Saturday, December 31, 2011

Smoky Mountain High

The title for today's blog post is a respectful nod to my all-time favorite musician, songwriter, and poet, John Denver. He would have been sixty-eight today.

Over the last few days I have once again been fortunate enough to visit the Smoky Mountains. Without any travel partners, I had planned out several long run options that would allow me to travel many of the highest ridges of the park, including the one bearing the AT. Unfortunately, the storm that dropped heavy rain and short-lived giant snowflakes on a large region of the Midwest and east coast also hit the national park. Ice and snow caused wrecks and, in turn, road closings. A talk with a volunteer in the backcountry permit office created a new set of plans.

Starting at the Big Creek ranger station near the TN/NC boarder, I reached the AT via the Chestnut Branch trail. This often used trail gained 1800 ft in 1.9 miles. Once on the AT, I ran out as far as time and, coincidently, the cold wind permitted before returning. The apex of the run was just beyond the Tricorner Knob shelter.

The 2-6 inches of snow covering a layer of ice was expected. The 40-50 mph winds in the gaps and on the spine of 6621-ft Mt. Guyot were normal. Subfreezing temperatures were par for December on top of the Smokies. I carried a 15-lb pack with enough gear to protect me from all of this. The pack even carried a puffy - a down parka - and extra socks. Though I didn't expect to use the puffy, it came in handy while I was changing into the dry socks while sitting in the snow and getting lashed by brutal winds.

One-third of the pack weight was water and the purifier. I carried less water than I would have if I were backpacking and less than I would have in warmer conditions.  Water from a trailside spring on Cosby Knob was used to refill a 1.5-L bladder, but only after I had inhaled a liter. Thanks to that spring and the puffy that insulated the water bladder from the cold, hydration was not an issue on this run.

Keeping my nutrition from freezing was a simple matter of keeping it inside my shirt. I have formulated a mixture of protein, carbohydrate, and salt which is concentrated in flasks. A bad experience resulted in some testing which taught me that this mixture solidifies to the point that most of it cannot be removed from the flask if it drops below 45F. The windy conditions on the spine of Mt. Guyot forced me to put on a jacket that was tied around my waist in order to prevent both the flasks - and me - from freezing.

That first run, which took 6:44 (6:32 without water collection/sock changes), covered 34 miles and involved 8400 ft of both ascent and descent. It was a blast. I was happy to find that my climbing legs were there after not completing any hill specific training since leaving CO in July. I was also happy to have a pair of Microspikes. They allowed me to descend much faster and safer than I would have thought possible. The many hikers I passed along the trail were amazed to see me hammering along. Again- it was a blast!

Running trails efficiently is not an easy task, especially when those trails are ruggedly vertical and littered with root/rock/ice obstacles. I have seen people run over such trails with such remarkable efficiency that their footfalls seem effortless while lacking impact or noise. My own stride is nowhere near this, but it is steadily improving with experience.

An elevation profile of the AT through GSMNP with my route in red.
It was near the Tricorner Knob that I encountered a bear. I paused and reached for my camera, but the bear snatched the camera. I ran. I ran right through the trail intersection and continued on for a short distance before I realized I had to return the way I came. I would just have to grab the camera back if the bear was still there. He was. As I approached he yelled "SMILE" and took this picture. He then handed me the camera as I ran by him. Thanks, Bear!

I told the guys from Nashville that I would claim a bear took this . . .
That run was difficult. It easily fell within the ten hardest physical/mental challenges I've ever attempted. This was largely due to the quantity of climbing and descending. The fact that my feet were soaked for almost four hours in sub-freezing temperatures added significant challenge. Those cold, wet feet caused me to continually increase my pace over the last ten miles. That strained pace made the effort feel more like the final miles of road marathon. At no time during the run did I feel in danger. Honestly, I was experiencing both the addictive adrenaline rush and the state of relaxation that outdoor endurance junkies like myself thrive on.

