Exile's_Home ©1996 George Steffanos



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Then The Hail Came

Last updated 10/12/96



(Davenport Gap, NC/TN border to Hot Springs, North Carolina)

MONDAY, 5/22/83 ---
1:00 P.M., MILE 244.4--
Yesterday afternoon's long-awaited azure skies gave way to a glorious sunset before fading into nightfall. The stars appeared like sharp, bright promises of better days ahead. Before long, a brooding darkness appeared along the western fringe and slowly spread across the firmament, devouring those fragile lights one by one. Another morning dawned gray and dismal, shedding a chill misting rain upon the land as we made ready to set out.

The sun broke out from the clouds once again just as we left the shelter -- all in all, a nice little symbolic flourish for our impending departure from the Great Smokies.

The mile of trail into Davenport Gap was a breeze, but the ensuing mile-and-a-half stretch to the Big Pigeon River was tricky and difficult -- particularly its second half, in which the Appalachian Trail followed an attractive brook called State Line Branch downhill past a scenic series of cascades. The water level was high (has it rained around here lately? I don't remember). The stream had leapt free from its banks and was frolicking exuberantly over the adjacent ground, including substantial portions of the AT. The path frequently crossed the brook on rocky fords which were, of course, hopeless. Nothing spells fun like tiptoeing across the tips of mossy submerged rocks with a heavy pack on one's back.

Both sides of the river comprised the ugliest scenery on the Appalachian Trail to date. The trail route along the western bank was a garbage-strewn gravel road -- with the rotting shell of an abandoned car as a finishing touch -- leading to a landfill dump. The east bank featured a group of thoroughly overflowing dumpsters in the shadow of a concrete I-40 highway overpass. The AT followed a paved road across the river and a short distance beyond.

My first climb in the Bald Mountains, the state line range just northeast of the Smokies, was long and steep. Nevertheless, the bright, crisp morning was like rocket fuel to two sunshine-starved backpackers fresh from the sensory-deprivation tanks. Our first break of the day was a ten-minute rest beside a stream called Painters Branch, almost six miles from the shelter. Our second stop came two-and-a-half miles later on the top of Snowbird Mountain, at the end of a fast 2860-foot climb from the river.

I have read that excessive lack of sunshine contributes to increased cases of depression and rising suicide rates. I can now personally attest to its incredible demoralization. The endless gloom of the preceding days produced a debilitating effect far beyond the hardships of mud, soaking rains, altitude, putrefying foot wounds, and insufficient-food. I was constantly struggling at the end of my rope in the Smokies, and only my stubborn refusal to suffer the disgrace of quitting after such a brief span of time and face my family and friends back home kept me moving painfully forward. I wanted to show a decent effort before throwing in the towel -- which I fully intended to do. It was a childish motive, but it served its purpose. Now, I did not need it. The emotional strain had left psychic wounds which would be slow to heal, but backpackers live almost completely in the present moment. And this moment was glorious.

The entire summit area of Snowbird's west peak was a sloping deep green lawn, recently mown, freckled with blazing yellow dandelions. At the highest point was an F.A.A. tower resembling a N.A.S.A. space capsule. I am told that the installation is part of the air traffic control network, but I am not sure about its exact function.

I am sure that the views from the peak were the finest thus far on the Appalachian Trail. I must have spent a half-hour taking photographs and relaxing in the brilliant sunshine. I had almost come to doubt the existence of that bright golden celestial object while enduring those long, dark centuries in the Smokies. It was a perfect morning: cool and sunny, with just the right amount of breeze. My soul felt so fully-restored that I was tempted to turn my back on the awesome view of the Great Smokies and moon those brooding giants. So I did. What can they do to me now -- right?

The final few miles of trail from Snowbird's summit to my present location was a cakewalk compared to the rest of the morning. The Appalachian Trail followed a grassy old woods road along the flattish crest of the mountain, down into a shallow sag and up past Wildcat Top -- the east summit of Snowbird. Prom there, it was all downhill to Deep Gap, where I took the quarter-mile-long side trail to Groundhog Creek Shelter.

