Day mileage: 14.2
AT total mileage: 165.5
Time: 7 hours
It was 25 degrees when I got out of my tent this morning. I assure you it took an immense amount of willpower to get out of my warm, down-feather sleeping bag and out into the frigid air... just to walk. Who in their right mind would do such a crazy thing? Apparently this guy, right here. After packing up our campsite, and enjoying a 450 calorie 'berry honey bun' from its plastic shrink wrap packaging, the four of us headed into the woods. For the last day, we faced the world as the clan of Texaco (myself), Crusoe (Kevin), Papa Doc (Doug), and Keegan (still no trail name).
There have been a few moments in the last 165 miles where I've questioned my own ability to make it to Maine. Discouraging moments include pains in my legs, rain soaked mornings rushing to put my wet tent away, smelling horrible after 5 days of intense physical activity while not showering, and moments like the one I had this morning while scaling Jacob's Ladder. Had I been informed before beginning my ascent that this section is the steepest section in all of the AT, I might have felt better about myself. Instead, less than 1/4 mile out of our campsite with morning aches in tired legs, I questioned my physical competence against a beast like The Trail. Holy hell was it steep. Regardless, after an embarrassingly long bit of time and mentally trying to overcome the screaming pain in my cold calf muscles, I made it to the peak of that 'hill' and was promptly informed of its notoriety in the grand scheme of the A.T., instantly making me feel even the tiniest bit better.
After shedding my fleece top & long underwear layers, again down to just shorts & no shirt, I walked, invigorated by the mix of nippy wind and warm sun. I kept up with the quick pace set by Keegan & Crusoe, and we pushed on. The miles started flying by as we walked over roller coaster hills, the icy & frozen ground seeing sunlight for the first time since the storm, with thick mud becoming present almost everywhere. Neither climbs nor descents were overly extreme. About half way through our day we passed by Cable Gap Shelter, both very old & very small, known to be one of a few left from their original construction in the 1930s. The climb from Cable Gap was steady & steep, bringing us up to the 3,600' elevation we'd meander along at for another few miles before descending down to Fontana Dam. The descent would include 2,000' elevation loss over a drawn out 5 miles, during most of which the Dam itself was visible. A lurking concrete monstrosity, the Fontana Dam led to many discussions of mechanical engineering, architecture, generic construction, and bridges over (non-troubled) water. It was almost excruciating, the amount of time it took us to get down to road level. During our descent the world once again became less dead, with greenery and even faintly blooming flowers appearing around us. As soon as we made it to the Fontana shelter (aptly named the Fontana Hilton, more on that later) we said goodbye to Doc & Keegan for what likely will be the last time. Their visit with family will probably put a 50-60 mile gap between us, although I do hope to see them again. It's quite strange how quickly people come & go in life, but infrequently do they seem like you've known them forever. These two fine gentlemen will absolutely be missed, but we'll stay in touch & meet up off the trail when circumstance allows.
Crusoe & I lay claim to tent spots, and headed to the Fontana Dam visitor center to look around. My attempt at an accurate description: the Dam was built in many stages between 1942 & 1945 to cut down on flooding in the local towns after large storms. Regardless, it's quite the sight to see, at over 2,100 feet in diameter. After speaking with the staff at the visitor center and signing the guest book, we each took hot (more importantly: free) showers, and walked back to set up our tents. A quick side note & interesting fact, 30 years or so ago, my mother & her friend Susi dropped my uncle off at Fontana Dam Visitor Center to hike the Appalachian Trail. I've attached a photo of him the day he started, and one of me from roughly the same angle. Rather neat, no?
Back on track... The Fontana shelter is nicknamed the Hilton for the multitude of free showers, working plumbing, and free electricity. It's another world compared to what we're used to. A good dinner of Ramen noodles & peanut butter (don't knock it till you try it) and Crusoe's tortilla soup, washed down with a 24oz PBR I've now trekked 30 miles (read: 30 miles too far), we sat around a fire with a half dozen other hikers. As the sun set over the Great Smoky Mountains I reflected on the silly fact that we actually walked here... Inadvertently returning to the first thought of my day: who in their right mind would do such a crazy thing?