Saturday, July 15, 2017


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 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. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017


     Today is July 8th, and I've been home from my Appalachian Trail section hike for a month but still haven't really been able to put the experience into words.  Like one young lady I met along the way put it, I didn't really go out on the A.T. to discover the meaning of life or anything....but I did learn a few things about myself. 
     I can't really put my finger on why I felt different going into this hike.  For two years, we'd been talking about heading into the Smoky Mountains...

 ...but as we sat in our room at the Hike Inn, Fontana Village on the night on 6/2/17

 I found that my stomach was tied in knots and my mind was filled with doubts:  What would it be like to sleep in the shelters with 9 other hikers?  Would we encounter any black bears along the way?  What would that first climb out of the Fontana Dam area be like?  The night passed quickly, and before long we found ourselves loading up our gear into the back of our shuttle driver's SUV.  As we traveled the short distance to the trail-head, she gave us the customary "critter talk."  That mile across the dam itself only served to add to those butterflies in my stomach. 

And suddenly, we were there:

Renee waited patiently as we situated our packs and said our farewells.  There was nothing left to do but put one foot in front of the other and begin our 40-mile trek that would take us from Fontana Dam to Newfound Gap, NC.  Day 1 loomed largely ahead of us, packing in almost 14 miles to the Russel Field Shelter.  Within the first 5 minutes, I was huffing and puffing as we began our ascent to the Shuckstack Fire Tower.  It didn't take me long to figure out that I the Smoky Mountains are no joke and that I was extremely ill-prepared physically for what lie ahead of me.  Still, I did my best to keep a good attitude despite the way my body kept reminding me that I was a little bit short of being crazy to think I was ready to take on this hike. 

Stopped for a break!

Because the mountain wasted no time with kicking my butt, I didn't get very many pictures on the first day of our hike, but the woods did open up a couple of times to provide us with some amazing views:

Still managing to smile!
 I did take the side trail to the Shuckstack Fire Tower, but chickened out once I got up to it!  There was only one side-rail and I just couldn't make myself do it!  I did, however, take a few shots of the beautiful flowers along the way!

Taking time to enjoy the little things!

The trail went on.  The trail went up.  The trail was relentless, kicking butt and taking no prisoners!  Thinking back on it now, I don't think I've ever felt the multitude of physical, mental, and emotional feelings that I experienced on that first day.  I'm not sure what came over me, but I found myself suddenly unable to eat the Big Sur bars we'd planned for our lunch.  The snacks (meant for quick energy) also made me gag after a bite or so.  So, I pretty much was unable to eat anything other than breakfast and dinner each day.  Exhausted from the lack of calories, I didn't think it could get much worse...but I was wrong.  I'm not sure how far away from the Russel Field Shelter we were, but I had to stop suddenly because I felt like I was going to throw up (although I'm not sure what would have come up as my stomach was empty).  This continued on for the rest of the hike actually...

Before we started the day, we were certain that we would be the last hikers to arrive at the shelter.  Turns out, however, that we were the first! 

Russel Field Shelter
We claimed our spots, and I had to sit down.  Typically, I volunteer to go get the water for the night, but this time, I simply couldn't.  I had nothing left in me.  My brother and sister graciously offered to go fill everything up, and while they were gone, I had to visit the "toilet area" (there was no privy), where I finally did throw up the contents of my empty stomach.  By the time they returned, I felt a little better.  We did our best to relax and enjoy a cup of instant coffee before making dinner.  The ever-famous "hiker midnight" came around 7:30, as well all (and I do mean all 12 of us) slowly began to climb into our sleeping bags.  We drifted in and out of sleep, making sure to get up to pee one last time before darkness finally set in.  I have to say that everything I've ever read about the snoring in the shelters is absolutely true, but I didn't mind.  The noise brought some much-needed comfort from the thought of hearing the black bears raiding our camp.  As I lay there in the dark, those voices in my head were saying, "Great job today, Domingo!  You made it through Day 1!"  I drifted off to a restless sleep, wondering what Day 2 would hold....