|©1996 George Steffanos|
Thus far, all of the trail towns have been in "dry" counties (this is, after all, the Bible Belt). Hot Springs, North Carolina, our next supply point, is reputed to be "wet." With any luck, taking into account Ron's slow, steady crawl, Dave and I should catch up with them again by Hot Springs. It should be fairly interesting to be with maniacs like Ron and Dave in a town with bars. Look out. [Note: no bars in Hot Springs -- at least in 1983. I think there was a state liquor store, though.]
We had one final round of storytelling last night. As the glowing joints made their way around the shelter and we grew stoned, Ron shared a story about the day when his brother took him food shopping for the trip. Ron, a complete backpacking novice, watched in bewilderment as his brother filled the cart with all sorts of strange provisions. Finally, when he dropped a box of saltines on top, Ron had to ask him what the hell that was for. "ROUGHAGE!!!" was the firm, terse reply.
Ron also questioned the need for Tang, but now he cannot do without it. He never carries water on his hikes. He carries massive amounts of Tang, which he mixes in every time he fills his canteen. He definitely travels to the beat of a different drum, but that is just one of the quirks that makes him fascinating. This self-proclaimed lifelong couch potato has done quite well for himself. He has now packed 170 miles. That is a hell of an accomplishment, even though it has taken him a month to do it.
On the rare occasions when things would grow quiet, Ron would suddenly shout out "ROUGHAGE!" and we would all begin giggling again. Perhaps you had to hear him tell the story in order to appreciate this, especially after you had just smoked three joints with him. Later, Ron began mixing in his other favorite backpacking necessities: "TANG!" "OATMEAL!" "COFFEE!" "BEERNUTS!" "CIGARETTES!"
Dave told a story, the events in which transpired years ago, on his first trip to the Smokies. He was sleeping in one of the shelters one night, at a time prior to the installation of the bear fences in front of the open side. A bear came in and tried to get at a thru-hiker's food supply. The hiker stood up and shined his flashlight directly into the bear's eyes, sending him retreating out of the shelter. This entire sequence was repeated two more times. Finally, being smarter than the average bear, Yogi had a brainstorm and began to back into the lean-to, heading once again for those pic-a-nic baskets. The thru-hiker grabbed a frying pan and dealt that bear a resounding whack across the butt. Yogi ran out, never to return that night. Nothing comes between a thru-hiker and his food.
Dave, Ron, and I needed to make another trip into Fontana Village this morning, having forgotten several vital items yesterday afternoon. We set out to walk the three miles from the shelter to the village. After about a half-mile, one of the Fontana Village sheriffs pulled over and gave Dave and me a ride into town. He was not allowed to have dogs in the car, so Ron and Sonny had to walk all of the way in.
Once again, I felt a mixed welcome in Fontana. Every place of business had a sign in its window, informing us that backpacks were not allowed inside. Many of the upper-middle-class tourists bestowed upon us the friendly countenances they reserve for derelicts. Nevertheless, the stores did not seem to mind taking our money. We did meet a few friendly people, though, and no one was outright rude to us. Maybe it was my imagination.
After devouring a large breakfast with Dave in the cafeteria, I stopped at the Post Office for a padded envelope in which to mail home the two rolls of exposed film which had been overlooked when I sent the return package yesterday. At the store, I picked up several forgotten items, the most important being a small container of baby powder. My chubby thighs had been chafed raw and hairless by long hours of steamy hiking, and various other appendages were not exactly thriving in their endless sweat baths. I also purchased a nutritious second breakfast of coke and potato chips for a little al fresco dining at one of a small group of tables outside.
I finally made my way back to the shelter -- no rides, so it was another three-mile walk in Fontana. You would not think this would bother me, with all of the walking I am already doing on this trip, but my legs and the bloody stumps I use for feet have only so many miles in them on any given day, and I hoard these like a miser. Wasting them on roadwalks not part of the official Appalachian Trail mileage frustrates the hell out of me.
At the shelter, I loaded my pack and followed the AT over paved T.V.A. roads for a quarter-mile to the dam. I found the building housing the public showers and spent almost an hour in one -- my first since Franklin. The U.S. government has my sincere gratitude for this thoughtful gesture. An especially nice touch was a mirror in the shower stall. I enjoyed my first shave since the Walasiyi Inn in Georgia right in the stall. It was a pleasure to rid myself of that growth, even though I adroitly managed to gouge my lower lip and it bled like a stuck pig.
