Cloud Kissed

April 22, 2017

A night of rain and storm found us snug inside our tent, dry and warm while water fell from the sky.  We woke early, packing​ up as sunrise brought possibilities of dryer weather.

Scattered cloud bits lingered over the landscape.  I remembered two days ago, waking to a dense fog.  “We’re getting kissed by a cloud,” Jay had joked.  I had eyed the grey clinging tendrils of moisture, and replied, “Seems more like an overly enthusiastic embrace to me!”   Today, the white puffs did look a bit more like gentle kisses from the clouds.

Laurel Forks Gorge and Pond Mountain Flats were the major destinations on the map today.  For a while the trail was almost level as it followed an old railroad grade, hugging cliff top edges, cutting through narrow gaps between ridges, teasing us with glimpses of Laurel Fork far, far below.  Finally, the trail made a sharp left turn and dove over the edge, switchbacking steeply down turn after turn of stone steps, spiraling deeper and deeper into the gorge.  At the bottom, water rushed over wide rock ledges, in a jumble of froth and foam, dropping 45 feet into the quintessential pool at the bottom.  What a destination for the morning!

The trail followed the river, sometimes edging out on tiny ledges inches above the rushing water, but mostly on a wide level path, just right for a Sunday stroll.

Walking the ledges with one arm in a sling.  Total fun!

We met Specs, a very nice thru-hiker in his twenties.  He told us of staying the rainy night at a hostel in a man’s house.  “There were bunks for about 20 people, but only 5 of us were there.  When it began raining, I discovered that his roof leaked, so I had to hop over to another bunk in my sleeping bag!”

Specs also told us that he met the man in charge of trail maintenance on this portion of the AT.  “This guy told me that the trail used to go straight up Pond Mountain Flats, but now there are 15 switch backs and an extra two miles of trail to get to the top.”

“I’m not sure that I really wanted to know that,” Jay informed Specs.

“Fifteen switchbacks!  I love switchbacks!  Oh goody!” I exclaimed happily.  “Let’s do it!”

Fifteen switchbacks and 1,800 feet of elevation did give me plenty of time to wonder about the name of the mountain we were climbing.  Would it really be flat?  What kind of mountain had a pond on top?  So far on this trip, mountain tops had sported dry ridges, rocky ledges, sometimes rolling grassy balds.  But I had yet to see much water on a mountain peak, other than the water I carried to drink!

At the top, the terrain did flatten out a bit, with a couple of campfire rings and tent sites.  We paused for a look around.  No pond, no water, but wait, what was that?  A frog, hopping through the leaves!  He stopped and posed for Jay’s camera.  “There must be water somewhere, with this frog hopping about,” Jay remarked.  “The trail guide says there’s a spring in half a mile.  Let’s go fill up, and maybe eat lunch.”

Mountain top frog!


Just as we reached the spring, a rumble of thunder caused us to look up.  Black and grey piles of moisture loomed over the mountain.  “Yikes!  Is that headed here?” I asked nervously.      “Maybe we better postpone lunch until we’re a bit lower in altitude,” Jay suggested.

Just then a ball of lightning FLASHED ahead of us.  My scream was drowned by a simultaneous BOOM of thunder.  I turned and flew into Jay’s arms!  “Umm, let’s go while we can,” Jay suggested.  “But be careful!  No falling allowed!”

Rain pelted our heads as we warily slogged down hill.  Thunder and lightning crashed.  Wind blew through tree tops and whistled over ridge edges.  Just as I was set to endure hours of storm, it stopped!  The rain slowed to a pitter-patter, then ceased altogether as the sun appeared.  “Wow!”  Jay laughed.  “Would you call that a cloud kiss, or something else?”   I knew what he was thinking, but answered primly, through giggles, “In my day, that was called a cloud burst!”

I guess that frog knew there would be water on top of the mountain after all!

Through (After) the Storm

March 23, 2017

I am clean, well-fed, laying in a real bed, listening to frogs sing.  This is heaven.  No, actually, it is Hot Springs, NC, and we have just finished five days of hiking.  After nine days of waiting in town for the icy storm in the Smoky Mountains to moderate, I feel as if I’ve been in a whirlwind of hike, hike, hike.  It’s time for reflection and perspective.

Saturday, March 18 – My sister, Helen, put us back on the trail at Newfound Gap.  Though slushy snow dotted the trail, it had been raining all morning, and I was confident that the winter storm was over.  The clouds cleared as we hiked, blue sky arched overhead, all was well.

My sister, awesome trail angel, shuttle runner, maker of dried tomatoes, and wearing a fabulous coat!

Three miles from Newfound Gap, we reached Icewater Spring Shelter, with many hours of daylight left.  It seemed a shame to waste such beautiful weather sitting in a shelter, and we couldn’t resist continuing towards the next shelter, a mere 7.3 miles away.  The trail led us through steep country, with names like ‘Charlies Bunion’ and ‘The Sawteeth’.  Our pace was hampered by a growing amount of ice and snow on the trail.  Strangely enough, the higher we climbed, the slicker and icier the trail became!   The sun lowered in the sky, sending sweeping reds and oranges across an azure background.  Darkness crept around us.  Still no shelter.   We hiked on, using our headlamps, but getting steadily colder as we followed the trail across exposed ridges.  Finally, we saw a flat clear spot beside the trail, and decided it was wiser to stop and pitch the tent rather than continue walking, risking a fall on the slick, frozen trail.

