Final Thoughts: Benton MacKaye Trail Potential Appalachian Trail Alternate

Now that we’re home from the Benton MacKaye Trail (BMT), I’ve had some time to think about what useful information I could impart on others regarding this trail.

Here are my final thoughts:

I think the BMT is an excellent choice as an alternate for the first ~300 miles of the Appalachian Trail (AT), especially for folks with prior backpacking experience as well as folks looking for a little more solitude at the beginning or end their thru-hike.

The BMT easily intersects the AT at the beginning (Springer Mountain), in the middle (Fontana Dam), and at the end Davenport Gap, so you can pick and choose your route.  I really think more long distance hikers should consider using this trail instead of the AT because of how crowded that section of the AT is during thru-hiker season.

The BMT is definitely a bit more difficult than the AT, but I think it was more of what we would have been looking for at the beginning of our AT hike.  There are practically no thru-hikers (we met only one), and not even many section/day hikers in many of the areas, depending on the season.  I think we would have enjoyed the solitude of this trail instead of the abundantly crowded beginning of the AT during thru-hiker season.

The BMT was better marked and somewhat better maintained that I expected, but in all honesty, expectations were quite low.  In some sections it’s well enough marked that you don’t need a map, but you definitely will in some of the less well maintained sections.

Given the blackberry bushes and green briers along with other weeds, I wouldn’t recommend this trail in season (late spring through early fall).  There are enough sections that would be completely overgrown to make the hiking less than enjoyable during the normal hiking season, and probably quite a bit harder to follow as well.  I recommend either early spring, late fall or a winter thru-hike– which lines up well with AT thru-hiker seasons in that area.

The easiest sections were northern GA (basically the first 100 miles of trail), and the Smoky Mountains (basically the last 100 miles of trail).  In both of these sections, you can up your mileage and even do some night hiking if you’re so inclined.  In the middle 100 miles, the trail was overgrown, narrow, harder to follow, significantly harder in terms of steepness, and I would not recommend trying to night hike, unless you enjoy wandering around lost in the woods at night.

Water was not an issue.  The longest stretch without water was maybe 10 miles at most (Topoco Lodge to Fontana Dam), but more commonly 5-7 miles at most, and often times you’re crossing many streams in a valley for half the day.  There are at least 3 stream fords, all in the Smokies, but there may be more if there has been any significant rain.

Camping spots are not all over the place like on the AT, sometimes you have to be a bit more creative about finding a spot.  A map is somewhat handy for this to find where there are gaps, or somewhat flat spots to aim for.  There are two shelters on the trail, one in Cherry Log, GA, and one in the Smokies (Laurel Gap Shelter).

The BMT is quite remote, and resupply options can be limited in the off season.  Depending on how many resupply points you plan on, I would definitely send a box to yourself at the Reliance Fly and Tackle and Fontana Dam Village (the front desk, not the post office).  These spots are easy walking distance off the trail, and are roughly well spaced if you only need to resupply every ~100 miles.  If you need more resupply points, you can hitchhike into Blue Ridge (50 miles in) for a full resupply, send a box to Coker Creek Welcome Center (3 mile walk off trail- hitchhiking is not an option), send a box to Topoco Lodge (on trail), or hitchhike into Cherokee for a full resupply.

We finished the trail in 20 days, averaging about 15 miles a day.  I think this is a fairly cushy pace for someone who is used to long distance hiking– it definitely could be done faster.  We did meet someone going less than 10 miles a day, so there are enough resupply points to make a slower pace feasible too.

In terms of weather, we got really lucky.  No snow, no freezing rain, only two small storms, and they both happened when we were already in our tent for the night.  There is at least one section where I would be worried to be stuck there with snow or ice, and that’s the trail between Topoco Lodge and the Hangover in Joyce Kilmer.  I think if there was snow, we would have gotten completely lost.  I’m sure there are other sections that would also be sketchy, but this one stands out in my mind.

My favorite sections of the BMT included Big Frog Wilderness, walking along the Hiwassee River, Joyce Kilmer, and the section of the Smoky Mountains where the trail moves away from Fontana Lake.

Please let us know if you have any questions about the BMT, and we’ll be happy to try to answer!

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Cherokee to Davenport Gap

11/30 9.6 miles

We woke up on top of Newton Bald (not actually a bald) well before daylight. We packed up, and as the sun rose, it offered us beautiful oranges behind a tall range of mountains in the distance.

Sunset on our campsite

We had an easy 5 miles of downhill before we reached Newfound Gap Road. Although we hadn’t planned on going into Cherokee, it turns out that we fell for the fences and posts problem when it came to our food. We were spending 6 nights in the Smokies, but that meant 7 days of food, not 6, so we were short one day’s worth.

We got to the road, and I had to go poop. I figured if we could hitchhike into town, I could wait and use the restroom at a store or fast-food restaurant. We put out our thumbs and started waiting. The urge got more urgent, and I started glancing into the woods for a place to go- there were streams and rivers everywhere. Not ideal. There was plenty of traffic passing us, but it was all expensive SUV’s and gigantic pick-up trucks. Nobody actually wanted to pick us up.

After an hour, I gave up and scrambled up into a rhododendron thicket as far as I could go away from the stream in order to do my business. Meanwhile, John was carrying a piece of Tyvek that someone had abandoned at the last campsite, and he was busy drawing “HIKER TO TOWN” using a sharpie that he was carrying for some reason.

We got back out on the road and held out our sign. Pretty quickly a gentleman in a fancy Lexus stopped and picked us up. He was an Israeli who seemed to own half the stores in Cherokee along with another half of the stores in Pigeon Forge.

