This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be
glad in it…and the nine upcoming "strenuous" miles and 1500 feet of altitude gain.
My pants were still damp as I pulled them on over my socks. Sitting on a
tattered log drinking a cup of instant coffee granules, my thoughts turned to contemplating
the sheer desolation of the trail. It
was easy to understand how some people get themselves into trouble out here, in
a quick hurry. One misstep and one fractured
ankle later; all bets are off. Rescue is
extremely problematic. No cell service
ensures that one of you (provided there were two of you in the first place) go
for help – and help is a mere 5-6 hours away minimum. Then there’s the marshaling of emergency
personnel and the 5-6 hour trip back to find you.
You better hope you have enough water while you waited, or were fortunate
to have crash-landed next to a stream - with the Katadyn filter; and that’s the
rosier picture. What if you were
alone? Think someone could land a
helicopter; think again. Maybe, just maybe a skilled
pilot could winch a rescue basket down to the narrow trail below, but the trees are
enormously tall, and dense. Your best
bet is to be prepared to go it alone in every possible way. My sincere advice: watch LOTS of Bear Grylls and take careful
Breakfast turned out
better. I didn’t scorch the milky
granola this time. That made clean-up much
more pleasant. The air felt close and low in this area as we began packing up
the campsite. Thankfully the rain had
not restarted overnight, so the items on the line were no wetter. They weren’t much drier either. Placing a damp, cool bandana against my
forehead, I tied it in a loose knot as per usual. The temperature was already going up and it
was only 8:30 EST. We lowered our packs
from the stainless steel cabling and added our various other wet items to their contents. I gingerly made my way down in my socks and filled the water bottles at the creek
while Nelson packed the tent. The last
thing left to do, was to get my feet ready for the day's journey.
Nelson had already created his own make-shift version of footwear by slipping his bare feet
into the gallon-sized reclosable bags, into dry socks and then into his wet
boots. My strategy had my feet in the
socks first and then into the bags; but first I had to apply fresh blister medicated
bandages and some moleskin for good measure.
These alternative arrangements were not preferable; but necessary – we had
to get back somehow. In the shape I
was in, I had earlier opined that I was more than fine with hanging out for an
entire day before attempting a return; however Nelson thought he might go
stir-crazy. Possible stir-crazy had won out. Packed and moving by 9:00 AM, we passed back through the two
women’s (not as “cute”) campsite. They were both sitting on their log eating
something. I couldn't help myself so I
asked, “I thought I heard a dog barking last night, do you guys have one here?” They looked at each other and one quizzically
replied, “No, we don’t have a dog.” “Huh...I
could swear I heard high-pitched barking…” I muttered as we headed for the trail-head. Whatever; to each her own.
Nelson checks the "freshness" of some bear sign with his staff.
Nelson had this interesting habit of pulling out his
harmonica and blowing once across the entire board when he saw bear spoor on
the trail. I can almost hear that
familiar“dwidddddllllll-oot!” as I recount this tale, and it causes me to
smile. It was both amusing and dear at
once. He later told me that it was his
way of announcing his/our presence to the surrounding woods. In case the animal
was still in earshot. It was curious how
the only bear ‘sign” we saw, were the occasional piles of soft, blackened,
seed-laden, dung; and they were always smack dab in the center of the trail. Nelson’s enduring stamina and pleasant attitude
were a pleasure to behold as I plodded up the grade behind him. For many miles (and a few of my falls) he
insisted on walking behind me in case of; well, in case of anything. He was worried about me and that was
nice. After a while though I began to
feel like a bit of an anchor to his steady progress with all the mini-breaks I
took to slow my racing heart, so I insisted that he go ahead and set his own
pace. He begrudgingly did so, but was
always waiting at some point on the path to see my huffing and puffing frame
coming, before he’d start out again.
I moved uphill, I concentrated on my feet.
