Day #132-The Lord uses Wendy’s; Miles hiked: 14.9

After shotgunning sodas from the vending machine near Fontana Village this morning, it was off to what we thought was going to be a quick resupply in Robbinsville, NC.On the walk there, I was constantly humbled by the beauty of the fall leaves. Even though I love for the sun to be out, I really enjoyed the brilliance of the colors against the grey sky. The sun did come out for a few moments too while it formed a lake of clouds over Fontana. Father is such a good artist!Upon hitching into Robbinsville for what we thought was a quick trip to Dollar General to purchase enough junk food to get us to Franklin, things took an unexpected turn.

Step 1: hikers being tempted by the 4 for 4 meal at Wendy’s. For those of you unfamiliar with this amazing deal, you can get 1000 calories in the form of soda, chicken nuggets, fries, and a hamburger for only $4! For the hiker, this usually turns into 8 for 8, or even the highly sought after and revered 12 for 12 (I have yet to pull that one off).Step 2: the Lord sends Pastor Eric into Wendy’s to dine with a man he’s just met.

Step 3: since I haven’t changed clothes since June, Pastor Eric recognizes me and my entourage and invites us all to sleep in his church.

Springer isn’t going to spring away, so we gladly took him up on his offer to skip another cold night in a musty shed in the woods. We gratefully enjoyed pizza, mead, soda, and time to relax at the church. BamBam even prepared a “sermon” about the trail dedicated to Little Debbie, the maker of our favorite snack: Honey Buns.I enjoyed reading some of my favorite childhood Bible stories-especially the one from 2 Kings about a bear attacking some kids who wanted to make fun of a poor old bald dude. That was a camp favorite when I worked at Wesley Woods!

This sounds like fun and games (and indeed there were plenty of laughs), but I can’t understate what a tremendous testimony nights like this are to my friends. Some told me that they haven’t stepped in a church since childhood, let alone felt welcomed. The number of faith questions that they’ve asked me have multiplied immensely in the days since we’ve been having experiences like this. Every act of kindness counts!

Day #131-Goodbye Smokies; Miles hiked: 24.1

After saying goodbye to Wildcat and his entourage (he brought us plenty of friends), we had our work cut out for us to get out of the park. With bad storms rolling in and the wind raging, off we went!

Before the rain started coming down in sheets, I passed a very special place to us Tennesseans: Rocky Top! Even though the wind was strong enough to push me around, I did get out one chorus of our UT fight song. Go vols!At the end of a soggy, windy day, I crossed out of the Smokies and over Fontana Dam.Tonight the newly formed tramily (now called either the SOBO Snowball or the Blueberry Patch Kids) and I are staying at the “Fontana Hilton,” one of the nicest shelters on the AT. We even have access to a bath house with running water!

Goodnight from the other side of the Smokies.

Day #130-Hitting big numbers; Miles hiked: 17.9

This morning, we had to leave the luxury of the Ray home and head back up into the woods. Since it was Halloween, I dressed up (or tried) as Grandma Gatewood, the first woman to thru hike the AT. She was famous for carrying all of her belongings in a laundry sack!About 8 miles into our hike, we climbed into a cloud to top the highest point on the AT: Clingman’s Dome. It was so cold and windy that we spent only seconds in the observation tower; it’s all downhill from here, right? Later in the day, we passed a huge trail milestone: 2000 miles! I don’t think it’ll actually seem real until Springer, but this hike is almost over. Two thousand miles is a long way! What’s even better than growing numbers of miles completed? Growing numbers of hikers to hang out with! Thanks to some special trail magic by former chaplain Wildcat wrangling in hikers, I am now traveling with no less than 10 other SOBOs headed to Springer on the same day. Thanks Wildcat for the gingerbread that started it all!

Day #129-Preview zero; Miles hiked: 0.0

Today was a lovely day to relax at my house, the Otter Inn. My mother might as well have opened a hiker hostel with 5 thru hikers on the property. We called it a preview zero, as it’s a look ahead to being done hiking-every day will be a zero!We had a great time relaxing, sleeping, drying out gear and regrouping for our last 200 miles.

