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."
"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."

"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."

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.

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