Sunday, November 28, 2010

Strangers and Even Stranger Friends

Strangers and Even Stranger Friends

(Thanks to Rick Harding for supplying the photo)

I’ve been hiking close to forty-five years and have seen and experienced all types of terrain, weather and trail conditions, and an unbelievable hodge-podge of humanity. I have hiked and backpacked in almost every state and many other countries around the world. I’ve met Latins, Germans, Swedish, French, Italians, Russians, Japanese, Canadians, Africans and others that I could not determine their country of origin. I’ve heard almost every major foreign language on the trail at some time or other and my ability to converse, albeit sparse, in Spanish, French, and Swahili, has enabled me to meet and befriend many of these people. Even though English is my major language, my ability to speak the language ‘Southern Redneck’ has benefited me the most. I know most of you are saying to yourself that ‘Southern Redneck’ is not a language but a dialect. I disagree. Try to find some of the words a southern redneck says in an English dictionary and you will discover that perhaps it is another language altogether. Words such as ‘hawngree’ for hungry, ‘mater’ for tomato, ‘tater’ for potato, ‘vittles’ for food, ‘dreckly’ for directly or right-away, ‘crick’ for creek, ‘deech’ for ditch, ‘ya’ll’ is short for all, ‘aint’ for not and the list goes on and on. Also Southern Rednecks will use phrases that at times can not be ‘dreckly’, sorry, directly translated into the more common English language, such as ‘I crossed the crick up yonder a ways’ (I crossed the creek further back). ‘I’m bout to pop’ (I am so full), ‘I’ve a mind to’ (I’m thinking about doing something), ‘Cain’t never could’ (means you will never do it if you don’t try), and ‘hit the bushes’ (go to the bathroom).

There are also colorful remarks or exclamations that are commonly used by the Southern Redneck that separates their language from the more commonly spoken English, such as:

He couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket

He squeezes a quarter so tight the eagle screams

He doesn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of

He’s about as useful as a pogo stick in quicksand

If brains were leather, he wouldn’t have enough to saddle a Junebug

Well don’t you look prettier than a glob of butter melting on a stack of wheat cakes

You could start an argument in an empty house

These are just a few examples of the differences I’ve noticed between Southern Redneck and the English language. The reason I even bring this topic up is to try to illustrate the difficulty of conversing with the varied group and-or groups of people one meets on the trail.

I have met people of all ages, from infants to seniors in their ninety’s. There have been yuppies from suburbia, old hippies from the days of Woodstock, ministers, swingers, moonshine toting hillbillies, ex-convicts and I think even some present convicts. I’ve met women; at least they claimed to be women, that could carry a pack twice the size of mine, scale rock walls with more balls than I would ever have. They could eat, drink and cuss as well as any man I’ve known. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have made the acquaintance of tiny, petite, debutant types that whined, moaned and screamed at every spider or insect that made an appearance. It has become quite evident to me that hikers or backpackers that frequent the wilderness is as much varied as the general population of the world, the only difference being is that at times they are few and far between.

When one encounters these assorted souls on the trail, you almost always take the opportunity and exchange pleasantries, some small talk, and sometimes if taking a rest from the hike, one can have long discussions on a variety of topics from A to Z. Even though these random encounters are at times between people that are as different as night and day, the unspoken brotherhood of hikers and backpackers seem to take precedence, and this provides a path for friendly banter.

This past weekend, my buddy Rick and I headed off to Panthertown Valley in North Carolina for a three day, two night backpack trip. We had originally planned to find Dismal Falls, which we had failed to locate on several attempts in the past, but once we got settled into camp, we decided to kick back and relax for three days instead. The only thing we did during the three days, besides hiking to the campsite and back to the trail-head the last day, was to gather a little firewood, eat, drink, read and sleep. Sometimes it’s nice just to relax and enjoy nature and not have an agenda or destination to accomplish. So we chilled!

The first afternoon (Friday) that I arrived, I set up camp beside the Tuckasege River, in the valley between Little Green Mountain and Black Rock Mountain. It’s a large, flat area, surrounded by tall pines and a few hardwoods. The forest floor is thick with years of fallen pine straw and this makes for perfect sleeping, almost as good as a ‘sleep number’ mattress. There was a group of six to eight, young adults camping across the trail from us and at first I thought I recognized the group from a few months back. They were wearing orange vests; similar to those worn by road crews, and most of them also had orange hooded sweatshirts. As I was gathering firewood, I realized that this was not the same people that I had met previously, but were of the same organization. The group consisted of at least three counselors, ranging in age from the early twenties to late twenties and the rest of the group was in their teens. They were not overly friendly, the counselors merely nodding at me to say hello, and the group continued about their business almost oblivious to everything else around them. I thought this was rather odd. One of the female teens, strolled down the path in front of our campsite and every three seconds yelled, “Monica”. She repeatedly yelled this every three seconds the whole time she was away from her campsite, which was about ten minutes. I assumed she had gone off into the woods ‘to hit the bushes’ (redneck for going to the bathroom) but was clueless as to why she would continue to yell Monica. Each time she yelled she did so as “Monnnn---nica,……….Monnnn---nica,……..Monnnn---nica.”

Later, after dark, Rick and I was sitting around our campfire, when once again, one of the girls strolled up the trail past our campsite, with headlamp on, yelling “Monnnn---nica” every three seconds till she returned from her excursion into the bushes. Rick and I discussed this strange behavior, attempting to arrive at some explanation. Rick mentioned that their orange outfits resembled some of North Carolina’s State prisoner’s clothes, which began to make us think that maybe this group was possibly juvenile delinquents from the State’s Prison system out for some wilderness rehabilitation. That was the best explanation that we could come up with. The counselors exhibited very disciplinary behavior and we heard them give a series of orders to each of the younger teens throughout the evening and the next morning. They definitely were not your normal group of friends out for a backpack adventure. As Rick and I extinguished our campfire and each of us retired to our tents we heard in the distance, “Monnnn---nica,……….Monnnn---nica,……..Monnnn---nica.”

