Well, I find myself now in Hot Springs, NC not hiking but sitting in Laughing Heart Hostel watching it rain and listening to “007” sing every song that comes on the radio. He’s got a case of shin splints and has to stay put for a few days. I know what you’re thinking: “What the heck Bulldog? You’re a wussy!” Hold on a minute and let me explain. My buddy Deep Woods is on his way back home, our hike cut short by forest fires and the forest service closing off our next section of trail. Some hikers actually had to be evacuated. We saw for ourselves on the drive back to Pigeon Forge underbrush burning and smoke rising from the mountains. Its pouring right now and more is expected tomorrow which should really help the fire fighters out so long as they get enough and the winds aren’t crazy. And so far, Deep Woods and I have enjoyed a 300 mile rain-free streak of beautiful weather over the last three years. It sucks that we’re not finishing this year’s section but it is what it is. Hot Springs has become a hub of sorts for the fire fighting efforts and when you throw in all the hikers coming in, it’s been a bit crazy for such a small town. Kinda spooky when you can look out the window and see smoke rising from the mountains….and its NOT the Smoky Mountains. I’ll fill ya all in with the details of how we plan to finish this section next year in an upcoming post but for now I’ll pick up where I left off on mine and Loonie’s trip.
Got an early start (well, earlier than the day before anyway…9 AM) because we would have some tough climbs to tackle on the day. Loaded down with extra water, we said goodbye to our remaining shelter – mates and hit the trail. We chugged along much of the day, passing Sugarcreek Gap, big patches of Bluets, more Spring Beauties and Trout Lilies. We just puttered along, trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the task ahead.
That task was to now get up Briar Knob. My only recollection of it from the North – bound trip with Deep Woods was one section so steep we could practically ride down the mountain on our butts. Now Loonie and I were going to try going up this thing and all I kept saying to her was “Don’t look at the top. Just take 100 small steps, we’ll take a break, and we’ll do it again. Before you know it, we’ll be at the top.” Anything to get the girl to the top. So we were off. And soon those 100 steps became 50, and then 30, and so on. But that girl conquered Briar Knob. She kicked it’s butt!
We took a break to celebrate the victory and look over the elevation profile for our next challenge, Thunderhead Mtn. The South – bound approach is a stair – step of three climbs. None as killer as Briar Knob but after tackling that, they must have seemed just as challenging to Loonie. Once again, we slogged our way up, finally reaching the top around 5:30 PM. Thunderhead’s summit is surrounded by vegetation and there are no views other than by stepping up on a pile of rocks someone has conveniently assembled and even the view from these is limited. Loonie must have been thinking “WHAT IN THE **** WAS ALL THAT EFFORT FOR?” There was a tuft or two of bear fur on the ground, which was cool.
We took another break…not a long one because we had a bit further to go….and I told Loonie “Now your about to see what all that effort was for”. We got back up, put on our packs and in within minutes of setting off down the other side we broke free from the thick vegetation and BAM…the entire world seemed to be spread out before us. We were looking downhill towards the rock strewn knobs of Rocky Top and False Rocky Top, Spence Field, and Fontana Lake and Cades Cove further below. The sun was getting lower on the horizon but still high enough that it was like God was pointing down and saying “See what I made you big fat chump?” Heading South – bound, descending from Thunderhead, breaking free from the claustrophobic feel of the laurel, the beautiful clear late afternoon sky…it was an entirely different sensation from my trip here the year before. Now I just felt like dropping to my knees and saying “The Lord has led me to the promised land!” It was a spectacular moment and I don’t think it could have been better unless it had been at sunrise or sunset. I had found my favorite spot in the Smokies to date. It can be a tough spot to get to and it sure wouldn’t be the place to be in a storm but in my mind I never wanted that one moment in time to end.
But end it must because we still had to get up and over Rocky Top, over False Rocky Top and then up to Spence Field. So we pressed on. It didn’t take long or much effort to reach Rocky Top. Off came the packs again and we soaked in the remaining bit of sun and enjoyed the spectacular views. If we weren’t in such desperate need of water I think we would have said screw the park rules, pulled out our quilt and slept right there. It was absolutely beautiful!
Took a bunch of pics up there, made it down and over the next knob and began the final slog of the day to Spence Field. Spence Field is a very pretty spot and I would love to get back there when the Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel are in bloom but unfortunately at this time of year at this elevation they are not and our destination was Spence Field Shelter which sits on the opposite end of the field from the top of our climb. We made our way to the top just around 7:30. Got across the field and to the shelter to find a packed house once again. No big surprise. Got setup in the shelter, filtered water, ate and snuggled up for some shut eye. LONG, HARD day but one we will never forget. Just beautiful!
More to come …