Hike: The Great Smokies
Hikers: Forrest Berkley & Henry Hooper; joined in Newfound Gap by Laurie Hooper & Ned Hooper
Dates: May 14 – 29, 1975
The plan was to leave via Continental Trailways bus from Baltimore at 5pm on May 14, to change buses in Washington, DC, and Greensboro, NC and departing the bus in Asheville, NC at 6:30am the next day (5/15) to start a two week backpacking trip to and through the Great Smoky Mountains which lie along the North Carolina and Tennessee border. Pretty ambitious, but that was the plan.
Not a very restful trip on the bus down to North Carolina, but I was able to get about 6 hours of sleep in brief spurts. Fighting back a cold, the Nyquil kicked in and got me to sleep. It seemed that Forrest fared poorly, not logging many sleep-filled hours at all. He was too concerned about the driver damaging our stuff and I was grateful for his oversight of the baggage handling, especially at the terminals. The bus was just a soft drone in my weary mind. A stop in Charlottesville, VA, where Forrest bought me a sandwich and a drink and it was back to sleep for Ol’ Hoop. The 2:00am changeover in Greensboro was the killer, though. I barely remember it. The next conscious thought were interrupted by a woman talking in a thick North Carolinian accent to our bus driver.
After our exchange bus ordeal in Asheville, pronounced Aesh’-vull by the locals, we rode for about 40 miles to Rocky Fort, which is past Sam’s Gap and Mars Hill, on the Appalachian Trail (AT) maps. These are two North Carolina day hiking hot spots, we were told. The local yokals that the bus picked up along the way were great and colorful Carolinians for sure. The bus driver gripped the wheel loosely and kept spitting his chewing tobacco bits out the window as he conversed with the passengers. He dropped us at a spot as close as his route could get us to the trailhead, helped us get our packs and wished us luck.
Heading south on another road for a little over four miles (4.2 mi), we came to Devil’s Fork Gap. We hitched a ride on the back of a truck, carrying wood planks and just enough room for our packs and us, for about a mile and a half. A nearby stream drowned out the sound of the local saw mill for parts of the way. Except for the litter of empty beer and pop cans on the side of the road, it was beautiful. We arrived at the Tennessee/North Carolina state lines and the start of our AT adventure.
Right away some really nice hikers were on the trail and several of them planned a trek of the entire trail, or as much as they could get accomplished in a set amount of time. One was a Baptist minister, who quit his position to see if his 58 year old legs could carry him the entire AT; another was traveling at an incredible pace, covering approximately 20 miles a day. A guy named Ed (hiking with 2 dogs: a ½ breed Dalmatian and an Irish setter) was dragging an entire trailer of food and supplies for his companions. A guy named JB, carried a guitar in his pack. He was a wandering minstrel show. JB seemed stoned most of the time, but I did not see him smoke; he always had the munchies. So the Baptist minister, our fast walker, Ed and JB were our Little Laurel lean-to mates that first night on the trail.
The footing was wet and muddy as it rained all that first day. The hikers said it was the second day in a row of hard rain, but the splotches of rhododendron and mountain laurel on the border of the walk looked like they needed the water. That day we spotted Eastern Flycatchers, Grosbeaks, Orioles, Juncos, Bluebirds and an assortment of other warblers and song birds, which sang for our enjoyment. The nicest point of the day was probably when we stopped and checked out the birds in the distance. Confirming them with my binoculars, we would talk about them with enthusiasm and amazement.
The general feel of the day? Sleepy! Forrest and I wished we could take a nap or just go to bed, but neither of us fell in the muck, which was fortunate. Despite the constant battle to keep our balance amidst the hikers’ dreaded three R’s (Roots, Rocks & Rain), we made the trip, all 11.5 miles of it, with no slipping and minimum difficulty. Our shoulders and legs, however, would surely feel it tomorrow! A fire and guitar accompaniment made for a good night. The white-noise pitter/patter of light rain lulled us to sleep.
Today was the day that my cold caught up with me. My sinuses went crazy. The cold, wet morning air didn’t help, but the late sleep at Little Laurel certainly did. Ed, with his dogs and radio, and JB, with his guitar in hand, took off from our lean-to shelter at 7:00am sharp. A good granola and honey breakfast and we too headed out into the drizzle. Snails, slugs, and salamanders covered the trail today. Clouds covered the trees and mountains until about 11:30, when the sun finally broke through.
The rhododendron, mountain laurel, wild iris, trillium, may apple, violets and assorted other flowers were fantastically colorful, as were the fern fronds. The shades of the color green are vast in God’s pallet. The birds were as numerous as yesterday, but they were hard to identify through the fog, which settled all the way to the ground. We saw one big fat Rose-Breasted Grosbeak, who landed right near us on a rhody branch and flashed his breast of redness for all to admire.
The mud and muck and boot slop were ankle high for the first part of the day, which made for difficult and uncomfortable trekking. When the sun finally emerged, the mud did not seem to matter as much anymore.
Lunch at the base of a plush forest tower and a cool breeze blew through the trees gave us great rest. Several springs along the trail also offered us relief. The Bisquick cakes were welcomed at lunch and they provided the right taste and texture for our bread.
The visiting hikers today were even more interesting than those we met last night. We passed two entire trail hikers, or Through Hikers as they were called, heading north. One hiker was from Baltimore: Bob, who played football at Calvert Hall College, of all places; and the other from Georgia. After a super-charged chat, we parted and eventually eased into our shelter at 2:30pm.
Today we had one of our short hiking days – 6.5 miles. After a quick game of Frisbee (Forrest carried a professional or collapsible Fisbee on all hikes), we had a great dinner and a good spot in the shelter. There were some really nice people with us, which made it an extra special time. The conversation was full of this and that: the Trail, a Jesuit run hostel, food for the AT, outside world events, etc. Talk of Cambodia, Nixon, Kristnamirti, and college sports brought us outside of our hiking bubble. The Trail is a truly wonderful place, mainly for the characters it attracts. Three red bearded brother – Zeke, Marron, and Kevin – and a guy named Alex were our cabin mates tonight. Since there were bunks for five, Kevin volunteered to sleep outside on the picnic table.
