A Walk in the Smokies: Hikers fight crowds, weather on Appalachian Trail to see what writer missed
Buzz Trexler | (email@example.com)
EDITOR’S NOTE: On April 26, Buzz Trexler and two friends began what was to be a seven-day hike along the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Trexler intended to write about “A Walk in the Smokies” along the way, transmitting stories and photos for posting on http://TheDailyTimes.com . Alas, there were problems with his iPad email client, then the Verizon wireless hub lost power and, finally, his phone lost power. The lesson, Trexler said, was this: “When you hit the wilderness trail, expect to leave the world behind.”The mountains hold a certain romance for me.
If my love for the mountains were a wildflower, it may have pushed its way through the earth during the long drives I took as a youngster with my grandparents to the Blue Ridge Mountains while growing up in Richmond, Va., coming to bud when I first set foot in my Pa’s cabin at Ripshin Lake, near Roan Mountain, Tenn. The blossom: When I took my first hike
along the Appalachian Trail through Roan Highlands, led by Steven “Griz” Gilreath, a rugged Appalachian by birth whom I have known since the late 1970s.
There is an intense, inescapable drawing to this romance, particularly as it relates to hiking along the Appalachian Trail.
Every morning as I drive to Maryville from West Knoxville, the Smokies loom before me and I wonder, “What sort of sunrise did the hikers experience along those mountaintops?”
Sometimes when I’m having a difficult time sleeping, I imagine lying in a tent, feeling the cool night air slip in through the vent, crisp and clean.
But like the romance between two lovers, the infatuation of hiking along the Appalachian Trail at some point gives way to reality – particularly in the Smokies. The love is still there, but it’s a strenuous physical journey filled with rocks, crowded shelters and more than its share of horse manure.
On April 26, Griz, Greg “Gypsy” Houchin and I traveled by car up Clingmans Dome Road toward the parking lot that would be the starting point of our seven-day hike through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our wives followed so they could transport Griz’s car to Max Patch, N.C., where it would be waiting on us at journey’s end. The goal: To see and experience what author Bill Bryson and his trailmate, Katz, missed when they jumped off the AT and headed for Gatlinburg. In his 1998 book, “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,” Bryson made it clear he had experienced enough of the Smokies’ rainy weather and crowded shelters.
As we headed up Clingmans Dome Road, we saw what appeared to be white granules on the road surface, with small patches of snow in grassy areas.
“Wow. They must have salted the road when it snowed some recently,” I said as Griz drove along. Then the “salt” grew larger and covered the road. “That’s not road salt,” I said excitedly, “that’s hail!”
When we reached the parking lot and exited the car, thunder raised its voice and dark clouds billowed about.
The wives looked at us as if to say, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
They also looked like they were more than ready to get off of the mountain.
After a quick goodbye, we grabbed our gear and headed to the bathrooms to put on Frogg Toggs and pull rain covers over the packs. When I came out, Griz said the wives were going to give two through-hikers a lift into Gatlinburg, which makes them official “Trail Angels” -- people who dispense “Trail Magic” (unexpected grace and assistance) to through-hikers along the way. The hikers, Louis and Chewy, were through-hiking from Springer Mountain, Ga., and relayed harrowing days of rain, then snow, then hail.
Griz, Gypsy and I headed up the road to the observation tower and found the AT trailhead, where we stopped for a photo. Just yards down the trail, the skies opened up.
As the rain came down and we slopped through the mud, one phrase entered my mind: “It’s Bryson’s revenge.”
The side trail at Mount Collins Shelter is 3.8 miles from Clingman’s Dome, and then there is a half-mile walk to the shelter -- at least, according to the “Appalachian Trail Guide.” Without getting into day-by-day detail, over the next six days we often wondered what to believe: The signage along the way, the AT trail guide, or neither? The estimated mileage at times seems like a cruel joke. At some point, you just adopt the attitude of, “Put one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there when you get there.”
When we arrive at Mount Collins Shelter, where we had three reservations, the place is already full. There are built-in bunks to accommodate 12 people, but at first glance sleeping bags seemed to fill all available space.
“Is there any room in here?” I ask.
“Not really,” a little female voice said.
“Well, we’ve got reservations,” I said. “I’m not about to throw anyone out, but someone needs to make some room.” Two guys near the end agreeably part the Red Sea of hikers to make a place for my sleeping bag, while Griz and Gypsy string their hammocks from the porch rafters.