The next morning, as Rick and I sat around our morning campfire, eating our breakfast and drinking coffee, rubbing sleep from our dream filled eyes, the juveniles once again captured our attention. We watched as they systematically disassembled their campsite. Tents, tarps, and gear packed per precise orders from the counselors and eventually, each member shouldered their packs and single file disappeared ‘Up yonder trail.’ (Redneck for further up the trail). I started to yell, “Hey Monnnn---nica wer you’ins goin?”
Rick talked me out of it.

During the day, we napped, read, gathered a little more firewood and prepared for another bone chilling night. It was going to be a full moon and the skies were crystal clear.

Mid afternoon a group of sixteen to eighteen adults, carrying large backpacks, strolled into the campsite across from us. They were a mixture of male and female, some appearing to be friends but most appeared to be merely acquaintances. They ranged in age from early twenties to fifty. Some were couples, some appeared to be alone, and they began setting their tents for the night. After about thirty minutes the campsite across from us looked like a tent city. There were probably twelve to thirteen tents, ranging in size from a small one man bivy tent to a large four to five person tent in a varied pallet of colors. It was a strange site.

This group was much friendlier. One guy from the group, Nick, came over and introduced himself to me. He explained the group was an organization from Charlotte, N.C. called CHOA, which stands for Charlotte Outdoor Adventures. This is an organization for young professionals that enjoy hiking, backpacking and camping.

After Rick got back from ‘hitting the bushes’, I explained to him where the group was from and who they were. We watched them as they hurried, gathering firewood, for the cold night ahead. They apparently had no means of cutting the wood they gathered so I offered a bow saw that I always carry. With eighteen bodies scouring the forest’s floor for dead wood and the bow saw, they had a nice pile of wood stacked and ready to burn before dark.

The sun seemed to plummet behind Big Green Mountain to the west and the temperature began to plummet as well, as night fell upon us. The moon, which was to be full, did not rise above the eastern horizon till two to three hours after dark, allowing us to enjoy the multitude of stars, winking from the heavens above. Rick and I sat around our campfire and watched as the moon slowly rose in the eastern sky, eventually casting melancholy moon shadows through the forests. The soft glow of the moon was illuminating the tall, straight, trunks of the yellow birch trees, causing them to have an eerie glow against the backdrop of the dense stand of conifers. We listened to the cacophony from the large group across the way as they sat around their fire, eating and apparently drinking their way to bliss.
As I poked at the fire, stirring it just enough to heighten the flames I said to Rick, “I’m Hawngree!” Rick gave me a blank look, trying to interpret what I had said, but before he could figure it out or simply ask “What?” I restated, “What’sha gonna have for vittles?”
Another blank stare…… then almost by divine intervention he said, “Don’t know, how about you?”

I took a sip of my Maker’s Mark Whisky, and said; “Only thing I got left in my bag…it’s called Beef Broccoli Stir Fry.” I began preparing my stove, arranging my utensils around me realizing that it had been at least two to three hours since I last ate.

We ate our supper discussing world affairs, differing opinions on the major religions, whether true love really exists or not and then onto other important topics such as what makes farts smell different and what makes women so bitchy. We just about had everything figured out when two or three ambassadors from the large group across the way, strolled over carrying plates of food. They explained they had way too much food left over and a good deed deserves a good deed, I guess they were referring to me loaning them my saw. They had huge chunks of Chicken, doused in a variety of spices and herbs, grilled to perfection. Although neither Rick nor I was the least bit hawngree, we thanked the goodwill ambassadors and consumed the parcels with great speed.

The large CHOA group continued to get more boisterous as their adult beverages began to take affect, causing the group to be in a state of constant giggling and laughter. The leader, which I think was named Carlos, initially spoke relatively good English, leading the group in their activities, but by this time, with the alcohol apparently flowing rather freely, he was speaking in a language which was beyond my language abilities. Actually I think he was speaking in ‘tongues’. Maybe this was what the group was giggling and laughing about, who knows?

Two more headlamps, more goodwill ambassadors approached our camp, carrying more plates of food. “Did you guys save room for dessert?” The first guy asked.

Rick and I glanced at each other, rubbing our bellies and I said, “I’m bout to pop!” (Redneck for I’m completely full).

“Got hot pumpkin pie covered in Cool Whip”, the guy said.

“Thanks, guys…’n the hell do you get pumpkin pie and Cool Whip out here in the boonies?” I questioned as I grabbed the plate and shoveled a spoonful into my mouth.

The goodwill ambassadors were pleased that they had impressed us with their food. They could tell we were greatly appreciative and I considered sharing with them what Rick and I had concluded earlier in the evening about what causes farts to smell different, but I decided loaning my saw had been enough.

Rick and I stayed up late, watching the moon begin it’s descent to the west, the moon shadows casting ghostly images across the pine straw floor; embers from our fire floating skyward, eventually dying and fading into the blackened sky. With full stomachs and unstressed minds we retired to our tents. As I buried myself into my sleeping bag to thwart the chilled air, I could hear the group across the way, still laughing, talking, some still speaking in tongues and I realized that even though they had been strangers in the beginning, we eventually connected and now I could consider these not strangers but stranger friends.

Rick Harding and I took this trip to Panthertown Valley on November 19th thru the 21st. Great weather, great friends and a great time. Special thanks to Rick for letting me use the photo of the 'tent city'.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Four Feet and Thirteen Inches

Four Feet and Thirteen Inches

Needless to say, I was very excited about the weekend we had planned. I was the lucky recipient of an invitation by Tom Harding, one of my hiking buddies, to hike up Mt. Leconte and spend the night at the famous LeConte Lodge.