Not because they hurt all that much; they were pretty much numb, but
because I didn’t want to become that ill-fated casualty I described earlier. For some strange reason I was amazingly “urpy” as I walked
along. You know that feeling where your
guts feel kinda bubbly and angry? My
assumption was that it was “something I ate” but the tiniest nagging feeling
came over me about water quality. More
than once I stopped to gag and cough. Nelson
looked alarmed, but the feeling passed and I continued walking once more. I told him that I was “OK” but he looked
dubious. I wondered if it was the “fruity”
taste of the MIO (electrolyte and caffeine) product that I had squirted into my
Nalgene. One thing I know about myself
at age 50, is that “fruity” drinks and tastes sometimes raise hell with my
guts. I switched to “regular” water and
began to slowly recover as I walked; that sick feeling blessedly passing with
A picture of exhaustion
We stopped at the approximately five-mile mark to rest. Nelson pulled out one of his Powerbars. I took out a peanut butter Cliff and started
to nibble. My stomach just didn’t like
that taste, so I switched to a handful of Jack Link’s jerky and tried to eat
that. I was extremely tired and
sweaty. Nelson looked great. Funny how 28 years difference (and a
predominantly desk job) takes the starch out of a person. I wasn’t all that disappointed in myself
considering that I was still here on mile 26, but one always wonders what their
children think of their parents, and whether your star is tarnishing in their
eyes. All I knew for sure was that I was
thoroughly enjoying this special time with my son, and that I was more than ready
to get the refrigerator off my aching back.
The metal tower in the distance looked broken. It was.
Uprooted trees had been blown onto the structure at some point in the
past; rendering it unusable. Perhaps it
was a communications tower but the pink "caution" tape that surrounded it,
along with the sections of sawn logs, made it clear that it was now junk. I mention this because it was at this point
that the strenuous Noland Divide “trail” we had chosen to follow to the north; had basically disappeared. We knew we were “close” to the road because
we could occasionally hear traffic noise, but we couldn’t see a clear direction
of travel. Nelson took the lead and in
about 15 minutes, I could hear a “Whooop!” from his direction. I had fallen quite some distance behind and
could not see him, however his shout made it clear that he had reached the
At Nelson’s excellent suggestion, we “hid” our packs just
off the road so that we could walk the next one-half mile upward on the road,
sans weight. Why not drive back down the
roadway and fetch the gear on the way back?
We walked along the twisty asphalt’s narrow shoulder in extremely
low-hanging cloud cover. It looked like
it could begin raining at any moment. I
guess that’s why they call them the Smoky Mountains, as they looked as though
they were covered in smoke. Cars and
trucks would pass by us and some drivers would wave at the “real hikers.” We made a half-hearted attempt at thumbing a
ride to a few “likely” vehicles, but debated whether we “needed” to finish our
trek on foot. Finally, a large, white, late-model,
extended pick-up with Florida plates, diesel-rumbled its approach as Nelson
stuck out his thumb. It actually passed
us by. Nelson made that pleading “what
the heck?” gesture with his both palms up, and the driver spotted him. He stopped100 yards ahead and we ran to climb
into the open back; nestling between the guy’s many large coolers. I admit that that short 1000 yard ride to the
top was welcome and a perfect way to arrive at the parking lot where the WPT
quietly awaited our triumphant return.
We DID it!
Happy that the truck had not been towed, and that I could actually locate the key to the driver's door; we celebrated.
I stuck the camera on the hood and the two of us posed for a quick (post-hike) victory shot. Nelson had already peeled off his
plastic-bagged boots and gone barefoot.
I had to drive, so I kept them on for the time being. The area was now bustling. Many tourists had driven up to Clingmans Dome
that afternoon, despite the threat of inclement weather. Everyone’s face looked happy and smiling as
they milled around the parking lot on their way back and forth from their
vehicles. I distinctly remember having that feeling
you sometimes get when you know that you have just completed something major in
your life; that “ahhhhh…” feeling. That,
“it’s good to be alive” feeling. That, “I
did something extraordinary that most of you folks would never consider”
feeling. Life was indeed good!