Upon reaching the RAV I immediately drank some organic chocolate milk and ate three of my homemade blueberry oatmeal scones. Then I drove to Asheville where I ate again. Not quite satiated and in a celebratory mood, I went to Jack of the Wood to enjoy the Bluegrass Jam. The previous evening I listened to the Ole Time Jam on the same stool while drinking the same Green Man Stout. Those talented musicians completed a fantastic day! I was lucky enough to sit next to Gabe both nights. He created a website devoted to Asheville area musicians called Simply Pickin.

On the second day I chose to climb Mt. Sterling (5820 ft) via Baxter Creek trail and continue along the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail. This marked the twentieth time that I have summited Mt. Sterling. I have long been drawn to Mt. Sterling because the old tower on the summit provides incredible views of Appalachian mountains. The summit campsite is also my favorite in the GSMNP. Bears like it, too!

Because the weather was warmer and because I expected my legs to give out before I reached that summit, I chose to go light. I carried only one handheld and two gels in a flask. Imagine my surprise when my ascent was less than two minutes over my best effort. This inspired me to run on over the summit and onto the ridge trail.

Mt. Sterling Ridge trail drops a little before climbing back to 5500 feet where it levels off for a few miles. I ran along the ridge enjoying the heavenly views until it ended at the Balsam Mountain trail junction. The descent of Mt. Sterling reminded me of the previous day's adventure - it hurt! That run was a little over 22 miles long and tallied just over 5000 feet of both elevation gain and loss.

After finishing that run I decided to attempt a short run without my orthotics. All previous attempts to ween myself off of those orthotics resulted in failure. Amazingly, I was able to run 3.8 miles on the AT, round trip from Davenport Gap to the junction with the Chestnut Branch trail (see profile above), without any issues. That 44-minute run was my longest run without orthotics dating back to 1986. And, because my quads were suffering, it was also my last run of the trip. I spent the rest of the day exploring and seeking historical knowledge of the region.

I should say that I was slowly exploring. My legs were stiff and sore. Imagine that. I had run 60 miles with more than 14,300 vertical feet of both ascending and descending within a 25-hour time period. (Who did I think I was - Dakota Jones??) It sure seems that experience would have prevented such a repeat of self-destruction. In reality, the effort, exposure, and views were exactly what I was hoping for.

It was while driving east on hard pack NC284 along the park boundary that I veered right at a fork in the road. Shortly thereafter I came to a locked gate where the road crossed back into the national park. I decided to walk along that closed section of road to further enjoy the clear and relatively warm day. That walk lasted about thirty minutes. Upon returning to the gate I encountered a strange scene.

A man stood between his big, late model pickup truck and the gate. He was screaming into a radio. The guy on the other end was screaming back. The man at the gate darted over to his open driver's door and then came toward me with a pistol in his hand. A BIG metallic pistol! I froze.

"They're always locking this gate," he said to me. "They know I'm tracking that bear."
"Where is it?"
"Right out there." He pointed the pistol toward the valley below the road. The same valley I had been admiring for the previous thirty minutes.
"Sow or boar?"
"Boar. A big boar. My dogs are on him right now and this gate is stopping me from getting to them."

This guy was moving frantically and still arguing with the guy on the radio while talking to me. He retrieved a shoulder holster from his truck and put it on. He put the gun, which he told me was a "boar-killin' 44," in the holster.

"You know I've got four ten thousand dollar dogs on that bear. I need to get through this gate!" he yelled at the man on the radio.

Forty thousand dollars worth of hunting dogs! Wow!

Sensing that I should not get involved in this incident, I wished him well before climbing into the RAV and driving away. What happened? I wish I knew. The hunter was demanding entry into the GSMNP to catch a bear that his expensive dogs were chasing. The person on the radio was not complying because hunting bears in national parks is a federal crime. The hunter was supposed to call his dogs off of the hunt when they crossed into the park. Maybe he was trying to do that. I don't know.

Before I left the Big Creek area I encountered three backpackers on the road.

"Are you the guy we saw running on the AT yesterday?"
"Yeah. We crossed paths on Cosby Knob."
"How far did you run?"
"Thirty-four miles."

They looked at each other and smiled.

"That's a week's worth of hiking. Why would you do that?"

Now I smiled.

