April 27 – May 9, 2017
“Wet” was our constant companion as we crossed the North Carolina/Georgia border. The sun would peek out just long enough to renew our spirits, but before long, dark clouds would roll back in and drench everything again. We trudged along in this manner for several days, through lush rhododendron tunnels as well as their skeletal remains. Late the previous year, a series of wildfires had ravaged the landscape and burned tens of thousands of acres in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee. Elsewhere the forest was blooming in spring, but these charred miles of dark earth and barren limbs stood cold as stone. The vastness of the damage was revealed to us at the top of Albert Mountain fire tower. For great swatches of the landscape, only dead and blackened trees remained marking the fire’s furious passage through the mountains. The trail would weave through these scorched sections into Tennessee, transforming our path into a graveyard. Although, as spring progressed and the rain continued to fall, little bursts of green poked through the ashes, a reminder that, despite the destruction, life would return.
Despite the rain, our mileage was starting to pick up. By the time we reached the Nantahala Outdoor Center, we had added a mile or two to our daily average. After descending 3,300 ft to the Nantahala river valley, a descent made treacherous with slick, exposed boulders and threatening gusts of wind, the weather broke. At the end of the day’s mileage, the sun shone mockingly as we emerged from the trees, soaked.
“Of course, now the sun comes out,” I cursed sourly. “Would’ve been nice to see you on the ridge!”
Markus laughed bitterly behind me.
But we couldn’t resent it for long. We sunbathed as we laundered our clothes and turned out our shoes on the balcony of the little room we rented for the night. In the River’s End Restaurant, we found Mr. Clean lounging with Bald Eagle and Canada, who we had met at Top of Georgia Hostel. I was so hungry it took all my power not to order one of everything on the menu. Even so, I devoured my hamburger and fries before ordering a pizza to go.
We climbed out of the steep river valley in sweltering heat, which only relented when we broke free of the treeline and entered the windy Stecoah Gap. The familiar dark clouds rolled in that evening as we set up camp at Brown Fork Gap Shelter, and we woke at dawn to a drizzle. We ate slowly, unexcited to set off in the rain again, but we soon discovered that was the least of our worries.
We learned later that the wind gusts had clocked in at nearly 100 mph around Gatlinburg. Rangers held back hikers in Fontana Dam and encouraged those in the Smokies to seek shelter in town. Having spent the night sheltered in the protected crook of a valley, it wasn’t until we got on the ridgeline that we discovered what we were up against. For every two steps forward, we had to take one to the left or else tumble down the mountain. Around us, trees were snapping and cracking and breaking, and we had to yell at each other to be heard over the roar.
It felt as if we were on that ridgeline forever, our heads spinning as we tried to determine the location of falling branches. It was a relief when the trail at last cut right and zigzagged down the side of the mountain, unyielding rock and earth guarding us against the tempest. When we arrived in Fontana Dam, the worst had abated. We picked up our resupply at the Fontana Village Resort and discovered the entire town was out of power. Luckily, the general store was still open, though a headlamp was required to see. As I waited for Markus’s order to be logged in a spiral notebook, I gazed longingly at the black-outed ice cream parlour next door.
Packs heavily burdened with food, we made our way to the Fontana Hilton, a spacious shelter just south of the dam, to find it in utter uproar. We had landed ourselves in one of the AT’s infamous “bubbles,” created from a backlog of hikers rangers had held back that day. The two-level, four-walled shelter was teeming with hiker trash, all sardined together from roof to floor. One even wiggled out from the crawlspace beneath the shelter, which he said was dry enough, if you didn’t mind sharing it with the mice.
Markus decided to set up his tent rather than cram himself inside, but I managed to squeeze myself in between Gonzo and Wild Spirit on the top bunk. A few hikers over, a group was setting up an on-trail DnD game, DM’d by someone named Poseidon. Beneath us in the line of sleeping bags was Barber, who had given haircuts to a number of those on trail, including Wild Spirit herself. At one point, even Soop, the hiker from beneath the shelter, stopped in to chat. By nightfall, there was a sleeping bag covering every available surface, including the bench outside.
Another storm blew through that evening, but relented to a sprinkle when Markus and I set out. We were climbing into the Great Smoky Mountains today and would spend the next five days in the popular national park. We started off the climb up to elevation eagerly enough, but soon I was lagging behind. Since the end of Georgia, I had been experiencing nearly constant foot pain. Being on your feet all day every day is bound to cause discomfort, particularly when you are carrying an extra 30+ pounds on your back. But today it felt different.