He told us he was jealous of our lifestyle, that he had gotten sucked into the American dream of making money, and couldn’t give it up, but would much prefer to be free and happy like us. That made me feel slightly better about some of my life choices. He dropped us off in front of Food Lion.

We bought what we thought was a day’s worth of food (this is basically an impossible task because everything comes in packages of 6 or 10), and then went across the parking lot to the McDonalds to use their wifi and charge our devices. We also ate some crappy food.

The funny thing about towns when you’re hiking, is that they’re full of promise when you’ve been on trail for many days. Food, hot food, food that you haven’t carried, fresh food, possibly showers, laundry or both. But in reality, after an hour or two in town, you’ve eaten whatever was the first thing you saw out of greediness, and you find yourself pondering the happiness of the locals around you, wishing you could just teleport back to the trail where all this hustle and bustle is replaced by friendly trees and trail.

Once we were thoroughly sick of town, John decided to write “HIKER TO TRAIL” on the other side of the Tyvek, and we stood by the road and hoped for the best. We were surprised when a gentleman pulled over and asked us “how far is this trail you’re trying to get to?”

He let us jump into his truck, and he drove us all the way back to the Benton MacKaye. I’m quite sure he drove completely out of his way to give us a ride there, and we thanked him for his generosity. It would have been hard to get out of town otherwise– the town was big, and we were trying to get a ride at the wrong end of it.

The trail was another road bed, and we easily covered a few miles before a small side trail took us to a cascade, which made it onto the map. We stoped to take a picture and hiked on.

We got to camp early, as usual, and set up right before it started to rain. Neither one of us were hungry since we had eaten in town, so we just ate a few snacks and hung our food.

We sat in the tent, listening to the rain against the nylon soothing us to sleep.

In the end we didn’t actually sleep much. The rain didn’t last long, but it was humid and quite warm compared to what we were used to. Plus, there was a full moon lighting up the entire tent.

12/1 14.5 miles

After a night of tossing and turning, we finally overslept our alarm because we both decided to put in earplugs sometime in the night. We were slow to get going as we were both groggy and irritable.

Today’s hike was the hardest day of hiking in the Smokies. It was also definitely the most beautiful.

We climbed up to almost 5000 ft, then down to 3,500 then back up to 5000 then back down to 3000 then back up to 5,500. So that was a lot of elevation change. But the trails were still well graded.

On the first uphill, the Enloe Creek Trail had quite a few blowdowns. It almost looked like a freak storm had knocked over a bunch of trees on this one hillside. Besides that one area, the trails were well maintained as usual.

We had one ford, which was slightly unexpected, but now that I’m looking at the guide book, it does say the that Bridge over Enloe Creek may wash out. That must have been what happened. We decided not to take the time to take off our socks etc. since it was fairly warm out, and we had all day to hopefully dry out our shoes.

Down Enloe Creek we saw one cascade after another. The hillside had beautiful large rocks, and the trees were quite large.

We took the time, once again to take our wet gear and dry it out in the sun, since the weather was so nice. Mostly just our tent was soaking wet and therefore heavy from last night’s rain.

The Enloe Creek Campsite is a popular destination for folks looking for swimming holes, and we could see why. This was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to the Smokies.

After climbing and descending another mountain, we started up our last climb of the day, and in fact, sort of our last big climb of the entire trip. We climbed and climbed into a spruce forest, which is the first time we’ve really been high enough to be in a spruce forest. We’ve seen spruces here and there, but on the top of Balsam High Top, the forest was just thick with spruce trees and gnarly birch trees. It was beautiful, especially how the evening sun pierced the woods.

We arrived at Laurel Gap shelter- one of only two shelters on the Benton MacKaye Trail, and it had a fireplace. John decided we’d make another fire, since it’s our last night on trail.

It’s quite nice being in a shelter, all alone with a roaring fire. Tomorrow we finish the trail, and the business of real life will take over. We’re trying to savor these last moments as I’m sure we’ll look back on them fondly.

12/2 11.9 miles

Sleeping in the shelter was great.  We slept in a little, knowing that we had a short day, and mostly downhill.   It didn’t take us long to pack up, since we didn’t have to pack up the tent.

Before we knew it we were at Mount Sterling, at just under 6000ft.  We’ve been here before- earlier this year in fact, and so making it there felt like the end of the thru-hike.  We had effectively completed the trail at that point.

Last time we were on Mount Sterling, we didn’t make it all the way up the fire tower, because it’s really tall and scary!  This time we were determined to make it up to the top.  The stairs are steep, and I made sure not to look down as I made my way to the top.  John was ahead of me, and as he made it to the top, he shouted down at me: “hey, there are some people down there!”  I made the mistake of looking down, and my stomach lurched into my throat.  Not doing that again, I told myself.  At the top, we spent just a few moments looking out at the view before heading back down again.  I was happy when my feet touched the ground.

From the top of Mount Sterling, we had cell phone service, and I decided to give our friend Libby a call to let her know that we’d get to the bottom faster than we had expected.

From there the trail goes down from almost 6000ft to 1700ft.  I think that’s got to be one of the biggest climbs/descents on the east coast.  We soon realized that we needed to walk a bit faster, and we huffed it down the mountain to meet Libby and her sweet dog Penny at the bottom.

The end of the trail was not marked as such, and I had to double check the map to make sure the footbridge across the river was indeed the end of the trail before we took our finish pictures.  It was a fitting ending to the Benton MacKaye, since this trail is really to be used to join up to the Appalachian Trail, which we had originally planned on doing to get to Hot Springs (slightly closer to home), but we ran out of time, so we were happy finishing here.