"Because I got to see a week's worth of trail sights in less than seven hours."

I did not say that my back felt better than it ever did after long packing trips or that I had enjoyed great food and music before retreating to much better sleeping quarters than those they encountered in the mouse houses. I regret not admitting that, even though I have enjoyed every backpacking trip I've taken, I have come to love long runs in the mountains because that activity allows me to combine my love of running with my desire to experience the backcountry.

Here are some of the pictures I took along the trails during this short, therapeutic trip. Enjoy! (Click to enlarge.) ST



The view looking north from Mt. Cammerer on the AT
Much of the AT is a narrow trench
Gravesite at Davenport Gap
Chestnut Branch Trail

AT over Mt. Cammerer
Tightly bound rhododendron means cold air!
Notice the CCC-made stone wall at right.
Fraser fir skeleton
Spring used for my water supply
Walk this way . . .
Nearing Mt. Guyot
Fraser fir graveyard on Mt. Guyot
The ferns and lichens stand out on the AT near Davenport Gap

Davenport Gap shelter - one of a kind mouse house
TN 32 becomes NC 284 at Davenport Gap
There's always light at the end of a tunnel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Long Miles for Short Legs

This is the story of the first time my boys, Brandon and Tyler, traveled to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the Fall of 1994. They explored those mountains in a manner only possible because of their uninhibited youthfulness. 

Campfire Frolicking
The four a.m. starting time served several purposes. It allowed us to miss rush hour traffic in Nashville. It meant that we would have a full day to set up camp and explore the campground. And it would allow the two little fellas in the back seat to sleep through most of the five-plus hour journey.

Though it was against my better judgement, the decision to stop for breakfast at McDs solved the "I'm hungry NOW" dilemma that startled me as I rounded the exit ramp from I-40. Brandon's "on" button had been pushed. From the rearview mirror I could see him rubbing his eyes with one hand and shaking Tyler with the other.

"Ty! Ty! Wake up, Ty! Tootykes, wake up!"
"Stop pinching me, Brandon."
"THIS is pinching."
"STOP!"
"Where are the Smokies, daddy?"
"Not far from here. We'll go there after we eat pancakes."
"PANCAKES! YEAH . . . I gotta pee."

We washed stacks of pancakes down with milk and orange juice. I tried to get them to eat the so-called sausage, but the finicky Tyler squeezed his lips together in refusal. I shrugged.

"That's OK. That sausage is mostly scraps that the chef swept up from behind the oven. These people are here to make money. They don't throw anything away."

"Yuck!"
"Gross!"
"Yeah, pancakes are the only things we should eat here at McDeath's."
"He said McDeath. Silly Daddy!" Brandon, as always, interpreted for Tyler.
"Silly Daddy," repeated Tyler.

Our campsite at Elkmont Campground was close enough to Little River that we could hear and feel the water splashing its way out of the mountains, but it was not at the stream's edge where I had to constantly play lifeguard. We set up the three person tent and laid out three piles of sleeping gear. Because the mid-October nighttime temperatures were expected to reach freezing and because Brandon was a migratory sleeper, I made certain that foam matting stretched wall to wall.

"Can we make a fire now?" Brandon, three and a half years old and nearly three feet tall, was pointing at the bundles of wood while standing in the fire pit.
"Crazy kid!" I snatched him up and turned him upside down to inspect his shoes and pant legs for damage.
"Hey, put me down!"
"Don't ever stand in there, buddy. There could be smoldering embers hidden in there."
"What's smoldering embers mean?"
"Super hot. Hot enough to melt your shoes and start you on fire."
"Start ME on fire?"
"Yes, so stay out of there."
"Don't go in there, Ty," Brandon said as he tugged at his little brother's hoodie.

Our first adventure was to take a hike up Little River Road. The road was asphalt for a third of a mile as it passed beyond the remnants of the old Elkmont village. Most of the houses were permanently empty and in advanced states of dilapidation. We looked into a few of them.

The boys climbed on a boulder lying beside one house. Tyler and I agreed with Brandon when he said that we needed a giant rock in our yard. A nine hundred pound boulder was moved into the back yard of our next house.