My feet literally felt like they were being crushed. The pain was so intense that tears mixed with the rain streaming down my face as I limped my way forward. Eventually, I sank onto a rock beside the trail. I didn’t want to take another step. I hid my face as a stream of hikers passed by, ashamed of my defeat. How could they do it? How could they get through this pain and just keep going?
Downcast, I called my mom.
“I can’t keep doing this. My feet are in agony. I don’t want to stop, but I can’t keep going through this.”
“What’s wrong with them?”
“It feels like they are in a vice grip. Like they’re being squeezed in my shoes.”
There came a moment of silence on the other end of the phone.
“Cut a hole in the side of your shoe.”
“I read about how some ultramarathoners have to cut holes in the side of their shoes because their feet spread out during a race. Try cutting a hole in yours. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll send you a new pair to Newfound Gap.”
Cut a hole… in my shoe? I stared blankly at my feet. Out of all my gear, my footwear was the one thing I had diligently researched. Eventually, I settled on the Salomon XA Pro, which was a fan favorite of thru hikers the year prior. They had withstood the past 160 miles with ease and she wanted me to intentionally put a hole in them?
Contemplating, I gazed up the mountain, where somewhere ahead Markus was waiting for me. I wasn’t going back to Fontana and it would be a few days before we’d reach Newfound Gap. I got off the phone and pulled off my shoe. Using my Swiss-army knife, I carved a half dollar-sized hole into the outer edge. I slipped my shoe back on and wiggled my pinky-toe through the hole. Skeptically, I took a few steps forward. The result was immediate. No longer did my foot feel as if it were in bondage, but it could spread out naturally without being compressed. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I hadn’t expected my feet to flatten out so drastically after less than two weeks on trail. With each painless step forward, my earlier mood dissipated and a smile crept on my lips. I picked up the pace, eager to catch up with Markus at our anticipated lunch stop. I wasn’t lacking something the other hikers had, my shoes were just too narrow. With renewed spirit, it wasn’t long before I caught up.
Markus thought it was hilarious when I showed him the hole in my shoe. Though, as we ate lunch, he echoed some of my concerns
“Your socks are going to get really wet,” he remarked as rain pattered on the leaves above us.
I agreed grimly, wondering if I could duct tape it.
The clouds overhead were thickening when we shouldered our packs and the rain intensified as we approached Mollies Ridge Shelter. In the rapidly approaching darkness, a warm light and merry laughter welcomed us into the glade where the three-walled cabin stood, a tarp blocking the fourth side. Dripping wet, we entered to find it packed full of hikers from Fontana Dam. A fire was crackling in the hearth and we crept as close to it as we could. As much as we yearned to stay, there was barely enough room to stand, let alone sleep. Neither of us wanted to pitch our tents in the dark and frigid rain, so, without even taking off our packs, we set off again into the night.
The trail turned into a freezing river as we marched three miles to the next shelter. Hole or no hole in my shoe, my socks were going to get wet either way, for the water was up to my calves. There was no laughter to guide us to Russell Field Shelter. When we pulled back the tarp, we were met with an empty grate and somber faces. As we shrugged off our sodden gear, Wild Spirit welcomed us quietly and introduced us to King Cake before they pushed their bed rolls aside to make room. A group of older section hikers shifted their gear as Markus poured water from his shoes. Shivering violently in my sleeping bag, I changed out of my wet clothes and pulled on my long underwear. Even in the shelter, with company on either side, it was a while before I stopped shivering long enough to fall asleep.
The dawn revealed a world coated in ice that shone and dazzled in the early morning sunlight. The grass was lined in a layer of frost and from the tree limbs hung icicles, dangling like diamonds. Best of all, the sun was warm on our faces and we were excited to see it again. But not half way to Silers Bald Shelter, black clouds darkened the horizon and the mountains unleashed their fury. First rain, then snow, then sleet, then hail… All thrown at us in a vicious vengeance. We raced to the shelter against the storm and arrived newly drenched and quaking from the cold. A hiker, Rocketman, there when Wild Spirit, King Cake, Markus, and I arrived, was attempting to get a fire started in the grate. We eagerly pitched in to help.
With a swarm of hikers just behind us, Wild Spirit and King Cake decided to go to the next shelter. Markus and I bid them good luck before they ventured back out into the storm. After spending the previous evening hiking in freezing rain, we weren’t inclined to suffer it again. We were just starting to get a spark from the wet wood when the hikers began to pour in. As they shrugged off their gear, a few ventured into the storm to gather more wood. By the time the shelter had filled, a fire was burning and I felt warm for the first time in days.
