Day 23 Had a wonderful day at Dennis and Gwen’s place today. Slept in a bit in my own room with my own bed. Didn’t have to share a room with 3 other hikers which was a nice change. Had breakfast with them when I got up and then just relaxed and caught up online and did some things for the charity side of things. Gwen had plans to meet some friends so she went out and Dennis and I took a drive across the border to Kentucky to see Cumberland’s Gap park. This gap was the place that allowed American explorers to cross over the Appalachian mountains and expand into Kentucky and westward. We saw an interesting historical movie on the area at the visitor’s center and then drove up to a beautiful viewpoint that overlooked the gap and surround area. Dennis then drove me to the area where he grew up and showed me his old house, the old barn where he used to work hanging tobacco as a kid, and an old civil war era store that his great-grandfather used to run. Listening to his stories, I could really feel the history of the land and area we were driving around in. Headed home to another amazing home cooked meal that Gwen fixed and then headed to bed. The drives we took all around the Tennessee countryside were so beautiful. It’s such a huge change from the scenery we see hiking everyday in these mountains. We are in really mountainous hilly terrain and the leaves on the trees have not grown out yet up that high. So we walk daily in dead sticks and dead leaves on the ground. It’s really pretty drab at this point, and with all the forest grown up, we don’t see many views. The views will get even less when the trees fill in with leaves. But driving down out of the mountains, everything opens up and greens up. Rolling green hills, lawns, pastures, houses, barns, etc. It really feels good for the soul to get out of the forest and see some open land and green. Just another reason to take a zero once a week or so and balance things out. The contrast is so stark. Day 24 Dennis and Gwen drove me back the 2.5 hours to the trail at Fontana Dam this morning fairly early. I had mailed a box of food from the last town the lodge nearby, so they drove me there first to pick that up. A pretty big storm passed through last night and there were trees and branches in the road a lot of the way. A lot of rain and lightning the night before, so I was happy I was indoors at their house. They dropped me off back at the Fontana Hilton where they had picked me up 2 days before and we said our goodbyes. Their son, my friend Ira, will be joining me on the trail around June 1st, and they will drive him up to wherever I am at that point, so I will see them again soon. Such very nice, warm, and friendly people. I greatly enjoyed the visit and was sad to say goodbye to them both. But, back to the trail. The trail was actually paved road for the first mile or so of the day, crossing the dam itself before turning off into the forest and into Smokey Mountain National Park. We had printed out our permits a week or so ago at a hostel, and now had to drop them into a box as we entered. We only have 8 days to pass through this entire park, which should be plenty. I am planning to get through in 7 days, including a zero day in Gatlinburg half way through. People had been talking about this day like it was going to be super tough. It was basically uphill all day as we climbed into the Smokey Mountains for 12 miles. But surprisingly it was quite gradual and there weren’t too many crazy steep parts. I was able to get to this shelter in 6 hours. They have strange rules here for us thru hikers. We must stay in the shelters, not at any campsites. But if the shelter is full when we arrive, then we can camp next to the shelter. But if anyone shows up who is not a thru hiker and they have a reservation in that shelter, then a thru hiker has to give up their space in there and tent camp. Very strange. I didn’t get started till 10:30am this morning after the long drive from Tennessee, so I rolled in to camp a bit late and saw tons of tents set up. I assumed that the shelter was full so set up my tent, but then when I walked in to the shelter to check it out, it was only half full. The guys in there said the ranger had come by but didn’t care. Who knows. I still haven’t stayed in a shelter. I much prefer my tent if I can get away with it. Strangely, since it is a national park, they do not have outhouse toilets at the shelters here in the park. But they do provide bear cables to hang our food bags, so that helps at least. The weather is very cold up at this higher elevation. We are camped at 4500 feet tonight. The weather is clear but cold and windy. Everyone quickly cooked dinner and then ran to their sleeping bags in their tents, which is what I am about to do myself. I may sleep in tomorrow a bit, because of the strange