Fontana Dam marks the official start of the Smokies, where the AT tickles the spine of the steep mountain range for 75 miles or so, criss-crossing back and forth between North Carolina and Tennessee. This section of trail, people say, is wet. And cold. And hard. And beautiful.
It’s late morning when I arrive at the little village by the dam. I wait for Patrick and Ellen on the sprawling wooden porch in front of the general store. Sit in a rocking chair (a rocking chair!) and drink watery coffee from a styrofoam cup while my devices charge in an outlet beside me.
There are a dozen or so other hikers here, none of whom I’ve seen before. I smile at them, then turn inside myself. Groups of new people make me shy.
Patrick and Ellen show up and we plan out our miles for the next few days. I try to pay attention, chime in, but I’m distracted by a table of hikers next to us who are listening to Sublime loudly on one of their iPhones. They shout along when they know the lyrics, talk about how fucked up they got at the bar in Franklin when they don’t.
Ellen leans over, whispers in my ear.
“Wipe that West coast attitude off your face.”
She smiles sweetly.
This. This is why I like Ellen.
We resupply from the shelves of ramen, pasta sides, snacks, and candy at the general store. I think about the last few weeks on the PCT, when the freezing temperatures and steep climbs made me ravenous. When I ran out of food, and so did Dewey and Sizzler and Ballbuster. When we tried to muster the energy to laugh at our jokes about which one of us we’d eat first. Nostalgia can only sweeten that memory slightly, so I add an extra dinner and another huge handful of snacks to my shopping basket. Buy way too much food.
We want to escape this bubble of hikers we’ve found ourselves in, but decide to stay the night in Fontana instead. The climb out of here goes on forever, and fresh morning legs, we decide, sound better than afternoon jello. Also, the forecast calls for rain tonight. And all week. One last night of dryness, we decide.
Patrick and Ellen want to stay in the shelter, known affectionately on trail as the Fontana Hilton because of its top-of-the-line amenities: Waterfront views! Sleeps 24! Bathrooms with toilets that flush! And sinks! And electrical outlets!
I set my tent up beside a dozen others on a flattish spot near the grand accommodations. Check out the digs. The young dudes show up, although their numbers have dwindled to three. Fittingly, the two guys in their thirties have fallen behind and now it’s just the three twenty-somethings.
Someone builds a fire, we drink beers and eat snacks out of our food bags. The sun slips behind the Smokies and hikers head to sleep. I crawl inside my little tent, wiggle into my sleeping bag. Cinch it tight.
“Goodnight, Tick Tock!” I hear Burnsides call out from the path that leads to the shelter.
“Goodnight, Tick Tock!” Cambo echoes.
“Goodnight, Bob!” Moosehead yells.
“Goodnight, young dudes!” I say, as the rain begins to fall.