Thursday, March 11th, 2021
The next morning, we would notice more ruins. There were more old foundations, deteriorating chimneys, and a handful of deserted cars that appeared to be from the turn of the 20th century.
Before we knew it, the three of us were back in familiar territory. After walking along the ridge that skirted Fontana Lake, we eventually saw our first white blaze. We were back on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and taking our final steps out of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Middle Brother, Frisbee and I were feeling nostalgic as we road walked across Fontana Dam. While approaching the visitor center, we’d see a bald eagle soaring above the center’s American flag.
“That’s America as fuck!”
We paid a visit to the Fontana Hilton, the quirky name given to the hiker shelter, then we returned to the road to catch a hitch at mile 93.9 of our journey. We originally planned on hitching into Fontana Village, but there was hardly any traffic. We walked the road for a little while until we got to a busier one. We weren’t there long before scoring a ride with the TVA workers. We asked them how their day was going.
“Working hard,” they responded sarcastically.
They informed us the smoke we had experienced a couple days back was due to a controlled burn. We were relieved it wasn’t something serious.
Much of the property in the Fontana Village Resort was shut down. Not only was the resort hit hard by COVID as most businesses were, but the place was currently seeking new ownership. Much of the premises were either unoccupied or under renovation.
We grabbed a coffee at the lodge before heading down to the grill. We had been craving a hot meal, but were saddened to see that the grill was shut down as well. I was heartbroken. We also caught word that the general store down the street was out of commission too, so no laundry facility either! There were some outlets working on the porch, so we charged our electronics and laid out our wet gear to dry in the sun. As we waited, we planned out the miles ahead.
We bought some snacks and more coffee at the lodge, and watched the smoke roll back in as we waited by the road to hitch back to the shelter. That wouldn’t be the only smoke we found ourselves sitting in. We were picked up by a guy heading to Cherokee to have some fun at the casino, and his car smelled like an ashtray. Cigarette smoke aside, he was kind and talked to Middle Brother about the Tail of the Dragon. Middle Brother is a local, so he was well informed. The Tail of the Dragon is short road spanning 11 miles along US-129. It’s famous for its sharp turns, 318 of them to be exact, and it’s a go-to destination for many motorcycle enthusiasts and sports car clubs. On occasion you hear about vehicular accidents and fatalities from people speeding along this dangerous stretch of highway.
Upon returning to the Fontana Hilton, we’d meet several AT hikers, section hikers and thru hikers alike. Most were new to the community, but one of them impressed me. An older woman who went by the trail name, Umbrella Lady had a good deal of experience under her belt. She had hiked the Pacific Northwest Trail in 1983 and the Continental Divide Trail in 1987. These are two of the most rugged and challenging long trails in the country. Not only is she a woman, she hiked these trails before they were hardly even heard of by the hiking community. She had met her husband on the AT many years back, but was currently hiking alone to finish a section hike. Her car was parked in the lot at the top of the hill and she was heading home in the morning.
The three of us had seen her car earlier that day, the Florida Trail (FT) sticker caught our eye and we had been wondering who the car belonged to. I asked her about it and she told me that she had hiked a section of the FT with her husband, but got off after her husband injured his ankle stepping into a concealed hole. I encouraged her to go back out there. Frisbee and I had finished the whole trail and Middle Brother had done a section, but all three of us felt highly of it. I think our enthusiasm intrigued her into giving it another shot. There are few of us, but any long distance hiker that has COMPLETED the FT finds themselves absolutely in love with it. With the exception of Middle Brother, others who only hiked a section haven’t discovered its charm and usually only attach the trail with bad memories and hardship.
Umbrella Lady was awesome, and the rest of the hikers in the shelter seemed like a good crowd as well. They all slept inside the shelter while the three of us cowboy camped under the stars listening to coyotes and owls. I think they thought we were crazy for doing so. If they successfully complete their journey along the AT, they’ll learn that being crazy comes with the territory.
10.6 miles (17.1 km)
Jump Ahead to the Benton MacKaye Trail: Part 7
Jump Back to the Benton MacKaye Trail: Part 5
Start from the Beginning: Benton MacKaye Trail: Part 1