There was no doubt about how the Smoky Mountains got their name as day dawned on the Friends of the Smokies’ planned hike to Hemphill Bald. Sky seemed to meet earth as the carpool headed up the mountain from Maggie Valley, fog so thick the road 20 feet ahead could have been imaginary. It didn’t look like the bald at the end of the 4.4-mile hike would offer much of a view that day.
The gloomy weather didn’t drive away Patrick Murphy, however, who’d come over from Bryson City to try out his first Friends of the Smokies hike. The morning was “dismal,” Murphy said, but not without its high points — the first one to arrive at the trailhead, he found himself sharing the spot with two elk.
If the stack of boxes piling up on the counter of the outfitter store at Nantahala Outdoor Center is any indication, thru-hiker season is coming fast. The parcels of food, reminders of home and creature comforts are welcome diversions from the travel-light lifestyle on the Appalachian Trail, where miles are many and luxuries are few.
“A lot of people ask about what you’re thinking about [on the trail],” said Youngblood, an 18-year-old hiker whose off-trail name is P.J. Coleman, as he sorted through his just-opened box of mail drop goodies. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, you’re thinking about food.”
It’s been nearly 20 years since Burt Kornegay first started looking into land along Hickory Knoll Road in Macon County, but dirt is finally moving on the Bartram Trail Society’s vision of routing a piece of the long-distance trail away from the road and over the Pinnacle and George Gray Mountain instead.
“This had been years in the making,” said Kornegay, who was in the midst of his 12 years as president of the Bartram Trail Society when he bought the land. “This was going on even before these tracts of land came up.”
Hiking the Appalachian Trail had been in the back of Andy Smith’s mind for a while, ever since a coworker at Cherokee Hospital, where he was chief of physical therapy, told Smith about his 1989 thru hike. As 2014 dawned, Smith was 15 years retired and approaching his 65th birthday. He got to thinking that maybe it was time to try a thru hike.
“I really didn’t have a solid reason,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like a long-term goal that I’ve always wanted to do it. It’s something that’s been of interest, so I decided to do it.”
Ken Czarnomski has always loved sketching and writing, but as a department chair for the sustainability and construction management programs at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, his projects consisted mainly of razor-straight lines and technical engineering language. There wasn’t a lot of room for freehand sketches or colorful commentary.
After retiring, Czarnomski began looking around for ways to pick up some of those hobbies he’d left untouched as a working professional. At the same time, he wanted to find a way to give back to his community, Haywood County. So, he started sketching hiking maps.
Despite warnings of thunderstorms earlier in the week, Aug. 22 came with a blue sky and a light breeze, temperatures hovering around a sunny 70 degrees at the Black Balsam Trailhead. Gail Fox, a National Park Service ranger for the Blue Ridge Parkway, predicted fantastic views from the top of Sam Knob as a group of about 15 people gathered in the parking lot.
Screw it all.
There have been days, many days, where I’ve found myself sitting in traffic, standing in line, waiting on the phone, ordering something I really don’t want (or need), drinking and eating something that probably isn’t good for me, and think to myself, “Screw it all, I don’t want any part of this — no more.”
The woods are quiet on a cool Saturday morning in late March. There’s no wind swaying the still-bare trees or the rhododendrons clustered along streambeds. In this, one of the most remote trails of the Shining Rock Wilderness of Pisgah National Forest, the only sound comes from the occasional squirrel plowing through the bed of fallen leaves or bird sounding its call through the woods.
But then a soft buzz begins to float through the air. It pauses briefly, replaced by the sound of voices. A group of three is clustered around a fallen log, probably 2 or 3 feet in diameter, that’s lying across the faint path of the East Fork Trail. They analyze its position on the mountainside, its angle of contact with another trunk below the trail and the severity of the slope. Finally, trail crew volunteers Scotty Bowen and Richard Evans start up again with the crosscut saw, and the buzzing resumes.
It’s been nearly eight years since Amy “Willow” Allen passed through Western North Carolina as a tired-and-hungry AT through-hiker. But her journey didn’t end at the summit of Mount Katahdin.
“It isn’t something you leave behind,” she said. “Once you become part of that community, it is part of who you are.”
SEE ALSO: Celebrate the Appalachian Trail season
Not just anybody can keep up with Jim Pader. Last year alone, he hiked 534 miles and has logged 738.4 miles in Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 2001. Besides that, he works out for at least one hour per day and attends yoga class religiously. And just six months after completing a record-setting hike up Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States, he’s gearing up for a one-day out-and-back to the Grand Canyon.