At 6,593 ft. Mt. LeConte is the third highest peak in the Great Smoky National Park and is the site for the LeConte Lodge. Seven small, rustic, rough-hewn cabins and three larger cabins are perched on the western precipice of Mt. LeConte. When the skies are clear the views of the surrounding mountains and the valley below are breathtaking. The lodge itself would be considered extremely primitive and sparse if compared to the numerous hotels and cabins located in Gatlinburg, just a few miles east, in the valley below. It is the rustic ambience and the beautiful setting that gives Mt. LeConte and the Lodge it’s charm and this is what attracts thousands of visitors each year. The only way to get to the LeConte Lodge is to hike. There are no roads, buses, or motorized vehicles to transport guests to the site. To reap the benefits that the LeConte Lodge and the mountain has to offer, one just has to pick one of the several trails, ranging from about five miles to ten miles and climb this expansive mountain to the top..

I, as well as Tom, had climbed to the top of LeConte several times and we both had stayed at the LeConte Lodge on different occasions and had fond memories of the good times the mountain as well as the Lodge had proffered.

The weather Friday morning, as I began sorting through my gear, was not what I had expected. The forecast was for clearing skies and colder temperatures. Neither rain nor snow was mentioned in the forecast, but the skies were drearily gray as I packed my gear into my small mountaineering pack for the trip. The dark gray skies seemed to foreshadow the possibility of bad weather.

I drove north on I-575 toward Elijay in north Georgia. Then I would continue toward Cherokee, North Carolina. The further I drove, the worse the skies appeared. By the time I reached Elijay, in north Georgia, the rain began a steady pour; my windshield wipers slapping at the windshield, sounding as angry as I for what the heavens were bestowing upon us. I could not help but think that if it was raining at this low elevation, would it be snowing at over 6,000 ft?

Thirty minutes after the rain started, the drops began to change appearance. They appeared to be falling in slow motion, almost floating to the ground. The raindrops appeared to be metamorphosing before my eyes into semi-solid droplets. It took me a few minutes to realize, or I could have been in denial, but it eventually became evident that it was snowing! By the time I reached Nantahala Gorge the snow was coming down hard, the large crystalline flakes racing horizontally into my windshield as I continued driving north. In the distance to the southeast, I caught a glimpse of Wayah Bald. At a little over 5,000 feet, it was snow capped and I realized then that Mt. LeConte was surely getting it’s share of the frozen precipitation. I was beginning to realize that Tom and I had a challenge ahead of us.

As I was approaching Cherokee, North Carolina there was still a few flurries, but there was little accumulation. The heavens appeared to have given up on dousing mother earth with her elements, sending only an occasional flake that would appear to hover in the still air. It was cold, in the low thirties, but the ground had been relatively warm and as the flakes reached earth, they would quickly melt, forming puddles rather than drifts. The tourists who normally crowded the sidewalks of Cherokee, walking from one shop to the next, looking for that special memento of authentic Cherokee origin, were strangely vacant. The day had turned to night, the flashing neon lights of the tacky tourist shops reflecting on the wet pavement of the streets appeared to be flashes of warning and added to the anxiety that I already was already feeling. The streets were bumper to bumper with traffic, license plates from across the country, the cars and mini-vans full of families cruising the streets and filling the parking lots of restaurants and hotels seeking refuge from the cold.

I stopped at a relatively nice motel at the northern end of Cherokee, only about two miles from the national park boundary. The lobby was full of travelers, bags in hand, winter coats buttoned to the chin, sock caps pulled low over their ears, waiting in line to check in. I overheard several of the travelers discussing the road conditions of Hwy 441, which is for all practical purposes, the only road over the mountain. It was the road we would have to travel to get to trail-head the next morning. They were saying the highway had just been closed due to ice and snow. This was the reason for the crowds of travelers crowding the few motels and restaurants. They were stranded on this side of the mountain and so was I.

I did not sleep well that night, finding myself climbing out of bed numerous times to glance out the window to see if the snow had started again. The flurries continued but the streets were clear of ice and snow. There was a heightened level of anxiety within me that just did not allow me to sleep.

I met Tom early the next morning at ‘Peter’s Pancake House’, which is an icon in Cherokee. Normally there are lines of people waiting to be seated, waiting for their chance to order some of the famous blueberry or strawberry pancakes, with a side of bacon or sausage. Coffee being slung to patrons by the gallon lining the counters and tables would be the norm, but today there were plenty of seats available. The wait staffs were standing behind the counters with hands on their hips as if wondering where the hell is everyone! I figured the weather had something to do with the lack of patrons swarming, but it could have been too early yet for most tourists to be up and about, especially on a wet, cold morning, with no where to go.

Tom and I, after careful consideration, decided to drive the two miles north on Highway 441, stopping at the ranger’s station and waiting for the highway to reopen. It was a gamble, because we were not absolutely sure the road would reopen, but a couple of hours later, it was opened to four wheel drive vehicles or cars with chains. Since Tom had the four wheel drive Range Rover, I loaded my gear into his car and we headed for the trail-head on the Tennessee side of the mountain

Once we reached The Alum Cave Trail-head, the snow began to fall once again. The trail-head, at an elevation of about 3,800 feet, had considerably more snow than what we had seen in Cherokee. It was also much colder, but we dressed accordingly and we knew that once we started hiking we would warm up considerably, which we did.

