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Going off the Grid - Great Smoky Mountains Backpacking Adventure
August 17, 2018
This year, in January, I started working with a wonderful health coach who helped me in countless ways. One of the things she really helped me focus on, was finding myself again, and with that we set a goal for me to do something for me - to get away - and have a fun experience. At the beginning of the year, the idea of doing this felt too stressful, and then over this summer after Max and I ended his nursing journey, it clicked. Now was the time for me. Now I finally felt free enough to do something (selfishly) just for me.
The REI Adventure trip was the perfect fit: it required very little planning on my part, allowed me to do something that I have previously enjoyed but haven't gotten to do in quite awhile, was surprisingly affordable, and also importantly, took me completely off the grid....no cell service in the Tennessee mountains of Great Smoky Mountain National Park (and it was a new National Park for me!).
So, after some attempts to line up my work schedule, my husband's work schedule, and our family's schedules I jumped in and booked a trip that would be leaving in about 3.5 weeks. The middle of August in Tennessee is not ideal weather, I knew this going in, but it was the best I could do around scheduling and family obligations so in order to not put this really important thing off, I did it.
I'll go into some details about the actual hike below, but if that's not your thing I want to share the following things that I got from this adventure:
1. Support from everyone around me
I got lots of encouragement from family, friends, and pretty much everyone that heard about my trip. I want to pay it forward. Tell someone you love that needs to do something for themselves to do i;, help them plan it; ask them about it; offer to help with their kids, family, pet, etc.
2. Reconnecting with who I was before I became a "Mom"
I wear many hats in my daily life, but none have changed me and my routine more than being a Mom. On this trip we shared some of our additional travel experiences and I was reminded just how well traveled I am, and how much I like it. Before becoming a Mom, virtually every year since 2008, I've had a great trip and getaway planned each year. These trips gave me something to save for, be excited about, look forward to, learn from, challenge myself, and for most of them, also disconnect from the normal day-to-day. This trip allowed me to do that again. It also made me realize how important trips and vacations are for me to continue to be the best version of me.
3. Making this a regular thing
Just like you go to the Dr. each year for a physical to check in on your health, I think this is something that I need to do (maybe not solo) each year to check in on my mental health. Totally ditching technology for 4 days was amazing - no texts, emails, phone calls, social media, or news...it was incredibly refreshing. Instead of my head spinning and me doing all of the things I have to do at the end of each night, I found myself standing around with 7 other folks that were strangers a few hours before, taking in the beauty of the forest and streams around us, and playing word games like "what can go through the Green Glass Door" and "I'm Going Camping and I"m going to bring a...."
4. Share with my family
As a family we're pretty active and connected to nature, but doing this backpacking journey motivated me to do this more so. My oldest son (he's 4) was really interested in going hiking with me, and wanted to come on the trip. I found myself brainstorming where can I take him hiking at home, how can I get him to eat backpacking food (hahaha) and how can I share this awesome experience with my kids. Don't be surprised if you find us camping in our yard in the next week or so ;)
My Trip - 4 Day Backpacking Adventure on the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains
Those of you that know me will totally understand, that even though I was doing this as a goal and a get-away, I still craved a challenge. Since I was making my travel plans late, I selected a trip that was the second highest activity level, and that was within driving distance of my house. I had all the backpacking gear I needed for a solo backpacking trip, but don't really feel safe doing it on my own, so going with a group was the ideal situation for me. I didn't have an individual (1 person) tent, but that was part of what was provided in the trip, so I was good to go.
When we were en-route to the trail, our guides shared that Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited National Park in the US with 13 million visitors a year. Of those less than 10% actually get out of their car....so say 1.3 million. Of the folks that get out of their car less than 10% actually go on a hike...so say 130,000. For this adventure, I got to be part of that minute percentage that actually gets out of their car AND goes on a hike! #optoutside #roadlesstraveled #sleepwiththebears #dreambigandgo
Day 1 - 6.2 miles, 2,692 ft of elevation gain, ended at Camp 29
We had a 6 mile hike, mostly up hill, and ended up in a camp by a beautiful stream. It was hot and humid, 85+ and man that pack felt heavy the first day. We spent most of Day 1 just learning about each other and got to camp with just enough time to set up tents and boil water for dinner before the thunder and rain started. Ab backpackers do, we made the best of it and huddled under a tarp for a little over an hour before admitting cold and defeat and retreating to our tents. The upside of the rain is that it did cool the weather down, the downside was that our tents were a little damp (we didn't have a footprint) and we missed some social bonding that would have been nice on our first day.
Day 2 - 12.8 miles, 2,266 ft of elevation gain, ended at Laurel Gap Shelter
This was our big hiking day. The plan was for about 12 miles of hiking. We broke camp and set out early, all of us in rain gear. One of the key items that REI gave us at the beginning of the trip was a large black trash bag - even though we all had waterproof pack covers. We put all of our belongings into the black trash bag during the day inside our packs. Then at night we took everything out and covered our packs (that were hung on bear hangs) with the trash bag. This kept our gear amazingly dry! We had rain off and on most of the day, but still hiked up to a few views; unfortunately we did not have the best visibility sinc it was overcast and foggy which was disappointing. At one point I was pretending that the range was called the Great Smoky Mountains because its always overcast....actually it's from when the pine trees exfoliate oxygen, they appear to let off a blue "smoke!" On a high note, we bonded and started meshing as a group, we were embracing the suck together and while it was raining it wasn't down-pouring, and we ended the day at a cool shelter on the Benton McKaye Trail with sun - finally!
Day 3 - 10.3 miles, 771 ft of elevation gain, ended Camp 36
This day turned into more hiking than originally planned but that was OK with me. Originally was planned at 6-8 miles, we did closer to 10-11. Today we had only a little rain sprinkle, went down (which made almost everyone happy) and got to hike along streams. People's spirits were up and this was a really good day. The only thing that would have made it better was spotting an otter in the streams. We hiked along the river/stream most of the day and got to enjoy the old growth forests and listen to the stream. In addition to doing lots of stream crossings - which actually was a feature of this trip! We had quite a few stream crossings. Hiking poles were key to not losing your balance, and we all got our feet a little wet at one point or the other, but no one went in! We ended up at a large group campsite that was next to the river again. The amazing thing is that there were virtually no bugs this whole trip! We were greeted by butterflies all over the campsite and made room to share with three other sets of hikers coming through. Along the way here we saw a few bear prints, and also possibly a wild turkey print or two but didn't see any actual bears, which is for the best!
Day 4 - 5.8 miles, 19 ft of elevation gain (lol)
Our last of our backpacking adventure we woke up from the first night that was dry! We headed out early for about a 6 mile hike, and got to stop at a Midnight Hole, a swimming hole along the way. Since we left early we were the only ones there, which was amazing and a great way to end the trip. After the swimming hole we had another mile or so to the meet point where we got picked up by a shuttle and brought back to our cars and the end of the trip. This was bittersweet - I was absolutely looking forward to a long hot shower and flush toilets (ah the little things) but was going to miss the simplicity of backpacking each day. When we said good-bye we all hugged one another, hey we all hadn't showered in days, and wished each other well. One thing I found amazing is that each one of us checked in with each other all day making sure everyone was OK, we started as strangers and bonded on the trail in a way that you can only do in the vulnerability of the great outdoors. I hope to have an experience like this again, and would join this group for another trek in a heartbeat!
Photo credits: Me and the folks on my backpacking trip, thanks for sharing everyone!