By the time Dave and I trod the concrete footway across the long dam, it was 1:15. On the far side of Fontana Lake, the Appalachian Trail followed paved roads along the shore for a half-mile before turning into the woods for the long, grueling climb up a spur ridge of the Smokies. When we finally reached the firetower on the top of Shuckstack Mountain, there was an incredible 360-degree view of western North Carolina's mountain ranges to the east and the North Carolina/Tennessee state line ridgecrest of the Smokies to the west. Two hikers we met there who were on their way down into Fontana told us of a severe rat problem at Mollies Ridge Shelter, where we intended to stay tonight. We decided to stop at Birch Spring Shelter and make today a short day. Russell Field Shelter, the next one past Mollies Ridge, was eight miles away, and it was already 4:00. To be assured of a place inside a shelter each night, you must be one of the first three thru-hikers to arrive. The other nine or so spots are reserved by short-term hikers whose permits state specifically at which shelter they are to stay each night. We do not want to take any chances in these crowded mountains, so we will have to leave early, get our miles in, and arrive at our chosen shelters early in the afternoon.
Birch Spring Shelter is a sty, but it's our home tonight. The floor is an odorous mire of oily black mud. I have already seen at least ten mice scurrying around, so I may not get too much sleep tonight. There is not enough food in my pack for them and me. On the other hand, the water supply is not too dirty and the wire bunks are in pretty good shape. There is room for twelve people, and we are the only ones here.
It is 8:00, and I am going to lie down. Dave and I are shooting for 15.2 miles tomorrow to Derrick Knob Shelter. I am really looking forward to getting going again after covering only 45.6 miles in the last five days. I had a lot of fun, but now I want mileage.
From Doe Knob, a long, fairly steep decent into Ekaneetlee Gap was followed by a frequently-steep one-mile climb up to Mollies Ridge Shelter, where we filled our canteens and rested for fifteen minutes. The next step was another climb -- a quick ascent of a summit called the "Devil's Tater Patch." I could have used some of those spuds just then -- I had already burnt most of my breakfast calories and was damned hungry -- but it was all just a cruel hoax.
A lot of ups and downs along a rolling stretch of ridgecrest brought us to Russell Field Shelter -- a beautiful spot. Years ago, before these mountains became a national park, folks used to farm their ridgecrests. The old farm fields have now been reclaimed by the patient forest, but trees covering them grow less densely and-the woods are airier than the surrounding forests. The shelter was situated in a grassy, park-like wooded area, where many of the trees were thick with tiny, bright buds. Dave and I spent forty minutes up there, walking around and just relaxing. I shot my first pictures since Shuckstack's firetower.
A short while later, we hit the nicest spot I had seen up to that point in the Smokies -- a grassy little rolling meadow atop a knob called Little Bald. Although we had not planned it, Dave and I wound up having lunch there and staying for about an hour. The sun was shining and the air remained pleasantly cool (Of course, the pretty little redhead we met up there had absolutely nothing to do with the long break). It never did get hot all day. I took a few photographs of the views from Little Bald, although the air was becoming rather hazy.
After lunch, we had a long, steep climb up Thunderhead, an impressive mountain with large open expanses along the crest. There were good views, especially from the smaller west peak aptly named Rockytop. I shot some good pictures up there, but dark clouds were quickly moving in and we had no time to linger. A scattering of fat raindrops began to fall on us as we made our way down the other side. Soon, the sun was gone, the wind was wailing, and the temperature was plummeting. We flew over the last four miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. Immediately upon my arrival, I threw on my long pants, chamois shirt, and wool sweater. The balmy afternoon had given way to a rather tempestuous night.
Derrick Knob was the first completely full shelter Dave and I had encountered since we started on the Appalachian Trail. Ten other backpackers were already here when we arrived. They all seem like good people, so this is not at all an unpleasant experience.
The shelter is in an excellent spot, similar in appearance to Russell Field. About a dozen small deer are wandering around nibbling the grass and the lower leaves, and they let me approach surprisingly close. It is pretty amazing how brave the deer are in the national parks, where no hunting is allowed. As I followed the side trail down to the spring to get water for my dinner, one walked past me on the trail, close enough for me to touch.
After dinner, Dave and I found ourselves talking to a nice couple from Louisville, Kentucky named Steve and Diane. Their backpacks were outside the shelter, as they were going to pitch a tent outside for the night in order to escape the crowded shelter. As we talked, a small raccoon started messing with the packs. Steve went outside, walked right up to the brazen little bastard, and gazed sternly down at him. The coon stared back in motionless insolence -- a calm, defiant glare of which any human juvenile delinquent would be proud. Finally, he waddled over to a nearby spot where two other backpackers were cleaning up their dinner pots and dishes. He watched them work for a while, fascinated. They chuckled warmly at his charming cuteness, until he suddenly lunged, grabbed a dish and a spoon, and sprinted away. They had to chase him for more than a hundred yards before he ditched the booty and took off into the thicker woods surrounding the old field. They returned to the shelter, grinning sheepishly. It is tough to look cool after chasing down a criminal who weighs all of ten pounds.
As darkness fell, Dave and I helped Steve and Diane gather wood for and build a nice fire. Thru-hikers do not often bother with such amenities -- we are usually too tired -- but the night just seemed to call for one. As we sat around the shelter's fireplace, enjoying the warm flames, Dave pulled out some pot and expressed a wish that he had a bowl. Steve produced one from his pocket, and we all got pretty blown away. I went to bed at 10:00 and slept like a stone until 7:00.