We walked beyond the village to where the road turned to gravel and began to closely follow the river. It seems that we were constantly stopping to climb on rocks or to throw stones into the stream. Tyler was doing his best to keep up with the Energizer Brandon. I served handfuls of cheerios, pieces of Powerbars, and sippy cups filled with orange juice.

We meandered back and forth from the river bank to the road until they separated a bit. Then we arrived at a point where the developed road ended at a gate. We sat down for a snack. Several cars were parked along the road here because this spot marked the Little River trailhead. I laid out a topo map and showed the boys where we were, where we had walked, and where our campsite was.

"We've gone a long way, guys."
"That's not far," Brandon said as he approximated the distance between his index finger and thumb.
"How do you feel, Ty?" The thought of carrying him on the return had crossed my mind more than once. We sat nearly two miles from the campsite.
"Good. Can we make s'mores?
"Smores? We'll make those after dark when the campfire is burning."
"Its hot!" Brandon said.
"Yep. Its hot," Tyler agreed. His eyes were opened wide while he nodded in a slow, exaggerated fashion.

The adventure continued until we reached the campsite in mid-afternoon. Everything was new on the way back because trail experiences depend on the direction of travel. Though Tyler never asked me to carry him, his obvious fatigue caused me to suggest that we lay down in the tent and listen to the river after lunch. Having filled their bellies with sandwiches, pretzels, and pop tarts, both boys were asleep within minutes. While they slept I thought about the morning and wrote in my journal.

That hike was full of enlightenment and reminiscence. All of the laughter and excitement indicated that Brandon and Tyler loved playing in the woods as much I did. Adulthood had caused me to forget about the boundlessness of youthful energy. Parenthood had allowed me to once again view the the natural world as only young children can. The world is a playground. I had also forgotten how relaxing and enjoyable skipping stones on water can be, especially when it is done by small children.

The three of us explored the campground that afternoon. We investigated boulders, faucets, empty campsites, and the restrooms.

"Where's the bathtub?" Brandon asked.
"Bathtub? There aren't any bathtubs here."
"Then where will be take a bath," asked Tyler.
"We won't."

And everyone smiled.

Campfire-grilled burgers and warm baked beans preceded the making of our s'mores. Then, because we were in bear country, I spent twenty minutes scrubbing the grease, sugar, and chocolate off of their faces and hands. And wishing there was a bathtub nearby.

The next morning we were awakened by several obnoxiously loud crows. Tyler was especially angry about this. He even got mad at me when I could not make them shut up. We followed another pancake breakfast with a drive to Cade's Cove on the west end of the park. Our hopes centered on seeing some of those famous Smoky Mountain bears while driving around the eleven mile auto loop.

We were in luck. Soon after touring the restored John Oliver Cabin we came upon a traffic jam. I was amazed by the number of people gawking and taking pictures near an enormous eastern Hemlock. A nervous sow paced back and forth at the base of the tree while constantly looking up and calling to her cubs. They were crying out from the smallest branches of the tree more than one hundred feet above the ground. I paused the car long enough to let the boys unbuckle and peer out of the window. As we drove away I could see the rooftop lights of an approaching park ranger.

We saw two more lone bears on that drive. We also stopped in the visitor's center at the back of the loop. I walked out of there with a history book and the boys each had brilliantly colored plastic salamanders like the ones found in the park's streams. Those salamanders turned out to be great hiking companions since they also liked to explore every stone, root, and fallen tree. We spent most of that second day in Cade's Cove. On our second pass of the loop, we hiked up to Abrams Falls where we threw stones into the pool beneath the massive falls. No skipping was allowed. The day was devoted to big, loud splashes. And big miles for short legs. The gently rolling round trip along Abrams Creek was about five miles.

This hike also gave us the hiking stick when we crossed paths with a man using one.

"I want one of those," Brandon said while pointing at the stick.
"Me, too," said Tyler.
"Well, then we should start looking for some sticks near the trail."