This is an excellent luncheon spot. The structure is secluded deep in a grove of towering white pines and ancient-looking hardwoods. Down below, Groundhog Creek churns through a shady ravine, bordered upon each side by a dense strip of rhododendron jungle. What ambience! I dined in simple elegance at the picnic table just in front of the shelter, enjoying a subtle, yet playful little vintage of Tang with my meal.

I see in the shelter register that Ron and Sonny were here four days ago on May 19, spending the night after just a five-mile day. In spite of all of the lost time in the Smokies, Dave and I may yet catch up to them in Hot Springs for some trail town festivities. We have covered 10.6 miles this morning, and 10.7 more are planned for the afternoon.

At Davenport Gap Shelter last night, some hikers told us of a man they met on the trail who hikes in bedroom slippers and is carrying about fifty pounds of food and gear in a frameless rucksack. The two staples of his diet are canned beans and oysters. On this trail, Dave and I are two of the more normal individuals. Picture that.

9:00 P.M., MILE 255.1--The first few miles of the afternoon were a long climb from Deep Gap up to a high saddle on Harmon Den Mountain followed by a shorter descent into Brown Gap. The trail was graded very nicely and this portion breezed past. From that point onward, it got rough. Little mother climbs abounded.

The scenery was good, though. The trailsides and occasional meadows teemed with a profusion of violets, lilies, and daffodils being attended to by huge, lumbering bumblebees I know that this is going to sound really macho, but I am beginning to miss those tiny bright blue blossoms which ornamented the mountains of earlier spring days in Georgia and southern North Carolina. They used to cheer me on those grueling treks in the days just after I ripped open my toe. Were it not for the bluets, I may never have made it this far.

The trail finally leveled out near the crest of Max Patch Mountain, soon coming out upon the gravel Max Patch Road, which it would follow for the next four miles. When we reached the beginning of this roadwalk, Dave and I had covered more than half of our projected afternoon mileage, and the sun was still high in the sky. We decided to sit down for a few minutes and take a well-earned break. As I thumbed through the guidebook, I read that, a quarter-mile ahead, a dirt road would ascend the slope into the grassy open pastures around the summit. I told Dave, and we decided to head on up and finish our break in the mountain views and warm sunshine.

Two problems in this plan became quickly apparent. First, all of the dirt tracks we passed leading to the right (uphill) from the gravel road were blocked with locked gates whose purpose seemed to be to discourage trespass. The other problem took the form of ugly, boiling black clouds which were beginning to obliterate the sunshine. We were very tired, having already walked more than sixteen miles today, but we chugged grimly down that road as fast as we could move, racing the storm to the shelter.

At first, the road passed large, impressive estates, but gradually we entered the land of Jed and all his kin, where small, run-down shacks perched upon small impoverished mountain farms. I could almost hear the notes of "Duelin' Banjos" playing in the background. Despite the obvious poverty, it was still pretty country, with great views and an interesting glimpse of a vanishing way of life. But that darkening sky became more and more of a distraction as the thunderheads moved in.

Troubles compounded like a massive chain-reaction pileup on the expressway. We had begun today's marathon on the edge of physical exhaustion due to bur ordeals in the Great Smokies. The sudden beautiful weather following days of darkness had provided an external stimulus and resulting burst of adrenalin similar to the effect of the artificial rush given by amphetamines to the body of a played-out athlete. It drives his wearied body well past the bounds of its innate stamina, drawing deeply upon the wells of his last reserves. All the while, he feels great and is oblivious to the growing toll. When the drugs kick out, his body does not return to its original condition. Rather, like the sudden swing of an enormous, inexorable pendulum, his physical state plummets to a point well below that,at the onset of the drug. It is called a crash. Similarly, in our excitement, we did not sense the oncoming crash until the day began to turn foul and the external stimuli departed. The sudden loss of adrenalin sent our used-up bodies abruptly to the verge of collapse. Do not pass Go.