I am actually writing this entry on Thursday morning, having been too lazy to do it last night. A solid mass of water was falling from the clouds when I awoke. It is still pouring. I do not know what Dave and I will wind up doing today. A howling wind is lashing the rain sideways at times. As it is still just 7:30, and we were planning a short thirteen-mile day to Mount Collins Shelter, we are going to sit tight for a while and see if conditions improve. It will be much easier to make breakfast after this place clears out a bit, anyway.
We waited until noon before starting our hike, but the rain and the wind and the cold hung on strong all day. The trail was covered with a rich clay soil which the deluge had transformed into a sea of mud, bottomless and clinging on the flats and thin and tractionless on the slopes. Walking them was like walking on ice. A half-mile climb felt like a mile with my feet kept slipping back a half-step downhill for each step I climbed. I am more exhausted after today's seven miles than I was after yesterday's fifteen. Worst of all, I am still forty-one miles from Davenport Gap and the small grocery store located near the Appalachian Trail road crossing there.
There were some extremely tough stretches on the trail, most especially the open summit of Silers Bald and the crest of a narrow, knife-edge ridge traversed by the AT soon afterwards. Both would have been scenic and not terribly difficult on a more clement day, but today was far from clement. Days like these have their own warped charm and personality, and they make for more interesting stories afterwards than the nice ones, but a wee dram of this sort of thing goes a long way towards satisfying one's appetite for adventure.
About five-and-a-half miles into the day, I was hiking by myself, some distance behind Dave. I stopped into Silers Bald Shelter in order to sit down, take a rest, and just get out of the rain for a while. Although it was early in the afternoon, the brutal weather had already packed the place with hikers. All of the shelters in the Smokies have a wire bear fence enclosing the open side, with a narrow opening to allow people to enter. This one was blocked by somebody's backpack. I stood there, exhausted and hypothermic, for about a minute, waiting for the owner of the pack to move it out of the way. Everybody in the shelter just sat or lay there unmoving, staring at me.
Finally, I asked, "Whose pack is this?" No one answered. I asked again. Same result. Now, I was angry. I almost shouted the question when I had to repeat it for the third time.
Just as I was about to kick the damned thing out of my way and start beating on all of the adult males in that shelter (figuring that I would eventually work my way around to the right one), the man who owned that pack, and had been standing less than three feet away from it for all of this time, snapped out of his lethargic stupor and moved it out of my way.
The thing that gets me is that jerk must have just gone through exactly the same misery that I had been enduring today. Only a person who has experienced a day that miserable can understand just how thoughtless and inconsiderate this guy was. I am attempting to change and grow as a person while hiking this trail, but, looking back, the guy kind of deserved a beating and I wish that I had given it to him. Running into these morons was an even more unpleasant experience because I had the memory of all of those great people I had met last night. I am glad I moved on to the next shelter to spend tonight.
Dave and I are lodging tonight with another great crew. The shelter is not as crowded as Derrick Knob last night, which is a definite plus. One of the nicest things about short-term hikers is that they always seem to have the ambition and the inclination to put forth the effort of building a nice, roaring fire at the end of the day. Even tonight, with saturated wood some of them have done so. Dave and I had temporarily exhausted all of our Boy Scout ambitions on last night's blaze, but we did join the damp, steaming circle around this one. I do not know the names of any of our shelter companions, but we are having a good time together, and that is all that matters.
One fellow turned Dave and me onto some good, strong hashish. Another offered Dave and me some gin. I thought the night just too miserable to be compelled to venture outside several times to water the grass, but Dave cheerfully accepted. Later on, he was forced to spend a good deal of time out in the cold, wind-driven rain. Being a true friend, I only broke his chops about that for an hour. I thought that my months on the trail would take me away from partying for a while, but the people I am meeting on the Appalachian Trail are as crazy as the ones I hang around with at home. I just wish that I came prepared for this with more food.
That situation is growing critical. I am out of granola bars, candy bars, and Pop-Tarts -- virtually all of my munchy food. I still have small amounts of crackers, peanut butter, and rice. My freeze-dried beef is holding out well, As ate my sugar, tea, and oatmeal. The Tang is almost gone, but there is still plenty of instant milk. Dave's situation is no better. A parting gift from Steve and Diane this morning of a large bag of peanuts is saving our butts for the moment. Diane also gave me some home-made potato bread at dinner last night. They were excellent people, like the vast majority of those I have met on the Appalachian Trail. I remember an account by an AT thru-hiker in a book that I read before starting this trip. He wrote that, while on his hike, he could not stand to be around anybody not a fellow thru-hiker. That was his loss.
I hear that the weather is supposed to be much better over the next couple of days. If we can make it 20.6 miles tomorrow to Pecks Corner Shelter, our supply problems should be workable. From there, it is a 19.6-mile hike to Davenport Gap Shelter the next day, where we can leave our backpacks and walk the two-mile round trip to the store. The wind and the rain have both died down considerably as night has fallen. Hopefully, the forecast is correct. If it isn't, we're f___ed.
