Hiking for 5 months was a dream come true. Especially at 41 years old. I found out pretty quickly that I was in a smaller-represented age demographic on trail. I felt like there were two major age groups: those who were 18-30, and those who were 60+. In the former, I felt like there was a decently even split between female and male hikers. In the latter, it was mostly retired men. There was a smattering of women who were older than me, but not many. There’s something to be said for surrounding yourself with younger people for an extended period of time. Yes, it can make you feel old, but only if you let it. I don’t feel like I’m 42 most days, and I enjoy keeping tabs on what’s popular. But living in the woods with people younger than myself renewed my sense of wonder and excitement. And it gave me faith in the younger generation that they are forging a path different than what I felt was “expected” of my generation.
While hiking, I ended up meeting folks who were of similar pace and politics. We quickly became a trail family, which is not much different than your “real” family- they see you at your best and your worst, and they don’t seem to mind how bad you smell. Actually, trail family might be more tolerant than my actual family in that respect. I once sent home my defective backpack thinking my mom could sew it for me- she said she opened the box and immediately put it away because it smelled so bad. Anyways, please allow me to introduce you to my trail family. At our conception, we were four: Sir Charms, Good Wood, Toasty, and Smidge (later down the trail we’d add Reggie Rocket to our fold). I met all three at Sassafras Gap shelter (the first after leaving the Nantahala Outdoors Center), but it was Sir Charms (aka Charms) who really stuck in my memory from that evening. We both slept in the shelter that night. It was pretty cold. I remember there being snow on the ground at the higher elevation after hiking out of the NOC. There was another hiker in the shelter that night who was actually encouraging people to leave their trash in the privy because, as he figured, “a ridge runner will come and pack it out”. This guy was older, and not afraid to speak loudly about anything. And I could read Charms’ face like a book. He had to sleep next to this guy, and he clearly wanted him to just shut up. The next day, we leap-frogged each other while hiking, and I was instantly impressed with his cheerful nature which had a spicy sharp edge to it. He’s also insanely hilarious and can ad lib like a pro. I loved him immediately.
Good Wood and Toasty are a married couple, and while I met them at the Sassafras Gap shelter, I have more vivid first memories of them as we leap-frogged on the trail between the NOC and Fontana Dam. At Fontana Dam, I saw them getting dropped off at the trailhead to cross the dam and hike into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They had stayed at a great hostel nearby, and I was on my way to get a late breakfast at the lodge. I had planned on ~12 that day to get to Mollies Ridge shelter, but felt terrific due to my gigantic breakfast and decided to press on to the Russell Field shelter. And so had Good Wood and Toasty (and Charms). We all camped near each other, and the next morning as we were crawling out of our tents and bivy, Toasty and I struck up a conversation. Turns out, she was an operating room nurse too! The next day, Toasty and I shared a couple miles near the end of the day as we hiked into the next shelter. We talked and talked and talked and the miles just melted away. It was great having someone who understood the insane pressures of nursing in the operating room! And her husband is a walking encyclopedia of logistics knowledge. Good Wood always knew where we were and how far we were from the next something. They’re a great team.
So, the four of us decided, while camping together again at Silers Bald shelter, that we would get off trail for re-supply in Gatlinburg, TN. We also decided to share a hotel room. We had been paying attention to the weather, and thought snow was coming Friday night, so we had a game plan: the next day we’d hike to Newfound Gap where we’d hitch a ride down to Gatlinburg for resupply and laundry, and then get back up to Newfound Gap to continue hiking on Saturday. But at Clingman’s Dome on Friday (the 13th of April, I might add), we learned from a park ranger that the storm had slowed and wasn’t expected until Saturday. We adjusted our plan and camped at Mt. Collins shelter on Friday night, and planned to get to Newfound Gap early on Saturday to head down out of the storm that evening.
Up until this point in my journey, I had hiked and camped solo. I wasn’t lonely at all- I saw so many people each day and night that finding solitude was sometimes difficult. And the trail had been mostly what I expected from nature: rugged, cold, wet, beautiful, serene. Surprises included the amazing trail magic from superbly sweet trail angels, and the actual difficulty of the terrain (the AT is far more technical and steep than I expected). But when the four of us descended into Gatlinburg, TN, I had no idea what I was in for. It was an experience like no other. It was the birth of the Spaceteam.
I had never been to Gatlinburg before. To be honest, I had only heard it mentioned once or twice. I knew nothing about the town, and hadn’t bothered to look it up before I visited with my trail friends (we’d be a family by the end of our stay in G-burg). All I knew is that it sat at the bottom of the Smokies, and there was going to be a hot shower and a warm bed with my name on it somewhere. As soon as the shuttle van from Newfound Gap dropped us off at the Nantahala Outdoors Center-Gatlinburg, we were overwhelmed: Gatlinburg is as though Las Vegas, NV and Branson, MO had had an illegitimate child that they abandoned in Appalachia. It was sensory overload everywhere you looked. Neon, blinking lights, tourist shops that sold air-brushed t-shirts and fudge. Good weather had brought out the Saturday crowds. And of course, old time photos. My favorite! It was a strange, strange place to be in at that moment in my life.