It took awhile, but all three of us discovered suitable staffs before returning to the trailhead. When we got there we found the stick used by the old man among a few others that were leaning against the signpost. I asked the boys to leave theirs, but quickly abandoned the ensuing argument. Our agreement was that we would leave the sticks at the campsite just before we left the mountains.

Our late afternoon return to Elkmont left us with just enough time to eat a quick meal of chili before the ranger talk. The ranger, Bob, had invited us to listen to him when he checked us in. Ranger Bob, a seasoned stage man, used a variety of voices when recounting the settlement and logging history of Elkmont. He kept everyone in the crowd, even Brandon, hanging on his words.

The next morning I read my new book, Last Train to Elkmont, prepared more pancake batter, and packed a backpack with hiking provisions while the boys slept in.  We then spent our third day on top of the Smokies.

"Where are we going?" asked Tyler as we left the campground.
"To the Appachin Trail," said Brandon.
"A-pal-a-chi-an Trail," I said.
"The AT"
"Yep. That's the one. Its a long way from here, so we'll drive to it."
"We get to hike the AT, Tytookes!"
"Well, part of it," I said.

I circled the big Newfound Gap parking lot two times before finding an open spot. Fall foliage was a bit past its prime at altitude, but crowds of people were still viewing the relaxingly brilliant colors along Newfound Gap Road.  Each of us put on a second jacket and a hat before stepping into the cold wind at the 5000 foot high gap. We took them off within seconds and I stuffed them in the backpack. It was going to be a beautiful day on the Smokies.

We made our way through the crowd to the AT. I wasn't sure how far we would go, but I had stocked the backpack with enough trail mix, Powerbars, water, and orange juice to last us for at least half of the day. I snapped a photo of the boys standing near the perimeter wall. Then I asked a man to take a picture of us in front of the monument where FDR gave the speech to dedicate the Smokies as a national park in September of 1940. Then we began to hike the AT.
Why pose for pictures when we can be hiking?
I immediately began to worry about the boys, especially Tyler. Because he was about two weeks shy of his second birthday, I quickly surmised that his tiny legs were no match for the rugged AT.  The trail climbed and climbed and climbed for the first two miles as it stretched over the 6100-ft summit of Mt. Ambler. The term "obstacle course" can be substituted for "trail" during this section since the path follows a ridge line covered with boulders and root entanglements.

Brandon performed acrobatic movements that caused my heart to stop and then to race. Combining the fact that he was using an abundance of energy with the fact that Tyler had to be lifted onto or over some impediments, I was certain our trip would be short lived.

I stopped the boys several times to take in the views, to eat, to drink, and, of course, to rest, on the climb up Mt. Ambler. At one point we even sat in the grass and pretended to have a picnic. Brandon dubbed it a snacknic.

Before we left the snacknic sight I  bent over to look Ty in the eye while I asked them if they wanted to go back to the car or hike more of the AT. Both boys voted enthusiastically in favor of more hiking.

Shortly after that the trail began to drop and I could see a steep watershed to the left.  I knew this steep mountain face was below a rugged rocky knob known as Charlie's Bunion. I couldn't believe it, so I stopped to check the map again. We had traveled about 2.5 miles and the Bunion stood another 1.6 miles ahead and 700 feet below us. There was no way I could carry those two most of four miles, let alone up a mountain on that rugged trail.  I decided that we would turn around after another snacknic at the junction with the Boulevard Trail.

"I don't know about you two, but my stomach is starting to growl."
"You just ate a PBJ, silly," said Brandon.
"Yeah, silly Daddy."
"Listen to it. I think it is asking for pizza."

I stooped down and they drew near.
"I don't hear it."
"Me too."
"Oh, I think it wants pizza."

I bent over and "listened" to their bellies.
"All the bellies want pizza," I declared. "Let's go back to town and get a big one."
"And bread sticks?"
"And bread sticks."

Amazingly, I was never asked to carry anyone on the journey back to Newfound Gap. I did offer to carry Tyler, but he refused because he wanted to do everything Brandon did.  When fatigue overwhelmed him, Ty simply plopped his little butt down on a rock, root, log, or the trail and asked for his sippy cup. We ended up going through a whole quart of orange juice and nearly ninety-six ounces of water during our 5.8-mile 4-hour adventure. And Ty likely had more than his fair share on the cool and breezy day.

