May 16th, Great Smoky Mountain National Park (North Carolina & Tennessee)
Very early today I saw a side trail to a place called “Charlie’s Bunion.” The name sounds repulsive, but I had read that it was a nice view and popular place for day hikes. The weather was beautiful which helped put me in the proper mood for a side trip. So, despite the name, I took the trail.
The side trail itself was magnificent. I marveled at the beauty and was grateful I had pried myself away from the main trail for a while.
It was early and there was only one couple up there already. I stopped and enjoyed the spot for a while—resting on the so-called bunion.
A little later in the morning I crossed paths with a hiker who stopped to talk. He asked about my hike, I think as a ploy to get me stopped, then proceeded to share the following details about himself: his trail name is “Blaze of Glory” and he is 63. This is his third time hiking the Appalachian Trail. The first time he took something like 15 years to finish everything. The second time he took seven years. Now he wants to accomplish the whole thing in 12 months. He is still working full time, but his boss lets him work three 10-hour days a week, so he gets a four-day weekend every week. He lives in Pennsylvania and goes hiking each weekend. He has already completed 1100 miles since November, so he is on track to finish in the 12-month period. His brother in law shuttled him down to Newfound Gap this time, about an 11-hour drive, and he started hiking this morning at 4:30am. After being regaled by his storytelling for some minutes that seemed like hours, I wished him luck and continued on.
Just a little further on I was not paying much attention, probably still reveling in Blaze of Glory’s monologue, and stepped on a slippery log. I slipped, half fell, and my right leg made contact with some some sharp gravely rocks below the log. My leg got a few good, long scratches which stung like crazy. It smarted, but I was thankful it wasn’t worse.
Heading downhill, I started passing a lot of day hikers, maybe 100 total, coming up from Newfound Gap. My freshly scratched and slightly bloody leg did raise a few eyebrows on the way. One lady gasped and said, “Oh my! I have a band aid. Do you need it?” I thanked her but declined–because the scratches would have taken a dozen band aids, at least.
Then I reached Newfound Gap, an easy drive up Highway 441 from Gatlinburg, and apparently a popular place for a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Then a few miles further I took a short side trip to the lookout on Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the whole trail.
After a day of amazing views with some crowds, blood, and mind-numbing conversation mixed in, I eventually reached Siler’s Bald Shelter which was my goal.
The shelters in this park are large and well built with fireplaces, benches, and table-like spaces. There were only two people there when I arrived. I didn’t figure I could set up my hammock and claim the shelter was “too full” so I chose my spot inside. But by the time I went to bed at least 8 others had arrived. And a couple more arrived even later. So, in the end, the shelter did fill up…