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Appalachian Trail: Days 17-25

Day 17 - March 17th

Daily miles: 0.0

Official distance covered on trail: 164.7

Hotel beds are so much nicer than I remember. I woke up feeling so refreshed and ready to go. Packed up our stuff, headed to the lobby, was all prepared to take a shuttle back out to the trail.

Then, we saw every other hiker in the lodge hanging out in the lobby glued to their phones. As soon as Mitch and I got to the couches, it was apparent that the morning was a little more complicated than we'd anticipted. We were immediately informed that the area was in danger of tornadoes and hail in the late afternoon and evening, and everyone was trying to figure out what to do. Mitch and I were *this close* to saying fuck it and going anyway, but literally everyone else in the room was planning on zeroing at the lodge, and we gave into peer pressure. Honestly, the biggest thing for us was not wanting to leave our group and being ahead for an unknown period of time.

Probably for the best, so we can rest our bodies, but we were still frustrated at having to take an unplanned zero day.

Wilson - who has taken up the name Girl Scout, on account of getting Samoas in every resupply - made us feel better about staying and appreciating the time we have with our friends by poignantly quoting ABBA: "Slipping through my fingers / every time I catch this little moment / slipping through my fingers / all the time."

Spent the day eating way too much food, drinking way too many drinks, playing a lot of cards, lying in bed, and watching tv. Learned a new card game called Kaboo, thanks to Matt and Scott. Wilson is the only person I know who can for sure best me at Jeopardy!, which I take personally, but that's ok.

As comfy and enjoyable as today has been, just getting to laze around and rest, I think we're all hoping the weather clears up tomorrow so we can head out. I want to get started on the Smokeys!

Day 18 - March 18th

Daily miles: 14.9

Official distance covered on trail: 180.8

The weather wasn't as bad last night as predicted, but it was good to rest. We were all ready to get out and start hiking!

Full disclosure: we skipped the 1.2 mile stretch between the Fontana Dam marina and the Fontana Dam Shelter in favor of all shuttling to the same place together. We'd thought about doing it, but we have 8.8 miles of the approach trail that count for absolutely nothing, and we're cashing in 1.2 of those. Some people did that bit, or more to the last point where the shuttle will drop you, yesterday, but we figure a zero is a zero and we weren't doing any miles.

Big day though! Walked across the Fontana Dam (and got a TVA history lesson from Girl Scout), officially entered the Smokeys, and it's our first night sleeping in a shelter!

Mitch and I actually did part of this section in October 2019 after my friend Emily's wedding, and it was fun recognizing some landmarks. The Shuckstack Fire Tower was actually worth the view this time around, since there wasn't fog.

The weather today's been wild, though. Sometimes sunny, sometimes rainy, sometimes rainy while sunny, sometimes pouring. When it was sunny, you could see the sunshine bouncing off the moisture in the air. It kindly waited til we were all in the shelter before starting to hail.

In the shelter, there was a delightful piece of graffiti that says: "everybody wanna be a thruhiker but nobody wanna climb deez steep ass hills." Made me laugh, and I kinda wanna get that as an ass tat.

Day 19 - March 19th

Daily miles: 14.7

Official distance covered on trail: 195.5

Coldest day yet. Woke up cold, went to bed colder. High of 38 and rained most of the day. Definitely the hardest mental day we've had. If it were snowing instead of raining, it may have been better, but cold + wind + rain is like the worst combination of weather qualities.

It started off really pretty. The trees were covered in ice - no leaves, just layers of ice over the branches. It reminded me of Narnia, and it was enchanting.

It got a little less charming when the wind started blowing golf ball-sized ice chunks off the trees, causing some to land on my head. The rain also made the trail a sloshy mess. The bits of trail that weren't pools of mud were slick with ice. Every step was calculated and challenging.

We originally intended to get to the next shelter 1.7 miles ahead of this one, but after breaking at the shelter 9 miles from the one we stayed at last night, we decided to stop at this one instead; doing any more than we had to was mentally impossible. My gloves, which are not waterproof, were unbearably soaked. I was genuinely afraid of getting frostbite somewhere, I was so cold and the conditions were so bad outside. Patrón lent me his waterproof mittens for the remaining 5.7 miles, and they carried me through the next few hours; mental note to pick some up at the next outfitter.

