Yesterday I summitted the highest peak on the AT – Clingman’s Dome, North Carolina, and simultaneously reached 200 trail miles since my start on October 8th. While accomplishments look good on paper, the views I had on my ascent around 7 a.m. yesterday were the real presents I can take away from this experience. For awhile there, it didn’t look real. It looked like a big painting, and it took quite a lot of staring for me to accept that what I was doing was, yes, very real, and yes, not a painting. I think it may be nearly impossible for someone to experience such natural beauty and remain the same person. I know I am different now, somehow, even if I can’t explain it.
Before I got to the Smokies on Wednesday the 24th, I did my longest and by far hardest day yet – 21 miles from a shelter 7 miles north of the Nantahala Outdoor Center to Fontana Dam, NC. It was terrible. I thought, again, I was going to just keel over on the trail and never be seen or heard from! I did, however, reward myself with a stay in the Fontana Lodge, and could not have been more exuberant. I danced around the hotel room naked singing songs and took an extremely relaxing hot bath while I massaged my feet for what seemed like hours. I also got the most amazing meal I think I’ve ever had: a bacon cheeseburger and TWO, that’s right, TWO orders of kids fries (pictured below).
That’s probably one of the greatest things about the trail, you really start to appreciate those first world comforts when you receive them, and you realize that we could be much, much worse off. I was so thankful for a bed and a good night’s rest, I can barely put it to words.
I keep meeting the most amazing, wonderful, giving people. Some guys gave me a couple Mountain House backpacker meals (around $8 a piece) and two beers after I hitched with them to the trailhead last week. My cousin Bert and Uncle Wally met up with me at Nantahala Outdoor Center and bought me dinner (I ate an entire large pizza!), after which Bert invited me back to his house to watch football, do laundry, and of course EAT some more! He also picked up multiple packages and delivered them to multiple destinations for me. Truly an amazing person.
A couple guys who through-hiked last year were in a shelter I was at a few nights ago, and generously shared their whisky and wine with me while we talked about the perils of hiking this time of year, and laughed at the foibles and mistakes that are all too common among the hiking community (like trying to get out of your warm, cozy sleeping bag in the middle of the night to pee, while not waking anyone up and keeping an eye out for bears).
Last night I was merely walking around Gatlinburg when a heavy-set man who looked to be a biker approached me, we chatted for a bit, and he ended up giving me $20, telling me he couldn’t put to words how much he loved that I was “Out in nature, appreciating the Lord’s beauty and work” and to “Go get myself some good dinner”. I couldn’t have thanked him more.
I ended up sleeping on the bank of the river that runs through Gatlinburg, on just my sleeping pad, and was lulled to sleep quickly by the incessant, dreamy water flowing close by. I may be stuck in Gatlinburg a few days though, as a cold front is coming in and there’s a hurricane (Sandy) in the Atlantic threatening to come through and cause even more trouble. They’re calling it the “Frankenstorm” because of the deadly combination of cold and precipitation – a backcountry backpacker’s nightmare. I don’t mind taking a few days off though, as my feet are getting extremely tired and feel like they’re bruised on the bottoms. I talked to a bunch of hikers though and they all say I just need more cushioning for my feet, so I got some cheap Dr. Scholl’s gel inserts and hopefully they’ll help!
Until next time, walk on, and of course, hike ’til you’re high my friends.