The day started off well. It was an overcast morning, but gradually clearing. I made the initial three-mile climb to Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, in good shape -- in about ninety minutes. The summit had an observation tower, but it was completely engulfed by a cloud. The trail past Clingmans was extremely swampy from yesterday's rain -- and steep and broken by constant washouts as well. It was a lot of work to keep my shoes and socks -- still damp from yesterday -- from becoming completely water-logged. On a more pleasant note, I did get some good shots from Mount Buckley, a minor summit of Clingmans Dome, of the distant peaks and valleys as the clouds finally started to lift.
The prospective halfway point of our ambitious twenty-mile hike was Newfound Gap, the deep slash in the mountain range where US 441 and Tennessee 71 share the only road which crosses it. The weather continued to improve as we approached Indian Gap, with Newfound Gap less than two miles ahead. We were making excellent time and had not yet even stopped to rest. The twenty-mile day we needed seemed in the bag. As we climbed out of Indian Gap, the clouds began to return. When we were still a half-mile from Newfound Gap, the sky fell.
The three-mile climb from Newfound Gap to this shelter was endless misery today. There was no wind, but rain was falling in sheets -- heavier than yesterday. The already-saturated slopes instantly sprouted scores of cascading streams. I soon abandoned completely my effort to avoid puddles -- the world was one big puddle. Within five minutes, my feet were swimming around inside of my boots. All of my toes felt arthritic, and my right calf was cramping up as tightly as a miser's fist. Even though it was just 3:00 when I arrived here, I knew that I was finished. The next AT shelter is eight miles away. If the weather had held, we could have cruised in. Now, Dave and I need food very badly, and it is twenty-eight miles to Davenport Gap.
When the rain first struck, I walked along yelling obscenities for a solid ten minutes. Looking back now, that strikes me as being somewhat humorous. I think that I will make some dinner.
LATER, SAME NIGHT: Good news. Although fifteen people are now here to spend the night in a twelve-bunk shelter, four have decided to pitch tents in order to escape the crowd. My space is secure. The two latest arrivals are Steve and Diane, the couple from Louisville we met two nights ago. It is good to see them again, even though Steve looked at me like I was a maggot when, in conversation, I ignorantly pronounced the name of his city LOO-ee-vill; and he gently, but firmly had to inform me, "That's LOO-uh-vill," in his refined southern drawl.
The other four thru-hikers, besides Dave and myself, who are staying at this shelter tonight include a guy from Minnesota, a Wisconsin couple who talk like the characters on Second City Television's skit "The Great White North," but turned out to be pretty cool (I'm sure my southwestern Connecticut variation of the New York City accent made me sound like a thug to them), and an older woman hiking the Appalachian Trail in short installments. She had started this portion of her hike today at Clingmans Dome.
As usual, we began sharing trail stories. Dave told us all that he had bought one of those disposable, battery-powered watches [Note: a newly-marketed novelty in 1983] for this trip. When he reached the first shelter on Springer Mountain, he checked his watch while making the trip to the spring to fill his water bottles. It was blinking 11:30 a.m. on January 1. Two days later, at Neel Gap, he fulfilled the watch's ultimate destiny and disposed of it.
Speaking of watches, all of this wind-blown rain seems to have finished off my cheap wind-up pocket watch. It keeps stopping unpredictably. I will have to pick up a new one in Hot Springs.
Another story concerned an incident which happened to Dave on the trail today. He was walking along the usual soggy, muddy footpath during the monsoons. A huge fallen tree had blocked the path. It was too high to step over and too close to the ground below to duck underneath as he walked. Dave had to crawl on his belly like an earthworm in order to pass beneath the obstruction. He struggled to the other side and,resumed his hike, covered in mud, meanwhile looking back at the tree as he walked in order to call it a few choice names. While thus preoccupied, he strode straight into another patch of ankle-deep mud. He was laughing as he told this story, but I doubt that he found it humorous at the time (By the way, I remember passing that tree myself. I had the sense to climb laboriously over it, although I was exhausted and my backpack seemed to weigh a ton. Nevertheless, I can understand the temptation to take what at first appears to be the easy way out).
A short-term hiker at the shelter tonight made a big batch of popcorn, and I was treated to a couple of handfuls. Another fellow last night at Double Springs shared some popcorn with me. I do not know where I would be right now without these people. I have always relied on the kindness of strangers . . .
STILL LATER, SAME NIGHT: Just to make this wonderful day perfect, a skunk has been swaggering around the shelter as if he owned the place for the past half-hour. Everybody is wearing kid gloves, but a lot of funny jokes are going around. Tension is so thick in here that you could cut it with a Swiss Army knife. I have just thought of a name for this chapter.
The problem is some Einstein has left an entire box of Quaker Oats sitting on the floor over by the wall, and that is what has attracted Pepe le Pew. Compounding that problem for me, the idiot left it right next to MY backpack, putting all of my worldly possessions directly on the firing line at this moment. It is crisis time at Ice Water Springs.
