Day 22 (April 28): An orchestra of coyotes yimping and howling in the middle of the night woke the whole camp. After eating breakfast we discovered a cache of Walmart bags full of food that section hikers had left at the shelter. We confirmed with the remaining campers that it wasn’t theirs and jumped on it like a group of starving scavengers. Nadine and I scored some dehydrated vegetables, lasagna, and cheese. A good start to the day. Wildflowers lined the trail as we began our hike up toward Thunderhead Mountain.
After a few miles we found some grassy balds with orchard like trees scattered about and could see our path further up the mountain. We decided to take a break and eat lunch in the grass just below Rocky Top.
We had great views of the surrounding mountains and hills we had climbed earlier that day and before. After a few more pointless ups and downs (PUDs) we arrived at Derrick Knob Shelter (mile 189.3). Thor, Sam, and Johnny were already there when we arrived but Derrick had decided to push on further for the day. Pretty sure he intentionally did not stay on his own knob. Dead Weight, Schnitzel, and, to our surprise, Pyro showed up for the night. There was also a grumpy ridge runner, Maury, who was happy to do her best to ruin our evening.
At sunset some deer showed up to graze behind the shelter and watch Dead weight dug his 6th cat hole of the day. After a game of rummy and a campfire we all pilled into the shelter for the night.
“Every extraordinary thing begins with a dream.”
Day 23 (April 29): We began our morning hike dreaming of Gatlinburg and the moonshine fueled debauchery that was only a few days hike down the trail. We quickly forgot all that, however, when we got our first glimpse of Clingman’s Dome, which would mark the highest point on the AT as well as our 200th mile from Springer. Our morning was filled with grassy mountain tops and view of the mountain to climb. As we traveled further up the trail the landscape would quickly transition between mossy evergreen forest and back to the low, birch tree forest with wildflowers that we’d become a custom to. At some points it seemed that trail itself was the dividing point between the two, very distinct forest biomes.
We took a short break at Double Spring Gap Shelter for our second breakfast and encounter two very eccentric gents who had been on the trail since last June traveling southbound. Nadine and I agreed that spending almost a year on the trail would be a bit too much for us. As we reached the final mile before Clingman’s the evergreens, which had been keeping us cool from the midday heat, disappeared and left us dripping sweat. Thankfully we began encountering tourist hikers and knew we were close. When we reached the top, we climbed the spiral, handicap accessible tower to snap a few pictures and enjoy the nostalgia from our visit a year prior before climbing back down to escape the throng of tourists.
We ate lunch at the base of the tower with Thor, Deadweight, Jonny, Sam, and Pyro and couldn’t help but compare ourselves to animals in a zoo as the tourists passed gawking at us, and asking questions about our hike. The remaining three miles to Mt Collins Shelter was a trudge and was made even more annoying when we realized the shelter was a half mile off trail. We spent the night in the shelter excitedly anticipating the short, four mile hike to Newfound Gap where we’d hitch to Gatlinburg.
Day 24 (April 30): Four miles my ass. What was supposed to be a quick morning hike seemed to go on forever. It could have been the fact that we knew we would be drinking moonshine and eating burgers in a few hours.
When we arrived, Nadine stuck out her thumb and was able to catch us a ride into town from a local couple that was in the area for their kids baseball tournament. In town, we quickly booked us a room at the LeConte View hotel (which we knew had a hot tub from our previous visit) and headed to 5 Guys for some sweet, juicy burgers. The rest of the day was a blur but I’m pretty sure it involved moonshine, laundry, more moonshine, pizza, even more moonshine, and at soon point we resupplied at Walgreens.
The night was capped off with a soak in the hot tub and another round of beers.
Day 25 (May 1): Our morning started off slow, as you can imagine, but we showered and packed up our packs for the hike out of Newfound Gap. When we were all ready to head out, we all sat on the soft beds one more time, looked at each other, and with a nod we were on our way to the front desk to book us another night. We found Derek and enjoyed another day of moonshine tastings and sampling free food from the stores on the strip. It seems like AT hikers can be divided into one of two groups: those who hated Gatlinburg and those who loved it so much that it took a few days to get away. We were definitely a part of the latter.