I had some great reflection time thinking about Nanette Rutka, Leo Murray, the Royal Lichtenstein ¼ Ring Sidewalk Circus, prayer, and home. My reflections were almost a celebration of living in a crude, existential way. We all prayed for nice weather tomorrow, as it was raining harder at the moment. We also prayed that the rodents, which the three red beards named “overly aggressive rodent, Toms”, would stay away from our food laden packs. Nothing like the sight of a mouse hole in your canvas and teeth marks in your GORP. (Is that a raisin or a rodent dropping?)
Talk of showers, banana splits, cokes and other food items, keeps us going, spurring us on. We had had ice cream and belly wash items only yesterday and already we are longing for junk food! Other discussions on the trail helped the misery of the rain fade and the time fly. Sitting in the cabin, writing by candle light or listening to a strummed guitar, as we did last night, it is hard not to smile. The new and exciting lean-to mates make for a great mix of conversations. My thoughts go to Willie Berliner, the existentialist from the Long Trail. Willie had said that I needed to get my eye away from seeing the world through the lens of a camera or keep my hands free from journal writing. He urged me to participate in the conversation fully and completely. I will commit to being more conscious of the enjoyment of the trail this trip, and not from the camera viewfinder or journalistic point of view. Am I really here? Pinch myself! Losing weight already and its only day two. Sweating and drying and sweating again, I am beginning to get in hiking shape once more.
I am psyched for this trip and am so glad that Forrest did his meticulous planning. The food is really good, the trail is as advertised, the logistics are strong, and he is a great hiker. Forrest is also a bit kinky (stories of the NJ State gross out contest, anyone? Exhibit A) and a marvelous companion. He is a good foil for my wandering thoughts and feelings.
Leaving our nice lean-to and our warm sleeping-bag wrapped friends, we were on the trail by 7:00am sharp today. The day looked promising for once, as the sun shone on the mountain tops and taller trees, as we descended our first sizable ridge. A cool, balmy breeze soothed us all day. It was a relief from the hot 80+ F temperature in the meadows and the bugs.
Our day’s plans consisted of hiking 15.5 miles to a youth hostel, called the Hot Springs Campers Hostel. Everyone raved about the place. Located in Hot Springs, NC, is was erected this past fall on a Jesuit residence and boys’ home. If we made good time, there was a chance I could go to church the next day, which was Sunday. Of equal attraction (or greater attraction for Forrest, who is Jewish) are hot showers, laundry, good food, and great conversations. Our minds were set on making it to the hostel for supper that night, which was served at 5:00pm or so.
After a short uphill climb, we had a gentle downhill track to Allen Gap, TN. We stopped here for a 9:00am breakfast, but the gas station, where we went for food and water, was closed. A short hike up the trail and a dry breakfast of granola made us cotton-mouthy. Our stomachs grumbled and our throats hurt. From Allen’s Gap, there was a long, hard ascent of Rich Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest. Several springs offered us liquid refreshment on the hike, and the rhododendron leaves served as perfect water troughs to fill our bottles.
Hitting the Spring Mountain Lean-to for lunch at 12:30, we had covered 8.1 miles, which seemed pretty good for a duo of kinky softies. My butt really hurt in the morning, so Forrest said, “Too much exercise for that ass of yours, eh?” I retorted, “No, too much ass for this exercise routine you have us on!” Think I won that butt battle!
The four hikers we passed going north today were Georgia to Maine, Through Hikers. A small Canadian woman, an elderly gentleman, a young girl, and an American Indian. Quite a collection!
The one thing about today, to say it again, was the breeze. It prevented us from hearing the birds off the trail, but it kept the flies, gnats, and mosquitoes away! Hurray! Some nice views of the up-coming Smokies Range were offered to the south and west, so we soaked it all in. We did miss a climb up the forest ranger tower just off the trail, but that was OK.
Conversations with Forrest on the trail were always brief. Some of his daily comments would go like this: “Getting up early is the right thing to do, but it sucks,” “Punch Koolaid sucks,” “I met King Henry in Russia in 1884,” “I could go for yogurt, rice and chicken gravy.” “Strange townies, those people,” “Showers or church, let me see,” “Your Frisbee skills are terrible, they suck” Pretty much throw the word SUCK into any sentence and that would be part of the Berkley conversation flow.
One of the things most impressive about things that did NOT suck was the mountain laurel. It was in full bloom on the lower slopes. Walking for hours and hours, these blossoms were so delicate and full and abundant. From time to time, we were not walking through laurel forests but floating in the mountains. For the most part the hiking was like tramping in the back woods, until we came upon a great view. Then the realization of where we were would rush us back to reality. The trail is a nice place to go to with thoughts, just thinking open thoughts, no constraints. All we have on the trail is our thoughts. In the section today there are some great vines that extend up to the canopy. They look like vines that Tarzan could swing from, flying through space. We took advantage of some of them, taking off our packs and gliding between trees and back again. It is hard to grow up and just recognize these as invasive vines, which they probably are.
The Hostel is a wonderful place, as advertised, with a really charismatic volunteer youth leader named Keith. He kept things in line while we enjoyed our stay. Keith managed the rooms, kitchen, menu, laundry, showers, finances, and the other staff. It was all good.
The Pentecostal tongues of fire fell on our heads today … in the form of RAIN. The drops were torrential this morning at 9:30, when we ate breakfast. I had stayed up until 1am talking with a Jesuit novice, aged 45, who was staying at the Hostel. His name was Joe, an incredible guy from Brooklyn, NY. We spent hours, or let me rephrase, HE spent hours talking about religion, minorities, the town of Hot Springs, Loyola College, his life, his life and his life. It was an amazing series of listening hours.
After a nice hot breakfast, I attended an un-stimulating service at the residence chapel, constructed of a modern A-frame architecture. Surprisingly, the priest who said the mass, was Jeff Burton. He is a Loyola High School grad and a good friend of Fr. Bill Watters. As nice as Jeff is, he was very condescending to the congregation. He may have been talking about the Spirit, however, it was lifeless in the room. No one was “moved” by his words. What a waste.
We left the youth hostel at 12:30 and headed for the Deer Park Lean-to. Just a three (3) mile trip, we rose several hundred feet in elevation and the sweat dripped like mad in the 90 – 100 degree heat and humidity. Must have lost 5 pounds in about an hour and a half! The Loblolly pines and White pines were interspersed with varieties of poplar, oak, and other trees along this part of the trail. The poison ivy was also in full toxic profusion. It seemed to be climbing over every living thing. There were also some honey suckle vines on the trees; the fragrances made up for it.