Submitted for your approval: a rat-infested, leaky-roofed, dilapidated old hovel. A visit from a hungry skunk. Twelve weary backpackers, hiking the narrow, winding path that leads to -- The Twilight Zone.
VERY LATE BULLETIN: The skunk has just departed after about an hour. Somebody has placed the rest of the oatmeal outside. The crisis has apparently ended without tragedy. Good night from Ice Water Springs.
When I awoke this morning, a bleak cold rain was pouring down upon these mountains. I am extremely thankful for this wool sweater. I thought about mailing it home from Fontana Village when I realized that I had not yet worn the thing, but decided to hold onto it for the high elevations of the Smokies. Good thing.
I did not start hiking until 10:00. I was waiting for a break in the weather in order to get a good look at the famous stretch of narrow trail which clings precariously to the cliffs on Charlies Bunion. It was about a half-mile from the shelter. Although the sky never did actually clear, the rain did stop and the clouds lifted a bit off of the ridge.
The National Park Service has recently rerouted the Appalachian Trail around the safe, boring side of the Bunion. If I was looking for safe and boring, I could have remained in Connecticut and kept my job pumping gas. I took the old trail around the Tennessee side. It was not as scary as other backpackers had led me to believe that it would be, but it was impressive. The clouds had lifted just enough to give me nice views into Tennessee and a good look at the precipitous drop a few inches away.
The weather continued to improve as I hiked along, but I did not trust it. I kept my chamois shirt, long pants, and rain pants on my body and the rain cover on my backpack. For the entire day, the weather alternated between deteriorating and improving conditions. A few drops of rain finally fell upon me as I rested at Bradleys View, a spot at about the halfway point of today's hike with fine views eastward into North Carolina.
After I left Bradleys View, the weather improved steadily. I was finally compelled to stop three miles later in Copper Gap and strip down to my shorts and tee shirt. While I was there, I ate a pitiful lunch from my dwindling supplies: one package of unreconstituted freeze-dried peaches, one cup of Tang, five crackers, and three teaspoons of sugar. When I had finished, I was still so desperately hungry that my leather hiking boots were looking fairly edible.
Be that as it may, if I ever wanted to someday eat again, I had no choice but to tackle the steep one-mile climb up Mount Sequoyah which followed. The trail elevation was hovering around 6000 feet all day, and the altitude was beginning to take its toll on my run-down body. I was feeling played out, even though I had covered nine relatively-easy miles up to that point.
I trudged and I trudged up Mount Sequoyah, and that simple climb seemed endless. I knew from the trail description in the guidebook that I had this one-mile climb, a 7/10-of-a-mile descent into Chapman Gap, a very steep 7/10-of-a-mile ascent of Mount Chapman, a very steep 7/10-of-a-mile descent to Big Cove Gap, and a final 2/10-of-a-mile climb ahead of me before reaching the next shelter. I was absolutely dreading that climb up Mount Chapman. I was dizzy and disorientated from hunger, altitude, and simple exhaustion, and still that initial mile up Mount Sequoyah just would not end. Although nearing the end of my rope, I refused to stop and rest until Chapman Gap.
Finally, the trail began to descend. Although I could barely lift my feet, I kept plugging away. I met two hikers coming from the opposite direction on the trail. Somehow, I managed to ask them, "How far is it to the beginning of the climb up Mount Chapman?"
"You mean this isn't Chapman?" an equally exhausted hiker replied. It turned out that we each had great news for the other. I was able to inform them that they were almost at the top, and I learned that I had already climbed Chapman, and the shelter was less than a mile away. In a fatigued stupor, I had not noticed the mild descent from Sequoyah, and thus had merged the two climbs into one. No wonder that one damned mile had seemed so long.
I staggered into Tri-Corner Knob Shelter at 4:30 p.m., tired and discouraged after a 12.3-mile day. Remember, I had begun hiking the Appalachian Trail eighteen days earlier in the worst condition of my life. I was carrying thirty extra pounds on top of my body's customary 195, smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, and getting no exercise. Although more than ten of those extra pounds are already gone and I have quit smoking, there has been a severe price to pay for my rapidly returning physical conditioning, and that bill has come due here in the Smokies.
I sadly underestimated the detrimental effects that altitude and this mountain range's notoriously bad weather would have on my body when I figured out my necessary food supply for this stretch of trail. That miscalculation has added the effects of slow starvation to the mix of the recipe that I like to call "What Went Wrong In The Smokies." They say that what does not destroy us makes us stronger, but I have cut that line extremely close here, and the outcome remains shrouded in doubt.
While the question of whether my body ultimately collapses or emerges stronger from this ordeal hangs in the balance, I am beginning to feel good about what is happening to my mind. Last winter, when I finally admitted to myself that I have always been a quitter, and that I have always followed the advice of that small voice in my mind which tells me just to give up when things get too tough, I decided to take action. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, I chose to make this 2138.5-mile hike not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Lately, I am becoming impressed with what I have been able to drive this mass of quivering flesh to accomplish.
