I look down at my watch as I take another sip of coffee. 1:30am.
Covered in mountain grime and muck, I sit silently on the Pilot sidewalk watching 2 stray cats nibble from a tin can as the rain pitter patters just a few feet away. After driving 3.5hrs, I just needed a break to stretch my legs before driving the final 2hrs home.
To most, exhausted, bloodshot eyes may not seem like a sign of purification but there’s breeds out there that live differently. Maybe it’s obsession? Maybe it’s a primal connection? Maybe it’s something flowing through my blood? Not that I’m even remotely looking for the core reasons anymore why I pursue an endurance focused lifestyle… but the lack of sleep and body abuse for these all out Smoky Mountains binges feels right and almost always cleanse my soul.
I pull into our driveway shortly after 3am. The only movement in our little neighborhood at this hour is the hungry stray cat sitting on our front porch waiting to be fed. I sneak into the house, take a quick shower and slide into bed.
The past 60hrs have been a blur. I punched out of work at 4pm on Tuesday afternoon and drove straight to the Smokies. In order to work 40hrs a week, take my last few remaining graduate classes and start to chip away at the 600hr internship the counseling program requires, I had to hop back into the retail world so now my “weekends” sometimes fall on Wednesday/Thursday instead of Saturday/Sunday.
I stopped right outside of the park and got changed in an empty, well lit parking lot to avoid fumbling through my gear bag at a blacked out trailhead. A cop pulled up and slowly circled the parking lot as I was pulling off my shirt. I waved. He glared. He just wanted to make his presence known before leaving the area. Sleeping in empty parking lots is sort of frowned upon in the area.
Since I was about to lose service, I sent a goodnight text to the wifey before heading to the trailhead.
Alum Cave is one of the most scenic trails in the Smokies. It’s absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. Since you’re getting beautiful views as early as mile 2, it’s also one of the BUSIEST trails in the park. When is it not busy? Midnight.
I loooooove this trail. LeConte was the first real mountain I ever ran. Some of my best life memories are held captive in LeConte’s ancient topography so this mountain holds a special place in my heart… and now on my chest.
I had no time goals heading up the mountain but wanted to push up the mountain quickly. The fresh air was intoxicating. A storm had just rolled through the area so sporadic lightning was flashing illuminating the distant ridges. My mountain was still and peaceful.
The whole trip up the mountain was surreal and honestly, if it weren’t for the Strava data… I wouldn’t be entirely certain that run actually happened. It’s hard to explain, but it just felt like someone was there with me… to the point I kept having to look around to actually make sure I was alone! Not in a scary way… or even a nervous way… but just a calm, warm presence.
I somehow managed to make it up to the summit in under an hour, quickly tossed a rock on the pile and started the trip back to the trailhead. By the time I passed the lodge again, I had given into the comforting feeling and just went with it. I entered into a flow state with whoever or whatever was with me and before I even realized… I was back at my car. I can’t remember any details of the conversation I had with my flow partner, but whatever we telepathically discussed/conversed about felt intimate and genuine. So many weird things like this have happened to me that I’ve stopped trying to seek answers. Now I just let these things occur and approach them with an open heart and mind. The Smokies are so incredibly transcendental and magical that nothing surprises me within its boundaries.
After cooling off in the parking lot and changing into some dry clothes, I drove out of the park and found an empty parking lot. I sent the “I’m safe!” text to Kati around 1am, crawled into the back seat and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. Sleep didn’t come. I would drift off for about 15-30 minutes before waking up hot and sweaty. Around 4am I decided to drive back up the mountain to a higher, cooler elevation. I slept for a solid hour before popping the hatch and getting ready for the morning’s adventure.
It was actually a surprisingly cool Wednesday morning as I connected to the Sugarland Mountain Trail. Maybe it felt “cool” because Alabama’s already 90° by 10am. Ugh.
My original plan had me going up Sugarland, but after reworking the route in my head, it would’ve been a long 26 mile day. 4 days prior to my trip up to the Smokies, Ash had presented a last minute idea which consisted of a +40 mile route that connected two of our favorite mountains for Thursday. Since I didn’t get much sleep the night before, and I knew I would have to drive home after said +40 miles… I opted for a shorter 11 mile version of my intended Wednesday route. The main focus was to connect Sugarland to Chimney Tops via the off trail manway, so I didn’t really care how I got to the manway… as long as I just got there.
I located the manway turnoff pretty easily but since I had only covered 3 or so miles, I decided to pop down just to explore the Sugarland Trail a bit. I’m so so glad I took Matty Fierce’s feedback about the trail being overgrown…. it was disgustingly high/overgrown so I didn’t venture too much further before turning around to head back to the manway.
On the way back, I caught a stunning view of Chimney Tops basking in the morning light…
By no means was the 1/2 mile manway hard to traverse… it was just… slow… due to the overgrowth…
The manway offered one small vantage point of Chimney Tops…
I eventually popped out onto Chimney Tops Trail to a family of (4) all holding cameras.
“Ah man! We thought you were gonna be a bear!”
I apologized for not being a bear before making my way over to scramble to the summit.
Technically…. there are sections of Chimney Tops that are still closed… but… the summit was just how I remembered it pre-fire. Each hand/foot hold was secure and stable which made for easy upwards movement in the warm morning sun.
