Trail of ice, Trail of blood

March 15, 2018

Destination: Icewater Spring Shelter Today's Miles: 13.60

Start Location: Double Spring Gap Shelter Trip Miles: 210.40

View from Clingman's Dome
I woke up early at about 5:30 and had to pee. Sensing a theme? 

It was dark and freezing out and quite gusty, so I convinced myself I didn’t have to go that badly and tried to go back to sleep. I tossed and turned for about an hour, and woke up again. This time I really had to go. I figured I would get up, pee, and then run get my food bag off the bear cables and have breakfast in bag. I scrambled out of my bag about to burst. My camp shoes were still in my bag, so I had to wear my boots. I went to put them on and they were frozen! I mean frozen solid. The snow the day before had gotten them wet and I had nowhere to keep them warm. I tried to jam my feet into them but could not. Gah! I had to go to the bathroom so badly!! I decided to jam my toes into them and walk tiptoe like a ballerina. I opened the tent fly and the wind blew a wave of ice in my face. I felt like I wasn’t going to make it. “You’ve got this,” I told myself. I went to get up and staggered around like a drunken sailor, needing to brace myself by grabbing the ground with my left hand. And in that moment, with all that going on, I felt a little trickle down my leg. Yep, I peed myself. I was able to stop the stream, but I immediately yanked open my pants there beside my tent and the trail and let the rest flow. Slightly humiliated, but also not caring because it was single digits cold, I ballerina stepped my way to the food bags, and then returned and dove back into my tent. Well, that went well, didn’t it? This is hiker life. 

I proceeded to make breakfast in bag. I decided to eat more this morning because I felt tired and hungry the day before when hiking. I started with two packs of oatmeal that I ate cold. Then I cooked some ramen in the cookpot that still had the frozen mashed potato residue from the night before. I added some TVP to it for substance. Delicious! I skipped coffee since my cookpot was dirty. I had set my boots next to my stove while cooking, and that appeared to help make them a little more pliable. I set about wrapping my blister with leuko tape and packing up my things. I washed my cookpot and filtered more water. Sauerkraut was making his breakfast while I filtered water. I disassembled my tent carefully in the gusty wind, trying not to lose any of it over the mountain. Ice was on everything. My cookpot was clean but it froze in about 5 seconds. My tarp and tent fly were icy. I put those in the outer mesh pocket of my bag to dry. It was time to hike!

The day was clear and blustery. The climb up to Clingman’s Dome was gorgeous. The forest had been transitioning a bit as we got higher up and was now filled with Douglas and Frazier firs, as well as Cedars. It was truly spectacular. One minute I would be high on a ridge, and the next I would descend into a dark, thick coniferous forest. There was a little side trail up to the tower at Clingman’s, so I took that, and there it was! It was weird. It wasn’t like a normal fire tower. It had a concrete spiral ramp that went up to a round concrete viewing tower. It kind of looked like an alien spacecraft. The view at the top provided 365 degrees of the surrounding mountaintops, looking out over frosted balds and conifers. I didn’t stay long as the wind was quite powerful up there, almost blowing me over as I headed back down.

From Clingman’s I descended to Mt. Love, which marks the 200 mile point on my AT journey. That was pretty cool. The trail dropped down and down and down. It got more slippery as the sun came out and started melting the top layer of snow. It was supposed to warm up today to potentially 44 degrees. I used my trekking poles to work my way down, slipping and sliding. Lots of day hikers started appearing, making the trek up to Clingman’s. Then, I saw my first Ridge Runner! They are employed my the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to help protect the trail and make sure shelters are being used properly. In the Smokies, they also check for permits. Her name was Christine and I asked her a bit about her job. She was handling one stretch between Fontana and Newfound Gap. She had a uniform on that sort of looked like a scout leader uniform. She asked about my permit, but when she found out it was in my bag inside a stuff sack, she let it go. I had asked her for a photo for my journal and she said most people who didn’t have a permit wouldn’t ask for a photo. Good point! I told her I wanted to dry some gear off and she informed me that before Newfound Gap there was a parking lot with lots of sun and no cars. I trekked on through the Christmas scene forest. I started to pass a lot of day hikers, each asking me how much farther Clingman’s Dome was. 

