AT Thru-Hike #17 – The Return to Rocky Top

“Write it. Just write it…Write until your fingers hurt, then keep writing more. Don’t ever stop writing. Don’t ever give up on your story…Don’t ever let anybody take away your voice. You have something to say, your soul has a story to tell. Write it…Love you work. Be brave. Just write.”     – Melodie Ramone

Day 19

Today was a nostalgic day of hiking for me. I would be covering familiar ground, as a result of a 2011 Smokies section hike with my friend John, his brother Scott, and my eldest son, Jason. The morning of Day 19 was chilly and windy, considerably colder than the last time I was in these parts.

Great Memories from 2011
Great Memories from 2011

Near privy-less Russell Field Shelter, I stopped to take care of some business behind a tree in the recently named Oats n Dark Chocolate Granola Gap…just across from Nature Valley. (For those keeping tabs, that was just the #2 tree-side #2 in 180.4 miles. Also, for those keeping tabs, no need to…I am doing it for you.)

The Climb to Rocky Top
The Climb to Rocky Top

At mile 183, just south of Spence Field Shelter, a 2-mile stretch (to Thunderhead Mountain) constitutes what I consider to be the prettiest section of the first 250 miles of the AT…stunning views, sprawling grassy balds, birds chirping, interesting rock formations, etc. The only thing missing was Julie Andrews streaking across the landscape singing Climb Every Mountain. (I don’t think “streaking” was the word I was looking for there. Try getting that visual out of your head now.) Anyway, I decided to stop, take my pack, boots and shirt off, lay down on a sun-baked grassy bald, and eat an entire package of sliced salami. If John, Scott, and Jason had been there, they’d have done the same.

I continued the climb up to…(drum roll)…Rocky Top! Rocky Top, you’ll always be, home sweet home to me, good ol’ Rocky Top, Rocky Top, Tennessee! Go Vols! Okay, I got that out of my system. As I stood on top of Rocky Top, I had a flashback to 2011 when Jason and I stood on those same rocks. I learned from Elle that later that day, some Tennessee hillbillies were up there serving shots of moonshine and singing Rocky Top. That would have been something to witness. The only trail magic I got was a handful of tic tacs from some section hikers from Cincinnati.

Big Steve & Jas, Rocky Top '11
Big Steve & Jas, Rocky Top ’11
Fob, Rocky Top '16
Fob, Rocky Top ’16

As I descended Thunderhead mountain, BooknBoot was on my tail and we started picking up speed. For no particular reason, we wanted to see how fast we could go. Like alpine skiers, representing the USA and Australia, we tore down the mountain, with rocks and roots serving as poles or gates to dodge and maneuver. Near the bottom, we stopped to catch our breath and get water. It was there that we had a really interesting conversation. First, she told me about her doctoral dissertation. It’s based on the book Suttree by Cormac McCarthy (whose other works include Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men). She’s hiking the AT, in part, to gain some perspective on the character Cornelius Suttree, who left a life of privilege with his prominent family to live near Knoxville in a dilapidated houseboat on the Tennessee River (probably next to the guys who were singing Rocky Top and giving out shots of moonshine earlier in the day). She spoke passionately about her research and made me want to read Suttree and her dissertation.

She then mentioned my blog and said she had read several of the AT entries. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Fob, you need to write a book. Seriously, your stories are quite good and funny and people will read it. Not everyone can be out here hiking the AT. Tell your story for them.” This sweet little Aussie, with a big brain, striped leggings, and a giant winter owl hat, couldn’t have been more sincere. I found it all rather touching. So, I told her I would. Just like that, at a watering hole at the foot of Thunderhead Mountain, in the Great Smoky Mountains, I gave my word that I’d write a book about my AT story. So I will.

BooknBoot, Australia's Jenny Diamond
BooknBoot, Australia’s Jenny Diamond

After 12 miles, with the temperature continuing to drop, we arrived at Derrick Knob Shelter. One by one, members of The Great Smoky Mountain Bubble came rolling in…Master Wayne, Nesquick, Stitch, etc. The Smokies are conducive to hiking bubbles because stealth camping (tenting wherever you want) is prohibited in the park. You must sleep in a shelter if there is room in the shelter. If not, then you are allowed to tent near the shelter. Also, section hikers with shelter reservations are allowed to bump thru-hikers out of the shelter…because they have reservations and because most aspiring thru-hikers would prefer tenting anyways. All these rules left some hikers with a bad impression of the Smokies, but I understand the need for some rules given that it is the most visited national park in the United States.

After eating some Mountain House Beef Stroganoff, gummy bears, 3 Advil, and a Little Debbie, I sat on the grass feeling tired, stiff, and cold. Then, from out of nowhere, I spoke 6 words that I had never said before: “I want to do some yoga.” Before I had the chance to take it back, Patricia (Mom) offered to guide me through a yoga session. Next thing you know, I’m on my back, contorted like a pretzel, trying with all my might not to shoot beef stroganoff at the bear bags hanging nearby. After watching me struggle through the first exercise, Mom mercifully suggested we stop there and build on that progress in future sessions.

But that IS as high as my knee goes
But that IS as high as my knee goes

That night, we packed ourselves into the shelter and hunkered down as the temperature dropped, wind gusted, and rain fell.  Little did we know that for the next four days, at elevations from 4700 to 6700 feet, we would endure not only rain but some of the coldest temperatures any of us had ever camped in. If Spring had sprung, someone forgot to tell the Smokies.

Sir Fob


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10 thoughts on “AT Thru-Hike #17 – The Return to Rocky Top”

  1. FOB! Lookin forward to reading that book ?. I miss my Smoky Mtn family! But I’m going to have to hike like there’s no tomorrow to catch you all now. I’ve been in beautiful Knoxville for a week, getting back on the trail at Davenport Gap today (just in time for some serious rain – woop)! I’m guessing you’re well on your way to Erwin by now. I’ll try and catch you in/by Virginia!

    1. BooknBoot! I miss you! Made it to Erwin tonight after a long day. The Pisgah NF terrain wasn’t too bad, but it was cold and snowy…except for today. I’ll be taking a couple days off to see my honey and then a week for my son’s wedding…so I’ll be chasing my favorite Aussie again soon. Thanks for our talk and inspiring me to tell my story!

      1. Awesome, love this leapfrogging game we all keep playing. Makes an awesome hike even better. Sorry to hear the snow got you. I hear it was pretty hairy once it compacted. But it makes for more fantastic heartfelt ‘Elsa lied’ tales to entertain fellow hikers with round the campfire ?. Congrats to the bride & groom! I’ll be seein you soon!

    2. Hike Fast!!!! I’m zeroing in Erwin on the 12th to give you some catch up time (and to hide from the rain 🙂 )

      1. Stitch!! Yay, I’m gonna hike like the wind to catch you! Mind you, it’s the 14th and I’m only just in Hot Springs ?. It was a tough haul out of Davenport after a week off, but am finding my trail legs again. Hope you managed to avoid the worst of the rain. Will try and catch you by Virginia. I left my poles behind at Roaring Fork, but you’ll be pleased to know I’ve bonded with them enough to return for them (luckily it was only half a mile). Happy trails!

    1. It will take me awhile, but I’m just gonna do it. As for yoga, I think I’ll leave that to the experts.

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