Appalachian Trail Hike in Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina

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AT Marker in GeorgiaFew trail narratives succeed as Mic Lowther's does in articulating how the AT challenge brought out the best and the worst in the author. Mic Lowther's self-published book Walking North chronicles a 1973 thru-hike. We hike with him here--with his wife, Jerri, and daughter, Kyra -- in Tennessee.

We reached Devil Fork Cap an hour after breakfast. The walk through high, peaceful farmland was deceptively pleasant. We watched people hoe gardens in the distance and talked to residents where the trail passed near houses or yards. We were all set for a fast easy day. No such luck. Devil Fork Gap marked the start of nineteen miles of trail we would remember in great detail.

Billed as "numerous steep grades" in the guide, the trail crossed every fence in five counties and led us scrambling straight up and down every elevated piece of ground within range. We gasped along amid growing frustration, stopping more often than usual. I counted "steeply" twenty-two times in the directions before finding any sign of relief.

A patch of trout lilies and larkspur mercifully rescued us for a lunchtime photo session, then climbing and complaining resumed. Exhausted at day's end, we pitched our tent near a stream and next morning began again.

Not until the top of 5,516-foot Big Bald did we find a scene of any interest. Curiously twisted trees dotted the weedy summit and followed the meadow-like ridge to the next peak. Bent and shaped by the wind, clutching at rocky soil, the widely spaced trees stood black and silent against low-hanging clouds. We passed through them slowly, now and then stopping to look back.

We were frothing again by mid-afternoon.

"The section between Whistling Gap and Spivey Gap proved to be totally absurd," I wrote in my journal. "They run you straight up a hill to see 'splendid views' of the same damn mountains you've seen all week, then dump you over the side for a descent so steep it's barely possible to stand up. The climb over High Rocks was unnecessary and pointless. We were all fairly sputtering."

Fortunately, relief wasn't far away The cursed nineteen miles ended as the trail crossed U.S. 19W and leveled off for a quick run to shelter. We camped alone. Kyra gathered wood and helped lay out bags and find places to hang the packs. Jerri topped off the evening by baking a peach and apricot upside-down cake over the campfire. It was easily the high point of the day.

I paged through the guide, noting by flashlight we'd covered nearly forty miles in three days. Climbing had been difficult, even ridiculous, at times, yet we were doing the daily miles and more. We were getting tougher, it appeared. Persistence was paying off... perhaps we'd soon be a match for these mountains.

We reached the road to Erwin, Tennessee, the next day around noon. I chose the service road over the high-speed Asheville Highway and thumbed one car. I stood in the Post Office ten minutes later. The closed Post Office: it was Wednesday afternoon.

I banged on a door marked "Private". The janitor answered and said everyone had gone to lunch-come back in half an hour. I asked directions to a grocery store: a mile and a half out of town. And I couldn't remember how to get back to the trail. Great planning. I went for a walk.

We'd changed our food supply system in Hot Springs. Instead of loading on ten days' food, walking as far as it would take us, then trying to fill in from stores along the way, we had turned to a more calculated approach.

We'd purchased food for 17 days, enough for 165 miles to Damascus, Virginia. After putting six days' worth in the pack, we'd mailed another six to Erwin and five more to Hampton, Tennessee. Assuming we could arrive during Post Office hours, we could resupply more easily and walk farther with lighter packs between stops.

No one else did it this way Hikers traveling alone and walking fifteen to twenty miles a day carried food for several hundred miles. They would buy enough in Hot Springs, for example, to last till Damascus.

Some hikers purchased most of their food in advance or had mothers or friends to do their shopping. Their packages were mailed to them along the way; they only had to find the Post Office, load their packs, and move on.

I banged on Private again thirty minutes later, and a genuine postal clerk answered. He regarded me with considerable distaste but retrieved the box. I loaded pre-packaged food into my pack, then walked in the rain the mile and a half to Erwin's discount supermarket. We hadn't mailed common items so I bought peanut butter, honey gorp ingredients, and the like to complete our inventory

I looked around, wondering what to do next. Damn... the whole afternoon was wasting away Where was the trail?

The road across the field from the store looked familiar. I walked to it and thumbed a ride. The driver took me to where Jerri and Kyra sat under the tied-up rain fly.

"So much for our easy resupply" I said to Jerri.

"What's the problem?"

"The Post Office was closed and I wandered all over looking for a store." "You got everything, didn't you?"

