Day mileage: 17.8
AT total mileage: 247.8
Time: 8.5 hours
I first woke up at around 6:15, pointed East and able to watch the most magnificent sunrise over the Smoky Mountain ridge line. I fell back asleep for a while and woke up again at 8 am, having breakfast and packing up for the day. The first of many people throughout the day commented on how funny it was to see three guys laying in sleeping bags in the camp sites. We were the last to leave the shelter at 9 am or so, with Snailman staying back, true to his name of being slow in the morning. (We later found out that he tumbled on the descent that morning and was transported to the hospital... No updates known as of now simply due to the main source of communication on the trail being written notes left at shelters- either way, best wishes Snail). Crusoe and I headed out and were greeted with a somewhat surprising climb from the shelter site. Although I have a good guide with topographical measurements, sometimes it isn't as accurate as hikers would like. After about an hour of climbing we began a long descent that lasted almost 7 miles. As we hiked the temperatures started really rising, eventually getting up to the mid-80s for the rest of the day.
At the bottom most part of the descent, we crossed over the northern boundary of the Smoky Mountains, with having completed the entire Appalachian Trail portion of GSMNP in 4 days of hiking. This is something I'm very proud of. As we continued hiking we passed by many waterfalls and running streams, and the noises of 'real' civilization became present. Sure enough, a mile from the exit of the park the Appalachian Trail actually crossed under an I-40 highway overpass. We climbed a great stone staircase back into the woods and followed the trail to a river crossing where a sign pointed towards the Standing Bear hostel. I'd heard about this place but after being let down by the visitor center at Clingman's dome, I was hesitant to walk even the 600 yards out of the way to Standing Bear. A fellow hiker, Whitey, passed on the information that it was worth the trip so we headed off the trail for a visit. Standing Bear should win a Thru-hiker Institution Award (no such thing exists...yet). Picture a half dozen of the most rickety old southern shacks, along the lines of where Steve Martin's character grows up in the film The Jerk, and add 40 smelly hikers sitting around with smiles on their tired faces. For $10, I purchased from the 'store' 2 microwaveable cheeseburgers, 2 Gatorades, and a Ginger Ale. It's thru-hiker heaven here with a thousand items available for purchase, and bunks available for the night. A guy named Rocket is the general manager of sorts, wearing an Appalachian Trail edition Pabst Blue Ribbon shirt, sharing stories with hikers in the yard. All payments are honor system, and you simply hand him an envelope with money, as well as your trail name & a list of what you purchased written on the front. I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had places to be. As we were leaving we ran into our favorite four-legged trail friend, Cormack, who's hanging out here for the week while Wild Turkey finishes hiking the Smokies where dogs aren't allowed. I think I was more excited to see him than he was to see me. On an interesting final note about Standing Bear, there was a scale on the porch of the bunk house. In the 20 days since I've left Boston and walked 250 miles through the mountains of Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee, I have already lost over 13 pounds of body weight. This explains why my elastic waist-band shorts now need to be tied to keep them from falling off. It does make me wonder how much I'll lose in total.
The ascent out of this area is hellish enough to be summed up by one sign posted about 300' up the trail reading: "GO BACK TO STANDING BEAR". With a stomach full of cheeseburgers and Gatorade, it took me a while to climb the few thousand feet of elevation gain over 5 miles to the top of Snowbird Peak. Once arriving at the peak however, I was surprised by a 10' pop up tent with coolers full of cold Orange Crush and Coca Cola sodas. I'll be able to drink Coke in just over 2 weeks (gave it up for no reason almost a year ago, so May 6th I'll be allowing myself to drink it again) so I enjoyed two Orange Crush drinks as Crusoe and smiled like little kids at the excitement of the 'trail magic'. We pressed on, and came across a very strangely shaped building at the top of the mountain. Upon inspection, the 'US Government: No Trespassing' signs are guarding an FAA radar/communications building. The sign on the doors have to be the most intimidating message ever, and read as follows:
"Warning: This facility is used in FAA air traffic control. Loss of human life may result from service interruption. Any person who interferes with air traffic control or damages or trespasses on this property will be prosecuted under federal law."
We took a photo of the building and continued the 4 miles downhill into Groundhog Gap where the shelter for the night was built. Surprisingly, there were only 4 other thru-hikers there, and 3 friends on a short hiking trip. After examining the area and comparing weather reports, Crusoe and I decided to 'cowboy' it again, sleeping in our sleeping bags under the open sky. Dinner was the last of Papa Doc's dehydrated meals, and bed came just after sunset. Falling asleep by a well built fire was extremely relaxing, and I love being able to watch the stars uninterruptedly from where I sleep.
There's supposed to be scattered thunderstorms tomorrow, and we're planning a relaxed 15 mile hike that will leave us 10 miles out of Hot Springs, NC for an easy walk into town Wednesday morning.
Onward and upwards, but only after some shut-eye. Hope you're all doing well :)