I survived Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It sounds like a slogan on a gift-shop t-shirt that a day-tripping tourist would buy. But I gave it some thought, and that’s the best way I can put it. Everyone told me the Smokies would be hard, but I still underestimated these mountains.
I’ll come right out and say it: This is the hardest hiking I’ve done. Ever. But I’d be lying if I said every single day in this park wasn’t an adventure. I’ve entered my third state (Tennessee), climbed the highest mountains of my trip, and had what will hopefully be my closest bear encounter ever. And I’ll go a step further and say that this is not only one of the most beautiful stretches of the AT, but one of the most beautiful stretches of trail in the entire world. The Smokies are the AT by the bucketful, and drinking them in is an intoxicating experience.
Take the rich, heady, wholesome bittersweet brew that is the Appalachian Trail. Add a thousand feet of altitude. Pack in some more mountains – the highest peaks in all the South, and indeed, east of the Rockies. Throw in more plant and animal life – bears, deer, coyotes, turkeys, wild hogs, all the way down to the salamanders and hellgrammites, from the mightiest red spruce to the lichen that grows on its trunk – more life than you’d think could possibly be packed into a piece of land. Pour in some scenery, and keep pouring – miles upon miles of achingly beautiful views for days at a time. For seasoning, add some intensity to the weather. Freezing cold on the mountaintops, blazing heat at the lower altitudes, ice, sleet, snow, wind and rain. Constant, ever-present, cold, driving rain. Sometimes blowing in as a gentle mist, sometimes pelting down in torrents. Add a handful of hail and a measure of lighting, too. Take the trails themselves, and add in a heaping helping of rocks, roots, mud, and terrain change.
Pour this mix in a still, cook it up, distill it down to a fiery, hundred-proof backwoods moonshine clarity, and you have the Great Smokies. It’s an intense, intoxicating, beguiling beverage. Like mountain whiskey, this land is raw, hard, and powerful. And it’ll burn you if you’re not ready for it.
This is a long post, again, and I apologize for that, but there has been a lot happen since I last wrote anything. Read it in more than one sitting if you have to. Whatever works. It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, and I’ll explain why. For a few reasons, I’ve had very limited phone battery in the Smokies, and it’s also difficult to type when your fingers are too cold to move (I sent my gloves home. Bad idea, in hindsight). And if it looks like I jumped off the trail again, you’re right.
A good woman can get you to do a lot of things. Like come back home to attend her graduation after swearing up and down that you wouldn’t be back unless it was through Maine. So yes, the rumors are true, I was (very briefly) back, so if you thought you saw my Tahoe roaring around Canton, you weren’t wrong. I kept my return down low on purpose – I knew I’d only have a very short time, and I wanted to spend it with my beautiful girl, her family, and mine, so don’t anyone get offended. I don’t regret it one bit. I’m so proud of Kayla for graduating from, in my opinion, the best small liberal arts university around. I joined her and her family for a wonderful dinner, and the next day she and I took my canoe out for a day trip on Little River. I lost about 70 miles, but it was a wonderful respite and well worth it.
And really, it’s the least I could do. She’s been so supportive of me and everything I do – this blog you’re reading was formatted and posted by her on a website she designed. I realize I brag on my girlfriend a lot, but it’s hard not to. When I first (apprehensively) mentioned my plans to do this trip on what was maybe our third date, I fully expected her to walk away, and I wouldn’t have faulted her for doing so. But she didn’t. Over a month into this trip, we’re still going strong. That’s special, y’all.
She’s actually sitting across from me as I write this, at the Iron Horse Station Tavern in Hot Springs, NC. After almost two weeks of mostly bad weather, not being warm and dry since Gatlinburg, and not having dry gear since Fontana, it was time for another zero. Hot Springs is one of the few true trail towns – that is, the AT actually runs down the main drag and back out of town. And it just so happened that I hit it on a weekend, so she came up and joined me. It’s been wonderful, and I feel rested and prepared to hit the trail again tomorrow.
