There was a lot of hype on trail about the Smoky Mountains before we went in. Some of it was good, but most of it was apprehensive, and I’m still not entirely sure why they make people so nervous. I guess it could be that it’s the first big stretch of “wilderness”, but I’m using the term loosely. We even got an extended lecture at a hostel about how we were all going to die, probably. It became a sort of joke: “We’re all gonna die in the Smokies!”
Most of what we were told was bad: ridge runners would hover around obnoxiously enforcing rules, it would be overrun with people, section hikers would kick you out of shelters in the middle of the night (they have priority if space is limited), bears would attack hourly, and the weather was guaranteed to be cold and wet, probably icy and we’d fall off a cliff.
Oh, we also heard it was pretty.
I worried mostly about the weather and the crowds. There are a lot of rules, one of them being that you’re supposed to sleep inside the shelter if there is space and not set up your tent outside. And there are no campsites between shelters, so everyone in a vicinity is forced into and around a shelter. This is lame because the shelters there are spaced so that each day you can hike 7 miles (too short) or 18 (too long, for us, at this point). Also I don’t like sleeping in shelters typically (unless it is raining). They have mice and lots of snoring, farting, shifting people. The shifting doesn’t seem so bad until you’ve endured five minutes of someone tossing and turning on their ridiculously loud air pad set on top of their crinkly groundsheet. I’m not judging too much because I also have an air pad and a crinkly groundsheet. But remember those eco-friendly Sun Chips bags they did away with because they were too loud? Imagine twelve other people all around you tossing and turning on those all night. And snoring. And farting.
Turns out we had horrible weather predicted for the middle of our Smoky Mountain adventure, so on top of not really wanting to sleep in a shelter I was anxious about getting a spot in one so I wouldn’t have the alternative of sleeping in hurricane force winds and rain. Weird paradox.
So how did it go for us? No bears, first off. And because of the weather there weren’t too many local hikers out, so I experienced none of this conflict and drama over shelter space we were told to expect. Also, very few ridge runners and no rangers. In fact, no one asked me to show the permit I paid $20 for, which was a little disappointing. And no one died.
I did realize, though, that I’ve been living in Lala-land a little bit. Before I came out hiking, I often felt down on humanity and hoped to have my faith restored by all the goodhearted kindness people exhibit on the trail. And it had been, in a pretty big way–hikers in general are friendly, generous, and conscientious. I’ve enjoyed living in this artificial world where we all, mostly, share a respect for the trail and the world it goes through and make efforts to get along and be tolerant and help each other out. Because there isn’t much else you can do. The Smokies reminded me, however, that the world is not populated with thru-hikers.
It’s a beautiful forest. But it’s clearly a stressed one. The environmental damage from climate change and the industries of the East coast is bad, yes. But also the shelters there were full of garbage. I watched a group of six or seven guys (not thru-hikers) get up in the morning, eat their Cliff bars, and, just as a matter of course, throw the wrappers in the shelter fireplace on their way out. This was on the day they were exiting the park (so probably going to see a trash can later). Toilet paper has been a mainstay on the trail, but it’s especially sad to see lumps of it at the foot of a beautiful evergreen that’s already endangered by acid rain and invasive beetles. We also had one count of a guy peeing on the floor of the shelter in the middle of the night, though we are hoping he was sleep walking and not actually that deranged.
So, the Smokies reminded me that I do still live in a world where people will gladly carry a heavy can full of beer up the mountain but once it’s empty (and lighter) they just can’t be bothered anymore. As much as I enjoy the phenomenon of people exerting effort to be nice to each other and take care of where we live, I can’t stay here. That’s something I’ll need to prepare for when this hike starts to end. Thankfully I have time.
But ALSO, the Smoky Mountains are absolutely beautiful. The shifts in the forest as you gain elevation are stunning. The cliffs and bluffs and mountainsides are rugged and steep. The flowers are unbelievable. And we ended up shelter hopping with a pretty good group of people. We never got irrecoverably wet or cold, and we were in some pretty epic bad weather. We missed some classic views (Clingman’s Dome) but got that more than made up for it (Mt. Cammerer fire tower). Overall, our experience was immensely positive.
PS: I’m writing about our hike here on my personal blog because it’s my life right now, but we have a thru-hike specific facebook page we update more regularly and with pictures. So you don’t have to take my word for it that the Smoky Mountains were gorgeous.
You can find the link any time at the bottom of this site, or just go here and “like” us for updates: facebook.com/theoverlandersat