This is my original Appalachian Trail journal from 2001 (Edited for grammar).
It includes additions that were written sixteen years later (in 2017). These are in italics.
Thursday, April 26, 2001
Fontana Dam Shelter
Today’s Miles: 0
Trip Miles: 172.9
I ate a hot meal, got my mail, and relaxed at this beautiful spot beside the shelter and Fontana Lake. I couldn’t ask for more. How I love to be on an adventure like this, sitting on a bench outdoors, and reading a handwritten letter from a friend! Letters are so much more classic than quick and easy e-mail.
I’m heading up into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park tomorrow. There are all kinds of fun things there – a high bear population that has accustomed itself to humans, wild boars, bobcats, predatory plants like the venus fly trap, and a reintroduction of elk.
There are apparently more individual species of fauna (Plants) in the park than all of Europe! I’ve been warned to check my boots in the morning with a cloth to sweep for brown recluse spiders. They’ll do a number on you if they bite. Also, a girl was rescued from across the lake a few days ago because of a copperhead snake bite.
Back to a more positive note, there ought to be some towering stands of virgin timber in the park.
I’m looking forward to the Smokies.
Well, I’m now off to phone home, take a hot shower, and relax the rest of the night away! Maybe I can catch the sunrise tomorrow morning before heading across the dam. Life is good.
I felt that I deserved a “zero-day” today after hiking 20+ miles to reach Fontana Dam. Since I arrived late in the evening, I had to wait around today to pick up my package at the post office. Making logistics even more cumbersome, it was almost a two-mile walk from the shelter to the center of “town.” It was difficult to get a ride hitchhiking along this road, and the relatively short distance made it hard to justify even trying. The town of Fontana Dam wasn’t much of a true town – it was more of a resort community.
The Fontana Dam Shelter was a relatively large facility, packed full with thru-hikers. In the previous day’s entry I mentioned that a “trail angel” was at the shelter. Trail Angel is a term that hikers use to describe a non-hiker who does charitable things for us, usually in the form of food and drinks. Hikers burn so many calories over time that it’s virtually impossible for us to carry enough food to keep up with these demands, so after a while we exist in a state of permanent starvation.
Enter the Trail Angel, who finds gratification in watching hikers devour hot dogs, hamburgers, soda pop, and just about anything edible that’s placed in front of us. Trail Angels often tend to be former thru-hikers, those who like to “give back” to the trail and use philanthropy as a means of immersing themselves in the thru-hiking culture again, if only for a day.
Even in 2001 there was a growing opposition to the proliferation of Trail Angels. There had been an increasing number of coolers full of soda pop, for example, left along state highways where the AT crossed the road. Some of the trail angels reportedly would leave the resulting garbage behind.
Some folks also argued that frequent hand-outs diminished from the “trail experience.” It’s a valid argument that there are certainly better ways to “give back to the trail,” primarily in the form volunteering to do trail maintenance rather than leaving litter at the trail crossings and hosting “hiker feeds.”
The shelter here was in a scenic location along the shores of Fontana Lake (Actually a man-made reservoir). I remember that there was a crowd of hikers spending the night with mixed priorities. Some wanted to party and others wanted to sleep and relax, so it caused some momentary tensions in the air. It burst my idealistic bubble about how life and human behavior on the trail is the way it should always be, and I longed to return to the trail itself.
Friday, April 27, 2001
Fontana Dam Shelter to Russel Field Shelter
Today’s Miles: 13.8
Trip Miles: 186.7
I was in the National Park for less than 30 minutes when I saw a young deer coming southbound down the trail toward me. It ambled up to only about ten yards away from me, minding it’s own business and posing for a perfect picture. I don’t know what it was, but something kept me from snapping the button. Maybe I was hoping that it would come even closer.
Before I knew it, the deer wandered off and it wasn’t worth taking the picture anymore.
Five minutes after that encounter, I saw a three-inch, silver colored salamander scurry on a log. There was bear scat and fur along the whole trail too.
Later I almost stepped on the oddest thing, right on the footpath. I’m still not quite sure exactly what it was – probably some sort of four-legged mammal baby. I’m thinking that maybe it was a mouse. It was squirming around a bit and making really little squeaking noises. Very odd.
