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. In Part 2, she reached the half-way point of her journey, but not without having to overcome many physical and mental challenges first. And now, in Part 3, Kathy recounts the final days of her trek – the most eventful yet!
Day 6 – I am only hiking 5 miles today, which by now, I can do before breakfast. So, I take advantage and sleep in … almost until dawn. While I am enjoying a leisurely cup of coffee, a light drizzle starts pattering on the roof of the shelter. The rain pushes me to pick up the pace and I finish loading my pack and head out. The trail is soaked with slippery roots and rocks strewn about, so I have to stay alert. Thankfully, it’s almost all uphill, so my knees aren’t protesting too much.
With only a mile to go I get a message on the Garmin InReach from my mom who has been faithfully (nervously!) watching every step of my journey. She says “You are on the eastern edge of hurricane/tropical storm Nate and conditions are about to get much worse. Hunker down and stay safe!”
A hurricane, REALLY!?! In all my planning and considerations of danger, a hurricane never crossed my mind. I thought of twisted ankles, bears, snakes, being a girl alone in the wild, sickness, crazy people and the list goes on and on. But never in my wildest dreams, did I make a contingency plan for a hurricane.
Ready or not, the wind picks up, snatching at my pack and knocking me off balance. The trees whip wildly overhead, and I become hyper-aware of newly fallen branches lying across the trail. I wonder if there have always been this many downed trees, or if I am just noticing them for the first time because of the wind. I’m edgy, unsure of what this means for the remainder of my adventure.
As I spot the shelter in the distance, sheets of rain sting my bare cheeks. The temperature is dropping, and the path ahead is more like a stream than a trail. I get to the shelter just as the full fury of the storm shows its wrath, and I stand in awe and revel in its power from under the safety of the shelter roof. The wind sends a relentless mist up under the awning and everything in the shelter is damp. Propped up on the ladder to the bunk is a note from the Park Service that reads “The forecast for the next few days calls for high winds and heavy rains as hurricane Nate crosses the Appalachians. The Park Service advises you leave the area immediately.”
Email message from the Park Service about the approach of hurricane Nate.
Great! I change out of my rain-drenched clothes and look at the map. There are no easy options. Common sense dictates that sticking to the ridge (and the AT) is not the safest option. However, with the raging storm and dwindling daylight, it seems better to hunker down in the shelter and see what tomorrow brings. So, for now here I sit, alone, watching the storm rage, more rain falling than I have ever seen. Hoping for a small window of reprieve where I can put my new strength and speed to the test before another wave of weather hits again tomorrow afternoon.
Day 7. This is it, I am in the final stretch…16 miles to go and it’s mission accomplished! Throughout the night sheets of rain pummeled the corrugated roof of the shelter, and the driving wind dusted me with a light mist all night. But thankfully, for the moment, it has stopped raining.
I am up before the sun, ready to take advantage of a break in the weather. Everything I have is dripping wet, except one last pair of clean socks that I stored in a plastic bag to protect my feet on the last trek out. I load my pack, slip on my socks and boots, and immediately feel the water in my soggy boots soak through. So much for dry feet.
I want to get as many miles behind me before the rain returns, so I skip breakfast and head out. I feel like I am flying down the trail. In just a couple of hours I cover 6 miles. I think I have found my 20-year-old legs again, fast and strong, my muscles no longer sore. My knees on the other hand have almost completely seized up. I am thankful for the trekking poles that soften the blow of the never-ending steps I am descending.
Navigating through the Rhododendron tunnels on the final stretch of the AT.
Another hour and I am halfway. I stop for a few minutes and eat some jerky. I am at the base of the last climb, two miles to the top of Mt. Camerer and then it’s all downhill to the finish. Another hour and I’m at the top. Six miles to go.
It seems like the weather is going to hold for the afternoon, so I ease up on my frantic pace. In that instant it hits me like a bulldozer, that this adventure is almost over and I am going to finish it … with style.
With the end it sight, I’m all smiles.
I think about starting out, how nervous I was with every rustle of leaves or snapping twig, and how now those sounds are so familiar and comforting. I think of the people in the shelters who kept me entertained and motivated to press on. And most importantly, I think about the time alone…time to dream, time to recharge, time to grow. Time to rediscover a fierceness that I had forgotten and time to appreciate my incredible family who sent me love notes when they knew I was facing a mountain at the end of a long day.
I finish the last few miles, my mind spinning with ideas and emotions. I am lost in thought when a strange noise catches my attention. I look up to see Peter and Abby standing in the middle of the trail with the biggest smiles I have ever seen. They swarm me with hugs and kisses and accolades of a job well done and I finish the last of my journey with my favorite people.
Rather than an ending, it feels like a brand-new beginning and I can’t wait to see what adventure awaits us down the road.