The Pizza Hut pizza disappeared and then the ice cream, fudge, and taffy were all gobbled up. I had always despised Gatlinburg, which I referred to as "Glitzburg," but it made quite an impression on the boys. After sunset we retrieved heavier coats and hats from the car so we could ride a ski lift. Throughout the ride I clenched my teeth and clutched their collars as they leaned over to look below us.

We slept well that last night. I awoke early on the fourth day to make the pancake batter. I also made a small fire because the temperature was below freezing. Tyler demanded pop tarts with his pancakes, so I dug two out of the food container and warmed them over the fire.

"I don't want grilled pop tarts," Tyler said.
"I am "toasting" them in this backwoods toaster."
"You're making them black."
"Yuck."

I wiped the soot off with off a towel and not one complaint was uttered as both pop tarts disappeared in seconds. That left me responsible for most of the cinnamon buckwheat pancakes. I wasn't heard complaining either.

With breakfast finished we were talking about the day's adventures when we all froze, amazed into silence, because an enormous pileated woodpecker landed on a tree in the campsite. It had a black body, a white neck and breast, and a tall, brilliant red crest. And it seemed to defy gravity. Despite the fact that it stood at least ten inches tall, the bird clutched the side of a hemlock and pecked away. The three of us intermittently smiled at each other and stared at that bird for several minutes before it flew away.

"That chicken was standing on the tree," said Tyler.
"It was a rooster, and it was eating the bark," added Brandon.
"That was a pileated woodpecker."
"A woodpecker?" asked Tyler with a wrinkled nose.
"Yes, a woodpecker. And it was awesome." Everyone agreed on that point.

Only after we drove out of Elkmont did I remember the walking sticks. They were leaning on a tree in the campsite. The boys did not remember them until we saw some later that afternoon at the Apple Valley Farm store in Townsend. It took awhile for Brandon to realize that I was not going to retrieve them.

A short drive up Cove Mountain took us to the Laurel Falls trailhead. We enjoyed our walk despite the fact that the asphalt trail was crowded due to its easy access and sure footing. The boys took turns riding on my shoulders, and honking, as we zigzagged our way through the foot traffic during that four mile hike.

Our last hike was a leisurely one mile walk along the Middle Prong Little River. We took advantage of this last opportunity to skip and splash stones. Along the way we named all of the animals we had seen on the trip. That list included:  six bears, a flock of birds, lots of squirrels, a skunk, three rabbits, lots of deer, a snake, several chipmunks, some noisy crows, and that woodpecker.

The drive home was a quiet one. Both boys passed out a few minutes after we reached the interstate. I worried that they were in diabetic comas due to the sugar intake at Apple Valley Farms. They were likely sleeping the deep sleep of happy hikers.

Epilogue - The three of us returned to those mountains to hike, camp, and backpack many times over the years. On several occasions, while they were still quite young, both boys asked me "Can we hike in the Smokies today." They stopped asking that question after Brandon made sure they were both awake for an entire drive.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Training Update - The Reload

It has been more than a month since the IMM. Since then I have jumped into a couple of 5Ks without really being prepared for them. Because I love racing so much, they were both fun experiences, but I had an epiphany about halfway through the second one. I'm done. My legs and mind need to be rested.

 An intense marathon training program came on the heels of a summer filled with sweat fest long runs in Indiana, sporadic hard efforts on the bike, and two fifty mile mountain races. Relatively speaking, those 5K were tiny efforts, but they were long enough to let me know the flame had gone out.

So, I am now in a reloading period. Though the training lacks the structure required for achieving a goal, it is still purposeful. I am enjoying running for what it provides me. I value sunrise runs through forests. I really love running when it is cold. And I love to sometimes run fast simply because I the energy and excitement are there.

I am also making an effort to put cycling back into my regimen after hardly training for almost eighteen months. The rides are short, but they are happening and they are enjoyable. I am still trying to pinpoint why I love cycling so much.