When I got to the lot, I pulled out my sleeping bag, tarp, footprint, and laid them all out to dry. I had to place things on them so they wouldn’t blow away. As I sat down to look through my food bag for some tuna, a group of kids and two adults walked up. It was an outdoor school for the kids and they were on a field excursion. The school was in a place called “Tremont,” but I am not sure where that is. One of the teachers came over and asked me where I was hiking to. I told her I was going to Maine. The kids got a little excited by that. She was really cool and asked why I decided to do it. Then, she gave me an entire bag of leftover food that she had packed for the kids! She said they were leaving and I could have it. There was a big thick sandwich with cheese, turkey, lettuce, and tomato. There were several slices of cheese, and a whole bunch of fig newton cookies. It was incredible. She said her name was Jen and she was from Akron, OH. I am forever grateful to you, Jen from Akron! That snack was exactly the boost I needed when I needed it. I took a picture with her and she headed off. I immediately demolished the sandwich and a handful of fig newtons and saved the rest for later.  Actual cheese!!!!

I gathered up my gear while a family who had walked over lurked about. I couldn’t tell what they were doing. Had I become a freak show? Probably. I’m sure I looked a little odd with my gear all over the place, all dirty and smelly. I trekked on, determined to get to the shelter with time to do camp chores.

The trail to Newfound Gap was muddy and slick - just a harbinger of what was to come. When I got to the gap, it was a zoo of tourists. I guess this is a big tourist destination as it is on the NC/TN border and also in the Smokies. I helped a family take a photo by the NC/TN border sign, and then they returned the favor. 

I was excited to dump all of my trash in the trash bin at the parking lot. I saw the sign for bathrooms and went in to wash up, only to find they didn’t have a sink or mirrors, only hand sanitizer. I was hoping to wash up a bit, but alas.

The climb out of Newfound Gap was nasty. First, the trail was covered in mud. Tourist traffic here had really done a number on it. Then, it was covered in large patches of ice. It was tricky to get through these, and honestly, I couldn’t believe some people were trying to walk in this in flats and tennis shoes. Thus far on the trail I was surprised I hadn’t fallen. I’ve slipped many times but have always been able to catch myself with my trekking poles. Today that streak would end. I had just skated past two girls on the trail when whoop! My legs went out from under me sideways. I tried to brace with my poles to no avail. It wasn’t a bad fall, and I quickly got up before anyone could see. If no one sees, does it count? 

On the way up the trail I noticed consistent spots of blood on the ground. It was steady, every few feet. I kept walking and the trail of blood kept going. I thought maybe it was someone’s dog, but dogs aren’t allowed in the Smokies, and there were no paw prints. The longer it continued, the more I expected to see a body around each turn. It was mysterious and disturbing! I couldn’t stop following it though, and the spots were every four to five feet. What happened?! I followed on as I hiked up, theories swirling in my head.

The rest of the trail into the shelter was more of the same: slipping, sliding and sloshing. When I got to the shelter there were still 3-4 spaces left - sweet! It was about 5 o’clock, so I figured I’d be good and unpacked my bed roll and sleeping bag, then set about getting water and making dinner. The shelter had a beautiful view off the side of the mountain. It’s supposed to be warmer tonight too, which will be nice. Nightmare (Heather), Diablo, Rivers and a few others are at the shelter. I followed the trail of blood all the way to the shelter to one spot. At the shelter everyone was talking about the mysterious trail of blood! We figured that someone had actually cut or injured himself at the shelter, and then walked bleeding all the way down to Newfound Gap. I hope that person is ok! Every single hiker group I’ve run into since then also talks about the blood trail! It was breaking news on the trail - a real Angela Lansbury special.

I’m grateful for the trail magic from Akron Jen today, and for all of the amazing vistas I got to see. I’m thankful I made it to camp safely, and that the trail of blood did not lead to a body. I have no cell signal here so not sure what the weather holds for tomorrow. Good night!

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