In hopes of achieving a long-time personal goal, Kathy Holcombe walked away from the comforts of her family and RV to set off on a 70-mile solo adventure through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park portion of the Appalachian Trail.
In Part 1 of this series, Kathy shared her travel log from her emotion-filled first day. Now in Part 2, she reaches the half-way point of her journey, but not without having to overcome many physical and mental challenges first.
Day 2 – I awaken at dawn, just as the sun’s rays begin filtering through the crimson and amber foliage. There is fog nestled in the valley below, and a muted silence around me. I am slow to get started after yesterday’s trek, but eventually I am up and preparing for the hike ahead. I plan to cover eleven miles, mostly uphill, and my legs are already sore. I find myself lingering, taking a little more time than necessary, hesitating. There is an underlying uncertainty that keeps nagging at the corners of my consciousness. Regardless, I am packed up and ready to head out.
I hike the 0.2 of a mile back to the AT and then it’s decision time. Turn right and it’s five downhill miles back to the comfort and safety of my family, or turn left, and the adventure continues. The easy way out is tempting, but is that what I really want? I have dreamed about this journey for so long, a true adventure to test myself, to see what I am capable of. I have no idea if I can do the entire 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and frankly, I’m off to a pretty rocky start. But I’m pretty sure I can do at least eleven more miles. And so … I turn left and continue on, one foot in front of the other.
At first, my legs are stiff, protesting every step. But it doesn’t take long to work out the cobwebs and settle into a rhythm. And, I have to admit, I am proud of myself for continuing on. By 10 a.m., the scorching sun has transformed the foggy, cool morning into a soul-sucking sauna. By lunch-time, I am drenched in sweat and the suffocating heat stretches the miles that lie ahead into an eternity. I stop every fifteen minutes to check my map and GPS and mark my progress. How is it even possible that I have only progressed 0.3 of a mile since my last checkpoint!?! I’m never going to get there!
There are shelters that punctuate the AT approximately every 8 miles. They serve as a refuge and a gathering place for weary hikers.
After eight long hours, I arrive at the shelter and my home for the night. It’s a three-sided rock structure with a corrugated plastic roof. The fourth side of the shelter is an open porch area with a narrow countertop and benches. I get started on the evening chores, gathering water and preparing dinner. A lone woman with a big backpack emerges from the trail. Finally, some company! We stay up late into the evening swapping stories from the trail. She has hiked 75 miles by herself and her enthusiasm is contagious. I fall asleep listening to owls calling in the distance and am excited for what lies ahead.
Day 3 – It was a restless night with achy legs that just wouldn’t stay still, but I’m determined to forge ahead. I have 13 miles between me and the next shelter, and I am up before dawn ready to get going. The trail that stretches out ahead is steep, punctuated with knee-high steps as far as I can see. The relentless gradient, often requiring scrambling on all fours, slows my progress, but at least it’s downhill…until it’s not. The climb on the far side of the valley is just as riddled with awkwardly high steps that seem to go on forever. Over the next five miles, the slope of the trail oscillates up and down, but either way, the steps are brutal.
Eight hours in and at the bottom of the last climb, I am finally through the worst of it. Only three miles lie between me and the shelter. This should be motivating, but I am completely exhausted. It probably doesn’t help that I haven’t eaten much all day, and everything on my body hurts. My collar bones and hip bones are bruised and raw from the straps of my pack, and my legs … well, there’s not a single inch that doesn’t radiate pain. Overwhelmed by the mountain stretching above me, I opt to sit down for a quick break before the final push. I look around and notice that the light filtering through the trees has changed, and darkness isn’t far off. I’ve got to get moving. I put my pack back on and try to standup, but my legs fail me, and I collapse into a heap in the middle of the trail. After 8 grueling miles, I have hit the proverbial wall and can’t muster the will or strength to carry on.
Tears spill down my cheeks and I look around helplessly, trying to figure out what to do. I choke down an energy snack as I weigh my options. The forest is thick and there really isn’t a place to pitch my tent except smack in the middle of the trail. While that is an option, it’s certainly not a good one. I could try to make it a little farther and see if there is a better place ahead, or I could just sit here just a little longer…and longer still…I’m just SO tired!