The only real structure to my training for the month of December is that I have decided on new test courses for my training. These courses are important facets of the overall plan, because they allow me to monitor my progress, by tracking my heart rate with the Polar RCX5, as I work through race specific programs and, well, age. I decided to change the courses for 2012 in order for them to more accurately reflect my goals.

Goals . . . Yes, it is that time of the year, isn't it. I've started mapping out a plan for racing next year that will help me attain the only real goal I have - stay actively healthy!! The racing includes duathlons because they cause me to train at both running and cycling. I will also be running some half marathons next year since I seem to have picked up an addiction to them in recent years. And, as a focal point again next year, I will run in some ultra events. Which events will I enter? I don't yet know. I came up empty in the Western States lottery. In the coming month there are openings for other ultra race registrations. After those occur I will decide on an overall schedule that is sure to keep me well rounded.

The annual winter trip to the southern Appalachians is less than two weeks away. That trip is always a blast.

As for blogging, the reworked piece about the first time my sons accompanied me to the Smokies will be up this weekend. I had hoped to post it by now, but this week has been full of 13-16 hour work days due to wrapping up the semester.  ST

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Getting High in the Smokies

As I promised a couple of weeks ago, I am posting the first of several reworked travel essays that I transcribed years ago.  This one is a description of a solo trip I took to explore the Great Smoky Mountain National Park back in 1990. I was, at that time, feverish with such exploration. I visited the park several times each year with my sons, with friends, and alone. I had the single-minded goal of walking every one of the 800-plus miles of trails in the park. This trip took place during the autumn of 1990. It was a dandy! With hindsight, it was also a crystal ball experience.

Walking among dead Fraser Firs above the clouds

After a restless three hour sleep in my Celica at Cosby Campground, I lace my boots and strap on an old external frame backpack before finding my way through the predawn darkness to the Low Gap trailhead. I do not intend to stay in the back country during this outing. The backpack is for peace of mind. It contains food, water, a water filter, a rain suit, a first aid kit, and a light sleeping bag. Those items will get me through the night if things do not go as planned. I do not want a repeat of my last trip when a roll of my "trick" ankle caused me to hobble-hike for hours after dark.

Day one of this four day exploration of the eastern half of the Smokies involves a simple out and back route from Cosby Campground to some point on the Appalachian Trail. With an average altitude of more than five thousand feet, the AT through the eastern half of the Smokies is the highest sustained section of the 2180-mile National Scenic Trail. My plan is to walk about half of the available daylight hours and then turn around. That is the plan, anyway.

Low Gap trail climbs 2600 feet in 2.5 miles as it rises in parabolic fashion to meet the AT. It is at once rugged and peaceful. The trail meanders though the once clear cut Cosby valley before it climbs steeply to the ridge line at Low Gap. Along the way I pass sites where I have gone off trail in search of partial whiskey stills, rusted car remains, and old growth forests. These mountains are filled with odd mixtures of nature and man.

It takes me forty five minutes to reach Low Gap (4250 ft).  From there I begin to briskly hike and sometimes jog as I climb over Cosby Knob. I pause for a few minutes to check out the primitive three-walled stone structure. I am happy that I haven't planned a stay in any of these mouse houses on this trip.

The AT climbs over Cosby Knob (5100 ft) before dropping to Camel Gap (4700 ft). From there it climbs almost incessantly for five miles, reaching about 6300 feet as it skirts the summits of two of the highest Appalachian peaks, Old Black (6370 ft) and Mt. Guyot (6621 ft). Mt. Guyot was named after the man who first surveyed much of the Smoky Mountains region in 1859.

The views from this high section of the AT are stunning - or so I am told. I am, on this blustery day, walking through fast moving clouds. I can only see a few feet in any direction. It is eerie and it is wet. I am, in fact, drenched as if I am under a hose. Water drips from my hands, my nose, and the brim of my hat. The temperature is climbing through the thirties. Those "waterproof" boots have failed after only a few hours of being water painted by low lying flora. My poncho-turned-kite is probably still airborne above North Carolina. I might as well be in heaven.