But on to other matters.
My parents drove me back north twelve days ago, and I stayed another night at the Fontana Hilton before setting off again the next morning. Crossing Fontana Dam is another one of those AT milestones, like crossing the NC state line or climbing Albert Mountain and passing Mile 100, that marks another new chapter in my trip. You see, Fontana is the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and as I would discover, the hardest miles on the AT thus far. Seeing such an epic example of mid-century civil engineering in the middle of the woods is a little bit jarring. The dam is huge. Over four hundred feet tall and more than a thousand feet across, it was constructed during World War II by the TVA as a means to provide hydroelectric power for the war effort. Built in just a few short years, it truly is a marvel. Huge clamshell spillway doors big enough to drive a truck through flank an enormous wall of concrete holding millions of gallons of water under its command. It’s a sight to behold.
For all my talk in my last post about the rarity of bear attacks and the extremely low chances of them being aggressive towards humans, dang it if the bears didn’t have to go and prove me wrong – twice. The night I stayed at Fontana, there was an unprovoked bear attack at Spence Field, some twenty miles away. I got several versions of the story from other hikers until I met up with some rangers at the actual spot and got the correct account. A 49-year-old thru-hiker was sleeping in his tent up the hill from Spence Field Shelter, and was awakened by a bear messing around his tent. (Sound familiar?) Unable to scare it off, the bear tore into his tent and bit him repeatedly on the leg. He managed to fend off the bear long enough to get to the shelter itself and alert the other hikers staying there, who contacted search & rescue teams who evacuated him to the nearest hospital. When I stopped for lunch at the spot, the two rangers were in the process of building a snare in hopes of catching the animal. One of them was armed with a pneumatic tranquilizer dart rifle, the other one had a slug-loaded Benelli M4 semiautomatic 12-gauge shotgun sporting a red-dot sight and a huge attached flashlight slung over his back. They called themselves Plan A and Plan B, respectively.
Spence Field is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve been thus far. It’s a semi-open, lush, grassy field shaded by low, gnarled crabapples and hawthorns. It’s a beautiful place for a bear attack. The shredded tent was still there, along with a few ruddy-brown streaks of dried blood smeared on the grass. I still stand by my statement that bears aren’t something to be feared, only acknowledged and respected. But I will amend that statement to say that there’s more than one kind of bear out here. Wild bears, like the one that investigated my tent at Wesser Bald, are skittish, cautious animals who avoid human contact whenever possible and generally keep to themselves. Park bears, on the other hand, are a different animal entirely. Never hunted and often fed, they have zero fear of humans. Instead, they associate human presence with the possibility of a handout, or an easy meal from a dumpster. Although attacks are still rare, the fact that bears in national parks like the Smokies and Shenandoah have no qualms about walking up and stealing food is still an important factor to prepare for. From the day I entered the Smokies, I took every precaution, including hanging my food and toiletries, and not eating in the same clothes I slept in.
Later on that day, I had my first true bear sighting of the trip. After getting caught in another massive thunderstorm coming up Rocky Top (I had a safer experience this time, though – I wasn’t quite at the summit when it hit, and I was able to hunker down in a serviceberry thicket and watch it roll through), I got to the shelter just before dark. In the last half mile before the shelter, I heard a large animal move just above me on the other side of the ridge. I quickly hopped over the top and startled a portly black bear eating leaf buds. I managed to get within about twenty feet of it. It stared at me, and I stared at it. It blinked. I went for my phone to get a picture, and it trotted downhill into the bushes. It was an obese thing, not old, but well over two hundred pounds. It had a radio tracking collar, which meant that it was a problem bear, and had probably raided many a dumpster in its day.
I could tell that it didn’t fear me, but it didn’t mean me any harm, either. In fact, it didn’t really seem to care much whether I was around or not.
