Walker Gap to The Fontana Hilton
Warm n Cloudy Camp to First Shower Camp
AT miles: 3.6
Total miles: 173.9
Elevation change: 348ft gain, 1857ft loss
My first real nero (day with nearly zero miles hiked) of the AT was a good one. I slid a few miles into Fontana and watched the rain drizzle down from a big comfy couch. Top it off with a hot shower and I’m feeling refreshed, ready for the big haul through the Smokies.
The rain showed up for the last few hours of the night. It fell steadily, and I took comfort in knowing that there was absolutely zero rush today. I just needed to make it about three miles to Fontana, where I planned to pick up my resupply box, charge my things, and rest for the night. And it was all downhill from camp.
I waited it out as long as I could, but the rain was still coming down when I got hiking around 9am. The trail down was fully saturated and slippery. The layer of leaf litter was a couple inches thick and full of water. About half of my steps had a little bit of a slide to them, which I quickly got used to. That said, I did hit the deck once when I slipped on a hidden root. A little dirty, but no harm done.
The marina parking lot was nearly deserted after I crossed Hwy 28. It wasn’t exactly fishing weather, after all. Signs pointed me to the restroom building where there hung a phone to call for a shuttle to the resort. I pushed zero and made my request for pickup, after eating a large cookie, of course. I brushed my teeth and waited in the heated restroom for my ride. It was only 30-something outside, so even the bathroom was a glorious improvement to waiting on the damp bench.
Shua drove up in a van a few minutes later. I threw my pack in the back and hopped in shotgun. He was a nice guy singing a sad story, and I felt grateful for the real human-to-human honestly he gave so willingly. Wishing him the best, I unloaded and wandered into the fancy lobby of the Fontana Lodge.
Unfortunately my resupply box was not at reception. It seems that I mailed it to the post office instead, which wouldn’t open until 11:45am the next day. Ugh. Well, I had planned for a long rest, and now I was going to get it with a little extra on top. Whatever, I’d hike out tomorrow afternoon instead of tomorrow morning.
So with an entire day to enjoy at me leisure, I wandered downstairs to the lower lobby, a little less fancy and well away from the public eye. Still muddy and damp from the trail, I was a little self-conscious and I saw no reason that I should stink up the couches next to the main lobby fireplace. That privilege was reserved for paying customers.
The lower lobby had everything that I needed, a comfy couch, wall plug, bathroom, and 100% vacancy. The season hadn’t picked up yet, so the place was deserted. I posted on a couch with a view of the pool and the rainy clouds, and settled in for a long stay.
Over the course of the next five hours, I barely moved. The classic rock pumping through the speakers was soothing, and I sat and stretched while working through a backlog of internet chores and making calls home. I also worked through half a jar of peanut butter. But that wasn’t enough, so after all my stuff finished charging, I hoisted myself from my deep couch indentation to find something else to snack on.
Wandering the resort grounds, I couldn’t help thinking about just how awesome this place must be in summer. Mini golf, 18 holes of disc golf, a pool with a lazy river, tons of fire pits, this would be an epic trail stop in a few weeks. For now, however, I couldn’t even find the one thing I wanted most, a fresh piece of fruit. The general store was still closed for the season and the convenience store carried only non-perishable hiker staples, like tuna and ramen. With the selection further reduced by my vegan diet, I opted for a Backpacker Pantry veggie stew. Not exactly a gormet town meal, but it was still a treat when compared to the cold beans I’ve been sucking down. The super friendly emoyees even boiled some water in the microwave for me.
As I was checking out, none other than Catfish walked through the door, on a mission for beer. The timing was perfect and I jumped in the idling shuttle with Shua at the wheel for a ride back to the marina.
I walked the final mile to the Fontana Hilton along the lakeshore with a piping hot pouch of stew in my jacket. The rain was finished, but the low clouds lingered and it certainly wasn’t warm. I pulled into the large shelter and joined Catfish, AKA, and a section hiker on the plywood bunks. As I dug in to my meal I wondered where all the hikers were. With a great stretch of weather starting tomorrow, I figured that there would be about 30 hikers hanging tight, waiting for the rain to pass. I was wrong about that. It was just the four of us, which was fine with me.
I wandered around the beautiful spot, complete with large fire pit, picnic benches, and a solar charging station, perched on a small flat with expansive views of the lake. But the best part was the free hot shower at the nearby bathhouse. Good pressure, hot water, no line. I took my time, letting the salt and gunk from the last 11- days wash down the scummy drain. With the cool temperatures we’d been having, I didn’t feel particularly nasty, but that wasn’t really for me to judge. It was salubrious for my soul if nothing else, and by far my favorite moment of the day. A transcendent feeling after so many cold days and nights in the hills.
I pitched my tent on a grassy ledge below the Hilton. As nice as it was inside, I always find that sleeping in a bunkhouse setting is disruptive to my sleep. As a light sleeper, the quietest snores or gentlest farts can keep me awake. I hung out with the others, exchanging stories, for a couple hours, then turned in around hiker midnight, feeling clean and relaxed. As the snores began to echo above, I knew that I’d made the right decision. Smokies tomorrow. I’m stoked.