Tuesday, May 7th

I woke around 8:00 AM to a shelter full of noise. There were zipper noises (the first noise hikers hear in the morning, and the last at night), fabric noises, stove noises and people noises. I put my sandals on and immediately headed for the road with breakfast on my mind. I thought I'd have to walk all the way to the cafeteria once again, but I was picked up. A grounds maintenance guy pulled over after about a mile, asking me to hop in. I recognised him as Robert, a fellow who had picked me up before. I got to the cafeteria at 9:00, but I decided to wait before getting breakfast. I was to have some money put in my empty bank account at 9:00, and it would be awfully embarassing to have my Visa-slash-Debit-Card turned down.

A dee-lish breakfast of French toast and accoutrements kept my stomach happy, so I figured that it was safe to go shopping. The selection at the only store in Fontana Dam was dreadfully lame. They didn't even have AA batteries, something that I need constantly. They lacked what keeps hikers going, Coleman Fuel. The explanation was that their restocker was on vacation, and nobody else there knew how to order more.

Tom: Dave's licking himself!
Dave: No, no, you've got to understand -- I was cleaning my tongue!

I managed to spend $47 for 7 days worth of food. Not cheap, but not too painful. The Brothers and Jim pulled up soon after I was finished shopping. A local motel (The Fontana Motel), run by Jeff and Nancy Hoch, had given them a ride after they'd stayed there. Jeff gave me a ride back to the Fontana Hilton and filled up everybody's fuel tanks for free. A trail angel if I've ever known one.

Everybody had soon left, plodding across the dam and into the plunging Smokies for the day. The threat of rain gave a bite to the air, hurrying my fingers in packing. Crag and Late Start left just before me, leaving Iron Phil and I. Iron Phil claimed that he'd be leaving in half an hour or so (he says this often, which means that he won't leave until the next day), and I left. I slackpacked (hiked without most of my gear) the mile from Highway 28 back to the shelter, as I had hitched past that section when I'd first arrived with Botony Boy and Florida Dave. I picked up my pack when I got back to the Hilton and headed out.

I crossed the Fontana Dam (the only flat spot on the AT, some claim), all 2600 feet of it, and passed the sign welcoming me to the Great Smokies, on which was a white blaze. I followed the road nearly half a mile without seeing another blaze. Frustrated, I dropped my pack and ran back to see if I had missed a turnoff. I hadn't, it just seemed that somebody had done a poor job of blazing the trail there. It wasn't long after that when I hit the true trail, curving up around the lake and into the clouds. The lake went from being brownish to a Bermuda Blue as I rose, an effect that the advertising companies must have come up with. The weight of my seven days of food was painfully clear. I've discovered that, despite the wonders of my Gregory Robson pack, with its fancy foams and suspension systems, hipstrap and interchangable parts, I still have 65 pounds on my back.

The Smokies seemed distinctly different from the forests I'd hiked through to get to Fontana Dam. The Smokies had a certain Disney-like charm, but seemed a facade. There was a fair amount of litter along the trail, much of which I picked up as I went. Many of the trees were charred at the bases from some recent forest fire. The sounds of woodpeckers were all around, one even swooping in front of me, showing off its bright red head to the hiker. One sense that really surprised me was the smell.

Everything smelled of my summer camp, Camp Horizons. It's a little camp in the Shenandoah Valley that I went to for six years consecutively, enjoying each year immensely. It was really my first exposure to the outdoors, teaching me how to make fires, whittle, identify trees, even taking me on my first hike. I remember going back each summer, getting out of our hot van with my twin brother, and taking a breath. It certainly didn't smell like the D.C. suburb where I lived. It smelled of the Great Smokies.

It rained off and on for a bit. I didn't put on my rain gear at first, but I donned it when the rain continued. I decided to keep it on, rather than take it on and off at the weather's whim. I passed Late Start after an hour of hiking. He was headed the opposite direction that I was. Curious, I asked where he was going. "Back to Fontana," he replied. "These gnats are driving me nuts." Late Start explained that he was just going to skip the Smokies and pick up his hike in Hot Springs.

I don't expect to see him again.

I passed Sunshine and her Sister before long. They were hiking slowly, enjoying the scenery and the steep hills. Just before the shelter is a fire tower, at which I found Brandy, Heidi, Mo, Twinkie, Crag and a few others taking a break. Crag and I went up to the top of the fire tower, corkscrewing our way around the framework stairs to the top. The view at top was awfully impressive. We could see much of the Smokies and Fontana Lake, rain clouds obscuring the most distant views. I decided at this point to stop taking photos of the views. It seems that unless one is carrying a decent (read: heavy) camera kit, shots of overlooks just aren't all that interesting. In fact, I'd go as far as to say they all start to blend together. So I decided to cut down on the photos of overlooks, only putting in one every now and again for perspective.

I carefully padded down to the base of the firetower, Crag climbed down much of the framework side, leaping between girders. Upon hiking, I found my pace to be fast than Crag's, so I soon arrived at the shelter. Over 20 people had filled the shelter and the tent spaces behind, leaving me wondering where to sleep. I didn't care to pitch my tent and end up a bear burrito, so I lay out my gear on the dirt floor of the shelter. Earl Shaffer would like it like that. One thing that caused my bear worry was the shelter. On the front was a chain-link fence, spanning the length and height, with a door in the front and a chain to lock it. Good bear protection, but it made me worry.

It poured off and on throughout the rest of the afternoon, Sunshine and Sister pulling in during the worst of one of them. WhisperLite stoves began popping out in the shelter like Spring mushrooms, cooking Ramen and Lipton under the thwacking rain on the tin roof above. I went for the double- Lipton supper. The first deer of my trip wandered through the campsite, finally drinking next to Smokey Mo at the stream. Somebody managed to light a campfire as it grew dark, bringing out the firefly in a number of hikers. We gravitated to the fire and talked for several hours. Crag produced his backpacking guitar and tried to play without one string again, resulting in stop-start songs for a bit. Another thru-hiker, Dr. Dust, showed up. Two guys and a girl from Michigan were there, section-hiking some of the Smokies. I was impressed that they'd drive all the way to Tennessee / North Carolina just to hike here. The Smokies were proving to be a popular spot. I later got e-mail from one of them, Shawn. Heidi Gone Burglar and Smokey Mo were hiking for a few days with a couple of off-trail friends, Nathan and Matt. The two guys seemed a bit inexperienced in terms of hiking, but they seemed awfully nice. They made conversation interesting around the campfire.

We went to sleep late that night, everybody stacked on the bunks and me on the floor. Nice to be back on the trail.

Song Stuck in my Head Today: David J., "Little Star"
Miles Today: 5.8

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