The Fontana Hilton to Mollies Ridge Shelter
First Shower Camp to Tamarind Power Camp
AT miles: 12.0
Total miles: 185.9
Elevation change: 4551ft gain, 1742ft loss
So much for drying out my tent last night. A cloud had settled over the lake, draping everything in a clammy coolness that chilled to the bone. My tent, and everything for that matter, was wetter than they were yesterday. Maybe I should have stayed in the shelter after all.
However, I was glad for the freedom to snooze quietly while the shelter-dwellers rustled to life and started up the idle chitchat. With nowhere to be until 9am, I wasn’t in a rush to explore just how cold it was outside my tent just yet. I noodled around on my phone for a little bit, only pulled from my warm cocoon when the urge to visit the flush toilets became too overwhelming to resist.
Chris, the section hiker, hiked out of camp as the sun started breaking through the fog, shining bright beams on the opposite shore. The rest of us packed up slowly, then migrated to the bathroom to await the shuttle in front of the space heater that had been running all night. We hikers are so spoiled. I also took the opportunity to run a few gallons of water backwards through my filter, routine maintenance that will pay dividends long-term.
A little past 9am, the three of us loaded into the 12-person Econoline, with Shua again at the wheel. Then, just like yesterday, we unloaded at the Fontana Lodge lobby. Feeling feisty and clean enough for the main lobby after my shower yesterday, I settled on a couch in front of the titanic fireplace, roaring with a greedy hunger for natural gas. Catfish and AKA lucked out, checking into their room nice and early before making the breakfast buffet just before closing.
More noodling on my phone ensued. I had the quiet lobby to myself, except for the abrasive country tunes drifting through the air. Something about guys like me liking girls like you. AKA stopped by for a quality chill session a little later, and pretty soon, it was time to visit the Post Office to gather my resupply box.
I tromped down the green lawn reveling in the crisp blue sky and bright sunshine. I confirmed my thought from yesterday that this would be a great place to hang out in the future. The small post office was finally open. Hooray! I asked the friendly beard through the window if they had a box with my name on it. And, oh boy, did they. Without the 100 yards of tape holding it together, the overstuffed flat-rate box never would have survived the cross-country journey intact. It was bulging and heavy, just the way I like my resupply boxes.
I cut through the tape with a trekking pole, then exploded the contents all over the porch floor. There was no one else around to inconvenience with my sprawl. Glorious delights of all sorts and vintages gazed back at me. Beloved Bobo’s, lucious Luna’s, concrete Clif’s. I also scrutinized the shiny new pair of Altra Timp’s, suspicious of their newness. A nice note from SpiceRack warmed my heart. Amazingly, the entire bounty fit in my Ursack, minus the huge bag of lemon Oreos. I was fully stocked and ready for the Smokies. For now, I would keep my old shoes, which still had some good miles left in them, and carry the Timp’s. Don’t worry, it feels as stupid as it sounds. What am I thinking? Next stop, Hot Springs, NC!
I said farewell to AKA and Catfish, who were doing laundry just a few doors down, then caught a ride back to the trail with Shua. I wished him well, then turned up the lakeshore road and got hiking. It was about 2pm and I had no idea how far I could get by sunset.
After filling my bottles at the visitor center, I walked across Fontana Dam, one of the big ones, then up the pavement to an unassuming kiosk marking the entryway to Great Smokey Mountains National Park. I deposited my permit in the box and hiked in under a glorious blue sky.
The trail felt no different from the previous weeks. Bare trees, brown leaves on the ground. But the day was beautiful and I felt good, even under a heavy load. I started sweating soon after starting the relentless uphill to the spine of the Smokies, and chugged along, knowing that the rest of the day would be a long, brutal haul.
A short sidetrail brought me to the Shuckshack fire tower. The rickety structure didn’t inspire confidence, but I figured that it would be ludicrously bad luck if it collapsed today of all days, with me in it. The multi-story climb was absolutely worth it, rewarding me with an expansive panorama of not just the Smokies, but also of Fontana and the past several days of hiking. As long as I could get back down the sketchily steep staircase I would be happy.
I made it back to solid ground, then continued the long slog, back to altitude.
A tube of Mexican tamarind candy that Spice and I had purchased years ago near the border called to me from my hip belt pocket. I gave the tube a good squeeze and sucked in a glob of the sticky, sour goo. It was delightful. Pure energy, and just what I needed. A hint of chile gave me some pep in my step for the final few miles to camp. I kept returning to squeeze some more, hooked.
I finally pulled into the Mollies Ridge Shelter just before sunset. The temperature was plummeting so I didn’t dilly dally, quickly pitching my tent and grabbing water from the nearby spring. I stretched, watching the dusty glow fade on the horizon, and the lights of an unknown town to the north blink on and shimmer.
I spooned my couscous by headlamp while planning out the next few days. The national park requires hikers to sleep only at designated sites within the park, so I wanted to get an idea of what mileage I could conveniently hike, hoping to find that perfect, Goldilocks balance. And I did. It seems like 20 miles per day is the sweet spot, so that’s what I’ll shoot for.
After a few Oreos and hanging my food bag from the provided bear cables, I dived back into my warm bed. Hiker midnight approached fast, and I dozed off, looking at the stars through my mesh door, thinking to myself that at least these new shoes make a good pillow. Maybe not so stupid after all.