At the same time, having been down so low, our emotions soared far beyond their normal ranges in the dazzling sunshine. Although a twenty-one-mile day was not required to position us to reach Hot Springs tomorrow, we needed it in a much deeper sense to restore our battered self-respect after the painful crawl of the past week. The lure of big mileage was irresistible. It had all seemed to come so easily in the sparkling hours of deliverance from gloom, and our spirits soared impossibly high. Thus, we had also spent our final emotional reserves, and the sudden onslaught of reality had resulted in a massive crash there, too. We were left miserable and depleted, racing the coming tempest to tonight's shelter with increasingly faltering legs and hearts.

That road seemed endless. The angry sky kept growing darker, and thunder began to rumble in the distance. Still the roadwalk stretched onward. Eventually, it began to sprinkle. The sprinkle became a drizzle and the drizzle became rain. Finally, I was forced to stop in order to put my camera in my backpack and cover the pack with its rain shield. While I was thus occupied, the sky shattered into a million fragments which began cascading down upon me.

As I was belatedly struggling into my rain suit, I seem to remember gibbering completely incoherent sounds. I was close to a total psychological breakdown. Knowing that into every thru-hike a great deal of rain must fall, it still seemed just too much to have a wonderful day fall to pieces after nineteen grueling miles -- with but two remaining. As it was, I had barely battled through the Smokies with soul and body intact. On the Appalachian Trail, time slows down and expands; one lives almost entirely in the present moment. And this one just absolutely sucked.

Resuming my trudge down the road, I eventually collected myself enough to yell and swear in a reasonable facsimile of human speech. My strength was virtually exhausted and my feet were bruised and battered, yet I was simply too damned cold to stop and rest. The AT finally turned off of that fateful road and plunged into the woods. I plodded the final wretched mile up Walnut Mountain to the shelter.

I almost snapped when I saw the place. Were the universe to receive an enema, Walnut Mountain Shelter is the exact spot where it would be administered. I knew before I arrived that the place had been built in 1938, but its forty-five years must have been very hard ones, because it looks ancient. The floorboards tilt in every conceivable direction and seem on the brink of collapse. Wind and rain are blasting in through numerous gaping holes in the walls, and the roof makes an excellent sieve. Home, sweet home.

Gloomily I trudged down the side trail from the shelter to the fenced spring which serves as its water supply, only to discover a tiny little mudhole encircled by a few straggly strands of barbed wire. It amazes me that the United States Forest Service took the trouble to post a sign, clear and blaze a trail, and erect a fence around that sad little puddle. There was absolutely no movement to that water -- nothing to flush out all of the muddy run-off which the deluge was washing into it. I stood in the rain with my empty water bottles, just staring at the sad spectacle for long minutes. I was numb.

As I dragged myself back up the hill, I noticed a second trail leading steeply down the mountainside. I tried following this one and eventually circled back to the same sorry spring to which the first trail had led me. Defeated utterly, I retreated to the shelter.

For the next half-hour, Dave and I lay dripping in this pitiful hovel, ranting and raving almost incoherently about the whole ordeal. Never even in the Great Smokies had my entire Appalachian Trail quest hung by such a thin and fragile thread. The inner darkness had fully enveloped me, and the pitiless winds of total defeat were raging through the black tempest in my soul. Due to the time expansion effect of my long hike, the past few days stretched back into infinity. The future had no meaning at all -- my entire existence was in the moment. The shelter had offered no respite -- it was cold, wet, and comfortless. Thus, I felt as if misery had always existed an would never go away. I was trembling with hypothermia and physical fatigue; no dream images of Katahdin could ease my shattered soul tonight. The trip was over. I had failed -- something I might as well get used to in everything important I would attempt for the rest of my life. The voice was back. The challenge on which I had staked it all had defeated me.

Then, a strange thing happened. I was right in the middle of a ranting tirade when I suddenly burst out laughing. Soon, Dave and I were literally rolling around on the floor, giggling hysterically about how wretched our lives had become. We spent the remainder of the night making sick, twisted jokes and cracking ourselves and each other up. We were in more of a state of delirium than actual mirth, but fun is fun wherever you can find it. Especially on a night such as this.

