15.5 miles, 209.8 overall (Icewater Spring shelter)
The morning is cold again. It seems this will be a theme in the Smokies. I am one of the first up and I pack up quickly so I can get warmed up. I take the time to boil water for coffee to have with breakfast. I make sure to do it on the side of the shelter protected from the wind. By. 8:30 I am ready to get going so I take off. I will need a head start today because my right Achilles tendon is extremely tight and sore. After less than a mile UV and Ninja catch me. It is only 2 miles to the next shelter and that shelter has a privy. Ninja is on a mission to make it to the privy. When I arrive he is just finishing and is excited that he made it in time. I take advantage of the presence of the privy as well. In the Smokies not all shelters have privies. Many of the shelters are on ridges – on one side is the water source and on the other side is the “toilet area.” The shelters with toilet areas have a shovel available to ensure you use the toilet area properly.
After using the privy I tape my ankle. Besides the Achilles issue it feels like something is rubbing on the back of my foot. Once I get moving again the pain is gone. Either the issue was rubbing all along and not my Achilles, or I’ve become warmed up enough to the point it won’t hurt. For the next couple miles I hike well.
The big feature today is Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the AT. To get to it we have to climb approximately 1000 feet. This sound like a lot but the climb is over a few miles and turns out to not be that bad. As we leave the shelter the forest transitions from predominantly oak to a pine and hemlock mix, which it will stay for the rest of the day. It is an interesting change from what we have been hiking in almost exclusively since GA. Unfortunately as the climb begins my thigh begins to hurt. I’m not sure what it is with me and the Smokies but each time I think I have one injury taken care of a new one pops up. I take the climb slow hoping the pain will be temporary. The climb follows a ridge and I can hear the wind blowing in from the west. However the trail has been designed well – it is almost entirely to the eastern side of the ridge so the wind is blocked by the ridge, or when it is at the top there is a line of trees left between the trail and the drop down the ridge so the trees provide a windbreak.
When we get to Clingman’s Dome I take a few minutes to climb the observation tower and look around, but it is cold so I don’t stay long. What I’m more interested in is whether there are candy bars around. This is a touristy site so there is a chance of vending machines that could provide me with the extra boost of energy I’ve been looking for lately. A few tourists tell me there is nothing around but as I head back to the AT I run into Unicoi Zoom, the faceless hiker from last night. She had hiked on so she could see the sunrise from Clingman’s Dome, so she ought to be far ahead. Upon inquisition she tells me of a gift shop down by the parking lot that has dark chocolate bars. I am off. It is a half mile downhill, but I make the round trip in less than an hour with 4 bars to show for my effort. Confident that the lack of energy I’ve been feeling lately is caused by a lack of enough calories during the day, I am excited now that I can supplement my caloric intake. Since it is almost noon I sample some of my newfound treasure before starting back on the trail.
At this point I have only covered about 5 miles of trail today and I mean to cover over 15. However fueled by chocolate energy the next few miles fly by. My thigh still hurts, but I now have the energy to push on anyway. Pretty soon I have caught Unicoi Zoom who turns out to be a slow hiker. I hike with her a while until she stops for water, at which point I eat my energy bar for lunch and push on. I now have approximately 10 miles under my belt for the day and it is just after 2. I catch UV fixing her foot and find out I have also caught Ninja who stopped for water. Neither took the 1 mile detour to the gift shop, both took the 1 mile round trip detour to the second shelter, and both are disappointed to learn they missed out on candy.
The candy was definitely a great idea. Each time I eat it I can feel the energy boost. In addition, either the chocolate, the extra water I drank, the ibuprofen I took, time, or some combination of these factors has caused my leg to stop hurting. We have 3 miles left, including Newfound Gap and then a mild 1000 foot climb. All day long Ninja and UV have been talking about the potential for trail magic at Newfound Gap. I refuse to listen, not wanting to be disappointed if there isn’t any. When we do finally get there I am the first one and I notice sodas and Gatorades on the side of the trail – score! I grab a coke and leave a thank you note. Meanwhile Ninja and UV cross the road to the parking lot. When I catch up I find Ninja rolling around on the ground in the middle of some candy – more trail magic! Someone has left Easter candy for hikers. While it is warm and somewhat melted, none of us care. We stop to partake and use the time to fix dinner #1.
With only 2 miles left and a full belly the time flies. The last 2 miles are uphill but mild. I am quickly at the shelter and cooking dinner, finishing the day’s hike just before 5. By 7:30 I am in my sleeping bag, prepared for what is sure to be another cold night on the Appalachian Trail.