Arriving at the next Lean-to, we washed up and began to cook lunch-supper. Hikers from all over came around our place at about 5pm. (It is amazing how we claim the place as OURS, when we get there first.) First came two single hikers, then two sets of two, and they started squaring off to see who would occupy the room for 5 sleeping bags. Fortunately two groups had tents, so they set up camp and left one empty bunk in the Lean-to. After a Frisbee game (I was getting the hang of it again), it was time to inspect my bird and tree guides to see where we were and what we should expect to identify.
Tiny differences in species can exist in short distances. For example, trees that grow in one glen, might not be on the adjacent ridge or valley. Birds and flowers we spotted along the trail might be on one slope and not another, depending on which direction it faces. The migration of most plants and animals though appears universal. Trees move slowly with the wind and the pollen. Birds, who help in the propagation, tend to be itinerant farm workers for the trees. Squirrels and oaks were interesting to watch also. Dark squirrels on one mountain and scrub oaks – light squirrels on another with canopy reaching oaks. These seemingly strange occurrences in the ecosystem, are all predicted by Darwin, no doubt.
Among the strangest scenes in this part of the AT, were the Rhododendron Tunnels (what I call them). Some of these tunnels reach up to 30 feet in height. The leaves are opaque, thick green sheaths, and they cover the top and sides of the plants. The tunnels are in near darkness, even in mid-day. There is real darkness on some stretches, as it looks like Mirkwood in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy of stories. Or more literally it is like the woods in Spencer’s The Fairly Queen, Book 1. From a distance one can see some blossoms on the plants, as they grow in their own forests. Yes, there are trees that grow over and above the rhododendron, but they are their own little micro-climate in the Smokies. An amazing place, these woods. So glad we had the chance to walk here and experience it.
A loud call and reply of two Whippoorwills put us to sleep and woke us the next morning. The calls in the darkness are eerie and great. Up at 6:10 today, we pack quietly and hit the trail talking about Colin Fletcher (of The Complete Walker, fame) and his walk through time. Gary, a 5’4” guy with a thick Tennessee accent, walked with us, and he had read all of Fletcher’s books, so he was a font of trivia. Gary, who probably weighed about 125 pounds was all skin, bones and muscle. Not an ounce of fat, he was full of friendly conversation, which was nice.
The hiking today consisted of 9.5 miles, 95% of which was uphill. The total elevation change for the day was 3,500 feet, which was the killer! Most of the trail was part of a new relocation that had been plotted and executed by the AT – Pisgah National Forest Division – some paid professions and some AT club volunteers. The newness of the trail was most evident in the muddiness. Kindly some wooden steps had been built along the steepest sections of the trail, where switchbacks or direct paths would have been impractical. Without the steps these sections would have been impassable this time of year.
Munching on some tree lichens, as suggested by Gary (he said Fletcher did it), it made me gag. It tasted as nasty as it looked: green leathery and gritty. It will take me awhile to learn how to survive on what is native to these forests. Munching a quick lunch of real food atop Bluff Mountain (elevation 4,686), we were as high as any spot on the Long Trail in Vermont. We had risen 2,180 feet in about 3 miles. Legs feeling like death, we sat and ate our Bisquick cakes, honey, cheese, peanut butter & jelly, and drank our Koolaid. Unfortunately, with only a light wind, it felt as if we ate as many flies and bugs as we did food. They were all over us. After only a half hour break, we were forced by the swarms to move on.
We met a nice, large, older man on the AT who was repainting the white blazes on this section of the trail. He was a volunteer from the Carolina Mountain Club, based in Asheville, NC. He hiked as fast as we did, even though he was stopping every hundred feet or so, scraping off the old paint and applying a new white blaze. He told us about the Club and he asked us to join. When we told him we were from Maryland and Massachusetts, he said to forget it. And then suggested we join Clubs in our home states instead. Paint for thought.
Forrest and I were pissed-off today. It was a beautiful day, all day, but we could not see a thing! The reason was that there was so much smoke, fog and haze that we could not see but the closest ridges and none of the majestic mountains. It looked like New York City, or LA smog, not the Appalachians. Pretty darn disgusting. We assumed that that is why they call it the Great Smokies, after all. Pictures are so flat and one dimensional in weather like this, it is not worth the film. Hopefully, it will clear up a bit for us to get a good view one of these days.
Staying at Walnut Mountain Lean-to, we played Frisbee again before dinner. We tried to hit a pair of boots that were hanging on a log jutting out of the Lean-to with the Frisbee from about 25 yards away…one can see how bored we must have been that day. Forrest made two direct hits in a row while mine drifted off target, close by no cigar. I threw in the kerchief, suggesting supper. Some Noodles Romanoff, tomato vegetable soup, tea, and pudding for dessert. We had had a long day and tomorrow we were in for a 10 miler or more.
After dinner Forrest reminded me that he had skipped his college graduation ceremony (today) for this hike. He was a math major at Yale and had graduated in three years. I serenaded him with an a’ cappella version of Bright College Years, singing two verses, and The Yale Fight Song, in honor of the occasion. He seemed to like the idea of being on a hike in North Carolina rather than in cap and gown in New Haven. Can’t blame him.
We read our books and talked till we fell asleep. This was the first night that we were alone in a lean-to and we decided we liked each other’s company. We did not need others to “make the trip”, but it was nice the first few night.
Waking up early again today, or at least Forrest did, we took off from Walnut Mountain Lean-to and passed the summit of Walnut Mountain. We spent about an hour waiting to see the sunrise from the peak, but it was too smoky for a great orange disk. Gradually descending down through what the trail guide calls “a charming stand of rhododendron,” we made our way to Lemon Gap. The Gap was neither lemony-yellow, nor much of a gap in the mountains; it was more of a green crease in the landscape. After a few miles we hit a nicely graded road, named Max Patch Road. Too bad for us, the road went up and didn’t stop ascending for about 4 miles. It was birdwatching heaven though: we saw Bullock’s Orioles, Red-Wing Blackbirds, Catbirds, Mockingbirds, Crows, Ravens, Barn Swallows, Goldfinches, Scarlet Tanagers (my favorites), and lots of other species. We next came upon an open field of about 150 acres of grasses, cleared of all trees and used for grazing. Here we met another collection of birds: Eastern Bluebirds, Meadowlarks, Purple Martins, Robins, and lots more. We passed by a group of 5 men doing the job of one – clearing a drainage ditch ½ foot wide and putting the dirt in a wheelbarrow. One of them started telling us the story of a hiker-eating bear on the trail today. Too bad the road commission sends foolish boys out to do a man’s job. Tax dollars at work!
