We have left the Great Smokie Mountains, National Park. Foiled by weather through two significant weather events that closed the roads to the park over the last week. The recent storm has left the roads closed for three days. An experienced hiker in the Smokies relayed to us that the weather has been extraordinary and the worst he has seen in 25 years of hiking. Some days the winds have blown well over 50MPH. Our comfort level is below 35MPH. Because there is little in terms of “bailout” points, we are moving on and returning to the Smokies in the fall to complete the miles we missed.

When we were able to hike in the Smokies, we were treated with spectacular vistas and wonderful hiking. During this time we reached a 6000-foot peak and slept at over one mile high. Thankfully we were able to get into town just hours before the roads closed. However, many people weren’t as lucky and got stuck up top. Some had to huddle in the 3 sided shelters or in the two public bathrooms that are on the mountain. We read the tweets from these people and prayed for their safety.

This puts us at mile 241 and headed to Tennessee. There is a term used on the trail called “hiking legs,” which means you can walk effortlessly for many miles. While better, we are still a few weeks away from having them. The younger hikers have them now and are starting to do 20 mile days.

One of the unexpected joys has been with the Trail Towns. Generally, they are spaced 20-30 miles apart. They offer a chance for a shower, laundry, food resupply, and a warm bed. In March and April, a bubble of thru-hikers appears in these towns. They are ready for us and very welcoming.

Getting to know and visit these places has been a special part of our journey. We meet the shuttle drivers who take hikers from the trail into town. Sometimes the town pays for the shuttle or other times a local church runs the shuttles. There are also paid shuttle drivers and having their phone numbers, which we do, increases our flexibility. The paid shuttle drivers charge about $15 a person. These drivers work most of the year shuttling hikers, both thru-hikers and week-long hikers. This is how they make their living.

All the towns have places for hikers to stay, ranging from hostels to B&B’s to Holiday Inn Express. When we stay in town we are recognized as thru-hikers. Even if we see people we haven’t met on the trail, they invite us to dinner. All the town people know what we are looking for, whether it’s the Post Office, supermarket, outfitters or innkeepers. They know how to help us and most do it with a smile.

These towns are closely knit and each town person knows the next. In one case a shuttle driver took us to the Post Office in Fontana, which is only opened from 12-4, and proceeded to have a fifteen-minute catch-up session with the person working at the Post Office.

We go to the Post Office in each town to move our “bounce box” along. A “bounce box” contains those items we don’t need for the next week and if you don’t open it the Post Office moves to our next stop for free!

The supermarkets stock what hikers like, such as Beef Jerky, Belvita Bars, breakfast bars and trail mix. Most of the places to stay have a laundry facility where we wash our 2 sets of clothes.

All the towns have that one place to get a great hamburger, french fries, and beer. We don’t worry about our diet, we crave calories. By now most hikers have lost 10-15 pounds and need to eat more.

The towns we have visited are, Blairsville GA., Hiawassee GA., Franklin NC., Fontana NC. (Population 7) and Gatlinburg TN. Small towns that represent the best of small-town America.

I asked one person, “What is social life like in town.” They reply it revolves around our church.

Churches abound in these towns and beside faith development, they also provide social support, shuttles, free breakfast, and trail magic. It is like going back in time when churches were the hub of a town.

When Myron Avery, the visionary who helped create the Appalachian Trail, first thought on the trail he wanted it to run through small towns. His goal was not to just hike but experience the diverse communities that existed. His belief was that a real trail experience was both in the hiking, but also in meeting people off the trail. Now that we have been out for three weeks, we understand his goal.

During our time in Gatlinburg, we met Mike. When we were in the Smokies and decided to bail out, Connie had called a shuttle driver who agreed to meet us at one of the two parking areas in the Smokies. We arrived early and met Mike. He was also looking for a ride down. So we offered him a ride. Eventually while standing and waiting, two other people needed a ride and came up.

People that were passing through kept asking if anyone needed a ride and received rides. Around 5 it was just the two of us and Mike. We went into town together. Over the two days we were in Gatlinburg we hung out with Mike.

Mike was thru-hiking as far as he could go until August. Mike looked like a mountain man, long silver hair pulled back in a ponytail and a wonderfully full beard. Mike was hiking for the same three reasons we were hiking. To become a better person with friends, physically change through hiking and grow spiritually.

Mike understood that “it’s not about the miles, but the smiles.” He was enjoying meeting new people, testing his body and looking for meaning in the woods.

Mike has slept in a tower by himself at Albert Mountain and watched both a sunset and sunrise. He walked slowly at first, but over the last few weeks has worked his way up to 10 miles a day.

He has no idea how far he will walk. But his deadline in August 31st and then go back to his life. He is one of those people who have many friends and knows many people. He will be a friend to us long after we have all left the trail.

His faith is very simple, be moral, help others and search for God. His faith is more communal than specific. He is still trying to grasp God and why God exists. He is in the investigation phase. We gave him our views and pray that it helps.

Mike smiles every day and laughs loudly.

Mike is one of the many people we meet and get to know in the trail towns.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman