The Diary of a 20 Mile Hike

How five friends and I (somehow) survived the most hardcore experience of my life

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

For spring break this year, six of my friends decided to visit Tennessee for some sightseeing and hiking. Part of it included four days of backpacking and camping out around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the second day of our excursion, we set out on what we believed to be a 17-mile, mostly downhill and flat hike.

We were mistaken.

Here’s a mile-by-mile account of what happened.

Mile 1: We start coming down the mountain, saying good morning to hikers passing by. All of us are feeling pretty good about the day. We were so hopeful, so foolish back then.

Mile 2: We come across a bunch of cables used to help hikers climb up and down the mountain. Say some brainteasers. Did you know that the longest one syllable word in the English language was strengths? You do now.

Mile 3: We get to the Alum Cave, which isn’t really a cave as much as it is an indented rock. Finally get a chance to take off our backpacks. When those come off, you feel like a new person.

Mile 4: More downhill, more cables. A family struggling up the mountain asks us if they were close to the top. Solemnly shake our heads no.

Mile 5: Go across one of the many wooden bridges of the trip. The issue with these bridges is that they only have a railing on one side. So if you slip off the wrong side, you’re pretty much screwed. I try singing with the gang and realize I don’t have any idea what the words to “Sexy Back” are.

Mile 6: This is where things get tricky. We need to get to our next trail, which would require us to walk along the road. Naturally, we split into two groups and attempt to hitchhike the two miles with passing trucks or vans. My group starts walking with our thumbs stuck out and only got some thumbs up back. Southern hospitality? Please.

Mile 7: Keep walking along the road to no luck. As we keep moving, we hear cheering and yelling from the bed of a pickup truck. We think it was a group of crazy frat star spring breakers until we realize it is our crazy frat star spring breakers from the other group who managed to catch a ride. A member of our group lets out a string of colorful language that would make Howard Stern blush.

Mile 8: After reuniting with our other half, we start out on our second trail, up to Chimney Tops, a rocky pinnacle that stands at 4,750 feet in elevation. We go to the halfway point, and realize we are pretty much bushed. We take a bit of a risk and hide our packs in the trees and carry on without them.

Mile 9: This is the real test. 1,000 feet uphill in just one mile. This trail is newly renovated. It was even steeper a few years ago. It’s so freeing having the packs off our back. When we reach the top, it turns out that quite a few of our members are afraid of heights, which is understandable when you’re one slip away from becoming a Smoky Mountain ghost.

Mile 10: As much as it sucked going up to Chimney Tops, going down without the packs is the easiest hike we did all day.

Mile 11: It’s getting close to sundown as we hook up with another trail to head toward the shelter. We fish our packs out of the bushes and keep going. So far it sounds like this is going to be a bit of an uphill and then a downhill. Yet again, we were wrong.

Mile 11.5: We stop, cook some dehydrated meals by a stream, and eat. I have a three-bean chili meal… something I later regretted. We start banging the Future and Drake mix tape while we continue walking up and up and up. The pioneers would be proud.

Mile 12: Why do people hate on “Recovery” so much? Eminem kills it. This album is pretty much the only thing keeping me going as we literally hike through a stream.

Mile 12.5: Finally, finally we get to the top of this godforsaken hill. I’ve never eaten this much granola in my life, and somehow it tastes amazing. We’re off to another 1.7 miles uphill until we reach our shelter.

Mile 13: Before our very first hike on this trip, we picked up a duck, whose name was WubblyNub. Whenever I think that I won’t be able to make it through this trip, I think of the look on that duck’s face, and how sad it’ll be if we break down. Then again, I think I may be hallucinating at this point.

We start banging the Future and Drake mix tape while we continue walking up and up and up. The pioneers would be proud.

Mile 14: Even though it is getting darker and darker, we make a very necessary stop for snacks. Again, I don’t know if I’ll be able to eat jerky or granola again after this trip.

Mile 15: We keep going and get to a parking lot. Maybe we’ll just hitchhike with the trucks around the way and see if they’re willing to drive us to Dairy Queen. Due to some more miscalculating, we still have five miles to go.

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

Mile 16: We’re going up. Still. My vocabulary now consists solely of two four-letter words as I stumble and trip over tree roots and rocks. Halfway through, one of our members finds what he thought was a bear trap (turned out to be a wild hog trap), and I’ve never seen him run so fast in his life.

Mile 17: To keep sane, I try to recite the plot of “Anchorman” in my head (it’s the only thing I can think of). Despite having seen the movie at least eight times, somehow I can’t keep the plot lines straight at all. Nature, you’ve ruined me.

Mile 18: There’s a stream that we come across that tells us we only have 2.5 miles left to go (according to our troublesome trail guide). Yet we find another stream that must be the one they were talking about. This feels like the scene in “Blair Witch Project” where they come across the same stream twice. I don’t know what’s worse, this hike or that movie.

Mile 19: Left, right, left, right. This is all legs do. Sometimes they jump. Sometimes they squat. Sometimes they kick. Sometimes, they even go backwards. But 99 percent of the time they just go forward, again and again, mile after mile. My legs are just sticks hanging off of my hips at this point.

Mile 20: After about four hours of hiking in the dark, we finally arrive to our open-air wooden shelter, just as my feet feel as though they are about to fall off my body. I’ve never passed out harder in my life.

Halfway through, one of our members finds what he thought was a bear trap (turned out to be a wild hog trap), and I’ve never seen him run so fast in his life.

This might sound pretty hardcore to the amateur college student. We certainly thought so as we rolled out our sleeping mats and slumped into our sleeping bags.

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

Photographer: Alex Van Abbema

The next morning however, we met a 75-year-old man also staying at our shelter by the name of Morgan Briggs. Let me tell you, this is one of the most badass men you’ll ever meet.

Briggs survived years as a sniper in the Vietnam War, and won volunteer medals from Presidents Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

He has hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail (2,000 miles from Georgia to Maine) and had apparently stayed at the shelters around the Smokys over 500 times. Once, he survived eight days lost in the mountain range, living off food rations and rainwater.

Even at 75 years old, this man was still hiking up mountains. He is still sleeping on the hard, wood bunks of the trail shelters, and still giving advice to the groups of college students who happen to wander across his path.
A few days later we ran across a couple of guys who were in the midst of hiking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. Maybe, with enough preparation and supplies, I might consider taking on this challenge. Until then, excuse me while I give my legs some much-needed rest.