The orange in Matty Fierce’s shorts popped like the autumn leaves as he moved with ease along the single track pushing towards the top. I stopped to remove my long sleeves. I paused momentarily to feel the contrast of the warm sun and cool breeze on my skin.
This was my first trip back to the Smokies since December and movement (especially uphill) did not come easy. Camus’ words flooded the space in my head…
“The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
I tucked my shirt away, lowered my head and continued the march towards the heights…
I had missed this feeling… feeling small… feeling ancient… feeling connected to something much, much bigger than myself.
No matter how long I stay away from the mountains, they are always waiting with arms wide open.
But what drives us to push towards the heights? What pushes us to race the setting sun…
In hopes of watching the sun drop below the horizon?
At what point does the night no longer feel threatening and we become comfortable in the darkness?
When do we become content with discomfort because we know the beauty it may yield?
I believe a few of us have come to truly understand these things are momentary. These moments… this life… it’s all fleeting… but the beautiful part is the fact the we have the opportunity to choose how we spend these precious moments.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”
We have the power of choice and we actively make choices each day. Bad things happen. Good things happen. That’s the ebb and flow of life. We can choose to embrace the feeling… the discomfort… the happiness… the sadness… or… we can let those circumstances define us and choose to take no action. Inaction is a choice.
The truth is… we’re all going to die. Momento Mori. I can honestly say a day doesn’t pass where I don’t think about death and the essence of existence. The point of this daily reminder isn’t to be morbid… the point is to inspire, motivate and clarify life and it’s purpose.
But for me… I’m reminded of the haunting words from Maynard Keenan that are etched in sun-faded ink under my skin…
“I am surrendering to the gravity and the unknown. Catch me, heal me, lift me back up to the sun I choose to live.”
A $20 a night campground brings a certain level of charm… like people loudly coming and going at all hours of the night… a random 5am guitar serenade in 29° weather and conversations with a Harley driving New Yorker in the community showers… (for the record… Ed from NY is a good dude).
Per usual, Matty Fierce and I made the long 5.5hrs drive up from Birmingham to what has grown to be one of our favorite campgrounds in the Smokies. We arrived right before midnight. MF popped the rooftop tent while I sat in the backseat packing my bag.
We were only gonna have 2-3hrs of sleep and I sure as hell didn’t wanna be groggy tryna pack my bag in the morning. It was a good call. We were woke by a car pulling into their camp site at 2:55am. I guess they decided to kick it in their warm car instead of crawling into their iced over tent. Can’t blame them but it was weird enough that they pulled in at 3am… even weirder they just kept the lights on as we crawled down from our tent.
It was bitter outside. I slept cozily. MF stayed cold the first night but after a fuzzy pants purchase at the Dollar General… he also reached a level of hibernation coziness the 2nd night.
MF had sent a last minute SOS on one of the Smoky hikers pages as a last ditch effort for a shuttle. By the Grace of God, a guy named Chris responded and agreed to meet us at 4am. This dude drove 2hrs from West Knox and was waiting at the trailhead when we arrived at 330am. I know what you’re thinking… but percentages man, percentages. The percentages of some random guy publicly answering on the internets then driving 2hrs to an obscure location in the middle of the woods with no cell service at an ungodly hour of the morning to pick up 2 guys just to kill them… well… the chances are low… never zero… but very low.
Thankfully me and MF didn’t have to whip out our cool ninja skills. As you can see from his halo in the picture below, Chris turned out to be a very sweet trail angel.
We all chatted until we reached Rainbow Falls trailhead. Since Chris didn’t accept any $ for the shuttle, MF was thoughtful enough to bring him a new Alabama Outdoors hat.
The start was brisk, but we stayed warm moving under the full moon. Though my legs felt fresh, I was moving ssssslllllooooooowwwwww. Relatively, I’m out of shape. Im still in “let’s go to the mountains and run all day” shape but I’m definitely out of “let’s throw down some hard, fast, racey type miles” shape. When we topped out on Trillium… I had already climbed more than I have in the past 6 weeks combined.
I’ve not had much motivation since the Arkansas Traveller 100 . At first the lack of motivation bummed me out, but I quickly accepted it and let it run its course… which it’s still running. My buddy Ryne Anderson made a post the other day about lacking in motivation in his own running as well as seeing it in some of the athletes he coaches. It’s always good to have some reassurance that other athletes you highly respect go through the same type of issues. In one of our chats he said, “It’s tough. But both of us have been pretty consistent for several years. So probably healthy to hit a lull in motivation for some balance.” That statement really resonated with me. Sometimes I feel like I always have to be “on” my game… but as we know… there are exceptions to those always and never statements and it truly is ok to simply exist in certain areas and pursue other avenues for a while.
The tiredness in my legs disappeared once we hit the glow on Myrtle.
What a majestic time of day to be on my favorite mountain with one of my favorite humans.
To beat the chill, we didn’t stay long and continued down the Boulevard…
MF quickly dropped me after the scar and waited at the top of one of the climbs.
I think he thought I must have been injured or hurting since I was moving so slowly. Unfortunately, I had no good excuse. Nothing was wrong… I was just moving slow.
I ate a Snickers at Newfound Gap (mile 20ish) and felt better for a few minutes.
Since we only had one car, we had to be creative in how we got to the next trailhead… so we ran like idiots for +4 miles down the busy, winding, horn blowing, tunnel filled roads of 441. The only win about this section was that I FINALLY got to meet one of my favorite Smokies IG accounts, Kristi Parsons! Per usual, she was out making the Smokies a better place picking up trash with Save Our Smokies!
We arrived at the Alum trailhead after 25 or so miles. Since the weather was chilly, we’d each only packed 2 flasks with intentions of filtering water from Alum Cave Creek. Of course our filters were frozen. I was getting water regardless…
“F*ck it. I’m drinking from the source and taking my chances with Giardia.”
*** Spoiler: I didn’t get Beaver Fever ***
By this point, MF was feeling the mountain miles as well.
The trip up Alum was our slowest to date, but there’s something to be said about moving slow up Alum. That trail is still one of the best bang for your buck trails in the entire park. It’s beautiful from start to finish and it was nice taking in some of the smaller details you tend to miss when scampering upwards quickly.
Ahhhh…. the magical turn to the top…
We stopped by the lodge for some small talk and to get purified water. This was the last weekend of the season for the Lodge and store to be open so the grounds were bustling. Of course… I needed to swing by and take a #6593 pic.
We kicked it up on Cliff Tops for a bit before leaving the top.
We decided a warm shower, a cold beer and a hot meal were reasons enough to bail on Rainbow~Bullhead loop. The fact of the matter was that we were moving slow and it was getting to that “this isn’t fun anymore” stage so we slowly made our way down Brushy Mtn to our car at Porters Creek.