So we checked into our little motel room, and went to see what was good in town. We had dinner at a brewery, then decided to walk around the main “strip” of Gatlinburg. We quickly found out that a major tourist draw were the “moonshine” tasting bars, so we decided to do a moonshine tasting at the Sugarlands Distilling Co. For $5 a person, you get a half-shot of a dozen of their varieties, and your admission wristband is also a $5 off coupon for a mason jar of moonshine in their store. We had a blast at the tasting, and found out that wristband coupons could be combined, so we pooled our wristbands for a jar of lemonade moonshine. We weren’t thinking about how we were going to consume it before we left for the trail the next day. We were stinky hikers out having a blast in a crazy town.
When we got back to our motel room that night, we studied where to go for laundry and resupply the next morning. And then someone, I can’t remember who, announced that Hwy 441 back up to Newfound Gap had been closed, and it was not sure what time it would open the next day. We all felt a little relief because we were tired and had so much to do the next day before heading back up, so we all agreed that taking a zero in Gatlinburg would be a good idea. The next day (Sunday), we did laundry and resupplied at a grocery store. In case you’re wondering- we took advantage of Ubers when in larger towns. Split multiple ways, its a relatively inexpensive way to get around. It was a gray day, and the rain came and went all day long. We explored more of the strip, and I convinced my friends to do an old time photo with me. It was a productive zero day, so we celebrated that evening with beer, moonshine, board games and and an app that Charms recommended: Spaceteam.
If you’ve never played, Spaceteam is a collaborative game for 2-8 players. Via a wifi or hotspot connection, you and your team pilot a spacecraft through space. Your phone screen has a section for what looks like spacecraft controls (levers, buttons, sliding scales, etc), and the top of the screen is where you receive commands. Except the commands to toggle a lever or push a button are likely not for any buttons or levers that you have on your screen. So you have to call out silly commands like “Turn on the jiggle core combobulator” or “Set the foghorn laser switch to 7”. It becomes chaos quickly, and it’s wildly addictive and fun. I think we played until almost midnight. Another note- we partied hard, but hikers generally go to bed when the sun goes down (9pm was considered by most to be “hiker midnight”), so to make it to actual midnight was quite a feat. We even got “shushed” by the front desk. I definitely felt like a kid again. It was glorious.
The next morning, (Monday), we were gathering our things to head back to the trail, when we found out that the Hwy 441 was still closed up to Newfound Gap. Whaaaaaaa????? We were a little in disbelief, so we spent a while calling every number we could find for information- the Smoky Mountain ranger station, TN Dept of Transportation, county services, etc. But it was true- the road was closed and was not anticipated to be open until sometime the next day. What could we possibly do for another day in this crazy little town? Oh yeah, we still had a giant mason jar of moonshine to drink! So that’s what we did.
That Monday morning, we started drinking and went to the NOC to look at the pretty camping things and waste time. We saw other hikers we knew, and learned that there were a bunch of hikers stranded in the bathroom at Newfound Gap. When the road closed, no services would go get them unless someone was injured, so they sheltered in the bathroom at Newfound Gap. We watched tourists on the street, and bought more candy for resupply. I can’t recall the last time that I got drunk on a Monday morning. But I had so much fun with my new little family that day. Charms climbed the wall at the NOC, and we got to meet a giant Great Dane named Pete. And that afternoon, we snuck over to some other hikers’ motel to use their pool. We all reveled in the freedom that had brought us together on the trail. And we allowed ourselves to enjoy the loss of control we had over our situation. We were at the mercy of nature, and we made the most of our time in G-burg. We made it back to the trail the next day, after a stomach-churning ride back up the mountain in a shuttle van (the first of a few times we would play “how many hikers can you fit in the back of a cargo van”).
What an amazing ride my journey was beginning to be. I was taken by surprise yet again on the trail. I had no idea how quickly you could form a lasting relationship with people sharing the same crazy experience as you. I will always have a special place in my heart for the nutty little town of Gatlinburg, for it is where my trail family, the Spaceteam, was born. Most of us have friends who are like family to us. What have you and your friend-fam been through together? How do you stay together? I’m grateful to have a trail family who has stayed in touch since we all parted ways last summer and fall. We’re planning to see each other in May of this year, and we call and text often. This post is dedicated to them. Sending my love and hugs out to Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, and Asheville NC.