We did drive to Standing Bear to pick up our last box on the way home- which we had mailed there in case we did go the extra 30 miles.

In the car, we rolled the windows down.  It has been 11 days since we washed any of the clothes we are wearing, and 7 days since we took a shower.  I think we’re due.

Fontana Dam to Cherokee

11/26 14 miles

We got going in the morning before dawn and headed downhill towards Fontana Dam. The trail got better and better– obviously the locals around here care about the condition of the trail.

We weren’t sure exactly where the side trail to Fontana Lodge was, so we wound up taking a side trail to a road, where we were a bit lost. With the help of some people passing by, we were able to get there. John used the restroom while I got our resupply boxes and sat down on some comfy couches to try to log into their wifi. After spending some time investigating our food, we decided that we’d try to do the whole Smokies in one go without resupplying in Cherokee. That would save us trying to find a ride in and out of Cherokee, and the hassle of town and finding our way around. Plus we’re running behind schedule slightly anyway, so we wouldn’t have been able to spend the night in Cherokee either way.

From the Lodge we walked to the General Store, which surprisingly was closing at noon today for the entire winter season. What good timing! We bought some additional food (at high prices) to supplement the food we mailed to ourselves. We also bought a few microwave burritos to eat right then, because they also had a microwave we could use.

From there we hiked further along to the Fontana Dam Appalachian Trail shelter. The Benton Mackaye Trail intersected briefly with the Appalachian Trail past Fontana Dam, and during our brief time there, we saw at least 3 groups of southbound hikers. Thru-hiking the AT has become so popular that even the southbound crowd is getting big!

The Fontana Dam AT shelter is also called the “Hilton”. I’ve always thought this was funny, but it makes so much sense, because they have a small bathhouse a few yards away from the shelter with flush toilets and a men’s and women’s shower. The water was still on for the season, so we were delighted to be able to take a free shower. The small shower stalls were pretty dirty, and I was thankful that I packed some Dr. Bronners (high concentration soap) in order to wash ourselves with.

As we were finishing our shower, a southbound AT hiker showed up, and we got chatting. It turned out that he was from the same county on Long Island that John grew up in!

From Fontana Dam, the BMT followed the Lake Shore Trail. It was like walking on a highway. We were so used to the poorly maintained, extremely strenuous sections of the BMT which were now behind us, that we felt like we were floating along. In fact, we were so fast that we got to camp at 4:30pm – somehow covering the 14 miles for the day many hours earlier than I had anticipated. We couldn’t hike further, of course, since in the Smokies you have to reserve specific camp sites in advance. So basically, from here on out, each day has been precisely planned out.

Since we got to camp so early, we decided to make a fire. This could possibly be the first fire we’ve started on our own on a hike ever. Does that make us weird?

There were cables to hang your food away from bears, so we obliged. The Smoky Mountains probably has the highest rate of black bear encounters with humans, and possibly the most black bear incidents (injuries/deaths) anywhere in the world. I’m just guessing, but someone can correct me if I’m wrong. The campsite here (Lost Cove Campsite) has a warning that there has been bear activity in this area, so we’re extra careful!

Tomorrow will be our longest mileage day in the park at just about 19 miles. Hopefully since it seems like the trails around here are well maintained and easy going, it won’t be much of an issue!

11/26 18.9 miles

The night went by uneventfully. No bears. We woke up to a tent full of condensation as expected. The difference now was that most of the condensation inside the tent was frozen.

We wore our sleeping bags for a couple hours this morning to dry them out. The gentle terrain and wide trail was perfect for this activity.

The whole day we were traversing slopes. Early in the day we had a nice roadbed to walk down and we passed by a few more broken down old cars.

Around lunch-time we reached a house strangely placed in a forested valley. The house was one of the last remaining structures left from a town called Proctor. A plaque described the history of the town and mentioned how the town had exploded in population when a railway was installed. We probably have been walking on the old railroad bed this whole time.

The town was a lumber boom town from the 1920s. It was funny to see that the one house still standing was built the same year as the house we live in in Asheville.

After we left the ghost town of Proctor the trail narrowed and often was on a steep slope. We found ourselves yet again using our feet to search for our steps under a foot or so of dry slippery oak leaves.

We were relieved when the old railroad bed joined the trail periodically. After a number of miles my shoulder started to have increasing amounts of pain from my frozen shoulder. Somehow in the calculation of how many miles we had to do today, I didn’t take into consideration how heavy our packs would be just having left Fontana Dam yesterday. The last few miles dragged on.

When we finally got to Chamber’s Creek campsite we were drawn back into the valley by the site of an old chimney, another forgotten relic of old. We were glad it was there because we found a place to pitch our tent on higher ground.

We have high hopes of a warmer night with less condensation.

11/28 16.7 miles

I woke up and noticed that water wasn’t dripping off of the ceiling of our tent! Upon further investigation, this was because the entire inside of our tent was frozen. My sleeping bag was wet nonetheless, and as we started moving about the tent, the ice started to melt and we tried to act quickly to put stuff away before it got too wet.

It was really cold. John wore his sleeping bag around his shoulders again, trying to dry it out, but I decided to pack mine away since the terrain wasn’t as flat as before.

It felt like forever before the sun made an appearance, and the temperature started to rise.

The Benton Mackaye Trail soon spilled out onto a road where we had to walk through a tunnel and then over a bridge. This road leads to nowhere- it just ends in a parking lot right around there. There wasn’t a soul in sight.

