Trip summary! We got an early start to spring break on Friday and booked it down to Concord Mass (home sweet home for Cam) for a quick car swap (thank you momma Adams). With hybrid in hand we made it down to Harrisburg, PA that night. Not a super scenic area so we spent that night in our Red Roof Inn. After a quick breakfast at the local American Dream diner we started off for our second full day of driving with TN in our sights. We hit three states before 10 am (PA, MD, and WV) and passed the birthplace of three American presidents before noon. We knew we were getting close to Gatlinburg when we saw the billboard for the comedy show with the “mind reading pig” and “talking dog” (complete with human teeth!) and the reenactment of the Hatfield and McCoy dinner show. Those of us who hadn’t been there before were expecting a cute little gateway town to the national park, but it turns out Gatlinburg looks more like a trashy Disney world than anything else. More mechanical bull riding options, minigolf spots, and southern tourists than we’d ever seen before! Truly an experience.
At the trailhead
After a night with Walt’s Aunt and Uncle and some much needed gear organizing, we got an early start on the trail the next day. The entrance to the AT was mobbed with people because it was the first real day of summer, but once we got going it emptied out pretty quickly and became really peaceful. Pretty much everyone we ran into on the trail was a thru-hiker, which we weren’t really expecting. Walt’s uncle (who works for the park) said the thru-hikers start form Georgia earlier and earlier every year so we might expect to see some, but it was even busier than we could have imagined. Walt’s uncle hiked in with us a few miles and carried some beers for a quick trail break at a spot with completely amazing views before we continued on to the first lean-to at Icewater Springs.
Here we had to discuss strategy. Erica had pain in her ankles that had been acting up in the past couple weeks. She had been wearing heel-less shoes, icing, and taking pain medication to mitigate the pain, but had not been able to get rid of the tendonitis before we left for the trip. The first day, although short, had caused a lot discomfort and we could all see that her achilles’ was inflamed and swelling. We decided to cook dinner, spend the night, take some ibuprofen, and check on the pain again in the morning. We laid out our sleeping pads under the completely clear sky to stargaze before going to sleep in the overly-crowded shelter. When we finally submitted to the unexpectedly large slumber party, the thru-hikers gave us some good tips: don’t sleep with your head against the wall, there are rats. Don’t drink water before you sleep, you will “evaporate” it and make your sleeping bag damp. Unclear whether or not tip-giver had a bed-wetting problem.
Charlie's Bunion, TN
We woke up in the morning to misty fog rolling across our mountaintop camp. Cooked oatmeal, packed bags, hit the outhouse, put on shoes… As soon as Erica put on her hiking boots Walt and Cam saw the light in her eyes flicker out. “Guys… I can’t walk.” The dreaded words had been said. We thought about our itinerary. We had a 10-mile day ahead of us. Every mile we walked put us further in the backcountry, and further from access to medical attention. Furthermore, there was still some ice on the trail, making the chances of falling and aggravating the injury much worse. We knew what we had to do, but none of us wanted to say it first. With heavy hearts, but clear heads, Walt and Cam took some of Erica’s heavier gear, took stations on her left and right sides, and the three forlorn section hikers walked, slowly, back toward the trailhead.
But resilience is the name of the game. Yes, our planned itinerary could not be completed because of unchangeable medical conditions. But no, the trip was not over! We returned to Walt’s aunt and uncle’s house to use as home base. Erica started an icing and elevation routine, and got on the phone with people more qualified than the present company to help with the ankle. To savor the day we drove down to the Greenbrier section of the Little Pigeon river, doing some icing au naturale in the snowmelt and watching the sun set through the trees. We had a BBQ that night and went to bed feeling as if not all had been lost, after all.
The next day, Walt and Cam did a day hike to the Chimney Tops while Erica had some “me-time.” They also got semi-lost in a creekbed that they wanted to use as an alternate trail route. Hit up the local pub and watering hole for dinner called “The Three Jimmies,” which was supposedly started by three guys named Jimmy. Experienced southern culture.
It was time for our adventure into the Smokies to end. Ankles needed mending, and Asheville, NC, needed visiting. We left Walt’s aunt and uncles in the morning to cross the state line and begin our trek back north after a quick stop in the famous music, art, outdoor, and beer haven of North Carolina. The trip hadn’t gone as planned, but it hadn’t been a failure- far from it. Our minds had been made up, 2.5 miles of the AT hadn’t been enough. After graduation, we’d be coming back, and we’d finish it.