Day 20: Gatlinburg

Day 20. What a night. After posting yesterday’s blog, a few comments came in warning of thunderstorms on the horizon. And this time, the radar did not lie. Wow was it crazy last night. I was safe and warm inside the shelter, but EVERYONE was startled from sleep around 11pm when wind ripped across the mountain top. It was loud, it was crazy, but it was short lived. I fell asleep again quickly but others said it was over by midnight. Poor Nubs was tenting outside, so his stuff is soaking wet now, but he was smart enough to set it up using the shelter as a wind break. So not as bad as others. I’m just glad I decided not to setup the hammock this time I favor of testing out a shelter with a fireplace. I still need a better sleeping pad to pull it off, but the warmth did not disappoint.

One of the nice differences in the Smokies this time of year, is the presence of many more day/section hikers at the shelters. They are able to reserve spots in a shelter, and technically have the right to kick out a thruhiker if they arrive with a permit to a full house. We have not experienced that yet, but it’s important to know we could see it.

But section hikers are great because the all have different stories to be out here: weekend trail warriors, spring-break weekers, guided adventurers, honeymooners, etc … one such group quickly became my new friends, as they were fellow midwesterners on spring break from college in Wisconsin. One guy was even from Minnesota … finally, someone to discuss the Kirt Cousins deal with that actually cares!

Side note, the Venn diagram of AT thruhikers and current event sports fans is extremely small. I’ve brought up the crazy NFL free agency deals and NCAA tournament upsets with many hikers on the trail in hopes of generating a lively and lengthy hike conversation … yeah, no.

These spring-breakers drove down from Lawrence University in Appleton, to do a week of backpacking in the Smokies. They were great company in the shelter last night, but unfortunately we’re headed in the opposite direction this morning so it was short lived.

Before the night was over, though, I couldn’t resist giving out a few trail names. What can I say, I love doing it and they were generally open to the suggestions. Going with my liquor theme from earlier (e.g. Keg and The Captain), I quickly noticed one guy had a maroon and gold stocking cap on from a favorite Minnesota brewery. So it was an easy call .. he shall be “Surly”.

Another gentlemen was very tall, and I asked his help multiple times to hang my pack on the rafters. I couldn’t remember his real name so kept saying “hey, tall boy” to get his attention. It wasn’t a far leap from there to give him his name … “PBR”.

Lastly, one of the girls kept using the term “Janky” in regular conversation. This lovingly reminded me of my time working at summer camp in Wisconsin (shout out to Herzl Camp), where we used the term “Jchanked” to describe the counselor-in-training group I co-led. I could not resist resurrecting it for such a noble reason and offered that as her name. I don’t know how many of these will stick, but I hope they keep hiking sections of the AT and use those names in the future. If not, oh well, it was still great time being able to discuss Minnesota/Wisconsin topics with them.

As for hiking … after last night, the day was fairly decent weather until right before the end. The day started with a 4 mile hike up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT and in Tennessee. It was a beautiful slow uphill hike through luscious green forests of moss-covered trees. If you’ve seen the recent Natalie Portman movie, Annihilation, it made me think of the world inside the shimmer. Random reference, I know, but now you have an excuse to go see a good underrated movie. Here’s a photo of my scene:

Unfortunately, however, the view at the lookout tower on top was non-existent. The whole peak was shrouded in clouds and you could barely see a foot right in front of your face … (queue the camp inside joke).

Seriously though, it was a huge disappointment, as this is a big landmark to summit and see early in the trip. I took a 360 video of what you can’t see just for fun, but mostly out of spite and anger. Oh well, there are better views still to come. That being said, if I get the same clouded view at McAfee Knob, you better believe I am going to setup my hammock right then and there and Zero until it clears. That ritual photo-op is 90% of my motivation to keep hiking right now.

After submitting Clingmans, things turned sour fast. It started raining on the way back down and didn’t let up until we reached Newfound Gap, 7 miles later. The path downward quickly turned to a flowing river, and I had to play trail hopscotch to keep my feet dry. With just trail runners for boots, one misstep meant very wet and muddy feet, so I leapt from rock to ledge to log to get a dry foot hole. I was using waterproof socks but they only work for so long before becoming overly saturated, and that point was passed miles ago. So I hopped, skipped and jumped down the trail as best I could without breaking an ankle of falling on the ground again. Whether it be skill or luck (I’m going with luck), I made it down safely to the Newfound Gap parking lot.

