We woke up slowly in the morning, none of us eager to walk on the cold stone floor. Stewart and Ginny went out first, reporting that it had snowed. The weather report Otis had given us the day before had been correct! Gonzo and I had dismissed his call for snow, but maybe Otis had the way of it after all.
Eventually (very, very eventually), Stewart, Ginny, and I headed out for the hike. Gonzo would catch up with us later.
We had a nice time walking in the cold, talking about hikes and catching up. We ran into lots of day hikers and several NOBOs heading out. I wondered if they knew it would be cold in the Smokies. When we stopped for a break, Gonzo walked up.
Gonzo read us “Song of the Open Road,” by Whitman.
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.
We left Gonzo to fill his water. As we walked on, we each quoted a different line, spontaneously.
Stewart: I myself am good fortune
Ginny: done with indoor complaints
Me: I whimper no more
We each took something different from the poem, but they are all very similar ideas. Get out there and do it; quit talking about this adventure you want and go take it for yourself. It was perfect for a day of walking in the snowy woods with old friends and new, on big adventures and little adventures.
The four of us continued on until we got to Woody Gap, where we said goodbye to Stewart and Ginny.
I was lucky to be hiking with Gonzo. He offered to switch packs with me, so I could carry his lighter pack and we could hopefully go a little faster. He set the pace and I still struggled to keep up. It was hard, and my knees and feet hurt.
I would have made it to Gooch mountain, the shelter I’d intended to stay at, before dark. I would have been fine alone. But the challenge of 21 miles was invigorating and scary and there were moments I wanted to cry a little (but I didn’t).
We ran into two section hikers doing a little night hiking. They stopped to congratulate Gonzo on finishing his thru, and also offered us both a little trail magic– an airplane bottle of whiskey they’d meant to leave at the shelter we were headed to, and a shot of whiskey out of their hydration bladder. We took both, said thanks, and I walked on feeling a little warmer. Not by much, but a little.
The trees were creaking in the wind. Things were getting colder and creepier yet again, but I was (once again) thankful I wasn’t doing this night hike alone. Another experience I was glad to have but wouldn’t have gotten if I’d stuck with my original plan. Open to adventure, though- that was one thing I’d wanted to get out of this.
We hit a forest service road and didn’t immediately see where the trail picked up again. Headlights came towards us and we could hear the engine and gravel crunching under the tires of a pickup.
There are few places where I haven’t felt comfortable on this trip, and besides the first few minutes with Otis, those times have always been where the trail crosses roads. I stayed in the hostel when I did because I ran across a guy at the trailhead who made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to camp so close to the road where it was easy to get to me; shelters close to the road, forest service roads, roads crossings, all those places where town people (locals) can get to easily are the places that make me nervous. And having a pickup drive up like that made us both nervous, I think. I followed Gonzo’s lead, as usual.
We heard a man ask a question about how to get to some place.
“Sorry man, I have absolutely no idea where that is,” Gonzo replied in a firm voice, not turning around. We picked a direction and walked, headlamps off. We waited for the truck to leave, got out my GPS app to find the trail, then took off again.
I had to consider what I would have done, had I been alone. I’d seen the headlights, so I probably would have stayed hidden on the trail until they left.
We knew the water for the shelter was another .1 or .2 miles past the shelter. Something neither of us wanted to do, but we would divvy up chores once we got there and make quick work of setting up camp. We’d already decided it was too cold to bother filtering water. What could possibly be alive at this point? And besides, Giardia takes 2 weeks to set it and I have health insurance. We were comfortable with this risk.
Luckily, we came to a nice stream just before the shelter. We filled all four bottles and drank some there, too, making quick work of unfreezing stuck lids and putting bottles back in the packs. It was nice to have someone there to help with that. Hiking alone can be a huge pain in the butt.
We got to the shelter at 9 pm. The temperatures must have been in the 20s and dropping. We set up camp in the upper loft of the shelter, cooked and ate, then went to bed, both hoping we would survive and the mice wouldn’t.