All in all the road was a pain-in-the-ass. The good thing was that we walked fast and covered 5 miles by our 9:15 breakfast. Leaving Max Patch Road, we headed up again for a bit and then down again steeply to Brown Gap. We made it to the Gap by 11am for 7.5 miles – a good rate of hiking. Stopping for a break, we knew that after a ½ mile rise it was clear cruising to the shelter for the night: Ground Hog Creek Lean-to. We saw some more tanagers on the way today, which were beautiful with their black wings and scarlet bodies, and some umbrella magnolia, natives to the mountains. The magnolia are huge flowering trees that are fun to see in the distance and up close. We made it to our site in about an hour and settled in to find a single occupant, and artist, who had taken a the day off from his craft.
Forrest and I changed our shoes and clothes and headed off to the Ground Hog Creek, which flowed 100 yards from the Lean-to. Here we bathed! Head to toe bio-degradable soap. The salamanders and crayfish, tadpoles and minnows did not seem to mind. We loved it and they swam away to safety. Next came the clothes – all of those dirty socks, shirts, underwear and shorts. The laundromat had been closed on Sunday, when we were at Hot Springs Hostel, so we missed our only other chance to do laundry and get an honest wash. Stringing up our wet clothes on a nylon line, we played Frisbee until dinner. Again, Forrest had wicked accuracy and mine was not so much.
Four other hikers came along, two in a group. The first two (Bill and Dave) looked like father and son, but they were just fellows who happened to keep a similar hiking pace. Bill was 6’2” tall and heavy set; Dave was 5’8” and thin. We exchanged all kinds of stories and enjoyed swapping tales immensely. The other couple consisted of two guys (one about 55 and the other 20), but we heard mostly from the older guy, named George. He sat and talked with us for over an hour explaining his life: Wyoming carpenter, WWII paratrooper, Flagstaff AZ cowpuncher, Bangor ME shipbuilder, and on and on. George at 55 was in terrific shape and said that he was a Through Hiker. He was excited to see the whole AT, as were the others. Each claimed their goal: Mt. Katahdin, ME, the 5,267 feet tall end of the line, or BUST!
It was a wonderful BS session, one that I thorough enjoyed. My only regret was that Forrest chose it as the time to go off and wash the dishes in Ground Hog Creek. I should have done the dishes. My mistake; however, as a compromise, next time the dishes can wait. Or we can do them together AND hear the stories. We all hit the sack early, expecting long days ahead.
George started telling us stories about some of the Through Hikers whom he had passed. They were probably a day or two behind and, since we were hiking towards them, we would likely come upon them. He counted seven in all and they certainly would know about him. It was interesting to come upon hikers, picking up a conversation from scratch. We could now tell stories about George and other hikers we had seen ahead of him. Most of these conversations happened in the morning, or at the shelters at night. Other times, we were too tired for the in-depth, who-did-you-see-on-the-trail-today talks.
That next morning, we spent the first part climbing Snowbird Mountain, which consisted of a poorly graded, switch-backed trail. We made the climb without too much trouble. The difficulty was with my crotch: I had a serious case of jock itch, which was killing me. I needed some Cruex to relief the redness and chafing. Instead I relied on Vaseline, which lubricated the area, but did not take away the irritation. It at least made it so that I was not in as much pain, and could maintain a decent pace. We made it to the top of Snowbird for breakfast and found an airplane installation there. A huge beacon, the instruments that guide airplanes, was installed near the summit: it guided airplanes from one “district” to adjacent districts.
The Smokies are so covered with smoke that when we came to the trail guide, where it said, “Wonderful views are available in all directions, particularly of the spectacular Smokies immediately south,” all we could do was laugh. Seeing nothing but the trees and a few hundred yards in front of us, it will take a lot of rain to clear the air of all the smoke for a decent vista.
The two of us did hit some nice springs along the way and these afforded us great refreshment. The rest of the day was fairly easy hiking, because of the long descent from Snowbird to Davenport Gap. The Gap marked the end of the Pisgah National Forest and the beginning of the Great Smoky Mountains. Hooray!
We ate lunch on the banks of a rushing creek and prepared for our assault of the National Park. The Big Pigeon River offered us some nice views, but once again the smoke foiled our plans to see anything else. There was an exquisite ascent from the creek, where we had lunch, to Davenport Gap. It was as picturesque as anything we had seen to date. Saluting the trees with a great wizz, I was psyched for a cool dip in the water, but was forced to postpone that for a while. We made a short three mile trip into the small town of Mount Sterling, where we found the Ranger Station. Since Ned and Laurie were planning to join us, we secured spaces for 4 of us to stay in the shelters in the National Park. Finding the Ranger after ½ hour, we made arrangements. After a little hassle with the ranger, we realized that unless we were “point blank checked” by a ranger on the trail, there was no way that we would have a problem. We were golden for our time in the Great Smokies with or without this clearance. “Dishonesty is the Best Policy!” Forrest, however, who planned to go to law school, and Laurie, who WAS in law school, thought it would be better not to have to explain why they were found trespassing without a permit on Federal Lands. I conceded the point.
From the Ranger Station we “mozied” into the town of Mount Sterling, such as it was, and hit the one hot spot: the gas station/grocery store/cigarette shop/soda fountain/hang-out spot. A nice man offered us ice-cream and drinks, which we appreciated. I ate one pint of lime sherbet and one half a pint of pineapple ice-cream. Calling Ned from the local phone booth, we talked about meeting together in a few days to continue our Berkley-Hooper-Hooper-Hooper (BH3) joint venture. They would be providing the car and some needed supplies, and we would have the maps, cooking equipment, first aid and tent gear.
