Bubble – noun – “a good or fortunate situation that is isolated from reality or unlikely to last.”
I awoke, broke camp, and ate a granola bar dipped in peanut butter…another breakfast of champions. After climbing out of Cable and Black Gum Gaps, I began the long descent into Fontana Dam. Halfway through this 5.5 mile hike, Moses zoomed past me like I was standing still. (Moses was trail named by members of a church youth group as he sat in all his bearded glory atop Preaching Rock (mile 21.8). He’s a Christian from Louisville KY who hikes fast and posts great AT thru-hike YouTube videos on the Phollowing Phil channel.) Initially troubled by the disparity in our hiking speeds, it occurred to me that in the wilderness, it’s always best to let Moses lead. On the other hand, would following him result in 40 years of wandering on the AT? That’s a lot of granola bars. Regardless, the plan was for Moses to get to Fontana Lodge first and book a room for me, Stitch, Robi Dobi (named after an elephant in her favorite children’s book), and himself. He delivered as promised, as one would expect from a Moses.
Fontana Dam is a great touristy place for families to vacation and for tired hikers to re-charge and re-supply. It’s also a great place for hiking bubbles to take shape as you prepare to enter The Great Smoky Mountains. A hiking bubble is a group of hikers who will generally travel together over the course of several days, weeks, or in rare instances, even months. You may or may not actually hike near them during the day, but will camp with them near the same shelter or campsite at night. Being a part of a good, fun, mutually supportive bubble is, without a doubt, one of the very best things about hiking the AT. It’s within those bubbles that friendships are forged, burdens are shared, and memories are made. With each successive shelter, campfire, or frigid morning shared, the bonds grow tighter. You tend to ride the bubble until your hiking pace, be it slower or faster, causes you to fall behind or get ahead. If you’re fortunate enough, you’ll eventually catch on with another bubble and ride it for awhile.
At the Fontana Lodge, the first order of business was to pick up the second food package I had mailed to myself. It contained a 6-day supply of food…about double what I needed. (Lesson learned: no more food mailings.) I then took a long hot shower and ate fish n chips with Moses and Stitch. (To clarify, I was alone in the shower and together with them at the restaurant.) We then walked down a hill to do laundry and re-supply at the General Store. Later, we had dinner (Pasta Primavera!) and were joined by Patricia (trail name Mom) and Megan (trail name Orbit…because she has a big beautiful open-mouth smile like the girl in the Orbit gum commercial). This was the same mother/daughter team from Vermont that I had shared a cup of coffee with on Megan’s birthday back in Hiawassee. As we enjoyed dinner and conversation, little did I know I was sitting in the nucleus of what would become my first incredible hiking bubble!
“If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.” – Bill Bryson
For the first time in my life, I awoke with a bearded Moses in the bed next to me. (Words last spoken by Zipporah several thousand years ago.) I got up and, in Macgyver-esque fashion, made oatmeal by heating water with the coffee pot. I then hitched a ride back to the trailhead where I hiked a couple of miles to and across the beautiful Fontana Dam. I immediately entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and walked along an asphalt road several hundred yards with Big Bird, a retired military officer who dispenses advice like the big yellow fellow on Sesame Street.
I then re-entered the woods, placed my GSMNP permit in the hiker permit box, and began a 2700 foot climb over the next 10 miles. Despite the tough climb into the Smokies, it was a gorgeous, cool, sunny day…tailor made for hiking.
At mile 170.8 I came face to face with the terrifying Shuckstack Fire Tower…the scariest thing I’d encountered since hearing at Fontana Lodge that our next President would likely be another Clinton or Trump. As my wife will tell you, I don’t like heights. The older I get, the less I like them. I nearly wet myself watching The Walk, a movie about the guy who tight-rope walked across the World Trade Center towers. I don’t like steep roller coasters and so I’m usually the guy designated to sit on a Six Flags bench, watch everyone’s stuff, and eat a $9 corn dog. However, before starting my AT journey, I told myself I need to face my fears and do the fire towers…even Shuckstack.
Years ago, my eldest son, Jason, preached a sermon that, to this day, has had a profound impact on me. Entitled “20 Seconds of Courage,” it’s based on this line from the movie, We Bought a Zoo: “You know, sometimes all you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” In the movie, the boy needed just 20 seconds of insane courage to express his feelings to a girl that he liked. Maybe you need it to jump out of an airplane, or go on a mission trip, or simply invite your neighbor to go to church with you. You don’t need an hour of bravery…just 20 seconds.