shelter rules. It actually doesn’t pay to arrive early if I want to tent camp. Better to arrive a bit later when the shelter is full and camp near it. Another 12 mile day ahead of me tomorrow. Gonna go get warm now!!! Goodnight. Day 25 Wow that was an intensely cold night last night. People said it got down into the teens. I was in my 15 degree sleeping bag with all my clothes on, including my down jacket, and I was still cold for parts of the night. It didn’t help that I had to get up 3 times to pee. It did seem to warm up slightly in the wee hours of the morning tho. It was so cold that I decided to just sleep in. I didn’t get out of my tent until 8am which is super late for me. I went to bed at 8pm, so a full 12 hours in my sleeping bag! That was nice. What I learned today was that 12 miles of hiking does not always mean the same thing. Yesterday, I hiked 12 miles mostly uphill, but it was gradual. I was also coming off of a zero day during which I ate really well. It took me 6 hours to hike the 12 yesterday, not a bad pace of 2 mph. So setting out on today’s hike of 12 miles, I figured I’d walk the same pace and make the same time. The terrain today was a lot tougher tho. And I wasn’t coming off of a zero either. Today it took me 7.5 hours to hike the same distance. So many different factors come in to that. Could be that I’m not eating enough food out here to power the mileage I’m doing. Trying to keep my pack light, I’m not packing tons of food, but I may need to bring more. Tough hiking day today, and since I slept in I got to camp quite late. Tomorrow I’m going early again. I prefer to have the slow afternoon over the slow mornings for sure. While I was hiking today, I passed this girl going in the opposite direction. We chatted for a bit and she told me that she had hiked the entire Appalachian Trail last year, doing a flip flop. It was December when she hit the Smoky Mountains, and she was worried about the cold and ice on the trail, so she skipped this section. Now she is back doing the final 7-8 days to full complete the trail. I got a little emotional congratulating her. It just seemed so incredible. #1, she has already completed 99% of this trail, something that’s hard for us even to fathom at this early stage. #2, she actually made it back to finish what she skipped last year. Lots of people say they will do that, but from what I read, few actually do. She was very encouraging to me about keeping going. Just a really neat interaction. When I got to camp and was setting up my tent, I chatted a bit with a girl setting up her tent near mine. Turns out her Mom used to live and work on the Big Island of Hawaii, working to medivac premature babies from there to Oahu. I was actually a premature baby myself, born 3 months early on the Big Island and had to be medivaced to Oahu myself. I told this girl that my trail name was Imua, and she told me that her favorite artist is a Cherokee/Purto Rican guy who lives in Hawaii and he has a song titled Imua, which she let me listen to. And when I told her my real name is Micah, she said that is her brother’s name, same spelling. Small, strange little world sometimes. It is quite a bit warmer tonight, thankfully. Today was sunny and warm all day after that cold night last night. Day 26 Another tough day of hiking today, but a lot of milestones. I did 13.5 miles today. The terrain was tough and it ended up taking me 9 hours. Thankfully I left early. The first milestone was getting under the 2000 mile mark to go on the trail. There are so many different estimates for exactly how long this trail is, but somewhere around 2,181 or so. So now we have knocked off that first 181, and now have under 2000 left to go. Next, we hiked over Klingman’s Dome today, the highest point on the entire AT at 6,612 feet. That was a gradual but very long climb. There was the option to hike a half mile side trail to the lookout point, but it was cloudy and a half mile there meant a half mile back to the trail and I wasn’t at all interested in adding an extra mile to my already 13.5 mile day, so I just kept going. Finally, a half mile or so after we crossed the peak of Clingman’s Dome, we crossed the 200 mile mark. Slowly, slowly making progress. These past 2 days have been through some tough terrain. And I’m starting to feel it in my body too. The ball of my right food has been sore since day 2, but has been hurting a bit more recently. Also my upper left back, behind my shoulder, has a big knot in it and has been causing a fair amount of pain. Interestingly, both areas clear up and feel fine after I get into camp and take off my boots and pack. I’m starting to think it is related to the weight of my pack. It weighs 30-40 pounds, depending on food. I think I need to go through it carefully and see if I can’t get rid of some stuff