The snow at this elevation was probably five to six inches and the temperature was probably in the twenties. With the layers and the high-tech clothing we had, we were relatively comfortable. We followed Alum Cave Creek, the waters roaring and tumbling down the steep mountainside, causing me to shiver as I imagined how cold the water would be, if one actually slipped and fell into the icy waters. We crossed several bridges, actually they were logs, stretched from one bank to the other, allowing us to cross without the need to rock hop or wade through the icy waters. Once out of the car, and on the trail, I began to feel excited about the opportunity to climb Mt. LeConte in the snow. Even in the very beginning of the trail at the lower elevation, the trees that surrounded us were bowing to the the weight of the newly fallen snow. The rocks that filled the creek-bed were covered in snow, and icicles formed on rock ledges that hung over the trail and the creek itself. The snow was powdery, not wet as I expected, and the hiking was good.

As we climbed higher up the mountain, the snow continued to get deeper, partly because it continued to snow, albeit light snow, and also the higher the colder, thus preventing snow melt.

Tom and I took our time, enjoying the sights, an almost Winter Wonderland experience, and we had plenty of time to reach the summit before dark. We had hiked many times together in the past, usually with at least one or more other friends. He is very knowledgeable when it comes to the wilderness, not only being able to identify different trees, wildflowers and other plants of the forest, but also has a unique ability to be very methodical in his approach to hiking, backpacking, and camping. He has volunteered his time doing trail maintenance on many mountains, which I admire, and with his experience in the outdoors, one understands right-a-way his great appreciation and respect for what nature has to offer. I have come to the realization that even though both Tom and I undoubtedly appreciate and respect nature the same, there is a difference. It may be subtle but what I’ve discovered is while I appreciate what nature and the wilderness has to offer, Tom has come to realize that he appreciates what he can offer nature and wilderness. He simply makes the effort to give back.

As we began to reach the steeper sections, right before the bluffs, I began to perspire profusely and I unzipped the light rain parka and removed my hood. My stomach was growling with hunger, as we negotiated the last fifty yards, entering beneath the bluffs, out of reach of the snow flurries that seemed to be constant. There were a few other hikers (day hikers) that had stopped at the bluffs, probably to eat their lunch. We exchanged pleasantries with them, and then moseyed over to a rock to sit and eat our sandwiches. My parka was unzipped, my gloves removed, and I was cooling off nicely. My sandwich and chips were hitting the spot, replacing the energy stores that hiking depletes in a hurry. I was feeling good!

Ten minutes later, my sandwich eaten, the last few crumbs of chips were swallowed and chased with water from my nalgene bottle, which was already beginning to freeze and was in a slushy state as I washed down my lunch. That’s when I began to feel the COLD!
My hands felt it first, probably due to the fact that I was holding the nearly frozen water bottle in my bare hands. There was first a numbing sensation in my fingers then an intense stinging, especially in the fingertips. I began to chill, shaking as I hurriedly tried to zip my parka with my nearly frozen fingers, then pulling my sock cap low over my head and finally replacing the gloves over my stiff and useless hands. Tom was still nibbling on his sandwich, appearing to be eating lunch on the Whitehouse Lawn during July 4th celebrations, seemingly unaware of the bone chilling cold. I stood, stomping my feet trying to get my blood pumping again, sending warmth back to my extremities, but the cold was excruciating. I swung my pack onto my back and told Tom I had to get moving or I was going to freeze. I knew that once I started exerting energy climbing I would begin to warm, so I hurried up the trail, hiking fast, trying to get warm.

Forty-five minutes later I began to feel comfortable. The feeling in my fingers had returned to normal and my core had warmed. The snow began to fall a little heavier and the snow on the ground was reaching eight to ten inches deep in places. I knew Tom was well behind me and I considered waiting for him to catch up. I began to walk slower as I warmed, and took the time to stop and take a lot of pictures, hoping Tom would eventually catch up, but eventually I realized I was very close to the summit and there I could sit in a rocker by a wood burning fire stove with a cup of hot chocolate and wait as well, so I continued up the mountain.

As I reached the summit and followed the ridge line toward the Lodge, the temperature plummeted. There was very little visibility, the air thick with frozen mist and snow. It was almost surreal to see everything as if it was a black and white photograph. There was no color, other than various shades of gray and white. With the blanket of fresh white snow on the ground and trees fading into the white-gray sky, I could not tell where the ground ended and the sky began. Red Spruce trees which are in abundance at the top of Mt. Leconte created a fairy land appearance as their limbs succumbed to the weight of the freshly fallen snow, giving the appearance that the trees were reluctantly surrendering to the skies above.

A short hike along the ridge line and I finally came to the group of small rustic cabins, perched on the western edge of the mountain. There was no view, the snow and the clouds obscured any visibility of much more than thirty yards. I found one of the larger community cabins, and through the glass windows, which were glazed with ice, I could see the faint glow of a lantern. I pushed open the timbered door, having to push snow away from the bottom to allow me to swing the door open to enter. There was a group of about ten people, most huddled around the propane stove, sitting in rockers, their feet propped up to warm in front of the heater. There were a group of four musicians, playing guitars, wood flute, and a mandolin playing Celtic tunes, creating an almost surreal environment to enter into. As I entered, everyone glanced my way momentarily, but then each continued with what they were doing moments before. Sipping on cups of hot chocolate, staring into the flames of the huge propane stove, mesmerized by the dancing flames, and the musicians continued their pleasant melody. Several kerosene lanterns that were lit provided a warming glow to the darkened room, filling the space with the faint smell of kerosene. I removed my pack, parka and gloves and found a vacant rocker in front of the stove. I sat with a weary sigh, suddenly feeling exhausted from my efforts.

Thirty minutes later, Tom came shuffling into the room, appearing cold and haggard as I had moments earlier. We were escorted by one of the staff to our small cabin, which consisted of a bunk-bed, a small writing table and one chair. The small propane heater was lit to begin heating the frigid air. We situated our packs, hanging our wet outer garments to dry and retraced our steps back to the larger community cabin to enjoy some hot chocolate and the warmth. We noticed the thermometer on the porch of the larger cabin and it read 17 degrees. The staff member that had escorted us to our cabin nodded as we entered the room. The same patrons that were there previously, appeared to have not moved. A couple of new arrivals had also entered and were situating their gear. I questioned the staff as to the amount of snowfall that had fallen and he answered saying that over the last couple of days, there had been a total of thirteen inches of snow. As far as I could tell, there was a good eight to ten inches of snow still covering the area and the cold was relentless.