A grumpy voice in the darkness said, “Great. Now we’ll have to dodge hammocks in the middle of the night.”
Griz answered in a level, but serious, tone, “Well, you can always sleep outside.”
LAST CHANCE TO BAIL
The next day, we hit the trail at about 8 a.m. and trek toward Newfound Gap, which is about 5 miles from the shelter. As clouds continue to envelope the trail, I trudge along knowing that this would be my last chance to call the whole thing off: the next “out” was Interstate 40, just beyond Davenport Gap: the end of the line for the Smokies, and nearly the end of our journey.
We break for lunch at Newfound Gap and discover, much to our chagrin, that in our planning we somehow missed the fact that there is no drinking water available at the parking area. Gypsy and Griz hike back to a spring to gather water while I watch the gear. After they return, two Park rangers come up and ask if we had backcountry permits. “Sure do,” I said confidently. I pull out our itinerary and provide them with a permit number. Truth be known, due to there initially being no vacancies in two shelters, I actually had two permit numbers.
Over the next five days we would only see one other Park ranger.
After about an hour or so, we hoist our packs and continue the 7.5-mile journey to Icewater Spring Shelter. The clouds finally lift and we catch incredible views along the way, reminding me why I punish my nearly 56-year-old, overweight body this way. We arrive at the shelter later afternoon and discover there are 10 hikers already there in a shelter that accommodates 12. When we awaken the next morning, there are about three times as many hikers, inside and outside of the shelter, as when we went to sleep.
It occurs to me that there is no visible difference between the through-hikers and section hikers.
‘SPECTACULAR, BUT SCARY’
We hike over to Charlies Bunyon, taking a side trail over to the rock outcropping that author Horace Kephart named, saying it had the “knobby appearance of Charlie Conner’s bunion. The day before I left for the hike, Daily Times Executive Editor Larry Aldridge and I were talking about Charlies Bunyon.
“Have you ever been there?” he asked.
“It’s scary,” he said. “Spectacular views, but scary.”
When we arrived, the wind hit us at a pretty good clip. I stood at the base as Gypsy dropped his pack and scurried to the top. Griz followed, still wearing his backpack. I stood at the base and thought, “Looks pretty good from here.”
Then it hit me: “Why would I suffer through a hike to see these places and then not fully experience the view?”
I struggled out of my backpack and made my way to the bunion -- very carefully, I might add.
Spectacular, but scary, is right.
That became the theme of the day, especially as we walked across “knife’s edge” near the Sawteeth, an imposing section of jagged rock. At its widest the trail seemed to be 3 feet wide, with the path itself about 18 inches. A couple of times my left trekking pole hit air instead of turf.
We stop for lunch near Pecks Corner Shelter, but decide not to waste energy by going down to the shelter for lunch, opting instead to eat lunch right on the trail.
It was there that we met “Keystone,” a through-hiker who was quick to say his trail name reflected “the state, not the beer.” His sister lives close to Volunteer Speedway near Bulls Gap and they were going to rendezvous so he planned to take a break there for some “home-cooked meals.”
We crossed Mount Sequoyah after lunch and believed we were traversing Mount Chapman, making what I thought was great time. Then Griz said, “I have to be honest with you: This is still Mount Sequoyah. Mount Chapman is up ahead.”
My spirits sank a bit, but I continued to put one foot in front of the other, occasionally having to stop every 100 paces on steep climbs, a practice I call “stutter gear.” It’s a phrase I borrowed from Earl Shaffer, the first person to through-hike the Appalachian Trail, in 1948, and who repeated the accomplishment on its 50th anniversary at the age of 79.
At some point when I engaged stutter gear, I thought to myself, “If I have this much problem climbing these hills now, what shape will I be in when I reach Earl’s age?”
ANOTHER CROWDED SHELTER
We arrive at Tri-Corner Knob Shelter about 6:45 p.m., hiking 13.2 miles (including side trails) in about 12 hours, which meant we were traveling at about 1.1 miles per hour. Greeting us were about 30 hikers at a shelter that accommodates 12. Through a fluke in the system, we had reservations for four people, but there was no way I was going to toss a through-hiker from the shelter when I had packed a tent.