We didn’t finish the Tour we set out to do but still ended our day with 38 miles / 8,000ft of climbing and some much needed time on my mountain.
Now that I’ve let my body fully recover and have had ample relaxation time since Arkansas Traveller 100… I suppose it’s time to get back to the grindstone. I was giving myself till after Thanksgiving… so I suppose I’ll cozy up for one more day before settling into a Winter training routine and setting my eye on a Spring goal.
It’s been a minute since I’ve been up to the Smokies… and by minute… I mean it’s just been since May. Typically I try and get up there once a month, but I’ve found myself dialing back my visits lately. Perhaps it’s settling into a new job… or maybe it’s that I’ve been shittily training for a race that’s not so mountainous… or maybe it’s just that life is better than it’s ever been and I’m not needing that escape. Who knows really, but at the moment, I’m content with my visits to my favorite place.
Life is a little more demanding lately so it’s harder to jet out early on a Friday and sneak up to the Smokies for a Friday evening/night, but I almost feel as though it’s less stressful not rushing to get up to the mountains. Lately, most of my trips up have seemed less stressed and less forced.
We woke up as the sun came up (no alarms or early sunrise departure), grabbed some coffee and breakfast in Bryson City, and made our way over to Deep Creek where were going to camp for the night. Luckily, we were able to switch camping tags so that we could go ahead and set up camp before our run.
Smoky Mtn running is a ton of fun with Matty Fierce. He’s not so locked into the highlight trails and h honestly helps get me out to see different areas of the park. We set out of the campsite and made our way to the beginning of Deep Creek Trail.
It was easy crushed gravel running parallel to the creek for the first little bit, passing a few waterfalls and some early morning hikers. Eventually the trail would narrow and we found ourselves in that good ole deep green and log bridges of the Appalachia.
Deep Creek had some evidence of some flash flooding and wash out and required us to use some of our trail ninja skills to navigate a few areas.
About 8 miles in, we were moving along a thick, grassy, exposed area when Matty Fierce yelled and quickly and backtracked down the trail. My initial instinct was “bear.” Instead… it was a beautiful rattler curled up right beside the trail. Man… the camouflage was gorgeous. Not that ya ever wanna get tagged by a rattler… but ya definitely don’t wanna get tagged by a rattler 8 miles into the backcountry with no service… that could quickly turn into a life and death situation.
We took our time, found some longer sticks and gently persuaded the snaky snake to slither on its merry way into the thicket.
After the snake, I took the lead for a bit while we continued along Deep Creek. This section of the trail and park was insanely beautiful.
We eventually got out of the low lands and started climbing upwards. At about the 14-15 mile mark, we popped out on 441.
We had a little over a mile of road running to connect to the next trail. I’ve grown fond of connecting long efforts via roadways and keeping things pure in the Smokies. 441 provided the only views we got all day along the trail. The views you get on these types of routes are less focused on the horizons and more focused on the deep beauty of the forest.
We took a lil snack break at the Thomas Divide TH.
About 2 miles into Thomas Divide, MF wasn’t feeling the heat and humidity, so he decided to drop the 3 miles down Kanati Trail and thumb a ride down into Cherokee. For a second I thought about joining, but truly needed some longer miles on my legs. From MF’s report… Im kinda glad I didn’t take Kanati and not sure I’m looking forward to having to cover it at some point for the map’s sake.
Thomas Divide was a bit overgrown on the ridge.. see the trail? Yea… same.
The trail dialed back the growth a bit once I started descending and turned into some good old fashioned single track. The last few miles of the 30 mile effort was a double wide trail followed by a beautiful forest service road.
The park rangers were setting a big steel bear trap about 50 yards from our tent site. Apparently some kids left some food out the night before and a bear came through a ravaged some of the area. I took a quick dip in the river to wash off the mountain mucky muck, hung up my clothes and set off to rescue MF from the perils of being stranded at a brewery. MF got cleaned up in the back seat and we made our way back to Bryson City for some colbeer, pizza and live music.
The next morning we set out for a trailhead in the same general area. Typically day 2 of these adventures would bring a summit of 6593, but it was nice changing things up a bit. I’ll get back to my mountain this Fall.
We tried our best to get to this trailhead… but after a few wrong turns and pull ins to… how do I say this kindly… some sketch ass looking properties… we took our L (mainly for safety reasons) and headed to Wesser.
It was a bit rainy as we started up the AT for the familiar out and back… but the moody weather made for some beautiful scenery!
We were socked in at the Jump Ups…
But we were hoping the clouds would burn off by the time we reached the fire tower. Things were bleak up top for a few minutes…
But the clouds began to part and we had an absolutely beautiful trip down.
It was nice getting down to the bottom and not feeling rushed to leave immediately. We soaked in the icy cold Nantahala, basked in the gorge’s sunshine and sipped on a few local colbeers.
Life is good. I’m finding myself beyond blessed for the people in my life and the opportunity to cover ground on this incredible planet.
Time to focus in on some long, droned efforts for the next month and then hopefully can get back to planning something fabulously rugged and Appalactic for the Fall.
“What’s the numbers on your chest represent? A phone number? Social security number?A specific date?”
“Actually, it’s the elevation of my favorite mountain.”
I never expect anyone to understand. Sure, there’s a few that truly understand the feeling of having your soul and heart attached to a certain place, but for the most part, people just shrug and move on as they do with most tattoo questions.
Mount LeConte has held a special place in my heart since the moment I turned the corner at Inspiration Point and my heart fluttered with excitement at the site of the distant Anakeesta ridge.
LeConte has been a critical part of cultivating so many amazing friendships…
It’s been the home of some wild and crazy solo adventures like The Great Ascension (a 78 mile link up of an out and back of every trail connected to LeConte)
GatlinDome… a +40 mile loop from my hotel in downtown Gatlinburg up and over Clingmans and back…
And some non solo adventures like… Fav 2 Fav… a +40 mile point to point that linked LeConte and Rocky Top…
A few weeks ago, Matty Fierce and I went up to celebrate my graduation. When I received my undergrad degree in kinesiology, I went through the entire process of walking across stage and taking ALL the pictures, but wanted something a lil more intimate and special for my graduate degree.
When me and MF head to the Smokies, we typically try and slide in some newer trails as to slowly check em off the map. We spent the previous day running a 25 mile route on a few trails we’d never been on that lead us to familiar spots.
But I really really wanted to be on my mountain for graduation. So we bounced up Alum and hit the usual spots like the Lodge and the summit…
And Myrtle Point…
As we started making our way over to Cliff Top, I came across a stick that resembled the shape of a diploma.
“I’ve got an idea for a graduation picture…”
The rocks were empty when we arrived…
But soon enough, a hiker came up and offered to take a picture.
It was perfect. I’ve had a lot of cool photos with a lot of amazing people on LeConte, but this photo will always hold a significant spot in my heart. It means so much more than I’m willing and able to express through text.
