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.

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