Posted by: pjbarr | April 7, 2010

Welcome Back Friend, You’ve Come a Long Way

Start: Fontana Hilton Shelter
Finish: Russell Field Shelter
Distance: 13.8 mi.
Trip Distance: 177.5 mi.
Side Trips: Shuckstack, Doe Knob, Devil’s Tater Patch

Side Trip Miles: 0.3 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Shuckstack, Crossing Fontana Dam, Returning Home to the Smokies

“The view from Shuckstacck was as I remembered it: life changing. No where else do I feel such a strong sense of belonging, a sentiment of pride and possession, than I feel at Shuckstack. This tower and this mountain altered the direction of my life. For this reason I will never tire in my efforts to preserve it.”

Most people at the shelter this morning got an early start. 3 Bears and I opted for a relaxing morning and took out time, enjoying our last access to a bathroom, running water and trash cans. We set out together and crossed Fontana Dam. This was yet another place I had driven so many times and wondered if I would ever be crossing it as a thru-hiker. I had a feeling today might have turned out to be an emotional day and it was. We walked the road up to the start of the foot trail up to Shuckstack.

I quickly set a brisk pace and left 3 Bears with in a few minutes. This mountain and section of trail once beat me and a friend up, and I was eager to show it that I was back. I was also eager to get to Shuckstack.

I didn’t stop once going up the mountain. My breathing was heavy but my emotions heavier. Several times I began tearing up and would cry while walking.

Nearly six years ago, my friend Brad Davis and I set out from Fontana Dam to traverse the Smokies on the AT. We knew nothing about hiking or backpacking, had rented old gear, set out in our tennis shoes and cotton shirts, with a big chip on our shoulder. How hard could it be? We would find out quickly.

Brad is one of my best friends. I asked him to take that trip with me and despite a busy schedule he held at a job he was working that summer, he made things work and went with me. I would have never gone had he not come with me.

We crossed the dam and could see the fire tower looming on a summit high above as I could see it today. We were so excited. Today I passes a spot on the trail that I remembered where Brad told me that he would do anything to help me out, like accompany me on this trip. I passed spots where I remember both of us huffing and puffing, bent over gasping for breath even though it had been less than a mile. I passed spots all day today on the trail where we deliberated turning around and calling off the trip because it was just too difficult. I later, on our first day, lied to Brad and told him we would call for a ride and bailout at Newfound Gap, just past halfway. I never intended for us to do that, but it made him continue. I suspect he won’t mind after all this time.

During today’s initial ascent I could see the tower getting closer though the trees. I sped up. The skies were mostly clear. My good fortune has stretched so far – after sun and blue skies the entire way though the Nantahalas. I still get a near perfect day to visit the most special place to me on the whole trail.

I thought back to making this hike with Allison on a hot Fourth of July. I also thought back to just last October when I climbed to Shuckstack with the National Park Service’s archaeologist and landscape architect campaigning for tower restoration and discussing its future.

The final pitch up to the summit is infamously steep. My last several climbs were not carrying a heavy pack. But I still did not stop until I reached the base of the tower. I climbed it quickly not one stair at time in a sitting motion like I did six years ago when Brad and I reached this point. The tower shook even more violently now, the stairs wobbled worse, and the sounds of creaks were much louder after several more years of neglect and deterioration.

Once on top, I began sobbing. I sent Brad a message thanking him for making that trip with me and telling him that it changed my life. It was here six years ago that I looked out across the high Great Smoky Mountains and feel in love. It was this view that made me determined to finish that trip. It was this view that began my fascination with fire towers. It was with this view that I fell in love with the mountains, the outdoors, and western North Carolina. Climbing this tower for the first time altered the direction of my life. Me visiting it again on my Appalachian Trail thru-hike was all of these events coming full circle, a culmination of my time since the fist visit that I have so significantly dedicated to the mountains.

Until I climb Katahdin, I doubt there will be a more emotional moment for me than my visit to Shuckstack today. While I started at Springer Mountain about two weeks ago, the journey really started right here, six years ago. That day the mountains entered into my blood and have never left nor do I think they ever will leave.

Shuckstack has its own fascinating history. It was erected in 1937 by the PWA, nearly a decade before the existence of Fontana Dam. When construction on Fontana Dam was initiated, the tower and its watchmen of the period had a bird’s eye view, work that went on 24 hours a day for 3 years. When it was complete the flooding of the Little Tennessee River was observed from the tower. The subsequent creation of the 35 mile long Fontana Lake was perhaps western North Carolina’s most dramatic landscape change ever and it was visible from the Shuckstack tower.

Reaching the fire tower today was like visiting an old friend who has fallen on hard times. It felt as if the tower remembered my first visit like it was yesterday. It spoke to me and I spoke to it. I told it “I’m back” it replied, “Welcome back friend, you’ve come a long way” It wasn’t talking about the trail. As I left I looked up at it and told it I would be back and that I promised to help it. As I walked away it said, “I know, I’ll see you soon, friend.”

