The Great Smokey Mountain National Park is notable for many reasons to NOBO thru-hikers.
- It’s the first National Park they hike through.
- It contains Clingman’s Dome, the highest elevation on the entire Appalachian trail.
- It is where hikers pass the 200 mile mark on their journey.
- It is one of three sections of the trail that require hikers to obtain a permit before being allowed to hike there. (The others being Shenandoah National Park and Baxter State Park.)
It’s that fourth point that will shape my Smokey Mountains Park experience the most. More accurately, my pre-park experience.
A thru-hiking permit for the Smokies is good for 30 days.
However, once you enter into the park you must exit the park in eight days.
Eight days is normally plenty of time to get through the park. But there is just one snag for me. I have my first medical treatment of my hike coming up. At my current pace (~12 miles per day) I will be halfway into the Smokies when my mom arrives to drive me home. I don’t want to mess with the eight day rule, so we move up my pick-up date by a day. After a nero into the Fontana Dam marina, my mom and her friend pick me up and we’re on the road back home.
On the Road Again (and Again)
Going from three weeks of hiking in the mountains to being stuck in a vehicle is a little jarring. But there’s food that I didn’t have to carry and the car handles all the elevation changes for me, which is a fair trade.
After twelve hours of driving over two days, I’m back at my parents’ house and reunited with my cats. The next day is spent with my girlfriend and the day after is my infusion appointment.
The treatment runs like clockwork at this point.
- I check-in at the clinic at 9am.
- I take a seat and get an IV started to administer my medication.
- After an hour, the bag of Renflexis is empty and I leave the clinic.
I drive home from the infusion, load up my gear and start the two day drive back to Fontana Dam with my mom and aunt. We rotate drivers as we go so that no one gets too fatigued behind the wheel. I’m spending my non-driving time working on a blog post and keeping track of the weather in the Smokies.
The hikers I left at Fontana Dam have been making their way through the Smokies while I was off trail and it has been frigid. Base temperatures below freezing with wind chills below zero. The folks that I’ve been texting endured to Newfound Gap and got off trail for one or more zeros to wait out the cold.
I am going to be arriving in Bryson City, a nearby trail town, on a Friday. The temperature will be below 20° every night through Sunday evening. The words of the park ranger who gave me my trail orientation back at Amicalola Falls State Park echo in my head.
“If you’re going into the Smokies and the weather looks bad, don’t go.”
Ranger Fred certainly knows better than I and so I change my itinerary. Instead of pushing off Friday for a half day into the park, I will get dropped off on Sunday morning. It will be below 20° with wind that night but it will be warmer and warmer everyday after that. One night of cold for three days of sunny hiking is a worthwhile trade to me. Plus, my quilt is rated to 20° and I’m morbidly curious to put it to the test.
With my return date pushed off, I have Friday evening and all of Saturday freed up. Friday night is easy. The first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament is playing.
I pack my bear cannister while watching the upsets roll in with my mom and aunt. Five days of food for five days of hiking the Smokies. The math makes sense to me. I set the brimming bear can down with a resounding thud and fall asleep to sounds of people tearing up their brackets across the country.
Finding My Legs Again
Saturday morning and we’re out the door. We won’t be on the AT today but we will be exploring some of the trails around the park. Deep Creek Loop occupies our morning and gets me my first taste of hiking in five days.
The trail offers some inclines but nothing fierce. I’m thankful, as the pain in my left knee is already returning. I make a note to resume the stretches my cousin suggested when the pain initially occurred. We wrap up the Deep Creek Loop and, after grabbing some sandwiches, head up the Great Smoky Mountain Parkway.
Connecting Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, the Parkway is essentially the only road through the park. At least, as far as tourists are concerned. The two lane highway offers majestic views of the valleys below as well as access to many of the park’s trailheads.
We are targeting the Alum Cave trail. This will be a little more strenuous than Deep Creek but I’m eager to share the views from up high with my mom and aunt. We trudge the 2.2 miles up stone, ice and mud to get to the caves. The freeze from earlier in the week is present but melting. My aunt and I dodge falling icicles as we scurrying up the last stretch into the cave. I can sense that the trail conditions here will be similar to what I will encounter on the AT over the next week.
After catching our breath and enjoying the duly earned views, we make our way back to our car in search of dinner. We’ve hiked 10 miles today and are eager to get pizza into our system. After securing some pies, we make our way back to our rental cabin. The evening consists of double checking my gear is accounted for and watching my basketball brackets burn slower than the rest of my family’s.
Hello, My Dear Trail
Sunday is upon me. I have to hike again. “Have to” is the wrong phrase, I remind myself. I am being diligent about how I’m mentally framing things on this hike.
I get to hike today. I have the privilege of hiking today. Today, in the sub-freezing temperatures straight up into the Smokies. And my reward will be testing if my quilt will keep me alive. Sounds like a mighty fine day.
We’re on the road less than an hour before I’m greeted by the familiar site of the Fontana Dam marina. Despite the cold, I find a patch of grass to lay down and stretch out my knees. The last thing I need today is to call my mom to turn around because I blew out my knee.
Back on my feet, I find myself unconsciously cinching my pack to myself and making my way to where I last left the trail. My mom and aunt hike the first two blazes with me before turning back to the parking lot. Then they’re gone and I’m gone. Back on the trail of my choosing.
I place a hand on a white blaze.
“Hey trail. I missed you. You’re looking gorgeous as ever.”
It really is stunning. The sunlight is banking off the surface of Fontana Lake and into the treeline. I take in the moment as much as I’ll allow myself and make my way northbound.
It’s been a while, I know. My last zero was occupied with taking over The Trek’s Instagram and I didn’t get to writing like I hoped. Lucky for you, a high wind advisory and thunderstorm got me off trail again and I found time to write.
It’s a balancing act, hiking and writing. If I’m hiking, I don’t have the energy at the end of the day to write. If I’m writing, it means I’m not hiking. And goodness knows I’m verbose and can’t crank these things out. This is all to say, I’m hoping not to have as large a gap between articles as I just did.
A special shout out to Mrs. Bruening’s 8th grade English students. I hear you are using my articles as an option for your non-fiction readings. I’m touched to hear that you had such concern when I put a hole through one of my socks. Rest assured, my sock supply is healthy.
That’s all for now. Hope everyone reading this is doing well.
Take a hike!
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