Tuesday was the beginning of a three day hiking gig in the Smokies. I was up early and arrived in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park by 08:45. That was the easy part. Once in the park traffic increased especially since I had to work my way to the other side of the park at Cade’s Cove. It was socked in with clouds and fog again so progress was slow. In spite of that I arrived at the Cade’s Cove camp ground at 10:45. I was in a hurry to get some mileage in. The plan was to drive to the back side of the Cade’s Cove Loop and find the trail head to Gregory Ridge Trail. That would lead me up to Gregory Bald. I felt that would give me about 10 miles. The first problem was having the patience to follow bumper to bumper cars driving the loop in the hopes of spotting some wildlife. Few seemed interested in the fascinating home places and churches along the way. The terrain along the drive to the trail head was pleasant. The cove is surrounded by mountains and the park has continued to maintain what was once home to about 120 families. With a little bit of searching I managed to find the trail head for Gregory Ridge Trail a mile up Forge Creek Road. From there it would be a 5.8 mile climb to the summit of Gregory Bald. It didn’t take me long to miss having Don Pratt in front of me. Normally his height manages to get rid of all the spider webs not to mention the spiders themselves. There was not a soul out there. It was about to be a 14 mile hike with no one in sight hiking. The forest was thick and the trees huge. The climb was steady and it didn’t take long for me to feel the after effects of a recent tooth extraction. Within a mile I could feel the spot where the tooth used to dwell throb with each beat of my heart. At least it was easier to check my heart rate by counting throbs rather than palpating my pulse. I had climbed 2.8 miles without stopping and was considering taking a break when I hiked into a 90 degree turn to my left. There in front of me not 10 feet away was this doe. Our eyes met and we both just froze. I knew any sudden movement would spook her so I slowly reached for my phone. By the time I got to the camera she had slowly meandered around a large rock. I managed to get this picture of her and she came out the other side. The quiet hike had paid off. At 3.8 miles I came upon this muddied bear print. I had already passed several better ones so I knew that I was following his journey along the trail but didn’t think about taking a picture until I was left with only this distorted one. Have you ever watched a movie where the good guy is running from the bad guy in the woods? You know……to be caught would be certain death in some ghastly way. I always watch those movies and verbalize with great intensity…”quit breathing so hard…quit gasping…be quiet!!” Today I practiced that. I hadn’t seen anyone so I needed something to do. At 3.8 miles I had never stopped climbing and my breathing was labored. I would practice getting away from the bad guy and breath quietly. Well it just ain’t gonna happen. I tried…..but the lungs wouldn’t cooperate. If a bad guy was behind me I might as well have been a locomotive climbing a steep grade. At 5 miles I intersected Gregory Bald Trail and by 3:21 I reached the summit of Gregory Bald. I had hiked 5.8 miles. It was time to turn around but……I began calculating. Round trip up and back would be 11.6 miles. If I continued to the end of Gregory Bald Trail and then followed Parson Branch Road back to my truck I could get in about 14 miles. I tossed a coin in my head since I didn’t have a coin and I won……I continued on for the 14 miles. As I hiked across the bald I ran into three park service staff members way off in the distance. They were cutting away the overgrowth to improve the view from the bald. What I hadn’t counted on was that this portion of the trail was also a horse trail. Now I love horses and for the most part I like folks who ride horses…but they sure can do a job on mangling a trail. On top of that this side of the mountain had multiple springs which left the trail massively muddy and the horses had kicked up every rock in sight. I was now picking my way back down the mountain. It couldn’t have been easy for them either. Here you see that one of them had kicked off the rubber foot covers they wear. I’m sure that there is a horse rider name for these but they remind me of rubbers we used to wear over our shoes as kids on rain days back in the day. By 5 pm it was getting dark….darker than it should have been. The sounds of night began. By 5 after 5 I knew why….A cloud suddenly popped up over the adjoining mountain and it began to pour. I scrambled into my gear. I was at 9 miles and still had 5 miles to go. It was a hard steady downpour and what had been muddy trails now became small rivers. I put my head down and did the only thing I could do….hiked on. When I reached Parson Branch Road at 5:30 and 10.5 miles I didn’t like what I saw. There sat a road grader. The road had just been plowed that day and no new gravel had been placed on it. I was in for a treat of hiking through newly plowed dirt….now mud…for 4 miles. Luckily it only turned out to be 3.5 miles and it was obvious that a portion of the road had washed away into the branch below and that was why this road was closed to traffic and being regraded. It was so dark I had to use by headlamp for the last portion of the hike yet once I thankfully found my truck and drove back into the Cove I found that the downpour had ended and there was still a bit of daylight available. I once again had to work my way into the bumper to bumper cars driving around the loop at 5-10 miles per hour. The plus of that was the sighting of quite a few deer…. And this big boy who was enjoying his time sticking his nose into the tall grass. I took a quick picture and then waited out the forever line of cars. I needed firewood….I needed to cook supper…I needed to crawl into my tent and sleep. Tomorrow would be a longer than this 14 mile day.