Tom and I found a couple of rockers close to the stove and we situated ourselves in them. We talked about our climb up the mountain and shared with each other the pictures each of us had taken with our digital cameras. I explained to Tom the reason I hurried up the mountain, trying to get warm and he seemed to understand. Tom and I had hiked many times together before and he had grown to expect me to hike faster much of the time but did not seem to be bothered by it. Even with that said I still felt a little guilty running ahead as I did. More hikers began entering the small confines of the cabin, filling most of the chairs. There were day hikers and hikers that were also planning to stay at the Lodge as we were and we all began sharing our stories and discussing the different trails each of us took up the slippery slopes of Mt. LeConte. The music continued from the musicians adding to the warmth the fire, the lanterns, and the cabin graciously provided.

At 5:45pm we were all called to dinner in the dining lodge. We were situated at tables of eight. Large bowls of beef tips and gravy, mash potatoes, green beans, corn bread, baked apples, peaches, and cookies were put in front of us. Pitchers of water, coffee, hot chocolate and wine were provided. It was divine!

Our table consisted of three boys (all in their twenties) and their dad, a couple in their late forties from North Carolina and Tom and I. The group was friendly and the conversation between us was easy. We each told stories of our past backpacking experiences and our respective families. It was good.

After dinner, Tom and I retreated to the community cabin once again and found a large group of backpackers that had hiked up the mountain but were camping. They were enjoying the warmth of the community cabin, before they had to retreat to the frigid outdoors for the night. A lady, which I eventually discovered was the wife of one of the musicians passed around a quart mason jar of moonshine she had brought. It was dark in color and had a very unique taste of charred oak and molasses. I shared my small flask of Maker’s Mark I always carry with the group and with the added benefit of the alcohol began to talk and laugh uninhibited. We were having a blast!

Before Tom and I went back to our cabin for the night we stopped in the dining lodge to catch a few of the last songs the musicians were playing. There was a small group of people there and the soft lights of the kerosene lanterns augmented the ambience with the music.

We finally retired to our small cabin, pushing snow away from the door to enter; we found the cabin to be nice and warm. The small propane heater was doing it’s job. We lit the one and only kerosene lantern to give us light to get our beds ready for the night. Since Tom had invited me, I insisted he take his pick of either the top or bottom bunk. It really made no difference to me, although he had told me earlier in the day that the top bunk sleeps much warmer. He chose the top bunk and I turned back the covers of the bottom bunk and climbed under the heavy blankets, feeling very comfortable. I apologized to Tom in advance for my snoring. He assured me that it would not bother him. He explained that he had had a problem with snoring, but that he had acquired a device that solved the problem. He did not show me the device, for we had already extinguished the lantern and he was in the top bunk and I was in the lower, but he began describing the contraption to me. The device straps over his head and with a variety of straps, springs, and levers pulls his tongue out of his mouth, preventing the tongue from relaxing toward the back of the throat during sleep, thus preventing him from snoring. He said that since he had started wearing the device when he sleeps, he has not been snoring.

I could not help but think of the mask that the character Hannibal Lecter wore in the 1991 movie, “Silence of the Lambs”. I went to sleep with the thought of accidentally snoring and waking up with this contraption strapped around my head, pulling my tongue out of my mouth, courtesy of Tom Harding! If I snored, Tom never complained, and I was dead to the world five minutes after my head hit the pillow.

The next morning we were called to breakfast and once again the food was superb. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, biscuits, and grits filled the tables. Outside the skies were crystal clear as the sun inched over the mountain peaks to the east. The thermometer read 12 degrees but seemed to be much colder. There was no wind and as the clouds began to burn off the valley below, we could see Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg miles below.

Tom and I packed our gear and began the long, difficult descent down the same trail we had climbed up the previous day. The trail was much slicker than the previous day, and with every step, the footing was very tenuous. After about thirty minutes of slipping and sliding, using my trekking poles as a slalom snow skier would use theirs I was feeling very tired. I felt we were descending at a snails pace. Somehow, and even now I don’t understand how I missed the turn, but we got on the wrong trail and hiked 6 tenths of a mile before we realized my error. We retraced our steps, finding what was then the very obvious turn, and started down the correct trail, still slipping and sliding, cursing every other breath as we fought to stay vertical.

Once we reached Alum Cave Bluffs, we again stopped to rest under the massive overhanging cliffs. There was a group of about ten day hikers, sharing the same spot and as we sat and rested, huge chunks of ice (some the size of large ice chests) would slide off the ledges high above and come crashing down in front of us. We could see the monstrous chunks of ice come into view as they began the plummet from above. They would appear to be falling in slow motion, undoubtedly due to the sheer size of them. They would land with a loud boom, sounding almost as if there had been an explosion; ice spraying in different directions for ten to fifteen yards as the huge chunks disintegrated upon impact. After watching several of the chunks fall, we came to the realization that we had to hike through this mine field of falling chunks of ice. As we prepared to enter the danger zone, I told Tom that I would go first and once I reached safety, I would watch the ledges above and warn him as he descended through the same. I ran down the steep, icy slope, slipping and sliding, not daring to stop or slow down as I feared what might come from above. My adrenaline was pumping overtime, causing my heart to flutter against my chest like a moth in a lamp, as I bounded to safety. Once I was well past the fall zone of the overhang I turned to watch and to warn if necessary. Tom scampered down the slippery slopes as I with no mishap.