I saw two more bears the next day – a mother and cub grooming each other in some thick brush well off the trail. In fact, I had at least one close wildlife encounter every day I spent in the Smokies. At Derrick’s Knob shelter, I had three deer come within spitting distance of me. I could almost reach out and touch them. I saw the biggest wild hog of my entire life just a few hours later. Bigger than any bear, the beast probably tipped the scales at around five hundred pounds. Thirty minutes after the hog, I got into a gobbling contest with a turkey. I crested a hill just in time to see the end of a turkey fight. The winner stood boldly in the middle of the slowly strutting towards me in full display as I approached. We got within perhaps ten feet of each other and stopped, eying one another. I didn’t really want to get flogged by an overly aggressive, testosterone-fueled turkey, so I waited for him to move. He didn’t. I stared at him. He stared at me. Not knowing what else to do, I gobbled at him. To my surprise, he gobbled back. We continued hurling turkey insults at each other in this manner for a good ten minutes, until one of his hens showed up and he got distracted.
And other than the hog, I recorded all this but the bears. They were either too fast, too skittish, or too far away for me to take a picture of. I desperately wanted to snap a photo of one, for no other reason than to show people that yes, I really did see a wild bear.
I got far, far more than I bargained for.
I didn’t get into Pecks Corner Shelter until after dark due to my late start out of Gatlinburg (when you’re using hitchhiking as your primary mode of transportation, you don’t really get to dictate your schedule), and the first thing anyone said when I reached the shelter was that there was a bear in the woods just out of the firelight. It had tried to break into the shelter, but the dozen or so hikers staying there had managed to yell, throw rocks, and otherwise make its experience unpleasant enough to run it off after an hour. I didn’t really think anything of it (this kind of thing isn’t that uncommon), and went to bed.
The following morning, I was the last one out of the shelter, sitting peacefully and having a late breakfast. I had just pulled the lid off of a fresh pot of grits, and my coffee was heating.
The thing that tipped me off was the birds stopped singing. I’ve spent enough years hunting to know that when a large animal approaches, be it deer, bear or otherwise, the birds and small animals get quiet for a minute.
I looked to my right, and standing there, casual as anything, was a large black bear. He was standing no more than ten feet away, totally unconcerned and slowly shuffling closer. Saying “I couldn’t believe my eyes” is a cliché, but in this case, it really was true. I blinked several times, because for a moment, my brain couldn’t process what was in front of me. My blood turned to ice. This wasn’t a wild bear that I stumbled upon, this one had sought me out. My first reaction was to take a step forward and start yelling, like every “how to scare away wild bears” how-to tells you. I’ve dealt with a lot of bears on my time, and they usually behave in a fairly predictable manner. They have a healthy fear of humans and scare pretty easily. Normally, they run while I’m trying to get a picture of them, so over the years I’ve ended up with a lot of photos of bear butts running off into the woods. I’ve only ever had to scare one off from a campsite, and all that took was a loud “HEY!” and a step forward.
This bear was different. I yelled and waved my arms for maybe a five-count before realizing that this bear didn’t give a damn about any of that, and kept padding toward me. This bear wasn’t afraid – it didn’t have its ears pinned back to its head, it wasn’t false-charging me, it wasn’t popping its teeth – this bear was curious, and predatory. Its body had an alert, dominant posture, its ears were forward, it kept eye contact with me, and it approached without stopping, giving off a low growl as it closed the distance. All signs of aggression.
I drew my .45, which hadn’t left my side ever since Fontana, and I made a snap decision to grab my phone and start recording. If I did indeed have to kill this bear, I wanted a leg to stand on with the NPS when the investigation started. The National Park Service doesn’t take kindly to folks killing wildlife on its land, and consequences can involve enormous fines, jail time, or at the minimum, mountains of paperwork and hours of questioning, all of which can throw a serious wrench in a thru-hike.
This is the part I caught on video. I stood up, taking a fighting stance and looking the animal in the eye. He veered off his straight course for a moment before making a half-circle around and attempting a charge, growling loudly and trying to show dominance. I flipped the thumb safety off my pistol, sights aligned squarely at his head and following his every move, finger on the trigger.