As I approached the base of the long set of stairs, I was digging deep to find my 20 seconds. I was also hoping for a miracle…a “closed for repair” sign…or maybe a sudden lightning strike…reasonable requests from a guy who had just slept next to Moses. No such luck…it was time to dig deep and face my fears. As I took my first step, I noticed the right rail was missing on the first set of 20 steps! Are you serious? How could North Carolina, a state which brought us the Biltmore Estate (not to mention Krispy Kreme doughnuts and the Venus Fly-Trap), not have the common decency to put another rail up on the Stairway to Fob’s Death? Unbelievable!
So with my palms sweating, my heart pounding, and my knees already weak from the climb into the Smokies, I took my first step onto Shuckstack and stopped six inches off the ground. That wasn’t so bad. I then took my second and third and fourth steps and the fear began to slowly creep in. I hated it. And I hated myself for hating it. I gripped the left rail so tightly that a vein popped out of the back of my hand. If I was Jacob’s (Ladder) daddy, then Shuckstack was his grandfather. With each step, the earth moved farther away, and I wondered why I wasn’t sitting, watching the other hikers’ backpacks, and eating a corn dog. At the top of the first set of stairs, I looked down and nearly pooped myself. I needed a new strategy. Rather than live in the moment, I decided to distract myself by making up new words to a church song…specifically the song, My God and I. Weird as it may seem, with each step, the song in my head went something like this…
My God and I, we’ll climb these stairs together;
We’ll walk and talk; look down and maybe puke.
We’ll grasp the rail, and wish there was another;
My God and I, will climb to Shuckstack’s view…
That song, whether it was a God thing, simply a distraction, or both, got me to the top unscathed. For the rest of my life, that song will always remind me of the climb up Shuckstack. Unfortunately, the climb down Shuckstack was just as terrifying, and the only song I could think of was Free Fallin’! I eventually managed to make it down to solid ground, even though the rail on the final set of stairs had still not been replaced. I was relieved and maybe a little proud to have stared down one of my greatest fears..at least in this instance. But the Smokies weren’t done with me yet…not by a long shot.
At mile 174 I passed the side trail to Gregory’s Bald and then the idyllic Doe Knob, two very special places to my friend, John Walsh. It was on or near Doe Knob that, years ago, John took a nap, and was awakened by a deer licking him. A true story…and quite plausible once you’ve seen the amount of hair on John’s back. Ironically, and just as true…a few miles later, as I approached the stream at Ekaneetlee Gap, I spotted two deer in a clearing off to the left about 40 feet from the trail. As I tried to discreetly reach for my camera, one of my trekking poles dropped and the deer darted off into the deep woods. Bummer! I never had the chance to ask if one of them had once licked a guy named John.
After a 12.6 mile day, I arrived at Mollies Ridge Shelter for what would easily be my favorite night on the AT so far. My previously introduced hiking bubble had picked up some familiar faces, like BooknBoot, the Aussie lady out here working on her dissertation who I first met as she bunked under me at the Neels Gap hostel. Additionally, our bubble expanded to include…
Nesquick – single southerner, last name Quick, great massive beard, early 20s, great sense of humor
Deadwood – married southerner, early 30s, also incredibly funny; thinks Fob looks like Robert Downey, Jr.
Elle – 28-year-old engineer from the northeast; self-described “adorable” and she is; a trail diva with princess-like qualities; near-term goal is to be reunited with her boyfriend at Newfound Gap
Conductor – previous AT thru-hiker; shares his considerable trail knowledge; earned his trail name by the graceful manner in which he swats at spider webs when entering shelters/rooms
Master Wayne – real name Bruce; section hiker; green hiking jacket makes him look like The Grinch
I built a massive campfire and we sat around laughing and eating and telling stories and jokes. Really, really good times. Yes, it was just a bubble…”a good situation that is unlikely to last.” And yet it was our bubble and it was a good one and we were living in the moment.
As I was about to doze off on the top level of the Mollies Ridge Shelter, Deadwood crawled into his sleeping bag in the spot next to me. He looked over and stared into my eyes and proclaimed, “I’m sleeping next to Ironman. The fantasy I’ve had since I was 7 years old has finally come true!” Everyone laughed.
Ironman, aka Fob, finally dozed off to sleep…happy to have found a spot in the shelter…but even more so in the bubble.
Bonus Doe Knob Photos for John Walsh:
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