As glad as I was for the warmth, I was exhausted and the mayhem that followed the bubble brought little peace. From the constant chatter to a group singing in accompaniment with a ukulele, my attempts to fall asleep in the din were thwarted. I enjoyed the company of the other hikers, but trapped with 20 of them in a shelter that fits 12 after a grueling day’s hike made me wish we had braved the storm to accompany Wild Spirit and King Cake.
It was some comfort when I overhead that many of them planned to hitch into Pigeon Forge from Newfound Gap the next day. Much like us, their gear and clothes were wet and frozen, and they were eager to sleep in a real bed. With my shoe situation fixed, Markus and I had no reason to hitch in with them, and privately we were glad for the opportunity to get ahead of the bubble.
When we started off the next morning, postholing in the calf deep snow that had blanketed the mountain overnight, part of me wished we were joining them. After enduring heat waves, wind storms, and snow, all in the span of a few days, we were both mentally tapped out. Fatigued was etched on Markus’s, and I could feel it in my bones. But the sun was shining, rapidly melting the snow, and we went forward with fragile optimism that today would be better.
We caught up to Wild Spirit as we scaled Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. She looked as worn out as we felt. She informed us of her rough night: King Cake and her had arrived at the next shelter after dark and, after unsuccessfully being able to start a fire, spent a sleepless night in the cold, empty shelter. I felt bad for them, but she perked up when she told us she was going into town to spend time with family.
We said goodbye to her at Newfound Gap, which was packed with visitors. We successfully yogi’d some food from a friendly group of day hikers who were equally shocked and impressed that we had hiked through the snow storm.
“Wasn’t it freezing?!” they asked.
“Yeah, it kind of sucked,” we laughed, tucking into a loaf of bread.
We were told the temperatures were going to plummet that night, however thankfully without the accompanying precipitation. This news worried me though, as I could barely keep myself warm even with others in the shelter. Yet, with so many hikers getting off trail, we felt confident that we would be able to secure ourselves a spot out of the chill. However, when we arrived on the treeless expanse the shelter was perched upon and pulled back the tarp, we realized we were mistaken. After having escaped one bubble, we found ourselves immersed in a second, this one formed by hikers getting back on trail after spending the past few days in town. There wasn’t even space left on the floor. The frail optimism we had started the day with crumbled.
Markus was beside himself. He had had enough of the Smokies, the foul weather, and the never ending parade of hikers. It took all my persuasive power to convince him not to hike in the dark eight miles to the next shelter. He might’ve been up for it, but I knew I wasn’t. Had we not been in the Smokies, we could’ve hiked on a bit further and stealth camped down the mountain, nestled in the trees. But in these mountains, the rules for camping are strict and we were restricted to the immediate area around the shelter.
How we were going to spend the night was the most pressing issue. I had my tent, a one-person, REI quarter dome, but all Markus had was his tarp and emergency shelter. This setup required trees to attach the guidelines to, but Icewater Spring Shelter was on an unprotected expanse of grass overlooking the mountains. There was no way he would be able to set it up, let alone block the wind that blew through the bald.
As I made dinner on the bench inside the crowded shelter (Markus was outside talking with a father and son), I shared our recent experience and concerns for the night with a few nearby hikers. Overhearing our conversation, another thru hiker, the Blackalachian, offered for us to borrow his tent.
“Are you sure?” I asked, shocked by his generosity.
“Yeah,“ he said, removing the tent from his pack, “I’m staying in the shelter so I don’t need it tonight.”
Gingerly, I took it, thanking him profusely. I went outside to share the news with Markus, who looked greatly moved by the kindness. He immediately went inside to express his gratitude. I set up the tent with deliberate care, anxious to not damage it and respect the trust blindly given to us. It was a two-person, just big enough for us to squeeze inside together. Even with the extra body heat, it was a cold night inside my sleeping bag. Since I was having such a hard time falling asleep due to the chill, we tried switching sleeping bags to see if his kept me any warmer. As he snuggled up comfortably in mine, I was no better off after the trade than before. As miserable as I was, I knew it would have been worse had I been alone.
The chill from early spring at last abated and that was one of our last freezing cold nights until we reached Vermont. After two weeks of near constant rain, the weather finally relented and our last few days in the Smoky Mountains were full of sunshine. I began to enjoy the journey again, but Markus had yet to forgive the range, and was only placated once we crossed its north gate.
While it wasn’t the last time we would be wet, our minds were becoming callused to it. Each new storm wasn’t as terrible as the last, and, although we never enjoyed it, we learned to endure it with grace. Resolutely, we began to recite the motto, as thousands had before us…
No Rain, No Pain, No Maine