Matt made a fire at the shelter using the log Mitch carried from the previous shelter, which felt unbelievable after being so cold and wet all day. Early bedtime tonight. Low in the 20s, and the shelter doesn't block all the wind or moisture. Still better than setting up a tent in this weather and then packing it out sopping wet in the morning.

Today was just a tough day. It was the first time I found myself thinking, "I hate this." The day couldn't be over quickly enough. I know tomorrow will be better, though - at least no rain.

But, as they say: no rain, no Maine. As of now, we have fewer than 2000 miles to go!

Day 20 - March 20th

Daily miles: 15.3

Official distance covered on trail: 210.8

Happy spring! This is my reminder to myself that shoes and socks are supposed to be flexible and not literal blocks of ice. I'd say putting on my rock-hard frozen boots this morning is in my top 10 worst sensory experiences ever. Getting them on took ages, and then it was like my feet were being strapped to ice cubes. Not the vibe. (Even though my boots are waterproof, once moisture gets in, it takes awhile for it to get out, and it misted through the shelter late last night, so what are ya gonna do, ya know?)

Couldn't brush my teeth and had to eat someone else's granola bar (which I repaid later) for breakfast because my bear can was frozen shut. Couldn't get it open til around noon!

Good news, though: we're 0/2 on mice sightings and problems at shelters!

It was another cold morning, but it was sunny, and that made a huge difference for us. You could tell from daybreak that the skies would be clear blue all day. Today was already about 10° warmer than yesterday, and the sun made it feel even warmer. Even so, there was still a ton of ice on the ground and in the trees; sometimes it felt as though we were walking through an ice machine. But the ice that fell today usually sounded more like the tinkling of wind chimes and not the larger thuds from yesterday. Even in the first few miles, we all had to stop to take layers off, it was already so much warmer than when we'd woken up.

We reached Clingmans Dome - and the 200 mile point - within 5 miles. Clingmans Dome Tower is the highest point on the AT at 6658 feet. The view from the tower was stunning - well worth the extra climb up! It was also so much windier up there than on the ground, so we didn't spend tons of time on the observation deck. Luckily, though, we had the space mostly to ourselves; the access road is closed seasonally, so people could only get there by hiking a decent distance to it.

As we were leaving, we met a bunch of weekend hikers, some of whom are from Ohio! I think we meet some Ohioans every day, which is so fun for me. Girl Scout jokes that if someone in a 10 mile radius mentions Ohio, I can sense it.

Not too long after, we hit Newfound Gap, which is the access point to Gatlinburg, TN and Cherokee, NC. We tried to get a pizza ordered to there, but to no avail. We'd considered hitching into town to get one, but decided we didn't want to hike 3 miles in the dark, and also we'd somehow gotten separated from Girl Scout, and we wanted to make sure he was at the shelter. (He was, he just missed where our group had gathered and continued hiking before we saw him.)

Lots of people were at the Gap. And a lot of those people were asking us about our thruhiking plans. Normally, it's kinda fun to let people ooh and aah over us, but I was a little annoyed by it today. I felt like we were on display for the tourists, and I didn't like it.

At our camp site - which is so crowded, especially since it's a Saturday and it's a lot of colleges' spring break, and it's the closest shelter to the Gap - we ran back into Travis, who somehow didn't quit his section hike after yesterday. We also met a guy who calls himself Stricky, and he comes to this spot pretty often to give hikers candy and stories. He was out of candy when we got there, but he was a fun conversationalist! And his nephew Wes literally gave us the food he'd cooked for dinner, since he'd had a big lunch. We were as close to vultures as people can be.

Another cold night, but this time back in the tent. My damp gloves and socks are in the toe box of my sleeping bag. Super uncomfy for now, but hopefully by morning they're dry from my body heat.

Day 21 - March 21st

Daily miles: 12.6

Official distance covered on trail: 223.4

Update: they did not dry. But it was worth a shot!

Mitch and I got almost no sleep last night. The shelter we stayed at was crowded, and there was barely a spot for us to put our tent, but we found one under some trees. The. Whole. Night. Ice continued to fall from the trees, onto our tent. And we could hear a nearby tree groaning under the weight of the ice and wind, and that kinda freaked us out. It took us awhile to motivate ourselves to get out of the tent this morning because the ice continued to fall and I was genuinely worried about getting concussed. But we didn't get hurt and the tent is overall ok! There are a few small holes in the rain fly, but the tent miraculously held up way better than expected in those conditions!

