Taking a zero at Fontana Dam was interesting. The "Village" is a strange place. Its a resort, so it felt uncomfortable. The hotel was having a hiker gathering, which wasn't much more than just a few events planned. One was watching the Life of Pi. Another was Rock Band. Both if these things were almost stressful in an overwhelming sense and most definitely uncomfortable. There is something about being off the trail that makes you want back on. Then again, when you are on the trail, there are obvious reasons you can't wait to get to town.
One of these things is snow. Rain is worse than snow, until snow begins to threaten your life.
The day I set out into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park it was drizzling rain. I fretted for an hour or so over trying to get a shuttle into town to reprint a piece of paper saying I paid money and was allowed into the park. I never could get a ride so I set out hoping the receipt was enough. It was, thankfully, and I hiked on to a shelter for the night.
That first day in the park, walking in the misty rain, was really rough. My pack felt so heavy and I felt so weak. I was also alone for the first time since the early days and it was sad. Hermes, Detour, the Almighty D, Clever Girl, Dumptruck and Apollo were all back in the Village and Movie Star was a day aead. Not long after I hit the shelter the rain really started coming down. By morning it was a thick blanket of snow. Maineiac and I set out for a 15 miles day in it together. We had hitched back to the shelter from the village together and walked into the Smokies on the same day, so we had been in tandem for a while in AT time. There was a lot of counter encouragement between us, being positive just for the sake of the other. Walking in ankle deep snow, while its still snowing, kind of sucks.
We made it to our destination and I could tell by the hiker logs I had been reading all day that Movie Star was only 2 miles ahead of us at the next shelter, but there was no way we could go on. Just a bit earlier as we were hiking, about 100 yards from the shelter I told Maineiac I was over it. I was nearly in tears. So cold, such wet feet, starving. Ten more steps over a ridge we spied the shelter through the snow storm and it felt like a miracle. Two more miles seemed impossible.
I sent a note with some hikers who hadn't done so many miles up to Movie Star at the next shelter letting him know that we were on his heels and to meet us tomorrow to get into town. Slowly, the shelter Mainiac and I were in filled up with some of the same folks we had been with the night before. We all commiserated with one another and bonded over the spirit breaking day. The rain had been physically tough (mud, wet, and sweat) but the snow was emotionally and mentally straining on top of the usual freezing temps and wet feet slipping all over the place.
We woke up the next morning and it was still snowing. 24+ hours into a winter storm. The entire shelter banded together and waited for everyone to get ready to go and we all set out together to climb over Clingmans Dome to Newfound gap, where 441 to town was. Maineiac broke the trail for us all. The snow was knee deep in most places by the time I got to it and I can only guess it must have been waist deep for him multiple times based off of the snow drifts. Even with 8 or 9 people in tow, it was very trying.
Before we even got a quarter of a mile from the shelter a figure appears ahead of Maineiac heading south bound. It was Movie Star, who had back tacked nearly two miles with a warming for us. The road to Gatlinburg, 441, was close off until Thursday at the soonest, a whole two days away, and the last weather report said the snow wouldn't stop until Wednesday night, another 36 hours away. He also said the shelter he had come from was better insulated and had a closer, more reliable water resource. The caravan followed his tracks all the way back to the shelter he had come from and gathered around to deliberate.
Movie Star had heard of a side trail down off the mountain that several people had bailed out on which took you to Elkmont Campground (I remember many family camping trips there) but it was 12 miles down and there was no promise of a ride to town. Our other options were to push on and risk overcrowding he next shelter, or post up in the empty shelter we had just arrived at.
We opted to stay put and everyone pitched in to collect fire wood and we had a roaring fire in no time. So far the only good thing about the Smokies is the fire place in the shelters. My childhood memories of this being a magical place have been shattered.
We woke up the next day and for the first time in three days it wasn't snowing. It started Sunday night and on Wednesday morning, it finally stopped. Everyone headed out in groups hoping to get to Newfound Gap and get into town. The fact that the entire world around us looked like a winter wonderland of Narnia proportions barely registered because of the drudgery of walking through it all. Every other step is a corrective step to save you from slipping and falling because of the poorly placed step before.
Thankfully, as we finally scrambled up to the top of Clingman's Dome (the highest point in the AT) the sky opened up for the first time in days and we saw blue sky and sunshine. The full majesty of the snow laden landscape was shown before us as we saw a 360 degree view from the tower of the frozen over hell we had just come out of.
After a short time admiring, we set out for the gap another 6 miles or more away. I can't even explain how impossible and hopeless it feels to be walking like a drunken baby giraffe up and over snowy mountains for hours on end, but we eventually emerged, single file, 14 people strong, out of the depths of the artic and into the parking lot at Newfound Gap.
As we arrived, a snow plow driver told us the road had just been opened up, so we called a few shuttles and sat around in the sunshine waiting. Then the strangest thing began to happen. Slowly, cars began to trickle into the parking lot and children and grand parents and rotund couples began to meander about. They played in the snow and took pictures of the white capped mountains and some even asked to take pictures of us. It was so strange to see people frolicking in and gawking over what only a day before we had feared may have us stuck in a very dangerous situation.
Our shuttles came and pulled us back into the reality of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, if that's what you want to call this city. We all decided to zero here and recoup for a day but are headed back out into the snow tomorrow. I know it will be rough and suck a lot at many points, but with these people, living through this blip in history, I know I am living the dream; that this is what adventure means and this is what many of us came for. That and the beautiful people who push and pull you through it all.