Every shelter on the A.T. has a composting privy in close proximity to handle the #2 issue. Every shelter, that is, except the shelters in GSMNP. The higher ups at GSMNP have decided that it is more in keeping with the wilderness experience to designate “toilet areas” near the shelters. The process is that you gingerly walk through these designated areas with your little shovel, dig an eight inch deep cat hole (hoping that you don’t find the cat), make your deposit, and bury it along with your toilet paper. Since these toilet areas are supporting up to 30 people per day, thru-hikers call them “mine fields” or “TP blossom fields.” Typically, the toilet area is on one side of the ridge and the water supply (spring) is on the opposite side of the ridge. This morning I went to get water at the Silers Bald Shelter and discovered that many people have become confused by this concept. I probably should have filtered my water twice.

I have discovered that I don’t get any better sleep in a shelter than I do in my tent. It didn’t help that some tarps had been attached to the front of the shelter to help keep out the continuous 30 mph winds, and the tarps rattled all night like a runaway spinnaker. But at least no one snored. The only bonus that I saw was not having to pack up a wet tent.

A short climb from the shelter was Silers Bald (not to be confused with the Siler Bald at mile 113.8. In keeping with tradition, here was my view.

Appalachian Trail

View from Silers Bald

Up until this point, I have been somewhat disappointed by GSMNP. I suspected that it was due to the time of year, but it just doesn’t have the lushness, or even the smell, of the Smokies experience that I have had in the past. Then I started the 1,000 foot climb to Clingman’s Dome, and all of that changed. As my altitude increased, the forest transformed from the typical hardwood forests that I have been hiking through, into a lush coniferous forest made even more enchanted by the average rainfall of 85 inches annually (at least one of those inches fell today). At times, the beauty was jaw dropping and it was all I could do to hike without stopping every 10 feet to take pictures. This is the GSMNP that I remember.

Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail

During this section, I ran into Cotton from Pensacola. I was a bit surprised to catch him so soon, but was happy to see him on the trail. I could tell that he was struggling somewhat, but we were both headed for Gatlinburg for the night, and agreed to get together in town.

Appalachian Trail

Appalachian Trail

Clingman’s Dome is the highest point on the A.T. at 6,667 feet. I have been to the top of the tower there several times in the past and recall looking down at the A.T. and thinking how awesome it would be to be hiking up here on that trail. Now I am living that dream. I have also enjoyed the magnificent panoramic view from that tower before, but that was not the case today. I sort of felt sorry that the other hikers with me would not have that experience.

Appalachian Trail

View from Clingman’s Dome

Appalachian Trail

Without any sign or fanfare, I passed the 200 mile mark shortly after Mt Love. From that point, it is 6.8 miles to Newfound Gap, so I tried to pick up my pace to today’s finish line without falling again on the slippery path. The trail was rugged, but I made fairly good time, despite all of the photography breaks, and arrived at the gap around 3:30. Having avoided the “mine fields” all day, I made a beeline to those wonderful public restroom facilities.

Several of us were hanging out near the parking lot exit, trying to look pitiful enough to convince someone to give us a ride to town, when, amazingly, Boo Boo showed up having hiked 5.7 miles more than the rest of us! I don’t know how he did it, but I was extremely impressed.

Appalachian Trail

Waiting for an Angel

The hitching a ride to town wasn’t going to well, which isn’t surprising since we had mud up to our knees. We were hoping for a pickup truck with a kindly driver that would let us all pile into the back when our Trail Angel arrived. Geri was returning from visiting her daughter in Atlanta in an immaculately clean small car when she stopped and let four smelly, muddy hikers climb in for the ride to town. She and her husband are retired and living in an RV full time in Pigeon Forge. She gave us a firsthand account of the Gatlinburg fire experience as well as a ride to the front door of our motel. Back home, the local news runs a segment called “Angels in our Midst,” and I want to nominate Geri for the next show.

For the next two nights, my home is the Motel 6 in Gatlinburg. It is nothing fancy, but it satisfies my primary needs by providing a dry bed and a bathroom. This is an unplanned day off, but my body is telling me that I need some rest after the rigors of the trail these past few days. I saw a Five Guys down the street, and a double cheeseburger with a grocery cart full of french fries is looking pretty good right now.