6,594 feet high, standing among wispy, white clouds with the crisp mountain air caressing my cheeks, I looked out and saw nothing but mountains for miles. It was noon, and we had summited Mount LeConte in four hours. Four hours of navigating lush forest, steep sandstone steps and glistening rock faces. Four hours of readjusting the straps on our packs and stopping to chug water and catch our breath as we rapidly gained elevation on our ascent. Four hours of being drenched in sweat despite the shade from the trees and the pleasant summer temperature.
Four hours of my most challenging, yet rewarding hike yet.
But while I stood at the top of Mount LeConte, I didn't think about those four hours. I didn't think about how sore my shoulders and hips would be tomorrow, or the blisters that were developing on my heels, or the sweat that was dripping down my back.
All I could think about was the fact that I was standing on top one of the tallest mountains in the eastern U.S. with my boyfriend at my side. And nothing, not muscle aches, physical exhaustion or bloody heels, could tarnish the moment when I rounded the last bit of trail and stood with Max at the top of Mount LeConte.
Now, before I tell you more about our Smoky Mountains adventure, let me give you some essential exposition. Max and I started dating five months ago, and at some point this past spring, I looked at him, very unsure of what his response would be, and asked if he wanted to go on a trip with me to Yellowstone National Park that summer. And Max, being ever so supportive of my insatiable wanderlust and love for the outdoors, said yes.
I thought it was a joke at first. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that not only was this amazing guy a part of my life, but that he actually would want to go on a week-long, no-cell-service, primitive wilderness adventure with yours truly.
But alas, we both tumbled down the rabbit hole that is the U.S. National Park system. Neither of us had the level of preparedness to execute a backcountry trip to Yellowstone (according to many a park ranger) nor the resources to get there (according to our bank accounts) and thus, our Smoky Mountains adventure planning phase began.
I spent roughly two work days developing an itinerary down to the last minute. I had five days planned out for us, about 60 miles total, plus an additional day to explore the park -- stopping at visitor centers, riding horses and eating a real, cooked meal, a novelty after a week in the woods.
But despite all my planning, I felt incredibly nervous. Max had never been backpacking before -- in fact, he'd never even slept in a tent before. And despite saying otherwise, I was worried that we would get to the trailhead and start hiking, and he would hate every minute of it.
My mind was clouded with all the potential catastrophes: What if he hated not showering for six nights in a row or sleeping on nothing but an inch of foam? What if he hated me after not showering for six nights and smelling like complete dogshit? What if he stared at me in horror when I told him he had to dig a cathole every time nature called in the wilderness? What if he got sick of me after spending 144 hours in the wild with no one but me to keep him company.
These are things you worry about in a relationship.
But nothing worried me more than the thought of him not loving backpacking. Because the world of backpacking, of sleeping in a tent in the middle of nowhere, waking up with the sun, putting on your backpack and climbing mountains day after day, was a world that I loved more than I can verbalize. And it was a world that I wanted -- more than anything -- to share with him.
My mind was slowly put at ease over the course of the summer, as we made our preparations. We went on practice hikes through the Miami trail system, drove to the REI store in Cincinnati and scoured the aisles for gear and hiking boots and stocked up on copious amounts of jerky and power bars.
We were ready.
Our backpacks were expertly stuffed with sleeping bags, tent pieces, rations and everything else we needed to survive for five days in the wilderness. We started our journey in Chicago, setting out to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, the following morning for a brief tour and arriving in the Smokies just as the stars were beginning to peer out of the black sky.
I so wish I could take you through each day of our hike. There simply aren't enough pages in the entire newspaper that would do it justice. What I can tell you is that not a single day went as I planned it to. And that was okay. It was better than okay. It was amazing.
Our week was filled with laughter, bug spray, affection, a ridiculous amount of hand sanitizer, happiness, relief, injuries, replanning, campfires, grime, sweat, achy muscles and bones, surreal wildlife encounters and the unexpected. It might not have gone as planned, but I wouldn't have changed a thing about that trip.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can compare to traversing mountainsides with Max by my side -- waking up and falling asleep next to him in a tent, with nothing but stars above us and mountains spread out before us. Nothing can compare to discovering that in him, I had a boyfriend, tent-mate and wilderness partner in crime. Nothing can compare to looking at him at the summit of Mount LeConte, smiling, with his arms spread wide, breathing the mountain air and feeling absolute bliss.
We didn't fight. We didn't come close, really. We just hiked.
From belting "Mr. Brightside" on the trail to shoo away potential unwelcome furry friends to Max rinsing out my blistered and bloody feet with hydrogen peroxide to watching the sunset on the top of a mountain, this trip was the best adventure yet. And I was able to share every single moment with my Max.