Someone asked me what I wish I had done differently during my year of hiking the Smokies 900. Hmmm...I've had a hard time coming up with an answer. Not that I think I did it all perfectly, but considering all the parameters I was working under, I'm very happy with how the hiking plans worked out. My limitations were:
Hiking it all in one year - April 2008 to April 2009
Living in Charlotte NC- 3 hours from Cherokee, 4 hours from Gatlinburg, 5 hours from Cades Cove
Mostly day hikes - as few overnights on the trail as possible (although my opinion on this has changed now)
Planning/coordinating hiking trips with other hikers - they have lives too
Regular seasonal road closings - some trailheads not accessible from November to March or May
Weather limitations - especially winter weather and unexpected road closings
Other life events scheduled in - holidays, high school graduations, trip to Greece (!)
My dad's health and happiness needs - the most important part of my "other" life
Most (maybe all) of the above were things beyond my control. Some worked out better than I could have planned them. For instance, I only planned my trips for 3-4 weeks ahead, and then someone would email or call and say, "Hey, I'm free on such-and-such a date, how about I go hiking with you?" And I was always amazed at my hiking friends' flexibility. They didn't care where we hiked! I was free to drag them anywhere I wanted to go. As for my dad's well-being, his illness and passing, it was a very difficult time, but again it was out of my control. God took care of it all.
So I think a more pertinent question to explore is: What will I do differently next time?
A more liberal time frame. One year goes very quickly. It was not until January of 2009 that I truly began to believe I could make my self-imposed deadline.
Make notes for the blog and keep it current. Most people who hike do not blog or journal about it, but I am very glad that I did and recommend it even if it's for your eyes only. Because I was hiking so much, time would get away from me and I wasn't as current with my postings as I would have liked. Taking a few minutes at the end of the day to jot down highlights - and especially with your hiking buddies to help - helps a lot when it comes time to write the details.
A three-hike minimum per trip. A couple of times I drove to the Smokies to do a single day hike because the opportunity came up to do it with a specific hiking partner. While those hikes were great fun and I'm glad I did them, I had a lingering feeling that I was being inefficient considering how far away I live from the Park.
Not quite so much hiking in the rain. Although I do recommend that everyone try it to see that it really isn't that big a deal and that you can survive it if necessary, it's not always fun to do for multiple days in a row. A day in the rain awakens different senses, hearing water dripping from the leaves, seeing a somehow different green in the way the light hits the foliage, splashing in the mud. Rain hiking is rewarding if you are going to a big waterfall or if you are hiking by a big stream that you don't have to cross without a bridge, but it is pointless if you are heading for a big view. I need to hike Russell Field Trail and Maddron Bald again for that reason. A couple of times we did turn around and go home when the weather was not cooperating.
More stopping. I generally stopped at intersections for a brief rest and a snack because there were always miles to go. Next time around I'll stop longer where there is a nice view, a good log to sit on, and especially by the streams. The day that Chris and I sat on top of Brushy Mountain was a real treat. Of course, when it's really cold out, you don't sit still for long...
Less is more. Without a strict time frame for hiking the entire park, I would hike less miles per day and take longer to do it. After a while my average natural hiking speed was about 2.5 miles per hour, and even with a loaded backpack going uphill it was about 2 miles per hour. I saw a lot of things but I missed a lot, too. It's time to slow down and look around.
More backpacking. If I'm going to go slower, I'm going to need to do more backpacking to get to the remote places. Everyone knows I'm not a fan of carrying 30 pounds on my back, but I have learned a lot and feel more comfortable that I am doing it safely and efficiently. I don't think I'll be the type to backpack 3 miles in so that I can sit around camp the rest of the day, but I am more open to backpacking.
Hike more in warmer weather for the wildflowers. I am a major fan of winter hiking and recommend it to everyone. There are big views that you can't see any other time of year, the snow and ice are a wonderland and a challenge, and you never get too hot! With the right layers of clothing, you don't get cold, either, and it doesn't take as many layers as you might think. Most of all, the combination of blue sky and layers of blue mountains overlaid with a weaving of bare gray branches is the work of a Master artist. But because the majority of my hiking took place in the winter months, I did miss many of the wildflowers.
More camping, less hoteling. This goes along with the above of more warm weather trips. Since my goal was hiking, I didn't want to camp in very cold weather. Yeah, I could sleep warm, but sitting around camp after it got dark at 5:00 or 6:00 PM was not appealing!
Find more cemeteries. This is perhaps the one response I would give to the original question. I wish I had taken more time on the cemeteries.
Learn to take better photographs. People comment on how great my pictures are, but you know the old saying, if a hundred monkeys were in a room full of typewriters, eventually War and Peace would be produced. All I'm saying is thank goodness for digital! And if only I could hold onto one camera...
Hike with the Tennessee folks. Okay, I guess this is a second answer to the original question. I selfishly wish I had discovered Wendell and his TN crowd much earlier than February. They are a great resource for hiking the Smokies 900 and the folks that I got to meet were very friendly, interesting and knowledgeable. Yes, you can make good friends on the internet!
Always know where the boat shuttle pickup point is. And have a Plan B. And a Plan C. And be prepared to formulate Plan D on the fly. Have a belt AND suspenders. Trust in the Lord and tie up your camel. In other words, the Girl Scout motto: Be Prepared!
Do one thing every day that scares you ~Eleanor Roosevelt