Walking across the dam on such a sunny morning was cool. Somebody told me it’s the place where they filmed the scene in The Fugitive where Harrison Ford jumps into the river.
The park is an early landmark for thru-hikers, but it takes some solid hiking to get this far. I’m feeling like somewhat of a seasoned hiker now, which is a really good feeling. I started the fire here tonight for us. It’s just me and a few people here that are out for about a week – a few hikers from Tennessee, and a girl from Holland. They’re really nice people, and they even gave me some crackers, potato chips, and Kool-Aid!
They informed me that I’m now writing with my feet on Tennessee soil! There wasn’t any marker along the trail or anything. Oh, well. Life is good.
Walking across the Fontana Dam was neat but uneventful, considering that it’s the highest dam in the United States east of the Mississippi River.
Interestingly the footpath of the Appalachian Trail often marks the border between North Carolina and Tennessee throughout the Smokies. So consequently I could walk off the right side of the trail and be in North Carolina, and then walk off the left side and be in Tennessee.
It was a long gradual climb from the Fontana Shelter into the Smokies up Shuckstack Mountain, starting at 1700 feet and going up to 4000+ feet. A short side trail led to an old fire tower on Shuckstack’s summit. The tower was old and rickety. I unnervingly felt it sway in the wind as I climbed. Several steps were also broken and missing. My fear of heights kicked in, and I didn’t make it all the way to the top.
The vista from there at Shuckstack was the only significant, sprawling view of the day.
Saturday, April 28, 2001
Russel Field Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter
Today’s Miles: 16.4
Trip Miles: 203.1
I think I’m finally hitting my stride – finding a good pace, feeling used to (and getting comfortable with) living in the woods on a daily basis. I can tell people I meet along the way that I’m headed to Maine, without the slightest hesitation in my mind. I’ll eat just about anything that anybody offers me, and quickly snatch up food that I drop in the dirt and throw it in my mouth. I don’t care. When in the woods, I’ll usually accept any extra calories I can get. I feel like a thru-hiker.
I can’t get enough of these grassy ridges in the Smokies. The trees open up, so you can often see how high you really are as you walk along. The quartz I’ve been seeing since Springer Mountain is such a pure white.
The mountains here have cool names too, like Rocky Top and Thunderhead.
The shelters in the park are quite odd. They have stone walls and a very heavy duty wire fence across the front to keep the bears out. I feel like an exhibit in a zoo, where the animals come to look at the hikers!
A few days ago a hiker reportedly had his pack snatched by a bear when he went away for only a minute to get water. I’ve heard that bears literally stalk hikers, waiting for them to take their packs off. They know if they can get between the hiker and the backpack then the food inside it is theirs for the taking. I’ll keep mine close to me! It has my few life’s essential possessions in it.
Gumbai has been leaving notes in all the shelter registers since Fontana Dam, taunting me about how fast he’s been going. I caught up with him tonight, and sank his battleship! I’d been about two hours behind him all day, catching his notes in the shelter registers.
The last two-mile jaunt to this shelter was so exhilarating. I’m approaching Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail. I hiked at a brisk pace along a relatively narrow ridge. The wind gusts would frequently blow my pack straps all over the place. I had fantastic views in both directions. The sun was low on the horizon as I skipped along up there, chasing down Gumbai.
He and I and some other thru-hikers are here tonight, as well as two groups of people that are out for a few days. There’s a young couple with a bunch of small kids from Cincinnati. The other group is some guys from Tennessee, one of which was born in Poland and recently came to America about six years ago. They’re asking me all kinds of enthusiastic questions about thru-hiking, and it feels great to have some experience now to back it up.
I think I just saw a mouse. Life is good, with yet another clear, beautiful day and a warm campfire.
I spoke with many thru-hikers who didn’t like the Smokies because of the Park regulations, particularly those involving camping. It was illegal to camp anywhere in the Smokies except inside the shelters themselves. Tenting immediately outside a shelter was only allowed if the shelter was full. These structures were quite literally like cages, with fencing and a latched door across the front to keep out the nuisance black bears. They also tended to be old, muddy, and nasty.
I didn’t mind the scenario so much at an enthusiastic 20 years old, but when my now 36-year-old self goes backpacking I typically don’t relish sharing a cramped shelter with a lot of random people.