I believe that, in that weird moment when the laughter took over, I turned a major psychological corner in my improbable quest to turn a quitter into a fighter. I have never laughed so much nor so hard as I did on this, one of the most depressing nights of my life. Maybe this is what it feels like to be a fighter. It feels good.

The rain stopped just when we finally needed it. In desperation, we had set out our largest pans in order to catch the run-off from the rusty, moldy tin roof of the shelter. I had but a cup of water collected when the rain ended. I dined on candy and Pop-Tarts, with one lousy cup of tea to quench my thirst.

I am going to go to sleep now, to dream about tomorrow night and a town called Hot Springs, North Carolina. Ah, Hot Springs. Paris, Rome, Vienna . . . Hot Springs. Hot Springs: restaurant meals, a clean, dry bed, steaming showers, and a waiting laundromat. I almost feel like hitting the trail now.

By the way, it has just occurred to me that those rain clouds this evening moved in from the southwest -- from the direction of the Great Smokies. Those clouds would have been moving out from there at just about the time that I was up on Snowbird, saluting my recent adversaries with my hairy white butt.

Memo to myself: I have got to stop f___ing with Mother Nature.

TUESDAY, 5/24/83, MILE 267.6 --- HOT SPRINGS --- I awoke cold and clammy this morning and lay in my sleeping bag fascinated, watching tiny wisps of cloud swirl in through the gaping holes in the wall above my head, drift leisurely across the ceiling, and slip out of the open side. In my benumbed and dazed mental state, this simple entertainment was able to amuse and engross me for about an hour. Then, I got up and made breakfast.

It had rained sporadically throughout the night. I had left my largest pan out beneath a corner of the roof last night, hoping for the best, and had thus collected three cups of scummy water for breakfast. I cannot complain. At least I had water.

Dave and I were still full of a weird, punchy elation this morning. I personally felt as though I had passed an initiation or survived a rite of passage. I could conquer the mountain weathers We laughed and joked about everything, particularly the strange pathways on which our minds had journeyed the previous night. We had been given the heady gift of a brief glimpse of actual madness followed by a quick return to sanity in the morning -- or, at any rate, as close to sanity as guys like Dave and me ever get.

A sign next to the-shelter read, "TOILET" with an arrow pointing out a path leading off into the woods. This became the butt of numerous jokes (pardon the pun). We speculated that its destination was probably a naked toilet sitting out in the open forest. Later, Dave was required to pay it a visit, and -- surprise! -- we had been virtually correct. It had no roof and just a three-foot-tall partition around three sides.. The commode sat above a shallow pit of irregular shape which extended slightly past the sides of the unit. It was a cold, damp, blustery morning; Dave was treated to an invigorating gale blowing in through the edges of the hole and funneling up through the bottom of the toilet. He has all of the luck when it comes to these matters.

In Fontana Village, when I had picked up a bottle of baby powder to keep the jewels dry, Dave had thought it an excellent idea. He bought one, too. This morning, as I was starting down the path to take a picture of the toilet as a memento of the place, Dave was getting the powder out of his backpack, saying, "Boy, is this going to feel good today!" A few moments later, I was frozen in my tracks by the sound of his bloodcurdling scream.

I shouted, "What's wrong?"

"My f___in' hands are cold!"

Forewarned, I warmed my hands beneath my armpits for a few moments later before I applied my baby powder. This had limited effect; I discovered a sure-fire method of snapping myself awake on a cold morning. It gave a whole new meaning to the expression, "Get a grip on yourself."

It was mid-morning when we started out, and the sun was just starting to peek through the clouds and fog. As I was leaving, I paused to tear a page out of my journal notebook for a sign rechristening Walnut Mountain Shelter "Heartbreak Hotel."

The morning mists eventually gave way to a fairly pleasant day. I began the hike with five non-stop miles over Walnut Mountain, up Bluff Mountain, and down the other side. Near Bluff's summit, the sky darkened, the wind kicked up, and I began to hear thunder. That almost blew my good mood, but the sun quickly emerged from behind a passing wisp of-cloud, the stray gust of wind died out, and the thunder turned out to be the sonic boom of a military jet. Renewing my vow to Mother Nature, I continued on.

