Water. Shelter. Rain. There is nothing like a hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail to remind one of the basics that, in our off-the-trail lives, we take for granted.
After hardly a month off the trail, my hiking buddy, Ted Gregory, and I headed south to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike through the park on the AT over 5 days. Alerted by the National Park Service just before we departed from Maryland that the availability of water presented a real problem in the southern end of the park, we decided we could still meet the challenge, albeit with perhaps a significant dose of water discipline our last 2 days.
Starting at I-40 just north of the park, our first day was a steady but moderate uphill climb to Cosby Knob Shelter in ideal hiking weather, cool and clear. Our second day was more challenging -- a 20.3 mile section that we started with headlamps at 6:30 AM in order to make sure we could make it to Double Spring Shelter by dark. We were anxious throughout the day because we did not have a permit to shelter there; the park's registration system had shown it to be full. So we faced a night with a tarp (the registration system prohibited us from using tents or hammocks), but our worries were needless; there was plenty of room in the shelter. And we enjoyed the astonishment of younger hikers once they understood that the 2 old guys had come 20 miles that day.
On our third morning, downhill to Newfound Gap, we ran into numerous day hikers streaming up from the large parking lot that sat astride of the North Carolina-Tennessee border and delineated our halfway mark. After lunch on the 8-mile climb to Clingman's Dome -- the highest point on the entire AT -- a steady rain began, leaving us with a 360-degree fog-enshrouded vista once we ascended the observation tower.
Day 4 arrived with a relentless 15 to 20 mph wind kicked up from Hurricane Matthew, which made for a miserable morning. After being pounded for two hours by wind-driven rain, we took our usual mid-morning break, but made sure it was at a shelter. Now that the exertion of hiking had halted, I started shivering and immediately understood the danger. In short order, we had both pulled out our sleeping bags and pads and stripped off wet clothes in order to prevent hypothermia. We waited 3 hours in our bags for the wind to abate. It didn't. But fortunately the rain finally stopped, though wind-driven moisture from the trees still made it a wet afternoon. With just 2 others braving conditions in that night's shelter, we had plenty of room to lay out and try to dry out. But the night was our coldest — in the 30's — and the wind continued to howl.
Our final day's hike started with a temperature of 38 degrees and a chilly wind still blowing. But by mid-morning, the wind was finally down and the temperature up. Stripping to our usual shorts and T's, the afternoon was lovely, made even lovelier by virtually all downhill hiking. The highlight was a side trail to a 6-story fire tower that provided 360-degree views of the now-clear skies. As we reached the last mile — a forest service road to Fontana Dam — we passed a younger hiker beginning what we had just ended. After exchanging pleasantries, we walked away from each other, but he stopped about 50 feet on and said, "Did you guys say you did it in 5 days?" "Yes," we bragged, "But if it's any consolation, we're really tired and sore!"
The next day, having eaten pizza and drunk beer at Anthony's in Bryson City, and having gotten hot showers at Standing Bear Hostel, we day-hiked an 18.7 mile section just north of the park, cresting Max Bald on a beautiful day where we could see perhaps 75 to 100 miles in different directions. Passing only 3 hikers all day, we enjoyed the TN/NC woods of the AT in a way that had been a little missing during our rain-laden days. It was a wonderful pay-off for 5 days in the park, and capped a 93.7 mile journey. As we motored back to Maryland, we were sore and satisfied by having met another AT challenge.