The Appalachian Trail (AT) was our destination, since I have wanted to walk on it since I began hiking a few years ago. Ron chose what appeared to be a rather low level of climb up from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot to where the trail intersects the AT about ½ a mile from the Dome’s top where the tower sits (see the cloud shrouded tower photo).
Most tourists take the ½ mile, or 30-minute walk, on an asphalt walk up from the parking lot to the dome that is, naturally, smooth. The route we chose is essentially a rocky creek bed only about 12 inches wide, and, on this day, full of running water! The temperature was around 57 degrees, which was a lifesaver to me, and the mountain was completely wrapped in a cloud mist, with frequent sprinkles of rain.
Had I chosen to wear my rain gear, I’m not sure I would have made it back. The heat would have roasted me from inside! Instead, I walked short-sleeved, to remain as cool as possible. This was only one of the extra chances I got Saturday!
The picture of the four of us, Steve, Corey, Ron, and me was taken where the parking lot trail intersects with the AT. Had it been a clear day we would have been witness to beautiful mountain vistas, green valleys, and fresh mountain air! However, with the clouds around us, we could only see about 10 to 20 yards on each side of the trail.
Heading out toward Clingman’s Dome, I thought the rough hike up, over sharp rocks, through water, and up steep grades was almost over. I figured once we reached the top; saw the tower, that we would start a gentle decent back down to the highway where we left the second vehicle. But, oh hell no, my day had only begun to be agony!
Let me say here, that Ron is blaming himself for taking me on a more advanced hike than I should have been on after two recent surgeries, the addition of 10 pounds I probably put on waiting to heal, and the fact that we were somewhere around 6,600 feet in elevation! I have assured him that I had at least two opportunities to select alternative routes or hikes. However, I was determined to hit the AT, even if it was only about 4 miles of the total 2,174 miles! I did reach the AT, but with much less grace than I had intended!
Ron, our usual guide, did not know the trail “down” was actually up for more than 80% of the way back. There were log and rock steps for almost unbearable durations heading down, with sharp rocks, slick roots, slimy rocks, and deep walked-out trails full of oozy mud that sucked at your heels with every step.
Not being in the best of shape, as evidenced by the photo, my legs soon tired of constantly stepping up onto, what seemed like never ending, log or rock steps. The trail continued to ascend; when it seemed to me we should be going down! We either passed “in shape” older guys running up toward us, or pack laden young people heading “to the top and beyond!” One old guy told us he planned to make 70 miles Saturday…I say “Bullshit!”
Ron and Steve eventually pulled off about ½ a mile ahead of Corey and me. We communicated with walkie-talkies and they began to wonder where we were. Corey, hanging back with his dad, expecting him to die any minute, radioed and asked how much further. We were already 2 hours into a 4-mile hike! Ron radioed back about 2 miles. I blurted out “Oh shit!” and Corey relayed, “That’s a big 10-4 and an ‘oh shit’!”
My legs became rubbery and then I got a cramp in my left thigh. I knew then I was dehydrated and loosing much needed salt and electrolytes!
I forced myself to eat half a granola bar and several salty pretzels, and downed it all with suck after suck of water from my backpack water bladder. Finally, I felt somewhat better and with Corey’s constant coaching, what he’s good at, I stood up and put one tried foot before the other until Ron and Steve came back and met us about .2 of a mile from the car. Ron took my pack and we all headed out!
I can look back on it now and say I’m glad for the experience, but man, at one point I wanted to call in a helicopter!
I didn’t even want the “end of the trail beer” I was so tired, but I downed one and ate two slices of pizza at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.
I got home at 7:30…about 12 hours after leaving, took a hot shower and went to bed. I woke up around 9:30 Sunday morning, thanking God for sparing this old, fat, out of shape man!
Only 2,170 more miles to go!