|About to cross Fontana Dam|
We found it on the right and walked up the road a distance before turning left to begin the climb up toward Shuckstack firetower and making our trek through the Smokies official. When I arrived, Koppecali had dropped his pack and gone to visit the old firetower. Brightflower and I stopped at the intersection for lunch which we enjoyed with J.P. (just Peter) from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. After lunch, we headed toward Mollies Ridge Shelter. Up the knobs and down the gaps, I found myself alone and told myself it was a good thing: time to think about those things I wanted time to think about. Flowers by the way, trees I found fascinating, clouds in the sky distracted my thoughts, and suddenly I had hiked around 11 miles and had arrived at the shelter.
None of us were excited about the prospect of having to stay in the shelters thru the Smokies, so when we arrived we reluctantly arranged our pads and sleeping bags on the first level of the stone shelter. Soon, we were joined by Ranger Robin and Ridgerunner Carl who asked to check our permits. They, too, set up their gear for the night, and we spent an enjoyable evening chit-chatting. In no time, the shelter was full and lots of arriving folks decided to push on the couple of miles to the next shelter. As expected, the snores kept me awake. Before light, folks were up and heading out.
When we took off, it was a gorgeous day.
The trek was fairly easy, none of the bigger climbs of the previous few days. Again, I reminded myself: think, think. I had issues I wanted to ponder, but the decisions seemed remote, not applicable, or just plain ridiculous to try and decide from the trail. I was at Double Spring Shelter by 1:30pm where Koppecali and I looked again at the mileage and discussed going further, but with the next shelter another 7 miles beyond (and over Clingman's), we made the decision to stay put. As the afternoon wore on, more and more hikers arrived, and by dusk, I had made the decision to tent. (I really needed the sleep.) It was a cold evening, and a fire had been built in the fire ring. There was that lots of conversation around it with the guys that stayed up for a while. From the relative distance of my tent, I heard a lot that probably wasn't meant for my ears! All I can say is, some men seem to be stuck in 7th grade no matter their age!
The next morning, I had to get my tent packed up so Koppecali and Brightflower took off first. As expected, there was a climb up Clingman's, but it wasn't nearly as difficult as I had expected. The terrain and environment definitely changed as we left the hardwoods and found cedar and pine. However, much of it was bare. But the views were awesome and I was awestruck at what God created for us. It came to me that this was the temple of God. (Habakkuk 2:20 says: But the Lord is in His holy temple. Let all the earth be silent before Him.)
It was easy to believe I was the only person around for miles as I climbed toward the Dome, so that when I found the steps clearly marking my arrival at the parking lot, I was a bit surprised and almost disappointed.
There I was in the parking lot of Clingman's Dome with cars and people milling about, a bathroom at my disposal! Suddenly, it seemed so clear to me what I should do. The decisions I wanted to make could not be done from the trail- I was going home!
It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the trail, I did. However, my idea of the trail and my experience had indeed been different. My past trail experience had been shared with friends, and infinitely more enjoyable than being by myself for hours, even though that had been somewhat enjoyable as well. Altogether, I admitted to myself as I stood looking out over the ridges and peaks of the Smokies that I would rather share the trail with family and friends. I also knew that I couldn't make decisions in a vacuum, I had to take others in to my equation. Plus, my eyes were terribly swollen! I looked remarkably like Miss Piggy. :-(
So I made a phone call to my husband, Rusty. Bless his heart, he made arrangements to get me that afternoon. Then, I did something I've never done before: I hitchhiked! After a few overtures and rejections, I got a taker. A nice man from Florida who at first turned me down, came back to say he would be glad to drop me off in Gatlinburg. He drove me to Nantahala Outdoor Center where I left my pack and walked a short distance to Calhoun's. I ordered a huge cheeseburger and fries and drank 3 glasses of sweet tea!
So, I am one of those AT failures. But strangely, I don't feel like a failure. I actually feel proud of myself for tackling it. The physical aspect had proven to be doable. The mental aspect was another thing. A couple of hundred miles had given me some clarity. Life is what you make it. Every day there are decisions to make that can affect you positively or negatively. I tried to do what a friend recommended: keep my heart and eyes open. I learned to be honest with myself without shame. That there are good people out there from all walks of life. And more importantly, it reminded me that God is always good, and has given me so much to thank Him for.