Everything I knew about dealing with animal attacks came flowing out of my head, through my fingers, and down to my feet. Own the ground you stand on. Don’t show fear and don’t back down, because that’ll activate their predatory instincts and trigger a charge. Keep a fighting stance, slightly crouched, feet wide apart, ready to move and to attack, if necessary. Always project dominance. Be as hard a target as you can be. And be ready to fight like hell. If I faltered or hesitated, the bear would wind up shot dead, I’d get mauled, or some combination of both.
I took a small step forward, and that halted his charge for an instant. He stood in some weeds six feet off, eyes locked on mine. I saw no fear. Time slowed down, and every heartbeat was audible. I heard every ragged, heavy breath, both his and mine. I’m not sure my decision to fire a warning shot was a conscious one. My gut, channeling thousands of years of early human instinct, recognized what the bear was doing before my head did. His shoulders rolled forward and his haunches loaded with energy, he was preparing for another charge. I aimed between his front feet and pulled the trigger. The heavy pistol bucked in my hand, and the shot crashed through the stillness of the sunny morning air. I heard the shell casing ricochet against one of the support posts of the shelter and tinkle to the ground.
The bear disappeared. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal change its mind so fast. He did an immediate about-face and took off into the woods, barreling through the brush and knocking down bushes and saplings as he went. I lowered the pistol, thinking that this whole ordeal was over.
It wasn’t. He came to a stop at the bottom of the hill on the trail and glared back at me. Having lived his entire life in a park and never been hunted, this was probably the first gunshot he’d ever heard. He was startled and wary, but still not really afraid. I sat back down to finish my coffee and grits, and he ambled closer back to the shelter. I had to get up and yell at him two more times, but now, he would stop in his tracks and avert his eyes whenever I took steps towards him. I had won, although it was a tenuous, fragile victory, as I knew if I showed any sign of weakness again, he would emboldened enough to try and threaten me.
I sat on the bench of the shelter, calmly spooning my grits out of the pot with one hand and pointing the pistol at the bear with the other. A lot of people can’t believe I stayed to finish my food, but I didn’t really see any other option. I wasn’t about to let some entitled, dumpster-raiding ursine brat bully me away from a perfectly good breakfast. Besides, I couldn’t exactly pack it up and take it with me.
The bear and I glared at each other for another twenty minutes or so while I finished my meal and packed up. As I left the shelter, I heard him following me out, rustling through the brush on the bank above me and to my left, trying to close the distance. I was hiking out with my trekking poles in my left hand and my gun in my right, pointed across my body at him. I lined the sights up between his eyes and said “Don’t you f****** dare.” He stopped, and hung back. I could hear his footsteps for maybe another quarter mile, and then they faded out. The birds started singing again like nothing had ever happened. It was over.
I’ve never felt endangered during a bear encounter before, but this was a first. He (and I keep saying “he” because young male bears are most prone to aggressive behavior) didn’t care anything about me trying to scare him off, and I have no doubt in my mind that he would have charged me if I hadn’t shot at him. I don’t think he was particularly interested in hurting or eating me, but I’m also certain that he would have had no problem hurting me if that’s what it took to get to my food. This past week was a perfect storm for human-bear encounters. In the high elevations of the Smokies, bears are just now coming out of hibernation, and they are hungry. Imagine how hungry you are first thing in the morning, except instead of it being one night since you’ve eaten, it’s been all winter. It’s also been unseasonably cold, so many of their natural food sources haven’t emerged yet.
Regardless, it was a rattling experience. Another one of those incredible, irreplaceable memories that can’t be bought with gold, but I hope I never have again. But it’s these experiences, the ones that I might not have desired or chosen for myself, that are the ones which will change me, mold me, and transform me into the man I need to be for whatever the next challenge I face in this life. These experiences, the challenges and the hardships, the near-death experiences of myself and other hikers, the rain, the cold, the ice, the thunderstorms and the bear attacks, these are the reason that God placed the calling in my heart to come out here. This is my proving ground. I believe there are many facets in the great Reason why I’m out here, but this is one I’m certain of.