Furthermore, Griz and Gypsy preferred hammocks to shelter bunks and strung their hammocks about 50 yards away to escape the noise. I was left to pitch a tent on what was about an 18-degree slope just upwind from the moldering privy.
It was becoming clear that crowded shelters were the norm and there would always be far more people outside of the shelter than could fit inside. So, what did it matter whether it was a through-hiker or a section-hiker who pitched a tent or strung a hammock?
One more thing was becoming clear as I tossed and turned inside my sleeping bag for a third night: As Katz said in the Bryson book, “There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep. And that was nothing like a good night’s sleep.”
ROCKS THAT ROLL
If you ask some hikers, the greatest hazard on the Appalachian Trail through the Smokies isn’t black bears (though our group did see two), but rocks and roots and stumps just waiting to trip you up, leaving you with injured knees and ankles. Along the 62 miles, both of my ankles suffered their share of twists and turns, with one spectacular left-ankle twist occurring as I tumbled down into Brown Gap. The Kentucky judges gave it “a 4, maybe 5.” I later appealed that score, lobbying for a 7, but was told, “There was no blood. No bone fragments. And you didn’t fall from a height that was greater than 5 feet.”
At one point, Gypsy did fall from a height greater than 5 feet, but we didn’t see him. He’d dropped behind for a while and as we were rounding a switchback, Griz and I noticed he wasn’t in sight. Just as we started to head back in search of him, Gypsy emerged over a rise in the trail.
“Are you OK?”
“Yeah. I just fell 30 feet down the mountainside,” he said, still trudging along, apparently no worse for the wear and tear. “Not that you noticed.”
TOO MUCH HORSING AROUND?
Some hikers suggest that allowing horses on the Appalachian Trail within Great Smoky Mountains National Park is tearing the trail up, leaving more rocks upturned.
One thing’s for sure: When it comes to horses on the AT in the Park, there is no such thing as “leave no trace.” As we picked our way through upturned rocks, horse manure seemed to be everywhere along shared areas of the trail. And the more horse manure we found, the worse the trail seemed. It only seemed natural that one thing was related to the other.
So, upon returning, I made a call to The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee Office and spoke with Regional Director Morgan Sommerville who confirmed that about 35 miles of the the AT in the Park are open to equestrian use. Sommerville said there is a negative impact on the trail, but there is a positive impact as well. In the mid-1990s the hiking clubs, riding clubs, and the ATC “all agreed we were interested in the same things” and set up trail standards. Sommerville said horseback riding clubs, such as the Maryville Trail Riders, are part of the trail management system and pack in tools, materials, food and water for the Rocky Top Trail Crew.
“The local riders have developed into great partners,” Sommerville said. “We’re no longer trying to get the trail closed to horses.”
Griz, Gypsy and I were somewhere near the Snake Den Trail intersection when we let a northbound convoy of equestrians that included a packhorse pass by. We continued south to our day’s destination, Cosby Knob Shelter. Upon arrival, we found fresh manure immediately in front of the shelter, as well as an abundant amount elsewhere in the vicinity. Fresh litter filled the fireplace.
So much for leave no trace.
I had reservations at the shelter, but there was no way I was going sleep and eat surrounded by manure. Down the hill there were various areas that had obviously served as past campsites. Figuring that this shelter would be overcrowded as the others before the day ended, I scraped away the larger pieces of shale and pitched my tent.
GET OUT OF THE SMOKIES
By the next morning, a common refrain among the through-hikers we encountered was, “I can’t wait to get out of the Smokies!”
Of course, the northbound through-hikers’ attitude was likely impacted by the weather many of them encountered. As one hiker relayed, “When I was on one side of Fontana Dam, it was sunny, but as soon as I entered the Smokies on the other side, the weather turned bad.”
Shades of Bill Bryson!
We were beginning to feel the same way. Granted, everyone agreed it wasn’t the majestic Great Smoky Mountains that seemed to be the problem, it was the system of what was restricted and what was allowed, and what was being policed, and what was not.
Common complaints and questions included:
• Why can through-hikers camp when the shelters are crowded, but not section hikers?
• Why are horses allowed, but not someone’s Brittany spaniel? If it’s because horses are a means of transport, then how can you stop off-road vehicles? Can they not put “bun-bags,” or “horse diapers” on them as they do in city parades and dispense the manure off-trail?
• The larger question: If you can not enforce what shelter policies you currently employ, how will you be able to enforce the pending pay-for-use shelter policy?
