Today, I came upon a sign which brought back into clear focus the reality that life offers no guarantees. The sign was attached to the bottom of a trail sign and next to it sat a pair of hiking boots filled with pebbles. It turned out to be a letter from the wife of a man named James, the “Bamahiker.” He had section hiked to Fontana Dam, but dreamed of thru-hiking the A.T. when he retired in June 2016. Unfortunately, he died from pancreatic cancer in July 2015. She had left James’ boots full of pebbles at the spot where he had last hiked on the A.T. in the hopes that other hikers would take a pebble along the trail with them, to wherever they might go, in a symbolic gesture of helping James realize his dream. She asked only that when you reach your destination, that you take a picture and email it to her. My pack is now one pebble heavier.
The most difficult thing about today’s hike was that you could see your destination the entire time. The beautiful Fontana Lake could be seen in the distance from the trail through the trees, and while it was just seven miles to the finish line, my proximity to the lake and dam seemed to diminish with agonizing slowness. One hiker remarked, “I know we are on the right trail because the dam keeps getting bigger. But will we ever get there?” Of course, we did finally get there.
The first place you can pick up a shuttle to Fontana Village is where the A.T. crosses NC Highway 28. Since tomorrow was going to be such a long day anyway, I elected to continue another 1.6 miles to the Dam Visitor Center while I could enjoy the walk with a light, food free pack. This section of the trail takes you on a very scenic walk along the edge of Fontana Lake and, eventually, to the Fontana Dam Shelter. This shelter, known as the “Fontana Hilton” is considered among the Top 10 shelters among hikers and features room for 20 people with a cell phone charging station, picnic area, real restrooms, and solar heated showers. Everything the discerning hiker needs.
My tastes, however, tended towards a room at the Fontana Lodge. Once I reached the Dam Visitor Center parking lot, I got out my phone to call for a shuttle only to discover that I had no service. No matter where I walked, what direction I faced, or how I contorted my body, I could not get a single bar on my phone. Hmm….now what am I going to do? Just as I was about to throw my hands up in exasperation, a Fontana Village van arrived, and the girl driving asked me if I needed a ride. The trail does indeed provide.
Tonight, I’m splitting the room at the Lodge with Mandrake and Rockhopper, but I hadn’t seen them for several hours. So I checked in, took a shower, put on my rain clothes, gathered up my dirty clothes, and headed down the hill to the General Store and Laundry. The entire gang was already there, so I joined them on the store porch to enjoy some junk food while we waited for our clothes to get clean in the slowest machines this side of the Mississippi River.
Fontana Dam is often touted as one of the places to always mail yourself a resupply package due to the limited resupply selection. That may have been true in the past, but that General Store has everything you need at reasonable prices. Yeah, the tuna packets are $2 (a 100% markup from Walmart), but they had a wide selection of Mountain House and Backpacker Pantry products from $6-8, which is pretty standard.
After getting into clean clothes, we headed to the dining room for some real food. I sat with Mandrake, Rockhopper, and CCOTT and we ordered (depending on your persuasion) cold craft beer with either a Veggie Burger or a burger topped with barbecued pulled pork topped with bacon. I’ll leave it to you to guess what I chose.
Tonight we are turning in early for a big day tomorrow. The climb out of Fontana Dam has been touted as one of the most interesting sections of the A.T. so we are both apprehensive and excited to start our journey through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.