AT 2017: Day 16, Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter

Black muddy river, roll on forever

Black muddy trail

The rain that began yesterday continued today.


There was so much rain that by mid-day the trail had become one continuous stream of mud.

DateWednesday, April 19, 2017
WeatherHeavy rain and thundershowers from morning to early afternoon, lows in the mid 40s and highs in the low 60s
Trail ConditionsWater and mud
Today's Miles12.0
Trip Miles189.0

Depending on what side of the ridge we walked, there was a cold breeze blowing or it was just cold.

But oh, that mud.

Mollies Ridge Shelter

After we woke up we tried to eat breakfast and pack up as quickly as possible, but the cold and rain made that difficult.

The canopy at Mollies Ridge Shelter allowed a chance to get out of the rain briefly, but it was crowded.

Walking in the rain

Walking on a muddy trail presents a number of challenges not found on a dry trail.

The mud is oftentimes a slick ooze that renders the treads of your shoes useless. Walking steep inclines are particularly difficult in this kind of mud. You can't get much traction.

The mud can also hide roots, which offer their own opportunities to slip and trip.

Walking in the rain

At times you might try walking on the edge of the trail, where it is less muddy. This practice is frowned upon because it widens the trail unnecessarily.

Even then, it's easy to slip on the slope of the trail's edge.

At some point on a day like today you're bound to give up trying to stay out of the mud. It's everywhere already, all over your shoes and up your pant legs.

So you just walk.

Landon told me he was beginning to have some pain in his feet and legs.

Maybe it was the terrain, or maybe it had been too long since he had last done a rigorous hike like this, but he was slowing down.

I knew he was having trouble when he asked me to set the pace.

After nearly six miles of hiking we stopped for lunch at Spence Field Shelter.

The shelter sits at 4.916 feet in elevation, and it was cold and blustery there. We tried to stay out of the wind, but we couldn't get away from the cold.

I was able to get a sufficient signal to be able to check the forecast, but that only made us feel worse.

The forecast read something like this: "Today, rain and thunderstorms, followed by rain and thunderstorms. Tomorrow morning, rain and thunderstorms, then rain and thunderstorms, followed by rain and thunderstorms."

And on it went like that for the whole week.

Knowing about Landon's feet and leg pains, I asked him if he wanted me to contact my sister-in-law, Vicki. We had originally planned to have her meet us on Thursday at Newfound Gap, where she would deliver to us our food for the remainder of the Smokies.

The alternate plan I proposed to Landon was to ask her to just pick us up at Clingman's Dome tomorrow. We would bail out and I'd just pick up from there later.

Landon agreed that was a good idea. Because I had a wireless signal from the shelter I texted Vicki. She readily agreed to the new plan.

I told her I thought we would be at Clingman's Dome at or shortly after 4 p.m.

Landon was relieved, and at first, I was too. At this point we had both been miserable all morning.

Then something unexpected happened.

Slowly the rain began to fade.

The wind continued to blow and the sun never really came out, though there were brief moments when we thought it would.

The change in weather didn't help Landon's pains, but it lifted our spirits.

Rocky Top

By the time we reached Rocky Top, which was barely more than a mile past the shelter, the rain had completely stopped.

If you're not from Tennessee, have never lived in Tennessee, or have never seen a University of Tennessee sporting event, you may not know or appreciate this outcropping of rock.

As the legend goes, this was the inspiration for a song by Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, which has nothing to do with state or school pride, and mostly to do with drinking moonshine.

Landon and me at Rocky Top

As we neared the top of Rocky Top, Landon asked me, "Do we have to sing the song when we get there?"

"Do you know the words?" I replied.

"I know there's a 'woo!' in there somewhere," he answered.

That's about as much as I know too, and I've lived in the state 20 years.


As we descended from Rocky Top we saw a small rabbit, which may be hard for you to see in this photo. Nevertheless, seeing the bunny was another indication the weather was improving.

Climbing Thunderhead Mountain

We next had to climb to another rocky spot called Thunderhead Mountain. As before at Rocky Top, the weather had not cleared enough to offer a view, but at least we were starting to dry out.

Trout Lilly

When we weren't slipping in the mud I noticed Trout Lilly were beginning to appear on the trail.

Smokies View

Late in the day the thick blanket of clouds lifted enough that we were able to get a couple views.

Derrick Knob Shelter

We stopped for the night at Derrick Knob Shelter, which was about as crowded as Mollies Ridge had been.

I checked with Landon, and he still felt it was the right thing for him to get off the trail. By now, I felt ready to complete the Smokies as I had planned.

Once I got to the end of the AT in the park, which is Davenport Gap, my original plan was to have my wife, Kim, pick me up. I would then take time off from the trail to relax at home before driving to Baltimore to attend a work-related conference.

So Landon and I created a new plan. He would leave with Vicki from Clingman's Dome. If we were unable to reach her beforehand and tell her of our new plan, I would take the rest of Landon's food, which should give me enough to go the whole way.

I will walk alone by the black muddy river
And listen to the ripples as they moan
I will walk alone by the black muddy river
Sing me a song of my own

Black muddy river
Roll on forever
I don't care how deep and wide
If you got another side
Roll muddy river
Roll muddy river
Black muddy river, roll


"Nothing to tell now. Let the words be yours, I'm done with mine."ref.