The trail, even though less steep on the bottom half, was still very icy. The snow was not as deep, but the trail continued to be tricky to descend. Each step required total concentration to prevent from falling. It was this way till we arrived at the trail-head and Tom’s car. It was not till we began the long drive back over the mountain toward Cherokee that we began to relax. Our leg and core muscles having worked overtime in the descent slowly began to ebb as we began to prattle about the events of the past two days.

There is nothing more beautiful than to see nature in it’s extremes. Whether it’s a thunderstorm, an extremely clear sunny day, or as this was, a frozen winter wonderland with the landscape blanketed in white, the skies opaque white to gray, it is wonderful to experience. Hiking gives one the opportunity to become part of these extremes of nature and to begin to realize the opulence that surrounds us. It is especially memorable when one gets to experience these things with a good friend as I did on this trip to LeConte. Just two friends, four feet, and thirteen inches of snow created an unforgettable experience. Thanks Tom for allowing me the opportunity to tag along on this great trip.
This hiking trip to Mt. LeConte took place over November 5th, 6th, and 7th of 2010. It SNOWED! Thanks Tom for an unforgettable trip.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Climb to High Bethel Altar

Climb to High Bethel Altar

Thanks to Clay Turner for providing the great Photo!

Twenty-five hundred years have passed since both Abraham and Jacob, according to the biblical account, established altars at Bethel. Jacob described it as a place of awesome spiritual power (Genesis 28:17) and later Bethel, which means “House (or place) of God” became an official shrine of the northern Kingdom of Israel and remains a sacred place in the collective memory of both Jews and Christians. Abraham, according to Genesis 7:8, built an altar east of Bethel shortly after arriving in Canaan from Haran. Later, Jacob, believing the place to be the “gate of heaven,” named it Bethel.

It is not surprising to me that man still finds a need, a desire, to erect symbols of their faith, on what they consider hallowed ground. Many men in history have photographed areas of extreme beauty, trying to capture the spiritualness of an area, such as the great photographer Ansel Adams. Other men have tried to capture the spirit through poetry or other writings, such as John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau and even Song writers such as John Denver attempted to capture the feeling, the spirit of what they have experienced in the mountains and wilderness. Shrines, such as ‘Christ the Redeemer’ located on Corcovado peak in Rio de Janeiro are perfect examples of man’s continuing desire to mark places that possess spiritual attributes. Knowing this, it should not have been a huge surprise to have stumbled upon a simple rock altar, high in the North Carolina mountains in an area called Panthertown Valley, called High Bethel Altar.

The trip we had planned began early on the 8th of October. There was to be four of us on this backpack adventure to Panthertown Valley, in North Carolina. We frequent this area, enjoying the numerous waterfalls, the relative isolation, and the great views afforded by the many granite rock ledges and outcroppings that overlook the beautiful valley floor.

It was a beautiful autumn day, the azure sky above and the crisp cool air was assuring us that a good weekend was ahead. We set up camp at the confluence of Panthertown Creek and Greenland Creek, which form the headwaters of the Tuckasegee River. The campsite was in a large flat pine forest, the ground softened by deep layers of pine straw.

Tom Harding and myself, spent the afternoon setting camp, gathering firewood and filling our water bottles. Clay Turner arrived into camp around 5:30pm and Rick Harding would not show up till well after dark. After everyone had finally arrived, we sat and relaxed around a roaring campfire, discussing our options for the hike the next day.

The campfire was comforting amongst the darkened forest that surrounded us. The Tuckasegee River beside us babbling, as it worked its way further down the valley toward Warden Fall’s where it begins to roar as the waters gain momentum and larger volume. The logs in the fire were cracking as the fire began to consume, sending embers dancing into the blackened skies, winking as they drifted back to forest floor. The four of us chatted well into the night, discussing everything from nuclear reactors, fission and fusion to swapping silly puns resembling a kaleidoscope of conversation.

The conversation did take a serious level when we began discussing our options for a day hike the next day. I suggested we hike to High Bethel Altar, which is near the peak of Cold Mountain. I was a little concerned that it was still relatively early in the season and the underbrush may still be too dense to hike it. After a little discussion between the four of us, we decided to give it a try.

Years before, Rick and Tom Harding had introduced me to Panthertown Valley. We had been hiking it quite frequently since. Two years after my first visit, I was still questioning Rick and Tom about the huge mountain off in the distance, which they informed me, was Cold Mountain. The map showed two trails that traveled to the peak which was labeled High Bethel Altar. Rick and Tom both had tried to find the trails and had given up on several occasions. The trails although on the map just did not seem to exist in reality. It was in November, two years after my first trip to Panthertown, that Rick Harding, Courtney Sharpe and myself finally made it to the top and found High Bethel Altar. We took the long way up, following the ridgeline of Shelton Pisgah Mountain and eventually coming up the western slope of Cold Mountain. It was a terribly long hike, the trail non-existent in places and very cold. Once at the top we were rewarded with a view that was breathtaking and found another surprise in the form of a rock altar, fitted with a brass plaque and inscription. This site needless to say became special in many ways to us and to all of those that can find their way there. That first trip found us leaving High Bethel late in the afternoon, in late November, and only about two hours of sunlight left. We made the decision on the way down Cold Mountain to try to find the other trail, which basically follows Little Green Creek down the valley between Shelton Pisgah Mountain and Cold Mountain. If we were successful in finding this trail, it would save us two to three miles of hiking and we could probably get off the mountain before dark. We found the trail only to lose it a mile down the mountain; the trail disappearing into rhododendron thickets and steep cliffs falling off into the rock littered Little Green Creek. We had no choice but to crawl on our hands and knees, inching our way through the maze of rhododendron and downed trees but eventually we found our way back to the main trail of Devil’s Elbow and out of the valley.

