To say that our time at Amicalola Falls Lodge was a prefect way to celebrate after getting to Springer would be a gross understatement. It was beyond perfect, we couldn’t have had a better time and it was exactly what the boys needed after pulling such big miles so many days in a row. The first morning we were there we went to town on the breakfast buffet and Buddy became friends with almost every pretty girl on the staff at the hotel. He had the girl from behind the desk walking him around the hotel explaining all the decorations in the lobby, talking about the table full of nut crackers and talking about all the animals on their Christmas tree. He is such a ladies man already at 5 years old. After we were able to part Buddy from his new friend we lounged for a bit before they had a really incredible bird of prey show right in the lobby of the hotel. The owls and falcons they had were so beautiful and Buddy was really into watching them. He thought it was mind blowing how much the woman doing the show knew about all the birds, he kept telling me, “She is brilliant mommy, just brilliant!” After the show we met up with this vivacious, friendly and very professional journalist from the Associated Press whom we were introduced to by Michael, from the hotel. She was just lovely to talk to, she asked us great questions and listened intently to all we had to say about our experience. We really enjoyed getting to talk with her and when our sit down interview was over we went with her and Michael down to the visitor center. They have some pretty wild things at the visitor center. Aside from the usual maps, bottled water and snacks they also have snakes, turtles, a cross eyed opossum and the original gear Gene Espy used on his thru hike. Gene Espy was the second person to thru hike the Appalachian trail in 1951 and they have his backpack, water canister and even his socks encased in their visitor center. Michael took us back to the hotel where we ended our wonderful night with a great dinner and packed our bags intending to head out early the next morning to complete the Smokys. When we headed back down into the lobby one time the super sweet girl behind the desk told Dion that Michael had left something for him. She held up this long sleeve AT hiking shirt Dion had been checking out at the Visitor Center. He was so excited, that was such a great gift! When we returned to he room we checked the weather again, it was still forecasting rain for the next day, but our plans were made and we had to go rain or not. We decided rather than waking up super early and taking the three hour drive from Amicalola to Newfound Gap that we would sleep in, get breakfast and head out when we were good and ready hoping that the rain would stop mid-day. So around 10 we checked out and headed to Newfound Gap. When we got up there it was still raining. Jokes on us! We have skipped doing his section twice now because of the weather, we just had to bite the bullet, carry extra supplies and clothes, and make moves. The boys waited another hour in the Jeep with me till around two o’clock before they hit the trail, and perfect timing too because it had just stopped raining! They headed out with smiles and excitement, ready to get the Smokys done and head to our friends house in VA for Christmas. They hiked from Newfound Gap to Double Spring Gap shelter, arriving just as night and more rain hit. They were warm and dry in their sleeping bags and enjoyed all the yummy snacks I had packed them for their night without me. I drove down to Standing Bear through Gatlinburg a little less than two hours to go see a Lumpy and Rocket again. I loved hanging out with those two guys, they are a riot! The next day, Monday, I planned on hiking in to meet them and bring them some more food at Russel Field Shelter. They were doing 16.4 from Double Gap, so I figured I would hike up 6 miles to the shelter, drop my stuff and hike in to meet the, I drove from Standing Bear down to Laurel Creek Road and stayed for the first time by myself in the Jeep in the parking lot outside of the gates to get into Cades Cove. That was a long drive and I didn’t get there until around 11:30 so even though I was in the Jeep I was apparently comfortable enough to sleep in till 10. When I woke up and saw what time it was I rushed to get up, move the Jeep to the parking area where the ranger station is and try to find out where this side trail, Michael Falls I think, started. Luckily when I pulled up out front I saw two hikers with large packs covered in garbage bags on the front porch, so I figure I’d ask them and see if they knew. What luck I had, not only didn’t they know but they were taking that one too and staying at Russell Field. I parked the car and took my time packing up my stuff because It had started to rain again and I was being a spoiled baby and didn’t want to hike in the rain for any longer than I had to. Around 11:30 I strapped my pack on and headed out to meet them. Thank goodness I met those hikers and they told me where the side trail was. You had to park your car in his lot if it was overnight, walk down the road to the picnic area and then walk to he very back of the area to get to the trailhead. That was a beautiful trail with lots of water all around it. I got to the shelter and found that the two from the parking lot had gathered firewood even though it was still raining and already had a great fire going inside the shelter. It was nice and warm and having the tarp across the front to keep the wind out was awesome. I dropped my gear off and hiked north till I ran into them around the top of Thunderhead Mountain. It was only 4 miles back to the shelter so it was amazing how quickly the weather changed. I know everyone warns how fast the weather changes, but it’s crazy to actually see it. When we were about half a mile from the shelter we turned a corner and everything was white and frozen with whipping winds howling through. We were thankful to get back to the shelter and see that the fire was still going and they had plenty of wood. The two we stayed with, an older couple, hung a thermometer up outside to see what the temperature would get to in the morning and chatted with us about who they were and where they came from. We all snuggled up on the right side of the shelter by the fireplace and were plenty warm enough while we slept. In the morning when we woke up they told us the temperature came in at 28, not as cold as we thought it would get. To our surprise when we pulled back the tarp to go out to the privy we saw a thin lawyer of snow had covered the ground.
Buddy couldn’t wait to get his shoes on to make Bud prints in the snow. I helped them pack up and get out on the trail around 9. I packed up the rest of the stuff and hiked back down to the Jeep. That was one of my most favorite days as far as weather on the trail, it was lightly snowing and although my boots got wet I was warm and it was crazy beautiful. By the time I got back to the Jeep it had stopped snowing and cleared up. I started my drive to Fontana Dam to pick my boys up. It took me about two hours to drive from Laurel Creek Road to the Foothills Parkway and down the long and winding road of 129 into Fontana Dam. I’m lucky that’s the way I took because I heard a lot of people later saying that some of the roads around there were closed due to weather. I parked up on the road where the south bound road walk begins, heading over the dam and back up the hill to the parking area we ended in last time. After they arrived around 5:30 they dropped their bags in the Jeep and walked over the Dam, taking lots of pictures and video along the way then up the hill and into the parking lot all the way to the far side so as not to miss a step, oh purists! They we excited to have finished and to head to our wonderful friends Sherri and Jerri’s for Christmas. Although it rained a little and then snowed a dusting the last day, we lucked out with weather and were happy to now only have the Shenandoahs left to finish up after Christmas. We will be in Marion VA for a few days until we head back to Rockfish Gap. Thank you to everyone for following our journey so closely, Merry Christmas everyone!