My experience of section hiking in the Smoky Mountains was pretty much one of an outsider that got to be part of something for a few days—like a teenager that goes to live with and shadow a college student on campus for a week. You get to experience everything as if you were actually a student—but both you and the other students know that you aren’t really a student there.
I was a hiker and did everything that the hikers were doing, but I wasn’t a thru-hiker and it was very evident (in many ways) that I was just there to shadow. So here is my story about shadowing my thru-hiker mother.
Mom went through a phase about a decade ago where she decided she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail. She started reading all the books. We all said, “Okay mom, that’ll be great”…but I don’t think any of us ever expected her to do it. It caught most of us off-guard about 6 months ago when she decided to do it—and, as the kicker, she was going to do it as a fundraiser for UCP. Not only was there no talking her out of it, but there was no way she could back out of it either.
Once it was official, I knew right away that I wanted to join her at some point. After hearing that it was the hardest part, I boldly claimed that I’d walk the last 100 miles with her if and when she made it up to Maine. Days later I figured I had better hike a section of the trail before then so I wouldn’t kill myself hiking when she actually made it to Maine.
We decided that the section toward the end of the Smoky Mountains was where I would meet her.
Once there, it was hard not to be slightly miserable for most of the time. I’m sure that, years from now, I will look back on it and romanticize everything about it; but the majority of the time, it was not very fun. To be fair, it was amazingly beautiful, and it was great spending quality time with my mom. But it was cold, wet, and difficult. The parts that weren’t difficult were cold and wet and the parts that weren’t cold and wet were difficult. And sometimes there was a difficult part that was also cold and wet.
Like mom had said in a previous post, it was so crazy how the consistency of the terrain would change depending on the mountain. One side would have two feet of snow while the other would look like spring. But in between, and for the majority of the hike, it was like walking on daiquiri’s.
I’ve never walked through anything like that slushy, muddy snow. It was the culprit for her and everyone else’s wet shoes and socks, which was obviously the main cause of her blisters. Somehow, I managed to avoid wet feet the entire hike. I attribute that to both luck and the pair of boots I had chosen because they were marked down 50%.
I consider myself in very good shape, although I am not a runner and generally dislike any type of workout that might be considered monotonous. I am horrible at “turning my brain off” in order to run long distances, etc., and therefore, if I’m doing those types of exercises, I can generally only think about how much I dislike doing it. I think it is the reason I enjoy doing jiu jitsu so much. My brain has too many other things to worry about while training/fighting. This hike reminded me of these particular deficiencies, especially when the exhaustion set in. It was a weird kind of exhaustion. My breathing and heart-rate never really elevated above resting except on the harder climbs – but my legs were sending signals of defeat after the first day, particularly my outside-groin/hip-flexor area.
Most of the actual hike was spent trying to keep my mind off of it. We were hiking together but, besides knowing someone is with you, keeping pace with each other, and exchanging a few words every half hour, it wasn’t much different than hiking by yourself.
It was too hard to talk the whole time as the leader is obviously facing away from the other person and its hard to hear what they are saying if they start speaking. So it was a lot of silence and thinking. I would find myself spotting a tree or landmark in the distance and then guessing how many steps it would take me to reach it. I got pretty good at that. Then when I wanted to see how “fast” we were going I would check the time and count off 1800 steps, which, I figured, would be about a mile. It was generally about half an hour of counting which meant we were going 2 miles an hour. And counting was at least something to do besides thinking about walking.
During that 2 mph pace, the mountains would play tricks on you. Or really, your perception of the mountain would do the tricking. After what seemed to be an endless uphill with a light at the end of the tunnel, you would turn the corner and see that it wasn’t anywhere near over. I think that was the worst part. I was glad I was in front on the uphill portions because I let a few profanities slip every time I turned a corner like that. I would always turn around at this point and wait on mom and, as she would get closer, she would have a “finished with the uphill?” look on her face. Then I would say something like “not yet but its around the next corner!” with a smile that we both knew was fake but pretended anyway.
After several hours of strenuous hiking, I, like everyone else, was ready to make it to the shelter. I didn’t get to experience sleeping in my tent, since everyone is required to sleep in the shelters in the Smokies (unless they are full).
