After a restless night and little sleep, morning greeted us with fog, left over from rain during the night. It was about 6:30am, the time that most hikers seem to start to stir. I was filled with relief, knowing that I'd made it through my first night ever sleeping in a shelter with other hikers...and, truth is, it wasn't that bad after all! I'm not sure, but I think the nighttime temps had dipped into the mid-50's so there was definitely a chill in the air (especially for us Floridians). Climbing down from my spot on the upper platform, I stretched my aching muscles and wondered what the day ahead of us held in store. We were excited because it was going to be much shorter than the day before, coming in at just under 10 miles. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal, and I should have figured it was going to be a rough day for me when me sudden distaste for all things sweet wouldn't allow me to eat very much of my breakfast. I knew I need the calories for energy, but every time I tried to swallow a bite, I gagged. I choked down what I could, then set about the task of packing up my gear. The age-old saying that nothing ever fits back in the box once you take it out certainly holds true when it comes to re-packing my backpack. For some reason, I always have trouble with it. Still, I finally managed to get it done and before we knew it, we were ready to head out. Derrick Knob Shelter was our destination that day.
I'm not sure how long we'd been walking, but we stopped to catch our breath after a particularly long, taxing climb. Out of breath, we didn't speak. After a couple of minutes, we were ready to start out again, so we turned and took a step. Suddenly, we realized that we were not alone! Off to our right came the deepest growls I've ever heard! Startled, my brother, who was in the lead position, began to bang his trekking poles together as he yelled, "Go on bear! Get out of here!" The bear, as startled as we were, continued to send us those deep warning growls as he ran down the slope of the mountain. Ironically, just that morning my brother has said the he wouldn't mind seeing a bear, but only from a distance. Ask and you shall receive! He got to see the bear's butt as it ran away from us. While we're certain that we heard other bears over the trek, this was the only one we actually caught sight of!
As we approached Rocky Top, after a climb that seemed to go on forever, the terrain opened up to beautiful flowers and grasses:
Once we reached Rocky Top, the weather changed quickly, the clouds rolling in across the mountains and chilling our sweaty bodies to the core. There's a certain beauty in the power of the mountains...they "make their own weather," as our shuttle driver had told us. One very valuable lesson we learned was that in the Smoky Mountains, you need to be prepared for any kind of weather!
|Still trying to keep a smile on my face|
I'm not sure what exactly was going on, but my boot seemed to hit the top of my left ankle with every step I took. Uphill wasn't as bad as going down, and there was no blister, but the pain was often almost enough to stop me in my tracks. Looking back, all I can figure is that having my left foot on the inside of the trail and often close to the mountain itself must have caused me to pronate my foot inward, thus pounding the boot against my ankle. Nothing I did relieved it so all I could do was drive on. The thing is...once you're in the Smoky Mountains, there aren't all the forest service roads we'd come across on prior hikes, so there's nowhere along the way to stop, call, and get picked up. I certainly wasn't going to call the Back-country office and have them come get me so I just kept on walking...sometimes moving at a pace slower than anything I'd even call a walk. What else was there to do?
|The calm before the storm...|
We tried to eat something as we took a much-needed break up on Rocky Top, but all I was able to get down was not even half of my Big Sur bar. Before long, the wind picked up and we decided to move on. We barely got started down Rocky Top before the rain hit. And it hit hard, complete with thunder and all the fixings! Instantly soaked through to the bone, we opted to push on without undoing everything to get our rain gear. We were already soaked...it wouldn't have made one bit of difference. Crossing Thunderhead Mountain, the trail was instantly transformed into a rapidly-running river, making traversing the descent treacherous at best. I'm still not sure how I managed to get down that mountain without serious injury. I'm not stable on rocks and frequently slip in mud, but somehow, I managed to stay on my water-logged feet.
I honestly didn't think it was possible for the trail to be any harder on me than it had been the day before...on all of us, really...but that 9 miles was far worse than the 13.5 we'd logged in the day before. By this time, I'd hiked two long, difficult days on very little food, in constant pain, and was almost beyond what I'd call exhausted...but I couldn't quit. I wouldn't quit.
I think I almost cried when the Derrick Knob Shelter came into sight at last...
Several other hikers had beaten us to the shelter, so there was very little room to hang any wet clothes but we were just so glad to finally be in out of the rain, that we didn't care. We claimed our spot in the shelter (on the lower level this time) and then changed out of our cold, wet clothes. A cup of coffee, some dinner, and a shelter full of other amazing hikers helped to make us feel better. Thankful that I was able to keep my dinner down, I was more than ready to climb into the warmth of my sleeping bag at what couldn't have been much later than 7:30. Using my rain poncho as a cover to protect my head from bugs, and whatever else might crawl around inside the shelter at night, I remember being amazed at just how comfortable my little 25"-wide blow-up sleeping pad was. For the first time since early that morning, I was finally warm and it didn't take long for sleep to overcome my exhausted body and spirit. I didn't have time to contemplate what lay ahead of us the next day. I had no idea when we'd set out the day before just how deep down within myself I'd have to dig just to keep putting one foot in front of the other.