I Managed to get a halfway decent night of sleep no thanks to whoever was rattling around at 4:40 in the morning with a headlamp blowing their nose loudly and crunching their water bottle. I could have killed that person. As I lay there last night, all bunched up in my sleeping bag, I did something super cheesy but I shall share it anyway. I said “you are safe. It’s okay to go to sleep,” and I could feel my body let go of the tension I hadn’t realized it was holding.
Someone’s alarm went off twice and the second time I checked my phone to see that it was only 6am. If I am attempting 17 miles now would be a good time to get going. I changed into my hiking shorts and calf sleeves (compression sleeves that I only wear for the lightweight warmth not the compression), then made my way to the privy. I Packed up as quietly as I could which I cannot say the same for others. One woman sat on the top platform holding her sleeping pad to her chest while it made a persistent whine as the air escaped. I would have kicked her if I had been closer.
Then I retrieved my food bag from the cables listening to the ominous thunder in the distance. I sat and ate my breakfast of champions, frosted pop tarts, a cliff bar and a spoonful or two of peanut butter. People packed up around me (even brownie and dizzy who are usually not that quick to rise) and I weighed my options for the day. Aaaand then it started pouring. Everyone who had been getting ready to leave slowed down their process. No sense in hurrying if it’s actively raining. Brownie asked if I wanted any warm tea to help stay warm. My cup was buried in my bag, so I hesitated, but I gratefully accepted after she offered to let me drink it out of her pot. I sat inside the shelter drinking my warm fruit zinger medley and listening to the thunder and lightning that had started not long after the rain. And then it HAILED.
By about 8am, it had finally slowed to a light drizzle. I decided to head out in the event that I actually attempted 17 miles for the day. The trail started with a rocky, gradual descent in a carved out trough that was also a temporary stream because of the rain. Thankfully the water wasn’t very deep and could easily be walked over in most places without the threat of soaking my shoes.
After making it down to low gap, the trail went back up through fog with the occasional soggy flat stretch. I Thought I heard voices behind me,. but no one caught up. Around 9:15, I Stopped to make a short good morning phone call to Oakland and then went straight back to airplane mode. I imagine there are some mountains out there, but I surely couldn’t see them for the Blanket of fog. I did however see a new white flower.
Then came more climbing through dense rhododendron. I Finally looked at elevation because I thought today was mostly downhill. Whenever someone says that, I find myself going mostly UPhill. I was very near the top of the last climb. In the rhododendron thicket, heard a strange loud bird call. I Waited and finally saw what I think was a blue jay, but I’ve Never heard one make that noise. maybe another bird was yelling at the jay? Hard to say but it was a startling noise.
I eventually found out that the voices I had heard earlier belonged to three early twenty something people with day packs. they asked if we were close to the tower, and I assured them it was right around the corner. I have no clue where they came from or where they’re headed because it was on the early side for day hikers and they were coming from the wrong direction to have originated from davenport gap. I passed on the tower side trail because it was 0.6 miles, one direction, and the fog seemed too dense to make it worth the 1.2 mile detour. Of course, the billy goat in me immediately regretted that decision and when the skies cleared only a few minutes later, I was REALLY sad that I hadn’t made the side trip.
At that point i was hungry and a little cranky, so I ate some fruit snacks and part of a luna bar, my last snacks until the new food box. I’d only been hiking for about an hour and a half, but It had been 3 hours since breakfast because I’d gotten such a late start. I’m trying to wait until standing bear farm to eat lunch so that I can charge and eat at same time.
A little ways past the fire tower side trail, I ran into two women in their twenties who had slept IN the tower. They oohed and aaahed over the sunset they’d seen. One of them showed me pictures and I was so envious. they continued on, trying to figure out their plans to get to trail days (think woodstock for hikers, held in Damascus, VA).
I walked along, feeling cranky about the tower when I came upon a giant rock that had a sweeping 180 view of the mountains. I set my pack down and clamored to the top of it with my phone to take pictures and a video. As I stood up there, Grateful came down the trail. She saw me on the rock and started muttering to herself about how she was too scared to be that high and didn’t even stop to check out the view from the ground.
Grateful muttering that she was scared to be so high and kept hiking. I climbed down from the rock and continued on my way through the incredibly green forest. A few Rhododendrons have started to bloom!
I passed a short stone retaining walk and continued downhill with the occasional flat stretch that all made for pretty easy walking. There were unfortunate sections of Rhododendrons with very squishy leaf piles in the middle that made it nearly impossible to keep my feet dry. After what felt like a least a mile, but was probably shorter, I got some relief from the overly saturated stretch for awhile. I spent my time dodging mud and pondering what to do with the next two days to Hot Springs. I’d love to find a way to see the sunset at max patch, but hiking 17 miles to stay in line with runa and northstar would make that a silly combination of miles. I roughly decide to take my chances with standing bear in order to hike to max patch the next day, watch sunset, and hike two miles to the shelter in the dark.