Some even suggested that perhaps the Park is actually trying to deter through-hikers.
STANDING BEAR FARM
Our original plan called for staying at Davenport Gap Shelter (a 7.1-mile day) on April 30 and Deep Gap/Groundhog Creek Shelter (10.5-mile day) on May 1, reaching Max Patch on May 2 (6.2 miles). Sensing a real desire to move things along, we agreed to stop at Davenport Gap Shelter for water and then push on to a hostel through-hikers had been excited about reaching: Standing Bear Farm, on Waterville School Road. That would shorten the next 10.5-mile day a little and perhaps allow me a good night’s sleep in the bunkhouse – something I truly needed.
We reached Standing Bear Farm (http://standingbearfarm.tripod.com) in late afternoon.
The AT guide says “A hiker’s hostel is located 0.1 mile west of the Trail crossing ...”
That was the longest tenth of a mile I ever hiked.
Owned by Marie Guzman, the hostel is a converted farmstead that includes a 14-bed bunkhouse, cabin, open-air kitchen and showers, laundry, privy, and store, with all charges and fees conducted on an envelope honor system.
It had the look and feel of a 1960s commune.
We got there early enough that Gypsy and I were able to secure bunks ($15 apiece), while Griz preferred to continue hanging in his hammock.
After showering, we indulged in two DiGiorno pizzas ($10 apiece) that tasted absolutely marvelous. Of course, in my mind, after several days of eating camp food even one of those trail horses would have tasted good -- perhaps roasted, with a touch of garlic.
“Rockit,” a Georgian by birth who in the hiking tradition prefers to use only his trail name, identifies himself as the hostel manager.
“It’s all over the Internet,” Rockit says of Guzman’s hostel. “I run the coolest hostel around. We have a good time. Everybody has fun.”
The 58-year-old, who has been on staff for six weeks, expects the “bubble” of spring through-hikers on their way north will slow immensely in about three weeks, at which time he’ll “go back to hiking.”
As to the crowds, Rockit has his own theory, one that has been repeated in the days we’ve been on the trail: “A lot of people have lost their jobs and having nothing better to do.”
And then we hear something new: “Next year, most of the through-hikers I’ve talked to say they won’t be going through the Smokies,” Rockit said. “They’re going to be hitting the Benton MacKaye Trail.”
I have no idea where that trail is located.
BOUND FOR MAX PATCH
The next morning, we rise early and move on, stopping at the FAA radar installation on Snowbird Mountain with its 360-degree views. It’s there that we get the first good look at the distance we have traveled, scaling mountaintops and crossing ridgelines, for we could see Clingmans Dome in the distance.
We rest, but decide against having lunch, opting instead to push on to Deep Gap and Groundhog Creek Shelter, and then on to Max Patch.
At the shelter, we meet Greg, a volunteer from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., who says he has hiked more than 800 miles of the trail in sections.
We also discover that the shelter is guarded by what seems to be a billion bees and decide that even if we were not inclined to reach Max Patch a day early, there was no way we would be cohabitating with the bees.
Knowing this was our last water source until Max Patch, we fill everything we can and begin our last “assault” on the mountains.
There was a fair agreement that it was the longest 6.2 miles of the hike; however, as was noted earlier, we sometimes wonder about these mileage estimates.
When we reach Max Patch Road, Gypsy and I rest on the roadside while Griz walks the 200 yards or so to the parking lot.
The plan had been to camp on the bald so we could catch a sunset then sunrise.
Earlier, thunder once again raised its voice in the distance and it brought up the memory of a young woman who had been killed in a lightning strike two years before.
As we wait on Griz, it occurs to me: We’re done here.
We’ve seen what Bryson missed.
We’ve reached Max Patch a day early.
Let’s climb the bald, catch the view, and call it a week.
After loading the car, Griz drives us back to the parking lot and we scale the bald.
Griz called his wife, making our first contact with the outside world in nearly a week.
Gypsy and I look back at Clingmans Dome and consider the distance, visually tracing our route along the ridges and mountaintops.
“I don’t care what anybody says. That’s impressive,” I say.
Slowly, we descend the bald to the parking area and begin our journey back to the world.
Until we again hear the mountains calling out our names.
Buzz Trexler is managing editor at The Daily Times. Email him at (firstname.lastname@example.org)