I woke early, as hikers do, in our Fontana Lodge hotel room. Remarkably, none of us snored during the night. Compton gave us the “curtain warning” and threw back the heavy canvas blackout shade. We were met with bright Appalachian sunlight, and vibrant green mountains in the distance. The rain had cleared at last.
I had actually awoken about an hour before this. Being the first one up, I stayed quiet, and decided to do some research on my phone.
“Localized, swelling, easily replicates with the same activity, often in a very predictable manner. Recovery time is six to eight weeks, failure to cease activity will result in a complete fracture. Medical intervention is required when the pain no longer ceases, even in the absence of the activity.”
I felt as though I had read all of this before, but on that morning I really comprehended the words. The edema on my left leg had shrunk considerably over the past week, but it still guarded a two inch ring just above my ankle. For the past two nights, the ache extended overnight and into the morning. Previously I could time the pain with my guide book, it always occurred at the ten mile mark.
I had had the best evening. My previous post failed to capture the feeling of that night. There was a warmth in my chest I hadn’t felt in a while. The five of us laughed and talked, played and bonded. The hike thus far had been pretty quiet, but this felt like my first real trail family. Having had such great time the night before, the decision to leave trail was much easier. At the risk of being renamed “Buzz Kill,” I explained this to everyone.
I was ready to roll out into the Smokies that morning. I knew my leg was not healing, but I made all of the preparations anyway. The food, the permit, I had poured over my guidebook and formed a plan. Even at ten miles per day, I figured I could cross the park within a week.
When I woke and felt the pain and swelling however, my gut told me firmly that it was a bad idea. Fourteen pounds of food and the climb up Shuckstack seemed stupid. Even with a resupply in Gatlinburg to lighten the load, ten mile days would invariably cause a fracture anyway. Going home was the mature decision, and the one that would ultimately save my hike.
The person I was in 2016 would have pushed, and would have broken himself. Thankfully, I’ve grown a bit since then.
Fontana is not an easy extraction point. The closest attraction is Tail of the Dragon, a scenic stretch of mountain roadway boasting 318 curves over eleven miles. Motorcycle and car clubs come from around the world come to race it.
The kind folks at the Fontana Lodge gave me a list of shuttle drivers, and Fred Laney seemed the best option. Based seven miles away from where I was standing, he assured me we could make the trip at any time. His price, $110 was pretty fair given the distance and time he needed to travel. The fact that the bus ticket itself was only $22 was a little annoying, and I decided to cover all my bases before agreeing to the shuttle. I could either head to Knoxville, or Asheville. Both had bus stations. Fred told me Knoxville was the better of the two cities, as the bus would be a straight shot down I-75.
Phone service was extremely difficult to come by, even with Verizon. This ultimately led me towards shuttling out. Hitching off the Dragon seemed both unlikely and dangerous. Years ago, my buddy Armin had to hike a large extent of it due to this. Getting stuck in the middle of nowhere without service also seemed possible. Knoxville was far, and the farther you hitch off the AT, the weirder things get. My last hitch into Murphy the week before was proof of this.
Fred was a nice man, but quite the chain smoker. I really wish that was explained before hand. Ten minutes after hopping into his truck, my meditation teacher in Woodstock sent me a message via Facebook. He was offering to come get me. I should have waited just a little bit longer. Hindsight.
My brother-in-law was kind enough to pick me up from the bus station in Marietta, GA around 11pm. I found my room much as I had left it.
Still in trail-mode, priority one was unpacking and drying my wet tent, something I had intended to do during my first afternoon in the Smokies. I completely emptied my pack, and opened every dry bag, pouch, and my cook kit. My body was oddly weary from sitting all day. Having spent the past many hours diverting negative thoughts, my mind was fatigued as well. Finally, I curled up on my small Japanese futon bed, and fell asleep.