I heard voices ahead of me and found the two women I had met earlier talking with a ranger who had asked to see their permits. I pulled my permit out of the depths of my bag and stuck it in a hip pocket after he looked at it. Apparently we have to put it in a permit box at the end of the smokies. High tech system.
Somewhere along the way down to the gap, I felt a sharp pain in the heel where rough hard spot has formed over the weeks. I tried not to get too attached to the sensation as I made my way through the easy and sometimes soggy walking. Looked up to find splash of purple with an early blooming rhododendron.
The Air felt heavy like there will be more rain later. the trail took me down Long sweeping switchbacks through a brilliant green forest.
I Saw what I thought was the road but it turned out to be the reflection of the roof off of the Davenport gap shelter. Ran into OB1 again. He had just started hiking for the day at 12:15. We walk together for about four or five minutes. he asked where I was headed for the night, which felt inclusive. He might try to do 26 miles to get to Hot Springs tomorrow to which I replied, well I’ve run 26 miles but I’ve never walked 26 miles in one day. That led to a brief conversation about marathons, but I had to let him go ahead of me because he was too fast and my feet were getting sore trying to keep up with him. Apparently he almost got caught by the Ranger after having built a fire ring. A ridge runner happened upon him before the ranger did and told him to dismantle it before the Ranger caught him.
I saw OB1 again at the permit dropbox and heard Sundrop and her friend curry (the two women from the tower sleepover) congratulating themselves for finishing the smokies. When I got down to the gap it felt somewhat anticlimactic because it was a dirt road, a mileage sign and a few large rocks. Sundrop and curry cheered me on as I came out of the woods. I plopped down on a rock and made a peanut butter wrap, thus officially obliterating my food supply. I had about two tablespoons of peanut butter, an eight of a bottle of honey, and about a quarter cup of Fritos left. I hardly ever let my food supply get THIS low but I have a food box at standing bear so there’s nothing to worry about.
OB1 came down a couple of minutes later, smoked a cigarette and kept walking. Sundrop and Curry’s ride showed up as I as packed up my empty food bag. I wished them well and went on my way. My guthook app had given me the road mileage for standing bear and not the trail mileage, so I mistakenly thought I was much closer.
When I got up on the trail and checked again, the mileage said 2.5. I was crestfallen because I thought I was a mile away. I walked along the forgettable and easy trail and pondered my smokies experience of not having seen a single bear the entire time. The air continued to feel heavy and I hoped to reach my end point for the day (tentatively standing bear) before getting soaked.
The trail popped out onto the road, crossed over a wide fast moving river, and went under I-40. A woman in a car pulled up next to me and I thought she was going to offer me a ride but she was actually asking me for help with directions to standing bear. I showed her my map and how she needed to head under the highway.
As I got under the highway myself I saw her pick up a gaggle of hikers. She thanked me again for my help and I said you were so close! Then I proceeded to miss my turn into the woods. Luckily my AT reflex of “this is too easy” kicked in and I checked my map. I had to turn around a few yards to head up this staircase:
I eventually stopped at a beautiful little stream and decided that if I was staying at standing bear, maybe I should bring my own water. There’s been talk of people getting norovirus there and hikers are afraid to stay overnight. I want to stay because the mileage lineup works out somewhat well to get me to max patch for sunset and then hot springs late Sunday. runa one of the two people who kindly offered to let me use their chargers texted to tell me that she and northstar were going to go to the campsite past standing bear. I called Oakland to say hello and to get get some help with yet another tedious logistical decision. Our conversation made me lean in the direction of sticking with assured and good company rather than my hairbrained sunset idea. She assured me that I should dump the extra water weight I had acquired if I wasn’t going to stay at standing bear.
I kept chugging along and tried to dictate some notes since I was about to be near power and could stand to lose the battery that dictation drains. As I stepped down a muddy little slope with my phone one hand and my poles in the other, my left foot lost purchase and I Went straight down on my butt. My heart stopped for second as I worried that I had hurt my tailbone again. what I felt seemed painful but not injured. I stood up and cursed myself for being careless with my footing while simultaneously being glad that it hadn’t been worse.