Perhaps the most revealing points of the day came from eaves-dropping on the local gossip: a 93 year-old man in overalls came by with his 80 year-old girl friend and complained about kids today. A guy with red hair, who was around our age, began to talk about the new bridge that was needed in the town. A woman came in talking about how much she and her neighbors hated the National Park and what a pain in the ass it was. Apparently 35 local families had lost their property, due to eminent domain, when the park was created, and the neighbors were still hot about it decades later. The hatred for the then Governor will last generations. The people hate the park and seemed to thrive on every bit of news pointing out its shortcomings. As we saw it, the only people coming to Mount Sterling were there BECAUSE of the Park. They need it for their commerce, but they hate it at the same time. It creates the largest employer in the county. Sounds like every other state in the Union, which have little unity on National Parks.
As we made our way back to the Trail, we came by a team of job corps Blacks working in the Park. It was a scene from Cool Hand Luke in a lot of ways. What we have here is a failure to communicate, right Boss?
On another nature note: the butterflies in the park are about the only beautiful bugs we saw. Red-Spotted Purples, Tiger Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, Skippers, Question Marks, Blues, Cabbage, Sulphur, and on and on. There are thousands of them, each more exquisite than the last.
Camp tonight is at Davenport Gap Shelter and there is room for 12. Only one guy, Dave, a day hiker, and his dog, George, are with us, though, so we have room to spread out. We spotted a black snake and some mice in the shelter, so we had company of other sorts. The bugs are out in perfusion, as usual. After a 13.5 mile day, and a 14.5 miler tomorrow, it will be good to have early sack time, after dinner.
Up late today, sure could use a cup of coffee to wake up! The brewing delayed us and we finally got on the trail by 8am. The morning was easy because the trail was perfectly graded. One could walk along and look about and lose the sense of walking at all. There were retaining wall along most of this section and that made for dry, well-preserved footpaths. If there is such a thing as a “Footpath in the Wilderness” (nickname of the Long Trail section of the AT) this is it!
I was particularly tired this morning because George, the dog, kept whining and the bugs kept buzzing well past midnight before falling asleep. Better get to bed early tonight. Eating breakfast by a filthy spring, Forrest cleaned it out so that we could get some fresh water. Then we were off to Mount Cammerer, which rises over 5,000 feet. After some strenuous hiking, all uphill slog, we hit Crosby Knob Lean-to and made lunch. Here we met the prettiest woman hiker to date, according to Forrest. Since the line about co-eds was always, “the women at Yale who stop all traffic would be run over at any other university,” she might not be worth a second look. That said, she was very cute and we had a pleasant chat about fellow hikers, the Davenport House Massacre, and bears. Renaming our lean-to as the sight of the Davenport Mouse Massacre, I set a rodent trap and attempted to sell the woman some of my mouse chewed chocolate. Even at reduced prices, she was not amused.
Taking the time to identify the birds we had seen that day, I talked with another hiker about the most prevalent birds. He said that he felt the Junco and Towhees were most abundant. We went about counting them and he was right. Aside from some migrating warblers, who were hard to positively ID, those seemed the most abundant species. We even spotted some Black and Turkey Vultures circling, while we ate our Bisquick sandwiches and drank our Koolaid.
Up and up and up was the story of the hiking for the rest of the day. Meeting three more Through Hikers and three day hikers on the trail, everyone has a story. We ascended Maddron Bald, Inadu Knob, Pinnacle Lead, Old Black, Mount Guyot and lastly Tri-Corner Knob. Much of the distance looked like the rain forests of the Olympic National Park in Washington. There is one major difference: the soil is only a few inches thick here. As a result, many of the trees have blown over, or will blow over in the next big storm. They lie roots-up all over the place, displaying their shallow root systems holding tightly to the thin soil, moss, ferns and flowers. The rock below appears to be slate. The rock surfaces jut at a 60 degree angle, so it is nearly impossible for the trees to gain stable and deep-rooted footing on the landscape.
At the Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, we met some of the nicest people: a 70 year-old couple, a 6’5” high school grad, a Duke Medical student and his girlfriend, a 35 year-old unemployed man and a 30 year-old oceanographer. The Med student, Dick, happens to know my sister, Millie, and he is hiking with one of his housemates (Jill) for a quick break from studies. Dick’s girlfriend, Chris, is a Bennington College grad, and she looks amazingly like Sue Trevathan from the Cottonwood Gulch. The older couple told all kinds of hiking stories. They went on and on about the Long Trail in Vermont with Forrest. I was too tired to join in the LT conversation, but did catch-up with them later on that topic. The neatest guy of all was the oceanographer, Terry Robinson, from Arlington, VA. A Vanderbilt grad, he attended Brown for a semester, collecting some amazing Ivy League stories. He finished up at Vandy and loved it. His story about Marcus Aurelius and the pissing horse (I don’t recall the details) was a classic, as was his tale about the gargoyle and the Christmas creche. He also enjoys archaeology, scuba diving and various Indian arts and crafts: my kind of guy. Terry has a long, long red mustache and cooked an amazing meal, especially the greens he had collected on the trail, which became a delicious weeds salad.
Frisbee, Bisquick cooking, and card (Hearts) filled the evening, as we all got along famously. A story about a fellow hiker merits mention: he talked about how terrible the shelters were and said: “There is more to life than an AT shelter.” He stomped outside and set up his tent. Later that night he came rushing back into the shelter, screaming about a bear that had ravaged the gear in his open pack. One hiker piped, “At least there ARE shelters on the fringes of AT life!”
Collecting some cloudy water from the spring Forrest had cleared the day before, it was muddied by an errant Frisbee toss that seemed to break the old spring. We made a 7:45am departure from our lean-to mates. The sky was sheer fog, dense low clouds, all morning. After 10:30 it started to clear some. We met a couple from Montreal who were doing the Through Hike, and in short order it started raining. After the rain came thunder, and then hail, and then lightning. I couldn’t recall seeing or hearing anything like it! Some lightning bolt struck a huge tree right in front of us, splintering it in half, and sent out a crack of thunder that was deafening.
Forrest served as our quick thinking guide, as he led those of us on the trail through the divided rain waters. We trucked along as swiftly as we could. Only a 20 minute shower and thunderstorm, but I was soaked clear to my marrow. I did not fully recover my hearing nor from shivering until dinner that night. The storm, though, cleared out much of the smoke.
