The happy face of the pup above is the face of one who has just received trail magic. ‘Trail magic’ is a term generally used to descibe random acts of generosity received by hikers on the trail. This is often food – it’s not uncommon for groups of ‘Trail Angels’ to occupy a gap between mountains and feed passing hikers anything from burgers to candy and Gatorade. The park authorities aren’t very keen on these big hiker feeds because they can concentrate too many hikers in one place, which sometimes strains the trail ecosystem. However, knowing this did not stop me being massively grateful to the wonderful people below who gave us doughnuts and orange juice just before we climbed our third mountain of that day.
But the best kind of trail magic is the small, spontaneous gestures from random people. The day hiker who gave me a honey chocolate waffle when she heard we were thru-hiking; the lovely, smiley gentlemen who took the heading picture and gave me the best damn chocolate brownie I’ve ever tasted; the people who gave us a lift into Gatlinburg at the end of an exhausting 18 mile day and fed us bananas; and the group of older hikers we met on a grassy knoll, one of whom gave me a little hand carved wooden token to tie to my pack. He must have made it especially in order to give to the next thru-hiker he met. Adorable.
So, into the Great Smokey Mountains we went in a huge rainstorm, nearly being blown off the iconic Fontana Dam on the way in, but excited to be there at last.
And by the afternoon of the first day the sun came out, the terrain got easier and we hiked happily for three days, hit the highest point on the whole AT at Clingmans Dome, hit the 200 mile mark, and headed into Gatlinburg full of vigour and optimism to resupply.
And that’s where it started to get surreal. Storms brought down copious trees that night and they closed the only road out of Gatlinburg, so we and a billion other dazed hikers were stuck there in this weird little resort town full of Treasure Island mini golf and Hillbilly Moonshine tastings, wondering what to do with ourselves. I tried to take photos of the weirdness that is Gatlinburg, but it just can’t be captured on film.
After two days of enforced inaction, on the third morning we decided we’d damn well walk the 15 miles back to the gap to get back on the trail, scaling fallen trees as necessary, rather than spend another second in the Smokey’s answer to Las Vegas. So we hitched a ride in the back of some generous chap’s pickup and lot and behold, the road had just opened!
And halfway to the gap the blizzard started. Oh yes.
The pickup guy stopped at the parking lot we’d told him we were trying to get to and looked rather concerned ‘Are you sure you want to get out here?!’ ‘Yes please!’ we said, happily disappearing into the restrooms to dig out waterproof trousers, gloves and woolly hats. We hiked 10 miles in a blizzard that day, brooding nostalgically about how we’d been getting sunburned the previous week. Suddenly there were 10 inches of snow over everything and the mountains looked terribly brooding. We heard later that they’d reclosed the only road out of Gatlinburg again after two hours, due to the snowstorm…
Two nights in the snow, hunkering down in shelters with snoring strangers and mice, fully confirmed my love of being in a nice, cosy, private bug proof tent at nights. But today, miraculously, we hiked down to about 2,000 feet, left the Smokies, and the sun and the greenery reappeared. Other than the fact that all our clothes are soaked you would think we’d imagined the whole thing.
Widlife wise, still no bears, despite all the extra enforced bear precautions. Though we did meet a rather unexpected tortoise.
And also, this bug, which I have to admit gave me cause to leap into the air, flapping my arms and yelping, for some moments when it unexpectedly landed on my face. But once it had retired, offended, to a nearby leaf we took a picture for the delight of my sister- fiend, who likes bugs far more than I do. 😊
So that’s it for the Smokies. One National Park out of three under our belts, next stop Hot Springs!
Pup and Pan