Richie Cotton/

900 miles


Today I finished my last trail to join the 900 Miler Club, which means I hiked every trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Back when the pandemic hit in 2020 (it seems like a lifetime ago) Janette and I were living in Jersey City. New York and the surrounding area had been hit hard by covid, and we'd spent nearly three months in lockdown unable to leave our apartment. I spent most of my free time doing jigsaws and trying to kill off the invasive Japanese knotweed in our garden. If I'm honest, Janette did most of the tricky bits of the jigsaws.

By summer, we'd had enough, and with DataCamp's new remote-for-everyone policy, we escaped from New York. We originally planned to go to Johnson City, Tennessee. However, when we were watching YouTube videos to see what the town was like, the autoplay showed us a video of Pigeon Forge, which looked much more fun.

So back on Independence Day in 2020, we made our way down to the home of Dollywood.

At the time, the DMV had a 3 month backlog for driving tests, so we were without a car. We spent the next 3 months playing mini-golf.

I soon found a more fun pastime: hiking in the mountains. My first hike was with the Knoxville Hiking Meetup (KHM). It was a 16 mile hike up Mt LeConte.

Here's me in the check shirt, behind Grotto Falls. That was about three miles into the hike, so I'm still looking fresh. The thing I'm not going to show you is exactly how haggard I looked by the time I finished. After not having walked further than the end of my garden for three months, sixteen miles and over 4000 ft (1200 m) of elevation gain nearly killed me. I slept for thirteen hours that night.

I sooned learned important hiking survival skills, like "if you're are hiking at altitude in the snow, it's a really great idea to wear a short-sleeve cotton shirt."

Another hiking group I joined was the Great Smoky Mountains Hiking and Adventure Group (GSHAG). While KHM often focuses on having a fun hike followed by food and drink, GSHAG puts a bigger emphasis on improving your hiking skills.

So back in May, I signed up for a three night backpacking trip. This trip required that you have previous backpacking experience to attend, since it was in the wildest part of the park. I had to stretch the truth a little bit here, since I had only been backpacking once before, over twenty five years ago when I did my Duke of Edinburgh award as a teenager.

Here's me crossing Hazel Creek with Abby, Lane, and Oseana.

Since this is a me post, we can't just have photos, we need some data analysis. I crunched some numbers from the spreadsheet used to record the trails I'd completed. This only stores new trail completions. The actual number of miles I walked was considerably higher, since there are lots of areas of the park with a tangled web of trails that forces you to walk some bits several times. Take a look at the map showing the mess of trails (green dashed lines) near Deep Creek.

That photo includes my favorite trail name, "Juney Whank", on account of it sounding horribly rude in British English, and my one and only attempt at solo hiking in the dark - on Stone Pile Gap trail. The latter was a post-pub impromptu hike that involved a miscalculation about the time of sunset, and sore regret at not spending more than $20 on a head torch.

Anyway, onto the data analysis. I distinctly remember a point in the middle of May, when I signed up for the three night backpacking trip, thinking that now the 900 mile challenge was getting serious. If you look closely at this time series of miles completed, you can see a definite increase in the slope after May.

If you are particularly eagle-eyed, you might notice that the y-axis tops out at about 800 miles rather than 900. This is a result of trail closures over the last few decades. If you want to stop that sort of thing happening, I might suggest a donation to Friends of the Smokies.

Hidden code
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Hidden code

Once I'd been bitten by the backpacking bug in May, I soon progressed to solo backpacking. Once you get used to the idea that it's OK to not see other humans all day because you can fill the time with extended conversations with yourself or the snake that was blocking the trail, it's really quite fun.

I thought I'd take a look at the number of new miles I walked solo and with each of the groups. GSHAG wins here by a considerable margin, with almost half the total distance.

The small number of miles I walked with my wife is indicative of our differing philosophies about whether walking more than twenty miles in the mountains constitutes a fun day or not.

Hidden code
Hidden code
Hidden code

By popular request, here's me in my speedos, jumping into Big Creek at Midnight Hole. Dale waits in the background. About 0.2 seconds after the photo was taken, my goggles got ripped off my head by the strong current, never to be seen again.

And finally, here's me finishing the 900, beneath an archway of hiking poles.

I'd like to thank Lane, Rob, and the other organizers of GSHAG and KHM for getting me out hiking and teaching me some great skills. Thanks to Janette for letting me disappear off for days at a time. Thanks to Aenan for buying a paper copy of the trail map, handing it to me in the middle of a hike, and telling me I had to finish the 900 now. No way to argue with that. And thanks to everyone else who hiked with me or supported me getting through the trails.

One more thing. Early on, I got some advice that if you get caught short in the woods and have no toilet paper, rhodedendron leaves are the best thing to wipe with. Don't ask me how I know, but this is a lie. Their waxy coating means they don't have enough grip, and the fluid dynamics are all wrong. For a deluxe wiping experience, use moss instead!