The sun rises in front of the shelter, a red ball of fire easing over distant mountains. Despite the excitement of last night, or maybe because of it, the shelter is hopping early. Those bears are still active too. This morning they harass the campers above the shelter, trying to run off with their packs.
Today is our final hike on the AT. Hard to believe it is nearly over. The walk will be an easy one — eight miles to Davenport Gap, nearly all downhill except for one two-mile stretch. We are packed and on our way by 7:30.
From Cosby Knob, the trail descends to Low Gap and its self-named trail junction at an elevation of 4,242 feet. The AT hasn’t dipped this far down since our second day hiking to Spence Field. We immediately start back up, rising 600 feet in a mile, leveling for a half mile, then making the last 200-foot climb, before dropping to the Mt. Cammerer Trail.
At this junction, the AT expands into a generously wide and level opening. We pause here for a snack. Other thru-hikers pass by. We talk up the Mt. Cammerer Lookout, but none are willing to spend the time and good weather on this 1.2 mile side trip. It’s a shame. Mt. Cammerer is one of my favorite destinations in the park. Normally I shun such “tourist” places, but this octagonal stone fire lookout is a beautiful building. The views are spectacular, and hiking the short trail is quite an adventure in rock climbing. It is well worth the time and effort in favorable weather, even if you have a pressing date with Mt. Katahdin.
For the next 5.25 miles, the gentle pull of gravity lends a helping hand. We leave behind the Smokies lofty heights with cool temperatures and easy breezes, entering the warm stillness of lower elevations. We pass the rocky outcrop where we ate lunch in March on our practice hike. Cloudy, cool, and breezy that day, we sought protection hunkered at the rock’s base. Not so today. Pleasant and sunny, we scale the rock to enjoy an unimpeded view overlooking the valley of Chestnut Branch.
Mountain Laurel is loaded with rosy-pink buds here, and the red-purple pompons of Catawba Rhododendron are open in full spectacle. Small clumps of Summer Bluets dot the trailside. Tall, feathery plumes of Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) wave over other herbaceous plants in the understory.
The miles click off past Lower Mt. Cammerer Trail and Chestnut Branch Trail junctions. Below us on the left, the roof of Davenport Gap Shelter is visible in its wide, sloping creek valley. At straight up noon, we reach Davenport Gap and the park’s eastern boundary at Highway 32. We are on the state line separating Tennessee and North Carolina. There are several large rocks lining the road to prevent cars from parking at the trail junction. We prop our packs and our butts on these rocks to eat a leisurely lunch. Highway 32 is a narrow, winding road — gravel on the North Carolina side, smooth pavement on the Tennessee side — lightly traveled. Traffic is a bit heavier today as visitors are arriving for Memorial Day weekend.
The three older gentlemen from Cosby Knob (the pilots and teacher, Ed, George and Curt) descend to the trailhead shortly after we do. Curt graciously agrees to take our picture at the trail sign. Clarence, Mary, and I have completed our original journey.
This hiking thing is rather addictive. It gets in the blood. Living, however briefly, alongside thru-hikers with dreams of Maine has brought a new luster to the AT. No longer just a trail section through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it has become a tangible entity in itself. Looking through Miller’s (“Awol”) The AT Guide, the park section is about as rough as it gets between Georgia and Virginia, and the only truly rugged section after that is the White Mountains in New Hampshire.
I recognize that abdominal tug. I felt it a three years ago. Before I was sure I could handle much hiking, I got this gut urge to join the Great Smoky Mountains 900 Miler Club. Now I know I can handle most any hike, and my gut is urging me to become a 2,000-miler. Lord knows what may be next.
During the first half of our AT hike, Clarence suggested we continue to Interstate 40 rather than stop at Highway 32. Since this makes an easier location for pickup, it’s a practical idea. It only adds 1.9 miles to the day’s hike, and it acknowledges that newfound urge. It’s less that two miles outside the park, but those two miles open the door for the next 2,000!
After lunch, we exit the park, cross the road, and enter Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests. The AT begins as a series of steps carved into the hillside. Nailed to a tree at the top is an official Appalachian National Scenic Trail sign bidding “foot travel welcome.” On the next tree up the trail is the familiar white blaze.
The forests in Pisgah and Cherokee are young. Smaller diameter trees are closer together and the understory is choked with herbaceous and small woody plants. The AT is a narrow path snaking through this growth. It feels far more secluded and intimate than the park, at times almost suffocating in comparison, but it is pretty and quiet. Long-leaf Summer Bluet (Houstonia longifolia), a smaller version of the regular Summer Bluet with narrow, linear leaves, hugs the trail. Whorled Loosestrife (Lysimachia quadrifolia) is in flower too.
We come to a large opening with power lines running through it, underscoring our presence outside the park. Near the end, we meet a large group of trail workers, men and women volunteers with the Carolina Mountain Club. They are clearing a downed tree, repairing sections of trail, and adding water bars. A large man carries two big logs, one perched on each shoulder, like a trail Atlas with sweat dripping from his face. They politely let us pass, and we thank each one for their hard work. Because of volunteers like these, our experience along the trail is more safe, fun, and satisfying.
The forest ends at Waterville Road, and the trail follows the road over the Pigeon River. It turns right past the bridge and follows Green Road under the interstate and beyond. Clarence and I walk to the I-40 sign just past the overpass on Green Road and pose for pictures. Mary hangs back to rest in the shade. We return to join her and wait for her husband Mike to pick us up.
While waiting, I photograph two cool looking insects. One is a fly whose superficial resemblance to a bee fooled me at first. It’s a Tachinid fly, Belvosia sp., probably B. borealis (Tachinidae Family). It lands first on my hand, then on Mary’s backpack strap. Its spiky body hairs give it a punk look. There are some incredible photos on BugGuide.net. Tachinid flies are mostly parasitoids, the larvae develop inside host organisms eventually killing them. As a result, they can be either beneficial (attacking pest insect species) or a pest themselves (attacking silkworms). Adults feed on nectar from flowers and honeydew-exuding insects.
Mary’s pack attracts another insect. This one is the colorful nymph of a Wheel Bug (Arilus cristatus), an assassin bug. It moves to the handle of her umbrella. I get in front to take a photo head on. It rears back, throwing its front legs up as if to threaten me! I shoot. Unfortunately, only the back half is in focus. Had its head and front legs been sharp, that would have been an awesome image!
After Mike picks us up, we retrieve vehicles and gear from Mary’s house and head to a cabin, where Susan and Allen Sweetser have another delicious meal and margaritas (famously known as Sweetseritas) waiting for us. Clarence surprises Mary and me with a post-hike award ceremony. His wife Beth made us little wooden medals threaded on green ribbons with our trail names on them to acknowledge our park thru-hike accomplishment.
This cabin’s property adjoins the national park. We sit on the back patio and stare into the peaceful woods. I spend an extra day here to relax, wash clothes, air gear, and prepare for my return to the real world.