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My Smoky Mountain Adventure
We loaded the trailer and hit the road early. We were riders with a cause. The plan was to cover the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the western to the eastern side. Five riders and a team of drivers to restock our supplies would soon be on the adventure of a lifetime.
Our adventure would begin at Cades Cove Campground. We set up camp in a muddy mess with clear signs of wild hogs and bears. Campfire chili was on the menu, but the bear warning signs made us a little worried about the aroma. Upon returning from washing dishes in the creek, we stumbled across our first black bear. It was a cute cub only 20 feet from us. We slowly backed away and gave it some room as it quickly ran away. After a good poker game, we “hit the hay.”
Up and at ‘em bright and early, we tacked up and loaded the panniers with 125 pounds of grain to last until our next restock in two days. Like a corny scene from “City Slickers,” we yelled our yee-haws as we headed up the mountain. We made our way through Russell Field and continued to climb higher in elevation until we made it to the Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail is an interstate hiking trail that spans 2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine. It would be the most populated trail of our entire ride.
Mollie’s Ridge Shelter would house us our first night in the backcountry. The shelter was a modest lean-to design with wood bunks, a brick fire place, and had a nearby water source. We secured the horses to a highline in front of the shelter and mixed grain for their evening meal, ate our own food, and caught some shut eye.
At sunup, we broke camp and tacked the horses up. After tangling with a rattlesnake, we mounted up and headed out of camp. It was a quite a sight! Some of the prettiest and most varied country you'll ever see. There were times when we were surrounded by misty waterfalls and lush green leaves, where it felt like a cool rainforest floor, and then five miles further up the trail, you could see hundreds of miles from a mountaintop. It was enjoyable and we felt at ease as we neared our restock, when all at once two bears came plummeting from a tree right above us! My mount and pack horse didn’t see the need to stick around and, honestly, neither did I. But with tight reins, I steered them back in a southern direction to our destination. We camped on the bank of Fontana Lake that night and, even though it was shared with a snake, I enjoyed a bath in the lake.
The next day the trails were more challenging. We rode switchbacks and cliffside trails most of the day, cutting through over 20 trees to make passage. However, it was well worth the effort. When we finally made it over the mountain, we rode down into one of the most amazing places of our journey: an old ghost town named Proctor.
Proctor, North Carolina is situated between the high peaks of the mountains and the crystal-clear waters of Fontana Lake. As we rode into town, the trails turned into overgrown gravel roads littered with old relics of a long-forgotten way of life. Proctor was a small logging town built in the 1800s. In awe, we took in the old wash pans, ruins of homesteads, and even an old car sitting on the side of the road. I was in historical heaven in this place; what a paradise! We camped that night near the last remaining building in the old town. The horses gorged themselves in an abandoned pasture as we took in the view and explored the town. The day sure turned out to be nice. The horses were happy, my team was happy, and I was happy. It made for peaceful night’s sleep, even in a ghost town.
Feeling young and spry again, we rode out at sunup looking to make the 3,200-foot climb to Peck's Corner Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. That evening the weather turned severe. With mud up to our horse's pasterns, we were happy to camp in an Appalachian Trail backcountry shelter. Soon we had a roaring fire and before nightfall, several hikers found our camp and swarmed our fire like moths to a flame. Abiding by the cowboy code, we gave them rest in front of our warmth and we hit the hay.
The next day we traveled over some of the highest points in the Smokies, topping at over 6,000 feet. Even though the clouds blocked our view, I could feel the gravity of our 3-foot-wide trail right next to 2,000 feet of nothing – if we fell. The highlight of the day was riding next to the wreckage of an F4 Phantom Jet that had crashed into the side of the mountain peak in the mid-80s. Despite the dangers, the Smokies treated us well on this day, safely guiding us to Cosby Knob, our final campsite.
A beautiful sunrise greeted us as we headed out on the last leg of our journey. We had only four miles to our final destination. As we made our way down from the high mountains, down into the hemlock forests and babbling brooks, I felt as though I had been kissed by God. The amazement of this wonderful creation made me feel so small and fragile, yet cared for in the times of enjoyment and wonder, and in the times of weariness. I will never forget my journey in the Great Smoky Mountains.
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