The rest of today’s hike was relatively easy. I was once again in prime hiker form, firing on all cylinders. My blisters were mostly healed, my Achilles much more flexible, and my muscles and lungs as strong as ever. I attribute all of this to today entering the Great Smoky Mountains Nation Park and coming home to them. No where else in the mountains have I spent so much time, explored them so thoroughly, given so much and received so much back than the Smokies. I’ve hiked all their trails, climbed most of their peaks, quested for their secrets and even celebrated marriage in the Smokies. While everyone else is just passing though, I’m home again. Everything is familiar and memories pour over my mind with nearly ever turn of the trail.

I unceremoniously reached my third state of my journey. There is no sign to announce it but I hit the North Carolina/ Tennessee border on the shoulder of Doe Knob. I made a 100 yard side trip to the summit as I am now passively collecting 4,000 foot peaks. I later side tripped all 20 yards to the top of Devils Tater Patch just beyond Mollies Ridge Shelter. I noticed significant evidence of rooting in the soil by wild hogs on both summits, and on the side of the trail throughout most of today. I hope to see on while I am in the park though I hope more to see a bear. Though if I do not, I must not be overly disappointed and realize my good fortune of seeing 30 bears in the Smokies alone in the last six years.

I passed through Ekaneetlee Gap. Nearly everyone hikes though here unaware of its history. But this low dip in the western Smokies crest is one of, if not the most, historically significant gaps in the entire range. Here an ancient Indian path crossed the Smokies. This path was a crossing from North Carolina in the Eagle Creek drainage to Cades Voce in Tennessee. The Smokies main divide remained largely uncrossed and unexplored even into the 1800. In fact, when William Davenport surveyed the entire Smokies crest, the first person to ever walk this high wild divide, he noted only two trails crossing the crest, one at Ekaneetlee Gap and the other in the vicinity of Dry Sluice or False Gap. For hundred of years Indians and later settlers crossed at this gap. In the future, I’d like to retrace this now off trail route, hunting arrow hears reroute.

I had intended to stay at Mollies Ridge shelter tonight. This is where I spent my first night in the Smokies, first night in a shelter and first night on the AT. When I reached the shelter I went in a laid in the bunk where I slept that first night. That night I was naïve enough to take a snickers bar to bed with me a put it next to me as I slept. Within five minutes it got entirely pulled into a crack in the stone wall by a mouse, frightening me and keeping me up much of the night.

At Mollies Ridge I rested in the cooking area built onto the side of the shelter. I envisioned Brad and me six years prior foolishly attempting to assemble our rented cook stove. It was at this shelter I first met Rowboat a thru-hiker I followed for the rest of his journey to Maine in 2004.

Today at this shelter I met Ox, a 1997 thru-hiker who is a passionate trail maintainer in the Smokies for the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club. Since moving to Knoxville, TN two years ago, he has preformed maintenance on nearly ever trail in the park and logged hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours. I thanked him repeatedly as I was endlessly appreciative of his work and dedication and that of all the other trail maintainers. I have been astonished with the impeccable condition of the trail thus far all the way from Georgia. I had been so worried about blow downs caused by the harsh southeastern winter but they have thus far not been an issue thanks to the work of people like Ox.

Ox was also a Smokies 900 completer, and even a South Beyond 6,000 completer to my delight. I persuaded him to work on the Lookout Tower Challenge next. We had a lot to talk about and we chatted for an hour and another hour at the next shelter this evening. He is a passionate hiker and a true asset to the Smokies – a good guy in my book.

I reached Mollies Ridge relatively early and was still feeling strong. I overcame the sentimental urge to remain at Mollies in the name of progress and friends. I could knock out another 2.5 miles by pressing on – and 3 Bears, Bryant and Lola had recently done so and I wanted to continue to enjoy their company.

The trail to Russell Field was a pleasant walk. Much relocation had extended the distance but lessened the grades. I made the shelter in under an hour. I found the shelter empty with the exception of 3 Bears napping on the top bunk. Ox dropped by for more good conversation before heading down into Tennessee and home for the night.

Just 3 Bears and I tonight in the shelter, much to our surprise. It is nice being able to spread out all our gear. This is the last AT shelter in the Smokies with the bear fence on the front. We’re closed up safe from the bears but I suspect not the mice.

We are both hoping to make Newfound Gap by Friday night to get down into Gatlinburg. A big thunderstorm is due tomorrow. Our good run of about 10 days with no rain is finally up. I am rather concerned about hiking on the high exposed ridges in the storm. It may prove my biggest test thus far of this hike. I will be all wet and won’t reach town for another day. It is supposed to get very cold too – into the 30s. Ironically we go over Thunderhead Mountain tomorrow!

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