When we left the road to head back into the woods, the trail followed an old road bed, and the walking was ridiculously easy. In fact, so far, the entire Smoky Mountain section has been a cakewalk compared to what we had been through before. Along this road, I found a cold monarch butterfly in the middle of the trail. I wanted to move it so it would be out of harms way. It barely moved as I picked it up.

The trail went up a creek, and we had to cross it several times. There were footbridges the first few times, but the last crossing was a true ford, and we strategized on how to cross this icy cold stream. We decided to take off our pants, our socks, and take the insoles out of our shoes- then cross as quickly as possible. Even so, when I got to the other side, my legs and feet were in agony from the ice cold water. The ambient temperature was in the 40s. We walked quickly on to try to warm up, and Upper Ripshin Campsite, where we were stopping, was only a few tenths of a mile ahead.

I debated which would be worse– fording that stream first thing in the morning, when the temperatures were below freezing, or waking up and having to put on completely frozen shoes from having forded the stream the night before. I thought frozen shoes was a better option. John thought fording the stream in the morning may have been the better option. In the end, who knows, but we now will have frozen shoes to put on tomorrow. Yay.

I’m also a bit worried about how wilted my warmer sleeping bag looks. Apparently it may rain tomorrow, and I won’t be able to dry it out, which makes me very worried for tomorrow night. I think I’ll already be cold tonight, and I’m sure we’ll get condensation again.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose not to camp by a stream because basically all of the designated campsites in the Smokys are next to streams. I kind of wonder what other people do about this. Next time maybe I’ll consider a synthetic sleeping bag, but I hesitate to buy more gear. I’m just so thankful that we both decided to bring two sleeping bags each!

11/29 13.2 miles

I eventually warmed up overnight, but in the morning, my top sleeping bag was more wet than ever. I hoped that rain would hold off long enough for us to get a few rays of sunlight to dry everything off.

Luckily our shoes weren’t frozen as we kept them in the tent with us overnight.

After looking at the map, it seemed possible that we had another ford. Great, I thought, we’ll get to test our theories.

Not a mile later, the ford appeared. It was still the early hours of the morning, and the ambient temperature had not gotten above freezing. Before I could say anything, John plowed into the stream. I started to take off my shoes in order to take my socks and insoles out, when I realized that my socks and insoles were already wet anyway. Fearing I would lose even more heat by stoping to take off any clothes, I decided to plow into the stream after John. At this point, I was wearing all my clothes.

Half way through the stream my hiking pole got stuck between two rocks, and it slipped out of my hand, which had a glove on it, causing me to fumble. The pole fell into the water and the current started to carry it downstream. I quickly lunged towards it to catch it and in the process I fell hands first into the stream. A wave of intense pain shot through my shoulder, and I screamed in agony. I somehow caught the pole and threw it at the shore. Meanwhile I was on my hands and knees in the stream, clutching my arm, screaming fiercely.

“Get out of there!!” I heard John shouting. “You need to get out, NOW!”

I staggered to shore where I continued to cry out in pain, dripping wet.

As I sat on the shore sobbing and evaluating my condition, John was mesmerized by something glistening next to the stream. He picked it up. It turned out it was someone’s wedding ring with “Love Penny” inscribed on the inside along with a date, and “14k” proving it was gold.

John slipped it onto his finger and for an instant became invisible. “It fits perfectly” he said, taking it off again.

Once I pulled myself together, I took note of all the clothing that I had gotten wet. My long underwear, my fleece, my down jacket, and my gloves. John handed me the wedding ring and said “Here, wear it. Maybe it’s powers will make your shoulder feel better.”

I put it on my middle finger, and forced myself to hike on. Luckily, we were headed uphill, and I quickly warmed up. Also luckily, the sun started to shine, and when we got to the top of the mountain we were climbing, we hit the sunny side, and we stopped to take out all of our wet gear to dry it out.

We spent a good hour there, spreading our gear all over the trail, and watching it dry out. Meanwhile, it was quite warm, and I was happy to let my feet dry out as well. I was so thankful that we got these moments of sunshine- it saved the day.

We descended into another valley which was full of stream crossings, but none that required us to get our feet wet. We took our time picking the best rocks to hop over each stream. At the last stream, we were collecting water for the next uphill, when two gentlemen came down the trail from the opposite direction. They were section hiking this part of the Benton Mackaye! These were the first other hikers we had seen in about 2 or 3 days.

We traded information, and were excited to learn that the weather forecast had shifted, and now it wasn’t supposed to rain until tomorrow afternoon. Gotta love how unreliable the forecast is around here! I was pretty happy that it wrong was in our favor because we’re camping at 5000ft tonight, and we won’t have to worry about getting rained or snowed on. Whoopee!

The climb up to the ridge was slow and steady, easy trail, as has been the case for this whole section. We got to our campsite with plenty of daylight time, and we were surprised by how warm it was up there. We picked the best spot to pitch our tent, and we took our time getting ready for bed.

Tellico Plains to Fontana Dam

11/21 9.3 miles (plus 3 miles not on BMT)

We woke up covered in condensation for the second morning in a row. And, for the second or third day in a row, we slept through our alarm. Although we were carrying two sleeping bags each, they are all down, and do not perform when wet. We needed to do something about our wet sleeping bags urgently before it became dangerous.

We had about 10 miles to hike to get to Joe Brown Hwy. From there, the Coker Creek Welcome Center was 3 miles away, and we had a mail drop there. The 10 miles were easy, and we got to Joe Brown Hwy in a timely fashion. It turns out that this “highway” is actually a dirt road, and there were no cars in sight. Oh well, 3 more miles of walking won’t kill us.

