The plan for this outing was an ambitious backpacking trip beginning Friday. We would cover two long trail sections in the Smokies via an overnight loop ending back at Fontana Lake for a boat shuttle pickup time around 3:30 p.m. Saturday. The weather forecast was not good but I chose to ignore it. After all, we were going to be on the AT and we were just going to do what every thru-hiker does, right? Judy and I left her home at 6:00 a.m. Friday headed to Fontana Dam. The forecasted 80% chance of rain began around Waynesville. 8:45 a.m., at the trailhead we both let out a big sigh and began the uphill trek as the rain came down. Judy turned around and said to me, “I am a really good friend.”
There was a single point along the first section of the AT where we had a view, both awesome and ominous, but for the most part we trudged along in the gray mist, passing the spur trail to Shuckstack with just a glance and pausing at the Lost Cove Trail junction to eat a snack and rearrange packs. About five minutes past this point I heard a voice cheerfully call, “Hello” and turned to see a fellow in gym shorts and trail running shoes. He said, “Is the Shuckstack tower coming up soon?” Hmmmm….well, you’ve passed it. “Well, what about the Lost Cove Trail?” Well, you’ve passed that, too. The guy was out for a quick trail run, obviously for the first time on these trails, and without a map. We directed him back to the junction – have a nice day! And on we trudged.
At the Mollies Ridge Shelter we stopped and put the packs down for a little bit and eat. It felt so wonderful to put that pack down! Mine weighed about 28 pounds and I was feeling every ounce. How was I going to do this? I just do not love backpacking. I added up the hours for the entire trip and told myself that it was only 30 hours, and 10 of those would be spent sleeping in the shelter, so it was really only 20 hours, and 3 of those would be spent eating and getting stuff packed/unpacked, so it was really only 17 hours, etc., etc. Ah, if only it had worked out that way…
Now, I know that the AT is a magical trail and that on a sunny day it is glorious. I know that. But on this day the only noteworthy sight other than trail signs telling us the mileage was this tree, broken across the trail but still high enough for us to walk under. Kinda looks like it's doing a back bend with one leg kicking up in the air, doesn't it?
Spence Field Shelter, our home for the night, is one of the newer renovated AT shelters, nicer than most because it actually has a privy. For you Smokies trivia buffs, inside the privy there is a sensor under the floor mat that is wired to a box that monitors use for all kinds of interesting studies. Judy and I were here in November when we hiked down Eagle Creek Trail. (That day there was snow everywhere.) Like all the AT shelters during the winter months, ours had a big tarp across the front that is not too attractive but serves the purpose of keeping out the wind and keeping in some heat. (Sorry, forgot to take a photo of it.)
We arrived around 5:00 p.m. - I could not believe we had still traveled at two miles per hour even with full packs and mostly uphill. The motivation to get out of the rain and dump those packs was intense! We had company for the night, two fellows about our age from Florida and two 20-something guys from Ohio. I laughed and said, “You guys saw the weather forecast and you still drove all that way?” Well, what can you say? When you plan a trip to the Smokies, the weather doesn’t really matter. I told them about my hiking project and that my trail name was Smoky Scout. One of the Florida guys said his trail name was Chainsaw and that I would find out what that meant when he fell asleep.
There were clothes and gear hung and spread out everywhere to dry. The young’uns claimed a Boy Scout background and promised to get a fire going in the fireplace, which they achieved despite all the wet wood within a 50-mile radius. Their efforts kept me entertained and the fire was very comforting, although very smoky. We had dry clothes on, cooked a hot meal, had a cup of hot tea (thanks to Judy). I felt very cozy and not at all cold. Judy crawled into her sleeping bag by 6:30 or so, but I stayed up until the unbelievable hour of 7:30, talking with the guys and watching the fire.
Chainsaw wasn’t kidding – he was a champion snorer, but at least he was rhythmic, and the rain splattered on the tin roof. I did not expect to sleep well in a shelter anyway, but at least I was warm and dry. (I had a brand new Mountain Hardware Phantom 15 sleeping bag – toasty!) At some point during the night I woke up and did not hear any snoring. I worried a little whether my Florida friend was okay, but he eventually began cutting down the rest of the forest.
Midnight…only 15 more hours to go…ah, if only it had worked out that way…