After much coordination and planning, we were able to meet my father, Rick at Fontana Dam (southern terminus to The Great Smokey Mountains National Park) where he had stayed the night before awaiting our arrival. Smelly, hungry and altogether repulsive (although jolly as ever), we decided to take pops up on his offer to get cleaned up in his hotel room. He had no idea what he was in for. Hotel hair dryer stuffed into wet boots, clothing strewn around like a 16 year old girl's bedroom, sorted piles of Lipton rice sides, phone chargers crawling out of every outlet, 6 extra towels, 6 dirty hiker showers and a bathroom that looked like we had been hosing off farm animals. I suppose in a sense we had been ("hiker bomb"- Novy). It came as no surprise that he was mildly relieved to see us pick up beer and move along to the Fontana Dam "Hilton" shelter down the road.
The Hilton is nicknamed for its size, location and amenities (crazy what now constitutes as an amenity). The shelter holds 20 people, although I imagine we could squeeze 30 if need be. It has a gravel patio with a 4 foot steel fire pit, 4 picnic tables, concrete tent pads (so uncomfortable) and a bathroom (not a privy) complete with showers and flushing toilets. Pretty extensive for an AT shelter. But the best part of the Hilton was the view. The patio area overlooks the Dam with 3 big peaks that enclose the water like a crown.
First thing in the morning, pops meets us at the Hilton as we were breaking camp and stuffing pop tarts down our throats. The target for the day was 11.6 miles and would be our first day venturing into The Great Smokey Mountain national park. The Smokies requires a $20.00 hiking permit, which we still haven't figured out since the trail itself seemed a little neglected. Luckily my father was able to meet us when and where he did because he was in possession of all 3 permits and we were in fact checked by a heavily armed but altogether friendly park ranger right out of the gate. Day 1 in the Smokies was successful but not without challenge. The first day out of any gap, town or river is always kicked off with a climb. This particular day we happened to be charged with the task of shlepping our asses up to 5000 feet onto the first ridge line of the Smokies. Not fun. Not for anyone. Reminders of Amicalola Falls were everywhere. By the time we got into the mid 3000's we were facing snow and 50mph winds. It has become apparent through experience out here that weather is what truly dictates our experience. Cold and wet are two things that we have not figured out how to overcome mentally. There is no enjoyment to be had under these circumstances. It was regrettable that my father had to endure these afflictions on his very first day. To make matters worse, the park does to allow camping and as such there are only a small handful of recognizable camp sights (flat spots, fire ring) none of which are marked with a sign or in Awol's guide book. This means that we are forced to stay in shelters which are often spaced inconveniently. We had planned to hike a 7-9 mile day into the Smokies but I believe our options for that day were either a 4m shelter or a 12m shelter.. As much as we didnt want to push 12 miles into the Smokies on day 1, we also couldn't very well shut it down at 10am after just 4 miles. The whole thing was very ill planned. In addition to the distance headaches, the park only designates 4 slots in each shelter for thru hikers, the rest of which are reserved for weekend and section hikers. This news made us stress a bit. The reason for this is a bit of a mystery to us as well. Our only reasoning is that we, as attempting thru hikers, are more prepared with tents and winter weather gear than the folks who are just out for a couple days with the family. Since it was virtually all thru hikers on the trail anyway, this was a moot point, but I must admit we all felt a little left out in the cold ;)
The first days hike featured a pretty cool fire tower which we all insisted on going up in even though the sign on the staircase held an ominous warning. The stair trends were creaky and every fourth or fifth one was missing altogether. The hut itself was poorly kept and made of old crusty particle board. This didn't deter the boys from climbing not only into it, but up through the hatch and onto the roof, about 100 feet in the air with no railings. Great idea. After we pushed on to the shelter, we were pleasantly surprised that the shelters in the smokies have fireplaces directly in them. Pretty convenient for a bunch of guys who have been soaked to the bone in 25 degree temperatures. We had a bit of trouble finding firewood, but a knowledgable southern gentleman named Griff showed us where to find dead limbs on the rhododendron bushes. Because they grow relatively dry, rhododendrons are ideal for burning even when green. We try to avoid burning anything living, but sometimes when the snow is covering all the firewood and people are borderline hypothermic, rhododendrons pay the price.
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