Life Lessons Learned On The AT: Clingman’s Dome to Cades Cove

This weekend I met up with two new friends to go for a walk in the woods. We’re all from different places, traveling on our own unique paths in life, but hiking brought us together. A weekend was a great time for a short backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And like many of the best laid plans for hiking in the Smokies, rain was involved, but the weather couldn’t keep us away.

We hiked from Clingman’s Dome to Cades Cove, heading southbound on the AT to Derrick Knob Shelter, then continuing onto Bote Mountain Trail, and eventually down Anthony Creek Trail back to our tents in the Cove campground. Even though we started at the highest point on the AT, there was a staggering amount of uphill climbs involved. Every time we headed down a mountain there was the realization that an ascent lay somewhere ahead. The trail from Clingman’s Dome to Derrick Knob was the standard narrow, high elevation, forested trail we’ve come to know and love.  We encountered some rain, but nothing really heavy, and met some other hikers along the way.

The shelters in the Smokies have a reputation for being mouse-ridden. We slept with our heads toward the opening of the shelter to avoid anything that might run along the walls. Although we never saw any mice, one of the food bags was chewed through at some point. At this time Derrick Knob Shelter was under a bear warning, so we were very careful about hanging everything with a scent on the bear cables. There is no privy here and the “toilet” trail is extremely overgrown. To get water there’s a steep little downhill hike to a spring just off the side of the shelter. We were the only ones spending the night, so we cooked, ate, and fell into our sleeping bags before dark in an effort to dry out and rest.

The next morning dawned clear with blue skies overhead! We ate breakfast while watching a hummingbird and butterflies flit around the bee balm and wildflowers nearby. Once our gear was packed up, we headed out on what we thought was the AT and quickly doubled back to find the actual trail, not realizing what lay ahead of us. Never make the mistake of assuming that going South translates to going down. The trail does have its moments of level ground, but for the most part we went down and up, up, UP, over steep inclines that seemed to go on forever.

This portion of the AT through GSMNP is extremely overgrown. Many times the trail couldn’t even be seen through all the blackberry briars and vegetation growing over it.

We pushed through with trekking poles, our legs and gear grabbed by the thorns. Mid-morning clouds rolled in and the rain began, steadily increasing to an outright downpour that turned the trail into a literal river. Water cascaded down the path, creating miniature waterfalls as we climbed. Level ground became a channel for the rain, and it took no time for our feet to become soaked, regardless of whether shoes were waterproof.

We pushed through the brush, scooted down rocky descents, and climbed the unceasing hills. My legs were on autopilot and felt strong even though my breath was short. I carried an umbrella attached to my pack and wore a rain skirt, which went a long way in keeping most of me dry. We made occasional stops to wring out socks and shoes.

There were moments of laughter at the absurdity of the situation. Rain poured down in torrents, our feet waterlogged by the rivers we walked through that used to resemble a trail. Being around positive people is essential for a good backcountry experience. Hiking with someone who gets irritable when things get hard, complains nonstop about things that can’t be changed, or pushes you beyond your physical limits will diminish the experience and cause emotional drain in moments where every step requires focus and can mean the difference between safety or injury.

When we finally reached Thunderhead Mountain and traversed the ridge to Rocky Top, the clouds had parted revealing the most spectacular views. Every exhausting moment of the morning was replaced with the elation of being surrounded by the peace of the mountains. We soaked it all in, talked with the day hikers, ate some food, and tended to our feet. Leaving that spot was hard. I could have stayed all day and just watched the clouds change.

The rest of the trail was downhill, which can often be harder on the body than going uphill. Bote Mountain Trail is an old cattle path strewn with rocks that are unforgiving to weary feet. Anthony Creek Trail was a softer reprieve, but we continued down until it felt like we couldn’t possibly go down any further.

Having started the day before at an elevation of 6,644′ at Clingman’s Dome, then dealing with the roller coaster between Derrick Knob and Thunderhead Mountain, we were now descending to 1,807′ where the campground lay nestled at the edge of the Cove, a difference of 4,837′ not including the middle section of constant vertical gain and loss.

By the end of our hike our feet ached and throbbed with pain, blisters formed and skin took on the palor of decay. When I fell into bed, a term used loosely when bed consists of an air pad that needs to be blown up just right to feel comfortable, my whole body screamed from overuse, calves and ankles in protest, stiff neck muscles, and my hips, my God, how my hips ached. But the happiness I felt in being on the trail overshadowed every discomfort. Many of the brands I follow on social media often post photos of gorgeous folks with beautifully wind-tossed hair standing in the midst of unimaginable scenery. While I love seeing these pictures, they often don’t tell the part of the story where one’s body hurts and stinks worse than you ever thought possible. In spite of the reality, the benefits are priceless.

Living portions of life outdoors provides greater appreciation for the moments spent indoors. The gratitude for things we often take for granted increases exponentially. After a weekend spent hiking in the rain where my feet were soaked at all times, I return home with gratitude for the feeling of a pair of warm, dry socks and the comfort that comes from walking on a dirt path…showers, fresh produce, the ability to clean the dirt from under my fingernails, running water, my bed, a down pillow, the snuggly weight of a cat beside me.

And in turn, I appreciate the outdoors for the lessons learned.

  • Endurance is as much mental as it is physical. I can climb mountains and am strong. I can carry what I need on my back and survive in conditions that are less than optimal, even harsh at times.
  • In the moments at work and at home when I feel overwhelmed or frustrated by what needs to be done, I’ll remember climbing a mountain in a downpour carrying a heavy pack and the feeling of elation when we reached the top as the clouds cleared.
  • Going to the grocery store in the rain will seem like less of an annoyance. Doing anything in the rain will feel easy in comparison!
  • Being intentional about the people I surround myself with, like those who find joy at the site of a  mushroom, who appreciate wildflowers and butterflies, and stop to admire the beauty of ancient gnarled trees, those for whom all the stops along the way are just as important as the place we will eventually end up.
  • When you’re in the middle of a situation that isn’t ideal, the only way to get through it is to keep moving forward. Climb the mountains ahead of you, “embrace the suck” as they say, and cherish every moment of reprieve, knowing that you’ll eventually get to the other side.
  • Being in the wilderness is a cleansing experience for the mind and heart. It clears out the junk thoughts and provides central focus on a task that is humbling and empowering all at the same time.
  • And perhaps the most important lesson, that I am capable of what I set out in my mind to do. It’s so easy to question our own ability, drive, and purpose, to feel like we are “less than” in the face of talented friends and coworkers, disapproving or questioning family members, and especially social media.

The last morning we headed back up to Clingman’s Dome to pick up the car we’d left there. The sun shone brightly and the blue sky greeted us as we made plans for our next hike.

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