The rest of our time together (about 2 days) was different than originally
planned. We were going to take most of
our time together hiking, but (as chronicled) circumstances dictated that we re-think that plan. I’m not
sorry in the least that it turned out differently. There were a few more unscheduled hotel-stays, some awesome Pigeon Forge Mellow Mushroom
Pizza, plus the newest Spiderman film seen outside Louisville, KY, and of course: the magnificent Kentucky Bourbon Trail(more on that in a future blog). We
talked and drove, and drove and sat quietly; comfortable in each other’s
company. It was truly a remarkable time
together. The miles flew by. The memories piled up. THEN: I eventually dropped my son and his gear off at his mother's, but not before a big hug and the promise to "do it again."
Even a birthday party has to end sometime.
Back at my house; all that was really left to do was to sort out the pile of camping gear. I had some already in the apartment and some was left in the truck. Some was this person's and some was that; some was even mine purchased expressly for the trip. This reverse-process was cathartic in a way; a chance to reflect on the planning and the incredible journey. Incredible because I had the precious chance to be with my son doing "guy-stuff" for five-whole days. The sun was shining but the temperature was still below 80 degrees as I stood leaning into the open door of the truck. I picked up the loose change from the many toll-booth exchanges, the unused ketchup packages from the console, the half-drunk Nalgene bottle with the water from Deep Creek flavored with the fruity electrolytes of MIO that my son had squirted in. Wistfully I lingered over the one spent Krystal hamburger box I found under the back seat, thinking about how irresponsible but cool it was to have a dozen to stuff into our faces as we drove. I wrapped up the cord from the I-Pod where we had listened to an audio book of James Patterson as the miles flew by and thought blissfully about the amazing five days we had shared. Too damn few, too far between.
Nelson was at his mother's now and gearing up for the rest of his other (real) life beyond "home." I was left waxing memories of the times that were. In the apartment alone, my eyes were misty and my throat was choked up as I also realized that my son had grown up and just how fortunate I had been to be able to "hang" with him; even for a time. Yes, the unique mirror I had been privileged to be looking in showed me an incredibly solid human being and all around wonderful young man...and that's a beautiful reflection to behold indeed.
Yes dear reader; take the time and spend it with the ones you love...you'll never regret saying "yes."
After a simple freeze-dried meal of some sort of (boiling-water-prepared) Italian concoction, the two of us began to relax. Boy, would a cold beer have tasted amazing. Exhaustion is a beautiful thing sometimes. It has a way of blissfully descending into place to relieve one of extemporaneous and cluttered thoughts...it is insistent. I gave way to the feeling once the tent was in place and the gear was safely hanging from a nearby bear-proof, cable device. The smell of smoldering wood and the sound of the rushing creek blended with muffled laughter from the other nearby campfire scene; yet I faded fast into sweet unawareness.
The next morning, I rolled out of the tent first; up and over Nelson, who was lying at the zippered flap. I quietly pulled on some clothes, and fetched the plastic cat-hole trowel and necessary bio-paperwork for some "light reading" in the woods. Early dappled sunlight filtered into the valley where Deep Creek rippled and meandered. It was going to be another scorcher. Insects were busily buzzing as I chose my likely spot for some personal business. I won't go into the details, but suffice it to say that things "worked out" well as I carefully "left no footprint" or scar upon the pristine landscape. I even felt like kicking and scuffing my feet backward just like any self-respecting hound dog, but stifled that crazy urge. Fiber tablets are a beautiful thing indeed.
I wandered about the other sleeping campers trying to stay quiet as I went to the creek bed for a better look at the surroundings. I felt much more alive this morning and that was a good thing considering the trek of the coming day. We had about eight miles to traverse today before the next campsite stop. Nelson was up within the hour and the two of us gingerly ate the scorched powdered-milk, strawberry granola I screwed up in my brand new backpack cookware. I did my best to scrape out the blackened oat-crud from the bottom, but there's a permanent burn-mark to remind me how fast the damn thing heats up. Good thing I hadn't borrowed that gizmo and decided to purchase one myself; I would have hated doing that to someone else's gear. I gave Nelson the choice of dishes and filling up the water bottles from the creek, or packing up the tent; he chose the tent. The Katadyn Hiker Pro did the job once again in short order. I didn't know how anyone could survive in these mountains without one.
