Mollies Ridge Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter
Tamarind Power Camp to I’ve Been In Tennessee This Whole Time? Camp
AT miles: 19.5
Total miles: 205.4
Elevation change: 6017ft gain, 5105ft loss
Honestly, a lot of the day is now a blur. I have many specific snapshots and short memory clips, but piecing them together chronologically is tough. The trail today was so beautiful and challenging, so long that most of the specifics are lost, leaving me with mostly feelings and moods. What those tell me, is that I had a ton of fun and saw a lot of new and beautiful sights, and also that today was a butt-kicker that took everything I had. #Smokieslife (gag)
I was awake before dawn. The night was still totally quiet, not a breath of wind, and I was toasty warm in all of my layers. So why was I awake? Excitement perhaps. With a big day planned, maybe I was anxious to get an early start. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, not on my watch! I did get up to pee and grab my food bag, but that was just so I could snooze more comfortably and snack while doing it.
Eventually, it was actually time to move. The sun found a narrow window between the trees and shelter roof through which to blind me as I started changing and packing up. The temperature was still climbing and had not yet reached 35F, but I stripped down to just my shirt, putting my faith in the sun and my exertions to keep me sufficiently warm. I was finally back on the trail at 8am, scaring myself with that consistency.
An initial uphill did warm me up, then the trail remained flatish for a few glorious miles. Icy mud crunched underfoot in the shade, and I slid and squelched through other patches thawed by the sun. More than once I encountered a new thing for the AT, meadows. Sun-drenched, warm, bright, open. I remembered just how much I love meadows and the energetic breathing room they provide. Each one, no matter how small, made me smile. A couple of times, I reached my hands and face to the sky, basking in the sun and airiness of the small patches of brown, tufted grass. I thought to myself, “Ahhhh, this is what makes the Smokies different, this is why they are cool.” A few of them provided great views too, extending many days of hiking to the South. I thought that I recognized some things, but probably not.
The trail changed character on the first big descent. The surrounding beech trees had shaken loose from their leaves, leaving an inches-thick layer of copper crunchies filling the trough of a trail. While it was certainly enjoyable, in a five-year-old kind of way, to wade through the depths, it was also quite treacherous. The slope was steep enough to strain the knees by itself, but the uncertain footing on the invisible rocks and roots was disconcerting. It was careful, tedious at times, hiking, to safely descend these slopes. Still, it was more fun than not fun. The five-year-old in me shines bright.
My heart skipped a beat when I approached the water source at Beechnut Gap. A black Hyperlite backpack with a yellow Mellanzana fleece in the back pocket sat unattended. That combination was unique to SpiceRack in my mind, and I believed for the briefest moment that she had somehow driven across the country and hiked into the Smokies to ambush me. Of course, there was no way. Stephanie was the more likely explanation, a hiker from Colorado just hiking the trail, not there to ambush me. We exchanged pleasantries, then I pushed on, questing for a perfect lunch spot.
And I found it about a mile down the trail. I settled in to the flat uphill side of a long log, dangling my feet over the edge, my toes just brushing the beech leaves piled on the side of the trail. I popped off my shoes and got my oatmeal soaking, placing each item in a nearby patch of sun in the dappled shade. The temperature was pleasant and the snacking fine indeed. Stephanie passed on by and we compared lists of hikers we’d met. Turns out, she knows everyone.
The afternoon was a gloves-off slog. The trail was relentless, always either steep up or leaf-covered down. I sweated like I haven’t before on this trail, and eventually water became scarce for me. I kept reaching into my hip belt pocket for more snacks, needed fuel to keep my tired legs pumping. Eventually, I called on the remaining tamarind goo to get me up the hills and keep the juices flowing in my mouth. The Final Countdown played on loop in my head, which was good and bad. The forest remained mostly sun-drenched beech, but occasionally I would encounter an oak tree so large that I would just have to touch it, resting my palm on the rough bark for a few seconds. Gazing up, I would try to imagine the canopy in the springtime, and how welcome its expansive shade would be on a hot summer day. These trees were epic.
I finally made it to an empty shelter with a nearby spring. I filled up on water and scarfed my last two bars, sitting down and flexing my tired muscles. The final push was less than two miles and I intended to finish strong. And I sort of did. I probably didn’t look graceful, but I made it up that last big hill, enjoying myself the whole way. The deepest of beech leaf troughs had me giggling to no one, and then I entered the spruce-fir forest that blankets certain hills in the Smokies. It was good to see evergreens again. Their deep shade was frighteningly dark.
Three other hikers occupied the shelter when I stumped into the meadow. Deluxe gave me the grand tour, and I set up my stuff in a quiet corner. By the time I had gathered water and gotten my couscous soaking, the others had turned in for the evening, and the sun was blasting one final, orange hurrah on the folding hills. Trees blocked the big view, but I oggled nonetheless.
I lay back, adding up my mileage. No wonder I was so tired. Over 6000ft of elevation gain was the most I’d climbed in a day since the CDT. Oof. It also surprised me to learn that I’d been flip-flopping across the North Carolina-Tennessee border the entire grueling day. My suspect command of this region’s geography had been exposed. But I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over it, that’s for sure. I eased back, snuggled deep, wondered how I would feel tomorrow, and instantly fell asleep.
There were a lot of great moments today, but the crown of my favorite goes to the first meadow view in the morning. The change from forest to open space was unexpected and profound. It felt like removing a lead blanket from my head. The lid was removed, I could touch the sky once again. Warm meadows, they rule.