Like many, I followed the Smokies 900 fastest known time (FKT) attempt by Nancy East and Chris Ford in September 2020 with great excitement. The Smokies 900 involves hiking every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Nancy and Chris set out to not only break its speed record, but to also raise tens of thousands of dollars for the park’s preventive search and rescue (PSAR) program in the process. 

They posted daily updates from the FKT attempt on Nancy’s social media, and the combination of their grit, determination, silliness, and good spirit throughout the challenge was contagious. On October 3, 2020, they set the record at 29 days, 10 hours, and 12 minutes.

To this day, one photo Nancy shared during her FKT attempt has stuck in my memory. After their 16th day on trail, Nancy posted a photo of her daughter braiding her hair. It was an intimate glimpse into a fellow human’s life story, witnessing a simple act of care between a mother and daughter amidst a physically grueling endeavor.By the next October, Nancy shared even more of that story through the publication of her first book, Chasing the Smokies Moon: An Audacious 948-Mile Hike—Fueled By Love, Loss, Laughter, and Lunacy. And what I noticed instantly as I devoured its pages was the way that it, too, formed a braid.

Throughout Chasing the Smokies Moon, Nancy not only shares the day-to-day minutia of completing a feat like the Smokies 900 FKT, but also weaves in the reasons behind her attempt, the friendship that forms around it and fuels it, and her relationship to it as a woman, mother, and member of a search and rescue team.

One of the most powerful strands throughout the book is the story of two mothers who were lost too soon: Nancy’s own mother, following a battle with cancer, and Susan Clements, who succumbed to hypothermia in the Great Smoky Mountains after getting lost on a trail—a search and rescue effort with which Nancy had been involved. Nancy sprinkles these stories throughout her larger narrative of hiking hundreds of miles of trails similarly to how our own minds might drift to past memories as we hike our own hikes through this life.

In weaving these stories of motherhood and loss into her journey, Nancy encourages us to engage with the “thin places” we face each day, those invisible curves in the trail between life and death. She brings these to light in a way that leaves the reader feeling ever more alive.

And, as she does, she brings in another strand to the braid about her work with her local search and rescue team. She shares stories of some of the people she has met on her hikes who weren’t just haphazardly unprepared, but rather hadn’t known how to be prepared in the first place. As she acknowledges the thin places we all face, Nancy also understands where we can buffer some of those edges to prevent needless tragedies in the backcountry. She shares trail wisdom that can help both novice and advanced hikers set out on their adventures better prepared for the unexpected.

And these trail essentials go beyond the gear hikers should carry in their packs. As Nancy weaves in the third strand of her friendship with her hiking companion, Chris, into the story, she touches on the mental themes that can carry us through both literal and metaphorical mountains. Nancy and Chris were working to beat the previous FKT that had been set by a trail runner, and they were doing it by hiking at a slower pace. Nancy writes:

“The inherent tenet of an FKT attempt is speed—that one must be the fastest in order to succeed at achieving a record. But the path to achievement isn’t always black and white. The ability to engage in relentless forward motion is a far more powerful attribute to possess—the great equalizer between athletes gifted with speed and the rest of us. We were not the first to prove this theory, but it was a crowning jewel to our success. What lives in the heart and mind are just as important, if not more so, than what manifests physically during an FKT.”

Just as Nancy shares the value of having a positive mental attitude if you become lost or injured in the outdoors, her deep friendship with Chris throughout her book demonstrates this in action for completing a grueling physical feat. It’s what really gives the tortoise an advantage over the hare.

Throughout the pages of Chasing the Smokies Moon, readers will find suspense brought about by an unexpected bear attack, inspiration from the many helpers Chris and Nancy meet along the way, and joy from the enduring choice these hikers make to live each moment fully. Through her reflections on her mother’s passing, her choice to retire from a career as a veterinarian, and her decision to take on the Smokes 900 FKT, Nancy’s words offer the courage to change our paths—both when we want to and also when we don’t.I knew that the photo of Nancy’s daughter braiding her hair was larger than what meets the eye. In reading Nancy’s book, I learned why. Chasing the Smokies Moon is the photo’s continuation—the rest of the story of the mothers that shaped Nancy’s path and the brave choices she took in her life to continue the braid. 

It’s well worth the read for any person who has ever wondered how in the world they can wake up again and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

You can buy a copy of Chasing the Smokies Moon on Nancy's website, or wherever you buy books. It happens to be the perfect size to bring along as a trail read.

Korrin Bishop is the Managing Editor for the Gossamer Gear blog, LightFeet. She's also the co-founder of Wild Wilderness Women, a freelance writer, Oregon Duck, and group hug enthusiast. She grew up amongst redwoods, has a deep love for Everglades adventures, and was once a Washington, D.C. local before fleeing for more open spaces. Korrin has written for the National Park Service, Sierra Magazine, Fodor's Travel, The Dyrt Magazine, and Misadventures Magazine, among others. Learn more about her work on her website:
March 24, 2022 — Korrin Bishop