I made it to the standing bear farm around 2:30. It’s a hard place to describe but it’s a hodgepodge of buildings, some hiker specific and some occupied by the owner. It’s hard to tell who lives nearby and whose passing through. There’s a bunkhouse in which I will most definitely get a spider bite. There’s a fire pit and an old school washboard for laundry (I’m doing mine in hot springs). There’s an outdoor shower. The bathrooms are two porta potties. There are resident dogs one of whom is half blind and not that mobile but tries hard. There are local dogs who wander over here for the company and hiker snacks. There’s a resident older dog who seemed half blind and very rickety Itoday’s top picture). He depressed me but I took comfort in the fact that many of the hikers gave him affection as he tottered around the grounds.
All of this I learned as I stuck around. When I first arrived I had no idea what to do but grateful stuck her head out of a building and called out hello! I walked down into the property and found an outlet on the main building. Then I flagged down a woman in the kitchen and asked her how to get my package. She offered to look for it and disappeared into a room that looked like it would be hard to locate an elephant because there was so much stuff. I sat on the porch and waited patiently while trying to decide what weird bubble I had just dropped into. She miraculously found both my food box and my letter.
I sat on the porch and organized my food, expecting to leave shortly after Runa and north star arrived. I went up to a side building where there were short term resupply options (aka snacks galore). I had heard about them selling expired food so I checked everything that I “bought.” I needed to supplement my lunches because I’m basically out of peanut butter and won’t be getting more until hot springs. I picked out pop tarts and slim Jim’s, candy bars (Twix dark!) and crackers. I got a sprite for the wait. I wrote down All of the prices on my arm because the system was to use a slip of paper to keep track of your purchases, but there hadn’t been anyone around to provide said slip of paper.
North Star and Runa arrived and quickly decided that staying would be fine and they would like to join me for my Max patch sunset and night hike to the shelter plan. Brownie and dizzy showed up about 15 minutes later. The whole gang is here! In this very strange place that basically amounts to another on-trail shelter.
I felt overwhelmed by the setting and by the lack of privacy while also being happy to have lined up with more company. I couldn’t seem to focus on any one thing I needed to do. I decided to sit down on a rock by the stream to soak my feet and read a letter. When I settled my rear onto the giant rock, it moved! And I slid forward and my bare feet slammed into the rocks on the bottom of the stream and my butt dipped into the stream, getting my camp shorts wet. Luckily I had zipped the pocket I put my phone in because I had worried that it might pop out. The best part is that I had an audience! Albeit a kind one who asked me if I was okay. My right arch took the brunt of the force but it didn’t seem to be injured in any way. I gave up on the stream and sat back down around the fire pit. Here’s brownie checking out the maps in her new food drop:
After more loitering and watching people go about their routines, I sat down to cook myself food around 6, which based on my mood was about 45 minutes too late. My meal was a new rice dish that didn’t sit all that well. I almost gave up on it halfway through but I knew I needed the calories so I kept on eating while sometimes joining in on the conversation Runa was having with someone who may be a hiker? I couldn’t really tell but he is an Iraq vet who was wearing a motorcycle vest, had a giant septum piercing and was covered in tattoos. If I had seen him in a gas station in TN (the state I’m currently in), I would have made assumptions about the assumptions he would make about ME. But in this setting, he’s just another guy to talk to sitting around a fire pit.
Brownie kindly offered to let me borrow her flip flops to take a shower. She said it so many times that I asked her if she was trying to tell me something (aka YOU SMELL TERRIBLE). She claimed that that wasn’t the case, just that it would feel good to take a shower. I knew she was right but it seemed like so much effort. I finally relented. She ushered me up to the outdoor shower and showed me the ropes. She was right. It did indeed feel good even though I still smelled vaguely like soup afterwards.
Around 7:45, I extracted from a conversation with dizzy that had been started right as I was trying to settle in finish my notes for the day. I walked over to the main building and sat down next to what seemed like a wireless router. Oakland and I attempted to face time but the connection finally got so bad that we went to face time audio and then THAT devolved into an impossibility. 3-5 second delays are just enough to make conversing futile. We said goodnight right as I became inconsolably tired and overwhelmed by the idea of having to get off the phone and figure out how to find privacy to write.
I left the porch and sat in the dark on a log as much away from everyone as I could be. My butt was sore from the day’s fall so I switched off between sitting and standing as I swatted bugs and tried to piece together the afternoon. I’m finishing this to the sound of hikers talking around the fire pit, very chatty frogs singing the song of the species by the creek, and crickets filling in the gaps. I have two nights of private rooms booked in hot springs and I am looking forward to having a space that I can escape to. Tomorrow: max patch! Which I’m sure will be a popular destination on a saturday night.
Mile 231.1 to mile 241.5 (10.4)
Total miles: 249.8
Creature feature: the blue jay, manyyy dogs at standing bear, and NO bears for the entire smokies.