up the trail. We were there to stay.
I was doing some yoga and Luke was collecting water down at the stream when two hikers emerged from the trail, both wet from getting caught in the storm. They introduced themselves as Joanna and Jim and we got along right away. We chatted about the trail and all the uphill climbing still to come. While commiserating about the endless amount of up, Joanna mentioned “Well, the volcano in Indonesia was a bitch of a climb.”
To this, I immediately responded “OH MY GOD, did you hike Rinjani?!” Yes, they had! What are the odds that we’d hiked the same Indonesian volcano? From there, we spent an enjoyable evening listening to the rain, talking about Indonesia and sharing stories from the other adventures we had been on.
As dusk came on the rain continued. Everything was damp, but I had one pair of dry clothes for sleeping. As I closed my eyes, snuggled in my sleeping bag on the second platform, I could hear the rain as it hit the roof just a foot or two above my head. A cold misty wind blew in from the open wall and thunder rumbled in the distance. I was asleep by 8:30pm and I slept like the dead. In the morning I learned that it had thunder stormed all night.
Day two on the trail would be 17-miles, and Luke and I woke up around 6am to get an early start on our high mileage ambitions. In an effort to not wake the others, we moved our gear to the covered platform off the side of the shelter by the light of our headlamps. At 6am it was still dark, and a light, hazy rain continued to fall. A moderate wind was blowing in from the south, occasionally carrying the mist under the awning of the shelter and sending cold shivers down my spine. As I began my morning yoga routine, I attempted to hold down the corners of my Tyvec sheet with my boots and camp sandals. I practiced while the wind blew around me, but despite the cold air, I began to feel myself warming up from the inside out.
We were ready to hit the trail at about 7:30am. Stretched, coffee-d, and well rested, I was in pretty high spirits – even with the relentless rain the Weather Channel promised for the day ahead.
Phase three beginning. Contentment.
Throughout the morning the rainy mist continued on and off. It was the kind of rain that is heavy enough that you need a rain jacket, but not so heavy that it soaks you right away. The trail continued to climb and long branches of hobblebush grew across the trail. As I wove through the overgrown plants, the wet branches slid along my legs and sent water streaming down my rain pants. Once I passed, the branches would fling back like elastic and spray any excess water onto Luke, who walked behind me. The brown, compacted path wove beneath the thick vegetation, so although you couldn’t see the trail from far away, it was still clear which way to go. We walked like this for a few hours.
The day was full of more uphill climbs and no views, beyond the sea of white. Occasionally the sun would peak through, but we always seemed to reach the peak of a climb in conjunction with the rain. It was frustrating, but despite the challenging weather and missing the traditional views, the trail did gift us with some amazing sights. Watching the mist blow over the mountaintops was really beautiful. Watching the sunshine through the trees just after the rain was gorgeous. The white fog and grey sky against the bright green hue of well-watered plants was a pretty stellar backdrop for the day.
As far as wildlife goes, we saw some more wild turkeys. Mostly we’d just their heads bopping along, barely poking above the tall and flourishing plants on the forest floor. We also saw many of the expected critters like birds, chipmunks, squirrels and millipedes (No more bears, though! Fine by me!).
At about 2pm that day, the skies opened up and showered us with a torrential downpour of rain. The trail became a flowing river as we continued to climb. It was pretty rough, I won’t lie. When we reached the first shelter, we began to unpack without ever really discussing it. With the rain, it was clear we wouldn’t be hiking the remaining 6-miles that day. It was about 3:30.
I know this sounds pretty miserable, but I was still really happy to be out on the trail and in nature. The second shelter was just as nice as the first. The wood was too wet to make a fire, so to warm up we laid on the second level of the shelter in our dry clothes and sleeping bags. From our perch we spent an enjoyable half hour laying on our bellies and watching a family of seven or eight chipmunks dashing about in the rain. They chased each other around, gathered seeds, fought over the seeds, and then played and chased each other around again. Solid entertainment, I’m telling you.
We eventually made a nice hot drink with some vanilla chai protein power I had brought. We sat under the awning and felt the drink send waves of warmth through our bodies. Total bliss!
Later in the afternoon, Joanne and Jim came hiking up the trail, also soaked from the relentless rain. We had another fun evening chatting and sharing stories from our adventures.
When we left camp in the morning, it was overcast and grey but not raining yet. The hobblebush still streaked our legs with wet, but as we began the ascent to Clingmans Dome, longer periods of sunshine followed shorter periods of scattered rain. After days of wet, the warmth from the sun was like heaven. Totally rejuvenated by the shift in weather, we sang and hiked along. As we drew closer to the peak we were finally gifted with some of the iconic Smoky Mountain views we’d been missing. Each ridge line a slightly different shade from the next, it creates a panorama that will literally take your breath away.
You can tell when you are getting close to the top of Clingmans Dome because day hikers begin to pop up on the trail. You can smell them coming. Seriously. Floral shampoos and perfume waft up the trail, and sure enough, you round the corner to greet fresh and clean hikers with big beautiful cameras and tiny water bottles. I can only imagine what they smelled coming around the corner. They probably thought they were coming up on a dead animal or something.
After suddenly coming up on so many people, Luke and I became distracted and somehow missed a fork in the trail. We had a hunch we’d missed something, and it was confirmed when we reached a sign indicating that the AT was a half mile back up in the opposite direction.
I was not thrilled.
We decided to go up to the Clingmans Dome parking lot, now only a tenth of a mile away. Silver lining: we could use their toilets and re-stock on toilet paper! Hey, maybe the store would even have BEER! (It did not, but it was a nice thought…)
When we arrived in the parking lot the first thing we did was speak with a few park rangers, who were hanging out by the trail head. We were surprised to learn that the effects from Hurricane Florence were expected to hit the northern end of the park toward the end of the week. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy had posted an advisory to hikers to vacate the trail until the storm had passed. Due to potential flooding, high winds and falling branches, it was possible they would actually close the trail come late Thursday or Friday. Clingmans Dome was the last easy access point on the trail with reliable cell service and the guarantee that we could find a ride back to our car.
In short – they highly recommended we end our trip.
Uhhhh – whiplash! Say what? I probably shouldn’t have been, but I was pretty shocked about this. The sun had FINALLY come out, and according to the Weather Channel, the next few days were looking a hell of a lot better than the past three had looked.
We sat and ate a snack while weighing our options.
It was Tuesday. We had hiked about 35-miles so far, but we weren’t going to be finished until mid-afternoon on Friday. In the end, it wasn’t worth the risk. Leaving the trail early was really disappointing, but safety first.
We ran into Joanna and Jim hiking back down from the observation deck and opted to share their shuttle back to Gatlinburg.
A few hours later, showered and clean, the four of us met back up for an awesome dinner in Gatlinburg, which involved a whole lot of pizza and several beers.
It’s hard to accept when plans change, especially when you’ve been looking forward to something for a long time. However brief, we had an amazing time in the Smoky Mountains. Though the weather was challenging, we were gifted the rare experience of spending time in one of the most visited national parks in the country in the company of only two other people.
As for the rest of the trail?
We’ll be back.
xx Katie (and Luke!)