Stricky and Wes continued to provide for us; they decided they didn't feel like cooking breakfast before heading back to their car, so they left us with sausage, bacon, eggs, tortillas, and cheese, so we made some gourmet breakfast wraps. Such a good way to start the day!

It was cold and foggy when we woke up, and lots of ice continued to fall - seriously, how did the trees not run out of ice - but the sky cleared up soon enough! Walking along the ridge line toward Charlies Bunion, I could tell we were in for some incredible views. (Side note: Girl Scout has bunions on his feet, as do I, and when he tried to research how AT thruhikers deal with their bunions, all he could find was info on Charlies Bunion.)

We were not at all disappointed. After some rock scrambling, we were able to see an almost 360° view of mountains and forest. Just... here. Look.

My grandpa Ed said he went backpacking once on a Scouts trip with my uncles on Mount LeConte. The AT doesn't intersect with that part of the Smokeys, but I could see Mount LeConte from Charlies Bunion. I honestly can't picture Grandpa in hiking gear, but the image makes me smile. I'd love to go back and do that hike just to have that bit in common.

The rest of the day was full of smaller overlooks and vistas. The guide I use has icons of cameras at notable vista points, and there were 6 cameras in the 12 miles we did today. It was a little cold, but it was just so dang pretty. It was odd doing long uphills and heating up enough to wear a tshirt but also being able to see my breath. I kept a fleece on the whole time 'cause I knew I'd get cold on the downhills.

One more full day in the Smokeys! Tomorrow's supposed to be in the 50s and sunny - lower elevation will do that - and I am so excited for a warm (or at least not super cold) evening.

Day 22 - March 22nd

Daily miles: 14.6

Official distance covered on trail: 238.0

I loved today. Everything about it! It was the kind of pleasant that doesn't warrant many thoughts. I didn't listen to anything today, just talked with the tramily or enjoyed the scenery. The grade was generally pretty gentle, and my knees only really started bothering me in the last 2 miles. My ankle is feeling better. Getting some blisters from having to wear wet socks, but those will go away. We did 2 more miles than yesterday but finished earlier and it felt easier. Trail legs or easier terrain? The world may never know. (It's easier terrain, but I like to think my trail legs are coming in.)

They say it takes 3 weeks to form a habit. It's now been 3 weeks, and I really feel like a long distance hiker! It's hard to explain the mental shift, but it feels much more certain rather than confused - like I know what I'm doing here rather than still trying to figure it out (even though I am still figuring things out). It no longer feels like "So... we're doing this?" but more like "So we're doing this!" When people ask me if I'm going to Maine, I say "Yes!" instead of "Hopefully!"

Mitch finally has a trail name! It's Yawp, from Walt Whitman's poem "Song of Myself." He tends to let out these primal whoops of release at big summits or after overcoming tough moments, and I couldn't help but think of the line from that poem: "I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." It just fits, and I'm glad to have thought of it.

It's not warm but certainly not cold. After getting to our last shelter in the Smokeys (!!!), I spent some time outside reading and watched Gauge inscribe and draw in the most beautifully kept trail journal I've seen thus far. The shelter is oddly gated, and I know for a fact there are mice in here. I. Hate. Mice. They say to sleep in shelters with your head facing outward so that mice will run over your feet instead of your head. The thought of a mouse on my sleeping bag makes me uncomfortable; the thought of one on my face makes me want to scream. Hopefully I sleep well enough tonight, even though I know those fuckers are in here.

Tomorrow morning, we'll be out of the Smokeys! My alarm is set for 7:00 so we can hike a quick 4 to Standing Bear farm/hostel in time for breakfast and a quick resupply before hitting a big mile day. We would have gotten there tonight but didn't want to stay at a hostel after just doing 2 nights in Fontana and having a hotel set up in Hot Springs in 3 days.

Day 23 - March 23rd

Daily miles: 17.1

Official distance covered on trail: 255.1

Wow is that what it feels like to not be freezing getting out of our sleeping bag? Man, that is something I could get used to. Also pretty sure there was no offending mouse activity, even though I could hear their tittering all night. Otherwise, though, I slept very well.

Got out of camp early to get that good good breakfast at Standing Bear Farm. We did 4 miles in about an hour 20, including a weird bit underneath a major highway and a pretty sizable uphill. On an empty stomach and with almost no water - you can tell we're pretty food motivated.

