We started out early enough. It's hard not to when camping near a shelter given the symphony of zippers that starts near dawn. Though, after getting going we had to stop a number of times for Emily to tend to her blister. We could only walk a few hundred yards before new adjustments had to be made, which was frustrating but necessary. If something in our shoe annoys us after a brief walk, it will destroy us by the end of the day. A lesson learned. Afterwards, we made good time on nearly six miles and stopped for lunch at the next shelter, since, as with every day in the misty mountains, the sky was threatening rain. At the shelter, we ran into Susan/WalkieTalkie/Carli's mom from the previous Stecoah Gap encounter. She had gotten more time off work (as a rural mail carrier in northern Michigan) to finish the Smokies! Carli had gone back, but Walkie Talkie (named by Carli cuz when she's walking, she's talking). While eating lunch she told us that three years ago on that day, her husband had died from heart problems. They had been trying to get him to the hospital during a blizzard, but the transmission died and they never made it. She assured us, that this day was a much better day for her.
As soon as Walkie Talkie had shared her story, her hiking partner, Mother Goose arrived. We aren't sure how the two of them met, but Mother Goose, from what we know of her, is a certified badass. Now she even has a photo of us since we hiked past her in our ponchos while she was taking pictures of some wildflowers. So, the first story we heard straight from the Goose's mouth is at the very shelter we were lunching at, Silver's Bald, she was holed up in some years ago in the middle of a blizzard. The snow was blowing straight into the shelter, despite the awning and tarp, and she had to set up her tent inside and still couldn't get warm enough. We don't know how many miles on the AT she has logged but she's at least yoyo'd (a yoyo is when you hike the trail in one direction all the way, then turn right around and do it again). At her current age, 70, she maintains a steady 1mph on the trail, but basically hiked dawn to dusk and she will outhike us all. (Editor's note: since this initial writing we have obtained some more info about Mother Goose, she has hiked the AT at least 6 times including a yoyo and a trick on the international AT from key west to Quebec, the pct 3 times, the continental divide and more trails. Her current hike is not an full AT thru hike, she just has to get to Virginia to get new gel shots for her knees and then is continuing on another trail, the name of which we've forgotten.) Today was certainly a day of stories and false starts, so making it to our shelter by a reasonable time was becoming unlikely. At the next shelter, just a couple of miles down the trail, we saw Tree Hugger again who was real jazzed up. She said she was going to drop the trail on account of her feet, but Mother Goose and Walkie Talkie convinced her to just take a break, rest, return, and just hike it herself. She said she was afraid to solo it, but the two power house ladies convinced her she damn well could do it, and this way her son, Hand Solo, could get to whatever pace he was hoping to set. We told her we would make sure Hand Solo got up to no good and we would keep tabs to make sure she came back.
Finally underway again, we were passed a third time by a young girl named Becca who she had no trail name since, well, she was doing it solo and didn't really care if she got one or not. Tyler said she would find her people and she nonchalantly said, maybe. The next time she bolted past us in the mystical mossy log area around Clingman's, we said she should be called Island, since no one is an island, save Becca. She seemed to like it, and we told her to remember that a group of islands is an archipelago and that's cool too. She said maybe she'd be the Philippines and bolted off. Maybe someday her name will be Philippines instead.
Back to the briefly mentioned mystical forest. As we approached Clingman's Dome, the forest suddenly resembled a New England trail. Mossy logs, sagging under their own weight, closely spaced green speckled trees, even something about the stones that covered the worn trail seemed New England. To seal the deal, the weather started acting crazy. We took off and put on our ponchos time after time as rain became sun became rain became hail became fog. Eventually the weather settled in dismal drizzle and fog which is very normal for the Smokies.
After a knee crunching four miles from Clingman's, the highest point on the entire AT, we arrived at Mount Collins shelter. We ate some watery cheese soup since the instant fettuccini Alfredo required milk, which we didn't have, and Tyler tried to sub more water in place of the milk. It didn't quite work. The water source for the shelter seemed to be a hundred miles away and the shelter itself was a half mile off the trail (that means a half mile of backtracking in the probable rain). Still, the watery cheese noodles were delicious, the tent was dry (inside), Emily did a beautiful job nesting up, after all, out here, home is where you hang your hat.