Another facet of this proving ground is the altitude I found myself in. I summited my first three six-thousand-plus foot high peaks of the AT on this trip. High, proud Clingmans Dome, at 6,443 feet, is the tallest peak on the entire Appalachian Trail, as well as mile 200. The first three days out of Fontana found me climbing almost four thousand feet up the high, ragged Clingmans Ridge. The final approach was surprisingly easy. It was a Saturday, so the paved trails close to the peak were a swollen river of people.
By this point, over a quarter of thru-hikers have already dropped out, and most who started earlier in the season have long since passed out of the Smokies. Because of this, thru-hikers are regarded like a rare form of wildlife when the trail crosses popular tourist areas. If you combine the area around Clingmans as well as Newfound Gap outside of Gatlinburg, I had five separate groups of tourists ask to get a picture with me.
For those of you who were wondering if I was going to wuss out and hitch into Gatlinburg for a night – you’re damn right I did. The day I departed for Clingman’s, I started off under beautiful sunny skies and a light breeze. But about ten minutes in, a huge storm cloud rolled in, the winds picked up, and the temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees. A fine, misty fog blew in with it, gradually soaking me and everything else. The recorded temperature on top of the Dome was one degree above freezing, with forty mile per hour steady winds sometimes gusting much higher. I realized I didn’t have a single piece of dry clothing to my name. That’s when I decided to spend a night in town. I most definitely have to give a shout-out to my mom for checking motel availability ahead of time, since I didn’t have battery or signal to do it. I met a very kindly couple, a Billy and April Patterson, at Indian Gap who were only too happy to drive me there. The husband had hauled coal in Harlan County, Kentucky most of his life, and they had only recently moved to east Tennessee. He desperately wanted to do a thru-hike, so naturally he was grateful to have a chance to pick my brain. We had a great conversation, and they dropped me off right at the door of the Grand Prix Motel. I might be hiking in 2016, but I definitely stayed in 1978 that night. The place was clean and quaint, but with its wood-paneled walls, CRT TV with a knob to change the channels, and clover-leaf shaped swimming pool, it was a time capsule from another decade.
This was my first time in Gatlinburg, believe it or not. It’s absolutely, positively the kitschy, cheesy tourist trap everyone told me it was going to be. What Panama City Beach is to the Gulf Coast, Gatlinburg is to the mountains. There are more restaurants, gift shops, themed hotels, and tourist attractions than you can shake a proverbial stick at. But honestly, I really like it. It’s friendly, and it has a wholesome, honest, middle-America-on-vacation feel to it. Yes, everything is overpriced and it’s a world away from the “real” Smoky Mountain experience, but it’s got an endearing charm all its own. The best way I can think to describe it is if you were to take my maternal grandmother’s home from my childhood and make a whole town out of it.
I’ve been shameless about my town stops from Fontana to Hot Springs, because the weather has been genuinely awful. The Smokies are infamous for creating their own weather, and most of the days I was there, it reminded me more of southern Canada than the southern U.S. Even in late May, there were two nights that got down well into the low twenties. The standard weather for the past two weeks has been a miserable, cold rain, and has continued to be even though I’ve left the park. Rain is one of a hiker’s worst enemies. Rain for an overnight trip, or even a weekend outing, is fine. It’s just another way of experiencing the woods. But when you’re living in it, day in and day out, rain sucks. Rain means your pack soaking in ten pounds of extra water you can’t even drink. Rain means literally everything, even things like your sleeping bag, supposedly packed away safe in dry bags, still get damp, just from absorbing ambient moisture. Rain means slow hiking, and descending slick, muddy mountainsides with tiny, calculated steps to avoid a fall which could result in a trip-ending injury. Rain means broken wrists, sprained ankles, and wrenched knees. Rain means moldy food, mildewed clothes, and soured packs. Rain means the skin peeling and falling off your feet, a symptom of jungle rot, caused by hiking in wet boots for days. And it’s usually accompanied by wind and cold as well, and the combination is worse than the sum of its parts. Using an open-air privy in a cold rainstorm is never a pleasant experience, but when the wind kicks up and sends your roll of toilet paper skittering off into the wildlands like a tumbleweed (as happened to me two days ago), it counts as genuine, authentic misery. I thought the weather would get better after I left the Smokies, but it didn’t, much. It warmed up a little, but the rain continued. My first night out of the park, I stayed at Standing Bear Farm Hostel, a quirky, odd, quaint little place right on the trail. From then until Hot Springs, a heavy, misty fog rolled in, limiting my visibility to about forty feet. It was cool at first – the trees were so tall they disappeared into the mist, and looked like they were growing into the clouds themselves. But after a few more days, the novelty wore off.