After nearly three hours and eleven miles on the trail I find myself at the Tricorner Knob shelter. Time for breakfast. There are two hikers preparing to leave the shelter with extremely voluminous and, judging from the efforts required to shoulder them, heavy backpacks. I say "Good Morning" and they both nod. They seem way too serious. I wonder if the physical and mental burdens of bearing such heavy loads has put the two men in survival mode. At this point, I decide that my twenty pound backpack is not the beast I want to believe it is. I apologize to it as I cook some oatmeal, but I smile since the meal is reducing the load. I don't know it yet, but those two hikers will be the only humans I see in the backcountry for four days.

The next five miles of the AT roll up and down at an elevation of about 6000 feet while passing near the summits of Mt. Chapman (6417 ft) and Mt. Sequoyah (5945 ft). Mt. Sequoyah is named after the Cherokee who created the written form of the nation's language.

Though I see very few of them through the dense, fast-moving clouds, I can always smell the sweet red spruce trees along this high ridge. Occasionally, I also detect the aroma of Christmas, the Fraser fir tree. There aren't many Frasers left in these mountains, because the non-native balsam woolly adelgids are killing them. They are still growing from old seeds, but they are also dying before they can produce new seeds. Piles of fir corpses sometimes line the trail. These saplings are the last of their kind. I take off my right glove and let the ends of branches gently pass through my grasp as I walk in order to feel the difference between the soft spruce and edgy fir needles.

Having read about short, unmarked, and seldom used summit trails for both Chapman and Sequoyah, I venture off of the AT through the rigid and gnarly rhododendron at least a dozen times trying to reach the summits. There is a satisfaction that comes with reaching a highest spot, even if there is nothing to see except speeding clouds.

When I reach the Hughes Ridge trail junction after almost five hours of hiking I weigh my options. I am more than sixteen miles from the rest of my gear at Cosby Campground. I also have about five hours of daylight left. My feet are sore, so I sit down and take off my boots to rub my arches and examine the hot spots. For the first time in my life, I apply duct tape patches to my body. Then I enjoy some homemade trail mix before setting off again.

I am wagering that I can jog for another thirty minutes out and still make it back before sundown by mixing jogging with walking. At thirty minutes I realize how close I am to the summit of Laurel Top (5907 ft). The debate over summiting doesn't even break my stride. My reward? One more summit view of fast moving clouds.

The math is easy. I have used five hours and fifty minutes out of ten hours and five minutes of daylight, so my return trip must be ninety five minutes faster than my outbound leg. No problem. Its not like my feet and ankles are blistered or my inner thighs are raw or my quads are decimated. Fifteen miles of weekly running on mostly flat roads has prepared me for this - right?

The cumulative effect of the clouds encasing me and the intense pain in my legs produces a fog in my mind that allows the miles and time to pass quickly. Constantly aware of the impending sunset, I run most of the return trip. I catch my toe on an embedded stone as I reach the junction with the Snake Den Ridge trail at Inadu Knob. Luckily, I am able to stop my fall by grabbing the signpost.

Taking Snake Den Ridge trail back to Cosby reduces the return trip by a little over two miles. That gives me thirty five miles and 7400 vertical feet of ascending for the day. I beat sundown by fifty minutes. This is by far the greatest distance I have traveled on foot in a single day, easily surpassing the marathons I had run when I was 15 and 16. I am exhausted. My feet and hands are swollen. My quads and back hurt so badly that I am certain they are broken. I cook and eat two camp meals while soaking my legs in the icy water of Cosby Creek. I also plan the next day's hike.

I walk/run eighty nine more miles over the next three days, giving me a four day total of 124 miles with more than 24,000 feet of ascending and descending. Though my body is thoroughly broken down and nearly incapacitated when I leave the Smokies, my mind is completely recharged with a new kind of energy. This is an addictive experience. I am convinced that there are many more days like these in my future.

Little Pigeon River
Note: I am in the process of gathering, scanning, and uploading pictures from this time period. I will post some them as soon as possible. The next story I will retell involves sippy cups, cheerios, and, of course, the AT.