Winding Stair Gap to Fontana Dam: Days 13-17
News spreads that the Winding Stair Gap fires are contained and the trail is open! Ron Haven shuttles me and Silas to Winding Stair Gap at 9:00 am.
“There’s some rangers with some food and stuff for y’all up at the bald,” a dayhiker tells us.
I check my phone. “We’re around Wine Spring Camp now - I think Carter said they were planning to camp there,” I say. Carter was one of the hikers in town after Neel Gap, and we’d met again at The Lazy Hiker. “Maybe they’ll show up at the trail magic when they hear about it.”
We hurry to Siler Bald, two miles ahead of Wine Spring Camp, where an assortment of cookies, crackers, granola bars, and juice awaits us. Apples and clementines are in a nearby cooler. We stay for several hours, eating both lunch and an early dinner. Hikers come and go. No sign of Carter.
“I don’t think they’re going to show up,” I say.
We wait another few minutes. Most of the other hikers head to the next shelter, about a mile away.
“I really want to hang out with Matt and everyone,” Silas says. “I’m going back to that camp site - Wine Spring, or whatever.”
Backtracking to find what could be our budding trail family? I think about the past week and a half: the first day, the pizza party after Neels Gap, reuniting at the Budget Inn after the wildfire. I decide to go back, too.
We find everyone sitting around a campfire Matt coaxed from damp firewood. Silas and I set up camp, then join them.
“Yesterday, Solace said that only 25% of people finish the trail,” Silas muses. “So he said out of every four of us, only one would finish.”
Tom and I glance at each other.
“That’s a gross misunderstanding of probability,” Tom says.
I can’t help but chime in. “That assumes we’re all acting independently. But we’re not.” We’re interdependent: hikers helping hikers.
We trade stories. We laugh. Matt puts on a green baseball cap, sticks a finger in his mouth, and blows. The cap pops off his head. Silas looks on in amazement.
“You like that?” Matt asks. He does it again.
Totally worth it, I think to myself. This is what it’s all about.
Early the next morning, I climb up a stone tower overlooking valleys partially shrouded in fog. Burnt signs and blackened wooden posts line the walls of the tower. I stay there for a few moments, enjoying the view.
That evening, we all pile into Wesser Bald Shelter for dinner. Someone, possibly Matt, suggests heading to a nearby firetower for the sunset. The six of us climb up to the observation deck, phones in hand, snapping photos of the panoramic views as daylight fades to dusk and the sun sinks behind distant mountains.
There once was an Appalachian Trail. Those who hike it intend not to fail. They go to be free, and emerge smelling like pee, but with a heck of a story to tell.
The Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), featuring a full outfitter, restaurant, and general store, lies halfway between Winding Stair Gap and Fontana Dam. We stop there for lunch, sharing a pizza as an appetizer, and ordering 1/2 pound burgers as main courses. Hikers and whitewater rafters alike mill about. I spot both Joe and Timothy in the throng. Packs line the outfitter storefront; cell phones are charging in every outlet; resupply boxes lie out in the open.
I stay there for a couple hours after lunch, charging my power bank. Timothy offers me a bag of cheetos before I leave. After getting a late start, I start the long trudge up from the NOC.
I am still hiking at 7 pm. A couple of hikers, Atlas and Matchmaker, spot me. “Enough is enough!” they shout.
I decide to camp with them that night, two miles shy of the next shelter.
“I was in business intelligence. One thing I can tell you is I have never been bored.”
The next day, I catch up to Matt, Tom, Missionary, and Connor after a long 17 miles. Three more hikers, Jenny, Kelly, and Kali, join our crew.
Silas catches me as I pull into camp. “This guy came up here with trail magic pizza,” he says. “It’s all gone now, but Matt saved two slices for you and Tom.”
After setting up camp, I head to the campfire and scarf down the pepperoni pizza. Delicious.
As I hike into Fontana Dam the next day, I see a pair of old tan hiking boots filled with pebbles next to a sign. I look closer.
My husband, James had a dream of hiking the AT…he completed over 165 miles…but God had other plans…I am placing a pair of James’ hiking boots filled with pebbles on the Appalachian Trail at Fontana Dam, in hopes that when hikers come upon them, they will take a pebble and carry it with them until they reach the end of their hike, wherever that may be… ‘
I pick out a small black pebble and put it in my pack.
The trail runs straight through Fontana Dam, gateway to the Smokies and home of the ‘Fontana Hilton’ shelter. Where most of the shelters on trail are 3-sided wooden structures with pit privies, the Hilton features hot showers and toilets in a nearby bathhouse.
My mom is my logistics manager; every 3-7 days, I ping her with my location, and she mails a package filled with pre-packed meals, first aid supplies, and other necessities to the next town. Today, I pick up my mail drop at the Fontana Lodge, slice it open with a pocket knife, and smile when I spot a solid dark chocolate bunny sitting amidst the contents. It is Easter Sunday.
Down the hill from the lodge is a general store, laundromat, and outdoor patio. I pool my laundry with a few other hikers and check the general store before heading to the Fontana Hilton. At least 40 tents dot the surrounding area. We all pitch in to order several stacks of local pizza.
One more shower and one more night with the trail crew: The Smokies lie just ahead.