It’s raining when I wake up in the half-light at Fontana Dam. Raining when I take down my sopping wet tent and shove it inside my sopping wet pack. It’s raining when I set out on the trail as it winds up, up, up into the Smokies. I slept like shit. My gear is already soaked. The day is off to a wonderful start.
The trail climbs steadily all morning. I keep my head down, march slowly through the mud and rocks and gnarled roots. This is what you signed up for, I say to myself. A pathetic attempt at a pep talk.
I start to feel much better after clocking some miles, get the blood flowing to my body. Pumping happy chemicals to my brain. The forest is ripe and alive. I’m outside, walking amongst the trees, doing what I love to do. Things aren’t so bad after all.
My state of mind teeter totters between the two extremes. Misery and bliss. Misery and bliss. After a few hours, though, the bliss fades away and I’m back to being miserable. I should stop and eat a snack, chug a liter of cold water from a gurgling spring. All I’ve had is one pop tart today, washed down with half a liter of water. But it’s raining hard so I push on.
Another hour passes. The young dudes catch up to me.
“How far to the shelter?” I step to the side of the trail. Lean my weight on my trekking poles.
“Close!” They say, and trot past me up the mountain.
At the shelter, I decide, I’ll eat lunch. Drink water. Feel better.
So I keep going, despite the fact that my legs are leaden. That my insides are twisted in queasy coils. That my eyelids are so heavy. That all I want right now is to curl into a soggy heap on the side of the trail and sleep.
Finally, I see the sloping wooden slats of the shelter roof peeking out from behind a stand of trees. Space Time is huddled beneath the awning cooking lunch on his JetBoil.
“Welcome,” he looks up, smiles, stirs the food in his pot.
“Hot lunch!” I say and throw my pack in the dirt. “That sounds so good.”
“Decided to treat myself. That twelve mile climb kicked my ass.”
“Me too,” I say and set my stove up on the makeshift wooden counter beside Space Time’s. Feel like a fool for going twelve miles on one pop tart when my food bag is full.
The hot lunch revives me, and the five miles to the next shelter fly by. In the Smokies, hikers are required to sleep in shelters. Only if the shelter is full are you allowed to sleep in your tent, but even then, you must pitch it in close proximity to the shelter.
When I arrive, nine people have already claimed their spots for the night. Space Time, Patrick, and Ellen are almost here. The rain has let up. Streaks of late afternoon sun stretch through the spaces between the clouds. Thank goodness, I think, and hang my wet tent to dry. I’m still not keen on the idea of sleeping sardine-style next to eleven snoring strangers and a million mice.
Later, when all the shelter spots are spoken for, I sent my mostly dry tent up on a flat spot beneath the bare branches of a tree.
“We can make space for you,” the other hikers say.
“There’s always room for one more.”
“I saw a bear today–are you sure you’re okay out there alone?”
Thank you, I say. I’m fine out here, I tell them.
I do, however, hang my food bag from the nearby bear cables rather than sleep with it inside my tent like I usually do. It’s another one of the special rules here–most likely due to the fact that the Smokies are the country’s most-visited national park and also home to the biggest black bear population in the Eastern United States.
* * *
No bears visit me in my sleep, but the rain is back by the time my alarm wakes me at 6:20 in the morning. I pack my things quickly and head out on the trail while most of the other hikers are still asleep. Eat pop tarts and drink cold instant coffee while I hike through thick mud and pouring rain.
Beautiful views ahead! The app on my phone tells me when I stop to check my whereabouts beneath the cover of a leafy tree. All I see is soupy grey sky.
There’s cell service, though, and a text comes through from my friend Alanna who lives nearby in Asheville, North Carolina.
“I want to come meet you today!” it reads. “I don’t work all week.”
I’m just a little less than 16 miles from Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. A parking lot and road are there, too.
I text Alanna back and she replies right away.
“See you there at 4!”
This soggy state of affairs seems less soul-crushing with the promise of a hot shower and warm bed at the end of the day. I power on ahead, fantasizing about what I’ll eat when I get to town and how good it’ll feel to sleep with a pillow and soft blankets at a hotel. And only 16 miles away–today’ll be an easy walk in the woods!
Less than an hour goes by before I realize that I haven’t even gone two miles and that nothing about today is easy. The trail goes straight up then straight back down, over and over and over. Even on the rare stretches of flat terrain, the mud is so deep that every step takes extra effort. The ground is thick swampy soup that tries to steal my shoes as I trudge through it.
“Slooooouuurrrpppp!” It says as I lift my feet, which by now are slathered in brown ooze and soaked through to my skin.
Every few minutes or so, I get into a rhythm, pick up my pace, then my foot slides through the mud and I stab my trekking poles into the ground. Stop myself before flying ass over tea kettle onto the swampy trail.
“Howdy!” Two older men with huge packs and gaiters up to their knees sit on a rock beneath a tree, eating crushed Oreos from a plastic bag.
“Enjoying your hike?” One of them asks me and chuckles, shakes his head. Grabs another handful of cookie crumbs and dumps them in his mouth.
I smile, brush wet hair out of my eyes with the back of my hand. “Whelp, it’s still better than sitting in a cubicle for eight hours.”
“A-friggin-men!” the other man says, and they both laugh.
I don’t see anyone else for hours. Most of the other hikers, it seems, are waiting out the storm in shelters. Or slogging slowly through the mud like me.
By three o’clock, I’m drenched, exhausted, and sure there’s no chance in hell I’ll make it to Clingman’s Dome in an hour. The trail climbs 1,000 feet in these last three miles, which isn’t insanely steep (especially by A.T. standards), but the storm has become ferocious. Thunder booms, rain comes down in sideways sheets. Gusts of wind try to push me back down the mountain as I fight my way slowly to the top.
The trail is a rushing river. I’m no longer walking through thick mud but six inches of frigid, flowing water. For some reason, I can’t help but laugh.
I hear someone else laughing behind me and turn around to see Coyote stomping up the creek of a trail.
“Havin’ fun?” His face is half-hidden beneath the hood of his rain jacket, wet blond curls peek out from the sides.
“No!” I say. “Yes!” I change my mind.
We splash upwards, forwards. He yells over the howling wind, “I’m not sure if climbing Clingman’s Dome in this weather makes us complete idiots or complete badasses.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
At exactly 4 p.m. we make it to the top. He’s going three more miles to the next shelter, so we say our goodbyes, go our opposite ways.
“Total badasses!” I hear him shout, laughing from behind a stand of trees.