Benton Mackaye Trail – Great Smoky Mountains to the E.R.

On Friday, April 13, Doug and I arrived at Fontana Resort after a 24 mile day to finish in the Smoky’s. We ate burgers and fries, got a great nights rest and woke up on Saturday morning to hit the trail. In the Smoky’s there were countless rock jumps. At one juncture I took a larger step, but as soon as I landed, I felt a sharp pain in my ankle. It dissipated, and I finished the day. On Saturday, I noticed my foot was quite swollen. I loosened my shoe and hiked on. The first 6 miles were actually around Fontana Lake and were level. Soon, we arrived right back at the lodge.

From there, the BMT skyrockets up the Stairway to Heaven, a 1.5 mile hike with 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Soon, my foot was unbearable. Twice I fell over in pain. At the microwave tower, I knew I couldn’t go on. We decided to head back to the lodge to ice down my ankle and stay another night. I hated doing a nero, but it was better than quitting. As we descended the stairway, Doug began to experience immense pain in his knee. Soon we entered the lodge and got another cheap room.

When I took off my shoe, my ankle was double the size of the other. I hung out the rest of the day and iced it off and on.

Sunday was immense storms, so we stayed another night to rest and hope the swelling went down. On Monday morning, my ankle was in good shape (or at least better than before). However, Doug was in bad shape. His leg had continued to balloon, such that there was no concave portion to the back of his knee. Early Monday morning he decided to get off the trail.

Sherpa and I decided to hike out mid-morning from Fontana, my heart heavy for leaving Doug behind. As we ascended the stairway, snow began to lightly fall on me. At the summit of the microwave tower, sleet began to pour down. My ankle was feeling pretty good, but as soon as we walked the ridge line the cold wind picked up. It was absolutely frigid up top. This portion of the trail follows the Yellow Creek Mountain Trail for 10 miles. We took it slow, and I felt well.

In the morning, my swelling had gone down, the weather improved and we entered Joyce Kilmer Wilderness. The difference between the Smoky’s and Kilmer is startling. Gone we’re the groomed trails and easy to follow paths, what tools it’s place was prettier and what I had craved in this hike; wilderness.

We spent he day going uphill for 13 miles, often times over huge hemlock blowdowns, that forced us to throw our bodies on top of the tree and scoot over to fall on the other side. Several times I had to land on slanted trails on my ankle. By the time we reached the ridge on the Hangover, I was quite sore.

Sherpa and I made it to Stratton Bald (no longer bald) and Bob Bald in the early afternoon. At Bob we entered the clearing and saw a gentleman with dogs walking up. Soon we saw a female near him. We asked the direction of the BMT, and he told us it actually crosses the Bald and descends to the west. He asked if we had the guidebook. I showed it to him and he showed us the way. As we were talking I suddenly stopped. “Are you Sgt. Rock?” “I am,” he responded with a smile. Sgt. Rock is notorious in the BMT, he is a trail blazer as well as the author of the trail guide I was holding in my hand. We snapped pictures, talked and he explained some tough routes coming up. Then his wife Kanga offered us some bourbon and ramps (wild onions that taste like garlic).

As we left, Sherpa and I were laughing about the fortuitous nature of meeting Rock at such a picturesque site. We descended the 1.7 miles to Cold Spring Gap and made camp. The wind was blowing mightily and may ankle was again completely swollen. Looking down, it was twice as big as my other ankle. All the tough landings and terrain had taken its toll.

I got in my tent early and elevated it. In the morning, I was having a lot of mobility issues. I had a tough time making it up any uphills (which are prevalent on the BMT). We decided to only do 13 miles and make camp near Pheasant Ridge.

Throughout the day, I was in excruciating pain going uphill. Every 200 feet, I would have to stop to rest my foot. Going up Whigg Meadows, an easy 1.5 mile trek, I felt every step, and it was all that I could do to make it up. Considering that foot was compromised, I can only guess that the other leg was compensating.

Soon we descended the 8 miles to Pheasant. At Sycamore Creek, I decided to eat and put my feet in the water. It was so cold that I immediately withdrew my left foot; but much to my alarm, I couldn’t feel anything with my right ankle. This alarmed me. I’m no doctor, but I knew this wasn’t good.

It was sunny and as I hobbled away from the creek, I turned back to Sherpa. “I’m going to have to get off the trail, Sherp.” I knew there was no way that I could make it the second half of the hike to Springer.

I called my wife and called my mother in law, a former registered nurse. I described what I was feeling. She asked the most appropriate question, “Jonathan, so you want to be able to hike in 6 weeks, or 1 year?” That drove home the thing I needed to do. I had to get off.

I called a buddy in the area to pick me up and waited with Sherpa. I felt like I was letting him down, and worse I felt I was letting myself down. I really enjoyed hiking with Sherpa. He’s a compassionate, great guy and I still miss being out there with him.

Last Friday, my wife picked me up, and took me to the hospital. I could barely walk. She took me to Mission Hospital to be examined. The doctor was fearful that I had broken bones in my foot, but X-rays revealed it was only torn ligaments. “So, a rolled ankle caused me to get off the trail?” She told me that torn ligaments are extremely painful and take weeks to heal without walking. She asked if I turned it yesterday. I responded that I turned it a week ago and walked 40 miles on it. Her eyes got really big.

So for now, I have to rest for a week and can’t hike on it for 4 weeks. I won’t post any pics of it or make the obligatory hiker comment of “I will be back on the BMT”. All I can say, is that I gave the Benton Mackaye Trail all I had, all my strength and all my effort. At the end, I couldn’t complete it this trip. If I had tried, it would have not been pretty and possibly detrimental to my long term health.

I loved this trail. Even though I only completed half (140 miles) I loved the ruggedness and solitude. I feel in my heart that Benton Mackaye, as the originator of the idea of the Appalachian Trail would be happy with this trail named in his memory.

Total mileage is 133 miles.

9 thoughts on “Benton Mackaye Trail – Great Smoky Mountains to the E.R.

  1. Jonathan, I’m very sorry to hear the news about you and Doug. I hope you both feel better soon and that there is no long-term damage done. Only time will tell. Please give me an update in a week or so. My best to both of you.

    Liked by 1 person

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