Satisfaction and the Great Smoky Mountains

The third and final section of the BMT is one I had been looking forward to since the beginning. I would get to see a different side of the Smokies than what the AT offered, plus, this time I would have better weather! Before I got to the park though, I hiked into Fontana Village.

Those familiar with the AT know that the largest shelter on the trail exists at Fontana Dam, just a short mile or so from the Village. It’s a popular spot for thru-hikers to prepare themselves before heading into the park, and it also happens to be where the AT and the BMT intersect. What that meant to me was that I would be going from camping with no one for weeks to sharing a relatively small space with an unknown number of strangers.

Going into that potentially overwhelming and alienating situation, some may worry or even dread it. Not me! These were my PEOPLE and I’d get two nights and a whole zero-day to be social and interact with them. I was stoked!

I met Slaps, Songbird, Quip, Half Chop, Ground Man, and many more. I participated in their banter, their laughter, their card games, and their stretching circles. They treated me like any other hiker, even if I wasn’t on the same trail as them. Late on my second night there, two SOBO BMT hikers rolled in too. Talking to them about the trail that lay ahead of me got me nervous. “Most poorly maintained trail I’ve ever hiked,” one of them commented. “How is it going forward?”

I thought about it for a second. The BMT was definitely not a highway, but it had been pretty easy to follow for the most part. “Ehh it’s not that bad actually,” I told them. “Couple overgrown spots here and there but otherwise pretty easy going.” The people that maintain the BMT had obviously made an effort to make this trail pleasant to walk.

The next morning I was the first one to get up and start packing, but I was closely followed by everyone else. There was a sense of fresh adventure in the air as everyone prepared to tackle the Smokies. I made sure that my new friends had my phone number and I waved goodbye knowing it would just be for now. We would see each other again at Trail Days at the end of my hike. I crossed the Dam and entered the final section of the BMT.

The Smokies were surprising. Suddenly I was making friends all over the place; section hikers, day hikers, and park staff were abundant. The trail was nothing like what the SOBOs had said it would be. Sure, there were more than a few blowdowns from a recent storm, but I was never worried that I had somehow wandered off the beaten path. I started to wonder if those two hikers had just been having a really bad time, or maybe they expected something more like the AT. I wondered what they must be thinking about my trail report if they thought this was rugged.

A beautifully maintained piece of trail in the Smokies

For the first two days, the trail followed the edge of Fontana Lake. The grade was mild and the water was plentiful. A few miles into my second day, I met two women who had just broken camp. I stopped to chat with them for a bit and learned that they had met during their thru-hikes of the AT in 2018. We hit it off quite well and they invited me to hike with them for the day. It was the most relaxed day I’ve had in a while. Their pace was slower than mine, but I welcomed the chance to look around at different flowers, or catch a glimpse of the massive lake through the trees. We talked about trail life, and what we were looking forward to most about Trail Days in Damascus. It was easy not to notice the miles going by, or the time in the day slipping away.

Bumblebee and Curly Turtle

In the second half of the Smokies, the trail left the lakeshore and headed into the Deep Creek Wilderness. This is where I discovered what the SOBOs had been talking about. A seven-mile section of trail connecting Deep Creek and Noland Creek is in desperate need of attention. It’s remote and difficult to get to, but man is it a jungle in there. I couldn’t even see the ground I was stepping on. Every river crossing had to be forded. My single trekking pole turned into a prop to push aside the dripping brush. There was no chance of staying dry. When at last I reached Deep Creek, a footbridge led from the jungle to a beautifully maintained, double-wide horse trail. The sun seemed a little brighter as I continued, onwards and upwards.

The last full day on the trail was special. I broke free of the thick deciduous forests and into a magical biome of evergreen trees. I like to refer to this kind of environment as the “enchanted forest.” With moss carpeting the ground and dusty rays of sunlight occasionally piercing through the needled canopy, I feel the name is apt. I even followed a turkey for a few feet before it flew off to less populated woods.

I took some time to reflect on the things that I am grateful for that allow me to be out here. First of all, I have some pretty dope friends. If the five of them hadn’t said “yes I will help make sure your dog is cared for while you’re gone,” I would never have even flown to Georgia. Secondly, I’m grateful to my body for carrying me all this way, and to my surgeon and physical therapists for making sure it could. Finally, I’m thankful for my life situation. I may not be making money while I hike, but I have a job that allows me to come and go as I please, and a cheap apartment that will be waiting for me when I come back.

These reflections carried me through my final night and day on the BMT. As I came down out of the enchanted forest, people started popping up in greater frequency. It was the sign that I was getting close to Baxter Creek Trailhead. Shortly after, a bridge spanning a river popped into view. With a silly little laugh, I crossed the bridge to a mostly unremarkable parking lot. Day hikers milled around in the shady picnic area and watched the river go by from the footbridge, unaware. I sat down next to the trailhead sign, the unremarkable northern terminus of the BMT, satisfied.