On the first night, I got a crash course in Shelter 101. We arrived to a full shelter hours after everyone else and as the sun was setting (as mom already relayed in her blog). I felt like Forrest Gump on the bus scene: “can’t sit here, seats taken”. I really wanted to just set up the tent and forget about trying to make the already-over-packed shelter make room. And I would have definitely done that if I were by myself. But mom was adamant. “Listen everyone. I’m Mountain Mama, and we need to sleep in here tonight so everyone go ahead and please make room”. I swear that is what she said. And they all started scooting over and made room for two more sardines. A few of them even said “Oh…Mountain Mama…I’ve heard of you”.
After pulling out my sleeping bag and finally getting set for bed, I realized that while carrying 40 pounds for miles on my back didn’t hurt my back at all, lying on the boards in a cocoon bag did. In my mind, the shelter was going to be a fun campsite to rest and relax and get your mind off of the trail. In reality, I started to want to be back on the trail and out of the shelter as much as I had wanted to be in the shelter and off of the trail. I think that had mostly to do with the overcrowding and the slushy/muddy conditions. But the shelters did offer the best opportunity to meet and catch up with fellow hikers.
I think the people that you meet along the way account for the majority of your experience and memories. Mom’s blog up to this point is evidence of that for her hike as well, and I was looking forward to meeting the people with whom she shared the trail.
My first observations were that there is not a lot of diversity on the trail as far as race, ethnicity, or even age. Almost everyone you meet is a white, young adult between the ages of 20-30, although it did seem like a pretty even gender split. From the conversations or jokes overheard to the types of books they were reading at the shelter, you could also tell that pretty much everyone was higher education material.
The age is what really surprised me, though. Of the dozens of thru-hikers that I met or came across, I think there were only five people that were older than me, and only two older than mom.
Nearly everyone I met was super friendly, and the great thing about it was that no matter how little you actually have in common with these people in the real world, you share this huge common goal with them and therefore have so much to talk about with each other: the conditions today, the weather coming up, trail food, their gear, zero days, etc, etc. This is where most of the conversations centered, although the longer that you were around people the more you discovered about their personal lives.
I found it funny that there are a lot of things on the trail that are “socially acceptable” that wouldn’t be in the real world. There are the obvious things like going around the tree to pee or everyone being totally unshaven and dirty. But then there were things like the way everyone would gorge on food. It was almost laughable to watch a 100-pound, twenty-year-old girl eat a whole jar of peanut butter with a spoon and no one blink an eye. Everyone knows how many calories they are burning and that they need to sustain their energy levels, so it was amazing to watch them eat. The other thing “normal” to the trail is the high volumes of sleep. Twelve hours of sleep is the norm because, if you think about it, what else are you going to do when you’re exhausted, it’s dark, and there is no electricity? Everyone went to bed at about 7:30pm and got up when the sun came up about 12 hours later.
In daily life, I think everyone has had the moment when they wake up and check their clock hoping that it isn’t time to get up so that they can go back to sleep. That is one of my favorite tiny life joys. Well, I found myself waking up fully rested at 3am and wishing it was 7am because I wanted to get out of that bag! Who ever complained about 4 extra hours of sleep?!
The sun would finally come up, and we’d join everyone else in repacking everything and heading back out on the trail.
In the past when anyone would ask me about mom’s safety on the trail, they would usually first think about it in regards to bears or wild animals. I was always more afraid of other people who might find a female hiker as a target (which is why I had mom take the women’s self defense jiu jitsu classes at Downtown Gracie). But after being on the trail for those few days with her, I didn’t meet or cross paths with one person who gave me a bad vibe or that made me think “Man, I’m glad I’m here with her”.
Really, the more people I met, the more I felt like she was in a safe environment as far as other hikers were concerned. The biggest safety factor was the conditions on the trail, and the realization that, if anything happens to you—a broken ankle or hypothermia —you are miles away from any roads/emergency access.
I did have the thought at one of my more exhausted moments after rounding the never ending mountains that if I slipped and fell down the cliff, at least a helicopter would probably come get me. And maybe we could show the pilot mom’s heels and they’d take her too.
I have no idea how she hiked the 15 miles on the last day. That picture of her heels is what they looked like that morning before the hike. If my heels had looked like that I would have insisted on taking a day off at camp. But she hiked it and never even mentioned the pain except matter of factly when I would ask every few hours. I think that last day shows her determination for the entire hike and the mindset that she must and does have. She knew she really needed to get off the trail that day and so she hiked the 15 miles with raw heels. And, once she gets better, she knows she told herself that she would make it to Maine – so that’s exactly what she’s going to do.
But maybe she will forget I said I’d do that part with her…