"Sure, but it took more than three hours."

"We have all day" she said. "Besides, we had a nice time writing letters." "I hope the next stops go better."

"Such a rush you're in lately"...

We climbed quickly on a Forest Service road as rain held to a steady drizzle. We reached the mountain's crest and plunged into dense forest on a zigzagging path. The trail wove sharply in and out of narrow openings between close-packed trees. Light dimmed to near-dark as branches merged thickly about us. Rain dripped. misted, showered. Wind swirled fog through the trees and across our path. I slowed my pace and looked about in eerie silence. Sky and mountain disappeared; trees and fog remained. Mountaintop syndrome again. but different. No rapturous "see the whole world" view; there was no world...only darkened tree trunks, tangled branches, wispy fog. Strange. Striking. Perhaps even... beautiful.

The interlude ended just across the crest and we began a long descent. Rain turned long sections of the trail to squishy boot-slopping mud before we'd gone far. I followed Jerri at a considerable distance and wondered about Kyra. asking again questions that always came at such times.

Was she all right? Would she keep on, day after day no matter what the weather? She'd dropped behind again and I stopped to look back. No ten-year-old cared to be seen with parents day after day she'd said. She hiked behind us so she could be Kyra. Through-Hiker walking alone. So she could be Walking from Georgia to Maine, not just tagging along.

I felt a stab of conscience as I watched the small figure bob along in shorts, orange rain jacket. and big red pack. Mud streaked and splattered her bare legs. I knew she must be freezing in cold gusts of wind. Why was she still doing this? Because we bribed her with chocolate bars? Hardly. Because other through-hikers treated her as one of them? Perhaps. Even so, was it worth it? Was slopping through the mud today any more fun than yesterday? As she approached. I started to ask. . .

"Isn't that pretty?" she said, pointing out a red trillium blossoming near the trail. "And look at those Dutchman's breeches--they're getting all wet!"

Her eyes gleamed with the light of a child's discovery. She bent down to touch delicate white blossoms sprinkled with rain.

"That's what happens when you hang out laundry on a rainy day," I replied.

She looked up and smiled, then led the way down the trail....

Next morning, we walked down the mountain into spring. The snow's grip weakened as we descended. Green grass and flowers began to show, then took hold. Looking back, we saw the dividing line above us, white turning to green. The sun shone. The air felt warm. There were no more 6,000-foot peaks until New Hampshire: this was it--spring! And this time, we knew it would stay

Walking became easier and easier. Rain, snow, ice, high winds, and even steep trail were gone for a time, leaving a smooth path that wound across greening fields and invited us to follow. It seemed filled with promise, no less than if paved with yellow brick.

We walked in single file, Kyra in the middle for the moment. Jerri stopped to look at a flower from time to time, or to stand with her face in the sun, then we moved on. Kyra asked for names of flowers that stood above ankle-deep grass, and those just a touch of color in the green. Jerri supplied them, often with distinguishing marks and family names. I walked behind. My attention wandered.

We had done well. Given the weather, the terrain, the conditioning we'd needed, we had done well. Counting mileage off the trail, thirty-five miscellaneous miles to towns and such, we'd averaged ten miles a day. Exactly according to plan. ...

Rest stop. Jerri laid down in the sun and Kyra pulled out the canteen of lemonade. Ten minutes stretched to fifteen.

"Let's go," I said.

"Well, okay" Jerri replied.

Ten miles a day. Short days, too. Daylight lasted longer now . . . and nearly six weeks of walking had toughened us. We'd have no trouble mak-ing ten miles. .. or twelve... maybe fifteen....

Jerri stopped. Something puzzled her.

"Get me the flower book, "will you?" she asked. "I don't recognize that one."

I dug it out of her pack. Better keep it on top....

"It's not in here, either," she said. "I'll get its picture and we'll look it up another time."

We moved on. Jerri walked slowly looking from side to side. Kyra followed closely

Figure reason why not. We were in shape. Walking would get easier through Virginia. We could really chalk up miles over summer....

Then it hit me, something I hadn't quite seen. A walking distance mea-sured in thousands of miles had always been absurd. Even a few hundred miles once seemed beyond reach. We'd covered four hundred miles now and conditions were improving. If we kept going...if we kept doing as well as we had.... And there, two miles into spring, I knew Mount Katahdin stood within our grasp. If we kept moving, if we stuck to our plan, we could make it. We could really walk to Maine!

[ Continued ]