The sun was shining, and with the easy road walk, we decided to take our our sleeping bags and drape them over ourselves in hopes that they would dry. This proved very effective, and within an hour, we shoved them back in our backpacks happy to have averted a painfully cold night. Hopefully we won’t be forced to sleep by a stream again soon.

At the Welcome Center, we quickly noticed that our phone charger was missing. We had left it at the Reliance Fly and Tackle shop. We weren’t planning to spend more than an hour at or so at the Welcome Center before heading back to the trail, but a kind gentleman named Bill offered us a ride to town (Tellico Plains) where we could get a new charger cord. We quickly also found a place that offered cabins for less than $40 a night, and there were hot showers to be had. We gave in to temptation and spent the night in Tellico Plains after two Subway Sandwiches each. We washed some of our dirty clothes in the sink and left them out to dry while we slept. I don’t think we’ll be doing a real load of laundry for the entire trail. Hand washing seems to work fine.

11/22 11.3 Miles

Today we made it to a campsite 11.3 miles from Joe Brown Highway. We got a ride in the morning with Bill who dropped us off right at the trail, saving us the road walk back.

It was very tough going because we had to climb significantly to get to higher elevations. We’re currently walking the NC/TN border, and the North Carolina side of the mountain was the side that the sun was hitting, and the Tennessee side was the cold and windy side. We kept having to take off and put on clothes.

We found the ruin of an old military ambulance, and soon thereafter we came across the ruins of an old two story stone house. There was water flowing through the house, and we actually collected water there.

The trail has also worsened in condition and often goes straight up the hillsides making the travel slow and arduous.

My right hip is really hurting me today, and in a similar fashion to how it felt on our PCT hike. Since then I’ve has had corrective surgeries to fix the so called underlying problem of my pain- Hip Dysplasia. As you can imagine to be in similar pain is very frustrating and demoralizing. My heart sank each time I felt the pain return to my hip, which was each time I pushed off particularly hard with my right foot, mostly on the up hills.

At some point we scared up a flock of turkeys, and chuckled at the fact that it was the day before Thanksgiving. “There’s tomorrow’s dinner!” John said jokingly. I was impressed, these turkeys could really fly when they wanted to. Probably nothing like the fattened birds that actually get cooked up.

Instead of making it about 15 miles in, which was the original plan, we decided to cut the day short to give my hip a rest.

I’m pretty sure the pain I’m feeling is muscular pain, which means that perhaps some more physical therapy may actually help me. I haven’t been doing much PT for my hips recently since I’ve been so wrapped up with my shoulder issues. I’m suddenly feeling old again.

11/23 16.2 miles

We managed to wake up with our alarm at 6:15 am and we were hiking by 7. By 7:30 I took two Advil because my right hip hurt quite badly. I sat down and cried, but the temperature was still in the 30’s so we quickly got cold and had to move on. I wanted to talk to John, but as usual, the leaves beneath our feet were too noisy for us to be able to communicate. Plus we were both wearing hats.

Soon I stopped again. “I think we need to consider the possibility of quitting.” I told John. He looked at me and nodded. Again, we had to move on because of the cold. I normally don’t get frustrated with trails, but I have to admit, the trail here sucked. I’m not convinced anyone maintains it. It was covered in greenbriers and black berry bushes, and there were blow downs, both trees and large branches all over the place. Sometimes there wasn’t a place to step besides on fallen branches. Then there were cobble stone sized rocks waiting to trip you under a deep layer of slippery dead leaves. At the same time, the trail went straight up and down. I kept getting my feet caught in branches, tripping over rocks and getting all my clothes snagged on brambles. Meanwhile, I was feeling tremendous sadness and despair due to my hip pain.

We looked at the map, and the first bailout point was Tellico River Road, an intersection that we would hit today. We slowly made our way towards it, and the trail got very gradually slightly better.

When we saw the road from a series of switch backs, I could tell we would need a miracle in order to get a ride. There wasn’t a single car driving past, and it was the middle of the afternoon on Thanksgiving Day.

We got to the road, and walked down it very slightly, following the BMT. To my great surprise, there was a vehicle parked in the parking lot, and three people were peering over a map at the trailhead. We walked up to them and I asked them if they needed any help finding anything– hoping to yogi a ride from them. They were trying to get to the Fish Hatchery, but it was gated shut. They told us they were from Tellico Plains, and I was quick to let them know that in fact that was exactly where we were trying to go. They wandered off towards the gated road to take a look, and John and I sat at a picnic table. I sensed that they didn’t get my hint, or if they did, they weren’t in the mood to take a couple of hikers in their vehicle all the way back to town. I wasn’t about to beg. I sighed when I saw them walk back to their truck and get in, and finally drive away.

We sat there for another half an hour, not saying much of anything to each other. There was nothing to say.

“I guess it’s time to hike” I said after a while.

We continued on, up along a stream to find a place to camp. The next road crossing was in 12 miles, and it looked slightly more promising on the map. In any case, tomorrow wouldn’t be Thanksgiving day.

As we hiked on another 4 or 5 miles, my hip stopped hurting so much. I wondered whether I was dumb to want to quit, or dumb not to want to quit. What I do know is that I was dumb not to continue PT on my hips for the last few months while I was concentrating on my shoulder. My shoulder problem has made everything else extremely difficult.

I really don’t know how to make this decision, but at least I have another day to think about it. I’ve never been a quitter, I’ve always been stubborn and determined, but now that seems pointless.