After the trip, I posted the pic on one of the Smokies Facebook pages. I had always enjoyed seeing others’ pictures and experiences that get posted there and just thought maybe others would like to share in this one. It was well received.
At this point in my life, I’m feeling extremely grateful. Grateful for a body that allows me to move across mountainous terrain to see the wonders of the world… grateful for the love and support I’ve received and have in my life… grateful for all the people and experiences… simply put… I just feel grateful. I’d even go as far as saying #grateful.
If you know me at all… you probably know that I’ve painted my body with the places, experiences and people that I love the most. I don’t ragret any marking I’ve ever made… (not even one single letter) and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so until I make the passage to the next life…
Why are we so afraid of silence? Is it because we’ve clouded our world with perpetual noise and the moment we catch a break in the clatter, we slip into an uncomfortable silence and are forced to confront the thoughts rattling around inside our heads? I think yes.
We’ve created such a world that silence is the enemy. It’s the terrifying demon that lives under the bed that we’re too afraid to confront. We’ve been conditioned in such a way where we have to be consistently stimulated and in depth conversation or something is “wrong.”
Over the years I’ve grown fond of silence. I’ll intentionally set out on a +8hr adventure or take a weekend trip alone to the mountains so that I can spend some time with me. I’ve found it to be very therapeutic to get that alone time and for me personally, physical pursuits in the mountains often resolve (or at least help) any internal struggles. The mountains bring a sense of simplicity and clarity. I believe in the same way psychological issues can directly turn into and/or effect physiological issues, the roles can be reversed.
Typically solo mountain weekends are planned and I prepare myself mentally for the silence. Sometimes they’re not. This past weekend was supposed to be our annual winter edition of Mountains Girls Weekend that we’ve all grown to love, however, a few things popped up and it got canceled last minute. C’est la vie.
This weekend was the last time I’d get an opportunity to get up to the Smokies until March/April, so I needed to make the most of it.
I slowly allowed my body to warm during the half mile gravel jaunt to the Bullhead trailhead before pushing up the mountain. Each time I take Bullhead, it always seems to have a different feel and has turned into one of the prettiest routes up/down LeConte.
The mountain offered no views, so there was no escape from my thoughts. No matter how hard I tried to shake some annoying internal dialogue, I couldn’t seem to suppress it enough to enjoy the joys of the mountain. I finally found some mental reprieve by the time I hit the ridge.
Matty Fierce and I had been up the month prior and encountered a good bit of snow on LeConte, but there was a good 2-4in more this trip! I’d never seen my mountain encased in such beautiful splendor!
Even though Cliff Tops would bring no view, I decided to climb it anyways to see if the heavens would allow for a partial view of the blanketed trees below.
I took a few deeps breaths of the fresh mountain air and stole a moment to stare into the grey abyss before 3 guys approached. I chatted with the 3 college guys for a few minutes before heading over to Myrtle.
Myrtle was even more peaceful than Cliff Tops. I deducted from the perfectly blanketed summit that I was the first person to set foot on its grounds for the day. My thoughts quickly shifted to 2 of my best friends. They just brought in 2 new lil baby boys to the world and I felt compelled to build a tiny lil snowman and say a prayer for each of them. I’m so excited to see their family grow and stoked to see what kind of ridiculousness those 2 future adventurers will pursue!
I was captivated by the haunting beauty of the Smoky Mountains as I made my way back towards the Lodge.
I popped by the lodge to see if the winter caretaker was home. I sent Pnut a quick message but he was off the mountain for the weekend. Still made him a lil snowman though.
Since I’ve never seen this much snow up on LeConte, I took some time and roamed the grounds around the lodge.
6593 for lyfe!!
By the time I left the Lodge I felt that serene, inner peace that the mountains often bring, but the further I descended down Rainbow, the more clouded my head became. I got to Rainbow Falls and had all but decided to just get in my car and go home. I drove out to Pigeon Forge and sat in my warm car wrestling with my next move. Since Mtn Girls Weekend got canceled, I didn’t have a place to stay. I could’ve slept in the back of my car for another night, but was prepared for a warm shower and bed… and a cold sub freezing night in the back of the Element sounded… unpleasant.
I like counseling for a lot of reasons and think it is and could be beneficial for every one. One of the main functions of counseling is to have another person take the clouded or scattered thoughts in your head and reconfigure and present them in a simple way so that you can come to your own conclusion. Counseling aside, it’s important to have those types of people in your life. I’m extremely thankful for the open and honest communication I have with my wife Kati. She helps me sort the cloudiness in my dome piece and simplifies my thoughts more than I can explain.
“Enjoy yourself! Go get a yummy meal and a beer! Watch tv and take a hot shower! Enjoy your life!” ~ Kati
“Are you gonna feel better in the mountains or suck ass Alabama?” ~ Matty Fierce
Between the Dark Princess and MF’s words of encouragement, I decided to go grab a shit ton of chicken nuggies, a few burgers, some beer and booked a cheap hotel next to the river.
Since all the forecasts suggested drizzly, cold rain in the valley and snow flurries and cloud coverage in the higher elevations, I decided to sleep in and enjoy a lazy morning in a warm hotel bed. Of course… the one day I decided to NOT strap on a headlamp and push up a mountain is the one day there’s an epic snowy sunrise on Leconte! My friend Adam Williamson (a local photographer me and MF met over the summer on Cammerer) posted this unreal shot from LeConte!
The good thing about social media is that it allows us to share some of our most beautiful moments with each other. If social media didn’t exist, I would never have gotten to see this gorgeous sunrise!
I checked the local road situation before packing my bags and heading out the door. I had planned to do some recon work early the day before for some Spring off trail adventures, but access to the area was closed off. Since 441 was still shut down, I decided to head up Sugarland Mtn to see if I could recon from a different angle, plus, I needed to finish the bottom half of the trail anyways.
The climb up was peaceful. I passed 2 hikers a mile or so in, but after that, I had the mountain to myself. Sugarland had a bunch of under brush and low hanging branches along the trail which had me annoyingly brushing off snow from my clothes. It was apparent by the time I got to the Rough Creek turn, that I would get no chance at any sort of visual reconnaissance so I made the decision to go ahead and descend back down the mountain.
The first mile or so along Rough Creek was much like Sugarland, but quickly settled into a fun and runnable trail. The fog paired with the snowy environment was breathtaking.
I carefully rock hopped a few creeks and playfully followed animal tracks along the trail.
I transitioned into a steady tempo run when I hit Little River Trail. Even though this trail was more like a jeep road, I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful movement next to the rushing water.
To keep the purity of the route, I decided not to take Husky back over to reconnect with Sugarland. Instead, I made my way to Elkmont campground. I made a quick stop to see some of the sites, like the old staircase to the Wonderland Hotel:
The snow was so beautiful that I didn’t even mind the few miles along the road back to the trailhead.
