Woke up to changing skies – still dry but showers, possibly a thunderstorm predicted for the afternoon. Got another text off to Loonie asking her to pick us up at Allen Gap at 2 PM. We had 11.5 miles to go but it looked doable. Shortly after leaving the shelter we ran across a “300” assembled out of sticks in the middle of the trail, signifying to those heading North that they had crossed the 300 mile mark. As for Deep Woods and I, we weren’t far behind them in total miles. Just that ours were now a bit jumbled up.
Our first major task was to get over Big Firescald Knob. The guide said that the section over Big Firescald was rocky and strenuous and was it ever! It was a ginormous mountain of rocks piled one on top of another. We wouldn’t see smooth trail again for one and a half miles. We could have elected to do the bypass trail, foregoing the exposed, rocky passage, and that would have been the prudent choice if the weather had already turned on us. But I had seen pics of this section online and had been looking forward to it.
Normally I would have loved a section like this – rock scrambling, hand over hand, clawing your way up the mountain. So cool! But right now I was becoming demoralized and frustrated. I told the girls we would be there at 2 PM and it was becoming less likely with every rock that we would make it in time. I knew there wasn’t much more than a small convenience store named “MOM’S” there and that’s about it. The thought of the girls sitting out there alone in the middle of nowhere was driving my nuts but all I could do now was pray they were ok and hike on. Maybe we should have taken the bypass after all.
We picked our way slowly up the mountain, using caution not to slip. A broken leg or ankle here would be really, really bad!!! We finally made the summit and snapped a couple of pics (great views! ) but the climb up had been excruciatingly slow and we were now facing a repeat performance on the descent. Before we started down I was able to get through to Loonie to let her know that we were now looking at a 4 PM meet up time. With that, we set off down the other side, SLOWLY picking our way down.
From there, we pressed forward, climbing a bit more to Camp Creek Bald. There’s a tower 0.2 mi off the trail but the guide said it’s always locked and doesn’t offer any views anyway. This was one of the only times in the nearly 300 miles of the AT that Deep Woods and I have done that we haven’t stopped and walked a bit off the trail to see some attraction such as an overlook, firetower, waterfall, etc. noted in the guide. So many hikers, especially thru-hikers, are worried about crunching miles (sound familiar) or getting to the next shelter or next town and they wind up missing so many wonderful things. We were getting back on the trail after taking some pics at an overlook one day when a thru-hiker came flying up. I said “There’s a great view just 50 ft down there.” All he said was “There’s 2,000 miles of great views.” and he flew right on by. I wondered if he ever slowed down to enjoy any views at all. We try to stick by a moto: “We may never pass this way again.” Take it all in while ya can. In this case, however, we deferred to the guide and decided to press on to meet up with the girls. From here it was nearly all downhill.
Made a quick pit stop at Little Laurel Shelter. While there, my buddy Wilson, who has been with me every mile since Springer Mtn, GA but rarely makes an appearance, met his long lost cousin, Wilson.
With the smooth track, we were motoring now, but I did take take time to get a few wildflower pics.
With minutes to spare, we stumbled out of the forest onto NC 208, TN 70 at Allen Gap. Nobody there. Up the road to our left was the little convenience store with the hand spray painted sign “MOM’S”. Across the road, the trail continued South but there was a sign posted stating that it was closed until further notice due to the fire. Checking our phones showed no signal whatsoever. A guy had been running his weed – eater across the road from “MOM’S” and had since finished and moved inside the store. We decide to go pay him a visit. What else are we gonna do at this point.
I slipped into “MOM’S” and purchased a couple of cold Cokes for Deep Woods and I. The owner didn’t have any fresh info on the fires but did say the trail closure was killing his business. Being so close to the trail, he got a lot of business from hikers coming through, especially this time of year. In an effort to help out, not just “MOM’S” but the Bulldog as well, Deep Woods purchased several ice cream bars, which we promptly consumed.
The girls had still not arrived and I’m starting to wonder what our next move is going to be. Still no cell signal. Could ask the guy at ” MOM’S” if we can use the phone. Hmmm…..
Just then a new, white Chrysler minivan pulls up. That’s not our van. Our van’s gold. Window rolls down and it’s Loonie.
Long story short, the radiator in our van shot craps, it was getting replaced, we were supposed to pick it up tomorrow, and this was a rental. Unbelievable. Thank goodness my sister-in-law was along to help her out through all of this. It could have turned into a gigantic mess!
The girls had one more night in Pigeon Forge and then they were to move up to Hot Springs to meet us tomorrow. Storms were expected later that day and possibly into the night so we decided we would head back to Pigeon Forge, get cleaned up, eat and plan out the rest of the hike.
So, just like that, I had stepped away from the trail not knowing if this would be the last time I saw it this week, this year, or ever again for that matter, and in short order I was sitting at a table at McAlister’s in the absolute madness that is Pigeon Forge having a sandwich. Surreal. We opted to sit outside because, well, Deep Woods and I just plain stunk. Loonie’s sister didn’t say anything to us, but after we had stepped away, she told Loonie ” You were right. They do stink!” Yes!
Headed to the room, showered, and checked the forecast. More rain was predicted but you know how that goes. In the end, we decided to pull the plug. Deep Woods already has a short section in the Smokies he needs to finish. Now we would have the 15 mile chunk from Hot Springs to Allen Gap. We could bypass the closed section and finish the hike South from Hot Springs now as planned but we would still have to come back and fill in those gaps. We decided that we would come back next year and fill in everything before moving any further North.
What that means is that we will NOT be crossing into Virginia next year. That’s really had me bummed out but, then again, maybe it’s not such a bad thing. After all, God does work in mysterious ways. Who knows what next year will bring. We got up the next morning, picked up our van, dropped off the rental van and then headed over to Standing Bear Farm so Deep Woods could get his car and head back home. We said our goodbyes and he was off. The girls and I spent a bit of time looking around the eclectic hostel and then had a seat at the fire pit to talk with some of the other hikers. There was a woman about my age seated directly across from me. She looked sort of out of place….hair done, long sun dress, makeup.
She asks me “So, have you hiked the trail?”
I say “Oh, heck no. I’ve done about 300…”
Before I could finish she reached over and stopped me and said “I didn’t ask you if you’ve hiked the whole trail. I just asked you if you’ve hiked the trail.”
I would later find out that this woman had hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), 2,650 miles long, not once, but twice. But she seemed to grasp something that people, including myself, too often overlook or discount. It’s not about how many miles you did or whether or not you finished the entire trail. It’s about experiencing the trail. Being out there and taking it all in….not watching it all fly by.
More to come….