We crossed Mount Sequayah, Hughes Ridge and False Gap, where we stopped for lunch (5,400 feet). From lunch to Ice Spring Shelter was some of the prettiest hiking we had done all trip long. The highlight was Charlie’s Bunion. I saw the Sawtooth Range of Mountains in the distance and enjoyed the sunshine and the rugged slide near the Bunion. There were several hikers on the Bunion, when Forrest and I arrived. We didn’t stay long, but hurried to get a space in the next shelter. This fellow named Scott attempted to catch and pass us on the trail, except we were really road-savvy by this time on our trip. There was no way we would lose a bunk spot to this guy! I took off for the next mile at a blistering pace, which went up, straight up. I burned him but good. My adrenaline was really flowing up that last stretch, but I wouldn’t let his boots come near mine. Scott had to stop at a spring to gulp some water and catch his breath. He asked Forrest if I always hiked that fast. Forrest said, “No, he usually hikes faster!” Scott’s face was beet red when he showed up to the shelter, and he was panting like a tired dog. I beat him to the bunks that day, all right! Claiming the two best ones available for Forrest and me.
The shelter occupants were the bonus for the day: three nurses and an assorted others. The nurses were on vacation and they kept us in stitches all night with their funny stories. The beautiful full moon, which we could see clearly at last, was awe-inspiring. The nurses said that we might expect to see an eclipse of the moon, if we stayed up late enough. I thought I could look at that moon and hear stories all night, but I was mistaken. One of the nurses looked at my legs and said, “Henry, you have the second best pair of calves on the mountain today.” It was meant as a compliment, but it struck me the opposite and I shuffled off, calves covered, to bed. After writing in my journal, I blew out my candle and quickly crashed to sleep. The next day I realized how tired I was, as I looked at my handwriting: it was sloppy, crooked, and drifted off the page…as if I fell asleep mid-thought. So it goes.
Today is the day that Laurie and Ned were supposed to catch up with us, so we were in good spirits and glad to be in good physical shape. Forrest woke me at 6:30, having been up since 6am himself. We had to be ready to leave by 7:30 at the latest today. One of the nurses, Evie, was up when we left. Everyone else was still asleep. We had coffee, tea, and a dry breakfast, and bid Evie farewell, before shoving off to Newfound Gap. There we were going to pick up five day’s worth of supplies. The walk was all down this morning, which is trickier on knees than you think. We made it to the Gap by 8:50 and arrived less than 10 minutes before Ned and Laurie drove up in their station wagon. Perfect timing! After hugs and hellos, how was the trip, etc., we sorted out our goods and realized that we needed lots more supplies. On the list were peanut butter, jelly, honey, cheese, raisins, cereal, dinners, Koolaid, and toilet paper. Laurie and Forrest drove through the Gap to Gatlinburg in order to stock up. GAT-linburg is, as the name prefix indicates, for GAT’s. It feels like Ocean City tourist mania times ten. While Laurie and Forrest shopped, Ned read my journal and I read the 5 letters I had received. Wow, what a Bonanza! Three were from Lydia Boyduy, and they were all great to get. More on the serious side that I had expected, Lydia seems to be very family, Ukrainian-centric, and self-critical. It appears to have been a long summer for her, whatever she decides to do. Ned and I sunned and burned, while reading and talking to two Colorado natives who were Through hikers. We had a great time shooting the breeze.
Laurie and FB returned at noon and we departed for the AT trailhead at Newfound Gap toward Clingman’s Dome. It is a steep climb, though, and we were all winded when we got to the summit. The balsam fir and skunk cabbage offered an interesting contrast of smells to our sensitive olfactory organs. The hiking was great, up and until lunch. We passed a group of ecology students from UT (Tennessee) on their Saturday afternoon tour. They were not so thrilled with the prospects of the tour and the leader was managing things poorly. We climbed Indian Gap, Mount Collins, and Clingman’s Dome in not so quick succession. Easier said than done, as we jockeyed in and around complaining UT students. The final ascent to the dome was a 1,600 climb, which brought us to an altitude of 6,643, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail.
The hike up was strenuous on all of our muscles, especially Ned and Laurie’s. Having had little sleep the night before and having hiked 10 miles today, would tire out any hikers, but particularly some rookies.
A dousing trick by our water fetchers, Ned and Forrest, did not go over well. The humor was lost on yours truly and I hiked off ahead, huffy, and in a bad mood. I had to get it together and allow myself to be made fun of from time to time. In a better frame of mind by the time we reached the shelter, I helped with dinner and prepared for the night’s sleep. My sunburnt, jock-itch rattled body did not cooperate in the get-to-sleep-fast category. With too many things on my mind from today’s letters and my own too-vivid imagination, I decided not to write tonight, but to chill and get to bed. Sleep evaded me however and I stayed up too late for my own good.
The eclipse was last night, not Thursday, and I have never seen such a brilliant moon, not even in New Mexico. One could see everything inside the Lean-to and out — no flashlights needed. I was too tired (or I should say too lazy) to roust myself out of the sack for the 1am lunar eclipse. It was tough for me to get up at 7am to cook with Forrest. But it was even harder for Ned and Laurie to wake up. We did not break camp until 9am. Poor showing for us lazy bones. Ned and Laurie needed and deserved the rest, so we let it go.
The morning hike was easy and uneventful as we covered 7.1 miles in a little over three hours. At Siler’s Bald we passed a group of UConn students getting ready to continue their Through Hike to Maine. Paid for in advance, they carried light packs, as their supplies are replenished every couple of days along the way by some drivers of vans – the soft life. The ascent of Siler’s Bald (5,620) was pretty smooth, and the descent to Sam’s Gap (4,840) was easier still. Lunch at Derrick Knob Lean-to offered us a rest and a new hiking acquisition. His name was Dave Bone, a lawyer from Jacksonville, Illinois. At 6’7” he is a head taller than us or any other hiker was saw on the AT. He was as amiable and low key a guy as we could imagine.
A wild boar made its way toward us, its tusks thrusting outside his lips in anger. Dave saw him a ways away and warned us on what to do. It is advised in the guide books to stay away from the boar’s as they can attack without provocation. This guy looked like he weighed about 300 pounds and he was making a circle around our cabin. Along the way he was rooting up all of the bugs and wild mushrooms and onions (called ramps) in sight. I had fortunately managed to dig up a dozen ramps before our pig friend showed up. The wild onions would taste mighty good, sautéed and cooked with meat for dinner.