Near Garenflo Gap, on the far side of Bluff Mountain, I found a sunny little meadow and decided to take my first break. Having filled my canteen at a stream crossing, I lay out for twenty minutes, chugging Tang and devouring the last of my crackers and m & m's. I was dehydrated all day. I usually catch up on my water intake at the shelters each night and tank up for the long day ahead in the mornings at breakfast, but the-water situation at Walnut Mountain had precluded my usual routine. Dave was soon far ahead of me, and I drifted through the day alone. I was in no hurry.

The next few miles were on an easy graded trail which skirted the slopes of a couple of mountains. There were a few good views, but I was running on empty all day; it was a relief to reach Deer Park Mountain Shelter, where I could sit down to rest and eat lunch. The structure was as dilapidated as Heartbreak Hotel had been, and the guidebook mentioned that its water supply was not very good. That was correct, but I had to wonder why the same warning was not given for the spring at Walnut Mountain. Had I known, I could have filled my canteens from a clear stream I crossed about a half-mile before that shelter. At least Deer Park's water was drinkable.

I was planning on a long lunch, but an entry in the shelter register mentioned that the Inn at Hot Springs was often completely filled by early evening. It said that the Inn was much nicer than the Jesuit Hostel (the only other accommodations in town), and the nightly rates were identical. I wanted to stay in the nicest place. I deserved it. Throwing my backpack on, I flew off down the trail, buckling my hip belt as I walked. I roared over the final three miles into town.

In no time, I was beginning the last descent into Hot Springs. All along, I could see the place looming closer through the trees. It was torture. My feet and legs were giving out again, while I wanted very badly to run. I wound up with a curious, shambling trot down the mountain -- a sort of a cross between a Russian folk dancer and an old man with a load in his pants. By the time I hit the paved road into town, this had further degenerated into a painful crawl.

Dave had rushed into town in order to make the Post Office before it closed. I met him on the main street of Hot Springs. He gave me directions to the Inn. There, I met Elmer Hall, the owner, and he showed me upstairs to the room which Dave had already acquired for us. The place was a magnificent old two-story mansion dating back to 1875, when Hot Springs was a thriving heath spa resort town for the wealthy in an era when soaking in natural warm mineral baths was all the rage. Elmer was slowly rescuing the building from years of slow decay. Today, our room for the night cost us eight dollars each.

As we walked upstairs, Elmer informed me that he does not serve dinners on Mondays and Tuesdays, and that the only restaurant in Hot Springs closes at 6:00. As it was already 5:30, I had to rush over there still dirty and smelly from the trail. I had three cokes, two cheeseburgers, french fries, and home-made chili. Life is good.

I returned to the Inn for a long, hot shower while Dave brought our colored clothes over to the laundromat. When he returned, I put my clean clothes on my clean body and took our whites over while he showered. I phoned home while I waited for the wash cycle to be completed. When the clothes were dry, I returned to the Inn for the night.

The old mansion sports a fine, two-tiered veranda running the length of the house. I spent a good part of the night relaxing on the upstairs portion near our room, gazing out over the town.

After the early 1900's, warm mineral baths lost their popularity and Hot Springs was washed back into the quiet backwaters of time. The one remaining night spot seems to be a large barn of a roller-skating rink which I walked past today. Hot Springs, North Carolina in 1983 is basically a one-street town a few blocks long, surrounded by scattered farms and vast acreage of National Forest. It straddles the French Broad River a few miles east of the Tennessee border, near the cleft where that stream cuts through the Bald Mountains.

I stayed up very late, sitting out on that veranda. The stillness of the warm southern night was occasionally broken by the long, lonely whistles of passing freight trains. There is a strange, special quality to time on the Appalachian Trail. Days pass with the slow, majestic crawl of a summer in childhood. Sometimes, like tonight, you find yourself in a place where time seems to have moved backwards, to an era which ended before you were born.

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©1996 George Steffanos


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