I quickly stripped down, changed into warm, dry clothes and cracked open a colbeer when I got back to my car.
I enjoyed the silence the mountain brought that day. My voice stayed quiet, my mind wasn’t cluttered, and my heart didn’t feel heavy. Sometimes it’s best to stay silent and let the world unfold around you.
I’m thankful to have gotten the chance to get up to the Smokys one more time to play in the snow. Team Andrews has got some big goals this year. Between wrapping up my final semester and internship of grad school, Make-A-Wish Trailblaze Challenge, and my regular job at the thrift store, these types of mountain adventures will be few and far between. The next 5 months will be mental chaos but I’m excited to see what 2021 has in store. If it’s anything like last year, it’ll be another year of hard, hard growth.
When you’re sleeping in the back of a car, a vehicle pulling into a gravel parking lot is one of the most unmistakable sounds you’ll ever know. Your brain immediately launches into over analyzing everything.
Is this where they tap on the window? What do I tell them? Maybe this is NOT a ranger but a criminal! Are they gonna try and break into my car?
We popped our heads out of our warm sleeping bags and watched as they unlocked the gate to the stables. The sky was barely lit, but we decided to go ahead a pull into the picnic parking area and start getting ready for the day.
For breakfast, we monched on the Chick Fil A sandwiches we bought the night before. We did a quick gear check and started out onto the cold, bone dry trail for a long day in the snowy mountains.
Once we got onto Russell Field Trail, our world quickly became shrouded in a white substance that is Alabamians hardly ever get a chance to see. The little snow we get in Bama is hardly ever enjoyable. Perhaps it’s the < 1 inch dusting or maybe it’s the holy hell there could be snow so let’s go out and buy up all the bread and milk panic. Either way… snow is rarely enjoyed in my state.
The week before, I made my way over to the Walsh’s household where me and Ash did our annual No Views Christmas Run… and like previous years… the tradition held true. We linked 27 miles in the Standing Indian area with approximately ZERO views…
Luckily, my favorite days in the mountains are the foggy, gloomy days. Don’t get me wrong, the views are a spectacular benefit from running beautiful mountain terrain, but there’s something hauntingly mesmerizing about moving through foggy woods.
We eventually made our way up to the Appalachian Trail and chatted with a few overnight hikers from Texas at the shelter before leaving out NOBO.
The AT in white is a site to behold!
We made our way across Spence Field and dipped down in between Spence and Rocky Top. Our intentions were to do the long out and back on the remote Jenkins Ridge Trail.
Jenkins Ridge is just one of those trails that’s hard to access. There’s no easy buy-in and it’s just a long one way trail. It took us approximately 8 miles to actually get started on the 18 mile out and back.
The trail itself doesn’t offer any spectacular views but does have some steep descents (ascents depending on the direction), a few little creek crossings and a few good sections of fun single track. The biggest draw to this trail is its remoteness.
After 6 or so miles of snowy trail, we popped down onto wider double track and made our way to the trailhead near Hazel Creek (mile 17). MF did a quick flask fill and we started back up the trail monchin four Chick Fil A sandwiches.
The climb back up proved to be just as uneventful as the trip down (which is a good thing). A few of the climbs rivaled the steepness of DRT and the slick snow covered leaves added extra challenge to the effort.
The AT welcomed us back with socked in views and silence. Thankfully the last 5 miles were all downhill and we could just slide into a mindless rhythm. We took Bote down to Anthony and was met by a stubborn ass deer about a mile from the trailhead. Homeboy just refused to move so we had march off trail around it. As soon as we started back running a small black bear bolted from the trail and disappeared up the ridge.
The temps stayed in the lower > mid 20s all day, so after 31 miles of coldness, we were looking forward to a hot shower and a warm place to lay our heads. Don’t get me wrong… the back of the car sleeping bag was cozy… but the cheap hotel room and a heater was priceless (well kinda… priceless as in $41). After a huge beer and a huge bacon burger from the brewery, we dozed off into slumber.
We woke up the next morning and grabbed breakfast at the hotel. Originally, we had planned on just taking Alum Cave up to the top and back. We figured a light out and back would be a good way to wrap up the trip and wouldn’t put us home too late. 441 was still closed by the time we finished breakfast so we decided in the classic Rainbow > Bullhead loop.
It was a solid choice because Matt got to visit his tree.
There were a few hikers in between the trailhead sand Rainbow Falls, but after that, the trail became vacant. The mountains were a literal winter wonderland!!
The trail was an icy/snowy mix all the way up, but had some nice, soft powder sections as well. We didn’t have to throw on the spikes until the approach up to the lodge.
We popped down to the lodge to see if Pnut was home (he was out running Alum) before heading up to Cliff Top.
The air is so fresh and so clean clean at 6593ft
After soaking in the warmth of the sun for a few minutes, we made our way over to Myrtle to scope out another view.
We chatted with Hunter from Maryville over Cliff Bars before we started the trip down Bullhead. Upper Bullhead was snow packed which made for some soft running!
Once we dropped down a few miles, we removed the gloves, spokes and beanies. The sun had melted a good bit of the snow and we trudged through a sloppy, muddy mix.
I absolutely loooooove this section of Bullhead. There’s no better feeling than running along a wrapping trail with expansive views!
It was nice to finally run and loosen up the legs some after a long day of hike-crunching through the snow.
Trips like these are pleasant reminders of how lucky I am to have the type of people in my lyfe that are willingly to tackle uncomfortableness for the sake of adventure, fun and beauty.
I didn’t really plan on running 3 ultra distances 3 weeks in a row (50 miles > 27 miles > 31 miles) but I do PLAN on having a few light recovery weeks before hopping back into training. Though 2020 was a shitshow of a year… it was one of the best shitshows of my lyfe. Cheers to big things in 2021. Stay wild!
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
Per usual, one sole jackass parked his truck in the middle of the road to get out and get a closer look at wildlife. We not-so-patiently sat in line as a flurry of Honky McHonkersons laid on the horn to try and get Truck Daddy to move. This wasn’t anything new. This is typical tourist behavior at Cades. You just have to let them gawk and snap pics of the beats or even worse the turkeys… and slowly creep around the loop. Since I luckily got to leave work a few hours early, we got a chance to snag a bonus run and start Smokefest a day early. As soon as we neared the back end of Cades Cove, we left the asphalt and sped down the gravel road out to the trailhead. We quickly stripped down, grabbed our headlamps and started the trek up Gregory Ridge Trail.
Given our late start time, we knew we wouldn’t see the sun set from the top, but figured we may get some afterglow. We were met by a soft purple-ish~orange glow as we reached Gregory Bald.
We stayed up top just long enough to get chilled before descending in the dark.
