Having now been on the Appalachian Trail for three weeks, we have witnessed more than a few spectacles — people and places that attract attention or that are unusual to us. Sometimes we just stare in wonder or disbelief (depending on the situation)…
On Day 19 we hiked to Fontana Dam in North Carolina. This large, beautiful lake attracts visitors and sportsmen alike and we were amazed at the clear deep blue water. The sunlight glistening off this large body of water was visually refreshing even though we were incredibly tired and dirty. We were blessed to get a room at the Fontana Lodge because they were totally booked due to a Mini Cooper convention that weekend. Imagine the sight of 700 Mini Cooper cars and their passionate owners who come to drive an 11-mile stretch of North Carolina highway that sports nearly 400 curves. It ticked off the hikers that all the rooms at the Lodge were booked because the hikers walk more than eleven miles and carry backpacks that are nearly as big as a Mini Cooper (chuckle). We felt rather guilty that we got a shower and a king-sized bed for the night while other hikers stayed at the “Fontana Hilton”, the sarcastic name for the not-so-nice hiker shelter. Nevertheless, we laundered clothes and enjoyed an ice cream cone from the General Store in preparation of entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park the next day.
Day 20 was a gorgeous sunny morning as we began our walk across Fontana Dam and into the Smokies. We are required to each have a thru-hiker permit that cost $20. The permit gives us seven days to hike through the Smokies. We dropped our permits in the lockbox and ascended the first hill. A few minutes later, a ridge runner told us there had been a bear attack the night before. Evidently two hikers had left their tent for a short time when a bear smelled food and took off with their backpacks–one of which held a new cell phone. The ridge runner told us to be sure and sleep in the shelter to avoid bears getting close, which we did that night. Before we tell you about the shelter experience, we met up again with Sunshine, a twenty-something gal from Memphis. We had met Sunshine our first week hiking but had lost contact with her during the torrential rains. She is an experienced hiker but is attempting a solo thru-hike of the A.T. She is looking forward to meeting her husband in a week in Hot Springs N.C. as they haven’t seen each other in three weeks. This day on the trail we witnessed some hikers who stopped for lunch but were also smoking a bit more than cigarettes. We know that some hikers are inclined to the “party-side” of the culture but it is not done discreetly on the trail. While taking our own break, a hiker came up and asked us about the bear in the tree 50 yards back. He said we had walked right by it and that it was a spectacle– an estimated 450 lbs! Later on in the evening, we were hiking with Sunshine and we saw three young deer coming to graze in the clearing in the woods. We kept hiking and the trail wound around to where the deer were eating. Two ran away but one just walked on the trail in front of us. We arrived at the shelter late in the evening and The temperature had already dropped into the 40’s. Chief talked to a young man that is attempting to hike the entire trail in 60 days. This young man was a spectacle in his own right, having hiked 180 miles in three days! The same distance had taken us nearly three weeks. Most of the sleeping spots in the shelter were taken. The shelter has two rows of boards so you either sleep on the top or on the bottom row. There is only enough room for each person’s sleeping bag and you sleep right next to a new “friend”. We were able to finagle two spots together on the bottom row and Sunshine slept on the top row. I slept next to a girl named Tinkerbell, who didn’t flutter quietly, rather snored like a lumberjack all night long. On the other side of Chief slept Kristin, a young girl from New Hampshire who started the trail with us in April. Her phone alarm went off at 4:00 a.m. and nearly everyone in the shelter woke up except Kristin. After ten minutes, Chief nudged her and she turned it off and slept another four hours.
We couldn’t wait to leave the shelter and hit the trail on Day 21 even though we planned a 15-mile hike. The cool morning quickly heated up and we stopped early on to take off coats, hats, and gloves. A hiker we met yesterday, Honeybee, said she got her name with a surreal incident she had in her tent with a bee. We wonder if the bee was attracted to the vibrant tattoo sleeve on her left arm or her sweet child-like demeanor. Anyhow, she said she took a video of the bee and all was well. Honeybee prefers to hike in a short skirt when the weather gets warm. Needless to say, she always has a young male hiker following her, for the witty conversation of course. The other spectacle of this day was a hiker named Sterling, a good ole boy from Georgia, who interacted with the wild turkeys on top of Siler’s Bald. We never saw the turkeys but we heard them.
So in three weeks of hiking we have covered nearly 200 miles. Our feet are terribly sore but we are in good spirits and have even lost a few pounds (that is a positive consequence). Another milestone came on Day 22 when we reached Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,643′. The observation deck on Clingmans Dome straddles the borders of North Carolina and Tennessee, as does a bit of the trail for the next hundred miles. We were sitting by the trail enjoying a snack and watching the many visitors walking up to the observation deck. One man heard Chief say that he wished there was a Coke machine nearby. The man, whom we now lovingly refer to as the Good Samaritan, told Chief he would give him a Coke from his car. Chief walked down to the parking lot, all the while telling the Good Samaritan about our “Hike for John”. The Good Samaritan gave to Chief six cans of icy cold drinks and said he would donate to the Gurneys. God bless him! During that time I watched several tourists pass the sign for the Appalachian Trail and listened to their comments.
Woman to her boyfriend: “I could hike this trail if it was more level and not so rocky.”
Man to his wife: “This trail goes from Georgia to Pennsylvania.” (Actually it goes to Maine)
Several people came over to talk to Chief and me asking questions about thru-hiking the trail. “Do you have a gun?” asked one lady. I said no (I have one but not with us) “Where do you get food?” I answered Wal-Mart, just like you (but I wanted to say that I fired my hiking stick from a crossbow, taking down a large buck that I field dressed before taking it back to the shelter to process.) “Have you seen any bears?” Not yet (but evidently they are around on the trees and we are too blind or ignorant to see them!) But the biggest revelation came when a man and woman with six kids came up to us and said, “So OLD people CAN hike the trail.” It was then that we realized we were the biggest spectacle of all. Until next stop…
Happy Tales, Chief and Toad