The shelter where I stayed this night was one of the highest along the Appalachian Trail, at 5,500 feet above sea level.
Sunday, April 29, 2001
Double Spring Gap Shelter to Icewater Spring Shelter
Today’s Miles: 13.8
Trip Miles: 216.9
“On top of old Smokey
All covered with snow…”
In late high school (And for a few years after graduation) I worked at a Perkins Restaurant. For those of you unfamiliar with the chain, it’s similar to a Denny’s or IHOP.
Most nights a dishwasher named Peter worked there too. He was fifty-eight years old, if I remember correctly. We’d often be the last two people working in the kitchen at closing time. He and I were two of the very few that had worked there since the place had its grand opening. He eventually left and I followed shortly thereafter to do this hike.
Anyway, he always sang the above lyrics. The out-of-tune words came floating from the dish pit – On top of old Smokeeeeeeeee, all covered with snooooooooooow. He was a Vietnam War Veteran.
Sometimes at work I’d sneak up behind people and make a big noise (Like banging a pot) to scare them for some laughs. Once I did that to Peter, and he swung around with a clenched fist, as if to punch me. He always had a kind demeanor… maybe this was a buried edginess from the war? I can’t help but remember that, and remember him now as I hike The Great Smoky Mountains.
All kinds of things go through my head throughout the days, and often nothing at all… except how beautiful and peaceful my surroundings are. It’s so easy to ramble along and just simply “be”. Other times, I often find myself thinking back and drawing on good memories, sometimes laughing out loud at something I happen to remember.
Music is a big motivator, and I sing songs aloud and think about great moments I’ve associated with them. Some hikers carry a Walkman or radio to give them that extra push up a mountain, but I think that takes away from one of the challenges – the ability to carry that music in your heart and in your head… to have an internal motivator to push you along.
The rest of the time I think about my plans for the day and week – regarding where to get food, water, and where to sleep for the night. I think about my food cravings a whole lot.
I passed over the highest point on the Appalachian Trail today – Clingmans Dome. A lot of people were up there dressed in shockingly flashy colors and smelling like soap and other aromatic fragrances. I then descended to a paved road crossing at Newfound Gap, which seemed crowded too.
I saw yet another deer up close this morning, but no picture. The view from Clingmans Dome was of course amazing, but not as great as one would expect. I like to remind myself of the fact that the Appalachians are the oldest mountain chain in the world, having once stood much higher than the Himalayas and Everest. Imagine what Clingmans Dome must have been like.
I met two hikers from India today. They said that the first thing they asked when they came to America was, “Where are all the people?” India may now have the highest population in the world, close to China, but I’m not sure.
I also met two more men from the Netherlands. They’re taking over the trail! There’s also another thru-hiker I met that lives and works most of the time in Antarctica! That’s hardcore. Gumbai is at the shelter again tonight, as well as Harmonica Joe, serenading us into the evening. Life is good.
The morning’s ascent to Clingmans Dome went by quickly, and I remember how the trees smelled like Christmas up there. The observation deck on the summit was crowded, and the structure itself was a long spiral ramp that looked rather odd. The Appalachian Trail in the vicinity of Clingmans Dome was conversely deserted and quiet, which gives you an idea of the demographic of folks on the observation deck.
From there at the trail’s highest point of 6643, it was a 1600 foot descent over the course of eight miles to Newfound Gap, where a state highway crosses the park. Many hikers get a ride from there into the town of Gatlinburg, Tennessee for resupply. I’d heard that Gatlinburg is a gaudy shock to the senses after being on the trail for a long time, and skipped this as a trail-town stop.
Towns tend to shake up the order and progression of the thru-hiking herd, so I caught up with and met a lot of new folks at the IceWater Spring Shelter this evening. This was a relatively new shelter that did not have a bear-fence along the front of it. Apparently rangers would remove all the bear-fences throughout the Smokies in the ensuing years.
I met my first “ridge-runner” at this shelter. Ridge Runners are paid employees of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (Called the Appalachian Trail Conference at the time).