After a few minutes on the summit, I down climbed back to the trail and started my descent. The “disappointed I wasn’t a bear family” stopped me on the way down and said they snapped a few pics of me climbing and would like to send them my way! That was a cool and unexpected momento from the day!
I took the beautiful and always wet Road Prong Trail up to the AT…
The sleepiness set in when I got back to the car. I drove down to Newfound Gap to grab a signal and again texted the “I’m safe!” message to the wifey. I still had a few hours to kill before Ash would be in the area. Part of me wanted to tag on another trip up Alum Cave to see the views I missed the previous night, but after the overcrowded display of tourists packed at the trail head, I decided to just head on over to Townsend to snack and relax a bit.
When Ash finally arrived, we hopped in the back of the familiar white Cowboy Tubing van and got shuttled upriver for a relaxing float back to our cars. We spent the rest of the afternoon/evening driving across the park stashing aid, almost “accomplishing” the great feat of hiking up the paved pathway to Clingmans, and then rushing to grab some Five Guys before they closed at 10pm!
The next morning Ash texted from her room…
“Dy need to get in my car?”
“I don’t think so…”
“Okay I’m finishing up.”
Dammit. I missed my alarm. I scrambled to throw on my running clothes, haphazardly threw all my shit into my duffel bag and rushed downstairs to Ash waiting in the car.
“What took ya so long?”
Though we didn’t have a real start time, we still wanted to be moving on the trail before sunrise. We figured the route would take 12-15hrs depending on our movement. Typically our runs together… don’t go as smoothly as planned… so we didn’t set any sort of time goal. We just wanted an enjoyable and fun outing connecting two of our favorite mountains (LeConte and Thunderhead/Rocky Top).
After slamming some over-sugared cold brew, we set off with headlamps up Bullhead around 6:20am. As the sun started to light the sky we got some pretty spectacular sunrise views and saw a playful bear bounding up the trail ahead of us.
Ash had been telling me how gorgeous Bullhead was post-fire and honestly I was blown away by the new beauty this trail brought! I hadn’t been up Bullhead in probably 5 or so years!
The miles ticked away easily as moved smoothly and comfortably up Bullhead. We made a quick stop by the lodge to refill water. Since the humidity was high and the sun was sure to warm things up, we knew we needed to over hydrate and be mindful of our water intake on the longer route. After a quick fill, we made the side quest over to Cliff Tops and Myrtle Point.
Newfound (mile 16ish) was already swarming by the time we arrived at 11am. We dug the cooler out of the brush, sipped some Gatorade, refilled our waters, grabbed a handful of Airhead Xtremes and hit the AT.
The stretch from Newfound to Clingmans has never been my favorite. Maybe it’s just the slight incline and relentless, rugged terrain that just brings the mood down… but despite the deep thunder and consistent rain storm… we stayed moving and chipper most of the way up.
We were in the drizzly clouds by the time we reached Clingmans. We snuck off into the woods to grab our last aid stop of the day and got a few peculiar looks from the tourists. We tried to down our Cokes as quickly as possibly to shorten the amount of shiver time. Even in the heart of summer, when it’s raining and you’re at 6k feet… it can get cold!
It only took a few minutes of running to get warm. The rain let up and the humidity set back in quickly after leaving Clingmans. Weirdly enough, despite the rain, we got pretty good views in every single section of the park!
Once we got situated and in a groove along the AT, Ash threw on the music to help set the pace. We passed a few hikers while some old rap was playing…
“Please, ignore the Soulja Boy.”
The 2 hikers looked at me as if I was THE Soulja Boy that Ash was referring to… obviously they weren’t the type to have cranked that Soulja Boy and Superman’d dat hoe in the clurb… their loss.
The climb up to Thunderhead was relentless. By the time we reached the summit, we had covered 37 miles with 11,000ft of climbing!
It started drizzling again as we dropped down to Rocky Top, but the rocky outcropping was the last significant piece of our journey.
Like Alum, we’ve done Rocky Top enough to descend with our eyes closed. As the sun began to set, we started the comfortably familiar descent down the AT to Bote.
We hit a groove coming down. On our way to Rocky Top I might have purposely suggested we would need headlamps for the descent… but this was mostly just to light a fire in Ash so she would attack the descent… which she did… scoffing at my headlamp nonsense.
43 miles and 13hrs33mins later… we hit the pavement near Cades Cove where my car was thankfully still parked.
We drove the windy road back to Ash’s car at Bullhead and changed out of our nasty clothes into our custom made finishers shirts.
I hit the road at around 10pm to start the 5.5hr drive back home. I could already feel how tired I would be for my closing shift the next day but wouldn’t trade these types of mountain outings for the world.
I’m starting to really really want to live closer to these mountains. 5.5hrs is just too far. Kati and I have always talked about moving out of Bama towards the Appalachia, and fingres crossed… when I graduate next May we can start seriously making plans.
These mountains feel like home to me. They’re where I feel most connected to both worlds (physical and spiritual). My thoughts and heart seem to stay transfixed in those smoky silhouetted ridges. I don’t expect many to understand that type of connection to a place, but there are few out there they do understand… and those few souls make me feel a little less like a crazy, obsessed, mountain addict.
“Two friends that have met on a mountain may always claim that as their level, and their souls may always sail out over the hills that are hard to climb.” Sidney Lanier Tiger Lillies