Sunday, June 17, 2012

excited and scared ...

Reflecting back on the backpacking excursion in the Smoky Mountains, I can easily say that it was an amazing experience. It was a huge challenge from all aspects: physical, mental, and spiritual. It pushed me in ways that I had hoped ... and in others that I could not anticipate.

how'd he get the part so clean?
We flew from LaGuardia Airport in New York City to Raleigh, North Carolina. We saw an interesting site on the plane: a guy with a major "up do" that was part beehive / part doo-wop. The looks he got when we deplaned in North Carolina were priceless.

We drove to Greensboro with Kirk's sister-in-law, Carla. She was bubbly, funny, and filled with energy. She was my first "family" welcome and it couldn't have been more pleasant.

The weather was warm with scattered showers. It was slightly sticky, but not too humid. We chatted about the upcoming days and what we needed to accomplish before we left. We also worried that the trails would be packed with people or day campers because it was Memorial Day Weekend. Carla dropped us off at Kirk's parent's house; we were borrowing one of their cars to drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Before leaving us, she hopped in a joyful circle on one foot in a pair of three-inch leopard print heels that Kirk brought for her. Her laugh was infectious.

Kirk and I were happy and excited to begin the first tactical part of our journey: loading the car with our packs and suitcases and starting the drive to what would be our ending point of the hike, the Sugarland Vistor's Center. I got a tour of their house, we went to the bathroom, we had a soda, and then ... we were off.

We began the 255 mile, 5 hour drive. Kirk drove and I navigated. Well, TomTom navigated. We stopped to buy three things that could not fly with us: propane gas for cooking, the ever-important Bear Spray, and a Taco Bell lunch.

We were comfortable and chatty, we were on our way to the unknown, or mostly unknown; especially for me. Kirk grew up in that area, first in Knoxville, TN and then in Greensboro, NC. His family had a timeshare in Gatlinburg and used to spend Thanksgivings there in his youth. He was excited to be back in the town that was an important backdrop of his childhood. I was excited to see the place he so fondly talked about.
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We reviewed our plan for each day of our hike. We had planned to cover about 8 miles each day, which would definitely give us time to stop and look at views, take pictures, soak in nature, and get to camp early enough to relax, journal, and enjoy the stars before going to bed. We also anticipated that we would have time during lunch to read or nap. This was going to be a great journey. Our daily itinerary included the following:

Tuesday: Arrive in Gatlinburg, check into hotel, take long showers, get lots of sleep.

Wednesday: Breakfast at Pancake Pantry, put on hiking clothes, repack backpacks, park at Visitor's Center, meet Jeff (the shuttle driver), drive to Fontana Dam, hike the Lakeshore Trail to the start of the Eagle Creek Trail and on to our first campsite (Site #89), set up camp, enjoy our first evening in the woods. We'd cover about 8.5 miles on this day and felt it would be easy.

Thursday: Hike the Eagle Creek Trail to the Appalachian Trail and our first AT shelter, Spence Field. This would be approximately 8 miles, but with high elevation gains (roughly 2,200 feet) and we'd have to cross a river fourteen times. We knew this was going to be a challenging day, but were excited to get to the ridge and be on the Appalachian Trail.

Friday: Hike the Appalachian Trail to the Derrick Knob shelter. By our map reading, we would be on the ridge and would have declines and inclines of between 100 to 400 feet. Nothing major. For the most part, we felt this was going to be an easy day. We would cover a little over 6 miles on this day.
Saturday: Hike 7.2 miles to the Double Springs Gap Shelter. We'd gain elevation as we progressed closer to the highest point in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome. On the map, the elevation gains seemed gradual. We'd hit Rocky Top on this day. We anticipated being at our camp site early, resting, reading, journaling, and preparing a longer day on Sunday.

Sunday: Hike to Clingmans Dome, double back on the AT to the Goshen Prong Trail and hike to our campsite, Site #23. This day was going to be super fun. We'd hike to the highest point in the Smoky Mountains (elevation of 6,643), soak up the views at the observation area (also a tourist area, too), and then return to the woods and continue with three days of tent camping. This was our three day decent from the ridge that would lead us back to Gatlinburg. We'd cover 9.5 miles on this day and drop 2,400 feet. 

