I have made it past a very large hurdle, the Smoky Mountains. I have to say that while challenging, they were beautiful to hike through.
Before even getting to the Smoky Mountains though there were some tough days. I had a few days north of 20 miles, my longest being 24.3 miles. On one of my 20 mile days, the distance wasn’t the hardest part, but the elevation change. The elevation change for the day equated to something like walking up and down the stairs of the Empire State Building about four times. I still love the up hills, at least far better than the down hills. My knees are still getting used to the punishment as are my feet. I had contemplated using hiking poles, but I think they are awkward, at least for me. I have been snowboarding for 20 years, so unlike a skier, poles feel odd to me. I have however periodically used a walking stick. It seems to help on the knees considerably. I wield the thing like hockey stick; stick handling left and right, descending mountains. I also like the low commitment factor to a walking stick. If I don’t want it any longer I can burn it in the camp fire or just toss it back into the woods from whence it came. And if I want another walking stick there are millions readily available sitting right on the ground, free for the taking.
I am really getting into the groove hiking. I have developed a routine that keeps me moving throughout the day. Upon wakeup, which is usually around seven, I pack all my gear and get set up for the day. I don’t cook breakfast as some people do, but rather eat some type of breakfast bar; several of them. I usually don’t take my first break for the first 8 or so miles, allowing me to get a few miles under my belt before late morning. I play the rest of the day by ear, depending on how I am feeling. I will generally take one break of a half an hour to eat and take off my boots to rest the feet. I usually arrive where I am going to spend the night in the late afternoon, which gives me some time to goof around before dinner. I cook dinner on my little stove, eating some type of pasta mainly. After dinner there is some more goof around time, potentially used for planning the next day, shooing away mice and then getting to bed just about as it is getting dark. Within the first 15 minutes of climbing in my sleeping bag I shoo away more mice until I drift off to sleep. Naturally I am woken in the middle of the night on average of about three times by mice scurrying about.
Just before entering the Smoky Mountains there is a large shelter where people tend to conglomerate. There were a couple of guys who had been there for over a week, just hanging out. They were looking for recruits for a Blue Grass festival that was happening a few days hence. I would have loved to catch the festival, but I couldn’t spare the four days. I did however have the chance to have some fun on a nearby lake. I had found a large rectangular block of Styrofoam that was about three feet long. I decided to use it as a boat, so I straddled it and rowed it around the lake using my camp shoes. Now you know what else I do in my free time. I will post a photo of that at some point.
When I entered the Smoky Mountains I started seeing more wildlife. I have seen rabbits, deer, grouse (I think), snakes and even a wild boar. I have not seen a bear, probably due to my abysmal singing. Previously, the shelters in the Smoky Mountain National Park had chain link fences covering the front of them to protect people from bears, but people would purposely leave food outside to bait the bears. It seems that the park decided to have the last laugh and took down the fences. Good luck.
There was also a decided increase in the number of people in Smoky Mountain National Park. I would see 10 or more a day as opposed to three. You would think that with all those people to bite, I would have fewer bug bites, but no. I have been a meal to over probably 50 different insects.
After climbing over Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (it is all down hill from here, in theory anyway), I stopped in the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where I was shooed out of the library while posting my last update. It is an odd town. Take Jackson Hole, Wyoming, commercialize it with chain restaurants, add some hillbilly flare and Viola! You have Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Alternatively, move Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to the Tennessee mountains and add that hillbilly business. I think the result would be the same. It was a nice place to spend a day getting prepared for the next section of the trail, especially with the number of all you can eat buffets on offer. Tennessee barbeque. Yum. Gatlinburg is also home to Dollywood though I decided to give it a pass.
I am just going to go off on a little rant here for a minute, so please excuse me. What is up with the bus trolley system in Gatlinburg? Was it designed by an eight year old? I had to make three stops between Gatlinburg and the neighboring town, Pigeon Forge. It took me 12 separate trolley rides and over six hours. I couldn’t have traveled a distance of more than 15 miles and that is a generous estimate. Why use a complex hub and spoke model when an intersecting point to point system would be much, much more convenient and simple? My favorite was getting on one trolley as the only passenger. The driver asked me where I was going and after telling him my destination I also explained that I wasn’t from around there so I wouldn’t know when the stop was coming up. He drove right past my stop. Perhaps it just wasn’t my day. Get me back on the trail.