Today is an example of what happens when you don’t pay attention to the details of the weather forecast. I had noted that there wasn’t any rain predicted, but hadn’t noticed the mostly cloudy and overcast part. So instead of another day of bright blue sky, it was a gray, cool day. Despite the lack of the grand vistas that I enjoyed yesterday, the park still revealed its beauty in this section.
When I left the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, I had several options regarding my plan of the day. My original plan was to make it to the Standing Bear Hostel, but I was also committed to taking a highly recommended, 1.2 mile round trip, blue blaze trail to the tower on Mt Cammerer which would result in a 19.6 mile day. That would be my longest day yet on the trail, and I was uncertain that I could pull it off.
While the trendline to the park boundary was downhill from this point forward, Cosby Knob and Mt Cammerer still presented some pretty serious climbing obstacles along the way. The trail, however, had a nicely groomed tread-way that made the mileage go by fairly quickly.
When I finally made it to the intersection of the Mt Crammerer Trail, I sat down to assess my situation. It was 2:00 in the afternoon, and I still had nearly eight miles to go to make it to Standing Bear Hostel, not including the side trail. As I pondered my options, a couple hiked up and introduced themselves. I can’t remember their trail names, but the guy said he worked for the Buff company and commented that the GSMNP buff that I was wearing was their all time best seller. He also said that I REALLY did not want to miss the Cammerer Lookout, so I hid my pack in a rhododendron thicket and followed them up the trail.
I am really happy that he encouraged me to make the trip. In these modern times, forest fire detection is done by automated scanners that detect smoke and relay the GPS coordinates to the rangers below. But the Mt Crammerer Lookout, built incredibly by hand back in the 1930’s by the CCC, goes back to the days when people manned these lonely outposts, continually scanning the horizon for signs of fire. Even with the low overcast clouds, the view was incredible.
The rest of the day seems like something out of a dream as I put my head down and pounded my way down the mountain. Standing Bear Hostel is one of the few hostels that does not accept reservations, and I knew it would be late before I arrived. I kept telling myself, “Please, all I want is a bunk and a cold beer. Please!” I crossed the boundary of GSMNP at 4:45 pm, and descended once again into forests reminiscent of southern North Carolina. In temperatures approaching 80 degrees, I crossed under I-40 at 5:30. In my haste to reach the hostel, I had not stopped for food or water since leaving Mt Crammerer, so I was rapidly running out of steam. Then I ran into this, and nearly cried. What kind of cruel hoax is it to put a staircase on the A.T.!
At this point, I was less than a mile from the hostel, but it took me nearly an hour to climb that short distance, including the side trip up the gravel road. As I hobbled into the facility, a hostel worker appeared and said, “Welcome to Standing Bear. Let me show you around.” I said, “You mean you have room left?” He said, “There is one bunk left.” Wish #1 granted. As I’m being indoctrinated to the compound, I see Hulahoop, who I haven’t seen such Fontana Dam. He takes one look at me and immediately buys me a cold beer. Wish #2 granted.
Standing Bear Hostel is a converted old farm. It has such a relaxing, mellow vibe, and is the kind of place I’ve always wanted to live. Featuring a bunkhouse, a few cabins, showers, a privy, a resupply (you write down what you take on the honor system), and a communal kitchen/dining area, it is truly an oasis in the middle of the woods. As I relaxed with friends at the picnic table next to the stream, listening to the other hikers laughing and watching the various dogs playing catch, I thought that miraculously, this was exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it.