We decided to go back home. From California, we made our back to Albuquerque, NM our HOME BASE. We had some business there and after one full day, we left heading even further East. We drove straight thru to Evansville, Indiana our HOMETOWN. We visited our family and a few old friends. It had been almost two years since we have seen any of them. We left within a few days and headed South to Gatlinburg, TN to reunite with our HOME, the Appalachian Trail.
We hadn’t seen any of the AT since 2016 when we summited Katahdin. We hadn’t actually seen this Southern Section of the trail since 2015. Gatlinburg, TN, and the Smoky Mountains were a special place for Darwin and I even before we starting hiking, so we were glad to be back in the area. We arrived late in the evening leaving us with only one logical thing to do…stuff ourselves hiker style with pizza!
The next morning we woke early and drove up towards Newfound Gap. As we climbed in elevation, the weather changed. I forgot just how much power these mountains have; they truly make their own weather. When we arrived at the Gap the wind was strong and pushy, the soft sprinkle of rain we left in town was now harsh stinging pellets. As we rolled out of the Clydesdale, it occurred to me that I didn’t have a pack cover or anything else to keep my gear dry. How stupid! I have spent way too much time in the desert! Luckily a few Wal-Mart bags and an old zippy bag stuffed away in the van for just such an occasion, did the trick.
As we started our trek North on the AT, I was struck by a wave of emotions and memories. These were my first steps in this section of trail since ’15. The last time we were here, we were fueled by pizza and an anxious rush of energy after the 20 Question Hitch experience we had trying to get back up the mountain. The mountains were dusted with snow then; the Rhododendron still waiting to bloom. I touched the first blaze I came to. The tree’s bark was cold and wet. The White of the blaze almost illuminating the trail in the gray fog we now hiked in.
I quickly felt winded as I ascended the man-made steps up the trail. I could still somewhat eat like a thru-hiker but my body quickly reminded me that it could not perform like a thru-hiker. I was out of shape. That old familiar feeling of fear as we navigated our way over thick sheets of ice that covered the trail, returned. I paused only a second. A brief frozen fear…I could slip and fall. I acknowledged the fear and cautiously pushed passed both it and the ice. The trail like an old friend, once again calling me North.
We took in the damp smells around us as the rain continued, The AT was welcoming us back in true fashion, a wet and cold day. I was already soaked, my feet specifically meeting up with every freezing cold puddle just like before. We arrived at Icewater Spring Shelter, this is where we stayed on our thru-hike. A bunch of us packed out pizza and took in an amazing view of the Blue Ridge, our laughter filling the night. Now the shelter was empty, the only sounds were the tarp slapping at us in the wind, the view now shrouded by fog.
Darwin and I breathed in the smell of dirt, fire, and sweat and let it fill our lungs. I had forgotten about that smell; a shelter perfume that only a long distance hiker would know and appreciate. I felt the wooden planks I sat on. Smoothed down by air mattresses, boots, and the sweaty bodies of hikers who have stayed here. The walls and floors all scarred up with shelter graffiti. I felt names and dates, with my fingers on the planks surrounding me; reading them without looking like Braille.
A few minutes more and it was time to go. We were too wet and cold to stay much longer. In hiker fashion, we had to “hike to stay warm”. We trudged back into the wind and mist and just a few steps off from the shelter I met an actual thru-hiker. She was easy to pick out by the size of her pack and the yellow “AT Tag” that hung from it. “Hello!” I somewhat shouted to her in the wind. “Are you a thru-hiker?” “Yes,” she replied. We exchanged a few other brief words but I felt her urgency; the trail was calling her, she still had miles to tackle before nightfall. She disappeared into the wilderness at a pace I remember but no longer possessed.
(A Section Of Trail In The Smoky Mountains in ’15; Rocky Top Summit Picture ’15)
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