Day 16: The Uphill Struggle - 200 miles

When I looked at my elevation map to see what was coming after the NOC, what I saw was every broker's dream version of the stock market: a jagged line which just goes up and up. The NOC is the lowest point (so far) on the AT at something like 1,600 feet above sea level. Four days later I would need to be on Clingman's Dome, which towers at 6,600 feet, the highest point on the entire AT. It was going to be the toughest sixty miles so far, but Katie, my mom and my seventeen year old niece were going to be there with pizza. I had to push on!

When I think of Clingman's Dome, I'm reminded of my sister-in-law  Priscilla, or PV for short. She and her husband came to visit Katie and me in Asheville a few years ago, and we all hopped in the car one day, drove up to Clingman's Dome and hiked a small section of the AT which goes up to the observation deck, or as I like to call it, The Concrete Monstrosity. It affords great views, but it's hideous from any distance, including standing right on it. I remember from that hike that we all made a big deal about the tower being ugly. I remember the smell of pines, and I remember Dave's and my knees cracking a lot. It was an uphill struggle and the girls put us to shame that day. Katie had just started running regularly and PV was pretty serious into Karate.

Every day the horizon changes

PV is an interesting character. She's a meteorologist. No, not the kind who point at the map and have clever catch phrases. The kind who actually knows what a vortex is, and how to explain them. She's kinda a big deal in the tornado community too, and it was on a trip to the mid-west for something tornado-related, that we almost lost her. There was a terrible accident, the details of which I won't go into here, but it was the kind that shuts down the freeway, makes the evening news and involves helicopters.

When Katie and I saw her less than a day after the accident I didn't recognize her. Her head was the size of a watermelon and she was full of tubes. Multiple compound fractures, punctured organs, a shattered pelvis and I forget how many other horrible things. They weren't sure when (or if) she'd wake up. When she woke up they weren't sure when (or if) she'd get her wits back. Not long after that she was talking, and not long after that she was demanding to go home.

Countless surgeries, progressing from a walker, to a cane, to no cane, to just a little over a year later and she's posing for a picture at her dojo with a black belt. Let's talk about uphill struggles, shall we?

So this is the person I decided to think about as I mentally geared myself up to walk uphill for sixty miles. I knew that my feet would hurt, and I knew that my muscles would ache, and I knew that I would get thirsty, and I knew that I would want to stop, and I was right. All of those things happened. And as they did, I reminded myself what a real uphill struggle is, and that it was time for me to put on my big girl panties because my problems were minor. 

As I left the NOC, I had planned to share all of this once I got to Fontana Dam, and then dedicate the next three days climb to PV. I've been in a cellular and wifi dead zone, so now I'm doing it after the fact. The climb was tough, PV. It sucked. And during the hardest of the hard parts, I thought about you and it made me keep going up. You've been not only a big supporter of this ridiculous project, but you've been an inspiration as well. Today I stood where we stood that day, and I tipped my hat in your direction.

Now onto some lighter stuff. Like giant piles of poo. 

Briefly consider what sort of creature leaves a pile like this. Then be afraid.

Once we entered the Smokys everything changed. For one thing, they make you stay in the shelters the whole time. You have to register, and pay for a permit ($20 - other than food, my only expense so far!) At first I was a little perturbed at that, because I like to walk until I'm tired and just drop my tent somewhere. Within a mile of entering, the reason became obvious. It's for our own safety.

The forest is very well preserved and protected, which means it's teeming with wildlife. The kind that's pretty to look at and listen to, as well as the kind that will stomp on you and eat you. Before reaching the first shelter, my newest hiking buddy, Gorp and I saw a wild boar and two piglets. Another group was delayed for half an hour because a mama bear and her cubs were napping on the trail. There were two four-point bucks in our camp the next morning and one report of a timber rattler. I'll happily stay in these shelters, not just for the critters, but because they're positively luxurious. Each one has a fireplace, and the sleeping area is so far back from the opening that even in a hurricane you'd stay dry.

Every shelter in the Smokys looks like this.

One last interesting thing, and then I'm off to bed. You're probably wondering how I put together such a wordy update when all I have is my phone, right? Let me tell you about trail magic my friends. After that brutal climb, all I wanted was a kiss from my wife, a slice a pizza, another slice of pizza, and a ride to the nearest town to do laundry and pamper my feet. Well, I got that kiss, and both slices, and she did me one better on the whole ride to town thing. She reminded me that our house isn't really that far from where we were standing, and therefore, as I write this, I am sitting in my comfy chair, my clothes are in the dryer and there is ice cream in my belly. 

I'm going to get up tomorrow, have a hearty breakfast and be back on the trail by lunchtime. 

Blue Indian, Voldemort and Droid (formerly Roadblock) watch the sunset from Cheoah Bald.