Well we’ve landed in Hot Springs, and I say landed because it felt like that last stretch of trail hocked us up loogie style and spit us out onto the paved street leading into town. Since we wrote last we have traveled through the fabled Smoky Mountain National Park and then some forty more miles to find ourselves in this quaint mountain town. Apparently there are mixed feelings about the Smokies. Rumors were bouncing up and down the trail about thru-hikers running through the Smokies so they could leave the National Park behind. Bill Bryson ended his attempted thru-hike after just three days in the Smokies, giving them a bad reputation. On top of all of this we were informed by a Gatlinburg local that more people quit the trail in Gatlinburg then anywhere else. You know why? Because Gatlinburg is just such a nice place to be! While I find this hard to believe, and I’ll explain why later, the Smokies seemed like they were going to be hard to swallow due to tough terrain, cold weather, and the park rule that you had to stay in shelters every night. In reality they were magical, beautiful, and we had a hard time saying goodbye.
There are a lot of things that are different about the Smokies, especially the stricter rules. Up and down the trail section hikers and thru-hikers travel in harmony with each other but once you reach the Smokies it’s almost as if the park is trying to pit us against each other. The rule in the Smokies is everyone pays twenty dollars for a back country pass and you must leave the park or be through it in seven days. You must also sleep in shelters if space is available, but section hikers are required to reserve space and thru-hikers are required to give up their spot if a section hiker arrives. Why section hikers are given this preference I am not sure but you can imagine the kind of animosity it creates when a shelter fills up with thru-hikers and then around eight o’clock at night a party of section hikers shows up and kicks the thru-hikers out… We actually met a couple of people that were so upset about the park’s policies on shelters and fees that they quit the trail instead of entering the park.
Another novelty in the Smokies, since it is such a popular National Park, is day hikers. Typically the AT is a little too remote for day hikers, you might see them when you are getting close to a road and usually they are a sign of approaching civilization. You don’t expect to see them when you have just hiked thirteen miles into the woods. The first night we were in the Smokies we had arrived a shelter and were beginning to cook dinner. There were probably about twenty five thru-hikers at the shelter, and all of us were milling around, setting up tents and talking about the day’s climb. Suddenly, from a small side trail I had mistaken for a game trail two day hikers appeared. They were wearing striped collared shirts, cargo shorts, tennis shoes, and both had walking sticks they had clearly found during the hike. Neither was carrying water or food. The entire camp went silent and heads turned, everyone stared. Finally one of my fellow thru-hikers came to her senses and asked “Where did you guys come from?” The rest of us nodded, wondering the same thing. Of course, now I realize it would have been more polite to ask how they were doing or if they were enjoying their hike. The two day hikers were as confused as we were, apparently they didn’t realize that their nice day hike would lead them to a veritable town of stinky hikers with expedition sized packs all acting as if living up on top of a mountain was the most normal thing in the world. They hiked back the way they came, whispering behind their hands, and we watched them go, whispering behind ours.
After you have been in the Smokies a few days you have the option of hitching into Gatlinburg to resupply. We got a ride from a very nice older couple who managed to miss the turn to Gatlinburg and take us all the way to Pigeon Forge before turning around and heading back. They dropped us off in the middle of town and we where immediately overwhelmed by culture shock and stood rooted to the ground, mouths agape. There is really only one way to describe Gatlinburg, it’s the redneck version of Disneyland. There are shooting galleries on the streets, mechanical horses riding mechanical cowboys, whole shopping centers devoted to moonshine, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum on every corner and about a thousand restaurants that I had only ever heard of. Kyle and I resupplied at a Wallgreens, assembled our food bags in a corner by a trash can and got the heck out of dodge. We also chose not to use the free showers at the outfitters in town, annoying Doc (who we are considering renaming Mr. Clean) with our continued lack of hygiene.
Once out of Gatlinburg the Smokies really begin to show off. There are beautiful balds (open areas of grass) which you might think doesn’t sound that spectacular but being able to see more than twenty feet ahead of you is priceless out here. There are also conifers, lots of them, which is what makes the Smokies the most beautiful part of the trail thus far. Up in the Smokies I felt like I was back at home in the Northwest, I could have been on a coastal trail, the ocean just over the ridge to the left. And most of the hiking in the Smokies is ridge running, just hiking up and down the ridges all day long. This makes for easy hiking and amazing views. Every day when Kyle and I got into camp we would look at each other and sigh with how beautiful the hike had been that day.
Shelter life fell into an interesting routine in the Smokies as well. Every day we got to the shelter early in order to get a shelter spot. The shelters in the Smokies are nice, they even have an indoor fireplace, and they are ten degrees warmer then the cold mountain air outside. We’d set up our pads and sleeping bags, take care of our feet (always take care of your feet), and Matt would begin to gather wood for a fire. You aren’t allowed to use any live wood for fires so everything you gather must always be downed and dead. Inevitably Matt would kick of his shoes, go bounding into the forest and next time you saw him he would be dragging a dead tree and smiling like a jack-o-lantern. We would have a nice toasty fire going in the shelter by the time the rest of the hikers started showing up and then the music would start. In the Smokies we were traveling with quite a few people that had instruments. The nights were filled with guitar playing and sing-alongs and then, right when we were all getting in our sleeping bags a fellow thru-hiker named Uke would read us Huckleberry Finn by the fire light, complete with different voices for each character. I fell asleep with a smile on my face every night.
On one of our last days in the Smokies there were thunderstorms in the forecast so our little hiking group of five decided to head for a shelter fifteen miles away. Our goal was to be there before three when the storms were supposed to hit. Kyle and I were up early and made really good time on the uphills but after a bit of climbing the rest of the day was down. It is hard to go downhill fast, your knees hurt, your ankles hurt, your shins hurt, and for some reason you feet hurt worse then ever. But we had a deadline to make so we were trying all sorts of things to improve our downhill speed. I always hike in front and I started to get in this zone. I was focused on hiking faster and to do so I was channeling Dory the fish, from Finding Nemo, mixed with a proper British woman. I was keeping my chest high, flicking my trekking poles out in front of me, positioning my feet carefully, and slaloming off steps. I was going so fast. I had completely forgotten about Kyle until I heard him burst out laughing from somewhere far behind me, telling to me slow down, he couldn’t keep up. I snapped out of my reverie and realized how ridiculous I must have looked. This spawned a few hours of experimental fast hiking which got us to the shelter quickly but made our legs very sore the next day. With all this fast hiking we were out of the Smokies quicker then we would have liked. We said goodbye to the last conifer we will ever see and grumbled as the trail reverted back to huge ups and downs. We were sad to see the Smokies go but happy that we tackled a huge hurdle so gracefully. Onward and upward!