Practically everything was closed by the time we got out to Townsend so we headed straight to Little River Campground. The staff was kind enough to let us check in late and left our registration taped to the office door. We quietly set up camp at a spot near the river, had a few beers and hit the sack around 12:30am.
Smokefest Day 2 AM: Rocky Top
12 miles / ~ 3700ft gain
Morning came quick. We rolled out of bed at 5:30am (4:30am Bama time), packed up camp and headed back out to Cades for an out and back to Rocky Top.
We couldn’t have asked for a prettier morning to kick off the running weekend. We soaked in the views and blooming flaming azaleas at Spence Field…
And then pressed up to the summit of Rocky Top for a lil snack.
It was blue skies and sunshine all the way back down the mountain.
For lunch, we drove into Gatlinburg and grabbed a juicy bacon cheeseburger from the Smoky Mountain Brewery. Since summer classes are jam packed, I had to take a break from playing and squeeze in a little bit of grad homework. Thankfully I got to take my 2nd exam a day early and didn’t have much work to do while in the mountains.
We drove out to Cosby Run campground after lunch to set up camp. We thought it would be better to go ahead and have camp set up so we wouldn’t have to fool with anything after our second outing.
Smokefest Day 2 PM: Big Creek Loop
16.6 miles / ~ 4300ft gain
After checking in and throwing up the tent and hammock, we made our way out to Baxter Creek Trailhead on the east side of the park. I really enjoy this side of the park. It’s got it’s on specific mystique and my heart holds many great memories/experiences tucked away in its lush environment.
Baxter Creek Trail is a beautifully brutal booger of a trail. Its a relentless uphill climb for 6.2 miles without much reprieve but the enchanting mossy backdrop can steal your mind for a bit if ya let it.
Since Smokefest wasn’t about how quickly we could run up and down mountains, we took our time and enjoyed the afternoon. We made a quick pit stop to FTS (from the source) some water near the summit…
And eventually made it up to the rickety fire tower!
I knew better than to try and get Matty Fierce to scale up through the roof, so I just went ahead and got myself a lil clearer look from the tippy top 😉
After the climb down, MF decided he wanted to head back down Baxter so I continued on with the loop solo. I moved along the ridge for about 1.5 miles until I hit Swallow Fork. I was surprised at the beauty of Swallow! I had envisioned a more overgrown, rocky trail, but was surprised with how enjoyable the trail was to descend. The peaceful and quiet trail gave me a few miles to get lost in my head and let my mind wander a bit.
But it was game on when I hit Big Creek Trail. The smoother path and gentle downhill allowed for 5 quick miles back to the car. And… I saw (and hurdled) my first ever snake in the Smokies. I will see a snake almost every single summer outing in Alabama, but have never come across one in the Smokies. I hit the parking lot to find a dusty note etched into the back of Matty Fierce’s Rover that simply read “Creek.” MF was soaking his feet in the creek as I fumbled down to sit with him and rinse off. On the way back to camp, we stopped at Cobly Knob Cafe and Pizza to refuel.
The biggest and maybe only win for Cosby Run Campground: real hot showers. After a much needed cleanup, we tried to turn in at a decent hour so we wouldn’t be too sleep deprived for a sunrise outing.
Smokefest Day 3 AM: Mount Cammerer Loop
15 miles / ~ 3200ft gain
It was everything I had not to just hit snooze and snuggle deeper into my sleeping bag. 4:20am (3:20am Bama time) left me less than perky.
Nevertheless, I changed into a pair of shorts, stumbled out of my tent and gathered up what I’d need for the morning. Cosby Run Campground is precisely 2 Pop Tarts away from GSMNP’s Cosby Campground. We parked at the ranger station, loaded our vests and left out into the darkness to the hoot of a solitary owl.
We took the 2.5 mile Low Gap climb slow and steady and hit the AT as the sky started to illuminate.
We made it to the fire tower just after the sun broke the horizon! It was a spectacular sunrise!
We shared a summit breakfast… which was a lovely Dr. Pepper that Matty Fierce had brought along.
2 local Adams were up snapping pics of the sunrise (@adamgravett & @smokyshiker) and warned us of a copperhead hiding in a rock cropping a ways down the AT. Sure enough… we saw a snakeskin and a nice little note taped to the area! Thankfully we didn’t see the snake.
After a brief stint on the AT, we connected Lower Cammerer Trail for the flowy 7.5 miles back to the trailhead.
We knew it was time to leave the area when we came across a Bigfoot imprint…
We headed back to the campground for a quick shower before heading into town for another bacon cheeseburger.
After stuffing our faces, we drove up to Newfound Gap, pulled out our chairs and relaxed a bit in the sea of tourists snapping pics around us.
Smokefest Day 3 PM: Mt LeConte
17 miles / ~ 4200ft gain
Per usual, the AT out of NFG was PACKED. We steadily weaved in and out of the swarm and eventually hit Boulevard. To make up for the “veto” MF and OJG threw on me last time, we made a quick side trip up to the Jumpoffs.
I scurried off trail for a bit to scope out a potential future adventure before we headed back down to Boulevard to resume our push up the mountain.
Outside of Alum, Boulevard is my 2nd favorite route up LeConte. For whatever reason, I just love the feel of the trail and the way it flows.
We couldn’t have asked for better weather up top!
We took the spur trail up to Cliff Tops for a lil Red Bull break.
We popped down to the Lodge to refill our flasks before starting back to NFG.
Being up top, I couldn’t pass up a quick trip out to Mytrle Point before hitting the descent myself. MF was only a half mile ahead of me but he made me work to catch up to him! I’m thankful he stopped to dunk his head in some water. As always, the beauty of Boulevard didn’t disappoint.
The air was chilled at 5000ft by the time we got back to the car. We enjoyed the vast views of the mountains as we drove down to Cherokee for some Arby’s sandwiches. We monched our way all the way to the Nantahala.
Smokefest Day 4: Bone Valley
7 mile paddle / 16 mile run
The alarm sounded. 5:15am (4:15am Bama time). I heard MF’s voice pierce the still darkness, “Still dedicated?”
I let out a rough, unmotivated “Still dedicated.”
We loaded up the boats and headed out to Cable Cove. 1 canned Coke and 1 Arby’s roast beef sandwich later, we drug out the boats, checked our gear and began the 3.5 mile paddle over to the ghost town of Proctor.
You would’ve thought we were drunk off our asses the way we started our paddle. It took a solid mile before we stopped turning cool 180 tricks and got the groove of paddling flat water in river boats. Thankfully, a beautifully sunrise masked our disgusting paddling skills.
When MF planned out this Smokefest, he had originally planned to have us ferry across Fontana Lake to start the run, but I’m super glad that didn’t work out. The purity of the self-propelled aspect of this adventure is what made this outing so special.
After the 1hr20min paddle, we hit the shoreline and swapped one vest for another.