The AT trail guide also says, “From Derrick Knob to Thunderhead Mountain involves more exertion; the route is rougher.” And every single word in that paragraph rang true. The long four mile approach and ascent of Thunderhead was un-welcomed, especially in the heat of midday. The thoughts in my head about Lydia, and the Prairie Trek, and the next Lean-to, kept me more than occupied. I wrote a song in the form of a silly round, or cannon, about the Trek, that struck me as funny:
New, New Mexico, summer, what the heck.
Hiking, hiking, hiking, hiking, hiking on the trek.
Forrest said it was pretty kinky, but Ned and Laurie panned it and refused to sing the round with me. I played the words over in my mind and was entertained for the scramble up Thunderhead. The ascent was simplified in 1971 by the YCC –Youth Conservation Corps. The YCC transformed the former Bee-line to the top of Thunderhead into a series of switch-backs that tracked through the dense rhododendron. At the top of the mountain the undergrowth was so thick and tall, and the sky was so smoky, that we couldn’t tell what direction we were facing. It was not until we descended to Spence’s Field that any views came to us. From there the area looked like the rolling Austrian Alps in the Sound of Music.
Ned and I made it to Spence Field Shelter by 5pm and it proceeded to pour rain and hail immediately after we got there. Laurie got caught in the worst 10 minutes of it, and he was thoroughly drenched when he got to the Shelter. That downpour was one of the fiercest of the trip. No lightning in front of us this time, but the buckets of cold water were really emptied fast.
Our lawyer hiking mate, Dave Bone, was upstaged by a couple who came in traveling north (Barry and Gail). Barry will be attending UNC next year, after a few years absence. Gail is at U.VA now after two years at other colleges. The two joined forces with us in long conversations about hiking, college, birds, etc. Barry’s harmonica playing made for a great evening of musical listening also. Dave talked about his life for some time after supper and his stories were punctuated by the sound of an owl in the distance. It was a pleasant way to top off the evening for me.
A deer in the distance offered us our second large mammal of the day. After sighting the deer, a skunk went waddling by our Lean-to: the most dangerous of the three. Oh, well. Thanks for not spraying us. Good night, skunk. Good night, owl. Good night, moon.
Barry got up at 5:45am and made a racket with all of the packs. He was lowering his pack from the rafters and most of the rest fell along with his. So much for trying to be quiet! He saw two deer right outside and got up to investigate. Seeing nothing myself, but already awake, I got up and went to wash my face. I took some soap to the spring and dunked my whole head in the water. It was cold, cold, cold. Head now numbed pretty completely, my brain failed to function well. Gail came down to wash and it was all I could do to mumble the names of some birds I spotted.
The great sunrise was a welcomed sight. The sky this morning was crystal clear: one of the most beautiful of the trip. The hike was also one of the most pleasant. The beach tree forests, oak groves, and whispering pines were magnificent against the blue sky. The tree fringes were bordered by forget-me-nots. We made it 2.3 miles by breakfast and another 2.5 miles by lunch (Molly’s Ridge). We had an easy go for all but the 1,000 foot rise to the ridge top, and we kept fairly close together that whole ascent.
Eating lunch at noon, after having arrived at the Ridge at 10:30, we decided to hitch to Newfound Gap, pick up our car, then drive to some other spots for hiking. With this modified plan in mind we quickly agreed to do more Smokies trail hiking. In the process, we had to bag the Chroah Section, which eliminated Cable Gap-Sassafras Gap and the Nantahala River, past Fontana Dam. I was happy with the decision.
When the clouds showed up again and rain threatened, we headed out in the mud for the last four miles to Birch Springs Shelter. The climb was easy enough, and Ned and I could carry on a conversation the whole time. The conversations about the Trek, girls, school, friends, guitar, lacrosse, wrestling were among our topics. The five of us (including Dave Bone) made it to Birch Springs by 3pm and we proceeded to wash and play Frisbee for two hours.
Some nice time to talk, then dinner, then rest. Our idea was to rise early and get to Fontana Dam, which was the end of the Smokies. We could hitchhike back to our car from there.
Forrest woke me at 6:15 and I had no desire to get up whatsoever. I lay in bed for another 15 minutes and watched others pack. Dave Bone left the lean-to at about 7am and the four Bozos left soon after to begin one of the easiest and weirdest days of the Smokies. In no time at all, we had ascended Shuckstack Mountain, passed by the mountain laurel, azaleas, columbine, and reached the base of the Fire Tower Lookout. A long climb up and we saw perhaps the finest panorama in this part of the country. Dave was at the top oogling over the scenery and the brilliant sun. The clouds had settled over Fontana Dam and the Lake between all of the green ridges, which made for a rare spectacle. It was the type of image one would expect to see from National Geographic or a picture postcard in Gatlinburg. I took 6 – 10 pictures in all directions because one could see over 30 miles without a cloud to hide the natural beauty. Dave’s raves made the sight dream-like fantastic. He kept saying, “Oh, my God,” in his spontaneous excitement at the vista. It was magnificent.
After the fire tower, it was a gliding five miles down to the hard surfaced road and the cement casing around Fontana Dam. Dave and I saw a young deer near the Dam as we strutted across the creek, between specks of water (natural cooling system). We had uninterrupted tales of the delicate nature of raw oysters, Guinness Stout, ham and eggs. Typical of a starved hiker, Dave had some great food cravings and he talked about them in minute, luscious detail.
At the Dam, we all took showers for the first time in ages, played more Frisbee, and ran around the parking lot, which was empty of cars. We contemplated our hitchhiking plans in earnest. The sun was blisteringly hot, but a relief from the usually hazy day. We shared our lunch with Dave as he called his wife to have her pick him up. When Dave returned, he announced that the Bone family offered to drive the four stooges back to Newfound Gap to pick up our car. Forrest pointed out the number of miles that this detour would take them out of their way. Dave said it was OK and we accepted. The Bone generosity was overwhelming and greatly appreciated.
With a few hours to burn until Dave’s wife arrived, Ned and Laurie took a skinny dip in the Fontana Lake, while Forrest and I took a tour of the power generators. We hopped on the free tram down to the powerhouse and walked all around the central control room and outside the electrical high tension wires. It was fascinating — all these turbines in the dam! The sun shone so brightly on the water and the dam, we needed sunglasses to protect our eyes from the glare. A gorgeous day to say the least. One of the very best of the trip.