I looked forward to the next three days of our hike most of all. I wanted to tent camp. Pitching the tent, having campfires, the sound of the tent's zipper ... all of it reminded me of being a little boy camping with my family at Pinecrest Lake or on Mount Shasta in California.

Monday: Continue on the Goshen Prong Trail to Little River Trail and then to our second campsite, Site #24. Again, another easy day of descending into the woods. We were very close to rivers during this day and planned to swim or wash each other's hair. We would be at our campsite early since they were relatively close together; we'd only hike 4 miles.  
Tuesday: Continue on the Little River Trail to the Husky Gap Trail and to Site #21. We'd trek just about 2 miles to our last campsite. We'd set up camp early and take a "packless walk" to Huskey Branch Falls. We weren't sure exactly how we would feel, but we knew we would be ready for a shower and some real food.
Wednesday: Hike Husky Gap Trail to New Found Gap Road and then walk to the Sugarland Visitor's Center and our waiting car, about 6 miles. Our packs would be lighter since all of our food would be eaten. We'd drive to our hotel, order room service, take baths and showers, change clothes, and lounge in the bed. This evening would be quiet and restful and we would need the recouperation. 

Thursday: SPA DAY! Having room service and the options for massages and mani / pedis at our hotel were nice things to look forward to. This day would be filled with rest. We'd sleep in, loung at the pool, order room service, do nothing, take it easy.

Friday: Go to Dollywood, ride the rides, see shows, and enjoy the Bluegrass and BBQ Festival. We both love theme parks and roller coasters. I couldn't wait to see how kitchy Dollywood would be. And the people watching! Oh joy! This would be our day to play tourist. We'd walk around downtown Gatlinburg, too.

Saturday: Wake early, drive to Greensboro to Kirk's parent's house, shower, do last minute laundry, go to Kirk's brother's house for a BBQ to celebrate his father's birthday (early), meet Kirk's entire family. We'd sleep at Kirk's parent's house.

This sounded intimidating and a little frightening. Meeting the entire family in one visit? Yikes. I was up for the challenge and, besides, we'd have lots to talk about considering we just did this long hike.

Sunday: Have his parents drive us to the Raleigh airport, board our plane and arrive back in NYC that afternoon, hug and squeeze my pooch, and settle back into our lives.

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The sun had set and our stomachs were growling. We stopped at a steakhouse and had a feast. This would be our last real dinner, all dinners after this would be freeze-dried entrees prepared in the pouches they came in. We had mozzarella sticks, salad, prime rib (medium rare with lots of au jus), veggies, rice, biscuits and butter, and sweet tea. We stuffed ourselves silly and drove off to our hotel.

Part of the drive was through the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. It rained and it was dark. The road was twisty and turny and it was sometimes scary how fast Kirk was driving (at least from vantage point as the passenger). I am not a fan of driving at night or driving in the rain. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I spent a good portion of my adulthood driving with less-then-decent vision.

We arrived at our hotel around 11:30pm, much later than we had thought. We were completely wiped out and had wanted to be there earlier. We left our packs in the car, took up our suitcases, and prepared for sleep. We showered and settled into bed.

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"Tomorrow we start our adventure," Kirk said as we lay there in the dark like kids on Christmas Eve.

"I know! It's crazy!" I said, my voice filled with glee.

"Are you excited?" he asked. The sound of the hotel air conditioner hummed in the background.

"I'm excited. And scared," I replied, thinking of Little Red's song in "Into The Woods."

"Well, excited and scared," Kirk sang, as if reading my mind. This wouldn't be the first or last time that we'd know exactly what each other was thinking.

"Me too," he said.

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Our conversation may or may not have continued. The melatonin kicked in and we drifted off to sleep with visions of freeze-dried rice pudding in our heads and the occasional dreamy thought of a bear sighting. The anticipation of not knowing what to expect was at bay for the night.

Living each day in the moment means that anything could be possible, and tomorrow ensured that all possibilities could be possible. There was no turning back. We were going to do this, come what may. It was exciting and it was scary. We had no idea what we were going to encounter, how we would react, how we would get along, or even if we could do what we were setting out to do. We were gloriously naive.

And, it was probably better that way ....
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