Incredible sunset from on top of the world!

Sunday, March 19 – That night, a bitter wind brought clouds across the starry sky, and threw microscopic ice crystals against the landscape.  We awoke to terrain straight from The Chronicles of Narnia during the reign of the White Witch.  Frigid wind howled over the ridge top. A frozen mist had turned the mosquito netting door of our tent opaque.  I cursed my stupidity as I pounded iron-hard shoes against a snowy tree.  Just because the sky had been clear when I went to sleep, I had foolishly left my wet, muddy shoes outside.  Never again, I vowed, as I hobbled across the ridge, toes only halfway inside the ice cubes formerly known as my shoes.  With frozen fumble fingers, we packed our ice-stiffened tent and headed down the trail.  Still, even as I walked along, wearing nearly every stitch of clothing from my pack, sending fiercely hot thoughts towards unresponsive feet, Jay found the silver lining.  “Isn’t it great that this wind is at our backs, not in our faces?”  Yes, this is one reason I love this man!

We dropped 1500 feet in elevation, enjoying the spectacular winter scenery, but soooo glad to be leaving it behind as we headed downhill!  I marveled at how incredibly cold it was now, and couldn’t imagine hiking the week before, when wind chills had reached 14 degrees below zero!

We did see one hiker who had slipped on the ice and was waiting at the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to be evacuated.  Later we met horses with a ranger headed his way.  A sobering sight, and one to make me pay even more attention to my footing!  It was incredible how fast and sure-footed the horses were as they passed us.  Their weight just broke through the ice on the trail, and they seemed as if they were out for a normal Sunday amble!  “I guess four feet can be better than two.  Kind of like four-wheel drive,” Jay commented.

Monday, March 20 – We woke to a beautiful sunrise, with rays of light streaking into our tent at Cosby Knob Shelter.  Such a treat, to see the sun right off, AND to have liquid, not ice, in the water bottles!

We continued dropping in elevation, watching winter slowly leave while spring shyly asserted herself with tiny flowers and beautiful waterfalls on Stateline Branch.  I was glad to leave the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for now, ready to enjoy some warmer temperatures!


Tuesday, March 21 – Took it slow today, trying to not push ourselves too hard after the cold climate we had experienced in the last 48 hours.  However, the trail had other ideas for us.  We climbed Snowbird Mtn, then Max Patch Mtn.  Either one would have been enough for one day!  I became amused at the argument going on between my flagging body and my excited brain as ridge after ridge brought more uphill combined with incredible scenery.

We camped near Roaring Fork Shelter, and woke in the middle of the night to a four hour thunderstorm.  Our tent collected a puddle of water at one point, perhaps from a wind-driven leaf funneling water through the mosquito screen.  It was not a restful night.  However…

Wednesday, March 22 – Today the sun shone, the trail was often level, and the whole world smiled.  I was tired, but happy to see beauty still all around me.  We stopped at Walnut Mountain Shelter to dry out our tent and sleeping pads, then hiked on, enjoying the beautiful weather.  Finally camped about five miles shy of Hot Springs, NC, where we planned to re-supply.

Yes, the hike goes on.

Waiting out the Storm, by Jay

March 14, 2017

We decided to visit Sarah’s parents for two days when we reached Newfound Gap.  Those two days stretched to four days when snow hit the mountains and the road to Newfound Gap was closed.

Now, more snow plus icy temperatures are pummeling the tops of the Smokies, so we are still waiting.  Sarah’s parents are paying for our room at their retirement center, and we are helping them sort their storage unit.  The arrangement gives us a work-for-stay status until temperatures in the Smoky Mountains climb back into the double digits.

Hiking as a couple is different than hiking alone.  It was hard for me to stay off the trail.  I felt compelled to test our skills against the cold, to continue hiking no matter what.  But Sarah and her parents helped me agree to the right decision.  Margins for error are slim when temperatures dive to near zero.  If we were to slip on snow-covered ice, or be hit by an ice-covered tree limb dislodged by the wind, it would be hard to stay warm until help arrived.  It would be foolish to risk our safety, not to mention the safety of our potential rescuers.

When we decided to start our thru-hike in February, I assured Sarah that we would wait out the storms in towns, and hike during milder weather.  Now it is time to keep that promise and to remember how lucky I am to have someone to love and to share this adventure.


March 7, 2017

I am crossing Rocky Top, Tennessee.  Horizontal rain.  Fog shredding across the craggy ridge top.  Wind shaking my pack and me like a dog with a rag toy.  As I stagger to and fro across the path, the insidious question arises – WHY did I agree to a thru hike?

But then … then …

The trail dives over the edge of the ridge, onto the leeward side.  Moist, dead leaves cushion my footsteps.  The wind stops, birds sing, heat creeps into my fingers.  I am enveloped in a mother-of-pearl cloud as morning sun warms the fog.

And I know my answer – I am blessed.