If this were just a sore hip, I wouldn’t be so sad, but it’s the history of my hip issues, and the pain and surgeries that I’ve been through, and my hopes for hiking in the future that have me really down.

I wish Thanksgiving could have been a happier day for both of us, but life is full of unpredictable twists. I wonder what tomorrow will bring.

11/23 15.9 miles

Ok, so here’s the thing about quitting on a long distance hike. When you decide to quit, you’re 10 or 20 miles from the nearest road which leads to somewhere random where you have no idea how to get anywhere from, let alone home.

I woke up feeling pretty good, and we headed up the mountain. At the top of the mountain there was a small bald with stunning views, quite frankly the first we had seen the whole trail. We sat down and ate breakfast, taking in the landscape.

My hip was feeling fine. Maybe it was the more gentle terrain, maybe it was going slightly fewer miles over the last couple of days, I don’t know, but in my mind I was already devising strategies for getting through the Smokey Mountains.

We got to the road that we had anticipated would have more traffic, and I told John I wanted to keep going. I had one more bail out point in a day’s time if things went badly today.

We soon entered into the Joyce Kilmer/ Slick Rock area, and the views continued to amaze us. We sat down at Bob Bald to take in another view and have lunch. There was another group of hikers enjoying a picnic there, and we struck up a conversation. Before we knew it, another group of hikers showed up too. This was obviously a busy day and a popular place to come hiking. We saw more day hikers today than on any other day so far.

I stepped aside to let a group of 4 hikers pass, when I realized that I recognized one of the women. Then, when I looked at another woman, I recognized her too. They were Betty and Ellen, a couple of women that John and I had taken on a Beginner Backpacking trip with Blue Ridge Hiking Company two years ago. They of course remembered us too, and before we could even exchange pleasantries, they were pulling out extra food that they had from their backpacks and offering it to us. We were delighted to accept this unexpected trail magic. We took a few pictures before heading our separate ways. For the next hour, I couldn’t get over the fact that we had just run into these people out here in the woods. I do have to admit, we tend to run into people we know more often in the woods than elsewhere.

Ellen had given us half of a BLT sandwich, and I pulled it out when we got to “The Hangover”, one of the most beautiful spots in Joyce Kilmer. We sat on the rocks, enjoying the sandwich along with the stunning view. “That was a borderline religious experience” John said, licking his lips.

I was so thankful that I hadn’t quit at the road. They say to take things one day at a time, and I think sometimes it’s hard to take that to heart. I couldn’t have asked for a better day of hiking.

From the Hang Over, the trail dropped steeply and became very strenuous. There was barely a trail, and it traversed an entirely too steep slope covered in wet rocks and downed trees. I’m not sure we were able to cover more than about a mile an hour, often using our hands, and our butts to maneuver down rocks or over or around trees and their massive roots.

As the sun was setting we found a campsite at a gap that seemed quite adequate for the night. We sat outside eating our dinner and watching the sun set in marvelous oranges and pinks behind the mountains.

Tomorrow we will stop by Topoco Lodge, where we hope to poach some internet to secure our permits for the Smokies as well as post this blog. Because of our slightly reduced mileage, it’s taking us longer than anticipated to arrive at Fontana Dam, which is where our next mail drop is. Thankfully, with the extra food that we got from Betty and Ellen today, we will have no trouble stretching our food an extra half day.

As we lay in our tent, we heard what sounded like a bear tearing through the undergrowth down the mountain next to us. Hopefully he doesn’t visit us in the night.

11/24 14 miles

With the thought of a bear coming into camp, John didn’t get much sleep.

The sunrise was just as spectacular as the sunset the previous night, and we were able to enjoy it before leaving the ridge.

The trail down to Topoco Lodge was barely a foot wide over strenuous terrain. We weren’t walking so much as taking cautionary steps, trying not to slip and fall. As we were both trying to scramble over a particularly large blow down, I heard John start to fall off, and I gasped as he caught himself on a branch. Had he fallen there, I have no idea how we would have gotten him out with a serious injury. I was so thankful he had good reflexes.

The leaves sometimes felt like we were trudging through snow, and at points I really wished I had microspikes on so I wouldn’t slip. I often would kick steps through the leaves, searching for ground underneath, and occasionally I would completely post hole into a gigantic pile of leaves several feet deep, where the ground was much lower than I had imagined.

Along the way, there were several really impressive beeches trees that were some of the biggest we’ve seen without much sign of beech bark disease. They could easily have been two or three hundred years old.

Our map showed the route for the old Benton Mackaye Trail, but in this section, it was recently rerouted, and we were basically flying blind since there were entire trails that were missing form our Nat Geo map. Luckily the section was well marked, except for the intersection around Yellow Hammer Gap, which was very confusing (there are actually three junctions and to follow the BMT, you have to go through all three)

We finally made it to Topoco Lodge, and they were kind enough to let us use a guest computer in order to secure our permits for the Smokies. I would have liked to post my blog, but they wanted to charge $9 for wifi, so I figured it could wait.

We did indulge in the food at their restaurant, though, and ordered a gigantic margarita pizza for $20 plus tax and tip, and consumed the whole thing in a matter of minutes. It was one of the best pizza’s I’ve had in a long time, and I’m not just saying that because we were hungry.

The Topoco Lodge was beautiful, and had some historical relics, like an old post office area, with old post office boxes.

From the Topoco Lodge, the new trail was fairly well marked, and we followed it straight up a mountain (Benton Mackaye obviously didn’t believe in switch backs). I mean the trail before now has also been steep, but this was even more steep! The kind of steep where if you don’t plant your foot properly, it may just slide right back down again.