Rick and I would return on several occasions after this, trying to find an easier way up to High Bethel Altar. Using maps and GPS we thought we had found an easier way till we came across a fence that was signed “Canaan Land-No Trespassing”. We walked down the fence, expecting it to end and thus allowing us to travel a mile east up the western face of Cold Mountain, but the fence continued into terrain that was much to steep to try to cross. We eventually gave up trying to find an easier way and decided the Little Green Creek trail was our best option, albeit the complicated maze of rhododendron was an arduous quest.

Saturday morning, 7:30am, the crisp autumn air at dawn was invigorating, encouraging us to build a small campfire to warm ourselves as we drank coffee and ate our breakfast. By 9am the sun had peaked over Boardcamp Ridge casting rays of sunlight and warmth through the canopy of trees above. We were away from camp, beginning our journey by 10am. It would only be two to three miles to High Bethel Altar, but we knew it would not be easy.

We followed the Devil’s Elbow trail till we reached the junction of the nearly invisible Little Green Creek Trail and began working our way through the maze of Rhododendron. Storms that had frequented the area over the last several months had resulted in many fallen trees, making the hike more difficult. Every ten yards it seemed we would have to crawl under huge trunks that had fallen, only to find ourselves having to climb over the next, all of this while steadily climbing in elevation, up the valley between Shelton Pisgah and Cold Mountain. Two miles up Little Green Creek Trail we turned away from the streambed and traversed across the southwestern slope of Shelton Pisgah, through tall stands of Poplar and Oak. The hiking became a little easier as we steadily gained elevation and began to cross the saddle between Shelton Pisgah and Cold Mountain. Once on Cold Mountain, we followed an old road bed, circumventing the western side of Cold Mountain till we reached still another trail that turns to the east and goes straight up the side of Cold Mountain. There were a couple of switchbacks in the trail which tamed the climb somewhat but was still difficult.

We let Clay lead us on this last part, allowing him to walk through the tunnels of Mountain Laurel and Blueberry bushes, which opened onto a granite outcropping and a view of unbelievable beauty of Panthertown Valley below. The fall colors glistening as the sun filled sky warmed the cool autumn air. Reds, yellows, and orange leaves contrasting against the cerulean blue sky in the panoramic view around us was breathtaking.

The simple stone altar stood four feet in height and was three foot square. A brass plaque mounted on the side of the altar read:

Near the Endless sky above us
Up in Canaan Land
Lies the Beauty of High Bethel
Made by God’s own hand.

Here we watch the sunset
His love we understand
In the majesty of mountains
Here we join God’s hand.

The four of us sat on the ledge and enjoyed the views as we ate our lunch; each of us lost in our own thoughts as we contemplated the beauty that was before us. I considered the significance of this Altar and to the one referenced in the Bible built by Abraham on Bethel. I realized that over two thousand years had passed since Abraham constructed his alter in the westbank and men still to this day, find the urge, the need to construct a symbol of their appreciation to God for all the riches and favors he had bestowed upon them.

The Genesis Apocryphon is one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in Cave 1 near Qumran in the west Bank. This document is written in Aramaic and consists of four sheets of leather and is the least preserved of the original seven scrolls. It gives an account of the biblical figure Lamech and his son Noah and the significance of the Bethel Altar.

I pitched my camp in every place in which I had formerly camped until I came to Bethel, the place where I had built an altar. And I built a second altar and laid on it a sacrifice and an offering to the Most High God. And there I called on the name of the Lord of worlds and praised the name of God and blessed God, and I gave thanks before God for all the riches and favors which he had bestowed on me. For he had dealt kindly towards me and had led me back in peace into this land.
After that day, Lot departed from me on account of the deeds of our shepherds. He went away and settled in the valley of the Jordan, together with all his flocks; and I myself added more to them. He kept his sheep and journeyed as far as Sodom and he bought a house for himself in Sodom and dwelt in it. But I dwelt on the mountain of Bethel and it grieved me that my nephew Lot had departed from me

High Bethel Altar on Cold Mountain was constructed over a period of eighteen years, begun in 1956 and completed in 1974 and the altar itself is rather simple, consisting of granite stones and mortar, but the view, the expanse of the mountains below is what makes this place so special leaving one speechless. As we sat, gazing at the view below in silence, I could almost hear the whisper of God on the light breeze saying, “See what I created for you.”

This trip took place over three days, October 8, 2010 to October 10, 2010 and consisted of hikes and camping in Panthertown Valley, North Carolina. Great weather and great friends made this trip most memorable. Thanks to Rick and Tom Harding and Clay Turner for sharing the experience with me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

From the Heart


There are two groups of people that I find myself very uncomfortable around, the very young (less than seven) and the very old (over eighty). I know this does not sound politically correct and I also know that this is a personal problem that I should work on to correct. Let me assure you that I have made every effort to resolve my insecurity in this matter.

What confuses this problem even more is that it is not necessarily only the age. It has more to do more with the mindset of the people I am around or could it be my mindset? After careful evaluation of myself and the uneasiness I feel when subjected to such, I realized that once the dialogue becomes dependent on me solely, then I begin to falter. I struggle to find the right words to entice the very young or the very old into a productive and entertaining dialogue. It’s almost as if I just don’t know what to say. Encounters of this kind, when initialized, begin well enough, but once the initial greeting and pleasantries are given, then the communication begins to fail.

