1861 miles on the Appalachian Trail
Early in the morning, Silas and I cross the Fontana Dam in Fontana Dam.
"I wonder what it would be like to grow up in this town," Silas says. "They must hear so many dam jokes."
"One of the locals said she was 7 when the Dam was built. She said she was one of the Dam kids. She went to the Dam school."
"The first night, I caught, like, five fireflies. I put them all in my bug net, and put that in my tent, and I was like, 'Ah ~ this is magical!'"
We enter the Smoky Mountains less than a mile outside town, depositing our permits in the thru-hiker registration box. As we hike up, we pass a couple section hikers, one of whom introduces himself as Toe. He gestures to his necklace. "It's my toe."
From afar, the necklace looks like a pinkish yellow rock tied to a string.
"No way," Silas says.
We meet Toe again when we stop for lunch at a rickety old fire tower that sways in the wind.
"You can see the nail on the end," Toe tells another hiker. Looking closer, his necklace indeed features what looks like a toenail.
When we reach Mollies Ridge Shelter, the first shelter of the Smokies, rain begins pouring down. I decide to stay; Silas pushes on to meet up with the rest of the group. A sign at the shelter helpfully points to water on one side, and the 'toilet area' down a minefield of a hill on the other.
I wake up to find a tent set up smack o the middle of the toilet area. Interesting choice of a spot, I think.
I hike alone through muddy trails in steady rain and fog. Ian passes me early in the day, slipping and sliding down the slopes.
"The trail is actively trying to kill me today!" he shouts over his shoulder.
By the time I arrive at the shelter, all my belongings are wet. A tarp covers the front of the shelter, keeping the rain out. Other hikers have surrounded a small fire in the fireplace with wet socks and boots, hoping to dry them out. By the time I go to bed, the shelter is completely packed.
A drizzly rain continues into the next day, shrouding the Smokies in a dense white mist. Moss carpets the forest floor. Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, lies ahead. I cross my fingers for a view.
That day, I hike with two section hikers: Steve, a concrete foreman, and Luke, who works with pipes.
"What is the most valuable lesson you've learned at work?" I ask, curious about their careers.
"Keep your head down, and shut your mouth," Luke replies.
"I'd disagree with that," Steve says after a second. "I like to bring some innovation to work. I think you can learn something from everyone."
"Having kids saved my life."
The view from Clingman's Dome reveals is just a gray backdrop, but the sun comes out just long enough for us to see a bit of the Smokies when we get down.
"I think we're getting close," Steve says.
"It should be downhill from here," I note.
"Doubt it!" Luke shouts from behind.
I laugh. We end up climbing another small hill before reaching the shelter. An hour after we arrive, rain begins pouring down again. As everyone cooks dinner, Steve walks around from the back of the shelter.
"Whose tent is back there? There's a squirrel stealing food from it," he says.
I go and take a look. As I stand under the overhang, a squirrel scurries into the tent. Seconds later, it emerges, holding a tiny morsel of food. It stands on the edge of the tent, perched atop a pair of crocs, nibbling away, then dives back into the tent.
Someone goes to wake the tent owner. "Well, he knows about the squirrel now."
After several straight days of rain, my socks, boots, and pack seem perpetually damp. The smell of wet feet lingers in my clothes, in the shelters, and in the air. I ignore it.
A wooden sign marks the North Carolina - Tennessee border at Newfound Gap. Tourists and dayhikers are everywhere, photographing the scenery. I join the crowds, feeling slightly out of place, and eat my lunch. Several people glance curiously at me.
By early afternoon, the rain clears out, allowing me to enjoy the view at Charlie's Bunion.
After 14-15 miles, the IT band running down the side of my knee begins to ache. In the last couple miles to the shelter, my knee gives out on me several times. Maybe I'll take it easy tomorrow, I think.
Though I consider taking a zero day, I can't resist hiking when I see sun the next morning. This may be one of my only chances to hike in the sun in the Smokies.
A fellow hiker walks over to his pack, saying, "Let's see if I have received the blessing of the acorns." He shakes out his pack. "I have not."
I stop for lunch at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter. My IT band still feels tender. About 15 minutes in, a uniformed young woman shows up, curly hair tied back in a headband.
"I'm the ridgerunner, Chloe," she says. "Are you planning to stay tonight?"
"I haven't decided yet," I reply. I know that Carter, Tom, Silas, Kali, Jenny, and Kelly just zeroed in Gatlinburg; they may yet show up at Tri-Corner Knob.
"Well, the shelter's about to become really clean, if you need convincing. I'm about to clean the shelter and privy." She sits down and begins making lunch.
I decide to stay, rest my knee, and see if the trail crew shows up.
"What's it like being a ridgerunner?" I ask.
"You get to talk to lots of people...99% of them are awesome, but then there's that 1%..."
"French and religious studies. Real clear path to conservation."
After finishing lunch, Chloe runs over to the fire pit. She makes a disgusted face as she contemplates the pile of cigarette butts in the ashes. "People suck," she mutters.
I can't help but think the same thing when I pull half-decomposed toilet paper out of a hollowed tree trunk while helping her clean up after lunch.
The skies open up in the afternoon: Rain pours down in intermittent bursts. Around mid-afternoon, Carter shows up. Then, Silas. Jenny and Kelly. Kali. Tom.
We all sit on logs around the fire pit for dinner during a brief respite in the rain.
"No rain, no pain, no Maine."
"Cheese and pepper flakes makes ramen a gourmet meal," Carter says, stirring his pot. "Out here, at least."
"Where are y'all headed tomorrow?" I ask.
"There's a campsite 17 miles away," Kelly says. "It's past the Smokies -- we want to be done with the Smokies."
"I want to be done with the Smokies, too," I agree.
The 17 miles downhill fly by the next day. My IT band feels much better after a night of rest, and the rain holds off for most of the day. A sense of accomplishment rushes through me as I cross the northern border of the Smokies. That night, I camp with the trail crew on the side of a stream, about a mile from Standing Bear Hostel.