A few months back we did the Lakeshore Traverse so we didn’t feel the need to pop down to see Proctor, so we headed up Hazel Creek towards Bone Valley. HC was an easy, double track run next to a flowing creek filled with fly fishermen… a very welcomed change from all the steep climbing and descending we put in the previous days.
5.3 miles later we finally saw a sign we’d both wanted to see for years.
Bone Valley is one of the more remote places in the park and everything about the area made it feel that way. The trail crosses water 5 times on the way to the old Hall cabin.
The whole area had a weird, exciting energy. For whatever reason, I kept getting eerie chills and sensations. I briefly explored the cabins interior and surroundings.
The family that owned this cabin and property had a piece of the most magical places on earth.
MF opted for a Red Bull, I opted to make the climb up the hill to the family cemetery. Inhale oronabkt
We linked back up and headed back down Bone Valley Trail. I figured it would some time before I’d be back in the Proctor area, so I took advantage of the time and hit Bone Valley cemetery as well.
Hitting the cemetery meant having to bust my ass and drop some hot miles to catch back up to MF. It took about 4 miles but I eventually linked back up with him for the final mile back to the boats. After a dip in the lake, we took to the water for the 3.5 mile paddle back.
By the numbers… we covered ~ 88 mountain running miles w/ ~ 19,000ft gain and 7 paddle miles in the 4 day Inaugural Smokefest. The only thing I think we’d change would be the downtime. It would’ve been nice to relax a lil bit more and maybe drink a few more colbeers or brown water in a river somewhere… but honestly, this trip was one of the most fulfilling weekends I’ve ever spent in the Smokies and I’ll forever cherish these memories. Can’t wait to start planning Smokefest 2.
I’ve always admired those endurance athletes that live in towns where they can walk out of their front door and link a long day in the mountains without so much as cranking their car. The concept of leaving out of the comfort of your residence and connecting to the peacefulness of nature is something that tugs at my soul. It’s simple. It’s pure. It’s adventure in its most authentic form.
Like how Anton could strap on a pair of shoes in his living room and be up on the Flatirons in no time…
Or how Kilian can stroll out of his house in Norway and take a tour of the mountains of the Romsdal Fjord…
Well I don’t live in Boulder and I sure as hell don’t live in Norway, so my “out the door” adventure is far less grandiose. One of the dreams is to someday live in a place like that, but for the time being, I try to incorporate these types of raw adventures into my own running lifestyle whenever possible.
My mountain running perspective really started to gravitate towards these types of adventures back in 2014 when Mountain magazine published an article about a local duo and their passion for adventure. Honestly, I still read the article “Happy Sisyphus” numerous times a year to keep me grounded and my soul aligned with my outlook on adventure. Hell, it even was the complete inspiration behind my most recent lower back tattoo.
I wasn’t really upset at all that Cruel Jewel got canceled this year. It’s just a race and it’ll be there next year if I want to continue that pursuit. I’ve actually been wanting to start concentrating more on shorter ultras anyways so it just may have been a blessing in disguise! Though the worry of being completely trashed and spending weeks recovering was gone, the lil part of me that had been training his ass off for the past few months was a bit disheartened. Kati could see the internal struggle of me wanting to run something longer that wasn’t local so she urged me to get up in the mountains and link a long route just for fun. So I spent my lunch break on Thursday route planning on the back of receipts.
I drove up Friday morning and arrived around lunch time. I initially had planned to head out of Kephart Prong trail head, but the trail head was PACKED. Unlike the hordes of people who were parking, hopping cones and trail barriers on the closed Alum Cave and Chimney Top trails, I didn’t want to be (or even appear to be) an entitled douche and park in an none designated area, so I headed back up to Newfound Gap and scored a spot.
After a lil turkey wrap, I grabbed an 8oz soft flask and headed northbound along the AT. The weather was insanely perfect! Moving through the mountains shirtless with just a pair of shorts is always incredibly freeing, but doing so in the mountains I love after a long Smoky Mountain dry-spell was on a completely different level of freedom. After a mile or so I took a right on Sweat Heifer and ran into a stubborn grouse.
Sweat Heifer was an incredibly beautiful trail.
After a handful of miles and 2000ft descent, I passed the shelter and started the 4 mile climb back up to the AT.
The climb up Grassy Branch was steady and relaxed until I saw my first ever wild pigs! I heard a rustling sound below me on the trail and automatically assumed it was a bear, but to my surprise it was 2 pigs nosing around. They froze the moment they saw me and bolted the second I started moving again. I saw some horseback riders shortly after connecting onto Dry Sluice.
Once on the AT, I made a quick stop at the real Charlies Bunion and scrambled down a bit to get a better view of the Tourist Bunion (aka the Charlies Bunion everyone hikes out to). I wanted to get a better perspective of the ridge leading up to the Tourist Bunion. Though my Big Bulgin Birthday Bunion adventure where I bushwhacked and climbed the Bunion was months ago, the memories of that day still come to mind in such clarity.
I made the quick trip to see the Tourist Bunion…
And to the Jump Offs before heading back to Newfound Gap.
Before leaving NFG, I hid a liter of water under some branches at the edge of the parking lot. I knew there was a possibility that someone would see it and throw it away, but figured I’d at least attempt to stash enough to fill my soft flasks to save me a filtering since I’d be passing through NFG on Saturday. After checking into Belle Air motel, I made my way downtown to grab some whiskey and a big cheeseburger.
That 3:30am Saturday alarm came early bruh… especially since that’s really 2:30am Alabama Roll Tide time. Despite not having any time restraints or even time goals for the loop, I still wanted to be up on Myrtle Point for the sunrise. The sun was set to rise at around 6:30am, so I figured a 4am departure would allow enough time to cover the 10 or so miles needed to reach the peak right as the sun crept over the horizon.
I walked out of my hotel room right at 4am and stood in the middle of a completely empty street.
I had to run the road for about a mile before entering the park and diving onto the Twin Creeks Trail.
The single track trail gradual meanders uphill running parallel to Cherokee Orchard Road. I almost decided to just stay on the road until I reached Rainbow Falls but glad I didn’t.
I hopped back on the road for 3/4 mile to get to the Rainbow Falls trail and started the ascent. The morning was abnormally clear and the city lights were brighter than I’ve seen them before.
Once you pass the falls, Rainbow is delightful in the dark. A brilliant burnt orange started piercing the sky as I started the switchback up to the lodge and the sky was completely illuminated by the time I started the climb to LeConte’s summit.