to lighten my load. One thing I am definitely considering getting rid of is my iPad mini with the keyboard case. It is really convenient for typing this blog, but it just weighs too much and I think I can do everything on my phone anyways. I thought I’d use it as an e-reader in the evenings to read books, but I never have time for that. I’ve been listening to audio books while hiking instead. I’m typing this on my phone now to test it out and it seems fine and totally doable. We ran into a park ranger today on the trail near the summit of Clingman’s Dome. He checked our permits and then gave us some bear warnings. I didn’t know this, but apparently the Smokey Mountains have the highest concentration of bears in the entire US. He said a bear went into a guy’s tent at one of the campsites recently looking for food. The guys was unhurt, but scared enough to get off the trail and go home. He said the bears are generally scared of humans and stay far away, but food at the shelters and campsites can attract them. He told us to hang our food with the bear cables which everyone already does, but also to hang our backpacks as they can have food smell in them. I’ve never heard to do that before. He said they can bait bears that they want to catch with only 1 peanut M&M. Wow, that’s an amazingly powerful nose. He said after we clear the Smokies, then the bear population thins out considerably, but to be extra careful here. Well, it’s raining pretty good right now. Luckily I got to this camp and was able to get my tent set up before it came in. It’s supposed to get down to 20 degrees tonight so will be pretty cold again. Rumors of snow tomorrow, but tomorrow is a town day and I only need to hike 5 miles to the road. I’m ready for the break to rest up my sore body. This last stretch has been challenging for sure. Day 27 Well it rained heavily all night, the second such rain storm I have been through, and I’m happy to report that my tent made it thru both completely dry on the inside. No snow last night, and the rain thankfully tapered off by the time I was getting out of my tent. Still had to pack out a soaking wet tent and am drying it out now at the hotel. It was just a short 5.5 mile hike out to the roadway this morning. As good fortune would have it, there was a free shuttle from a local church waiting there right when I walked out. It was only there for about 10 minutes. My timing was just good. He drove us the 15 miles into Gatlinburg, Tennessee. For the next 200 some miles, the trail will skirt the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, until we reach Virginia. I called ahead to reserve this hotel, but check in time was not until 3pm. So 3 of us headed across town to an all you can eat pizza buffet. And although there are tons of restaurants here, many of the thru hikers ended up there. We just can’t turn down anything that is all you can eat, especially pizza! They say that at a certain point we all get “hiker hunger” to where you just can’t get full and are constantly hungry. I think I’m getting close. I’ve been waking up hungry just a couple hours after dinner the last few nights. The really big news of the day is that I checked the Go Fund Me account when I got down here and we have reached our initial goal of $10,000!!! Amazing!!! You know, I really wasn’t sure if this was a reasonable goal or not when I first set it. Thought it might be unreasonably high. But you all stepped up and really showed some real heart and generosity to make this happen. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart! My friend and colleague in Saudi Arabia, Rob DuMars, looked at the total and donated the final amount to get to the 10K, plus “$1 towards your next 10K,” he wrote. So we now stand at $10,001. I just raised the goal to $15,000 on Go Fund Me. There is certainly no ceiling on this thing, especially if this West Hawaii Today article gets published. The more money we raise, the more girls we take out out of poverty, keep away from the traffickers, and send to school, opening up new worlds of opportunity in their young lives. So thank you all again so very much for getting us this far, and let’s keep cranking and see how far we can take this thing! I’m in Gatlinburg, Tennessee now, which I heard was a tourist trap. It reminds me of Waikiki or the Vegas strip a bit. Just tons of tourist shops, family entertainment places, bars, etc. Zip lining, chair lift rides up the hills, Guinness Book of World Records museum, these types of places. It’s ironic to have this kind of place as the gateway to the Smokey Mountain National Park that is supposed to be all about nature, wildlife, and the outdoors. But hey, hike your own hike. It’s a good place for us thru hikers with all its restaurants, an outdoor gear shop, motels, etc. Quite a contrast to the trail tho.