Hey everyone! Last time I checked in I was in Fontana Dam, NC gearing up for my hike through the Smokies. The Smokies were by far the prettiest part of the hike thus far. Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the country, so it was a bit crowded. Permits are required in order to stay in the park, and everyone is required to stay at the shelters to help minimize the impact on the environment. Section hikers and weekend warriors are required to make reservations at the shelters, luckily thru-hikers are exempt from this. I was a bit hesitant about the mandatory sheltering, as up until then we had mostly been stealth camping in the woods (my tent is much more comfortable than the shelters-check out the photo of the sleeping arrangements in the shelter and you will understand).
Our first day in the Smokies was a slow start, mostly due to the last minute swim Hollywood and I decided to take in Fontana Lake, and then the subsequent sitting around the lake all day that followed. Hollywood, Ranger Steve (formerly Kobe) and I didn't head into the park until 3:30. Tired and dehydrated, we made it about 4 miles before we stopped at the first and only campsite in the park. The next day we made it a little over 10 miles before it started hailing on us and we set up shop in Spence Field Shelter. Camping on our own for so long and then being thrown in a tiny shelter with families and children was at first awkward (thru-hikers and children don't seem to mix), but after a never-ending game of Ninja (don't ask me to explain) and a push-up contest we quickly became friends:)
Our fourth day in the Smokies we climbed up Clingman's Dome, the highest peak on the AT (6643ft). Unfortunately is was also insanely cloudy so we couldn't see anything. It was also full of tourists. This was another weird interaction as the clean, fat tourists who drove to the top of Clingmans (well to the parking lot 1/2 mile below, at least they make them walk a bit) gawked at us dirty thru-hikers like we were a zoo exhibit. While 6 of us were sitting at the base of the observation tower, a women walked by, took one look at us and yelled back to her husband "Give these hikers some jerky!" Afterwards we were invited down to his truck in the parking lot for some Bud Lights. As I was skipping down the hill I realized I was about to walk a mile out of my way for a can of Bud Light. I don't even like Bud Light. Not only was I walking a mile for a Bud Light, I was REALLY excited about the Bud Light. It's amazing the things that get you excited when you've been exisiting off of hiker food and water for so long.
The Smokies is also where our hunger really started to set in. Everyone is always hungry all the time. The hunger took over when we were in the parking lot drinking our beers when a guy offered to hitch us into Gatlinberg in the back of his truck. We spent 30min in a truck bed in the rain and were transported to the tackiest town I have ever visited. Hollywood, Ranger Steve and I accidently spent 2 nights in the home of Dollywood USA. The second night was so that we (meaning I) could recover from the first night. The only good thing about Gatlinberg is that Ryan (re-named Pac-Man) re-joined us after being off the trail for 10 or so days resting his knee. Some trail angels shuttled us back to the top of Clingmans so we could continue our trek through the Smokies, which was gorgeous and beautiful the entire way:)
The four of us started hiking with another small group, Daystar, Gribly and Pants on Fire and we are currently in Hot Springs, NC after a few below freezing nights on the trail. We pulled almost 20 miles to get to town last night to avoid sleeping in the cold again. And also we were hungry, of course. This is my favorite town so far, the trail actually walks right through it, down it's main street. Daystar and I are staying in an old Victorian mansion that has been converted to a B&B while the boys do work-for-stay at another hostel. I feel rested, clean, healthy and excited to start getting into bigger mile days. My back is pretty tore up from my pack but other than that I'm still in pretty solid shape. I have accepted that I will be permantely sore the entire trip.
I'm also ready to start doing bigger mile days to get farther north.......I have finally hit that Bill Bryson wall where I no longer wish to be in the south. I will preface this by saying that everyone I have met has been extremely sweet and nice, and you really can't beat how gorgeous it is here. But, the bars don't sell liquor, there are bibles EVERYWHERE (just today I found one in the bathroom at the diner, and in the doctors office. Not the waiting room, the office) and I have been craving sushi like crazy and I'm not sure they know what that is. But unlike Bryson, I will not skip ahead, I will simply smile and walk away the next time a complete stranger whose employer I am certain does not offer dental walks up to me to inquire if i'm a Baptist. The trail has been flirting with the NC/TN border for awhile, but we are about the head into Tennessee, and then it's off to Virginia!
I've got 273.9 miles down, 1910.3 to go!
PS. I added a couple of other hikers websites as well. Be sure to check out Ryan's (Pac-Man) site, instead of journaling he is drawing a cartoon of his hike as he goes and it's awesome:) He also made all of his own equipment. I can't even sew the hole I tore in my sleeping bag during a minor freak out when I thought it was trying to strangle me.
PPS. If you were wondering, my trail name is Tater Tot. This is what happens when one explains tater tot hot dish to a bunch of southerners. People were also calling me Deep Fry for awhile after a State Fair discussion, but Tater Tot won the vote.