There continued to be high humidity as we packed up the camp into our two backpacks. Sweat was already dripping from my brow as Nelson and I started down the trail. I felt physically neutral for the first few miles, as the going was predominantly flat along the creek bank. The terrain was fairly rocky and zigzagged in and out of the brush; crossing smaller tributaries that fed Deep Creek. Those sections were treacherously moss-covered and slippery, so the going was slow and careful.
White flower petals from the beautiful and plentiful Rosebay rhododendron littered the ground as we walked. Pipevine Swallowtail and Question Mark butterflies could be seen congregating on rocky islands that poked out of the creek bed.
About 175 species have reportedly been logged in North Carolina as of 2011. Small rushing waterfalls appeared from the uphill side of the barely existent trail to join the main flow of the creek. I stopped every once in a while to wring out the kerchief I had around my forehead, and to take a few pictures.
Around 11:00 we came to another designated campsite. Unfortunately it was not OUR designated campsite. It was site 54 and was deserted. A little further down the trail came site 55. It came complete with a rough-hewn and battered picnic table and thoroughly decrepit horse stall arrangement. We poked around it for a few minutes and discovered even more butterflies amassed on the rubber mats that were lying between each horse/wooden division.
I could see that there were even more Pipevine, and even a few Spicebush, Black, and Appalachian Tiger Swallowtails also milling around together. Something had attracted them to that spot; regardless it was a wonder to behold. Plus anything that took my mind off my aching feet and knee was welcome respite. We had traversed 3.4 miles to that point and had many more to go before nightfall, but not before a swim in the icy cold, rushing waters of Deep Creek and a "cracker and cheese" lunch from my pack.
This point in the trail featured a bridge over the creek. The bridge was made of a giant peeled log that was flattened on one-third to fashion a footbridge. A peeled-log railing ran along the top for supporting hikers. When we had taken a nice one-half hour break (I could have used much more) we crossed the creek. Since this portion of the "strenuous" (Pole Road Creek Trail) was shared with equestrian hikers, I imagined that the horses must cross the creek IN the water, and not balance on the log. I think I'm safe with that assumption. Nelson and I finished the crossing and headed UP the trail, and away from Deep Creek. We had another 4.3 miles to walk.
The trail began to get steeper and more rocky with stones, etc. having been dislodged by horse hooves. Places along the extremely narrow ledges, hoof-prints had nearly slid off the edge, into the green beyond. Then the going got rough(er). It started to rain. Then it started to really rain. Finally, it began to really, really rain! We stopped long enough to secure our packs from the rain with the pack covers we had smartly brought, however the rest of us was wide open to the elements. As the heavy rain continued; thunder and lightning accompanied the deluge. Nelson asked me, "what do we do if the lighting gets closer?" I responded, "die." When you think about it, where WOULD one go where it was "safe"?
Since the trail canted upward in front of us, small rivulets of water flowed directly at us. These rivulets became minor torrents and loose soil was being washed along with the water. The footing was more and more treacherous and slick. Our "water-resistant" boots were in full failure mode, but still we kept plodding. Just after I had crossed a small confluence of two creeks dumping into "Pole Road Creek" I dumped. I was just bearing down with my right foot on a small, greasy incline when it broke away, causing me and everything else to pitch forward. The top of my pack frame cracked into the back of my skull and I couldn't brace my fall very well. I went squoooosh...into the mud. Nelson had been facing me and my attempted maneuver when the fall occurred. I looked up at him; covered in mud, and he simply said, "you might wanna' wipe that off."