But, the trail was better maintained, which made things easier and slightly less cumbersome. The trail went up and down what I soon decided to name the “hill repeats” of the day. It was like the roller coaster on the Appalachian Trail, only harder. We were walking on this ridge and just going up and down each little peak – straight up and straight down.

Finally we reached a microwave tower. Who the heck knows what a microwave tower is!? I certainly don’t, but we’re camped not too far from it, right in the middle of the trail. That’s because there is otherwise no flat ground, nor any ground not covered in black berry bushes or green briers. So let’s just hope we don’t get cooked tonight… maybe this is all just a big joke on the part of the bears.

Tomorrow we reach Fontana Dam! Another place we haven’t seen in 7 years.

Blue Ridge, GA to Tellico Plains, TN

11/17 16.7

I slept wonderfully in the hotel, and woke up promptly at 7AM. By 9:30 we had eaten breakfast, packed up and were hitchhiking back to the trail. We were picked up by a guy in an old Jeep who squeezed us in between his fishing rod and a pile of bullets, and for the 5 mile ride we discussed the hunting season.

The trail meandered through Cherry Log, a small town/community where we did quite a lot of walking on roads marveling at the houses that people lived in out there.

The trail went right through people’s back yards, and sometimes it was obvious that they knew the trail existed on their property. At one spot, there was a tiny library with several books in it, but one caught my attention. The title was “A Long Walk to Water.” I wondered if someone was messing with us.

We climbed up and up into the mountains along a combination of roads and trails until we finally left civilization. I felt great. My hips didn’t hurt, my shoulder didn’t hurt, and my feet were feeling rejuvenated. The climbs were tough, but my legs are getting stronger.

The views from the ridges were particularly beautiful as the sun was setting. We were thankful to be hiking the trail in late fall because it seemed like earlier in the season it would have been overgrown, particularly with poison ivy, which once in a while we saw with its leaves still on.

Unfortunately I tripped over a stick which caught on my gaiter (which I wear to keep stuff from getting into my shoes, like rocks and pine needles). Now it has a huge hole in it, but luckily we brought a needle and thread, so John is sewing it back together again.

Tomorrow it’s supposed to rain. We’re mentally preparing for snow at higher elevations.

11/18 20.2 miles

We spent the whole day anticipating the rain. The clouds were ominous and occasionally we got a tiny hint of a drizzle. Given that it was a Saturday (as we finally figured out), we actually saw some people enjoying the trail.

We crossed another long distance trail called the Pinhoti Trail, at its northern terminus and stopped to pay our respects.

We crossed a dirt road where a lady was driving past, and she stopped and rolled down her window. “Are you hiking the Benton?” She asked. We nodded. “It’s supposed to rain later today.” She pointed out.

“We were expecting snow at higher elevations” I responded.

She paused, thinking for a moment. “No, it’s not cold enough. But if anywhere in Georgia is going to get snow, it’s here!” She proclaimed.

It was still quite warm, mostly in the high 50’s. We both had tired legs. No longer fresh from our town stop. I was dragging up the hills.

We entered into Big Frog Wilderness, and our goal was to get up and over Big Frog Mountain, which sits above 4000ft. We wanted to get below 3000ft to give ourselves the best chance to not get snowed on too badly.

Most of the way up Big Frog, we found a barely legible sign that suggested that we had entered Tennessee.

The leaves were crunching under foot– so loudly that we for the most part have been unable to talk to each other without stopping or shouting. It has made for somewhat boring days. There has not been much of interest on the trail, and on top of that, we have not been able to talk much either. As my feet ached and my legs burned, I quietly wondered what it was about thru-hiking that I enjoyed.

As we ascended Big Frog, we climbed into the fog, high up along a ridge line with no views. It was still quite beautiful.

Just past the summit we ran into two ladies who were setting up camp. We must have looked quite strange walking up on them. It was windy and in the high 40’s and John was wearing a t-shirt and held an umbrella in one hand. We stopped to say hello and to try to trade information. They had little information to offer. “It’s supposed to snow tonight” one of them said.

“Are you TRYING to get snowed on?” Asked John. They looked confused.

“We’re planning to try to camp at lower elevation in hopes of avoiding the snow.” I offered.

“This is about as high up as you can get” John continued.

They seemed set on their poorly selected camp spot and we continued on, hopeful to find something more sheltered, and at much lower elevation.

It took us another 4 or 5 miles to find something. By then we were closer to 2000ft and the temperature had gone up by more than 10 degrees. We were practically sweating. We set up camp and were thankful to finally take our shoes off and lay down. The rain/snow still hadn’t started.

At about 9 or 9:30pm the rain started. It absolutely poured with a lot of wind to go along with it. John and I sat up in the tent with our headlamps pointed at the walls of the tent watching the walls cave in on us under the wind pressure. I’m not sure when the rain let up, but we wound up falling asleep in fetal positions in order to avoid being battered by the walls of the tent with the wind.

I slept terribly. Between the storm and my aches and pains, and the temperature dropping after the storm passed, I just didn’t sleep much. I thought about the girls up on the ridge several thousand feet higher than us, and much more exposed, and wondered how they faired.

11/19 19.3 miles

When the alarm went off I groaned. I could have slept for another century. It was cold too, and hard for me to convince myself to crawl out of my sleeping bag. I was grateful that we didn’t get snow, and even more grateful that it hadn’t even rained on us while we were hiking.

