After roughly six months of not walking for days on end, it's easy to say that I've been a bit anxious to get back on a trail. The monotony of my mundane day to day has become somewhat of a nuisance since I summited Katahdin back in the cold, long month of September. Thoughts of the friends who I haven't seen since then, the mental barriers that needed to be broken down, and the physical pain endured have all consumed my train of thought for half of a year.
On the weekend of the 9th, I set out to hike from Fontana Dam to Hot Springs, NC along the A.T. This section, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, was one of my fondest times last year along my thru hike. I loaded up my backpack with my new gear, packed the car, and set out on the 7 hour drive immediately following work on that Saturday. (More on the gear I packed and plan to carry for my JMT and CDT thru hike to come). I had requested work off from Monday the 10th to Monday the 18th, so I knew that time wasn't going to be an issue. The plan was to section hike, hitch back to my car, then meet Beehive and Robo at the Red River Gorge on Easter Sunday to get one last trip in before we go our separate ways this summer. I wasn't sure what my mileage was going to be, how my feet were going to hold up, or really, how I would feel about the gear I had purchased. Ya never know until you try though, right?
Immediately after arriving, I met up with my friends Mumbles, Squeaks, and Influx, who I had just met. Wanting to give as much back to hikers as I could in a short amount of time, I picked up a pack of beer, and we headed to the Fontana Hilton to get ready to enter the Smokies the following day. A beautiful, mild, comfortable afternoon filled with beers, bullshitting and talk of the trail was exactly what I wanted before I hopped back on my former stomping grounds.
The night passed, the morning came, and along with the sun, we woke up, tore down camp and began my section hike, and they began another day in paradise along their Thru. An arduous climb awaits a hiker at the beginning of the Smokies. Right around 3000ft of elevation gain, the entrance to the National Park is a direct and perfect first impression of elevation. Just enough to make you want to quit, but not enough to actually make you do it. Just enough to make the searing, burning pain in your calves come back, but not enough to make the muscle tear. Just enough to make you question what the hell you're doing. Not enough to consider doing anything else, though.
After the initial climb, the Smokies are strenuous, but they truly pale in comparison to the mountains up north in New England.
Proceeding the initial climb, Mumbles and I continued to push throughout the day. 19 milers later, we arrived at the shelter we chose to stay at. At that point in the GSMNP, the terrain is extremely similar to everything that comes before it. An immense amount of rhododendron, forgiving trail, relatively nice switchbacks, and of course, a view every now and again. Having hiked this section already, I knew that there was more to come than it initially seemed for everyone. The next two days proved to be a bit of a setback for Mumbles. Having knee problems prior to the trail, we made sure to take it easy the following two days. We arrived at Newfound Gap the following day, hitched into Gatlinburg and reassessed the situation, and made a decision. Having to be in Hot Springs at the latest on Saturday to give myself time to get back to my car, I was in a position to push big miles, and truly test myself.
The morning following Gatlinburg, we hitched out, and went our separate ways (for now). Right out of Newfound, the trail winds its way up to the ridges that roll through the range. Dense evergreen forests turn to scarce spruce trees stretched few and far between. Having hiked this section before, I wasn't so much concerned with the views as I was with testing my mental and physical fortitude. After a short break at Charlie's Bunion to enjoy the scenic overlook, I pushed on. Since I've started trail running and training for ultra marathons, my mindset has shifted. More determined and driven than ever, I was racing against myself. I wanted to arrive at Davenport Gap, 30 miles from where I started, in 10 hours or less. As the seconds ticked into minutes and the minutes into hours, I began to notice the shift that had taken place in my mental outlook. On my thru hike, I often didn't look at mileage as anything more than what it is. The distance walked in a day. However; on this section hike, and in my future thru hikes, mileage will be more of a factor. Between long water carries, farther distance between towns, and other variables, the amount of miles in a day covered will directly determine everything on the CDT.
30 miles and exactly 10 hours later, I arrived at Davenport Gap with a pace of 3mph. Exactly what I wanted. Now, I was able to hike at the pace last year no problem, but by the end of it, I was almost entirely ready to take the following day off. I wasn't able to sustain that mileage day in and day out. I wasn't able to mentally push through the walls that would appear throughout the length of a 30 mile day. I'm not even sure if I was able to do a 30 mile day alone, come to think of it. Here I was though. Exhausted, sore, hungry, and not quite sure how to feel other than content, I arrived to a shelter full of thru hikers, a roaring fire, and good conversation. Thru hikers probed about my pack weight, what I was eating, and my future plans. I was happy to talk trail and everything that comes along with it. As the fire dwindled, the stars began to appear above the canopy, and suddenly at that moment, I felt at home. It's been awhile since I've felt that way.
The following morning, I awoke with a stiff left knee, and a tweak in my right shin. Overall, no injuries, good energy, and ready to crush. I set out early, knowing that I would be a tick slower than normal. It's not everyday that I hop back in to crushing miles on a daily basis. The miles seemed to fly by in the early part of the morning. Between the songs being sung by the birds, the crisp morning air, and the decadent light shining through the tunnel that is the AT, I was taken back to my thru hike last year. Every morning on the AT is a morning well spent. The solitude that can come along with an early start to a day is chased by few, but coveted by all who seek its presence.
The morning turned to afternoon, and afternoon to evening. 24 miles later, I arrived to a grassy bald roughly 14 miles before Hot Springs. With not a soul in sight, I set my tent up, ate myself into a comfort found only in a tent, and watched the sunset off in the distance until my eyes were too heavy to keep open. The sun had set on a day where I was positive that it would not result in the miles I wanted. The perseverance and determination that comes along with completing a thru hike is astonishing. I'm beginning to appreciate that quality not only in a mental and physical manner on trail, but also while participating in society's never ending rat race. Having the ability to adjust properly, assimilate in a timely manner, and feel comfortable in a situation that you don't necessarily want to be in is something that was much more difficult for me at one point.
A sense of urgency came over me the night before, and carried until morning. I was ready to get to Hot Springs, get back to my car, and make it to the Red in time for our trip to the crag. I pushed the 14 miles in 3 and a half hours. Arriving in Hot Springs even more exhausted than the prior days, I quickly made my way to the local bar, ordered a vegan hash wrap, a beer, and weighed out my options. Opting against paying $235 to get back to my car, I began hitching. After a series of short rides, a middle aged, long haired, peculiar fellow picked me up. After originally only willing to take me a few miles, our conversation struck and he became willing to drive me back to Fontana to get my car. One of the many reasons I love the AT is the genuineness of the people who surround it.
One of the best weeks I've had in quite some time, I was ecstatic with the outcome and result. Between the people I met, the amount of stress I put on my body and mind and how I handled it, and the way my body and gear performed, I couldn't have asked for a better week to test myself and the the mindset I'll be carrying on the JMT and CDT this year. This was more than just a section hike to test everything out on. This was the first time I've hiked longer than a mile or so on the AT since I summited. This was the first time that I had the ability to reflect on the adventure itself in the same environment that it took place in. This was the first time that everything has felt in place since then.