The rain continued to fall and fall for a total of 45 minutes before tapering off. We had climbed about 800 feet before it had nearly stopped, followed by some bright sunlight. My water bottles were almost empty and I began to fret a bit about the possibility of finding water. We were now far from Deep Creek and hadn't even heard the slightest noise from moving water. The trees were amazing at sucking up all surrounding nature sounds. I was pretty much out of gas and had lagged a bit behind Nelson. I stood on the slanted hillside trying to gather a bit of rest, when he came back to me. His face looked alarmed and he spoke slowly and shakily saying, "we might, want, to wait a bit before we go up there," pointing from where he had just come. The way he looked and the way he spoke made my tired mind jump to a strange place in that moment. I immediately imagined that he had either come upon a bear, or some tragedy involving fellow hikers; I was alarmed. I quietly asked him, "what's the matter honey?" He looked at me strangely and almost as quietly said, "bees." Nelson did not care for bees. I truthfully didn't now that fact, but it wasn't all that odd; many people have trouble with bees. We both walked the rest of the way up the incline and what turned out to be the trail crossroads. Dozens of small bees were indeed drifting around the open area near the old wooden trail markers. I could see many holes in the ground where reddish dirt has been removed in piles surrounding them. "Ground bees, it's OK" I said. Nelson kept his distance anyway.
The last leg of our journey for that day was still to come. Site 61 our "reserved" site, was about one mile away from us. Our feet were water-logged and our clothing was completely sopping wet. The humidity, heat and no breeze whatsoever made it impossible to dry out anything. I hoped against hope that it was closer; but it wasn't, so off we trudged. The new switchback path now led completely downward. I remember thinking that I was saddened by giving up so much altitude at the end of the day. We had steadily been climbing upward for hours and now, down we went again. That meant that tomorrow (the day we had chosen to shorten our trip with) we would be climbing back up the way we had just came. Hoo-Ray! Down, down, down, switch, switch, switch we went. My water was now completely gone and a wee bit of panic at the unknown drifted into my subconscious. Would we find water any time soon? If we didn't, would there at least be water at site 61? Just about ten minutes later, I heard a small gurgling sound ahead and was delighted to see a smallish eruption of water from the side hill; crossing the path. My heart lept with relief. It wasn't long before I was plumbing filtered water gleefully into my bottles; thanking God for small things.
Another 30 minutes later and (having fallen behind Nelson again) I arrived at site 61. Nelson was standing and talking to a pair of females that had just emerged from their tent in various stages of undress; hastily dressing and talking to him nervously. Completely soggy, red-faced, dirty, and exhausted; I walked up just in time to hear the spokes-girl make a plea for the two of us to "...take the lower camp site...it was really cute." I made a quick judgement call that what we had just interrupted was of a personal nature between the two women, and didn't care if the site was indeed "cute," I just wanted to fall down somewhere. We stepped through a narrow gap in the brush and discovered that there was an additional site in a clearing nearer to a raging creek.
This site even had its own bear cables and a rock-ringed fire-pit. We dumped our gear on the ground. I dumped myself on a log. We each stripped off all our wet clothing and boots. I strung a quick line near the fire ring and we hung the clothing there for what that was worth. I didn't have any other pants whatsoever, so I simply wore fresh camo-underpants and new tee-shirt. I sat on the log tending my poor abused feet. They were white, wrinkly, and many toes were blistered. I had no other shoes or boots, so I pulled on some dry socks and shuffled around the dirt trying to find some dry wood. Nelson had better luck than I and hauled some moss-covered dead-falls to the pit area. He jumped on the wood to break it into smaller pieces. We lit a barely-burning, pitiful and smoky fire while we decided on freeze-dried "Mountain Chili" as our meal. It was the best chili I had ever had.
While we rearranged the logs to keep them burning, we talked about our decision to cut the mountain adventure short, and felt good about it. While I was in far worse shape than my young son; he admitted to some bodily discomfort as well. Add that to the wet boots, blisters, and damp clothing, and I was eager to extricate myself from paradise. This day had been a bit of a trial and we had both had passed...best not push our luck. Tent set up and gear in the air; we crashed at 8:30 with the sun still awake, and the creek rushing over the rocks behind us.