An alert pings on my Garmin InReach. It’s Peter, who says, “You are such a bad ass, and I am so incredibly proud of you. Keep killing it!” I don’t know if it’s divine intervention, serendipity, or if the power snack finally kicked in, but those words give me the strength to pick myself up and start walking. I’m barely creeping along, and the pain in my legs changes my gait to that of a newborn foal, but I press on. One mile becomes two, and eventually, I stumble into the shelter just as the sun dips below the horizon. Day 3 … check!
Day 4 – It’s hump day: the halfway point of my journey in both days and miles. The people in my shelter last night (AT guides and veteran through hikers) assured me that yesterday’s stretch, over Thunder Mountain, was the most difficult terrain I will encounter on my journey. That is a huge relief, because I really can’t face another day like that again … ever! Even with the promise of easier miles ahead, I’m reluctant to leave the warmth of my sleeping bag. I know that after yesterday, movement will equal pain. But if I’m going to do this, it’s time to go. I gingerly weight my legs, and discover they’re not as bad as I thought … in fact, my muscles aren’t really sore at all. My knees and ankles are protesting, vehemently! But I think they will eventually concede and continue to cooperate, at least for the next 8 miles.
As I approach Clingman’s Dome, I finally make it out of the green tube of foliage that lines the trail and am rewarded with a view of endless wilderness.
There are two big challenges that I am facing today. The first is Clingman’s Dome, the pinnacle of my hike. Fortunately, the incline to the summit is not too great, and from there it’s more or less downhill. And, the best part: Peter and Abby are hiking in to meet me with fresh food, trekking poles and clean clothes – yay! I’m not sure if it’s my excitement to see them that has me moving faster, or if I am actually getting stronger, but I make it to our rendezvous point with an hour to spare.
I sit and wait for them at the apex of my journey and literally at a crossroads. One trail leads to a parking area just 30 minutes away, and the other continues 35 miles across the Smoky Mountains. I am haggard and sore, desperate for a little R&R, and the allure of the parking lot is tempting.
On the other hand, I’m not quite ready for this adventure to end. After all, I am through the worst of it, it’s mainly downhill from here on out, and I am definitely getting stronger. In the midst of my dilemma, my family arrives bearing loving smiles and encouragement and just being around them gives me such comfort. After lunch and hugs and stories, it’s time to decide. They pull me to my feet, help me shoulder my pack and look expectantly in the direction of the AT. I don’t have the heart to look into their encouraging faces and tell them I even considered quitting. So, I give them big hugs and step back onto the AT, tears spilling once again as I turn my back on my family to complete my journey. It’s hard leaving them behind and continuing on alone, but I am starting to believe I can actually do this.
Day 5 – Today is my longest, with over 15 miles ahead and several steep climbs along the way – so much for “it’s all downhill from here”. I am headed to Newfound Gap, the only place in the park where the AT crosses a road. I make my way up a small hill, and can already hear the cars. I arrive at the roadway and it is a blur of commotion. Cars are whizzing by and dozens of people are scattered about – gawking at the views. I am overwhelmed by it all, and struggle to cross the busy highway. I haven’t seen anything move that fast in almost a week.
On a typical day on the trail, I might cross paths with a handful of people. At both Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap, the crowds are overwhelming. In both places, I find myself desperate to escape the chaos and retreat back into the wild.
I make it across the road and am swarmed by people asking me about my journey. I can’t seem to reply sensibly, I think all the blood has diverted to my legs and my brain is not able to communicate effectively anymore. As soon as possible, I escape the throng of people, and make a beeline for the woods. I need to escape the chaos.
The trail ahead is jam-packed, with more people on the slope ahead than I’ve seen over the past five days. They keep stopping and starting right in front of me, forcing me to change my pace. It makes me angry and I find myself snarling “excuse me” as I storm by, often being forced into a more difficult path up steep steps. Don’t they know my knees stopped working days ago! I pound up the trail faster than I’ve ever hiked, reveling in my newfound strength and endurance. I can’t wait to escape the crowds.
The people thin out with every step away from the pavement. And while the miles are long, they are no longer as difficult as they were just a few days earlier. Each time the trail changes angle, I rejoice. The uphill gives my aching knees a break and the downhill is easier on the psyche. The rhythm of my steps are a meditation, and each new bend in the trail a confirmation of progress. My thoughts drift from past to future. I am dreaming, planning, reflecting, reveling.