Thank you to my parents for keeping the food coming!This was our last real rest day before the end of the trail. Hard to believe we can officially call ourselves thru hikers in just 11 days!

Day #128-Charlie’s Bunion, Gatlinburg, and further adventures; Miles hiked: 10.4

There was no delay when the alarms went off this morning. Why? Time to get out of the woods!

On the way up the ridge, we were blessed with a wonderful sunrise as we walked my personal favorite stretch of trail in the park. Next was a freezing cold trip to Charlie’s Bunion, a popular overlook on the AT. We didn’t stay for long though-that windchill was unbelievable! The real attraction for the day was a trip to Gatlinburg and then my house. Thank you to my grandfather for treating us to pancakes and to my dad for hauling us all home.Zero day tomorrow!

Day #127-Almost like I’ve been here before; Miles hiked: 20.0

The sun did indeed come out this morning!

It was still windy and cold, but you wouldn’t believe what a difference in both mood and comfort that big ball of fire makes.

For all of the years I’ve been backpacking, the Smokies have been home base and I hardly even need a trail guide. So good to be home!We decided to push a few extra miles today and consequently got to catch one of the classic purple/coral Smokies sunsets from a high mountain ridge. Even though the temps are comparatively warm, sleeping near 6000 ft of elevation still makes the air a bit nippy.

Last night out before a lovely trip to Knoxville!

Day #126-Welcome home Blueberry!; Miles hiked: 18.8

Today was a day I’ve been looking forward to since I started hiking in June: entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was also another day of hypothermic conditions with wind and 38 degree rain falling all day.

Before we got into the park, we crossed over what is usually an absolutely stunning panoramic view of the mountains: Max Patch. Today, all I wanted to do was get the heck out of there as the wind whipped by and pelted rain so hard it went right through my rain jacket. Picnic weather!By day’s end, we crossed I-40 and entered my home sweet Smokies. Rumor has it the sun is coming out tomorrow and I simply can’t wait. Goodnight from a trail shelter that feels more like a cage with a chain link fence across the front for bears…one per square mile in the park!

Day #125-New rain adventures aboundeth; Miles hiked: 17.6

It has rained for almost half of my thru hike, but today marked a new adventure: cold rain. This was the first time it’s been both raining, windy, AND 40 degrees. Needless to say, it was pretty difficult to leave the hostel and start hauling up a mountain in that weather.

It was too messy to take pictures, but we climbed a few sizable mountains and ended up in a campsite with a large church group.

Based in a nearby town, this church’s youth group goes backpacking once a month. What a way to teach kiddos about Creation! I enjoyed joining them for worship and Bible study.

Goodnight from a damp trail shelter!

Day #124-Hot Springs stole my heart; Miles hiked: 8.4

Today was a much-needed trip into town. But first, proof that my tramily experienced some great trail magic from Dr. Mary last night! Mary is the ATOM circuit chaplain and has been up and down the trail all season caring for a thru hiker’s most valuable body part: feet.She was so gracious to massage ours for us…even if she had to turn off her headlamp to hide the filth, hehe.Once in Hot Springs, it was time to celebrate Spork’s birthday. We started out by destroying multiple plates each at the local diner.After doing some laundry and resupply, we continued the fun with a trip to the locally famous attraction: natural hot springs!Dinner was another trip to the local eateries where Spork’s dad joined us. I really enjoyed getting to meet him!

The rain has started for four more days of wet. Bring it on!

Day #123-Getting close and starting to break down; Miles hiked: 22.2

We started today with a nice climb up Big Butt (that’s really what it’s called!) Mountain. Up next was a rocky ridge up to Firescald Knob where we enjoyed great views of the quickly changing fall colors. The temps have dropped from 90 to 40 like they saw a state trooper, so the leaves are just now catching up.

This afternoon brought another one of those reminders that the trail won’t last forever-1900 miles.I know I’m going to miss this place like crazy, but my body is definitely starting to show signs of cumulative fatigue that comes with walking almost 2000 miles. For that reason, I’m grateful that the end is in sight.

Here’s to less than 300 miles to go!