If I make it to Davenport Gap and continue, this will be the first great turning point of this adventure, and possibly my finest hour. If I can somehow reverse the years of defeat and beat that little voice long enough to reach Katahdin, this adventure could be the one great turning point of my life. Hey, it's just a walk in the woods, right? There's really nothing riding on all of this.
I have this image that I have created in my mind. I take it out and look at it sometimes when things look dark and bleak and I know that I cannot continue. I have never been within a hundred miles of the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine, but I have a blurred, unreal image of it in my mind. There is a campground in Baxter State Park, about ten miles from the summit, where most thru-hikers spend their last night on the trail before the final ascent and journey's end. It is called Daicey Pond Campground. Of course, I have never been there, either. But I can picture it in my mind's eye. In my little tableau, I am standing next to the pond, staring across the water and over the surrounding evergreen forest towards the naked granite summit of my dream mountain. The sun has already set from my vantage point, but its last, fleeting rays are crowning that summit with a rich, golden alpenglow. As I stand there, I know that I will climb that mountain the following day, that my quest has been successful, and that, after years of being a quitter and a loser, I have succeeded at the hardest thing that I have ever attempted.
And so, in my darkest hours, I take that picture out and I look at it, and I can feel the elation of that moment of victory. I can taste it. Tears come into my eyes. I wipe them away, tell that little voice to go f___ itself and trudge on for a few more miles. And so I go on, driven by a deep longing for an imaginary moment that seems a million miles away. 1919.4 more miles to go. 14.7 miles to Davenport Gap.
LATER THAT NIGHT: Dave was already here at the shelter when I arrived at 4:30, as was another thru-hiker we had just caught up to, a man from New York who has been signing himself in the registers as Marty the Deaf Polack. Marty was asking us about the thru-hiking couple from Wisconsin we met last night at Ice Water Springs Shelter. He had become close friends with them on the trail. We were able to inform him that they were coming here to spend the night.
It is almost dark, now, and it looks as if no one else is coming. There are now six people here, and we are all thru-hikers. They are Dave, Marty, the Minnesotan we met last night, the Wisconsin couple, and yours truly. I am enjoying all of the company, except for that fellow from Minnesota, who constantly whines about having no money for extras and tries to make the rest of us all feel guilty, as if we were all Rockerfeller heirs, or something. If we mention that we are planning to stay at the Inn at Hot Springs when we reach that trail town, he pipes in that the Jesuit hostel is all that he can afford. If I speak longingly about picking up some granola bars when I reach the store in Davenport Gap, he whines that they are too expensive for him. We all have our sad stories to tell. If he is trying to weasel contributions, he has chosen the wrong wealthy eccentric. Those millions stashed away from my gas station job are MINE, MINE, ALL MINE!!!
In the two weeks that it took me to hike from Springer to Fontana, the only four fellow thru-hikers I met were Dave, Russ, Ron, and Sonny the Wonder Dog. This past week, I have caught up to or passed a mess of them. They appear to be stragglers from a large group which started a few weeks before Dave and me.
In a way, it sucks that only thru-hikers are here tonight. Short-term hikers often carry too much food, and some are happy to rid their backpacks of excess weight. Last night, Diane gave me a dish of a rice/vegetable mixture and a rice cake. Someone else gave me a cup of tea. This morning I got a slice of fruit cake, and Diane gave me a few bites of bread. If I make it through the Smokies, Diane and Steve will have a lot of the credit for making it possible.
For dinner tonight, I had a soup consisting of four cups of water, one package of dried onion soup mix, a tiny handful of rice, three squirts of liquid margarine, one-fourth of a bacon bar, two ounces of freeze-dried beef, and a handful each of freeze-dried corn and peas. A lot of salt and pepper made it palatable. I know that the margarine probably sounds like a strange touch, but there are so few fats in trail food that the body just craves them, and they taste okay in everything. 1 also ate one-half of my last twelve crackers and some peanut butter. I finished off the meal with a cup of tea and a cup of Tang, which was also one-half of my remaining supplies of each. I finished the last handful of Diane's peanuts on the trail today. The cupboard is almost bare.
I am 14.7 miles from Davenport Gap Shelter, and it is imperative that I make it there tomorrow, which means that it would suck if it rains -- which it just started doing again a little while ago. This shelter, like all of the rest of those at which we have stayed in the Smokies, has a leaky roof. Dave doesn't even bother asking me if my bag is wet any more. Like everything else I own, my sleeping bag has been wringing-wet for days.
If I make it to Davenport Gap Shelter tomorrow night, I will be finishing the last pitiful dregs of my food at the meals that night and the next morning. From the shelter, it is less than a mile to a road, and less than a mile down that toad to a little Mom and Pop grocery store. I hope that Mom and Pop are home, because I am sure as hell going to need them. Dave and I have both resolved to carry much more food than we need in our backpacks henceforth, and damn the extra pack weight. I am eating two meals in every restaurant and diner that I pass. I hate this feeling.
