In order to get over Jacob’s Ladder before I knew what had hit me, I rose at 4:30am and was on the trail by 5:00am. I donned my headlamp and hiked my first two hours in the dark. It was fantastic. Jacob’s Ladder kicked my butt (predictably), but as my range of vision was limited to the length of trail that fell within the arc of my headlamp’s meagre light, I was not disheartened by the view of narrow mountain trail cresting ever upwards. I just trudged, one foot in front of the other, pausing where the steepness of the incline eased up enough to allow me to stand up straight and take a breath without feeling as though I was going to lose my centre of gravity and topple backwards down the trail. Then, suddenly, the incline eased, I was able to resume a normal pace, breath without gasping, and made good time to Brown Fork Shelter, where I filled my water bottle, trying not to wake the sane people of the world who had not yet risen to greet the day. Everywhere I turned, my headlamp encountered tents, so even if I had made it up the ascent the night before, I would have been lucky to find a pitch. As it was, I encountered 5-6 more tent clusters between there and Cody Gap.
Hiking before the sun came up was one of the highlights of the trip so far. I will definitely be making the effort to do more of this. The trail was shrouded in mist, the mossy rockfalls took on an otherworldly aspect (I would not have been one little bit surprised to encounter a hobbit or an elf or some other Tolkienish woodland sprite in such unearthly terrain), I was witness to the birds’ awakening, and it seemed, the world’s.
I came across Kevin (trail nane Junco, so named for the ubiquitous little grey plumed bird of the same name that you encounter in these southern regions of the trail), who had been pitched opposite me on my first night on the trail, and he educated me about the birds and plants that I’ve been coming across so far on the walk. We hiked together for a time, receiving trail magic at Yellow Creek Gap from a lovely gent called Jimmy, who provided me with pepsi, sweet treats and the first chair I’d had the luxury of sitting on in 4 days. Unfortunately my phone was out of battery so I don’t have any pics of this section of the trail.
The climb up to Walker’s Gap wasn’t too taxing, but the final 2.7 mile descent to Fontana Dam was excruciating. I winced with every downward step (of which there were many), so decided to take a zero upon reaching Fontana Lodge, where I took 5 baths (countem!) ate real food and slept in a King-sized bed. Heck yes!I shared a meal with Wes the first night (who, I might add, drove 2 hours in each direction from Knoxville along a hairy bit of road known as ‘The Dragon’s Tail’ – think Montville to Maleny if you’re from QLD, or Hellyer Gorge if you’re from Tassie, or the Old Putty Rd if you’re from NSW) to join me for the Easter Sunday buffet, so that was lovely. I picked up my resupply from the front desk, and promptly mailed a box of excess weight on to myself (care of Wes) in Knoxville. Between Michael in NC and Wes in TN I’m beginning to worry I’m taking up all their storage space with stuff I’m unwilling to relinquish ownership of but simply cannot carry up and down these hectic hills. Check out these old school post office boxes at the Fontana Dam branch of the USPS! I bumped into lots of familiar faces and met a bunch of new folk at Fontana, all in various states of excitement/readiness/apprehension about the Smokies adventure to come. This will be the remotest section of trail we’ll traverse until we reach the One Hundred Mile wilderness in Maine. I heard from Jake (aka King) while in Fontana, whom I’d met a week or so before and been hoping to hike with some more, but who was always just a day or so ahead. He’s picked up the pace, however, and is already through the Smokies before I have even started there (having hiked in 3 days what I plan to do in 7), so he’s leaving us all in the dust. I told him in a previous email that I’d catch him in Virginia. Ha! Not liking my chances of that…