Days 24 – 30 Newfound Gap, Gatlinburg, TN – Hot Springs (Mile 273.9 since Springer Mountain)
It’s been a while since I’ve had access to wifi, but, now I’m in Hot Springs, I can catch up on my adventure so far. As they say, I’ve had good days and I’ve had bad days.
Having watched Bubba win the Masters once more, I still had several errands to complete and I stupidly took my time on Monday, eventually settling for my first zero day (no miles hiked). Gatlinburg is doubtless great if you want to get a tattoo, spend the day at Dollywood, visit Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or gorge at McDonalds. As I wanted to do none of these, it was pretty much a lousy place to be for me.
My errands involved getting a Post Office pick up from Diane and doing my festering laundry. Realizing that I would have to write the day off for hiking with the weather quickly deteriorating, I decided to renew my Yul Brynner look and found a barber near one of the quaint trolley bus stops. Having to do the laundry meant heading out in a pair of swimming shorts, and using my waterproof jacket as the only things that could survive without a wash. Completing the look were a pair of wet shoes that cost $9 in Walmart. When I tell you that I didn’t look at all out of place in this ensemble, you’ll understand something about Gatlinburg.
Yet another unexpected kindness made my day as, once the local barber had shorn me to within millimeters of my skull, he promptly shut up shop and drove me to not only the post office, but also the laundry. I’d imagine several minutes hovering over me with his clippers made him understand that the laundry was sorely needed and shouldn’t be delayed a moment longer than necessary.
Not wishing the day to be a complete write off and just spend it in my room, I decided to head off to the next town, Pigeon Forge, to watch the new Noah movie, with Russell Crowe. Now I know I’m not entirely familiar with the nuances of the story, but I certainly don’t ever recall the stone monsters, even though they were hugely entertaining; maybe I missed those in Religious Education classes at school. However, I loved the movie and finished off the day with a huge rack of ribs next door before heading back six miles, which inexplicably took three trolley bus rides.
The next day, Tuesday, the weather had worsened considerably and I simply couldn’t stand the thought of spending another day in Gatlinburg, so took the shuttle back out to Newfound Gap to resume my journey. The rain was worsening and, by the time the shuttle had reached the trailhead once more, snow was starting to come down. I was climbing up to over 5,000ft to Pecks Corner Shelter, so had over 10 miles to cover in about 5 hours, with rain, sleet and snow, at varying times battering me on the way. I had been warned that the mountain temperature was likely to drop overnight to the mid teens, and was a little concerned that my 30 degree bag wouldn’t be up to it.
So it proved, as I tried to warm myself by wearing my primary layer and TWO fleece jackets in bed, along with two pairs of socks. It was, by a distance, the worst night of my life, as I worried for my safety. This was exacerbated by the need to pee twice during the night, which entailed leaving the shelter and wandering into a veritable snowstorm and peeing wildly into the night. I confess to performing this operation far too near to the shelter than is required but I’m afraid I wasn’t about to go the requisite 100 yards and then not find my way back. Sue me.
The morning came and, of course, I made it through the night, though I was somewhat chastened by how severe this night had been and saw from the faces of my fellow hikers that I wasn’t the only one who had had concerns. There was a lovely old guy of 77, hiking with his two grandsons, who told us all that he had been in the Arctic Circle a few weeks ago to watch the Northern Lights and that the temperature had been minus 20. He swore that the previous night had felt colder though, to be fair, he had had to get up to pee FOUR times, so perhaps he had a jaundiced view.
His grandsons were 12 and 16 years old and did him and their parents great credit, as they were terrific kids who worked as a team with their grandfather and who were willing to help in every way. It has been impressive to see how well young kids adapt to harsh conditions, both in terms of hiking and weather, as we’ve run into several scouts and they have all been polite, hard working and respectful.
Wednesday greeted all of us with frozen paths, as the snow had stopped and was now making the track treacherous. Of course, I registered yet another fall on the ice, as well as landing hard on my knee another time. It made the hike doubly difficult, as pole placement assumed even greater importance. I had set my sights on Cosby Knob Shelter, nearly 13 miles away, planning to leave myself just over 10 miles to get out of the Smokies the following day at the legendary standing Bear Farm, of which more later.
Both that Wednesday and the following day, I found the path fairly unpleasant, as the ice turned to slush, which in turn turned to muck. I was glad for my boots as my feet stayed warm and dry, but I’m afraid the weather made the second half of the Smokies, for me, much less pleasant than the first half. Starting out on the Tuesday had been an error and I missed many gorgeous views, as everybody who started a day later told me. I goes to show that the views, when and where we get them, should be enjoyed for what they are, when they are and we should all try to stay in the moment. Some of my frustration about this shows in the video, though I’m sure I’ll look back and see them as something of a highlight in time.
Having left the Smokies, I took a couple of quick videos that show me crossing Pigeon River and walking on a pretty track past a stream. The dramatic landscapes that I had been through were now replaced by less drama but equally pretty places, so I thought I’d record them for posterity.
