The first days with Simon, Olivier's brother, we have thunderstorms every day. It is again Winton, our trail coach, who has already picked us up twice from the trail, who gives Simon a trail name. 'The dust, the wind and the thunder. That's an awesome trio 'Winton laughs when we see him in the morning at the Nantahela Outdoor Center. He takes us on rafting trip, together with Gary, the man with the loud voice, and his daughter Ana. The river is easy, there is blue sky and we laugh a lot. In the evening we all camp together, and another heavy thunderstorm arrives at night. In the morning we tie the wet tent on the back of the backpack and Gary brings us back to the trail. We have enough food to Fontana Dam, at the foot of the Smokeys. A food package is waiting for us there, at least that's what we hope. In Atlanta we prepared three food packages and we sent them with the US postal service. It is a common way to resupply yourself for thru-hikers, and to provide yourself with some treats. Our boxes do not contain that many treats, but enough food for the next three days. Yet we no longer know what is in the box, so we look forward to the surprise.
Fontana Dam is a super small village of less than 100 inhabitants. It looks more like a resort than a village. There is a nice lodge where we sent our food package, a laundromat, an ice cream shop and a small grocery store. We pick up our box at the lodge and open the package at the door of the laundromat, where we can wash our clothes for $ 2.50. The box contains wraps, pasta, nuts, oatmeal, granola, energy bars, cookies and a jar of apple sauce. So there was a surprise! "We eat it this evening, with the gratin," says Olivier, who looks at the apple mousse with a feast. Sending a package cost $ 20. In Atlanta we doubted whether this was worth the effort. We walk into the small store and are shocked by the prices and the offer. If we had bought everything from our food package here, it would have cost us a couple of twenty dollars. We only buy a large onion and divide the food between the three of us. Now that Simon is here, we have a fixed distribution. Olivier carries the breakfast, Zoë the lunch and Simon the dinner. In this way everyone loses some weight every day. In addition, we distribute the energy bars between the three of us and we all have a few more kilograms in the backpack. We spend the night next to the trail in the tent. Tomorrow we will finally enter the Smokeys and we will see bears.
Other hikers we spoke, saw all bears. We didn't see one bear and doubt sometimes whether they are present. In the Smoky Mountains live two bears every square mile. "From now on we shut our mouth for the next five days" says Zoë. That would be for her a larger challenge than 1.000 kilometers of hiking. We need a permit to camp in the Smoky Mountains, $20 a person. We bought the permit in advance and printed it. We tear the upper part and put it in the wooden box at the entrance to the Park. Olivier takes the camera out of the backpack and we prepare us for the first bear.
After an hour of walking we hear creaking branches above us. We stand still and hear more creaking. The hairs in our neck are almost upright when we stare up into the forest. If it's a bear, we actually have to make a lot of noise, but we want to see it first. We walk on quietly and inspect the forest. We hear more creaking and quickly turn around the next switchback. The tension is high and we try to avoid every branch. Then we finally see the sound. Unfortunately no bear, but an older man who quietly trudges up. It is Grinder, a 69 year old man who walks the entire trail in sections. We saw him for the first time yesterday when we slept in Fontana Dam. He would walk today to the same shelter as us, almost 16 miles. Grinder is his trail name, which he gave himself. "If others give you a trail name, you almost always get an idiotic name because you did something stupid." Who wants to be called mud pants because you once slipped in the mud. His name is Grinder because he slowly grinds the kilometers. We wish him a nice walking day and see him late at the shelter this evening. We walk further up, looking for bears. Simon walks first when Olivier calls to Zoë "hey, this looks like a bear track" We study it. It does indeed look like it and it increases the tension again. Suddenly Simon comes running down the path in our direction. We are shocked and prepare to run away. "I've seen a bear!" he shouts loudly. He enthusiastically tells us that a small black bear was sitting in front of him. His nose was light colored, but the rest was dark black. He didn't have much time to look at the bear because he ran away when he saw Simon. We quickly walk down the path, but the bear is gone. "Now you can walk in front to be the first to see bears," says Simon, who still has a big smile on his face. The rest of the day we see no more bears or other wild animals. We arrive at the shelter and are alone for now. In the Smokeys it is mandatory to sleep in the shelter so we hope that no one comes, except Grinder. He arrives a few hours after us, exhausted. He has no stove and cooking set, it saves weight. His supper is a wrap with nutella. We offer him a plate of rice and crawl into our sleeping bag early, when two more hikers come down the path. They are soaked after the hellish thunderstorm and accompany us in the shelter. We already heard them coming because they made a lot of noise. "There was a bear or something there, so that's why we shouted so loudly," the man says. Olivier jumps out of his sleeping bag and goes looking with Simon. We walk down the path, quietly, but not too quietly. This is quite exciting, and perhaps not so smart, Olivier thinks. We hear a hum and do not dare to continue. What if there really is a big bear. Suddenly a small wild boar shoots out of the woods, almost over Olivier's feet. Various wild boars are running around us. A large male stands about ten meters from us and growls dangerously in our direction. He is huge and much stronger than us. Quickly we run and look back. The male keeps looking at us, but does not come any closer. "Wow, that was cool!" Simon says, glad that he crawled out of his sleeping bag. 'Yes! What a first day in the Smokeys'.