Usually referred to as the “ATC” for short, the Conservancy is the overseeing non-profit organization that maintains the entire trail as a whole. Their duties span from the nitty-gritty maintenance of outhouse toilets to fighting larger development threats along the trail’s wilderness corridor. Ridge Runners are paid employees of the ATC who hike sections of the trail while doing maintenance tasks and educating hikers about low-impact camping practices.
Monday, April 30, 2001
Icewater Spring Shelter to Cosby Knob Shelter
Today’s Miles: 20.3
Trip Miles: 237.2
I awoke peacefully in my tent before seven a.m. this morning to a marvelous sunrise. It’s funny – I’m finding that I’m usually up early now, and in my sleeping bag at night before nine pm! I know everybody at home will think that’s unreal, being that I’m usually such a night owl. There used to be days where I wouldn’t go to bed until seven in the morning… nature is having a marvelous effect on me.
Early in the day I visited a side trail to a place called Charlie’s Bunion. It’s a rocky outcropping with some steep cliffs and a narrow trail. I’m at a loss at finding a way to describe many of these places and sensations – standing truly exposed over a vast wilderness, as the sun still inches its way up and gradually lifts the dew and mist from the green, endless forest. I liken the place to the rock in the movie The Lion King, you know the spot I’m talking about, and oh, the feeling is that of being king of the world! Only… not.
These unique experiences are equally as humbling as they are empowering – a strange pair. I strap on my pack, my single and only material concern, and ramble farther north each day. Following a narrow ridge for most of the hike was excellent, again with views in both directions. The skies were gray and some rain fell on me in the middle of the day, tempting me to call it a quits early, but I continued for more miles anyway – like they say – no rain, no pain, no Maine.
The skies did end up clearing, and I’ve found myself at a shelter tonight meeting more people who’s register entries I’ve been following. I’m nearly through the Smokies.
I spoke with Harmonica Joe about long distance bicycling. He’s done a trip coast to coast, which is another thing I’ve always wanted to do (I sense my mother having a heart attack at that sentence). Who knows?
I was thinking about what all the poor suckers in the “real world” (heh, heh) were doing today.
Today is a Monday, and I remembered what track practice used to be like on Mondays. We called it “Death Day”. We would do timed speedwork. The distance runners would line up. Coach would say “Runners-set-GO!”
All too speedily we’d rush off and run a mile as fast as we could. When finished, we’d haggardly step around sucking air, and after a few ever-so-brief minutes he’s say “Runners-set-GO!”
Again, another mile. Fast. And another. And then some half miles, and quarter miles, and, well, death.
Some of these mountains, I’m telling you, going up them is harder than those days were. Sorry Coach – the Appalachians get the nod. At the end of those practices, one always felt so spent, yet ever so proud for having pushed so hard.
And oh, the feeling when wearily stumbling up those mountaintops… Life is good.
The side trail to Charlie’s Bunion is a good place to again point out the varying ideals of white-blaze vs. blue-blaze thru-hikers. The trail to this overlook departed from the Appalachian Trail and then rejoined it later, as a small bypass loop. So in walking this trail to a spectacular overlook, one would end up “skipping” a quarter mile of the real, white-blazed Appalachian Trail. Many of the side trails to the shelters were set up in the same fashion.
The irony of it in many places, such as this, is that the now blue-blazed loop was originally the official trail, but now the official trail follows a newer, foul-weather bypass track.
I’d vowed to walk every step of the white-blazed trail. So in scenarios such as this, the only way for me to stay true to that resolution was to backtrack up the side trail and rejoin the white-blazed trail at the place where I left it. It felt especially silly to do so at a place like this, where plenty of other hikers were present and taking the logical blue-blazed trail forward.
I behaved in this manner for the entire Appalachian Trail, and did indeed walk all the white blazes. For me it was a strict means of staying motivated. The psychology of it to me was akin to those who quit drinking alcohol… having “just one drink” opens the door to more, just as skipping even the smallest section of the trail could lead to missing longer stretches of it.
In retrospect I think that this was, indeed, quite silly of me. If I were to attempt another thru-hike of the AT, my goal would be to simply have a continuous walking line from Georgia to Maine, regardless of the color of the blazes.
