The Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is now in the record books (mine, anyway). From the Visitor Center at Fontana Dam to the bridge at Interstate 40, I covered 73.9 total AT miles and 1.4 miles walking side trails to shelters and the Shuckstack fire tower. My conditioning hikes before the AT contribute another 20.6 for a grand total of 95.9 miles! Not bad when you consider how inexperienced I was just a couple of years ago. Factor in a strong and steady pace, no injuries or discomfort, and a total pack weight (counting my hefty camera) of 41.5 pounds, and I am justifiably proud of this accomplishment.
Thanks to my adventure I now realize that the only limit to who, what, when, where, why, and how I hike is my own desire. I could successfully through-hike the entire AT and have largely determined that I will, at the very least, section hike it. I’m already looking at the first 166-mile Springer Mountain to Fontana section, perhaps as early as this fall, and might slip the 34 miles to Hot Springs, NC, into a Smokies hike this summer.
This is not to suggest that I have ‘outgrown’ the Great Smoky Mountains. Far from it. I love this place more than ever and thoroughly enjoy the exacting physical demands and awe-inspiring natural rewards inherent in these ancient hills. I did not forget my other goals on the trail. Camera in hand, I documented the trail and wandered the landscapes surrounding our shelters each afternoon identifying plants and noting other organisms in the high elevation communities of the Southern Appalachians, including cool insects, beautiful flowers, and mysterious fungi, as well as sweeping views. We braved thunderstorms, cold rain, and wind, plus backpack-loving mice and bears! Detailed entries for each day’s hike and exploration are in the works and will be posted in chronological order over the next few weeks.
My final goal was to enjoy life and maybe grow or change in some positive way. I can say unequivocally that I enjoyed myself immensely. Hiking miles up the trail daily and living out of a pack on my back became an easy, sustainable routine. I’m reviewing everything with an eye to improving and simplifying things even more. The only jarring moments occurred when we left the trail and returned to the traffic and noise of ‘civilization.’ There is no doubt I would thrive immersed in the natural environment’s solitude far from the crash and craze of everyday life.
So, has this experience changed me in some way and am I better for it? I can’t say for sure, but after reading this entry, the answer is likely a big yes.