I created a new soap opera tonight: "The Young and the Senseless." It is the daily saga of dashing young men and women who were sitting around in warm, clean, dry houses and eating good food, when they said, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail?" Today's episode features young, devilishly handsome George wringing muddy water from his socks in the hope that they will merely be damp when he wears them the following day. Tune in tomorrow for another episode of "The Young and the Senseless."
It is dark, now, although the entire shelter is being illuminated by the blaze of the Coleman lantern which Marty carries in his backpack. It has been a pleasure writing this entry under these conditions, rather than in the flickering candlelight in which I usually scratch out my words. It is still pouring, though, so I had better get some sleep. I may need a very early start tomorrow.
One final note: Last night at Ice Water Springs Shelter, when I had to keep making those trips outside, it was, as I have said, really nasty out. It was not nearly as amusing an experience for me as the previous night had been, when Dave was forced out into the howling tempest (although, strangely, Dave thought that last night was funnier -- go figure).
It was also, in its own way, one of the prettiest nights, that I have ever seen. A luminous white mist hung closely to every object, giving bushes and trees the sort of Fairy-land appearance that they receive from an ice storm, yet softer and more subdued. Each object seemed to emit from within a soft, pearly radiance. Even now, twenty-four hours later, the vision is fading into a dimly-remembered dream, like the aftermath of an LSD trip. The vision gradually fades, but the feelings evoked linger on long afterwards.
The rain finally ended this morning at 9:30, and I was off. I know -- nice early start, right? I had trouble sleeping last night. I dreamt that I had truly come to the end of my rope. The voice was telling me to quit, and I was going to do it. I was despising myself for this, and I suddenly screamed, "F___ you" (at the voice or at myself, I do not know -- it was a dream, right?). Anyway, as I shouted, I woke up. The lantern was still burning, and everybody was staring at me. A few were laughing. I guess I yelled it aloud. I gazed back at all of them, calmly repeated the phrase I had just shouted, rolled over, and went back to sleep. I did not feel the need to explain my personal demons to them.
But I slept badly. The drumming of the rain on the tin roof of the shelter haunted my dreams. I just felt that if I did not make those 14.7 miles to Davenport Gap Shelter today, I would be forced to quit and my fragile dream of Katahdin would flicker out. What right does a loser have to dream about winning, anyway?
Morning limped in with the moisture-sodden air and grim perpetual twilight I had come to associate with the Smokies. I started out wearing tee shirt, shorts, chamois shirt, and rain jacket. Shreds of mist coiled in the gloom beneath the trees like cobras preparing to strike. The trees and the underbrush were still dripping wet from the rain. I would have probably been more comfortable had I also worn my rain pants, but they would have slowed me down considerably. Today, I needed speed.
As I climbed Mount Guyot, the weather further deteriorated. By the time I was about halfway up, a steady, soaking drizzle had set in. I would have traded my right arm for one brief glimpse of sun. The endless dreariness was eating away at my brain, and my dream of Katahdin was washing away in waves of frigid rain and fatigue like a sand castle battered by a merciless surf. As I continued to climb, the raindrops swelled and thickened like festering corpses. They tasted like utter failure, or perhaps the taste was already in my mouth. The stage seemed set for the final act of my Great Smoky Mountains tragedy.
My shorts and socks became saturated, but I just kept chugging up that mountain, swearing occasionally at the top of my lungs. The rain grew harder, the wind was blasting, and I was shaking from hypothermia by the time I made it to the top. I was terribly alone, bone-weary, soul-weary, and half out of my head -- but I kept going. [I would have been a fairly humorous sight, had there been anyone else around to see me, but, looking back years later, this may have been my finest hour. It was definitely near the top of the list.]
I crested the mountain and began a long, gradual descent towards Camel Gap. As I approached the gap, about six miles from Tri-Corner Knob Shelter, the sky began to clear. The sun actually peeked out of the clouds a few times, and I became slightly warmer and drier. I engaged in some pleasant conversation with the few other hikers I encountered, and my internal gloom gradually lifted, also. That was when I looked back down the trail and saw that extremely annoying thru-hiker gaining on me.
Instant testosterone rush. An immensely irrational primitive portion of my mind was not about to let someone that annoying catch up to or pass me on the trail. Cosby Knob Shelter, where I was stopping for lunch, was one-and-a-half miles of mostly-uphill trail away. I kicked in some afterburners which I did not even suspect I had and left Gomer choking in a great big cloud of my dust (at that, I probably did him a favor -- most likely he cannot afford to buy any dust of his own). I had been at the shelter for ten minutes, with my canteens full, my boots and socks off in order to give my feet a break, and lunch cooking in front of me by the time he showed up.