The rest of the Smokeys we see many traces of bears. Every day we see ten heaps with bear poop. They are easy to recognise because it looks like diarrheas that is somewhat red and is full of seeds from the berries. Very occasionally we see a paw print in the mud. Every time we see a sign of a bear, we keep our mouths shut for a while and inspect the forest more than usual. We are often startled by a rustling sound in the Smokeys, but they are always deer and wild boar. We cannot complain with that, because so far we have seen little wildlife and now we see wild animals every day. Remarkably, the deer are not shy and we can occasionally come as close as ten meters. The wild boars, on the other hand, run away quickly and we can only catch a glimpse. It is by far the most beautiful part of the entire trail so far. The majority of the Smokeys are above 1,500 meters, with Clingmans Dome as the highest point at 2,200 meters, which is also the highest point of the entire AT. We walk mostly over the ridges, but because everything is so green and wooded, we hardly notice that there is a deep abyss on both sides. Only occasionally do we get out of the green tunnel and get a view of the beautiful mountains. The green tunnel is anything but boring. The type of forest is constantly changing. One moment we walk through moist Rhododendron forests with a dark brown ground. Almost all of them are blooming and have large white and pink flowers, often spread on the floor like a white carpet, as if a wedding couple had just walked out of the church. It is full of small insects and red salamanders. Then we walk in dry oak forests with green vegetation near the ground. The trail squeezes itself like a small path through the green plants that reach hip height. Higher up the hills, the soil becomes rocky and we often climb over uneven paths. Above 1,500 meters the deciduous trees turn into pine forest. It is mysterious and quiet. The pines are overgrown with green moss and the air tastes pure and fresh. The tree line does not exist at this height, so we never climb above the trees. For that we have to go to the northern part of the AT in New Hampshire and Maine. After each peak a long descent follows again into a valley, a gap indicated on the map. We often cross a road or a river there, and the climb through the forest starts again.
The next evening we see Grinder again in the shelter. We told him we would walk 17 miles today. He found our company and the bowl of rice so pleasant that he also grinds out 17 miles, and that for a 69 year old. His timing is excellent again because he arrives when we are busy with our supper. We give him a plate of mashed potatoes, and he shares with us a packet of spam, processed meat from a packet. Grinder already hiked the AT completely once, but then in sections during several years. He plans to become the oldest person to complete the full AT in one year. That record now stands at 82 years. After supper, he tells us some novelties about the trail. The AT is indicated with the white, rectangular symbols, the white blazes, throughout the route.
"You can yellow blaze" he says.
'What is that?' Zoë asks. Until now we never saw yellow blazes.
"Those are the stripes on the asphalt. It means being lazy and hitchhike parts' laughs Grinder.
'And then you have the male hikers who are after the women. They call that pink blazing '.
We have to laugh out loud.
"Finally, there are people who don't dare to use the toilet in the forest. They only go to a privy at a shelter, a small wooden cubicle with a toilet seat and a hole in the ground. Brown blazing is that '.
He tells many more stories about bears and strange hikers. We listen to him as if it is our grandfather with stories from the old days. At eight o'clock we crawl into our sleeping bag, with the earplugs against the sound of the creaking sleeping mats.
As always, Grinder is already awake at six o'clock. He takes an early start and we catch up with him after an hour. Today we have to leave the trail for a resupply. There are only a few villages on the trail. All other villages are a few miles off the trail. Gatlinburg is one of them, at least 15 miles. Hitchhiking in the US is not always easy, even on the AT where people know we are hikers. There is a great fear of taking a hitchhiker. When we arrive at the parking lot, we can already see that finding a hitch won't be a problem today. Newfound Gap is one of the most popular places in the Smokeys for people who come for a walk of three hundred meters, take a selfie and leave again. The majority of them are typical American tourists with funny clothes and a fat belly. After five minutes we get a hitch to the wonderful world of Gatlinburg. It is a tourist trap, yet for those who love mini golf, fast food and cable cars. Gatlinburg is nicknamed Hillbilly Disneyland, referring to the mocking nickname for residents in the Appalachians. The difference with the AT cannot be bigger. We gaze out our eyes at all the souvenir shops, attractions, restaurants and fat people. It is very busy. The cable cars take people to the top of the hill where they can admire Gatlinburg from above, which will probably not look much better than below here. The cable cars, there are three within five hundred meters, are packed. People can rent electric carts everywhere to go around. There are haunted houses, mini golf courses, an earthquake house, arcades, candy stores and bad museums. The Smokey Mountains is the most visited national park in the entire US, but Gatlinburg is even more popular. We resupply ourselves in the supermarket and splurge from an all you can eat pizza buffet before we return to the tranquility of the trail. Enough modern society for the coming weeks. We're going back on bear safari.