I had missed the sun breaking the horizon by maybe 5 minutes, but the sun blazed brilliantly for me as I headed out towards Myrtle Point.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t alone at the top. There was a group of guys that had ran up Rainbow as well. I stopped briefly to soak in the beautiful sunrise before heading back down towards Boulevard. I will never tire of running through the woods with the morning sun breaking through the trees…
I’d still claim Alum Cave trail as my favorite way to get up/down LeConte, but Boulevard is a close second. It’s such a pretty trail! I had only sucked down one 8oz soft flask of water by the time I hit the Appalachian Trail. I was running conservatively and relaxed, but even so, I typically can go a fairly long time without much water. Since there’s not many spots to refill water between NFG and Clingmans Dome and I didn’t want to kill my water supply without fully knowing if my stashed water would still be available. I arrived at NFG (mile 17.5ish) around 8:15am(ish) to a fairly still empty parking lot. I was happy to find my stashed water still waiting for me. Mother nature even decided to keep it slightly chilled!
Back in 2015, I attempted a similar GatlinDome concept. I had planned to run from the Motel 6 all the way to Clingmans by linking Gatlinburg Trail > Old Sugarlands > Bullhead > AT. From the moment I left the hotel room, the purist in me was extremely bothered by the idea that I would have to hit Clingmans and then return to NFG since the road was closed. It felt impure and dirty. Thankfully the chap that I came to the mountains with met me at NFG with donuts and whiskey…. which made the decision to bail super easy. Basically whiskey and donuts saved me from impurity…
The next patch of trail just isn’t my favorite. Roughly 8 miles separates NFG and Clingmans Dome and I just can’t seem to ever get into that section. Litrully, the only good part about this section is of course the Road Prong sign.
After a few negative thoughts and memories from the area, I eventually surfaced at the dome. I met 2 girls that had made the trip up Noland Divide from Bryson City. We spoke briefly before I walked up the long platform with a hiker who had stayed at Mount Collins shelter the night before. It’d been years since I’de been to the dome itself! I had endless views!
After the dome, it was practically all downhill. Seriously… out of the 44 miles / 10k feet of climbing that the route has… the first 25 miles has 9k of that climbing!
From the dome, I had a 2 mile segment along the AT before my next trail connection. Unlike the NFG > Clingmans section, this section never disappoints!
Goshen Prong is kinda divided into 2 sections. The first 4.5 miles or so is basically a long descent and the last 3.5 miles are flatter along the river. The temps started rising the further I dropped down off the AT. I started hearing the rushing water of the river below so I started polishing off the 3 8oz soft flasks that I had packed for the day. I stopped around mile 30ish to filter and refill at a small branch along the descent.
When I reached the bottom of the descent and the trail started to flatten, Matty Fierce’s words rattled through my head. Since the river was so loud and it easily drowns out the surrounding noises, he advised me to be a bit more cautious since the bears liked the area. I be damned if I didn’t run up on a bear lackadaisically meandering.
Since I was in no rush and the bear was blocking the only way out, I just sat back and observed from a safe distance. He took his sweet little time slowly grazing. After about 10 minutes, the bear finally started up the ridge.
I grabbed a pair of rocks out of the river and banged them loudly as I ran through the section where the bear ascended. The trail was overgrown for the next mile so I proceeded to be this lonely, weird dude making loud banging noises with river rocks while running through thick vegetation.
The trail cleared up completely when I hit Little River Trail.
I followed this trail for roughly a mile before climbing up Husky Gap Trail. Though the first 2 miles of Husky aren’t steep, they felt steep after a 9 mile descent. I really enjoyed this little trail. It had great single track and a quick view of LeConte.
I popped out onto an extremely busy 441. Thankfully the shoulder was wide and tame enough to allow me to keep pace as the cars whizzed by.
Sugarlands Visitor Center was a welcomed site. I hit the crushed gravel of the Gatlinburg Trail and cruised into a hot, bustling downtown area.
The last 3/4 of a mile were spent dodging tourists and listening to Kid Rock blaring from the multitude of Jeeps cruising the strip. It’s such a weird feeling entering back into “normalcy” after such a colossal and organic journey through the mountains. I waited peacefully in the crowd of people waiting on the street light.
The last little bit was an uphill stretch back to my motel. When I caught wind of the BBQ joint on the street, I knew exactly what I was ordering to-go for dinner. 10hrs47mins and 44 miles I wrapped up a long day out in my favorite mountains. Since I kept the outing steady and comfortable, I didn’t feel overworked or exhausted. I felt refreshed and happily spent.
I took a quick shower, poured a whiskey drink and took a quick nap before strolling down the road to grab some BBQ. After dinner, I road over to Pigeon Forge to hang out with Ash. Dan and the kids for a bit. It’d been months since we’ve hung out, so Ash and I decided to head out to Cades Cove to run/walk an 8.5 mile loop around the cove. The road loop was closed to traffic, but there were still folks out star gazing. I’d never been out to Cades at night. It was so peaceful!
I wanted to get up early and get another summit in, but decided I wanted to sleep in and have a lazier morning. I left the motel a little after 9am and drove out towards Rainbow Falls trailhead. The amount of cars and people in the area were an easy deterrent and helped the decision to just go ahead and head on back to Alabama. I’m glad I went back early because I got to wrap up a wonderful outdoorsy weekend with a hike at Shaol Creek with my Dark Princess.
I’m thankful I got the chance to spend some solo time in the mountains. I don’t crave big solo adventures often, but every now and then my soul needs that alone time to reset.
Now that this quarantine is slowly lifting and things are starting to open back up… I’m looking forward to planning some summer adventures with friends again. As soon as we get that “ok”… it’s game on!
I quickly grabbed the familiar braided cable as my feet slipped out from under me. I removed the microspikes from my vest, slipped them over my S-LABS and glanced down at my watch as I continued to *crunch crunch crunch* my way upwards along the icy trail.
Midnight had come and gone without much notice. Ever since leaving an empty Alum Cave parking lot, words I wrote a year ago had been echoing in my head:
The starsshine through the powdered pines, tears like crystals in your eyes.
The trail grows dark, you know the way. The Appalachia’s in your veins.
You feel It’s touch, the cold embrace, praying for another day. Your soul cries out, “te amo Deum.”
With the microspikes, my mind relinquished it’s footing concerns and moved it’s focus to the gentle snow flurries and cold Smoky Mountain air. I moved in and out of clouds as I enjoyed the quiet cadence of my footsteps. During daylight hours and warmer months, Mount LeConte Lodge is typically a vibrant hangout… but at 1am in the middle of winter, the lodge is at best a desolate ghost town shrouded in comforting darkness. Although there was only one car in the parking lot when I departed at 11:45pm, I kept the shine of my headlamp fixated on the trail as I passed the shelter as to not disturb any potential sleeping guests. I reached the summit a few minutes before 1am, tossed a rock on the pile and started the descent. I smiled as I thought of Albert Camus’s words, “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Despite the icy conditions, it only took a little over 2 hours for the round trip. I noticed an orange piece of paper on my windshield as I walked across the parking lot. Overnight parking is frowned upon in the Smokies so I made sure I left a handwritten note in my windshield: “NOT overnight parking! Just a midnight summit. Left at 11:45pm. Should return around 2-3am.”