It was only 3 miles to the next shelter, but we all quickly came to three realizations at the same time:

  1. The shelter was definitely full by now, and all the good tent/hammock spots taken too.
  2. It is supposed to be very cold and very snowy all day tomorrow.
  3. Gatlinburg is a phone call away

So, for my 6th time in 3 weeks, I’m headed to town for a warm bed. And don’t get me wrong, I am VERY happy for this one, as we were freezing by the end of today and tomorrow expects 6-8” of snow. So, we called a shuttle service and booked a room at the Johnson’s Inn for the night, with plans to go out again tomorrow after lunch.

There are 9 of us that all made that decision, so there is a small party at the inn tonight. Culligan, Fun Facts, and Nubs are here with me, but also two thruhiking couples and another new face next door. As soon as we checked in, we all showered, went to Five Guys for dinner, and looked for a bar to celebrate our wise decision. After that, it was a night of shooting pool, playing darts, toasting beer, and listening to locals sing karaoke.

However, what we had hoped would just be a warm night to refuel, became an unexpected and automatic Zero Day. Apparently, the presence of snow on the mountain will cause the access road to Newfound Gap to close. On the drive down, our shuttle driver informed us that it will be at least a day before they open it again … maybe longer. So, for the foreseeable future, we are stuck in Gatlinburg.

This town is interesting, sort of like a small version of the Wisconsin Dells or Niagara Falls. There is no shortage of weird touristy things to do and money to spend. Although I’m trying to keep my growing expenses in check, I expect tomorrow’s post will be full of fun small town shenanigans. Mini Golf, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, Guinness World Record Museum … just what you need to turn a glum day into a glamorous one. More on that, tomorrow…

Hello Neiman (Sharkbait)!

  • Start Mile: 195.1
  • Start Time: 09:00
  • End Mile: 207.3
  • End Time: 15:45
  • Miles Hiked: 12.1
  • Miles to Go: 1983.6
  • Lodging: Gatlinburg / Johnson’s Inn

15 thoughts on “Day 20: Gatlinburg

  1. Lots of adventures for just one day! I would consider bringing light-weight gaiters if we hit the rainy season in NY & Conn. just in case the trails stay the same. Mud is fine (boots don’t care), but squishing in water for 10+ miles would not be my first choice. I love the pictures and appreciate the camaraderie that you’re enjoying. It, by itself, makes the trip a fantastic experience. Stay warm, stay dry, and keep on truckin’ 🙂
    xxx
    mom & dad

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dad, I think gaiters are a good call if the weather shows rain. It’s a very different trail in the rain down here, and I imagine that is the same up north. After all, we don’t want to get your new fancy boots all dirty! 😋

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    • Haha, yes! It was my original inspiration to hike the AT. I read it in college and thought to myself, “well if this guy can’t do it … I certainly can!”

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    • Gatlinburg is where our hero’s adventure, and that of the notorious Bryson/Katz team, will seriously diverge. Bryson and Katz took a cab to Knoxville and drove on the Roanoke VA, skipping a vast section of the trail. Our hero will return to the trail in Newfound Gap, and provide us with blogs on the section that Byrson and Katz missed out on.

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      • We left Tarzan at the top of the mountain, he was a few miles ahead of us. Hoping he and the others are warm and safe and moving on fast!

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  2. Soooo glad y’all were able to get a shuttle to Gatlinburg before they closed the road! It is a crazy tourist town but still lots of fun. Go check out Pancake Pantry for breakfast!!

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  3. I’d be torn between Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies and a snowy round of Hillbilly Golf. Maybe you’ll have time to do both! Thanks for all these updates; love them.

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  4. Glad to hear you got off the trail and found somewhere warm, dry and with food options. Next day or two don’t sound like good days to hike, but you’ll soon find out!

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  5. Almost forgot…I stumbled on a guy’s blog from St. Paul, MN who is thru-hiking about a day or two behind you. His name is Jason, ‘J’ for short… trail name is PaceCar. I told him to watch for you! He’s about 40 and sounds like a strong hiker.

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  6. I passed through Gatlinburg on my way to a hike in the Smokies one Summer back in the 80s. The Smokies were beautiful, with an understory of rhododendrons, and a thousand, thousand crickets.at night. The Summer traffic in Gatlinburg was a nightmare. I did not get out of the car until safely in the mountains.

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