Currently sitting at the Fontana Lodge computer...
This was a little bit of a bittersweet day. On the one hand, we headed out of the Smokies and, in doing so, completed the last major challenge of the trail. On the other hand, there are no more big challenges so now we're just...hiking. And the Smokies were really beautiful, which more than made up for having to buy a permit to hike there. I started off the day without my elevation profile because it was the one I left behind yesterday, so I was "blind" for about three miles. When I passed a spring, the next page in my guidebook let me know that I had crossed the 2000-mile mark. What? I caught up with Danko as he sat on a rock that was etched with the number 2000. We cheered, took pictures, the whole deal. I remember seeing the number two thousand when I was in Maine. It overwhelmed me that I had so far to go. Today I was on the other side and still couldn't comprehend it. When did all these miles pile up? Wasn't I just in New Jersey? I didn't try to figure it out; I just kept walking. We realized that we had crossed the mountain that all the section hikers had warned us about...guess it wasn't that bad! With the challenges of the morning complete, we had a gently downhill walk for the rest of the day. I let Danko go ahead as I purified some water and sat quietly in the misty woods. I kind of expected to see a unicorn, but no luck today.
I came out of the woods and was in a clearing with a shelter. There was Mercury, contently eating breakfast. I hit the breaks to say hi. Danko had stopped as well. We shot the breeze for at least 45 minutes, one of my longest unscheduled break in recent history. Plans definitely go by the wayside when there's a chance for real southbounder friendship time. The three of us took off in turn but were soon hiking in a line, continuing the conversation. It blew my mind: southbounders number 3, 4, and 5 were playing follow the leader. How was I so lucky? Mercury stopped for water, so Danko and I continued on our own, leaving Mercury to do his own thing as he is wont to do. I really couldn't fathom how the trail could go downhill for seven miles, but lo and behold it found a way. I kept rolling my ankle all day long. It started with a bad roll in a grassy meadow, then it was weak after that. The tendons are strong, but it's still painful in the moment and quite annoying. It kept happening when I lost focus on a downhill. Expletives galore!!
I caught Danko as he was putting his permit for the Smokies in the little box at the end of the park. Turns out I printed the wrong thing, so I had nothing to put in there. I might as well have not gotten one in the first place! We walked the road for a mile until we crossed Fontana Dam, the tallest dam in the east. NC has it all: the tallest mountain and the tallest dam. What more could a boy ask for? We stopped at the Fontana Dam Shelter, nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because it's big, new, and has showers. We wanted a hot meal and a real bed in town, so we walked on to NC 28. Not many cars were coming by, so we started walking towards Fontana Village. Luckily a pickup brought us to town, just in time to catch the general store before it closed. The lady at the general store then called a guy from maintenance to pick us up and drive us the half-mile to the lodge. Wow. We got checked in (at the Hiker Rate, no less) and enjoyed our comfortable room. While we were at dinner, Mercury surprised us! He had hiked the road into town after trying to catch back up with us all day. He joined us and all was well with the world. The IPA sitting in front of me didn't hurt things, either.