I had driven my worn-out hulk 7.7 miles in three hours and fifteen minutes, with only one quick call-of-nature stop along the way. Under the circumstances, that was extraordinary, but much more needed to be accomplished today. I took a nice, long forty-five minute lunch in order to regroup. Dave stopped by briefly but did not stay for lunch. He was on a mission of his own today -- pushing hard in an attempt to make the store this evening. The final three thru-hikers from last night's shelter showed up as I was cleaning up and preparing to depart. It began to rain.
The rain fizzled out at about 1:30, and I was off. An intermittent drizzle toyed with me as I climbed the last knob and began the long descent from the Smokies. I soon began hearing thunder. It was a disheartening sound for a weary traveler to hear just as he was beginning to emerge from a long dark tunnel along his journey. I raced down the trail, half jogging and half walking. I actually ran a few stretches of that descent. When I was about a mile from Davenport Gap Shelter, I simply had to stop for a symbolic gesture. I stepped off the trail into the surrounding woods to do something to the Smokies which they had been doing to me for days. As I resumed that last mile, a drenching downpour greeted me and accompanied me the rest of the way to the shelter. It's not nice to f___ with Mother Nature.
I arrived at the shelter at 4:00, having covered the final seven miles in two-and-a-half hours. I am less than a mile from the end of the Great Smoky Mountains.
It is now 4:30. I have enough food for a light dinner tonight and breakfast tomorrow, and then it will all be gone. I could try for that little store in the gap tonight, but an establishment that small may very well be already closed, and I have no wish to become even wetter for no reason. If the store is open tomorrow, I am going to buy three days' worth of food, even though there are only 33.8 miles remaining to Hot Springs, my next supply point. I have learned my lesson.
What a life. I am starving, dirty and wet, and I smell. My clothes are dirty and wet, and they smell. My sleeping bag is dirty and wet, and it smells. Everything that I own is dirty and wet. And it smells. Damn, do I need Hot Springs, North Carolina right about now!
All of this Great Smoky Mountains mud is working into the wound on my foot and infecting it. I neglected to bring with me one of the basic backpacking luxuries -- a comfortable pair of running shoes to exchange for my uncomfortable leather boots when my hiking is done for the day. I have to take off my boots when I reach the shelters at night in order to allow my beat-up feet to heal a little, so I have been going barefoot. My family is including my running shoes in the supply package headed for Damascus, Virginia, but that is more than two hundred miles up the trail.
Speaking of footwear, a large hole has appeared in the toe of my right hiking boot. Both boots are beginning to disintegrate. I had better get another pair soon. Somebody told me about an excellent place to buy boots near Erwin, Tennessee -- my next mail supply drop after Hot Springs. Erwin is about a hundred miles up the trail; I should definitely consider picking up some new boots there, unless my family can mail a pair to me soon.
MUCH LATER, SAME NIGHT: Dave returned to this shelter at 6:00 with news that the store would be open until 8:00 tonight. As exhausted as I was, that just sounded too good to pass up. They did not have an extensive selection of goods, but the pint of chocolate ice cream and the coke I bought as a treat for the long walk back to the shelter sure turned my world around. While there, I also picked up some chocolate chip cookies, candy bars, rice, instant oatmeal, Tang, m & m's, peanut butter crackers, and two boxes of Pop-Tarts for the hike to Hot Springs.
Fittingly, as I was returning from the store, the overcast actually vanished completely for the first time in days. It was all blue sky with a few high, thin clouds from horizon to horizon. Perhaps, now that we have conquered the Smokies, everything will be all right.
I am two days' journey from Hot Springs, and I have solid food once more. For the first time in days, I have a reason to feel hopeful. The necessary side trip to the store has been taken care of, so I can just start trekking tomorrow morning. My only problem is that I have but one dinner remaining, and I could find nothing really suitable at that store (I seem to be the world's only backpacker who cannot stomach instant macaroni and cheese). I will simply have to come up with one makeshift meal over the next two nights. At any rate, I am in much better shape now than at 5:30, and light years ahead of yesterday. I have already eaten half of the chocolate chip cookies, along with the coke and ice cream. There's a strange, new light in my eyes tonight.
The shelter is now almost full. Three guys from Australia are staying here tonight. They really do not know what to make of us. The questions they have been asking Dave and myself are somewhat humorous: What kind of a job do you have that you can take off for six months? A really crummy one -- I quit. What are you going to do to survive when you get back? Get another job. They stare at us as if we were from another planet. They seem unable to comprehend our answers or our wild, rebel souls. It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall when they go home and tell their friends about us.
It has just started to rain again.
I have been on the trail for twenty full days, and have hiked 233.8 miles. That means the Smokies have brought my daily average down to 11.7 miles per day. I need to average fourteen miles per day in order to complete the Appalachian Trail in the five months with which I have to work. I need to make time.
Nevertheless, despite the elements, my ignorance, and my own personal demons, I have won the Battle of the Great Smokies. The war continues, though. It feels as if an eternity still remains. 1904.7 miles to go.
|©1996 George Steffanos
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