Here’s my disclaimer for this and all future complaints, though. I may gripe and cuss about the weather, the mountains, the trail, the animals, you name it, but when you read my rantings, always operate under the assumption that at my core, I’m grateful to be out here. It hit me the other night, when Kayla and I were having dinner on the back deck of our rented cabin during my weekend of zeroes. The life I’m living right now, this thing I’m doing, and the people accompanying me on the journey is something I quite literally fantasized about this time a year ago. During long days at my old job, this was a daydream I’d use to escape, and now it’s real.
And as I’ve said before, it’s never the same day twice. With every step, I’ll never pass this way again. Like the forest transition in lower Carolina, the Smokies are a whole new ecosystem yet again. Above five thousand feet, the woods change again from upland hardwoods to old-growth mountain conifers. Rare red spruce and ancient Frasier firs thickly anchor themselves to the rocks. Swathed in moss and bearded with lichen, these are the old men of the forest. If it weren’t for the trail, navigation would be near-impossible, as the trees grow two to three feet apart and all look exactly the same. One could get hopelessly lost without navigation aids. Higher up, strange flowering alpine shrubs cling for dear life to the bare rock.
Although I dodged the blizzard that deposited three inches of snow the weekend I left, the cold didn’t leave with it. I climbed the half-mile side trail to the peak of Mt. Kephart one sunny afternoon, and kept getting pelted with something cold falling out of the trees. All of the spruces and firs above me were coated with a thick, white layer of frozen fog. I can’t say how surreal it was hiking in a frozen forest while surrounded by an understory of wild lacecap hydrangeas covered in white blossoms of spring.
The mountains here have their own character as well. The ridges are high, bald, and jagged, far from the large, gentle peaks of lower Carolina. Modest Mt. Buckley prefaces the steep, storm-making slopes of Clingmans Dome. Staid, secretive Mt. Kephart with its sugar-coated forests of Christmas trees stands in isolated solitude up the ridge from haughty, beguiling Mt. Guyot.
And Lord, the beauty. I’ll argue that the stretch of trail from Newfound Gap past Charlies Bunion over Mt. Guyot is not only one of the most beautiful hikes on the AT, but one of the most beautiful hikes in the world. The trail runs along mile upon mile of knife-edge exposed ridges, with hundred-mile views extending on either side.
It’s a bitter, beautiful brew. It’s the hiker’s forge, it’s the crucible all northbounders recall as their ride-or-die test of dedication, what made them or broke them forevermore. It’s the worst conditions and highest altitudes I’ll face for more than a thousand miles. I may still be frustrated with my slow progress, I may miss home, I may curse the cold and rain another hundred times between now and Maine. I might still wonder why I’m doing this at times. But there’s no threat of me quitting now. I’ve run this seventy-mile gauntlet and didn’t have serious thoughts about ending this trip once. I’m learning what legendary country fiddle player Roy Acuff once said, that “…ain’t nothing gonna come up today me and the good Lord can’t handle.” There’s nothing out here I can’t make it through. I’ve earned my passage, and walked out of this proving ground triumphant.
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