6:30 am. Time to get up. Our bags are already packed, and breakfast is on the table. But we don’t know if the road to Clingmans Dome is open. So we are working through alternate trail routes we could take if the road is not open. Twitter and the national park website both say that the road is closed, so we are scrambling to find another way up to Derek Knob. It’s edging on 8:00 now, and we need to get on the road to start our hike, otherwise we will arrive too late at the shelter.
We set off for the mountains, still not knowing if the road is open yet. We are taking two cars because we are starting and ending our hike at two different places in the park. Luckily, while stopping to fill up our cars with gas, we called and found out that the park had opened Clingmans Dome Road. They just hadn’t posted it online yet. So our plans were back in motion, a two-day hike that starts at Clingmans Dome and ends at Tremont with an overnight stay at Derek Knob Shelter. Hopefully we catch up with my uncle, whose trail name is Piddler. He has already started his annual pilgrimage to Thunderhead, and we are hoping to catch him at Derek Knob and hike down the mountain with him.
After dropping off our car at the bottom of the mountain and two more hours of windy mountain roads, we are finally turning onto Clingmans Dome Road. There is still snow on the side of the road and ice hanging off of the rocks. The road usually doesn’t open until the first of April because the weather is usually too cold and the road is, more often than not, covered in snow. Luck is on our side today, considering that the park service opened the road two days early, just in time for our trip.
The fog is setting in around us as we drive, and it is next to impossible to see but 15 feet in front of us. As we are putting on layers of clothes and putting on our packs, the fog is still rather dense. Nevertheless, we embark.
The first 0.5 miles is a paved road on which, especially on nice sunny days, one can find lots of tourists making their way up to the scenic view that is Clingmans Dome. It is quite a steep climb, and my muscles are enjoying the warm-up, especially since I am only wearing shorts and leggings in 32-degree weather.
Now that we have reached the Appalachian Trail, we begin our dissent through snow and ice, making our way carefully down the trail. The fog is still dense, and I am still hiding from the wind behind a windbreaker, a fleece, and a long-sleeve t-shirt. Slowly but surely, the fog is letting up, especially as we make our way to lower altitudes, and the sun is peeking through the clouds. Before we know it, we can see spectacular views as we hike the mountainside and the ridge tops. Again, it is another stroke of good fortune that the weather took a turn for the better.
The hike down was gorgeous, and at every stop we looked back at what we hiked and were glad that we were not hiking up the mountain. As hikers passed, we often stopped to share a quick exchange and find out where they were headed and where they were coming from. Then we would set back on our way and resume our conversations while continuing the monotony of putting one foot in front of the other. The last 0.3 miles to the shelter were the muddiest, and on top of that, it was uphill. But the 10 miles down from Clingmans Dome was definitely worth it to meet up with Piddler. As I stand and talk with him and listen to his hiking stories, I am adapting to the campsite culture and taking in the presence of the 12 other AT hikers that are here. My mom, dad, uncle, and I are the only sectional hikers at this particular shelter.
We set out our sleeping gear to claim our places, ate a packaged tuna fish dinner (which takes a lot of skill to make sure one does not make a complete and total mess), and are enjoying the last hour of the waning day. The sun setting through the trees is a sight that no camera (or at least my camera) can do justice. The AT hikers are manning the fire as they pass trail names back and forth in their conversations. My mom, dad, and uncle are all making friends and taking part in various conversations around the shelter. And I am sitting by myself, just below the top bunk where my sleeping bag is, collecting my thoughts and preparing for a my first night in a shelter.
Of course I would end up sleeping next to some guy who snores most of the night right into my ear. And of course I battled the cold most of the night, trying to regulate my heat in the sleeping bag as the cold air crept in. But hey, I am here on top of the mountain with my parents and uncle, and it is just one night in a shelter. I will be all right.
The next day, my uncle and I woke up at the crack of dawn. We collected our gear and packed up our packs. I got around to waking up my parents. Then we ate a quick breakfast before heading down the mountain. The trail down was, as my uncle described, like an escalator. It descended slowly, the terrain was relatively dry, and the viewpoints were mesmerizing. I remember at one point I was just looking up at the trees that were showing their first signs of green leaves and the newly green foliage underneath covering the mountain side. It was such a simple view, yet so captivating and beautiful to me. We stopped a few times to eat, play with the compass and map, see a waterfall, and even check out a rusted frame of an old car. The hike down seemed to go quickly and with ease. The company was great and conversation light.
As we sit eating the blue chips and hummus we had waiting for us in the car, I feel a sense of accomplishment for finishing the hike. For me, hiking itself represents the essence of the American Dream—working hard to accomplish a goal, following footsteps of those before, sometimes making a new path, but having an adventure that is uniquely yours. It is not about the material things, but about the journey taken and what you make of it.
Until next time, friend. We are off now to retrieve our other car from the top of the mountain and head home to our nice, warm, comfortable beds.
Over and Out,