Taking two more showers today, Ned set a record of four washings (3 showers and a swim). I slept the afternoon away lying on my bed roll and soaking up some rays. Laurie and I read and slept until about 4pm, when Dave’s wife, Margaret, came to pick us up in her Lincoln Mercury. It was a great ride, taking a few hours what had taken us a week to walk. Thank you Dave and Margaret!
From the stop at Newfound Gap, we took off in the car for Gatlinburg and the greasy-spoon special: burgers, cokes, fries (at the local Burger Emporium) and a beer chaser. Then it was off to the Visitor’s Center to figure out where we could stay for the next two days. Mount Collins (0.8 miles) was the place where we ended up being placed for the first night. (Mount Kephart Shelter the other night.)
We drank all of our beer and walked in our 0.8 mile stretch, grabbing our beds for the night. Mice, you die tomorrow, if my chocolate is gone tonight!
Well the mice got me again, socks, clothes bag, and some chocolate. Damn! They ate through my pack this time, right through the nylon. We headed off from Mount Collins Shelter and drove back to Newfound Gap for our approach to Charlie’s Bunion. A quick equipment change and we were off for a four mile trek to the Bunion. Stopping off at Ice Water Shelter for lunch and Frisbee, we were ready for some fun and relaxation on the cliffs. Ned and Forrest stayed at the Bunion. Laurie and I walked to another section and gazed into the deep gorges.
Next we were off to Mt Kephart Shelter for dinner and sleep. The descent of four miles took a lot out of my feet and I was too tired to run, when it started to rain. Just a calm pace and I was in the shelter building a fire. We shared it with another couple and a group of three hikers. We had some tequila offered us and we accepted the quick buzz as a gift.
Tired and a lot more achy that we should have been for the day, we went to bed early. I was thinking about Lydia and Leo Murray and home. The roaring stream nearby drowned out the noises and pushed me on the boat to sleep.
Hiking from Mount Kephart to Newfound Gap via the Sweat Heifer Trail (that is its real name), it was raining again. We came across some hikers who offered us a trip to our car. Forrest and I walked with them the last two miles to their car. Our hike ended here, crossing a beautiful stream several times on wooden bridges. These were the guys who had offered us the tequila last night. We offered them some under-stirred chocolate pudding, they took it.
We spotted a Black Bear on the ride to the Gap and talked of the Tennessee laws around Knoxville. These three hikers were several of the most incredible characters we had met on the trip and we were glad that hitch hiking was not necessary. Forrest and I bid the gents farewell, washed up and drove back to pick up Laurie and Ned.
While eating breakfast, Laurie mentioned that we were to give two others, a stewardess and her boyfriend, a lift to their car. The couple had stayed with us in the Shelter and walked up to us as we were leaving.
From the Gap, it was out of the Smokies and on the Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. I needed a bath and a shave worse than ever. I itch all over with grunge, but feel that the trip was more enjoyable and rewarding than hikes before.
Thanks, Forrest. Stay kinky and don’t suck.
Reflections on the trip:
The hike was not what I expected, which can be a good thing. I have spent lots of time hiking in the Northeast woods and in the Southwest deserts. The Southeast is so different. The terrain and vegetation are completely different.
The food was the best I have ever had on a camping trip. Forrest ended up doing almost all of the cooking (and cleaning), which will have to change on the next trip. We met some great characters on the trail and some fun Through Hikers. We definitely had some strange and memorable Lean-to buddies along the trail.
I would like to do sections of the Smokies again: Dry Sluice Trail comes immediately to mind. I also like “dry sluice” with the idea that there would be less rain next time. And I would have liked less smoke so that we could enjoy the views. And I wish I had been less uptight, which put a damper on the trip for Forrest and Ned, especially. If I could relax and go with the flow, that would have helped diffuse any tensions.
Just yesterday we were traveling on a bus to Asheville, now we are headed back north, the trip is over so fast. All I can do is capture the memories in this feeble little notebook. So many things to remember: the smell of the mud, the color of the slate, the scent of campfire smoke, the feel of a good back rub, the soothing of Vaseline, the taste of balsam fir…and tree lichen. Those hail storms will never be lost to me. I can go a long time before I will crave Bisquick and chocolate pudding. Remembering the comments of the Socorro town sage, who met us on the Trek in the town square: “You just got to do it, son. Whatever it is!” Simple and true.
Trees Identified on the AT in NC/TN (partial list)
- Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus)
- Shortleaf Pine (Pinus Echinata)
- Table-Mountain Pine (Pinus Pungens)
- Loblolly Pine (Pinus Taeda)
- Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis)
- Fraser Fir (Abies Fraseri)
- Berkley Forrest (Woodsroadus LittleFallsia)
- Northern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis)
- Weeping Willow (Salix Babylonica)
- Sweet Birch (Betula Lenta)
- Flowering Magnolia (Magnolia Grandiflora)
- American Beech (Fagus Grandifolia)
- White Oak (Quercus Alba)
- Chinkapin Oak (Quercus Mueklen Bergii)
- Black Oak (Quercus Velutina)
- Blackjack Oak (Quercus Marilandica)
- Yellow Popular (Liriodendron Tulipifera)
- American Sycamore (Plantanic Occidentalis)
- Common Apple (Malus)
- Honey Locust (Gleditsia Triacanthos)
- Black Locust (Robinia Pseudoacacia)
- Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia Virginiana)
- Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum)
- Jock Itch (Tinea Cruris)
- Silver Maple (Acer Saccharinum)
- Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum)
- Yellow Buckeye (Aesculus Octandra)
- Flowering Dogwood (Cornus Florida)
- Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron Maximum)
- Mountain Laurel (Lalmia Latifolia)
- Hooper Hitchhiker (Hankus Full-o-shitis)
- White Ash (Fraxinus Americana)
- Common Chokecherry (Prunus Virginiana)
- Sassafras (Sassafras Albidum)
- Northern Red Oak (Quercus Rubra)
- Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis)
- Mountain Maple (Acer Spicatum)
- Pitch Pine (Pinus Rigida)
 The Davenport House Massacre, according to our female hiker, was an episode in early American history where 160 people were trapped in a Fort and either slaughtered or sold into slavery. 50 people were massacred, 98 were taken prisoner by the Potawatomi Indians and sold as slaves to the British. The British released them all immediately. Of the others, 1 person burned to death, and only 5 escaped.