Funnily enough, it was far prettier than it shows in the video, though I think I was just breathing a sigh of relief in this new, gentler landscape.
Standing Bear Farm is apparently a “must go” hostel on the Trail, though, for the life of me, I couldn’t initially understand why. It is located a mile or so from the end of the Smoky Mountains and I had heard it referred to as “rustic.” This could mean anything, particularly to a bunch of smelly hobos, one of which I had undeniably become.
First sight of the place was less than reassuring, with a couple of extras from Deliverance sitting in rocking chairs smiling at me as I entered the establishment. They couldn’t have had more than one full set of teeth between them and when the clearly senior guy, Rocket, introduced himself, I was struck by how he seemed to be a relic of the late 60’s, early 70’s, with his somewhat spaced-out look and laconic delivery. He had apparently been hiking through several years ago, landed at the farm and never really left; I could hear strains of Hotel California in my mind. Later that evening, I asked Rocket how far away the nearest town was and the best he could do was, “We got a gas station ’bout 7 mile thataway an’ I think anudder one ’bout 18 mile tha’ way.” “But where’s the nearest town?” I insisted. After a pause, during which he thoughtfully stroked his chin, he conceded, “Don’ rightly know” as if the thought had never occurred to him.
Despite being geographically challenged, Rocket knew everything about Standing Bear Farm, and he showed every visitor the various buildings that made up the facilities. The bunk room had about 20 beds, some of which were already occupied. Indeed, one guy, Cap’n Guts, comes to the farm for holidays on regular occasions and whiles away the time in this hippy paradise.
Connected to the bunk room was a kind of communal area that had a few threadbare couches for residents to lounge on and generally chew the fat. There was no wifi, as Rocket had converted the building that used to house that (a building for wifi??) into a beer room, with a locked fridge, from which he dispensed cans of beer at $2.50 a time. Very nice. There was a “dining room” that had a sink, table, kind of stove and a pizza oven. Attached at the back of this was the wash room, with a dryer but no washer! There was a washboard and a mangle/ wringer in the sink but, since I had no idea how to use either, I had to forgo the pleasures of clean clothes for a few more days.
The last room was the store, or restock room. There was everything in here, from Snickers to pizza, both of which I bought. This, as opposed to the locked fridge, was offered on the honor system and we had to record what we took then settle with Rocket in the morning.
None of the above should be seen as a complaints against Standing Bear Farm, as it all simply worked. I loved it here! The place was very companionable and everybody had a very chilled time. At $15 for the night, plus purchases, it was a bargain. It shows once more never to judge a book by its cover.
On Friday, hiking away from the farm, I ran into Digger, from Martha’s Vineyard and hiked the whole day with him. He taught me a lot and I really appreciated the day with him. I had been stopping often and grabbing a breath, using my phone to check with the GPS to see where I was. As he said to me, “Why?” The path is still going to be there and the rhythm of the hike is interrupted, so why stop? It was very much because of Digger that I covered over 15 strenuous miles that day, getting to Roaring Fork Shelter having passed over the magnificent Max Patch. I know I’ve over-used the word “awesome” in my videos, but I’m afraid awesome is what it is and I stand by it.
At the shelter, I stayed in my tent for the first time in about 5 days and I was happy to be back in it. Somehow, the privacy enables me to sleep better as I don’t have to worry about others snoring or, probably more correctly, they don’t have to worry about my snoring.
With about 18 miles to go to Hot Springs, I chose to stop short, at Deer Park Mountain Shelter and had something of a frustrating day of hiking, with intermittent rain and the ever-present need to regulate my temperature. I also got lost twice and can assure you that once you have hiked for a while and not seen the white blaze on a tree or a rock, you tend to worry about where you are. Fortunately, these aberrations were quickly resolved and I moved on in the right direction.
As I came to the shelter, I greeted the occupants with “I must have put on and taken off my clothes today more times than a stri……” when i saw a mother and three young children in the shelter. These were the delightful Foxworth family, father Terry, mother Nicole and Morgan, a deliciously innocent tomboy, the enchanting Signe, the fashion diva, and the rambunctious Rion, a very funny and sweet little boy who engaged all in the shelter. A young guy, Cape, and I were sharing the shelter that evening, as the family had two tents to share and we were later joined by another, older guy who’s name escapes me. We were royally entertained by the kids and it was wonderful to be part of a family scene, albeit on the periphery. Once more, I was struck by the benefits of being out in the woods together as a family, if only on this four day trip. It truly was a delight to meet them all.
A quick three miler into town this morning left me at the Smoky Mountain Diner, where calls of “Mighty Blue” rang out when I saw my young friends of about a week ago. A huge breakfast, followed by pulled pork sandwiches this afternoon and I’m shortly to come to grips with a five course vegetarian banquet at Elmer’s this evening where I’m staying.
It has certainly been a mixed week, but one in which I’ve been lucky enough to grow as a hiker and have enjoyed many new and become reacquainted with some “old” friends at the same time.
I’m now only about 70 miles from Erwin, TN, where I hope to be reunited with my lovely wife for a few days. That certainly gives me something to hike for.