Once we finally got moving, I warmed up. Unfortunately John failed to sleep with his camera at night, and the mechanism that opens and closes the camera lens stopped working, possibly due to freezing temperatures. All day he’s been bummed about that. His camera may now be nothing more than a brick.

We walked down to the Ocoee River, past a hydraulic dam, and climbed up from there.

The guide book marked there being water at a trail junction, and we were planning on getting water there. We got to the intersection and there was no water. We looked at the map. It showed a stream maybe a mile down the side trail and down at least 1000 ft or more. There was no way I was going all the way down there for water. John and I each had about a third of a liter left, and the next water source was in 5 miles.

“Let’s just suffer through it with the water we have” I suggested.

John was really annoyed, but agreed.

Since it was so cold out, we didn’t actually drink much and the 5 miles went by quickly.

The trail then crossed a section that had not seen a trail maintainer in years. Even though a lot of the vegetation had died back since summer, the trail was very over grown and there were blowdowns every few feet. I kept plowing ahead, and John occasionally tried to clear some branches off the trail.

At one point I was stomping through leaves when I heard John shout out from somewhere behind me:

“I’m OK!!!”

I spun around knowing that that could only mean that he was barely OK, and saw him upside down head downhill fallen off the trail on a steep incline. He had fallen off the trail with a branch he was trying to throw down. I had to giggle after making sure he was in fact OK, as he looked like an upside down turtle.

We finally hit some trail that was much more clear and walked briskly downhill towards a stream that we wanted to camp by. It’s supposed to be cold tonight and the good news is that we’re camped at about 1000ft in elevation. The bad news is that we’re in a stream valley, which could mean colder temperatures, but we had little choice about that.

11/20 15.6 miles

We woke up to a ton of condensation on everything. We slept in two sleeping bags each, and the top ones were pretty wet. The condensation on the very edges of the tent had frozen. It was definitely the coldest morning yet. We put on all our layers, packed up and got moving. We had about 5 or 6 miles to hike in order to reach Reliance Fly and Tackle, the location of our first mail drop, and we were eager to also have a meal there.

The trail was fairly flat and followed the creek up to where it flowed into the Hiwassee River, which we crossed on a bridge. From there we walked the road to the Fly and Tackle where we were pleasantly surprised by how inexpensive their half pound “tackle burger” was. We promptly ordered two and sat down.

“Did you guys camp out last night?” a guy hanging out there asked us. We nodded. “My thermometer read 22 degrees about half an hour ago” he added.

We sat down to wait for our food.

There were a couple of old guys hanging out at the table next to ours.

“I’m going to make a 15 pound turkey for me and the dogs” one guy said to the other.

“You know they make turkey hot dogs these days, I’m sure your dogs would be happy with that”

“Nope, they’re picky eaters, they want the real thing!”

I chuckled listening in on their conversation.

The lady who took our order also let us use her phone in order to call ahead about a potential trail closure. I also used the opportunity to leave a voicemail on my mother’s phone telling her I was alive and well.

We also picked up a package we had mailed to ourselves, which was behind the counter. In it were two boxes of Tim Tam’s, an Australian cookie that is not only delicious and full of calories, but also is the cookie used for the “Tim Tam Slam”. The Tim Tam Slam is when you take a Tim Tam cookie, and use it as a straw to drink hot chocolate, and then as the chocolate in the cookie starts melting and you can barely hold onto it anymore, you drop the whole thing in your mouth. I had also mailed myself a couple of packets of hot chocolate for this purpose, and the lady at the front of the store happily made me some hot water. I decided to share the Tim Tam Slam with her, and she was thrilled. She went to write down the name of the cookies so she could show her grandson, when John and I decided to give her the second box of cookies since there was no way we were going to go through them all. She thanked us profusely, but really she was doing us a favor by taking some of the weight off our hands. We definitely had too much food.

We spent another hour chatting with her and the other guys at the store.

Then it occurred to me. It’s because of moments like these that we thru-hike. On long distance hikes, you wind up in places in the middle of nowhere that you never would have found otherwise, and you meet the nicest people.

A couple of the gentleman had a contraption that converted old records into either CDs, tapes or MP3 files on a USB drive. They had a note book completely full of songs, and they were going through their old record collection and putting them onto a USB drive. They had been working on this project for 5 years, and they only had 2 songs left.

We also found out that the lady at the front and her husband (one of the gentlemen with the record player) were in their 80’s and their son owned the place. They told us about how they had honeymooned on a canoe in the Ten Thousand Islands area of the Florida Everglades back many decades ago, and John and I recalled how we had done a similar but much shorter trip just earlier this year.

It was hard to leave the Fly and Tackle shop in Reliance, but there were miles to be hiked.

Soon after we hit the trail again, we made a wrong turn. We probably hiked a quarter of a mile in the wrong direction before we figured out that we had missed the trail. Then, just an hour or two later, we again went the wrong way. We hadn’t made a wrong turn since we started, but today we were making mistakes left and right.

The trail followed the river, which was laden with amazing rocks, and very steep on either side. The trail was very narrow, and sometimes it felt like we were going to plummet down the mountain, but I tried not to look down too often. It got dark before we completed our mileage for the day, and we were nervous about losing the trail in the dark, or having to go across sketchy sections in the dark. Luckily, we only had to walk a short distance once we actually needed our headlamps.

When we got to the campsite we were planning on staying at, we saw a light up ahead. We soon found out that it was another hiker! A southbound Benton MacKaye hiker named Ben, the first other thru-hiker we’ve met. We traded stories and notes about the trail while we ate our diner and slowly we got too cold to hang out and retreated into our tent for the night.