Thankfully the orange literature wasn’t a citation. The sweeties running the show at GSMNP left a little notice letting me know that 441 was closed (again… it only had been open for a few hours) due to snow and ice. They were even so kind to leave me the code to the lock on the gate so that I could get out!
The sub-freezing temps on LeConte called for an extended hot shower. I finally crawled into the bed just after 3am.
3 hours later I found myself crawling up the stairs to share a cup of coffee with Ash and Bailey. For years, we’ve had a standing Smoky Mountain tradition that we call Mountain Girls Weekend. These weekends usually happen periodically throughout the year… winter, spring, summer, fall… and each season brings a different element of fun. These mountains mean the world to me, and some of my best Smoky Mountain memories involve these girls:
We chatted as we watched the seasons change during the ascent of West Prong.
Before long, our world became white.
Views were nowhere to be found as we hit the Appalachian Trail. Ash and I followed mountain cat tracks as we crunched our way up to Rocky Top.
After a brief snack break, we carried on a little past Thunderhead before turning around to retrace our steps back to the Tremont. When we passed the summit on the way back, we noticed Bailey had left her calling card atop of Rocky Top…
As usual, the mountain provided a serene escape amidst our hectic lives.
A voice calls out against the wind, the comfort of it makes you grin.
The setting sun, the coming night, cradle close the candle light.
You feel It’s touch, the cold embrace, praying for another day.Your soul cries out, “te amo Deum.”
When dinner rolls around, we typically stick to what we know for MGW… but this time we decided to branch out. After a +2 hours wait for food… the decision to branch out again was a unanimous… “no”
Come Sunday morning, Ash and I drove up to Newfound Gap. We had every intention of repeating an 18 mile Bradly, Bradly, Bradly route that we did 2 years ago, but the Ice King had different plans.
After a dreadfully slow 3/4 of a mile along the AT, we decided Northbound was too icy (especially without spikes… not gonna call out anyone who may or may not have forgotten their spikes in the car… *cough DAYQUAN cough*…
We hopped NFG road and started Southbound along the AT towards Clingmans. This side of the mountain had a little more snowfall, but it was mostly just a coating for the ice. We had not so high hopes for faster movement, but in the end we were forced to slow it down and accept the tundra setting…
Though the actual temperature had been colder the previous days, the whipping wind made Sunday’s outing remarkably colder. We followed the AT for a few miles before scooting down to Clingman’s Dome Road for a somewhat quicker return to NFG. During the Fall, the road to Clingman’s is grossly mobbed with camera hungry tourists trying to snap pictures of the vibrant autumn colors… but the winter brings forth a tranquil abandonment.
With the exception of my one ungraceful fall, we gleefully navigated the ice/snow covered blacktop while we created stories for the wild animal prints we tracked along the road. The calming, beautiful blue hue of the distant mountain range served as a tender reminder to be intentionally present in the moment and enjoy what’s around you.
We navigated around the barricade to Clingmans Dome Road and moved along the roadside until we arrived back at Newfound Gap where Bailey was waiting. We snapped a quick pic in our stylish MGW shirts before we parted ways.
The drive back from the Smokies never passes quickly. Regardless of where the Sunday run ends… it’s typically a 5 – 6 hour drive back to Montevallo. Usually, I’ll throw on a couple podcasts to pass the time, but today was different. My mind remained immersed in an Appalachian conversation surrounding fears and insecurities that Ash and I had earlier in the day.
Whatdo I fear the most? I sometimes catch flak for my lackadaisical viewpoint of life and death, but honestly, death isn’t something I’ve ever really feared. I became friends with my Death a long time ago and don’t really exhibit any death anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to die… and the name of the game is to prolong death as long as possible… but if my life were to end abruptly, I’d be satisfied with the life I’ve lived. So to some, a solo midnight summit of Leconte in icy conditions may seem foolish or reckless, but in my own heart and mind… it was a calculated risk and one that was approached with caution and safety in mind. I always want to walk away from an adventure alive and well and return safely to my Dark Princess waiting at home. So far, I’ve successfully stuck to Rule #1 of my own personal adventure rules: don’t die.
On the one end of the spectrum… I’m a man’s man. I love guns. I enjoy craft beer, good and bad whiskey and red wine. I’ll take an elbow in a mosh pit and wake up the next day and run all day in the mountains. On the other end of the spectrum… I’m sensitive. I’m emotional. I cry during sad movies and anime. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I love cats. I enjoy painting my toe nails and vibrant colors. I love to dance to synth pop and goth music. Honestly, I could care less at what society deems as appropriate for manhood. I’m not afraid to be my authentic self.
So what do I fear the most? I think what I fear most is the thought that the people I love most don’t/won’t truly understand their significance in my life.
Words mean the world to me. Maybe that’s why I adore musical artists that are great lyricists. Maybe that’s why I enjoy writing and stringing together my own lyrics so much… because it’s so intimate and personal. I do think sometimes I over analyze peoples’s language… verbal and nonverbal… and look too deeply into the soul’s abyss. But in the end… I take words to heart. Over the years, I’ve actively tried to become more and more mindful in expressing my feelings towards the people I love because in all honesty… you never know when Death will come lead you across Styx. I can only pray that when my time does come, the people I leave behind will understand and have no doubt about how much they meant to me… even if it’s not always verbally communicated. One of my biggest hopes is to live my life in such a way that when Death does come, It will grab my hand and we’ll smile together as we float across the river to a new beginning.
The winter wind is coming for us all. The winter wind is waiting for the sun to fall. And the chill in your bones runs deeper than you know. Blood runs cold in the deafening snow. The winter wind is coming for us all.
A voice calls out against the wind, the comfort of it makes you grin. The setting sun, the coming night, cradle close the candle light. You feel It’s touch, the cold embrace, praying for another day.Your soul cries out, “te amo Deum.”
The winter wind is coming for us all. The winter wind is waiting for the sun to fall.And the chill in your bones runs deeper than you know. Blood runs cold in the deafening snow. The winter wind is coming for us all.
The starsshine through the powdered pines, tears like crystals in your eyes.The trail grows dark, you know the way. The Appalachia’s in your veins.You feel It’s touch, the cold embrace, praying for another day.Your soul cries out, “te amo Deum.”
He takes your hand to lead you home. It’s cold as ice inside your palm. He feels your fear, He squeezes tight, walking slowly into the light. You feel the sun, the warm embrace, the song of angels guide your way.Your soul cries out, “te amo Deum.”
The winter wind is coming for us all. The winter wind is waiting for the sun to fall.And the chill in your bones runs deeper than you know. Blood runs cold in the deafening snow. The winter wind is coming for us all.