We heard that so many times. And discovered first hand that everyone’s “just a little bit before you’re there” is very different. Very different. Anyway, I digress.
Let’s start at the beginning. I left northern Indiana on Tuesday evening, and made it almost all of the way to Knoxville. An aside: I just love Knoxville. It’s a good sized city, yet it’s so close to the mountains, kayaking, hiking, camping. I could live there.
The first misadventure of this grand adventure occurred on Wednesday, when I was trying to meet my friend Erica at Fontana Dam (the South, and end point, of our trip). I got within 10 miles of Fontana, and the road was closed due to a rockslide. Awesome. These being mountain roads, it wasn’t quite so simple as hopping the next road over and going around. That 10 miles turned into a 3 hour detour. Like we do. I finally made it to Erica, and we drove to the north side of the park: Davenport Gap, and hiked in 4 miles to spend the night at the first shelter.
This is what a shelter looks like. Each will sleep 12, officially. One night, however, we had as many as 15, and it wasn’t crowded. So, basically, a shelter is a large lean-to with two platforms, and everyone lines up their sleeping bags and sleeps on these wooden platforms. After a full day of hiking, it’s not as uncomfortable as it sounds.
Enter day two of hiking, our first long day. As such, day of torture numero uno. We hiked 15 miles and climbed 4000 ft of elevation. Bear in mind that about 4 of those miles were going downhill, so we had to climb up the feet we descended twice, making it more than 4000 ft. of climbing. It was grueling. I’ve never done anything so physically and emotionally challenging in my life.
The next day, we woke up to an awesome haze. This was a 13 mile day of great vistas and ridge walking along the trail. Sadly, this is what we saw all day:
No great vistas for us. The good news is that lower elevations had killer storms all day. Since we were so high, we were above the clouds, thus, above the worst of the storm. I learned first hand how important it is to have a pack cover and good rain gear. The latter lesson was learned firsthand when my raincoat ripped in the first 5 minutes. Despite all the mishaps, we stayed happy for the first little bit. Smoky in the Smokies much?
After another excruciating day of hiking, we finally arrived at Icewater Springs, our shelter for the night. This was by far our favorite night. There were 15 of us in the shelter: a married couple that was thru-hiking, 5 20-somethings from MI, 3 people from TX, and a man and his 8 year old son who were also thru-hiking. (Aside: thru-hiking means going all 2200 miles from Georgia to Maine. They’re my heroes.)
When we got there, there was already a fire burning in the fire place, and everyone was chatting and having a good time. This was a welcome sight, after having spent the last 3 miles cursing the Smokies. Trust me, that smile on my face did not last all day.
That night, the group from MI turned into heroes, as well. Really. Heroes. On the trail, you depend so much on other people. You’re all a team. Anyway, they had so much stuff with them, considering they were only hiking for 3 days. They had stuff to make s’mores and a whole roll of duct tape, among the most superfluous of their possessions that they were willing to haul through the woods. I wrapped duct tape around my water bottle, just in case, and took the poncho to replace my ripped raincoat.
The next day, we hiked down 3.5 miles to Newfound Gap. It’s a great view. Probably the best view we saw the whole trip.
We were so thrilled to see civilization. Even if it was just a fence.
Here’s where things get interesting. We only had 5 miles left to get to our shelter for the night. Our feet and legs were killing us. So, that evening, we decided that we would turn around the next day, hike back to Newfound Gap, and hitch a ride to my car, regardless of the fact that we had planned to go 2 more days and hadn’t yet finished the whole park. Check out the feet: duct tape from the Michiganders over blister band-aids so that my blisters would stay protected. It makes me feel slightly hardcore; not going to lie.
That night, there were a bunch of different things that reinforced our decision to head out. When we woke up the next morning, we made the 5 mile trek back to Newfound Gap and started asking random people for rides down the mountain to Gatlinburg, TN. Enter Whitney and Jess, our angels of mercy.
They’re two sweet, Christian girls, just out of school, who were roadtripping around the Smokies for a few days. Despite the fact that they had just come from Gatlinburg, they offered to take us and Matt, a thru-hiker we met, back down the mountain. In Gatlinburg, we caught a shuttle back to Davenport Gap and my car.
All in all, it was an awesome trip. Expect to hear more about in the next few days. Here we are right before Erica left Fontana. At this point, it had been a good 5 days since beds and showers. Aren’t we adorable? After she left, I drove through the park on the way to Gatlinburg, where I spent the night. Check out the sunset I saw from an overlook on the mountain. Thanks, God!