So. What a day, what a day, what a day. Pull up a chair—this was a freaking roller coaster.
Every night I can see my breath—puffs of white. Every morning, too. I kind of downplay it, but up in those mountains it’s literally still winter. I loathe it. Loathe!
I went to sleep last night looking at my breath. I woke up this morning looking at my breath—only it had started to rain torrentially overnight, and the rain was rat-tatting on the shelter’s plastic roof like a million deranged marbles. The ground outside the shelter was a sheet of ice. Yay.
Sparky and his daughter and I did what we do: we packed up and saddled up and got ready to go. (Another hiker, Starman, had arrived in the middle of the night. He had an umbrella! Also, having done the PCT twice and also the CDT, he was much too professional to set out in the downpour; he settled in to wait it out or take a zero in the shelter. Smart man.)
On the schedule for the day was Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. My plan was to skip past the dome (visibility was only about a dozen yards) and go eight miles to the next shelter.
The rain was horrible. A steady downpour that mingled with ice and occasionally changed to snow. I was soaked through within minutes—gloves, hat, shirt. My rain jacket kept my torso relatively dry, but my shoes and socks were saturated in slush, and those stupid rainpants split again, so my left leg was soaked. In frigid water.
The forest changed again. It got primordial—old pine woods, dark and carpeted in needles. Bear country! But the trail was a deep runnel, a river of milky, icy mud. I eventually reached a point where I wished a bear would just eat me and put me out of my misery.
You know how you get to the highest point of the AT? You go up. And up and up. The trail was covered in snowy ice. Without the microspikes, I was in the same position as before: slipping and sliding. I could stand still and just slide back down the trail. I knew about two miles from Clingman’s that I was going to have to bail for Gatlinburg—a crazy Vegas-like town that I’d been planning to avoid. (I found out later that a girl broke her leg on the icy trail two weeks ago and had to be rescued.)
That’s when the fun started.
There are no shuttles to Gatlinburg from Clingman’s, and it’s almost impossible to get a phone signal.
The rangers in the visitor center were angels. I was shaking so badly by that point that they gave me coffee and let me use their fireplace to try to dry out. But let me tell you, I was drenched. I had to keep running down the hill in the downpour to where there was a phone signal, and the call wouldn’t go through half the time.
I was getting worried about frostbite. I could hardly dial the phone. And that’s when I got hysterical. Literally! I was sobbing on the phone to the hotel lady, and I sobbed to a guy at another hotel who runs a shuttle service for his guests. (i would have stayed there, but he was booked.) I literally begged him for help and told him I was desperate. (I was, too. My phone battery was down to 9%.) He was my hero! He called somebody who called somebody, and they radioed the visitor center, and in an hour a shuttle driver came and got me.
I’m in Gatlinburg, where Bill Bryson ended his hike. I haven’t quit yet.
And guess who got the last room here? Bud and SBS! Also, Sparky and his daughter. The hikers have fled from the mountain.
And Gatlinburg is the strangest place I’ve seen in a while. Part Vegas, but you know what it really reminds me of? The Jersey boardwalk! Anyway, more on that tomorrow. Right now, I have to try to dry my shoes with a hair dryer.
I hate the Smokies.
Sorry about the crummy pictures. I didn’t want to wreck the phone. And even the phone case was dripping wet by the time I got to the visitor’s center.