Standing Bear was so cool! They made us a delicious & big breakfast of egg wraps (the best part was their homemade salsa!) and fruit cocktail. We also were able to grab anything we wanted from their resupply stocks and cash out when we left. Between all of us, we more or less destroyed their stash of Yoohoo chocolate drink, which I'd never had before and likely won't have again, but downed 2 this morning before heading on.

Along with this being our longest mileage to date, today was super challenging because of all the elevation change. Between Standing Bear Farm and the summit of Max Patch, we gained 5199.5 feet of elevation, and that doesn't include whatever elevation we gained between the shelter we stayed at last night and the hostel! My left hip has started bothering me, which is swell. Maybe one of these days, my body will just like... chill and let me enjoy the experience.

The double-edged sword of food and water is the inverse relationship of quantity to desirable pack weight; the more we have, the heavier our bags. I got exactly enough food at the hostel to last me until we get into Hot Springs on Thursday morning because I don't want to carry extra weight, but man I wish I had like 4 more pieces of junk food to get me by. I'm a lil hungry after dinner, which sucks. Also found a plant-based "tuna" packet and it was shockingly delicious, so I'll have to get more of that soon!

We're staying at the summit of Max Patch tonight, even though the guide calls it "inadvisable" due to heavy winds and unpredictable weather changes. But the views are so good, we couldn't resist! The grass is amazing on our bare feet. The wind is ferocious, though, since there are no trees to block the air flow, and setting up the tent was a very tedious task. We watched an overwhelmingly beautiful sunset over the bald. Definitely cold with the wind, but I do love nights like these.

Day 24 - March 24th

Daily miles: 16.6

Official distance covered on trail: 271.7

Slept surprisingly well, considering how loud the wind was all night. But I was super comfortable in my sleeping bag and had to remove several layers throughout the night, which is pretty incredible, considering I could hardly tolerate the cold wind watching the sunset!

Mitch and I were close to pushing forward to the shelter 2 miles after Max Patch last night to avoid the wind, but since my hip was bothering me, and everyone else wanted to stay up there, we decided to call it where we did. As we did those miles this morning, we realized how good of a decision we'd made. The trail was really confusingly marked at one point, and we must have hiked an extra three quarters of a mile along some abandoned side road thing before deciding it'd been too long since we'd seen a blaze and turned back. We weren't the only one in our group to make that mistake; we met Maria coming from the opposite direction toward the turnoff that we'd missed. Now I feel even less bad about skipping that bit at Fontana!

The trail only had a couple big uphills today - not nearly as brutal as yesterday - but my hip was mad at me every upward step I took. On the plus side, though, I didn't feel any knee pain today, even though about 7 straight miles were downhill! I call that progress, or at least like... net neutral?

Finished the 16.6 (or closer to 17.6 if you're me and Mitch) miles before 3:30 today, which feels pretty significant. Like we could have pushed more miles and still have been done before dinner. But we really loved having this beautiful afternoon to relax. At this lower elevation, we could shed our outer layers and take off our socks and everything without being cold! And I could use a baby wipe to wipe off my face, which was inexplicably covered in dirt smudges.

I have no photos from this afternoon/evening because I was too busy just enjoying it. We played cards, ate literally all our remaining food, and relaxed in the sun. I played euchre with Oogie Boogie, Loon, and Samwise until 8:15, well after the sun had set, because it was warm enough to spend time outside after eating dinner, which we haven't really gotten to experience yet. It's supposed to be in the mid-50s tonight, like whaaaat?

Our alarms are set for 6:30 because we want to leave camp as early as possible to hike the 3 miles into Hot Springs, roll up at the first diner we see, and eat a giant breakfast - again, VERY food motivated. We have big plans for Hot Springs, and I can't wait!

Day 25 - March 25th

Daily miles: 3.2

Official distance on trail: 274.9

Woke up at 6:30, packed our bags, and hiked 3.2 miles into Hot Springs by 8:00. If anyone's counting, we did over 3 miles in an hour. Got to the diner asap and ate as much food as we could stomach!

We've spent the day in total relaxation - playing cards, going to the mineral baths for which the town is named, and eating and drinking so much. Oogie Boogie and I remain undefeated against 92 and Mitch. So. Ha.

We had 2 hours booked in the mineral bath, which was sooo relaxing. I feel really lucky to be a part of this tramily; we didn't stop laughing the whole time.

May have to get a late start tomorrow. Leaving here will be so tough!


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