Tuesday, May 01, 2001
Cosby Knob Shelter to Painter Branch
Today’s Miles: 12.7
Trip Miles: 249.9
And so I enthusiastically welcome the month of May, but bid adieu to the Great Smoky Mountains on the same date. The Park is a glorious natural reserve, even though the federal government puts seemingly zero money into it.
Back at Newfound Gap I went up some old rock steps and stood in the same place that Franklin D. Roosevelt stood when he dedicated the park, when it was first established in the early 1900s. What a truly different time this is, compared to those days.
I passed serenely out of the park. The wily, elusive, cunning black bear has eluded my watchful eye thus far. The beast and Duct Tape must be fated to meet on another day.
Once out of the Park I followed a two-mile paved road past Davenport Gap along the beautiful Pigeon River to a country store and restaurant called Mountain Mama’s. I did this to satisfy my craving for a burger, a Coke (many Cokes), fries, and a chicken sandwich… as well as to cushion my rations. Mountain Mama’s was quite a place, with Dolly Parton paraphernalia and other “down home” artifacts cluttering the small room.
It was a very hot day, and it seems as though summer has come to the valleys. During the stroll on the road along the river, I was reminded of summers spent walking from place to place – friend’s houses, parks, literally everywhere, and I was reminded of the movie Stand By Me.
For an hour or so today, I was walking along that wooded river road and went back to that time – free and having great fun as a child, relishing in the adventure of taking a long trip for something so simple as going to a store and buying my own burger. I may not have that feeling again for a very long time, if ever.
On the return trip, there was a man errantly shooting hoops at a simple basketball net in a small park. I paused, mulling over a notion for a second, and dropped my pack.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Excuse me,” getting his attention. “Um, would it be okay if I took a few shots with your ball?” “Sure.” He passed it to me.
We exchanged pleasant but awkward conversation as I attempted about five shots, poorly missing all of them. It felt great to dribble the ball on hard asphalt, and this guy had the ball superbly pumped up with air. I smirked, seeing that the ball was covered with the Chicago Bulls logo. It felt old. The Bulls used to be “my team” when Jordan, Barkley, Bird, and Magic Johnson all still played in their prime. I remember the “Magic on Michael” duels in the NBA finals one year, when the Bulls won their first championship, and John Paxson always nailed the three pointer from the corner. Now, all pro sports are souped up egos and money-money-money. I thanked the guy and continued on my way, back up a mountain.
I took my time going up the trail, so as to conserve energy. All I planned to do was set up my tent at the first flat spot that I’d come upon.
I think I was musing about the sort of house I’d like to live in one day when I heard it – thunder. I cast my eyes upward to spy a forbidding black cloud. The thunder roared again, louder. A gentle breeze touched the leaves as the air became clearer and cooler, and everything in the forest seemed to scatter. There was no way that I wanted to set up my tent in a storm, and an adrenaline rush instantly made me rush up the trail, up a terribly steep grade.
I looked to the sky, gasped for air, looked to the sky, and sped along. The storm came closer. A light drizzle began to fall. Oh no! Side-sticker! The price of Mountain Mama’s. I doubled over in pain from the sticker, and forged ahead. Hark! I heard water! Was it a stream, or pouring rain? Thunder roared. The sun vanished. A stream! It’s a stream! Voices! Oh, tents! And a spot for mine! I threw up my tent in a tiny, flat area near Grasshopper, Stryder, and Emma. I crawled in just in time as buckets of rain soon poured down.
We’re joking and yelling to each other from inside our tents, merrily laughing and even singing the Doors’ song, “Riders on the Storm,” and other songs. It must be quite a sight from out there – four tents close together with voices coming from them, engaged in conversation! Talking tents. In the middle of a storm!
And man, once me and all my gear are packed in a small space, I sure do smell! It’s a wonder I can stand myself.
I see the silhouette of a salamander crawling up my rainfly. How very cool! I forgot to mention – I saw a snake today. It wasn’t poisonous and it wasn’t a black snake. It was right in the middle of the trail and moved very fast when I came upon it, or else I never would have even seen it.
This storm has lasted until dark. I didn’t go out to hang my food. Lightning is flashing and brightening my whole tent, and the rumbling thunder shakes the earth (my bed) beneath me. I’m going to try and get some sleep now, amid this racket. Life is good!