I watch other people, my wife for one, work the dialogue well with any age person and it seems to come very natural, talking and listening, each party offering input and giving the appearance that both are enjoying the conversation. I, on the other hand, find myself at a loss of words, struggling to find a topic that may interest the other party, only to find myself speechless and leaving the seven year old gazing around the room, looking for something else to do, or in the case of the eighty year old they may begin to doze, their head falling to their chest their eyes glazed in an unconscious stupor..
Although age appears to be a major contributing factor to this problem, I have also come to realize that there are certain types of relationships that render me unable to communicate effectively. My relationships with my parents, brother and sister are perfect examples of my inability to communicate effectively. I find myself avoiding the situation, thus not visiting as often as I should. I feel very comfortable talking and discussing most any topic with my wife and daughter, and even with perfect strangers, as long as they’re within the required age bracket, but once I find myself with my brother or sister, I find myself struggling and after only about five minutes, we sit in silence, unable to cultivate a meaningful connection.
I realize that part of the problem may be that we may have very little in common. They may not be interested in the things I do, and I’m not interested in the things they do, thus there is very little to talk about. After careful observation of my wife in such situations, I came to understand that you must show interest in the other party by asking questions, building on the dialogue in such a way that the conversation begins to have a life of its own.

Having learned these important lessons, I took off to visit my Mom with apprehensive dread.
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a few years back and has spent the last two years in an assisted living facility and presently in a skilled nursing home in Knoxville. Her mind has deteriorated to a degree that much of the time she is unable to speak and when she does, she rambles on about things that seems to suggest that she is delusional, so I knew I had my work cut out for me and my gut instinct told me to avoid the situation. I could always use the excuse that even though I wanted to visit my Mom, I knew that she would not know who I was, so why go. Most people seem to understand and accept this rationalization, but deep inside I knew better.

I arrived at the nursing home, and after signing the visitor’s log, I took the elevator to the fourth floor. As the elevator doors opened onto the fourth floor I stepped into a small sitting area, furnished with a couple of couches, a few tables, chairs and a large flat screen television was tuned to what appeared to be ‘The Living Channel’, which seemed appropriate for the audience, although after more careful observation, I wondered if maybe a few of the viewers may not be breathing.

At first glance around the small sitting area, there was maybe ten patients, some male, some female, and most all either had a walker at their side, or sitting in a wheel chair. Everyone looked alike! It reminded me of the times I would have to go to the daycare to pick up my daughter, walking into the room, full of toddlers and trying to pick my daughter out of the group.

These aged souls were not talking with each other and seemed to be uninterested in the program on the television. Most was either in various stages of sleep or staring into space in their own world, possibly sorting through their foggy memories of the past. There was an air of abandoned hope and confused mingling.

I strolled down the hall to my mother’s room and with her door open I entered. I was surprised to find she was not there. I looked around the small hospital like room, taking inventory of the few pictures that was framed and sitting on various ledges and tables. Pictures and portraits of our family’s past. A portrait in particular sat close to her bed and was of our family taken maybe fifty years ago; a young, happy family, looking into the camera’s lens, appearing to be looking into the future in joyous anticipation of what the future would bring; my mother sitting beside me in the portrait, her hand on my shoulder, smiling proudly.

Realizing my mother was not in the room, I stepped back into the hallway, and a nurse approached me. “Are you looking for Garnet?” The nurse questioned.

“Yes, I’m her son, Jeff. Do you know where she is?”

“I think she is in physical therapy, on the first floor. You’re welcome to go down there to visit her. We think the world of Garnet…. She’s a card!” The nurse offered this and I could tell she was sincere in her evaluation of my Mom.
“Thanks, I’ll try down there.”

I took the elevator back down to the first floor and walked down the long hallway toward physical therapy, realizing that just the walk, the long walk, down the hallway would be enough physical therapy for most, and I wondered if mom was wheel chaired to physical therapy, knowing that for the most part she was immobile and definitely would not be able to find her way out of the room, much less back up four floors and down the next long hallway.
I found the room, above the door a sign read ‘Physical Therapy’. I stepped into the spacious room, vacant except for a couple of small tables, a few chairs, a variety of different size balls, a few elastic bands and a few pieces of other odd equipment I was unfamiliar with. There was no one in the room. I stepped back into the hallway, noticing a nurse escorting an elderly gentleman our way. The nurse had the gentleman by the arm giving him some support as they took each step, taking maybe five small steps in five minutes, yet the nurse smiled giving the gentleman encouragement as they slowwwly moved my way. I walked their way and after introducing myself I questioned the nurse if she knew if Garnet was suppose to be in Physical Therapy. She informed me no, that Garnet’s physical therapy was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She suggested that Garnet was probably on the fourth floor eating in the dining area.

Again I walked down the long hallway to the elevators and went to the fourth floor.

As the elevator doors opened, the same group of bewildered, departed glories was still sitting in their respective spots, gazing aimlessly with woeful weariness. I passed them again, finding my mother’s room, only to find she was still not there. I traveled back down the hallway, looking for a nurse or possibly the dining area. As I passed the aforementioned group of seniors, one caught my eye. She was sitting alone in a wheelchair. Her hands folded in her lap; her gaze was to nowhere in particular, displaying a sorrowful sense of resignation. I stepped closer, looking into the face that was scarred with life’s aged wrinkles and I saw my Mom. She continued to have that same lost stare as I knelt beside her and I spoke, “Hey Mom, it’s me….. It’s Jeff.”

I could see her eyes begin to focus on me, her mind searching within the years of cobwebs for the discarded reminiscences. With a bit of tardy recognition, she permitted herself a delicate little smile, and poured out to me the full opulence of proud recognition.

“Oh….! Hi Jeff….Oh Honey…..”, it was almost a whisper, a murmur linked with a pleasing sigh.
I hugged her, telling her how well she looked and she did compared to how she had looked a few weeks before. I told her I loved her, giving her another hug and I began to see a few tears soften her vision.

I pulled up a chair beside her and grabbing her feeble hand, I began telling her everything that had happened to me and my family over the past few weeks. She listened for just a minute before meekly interrupting me and asking if Inez was with me. I did not know an Inez, so I questioned her who Inez was.

“She was with you yesterday…..”, again she answered in a weakened voice but was confident that Inez, whoever that was, was with me yesterday.

I realized then that mom was imagining these things; the Alzheimer’s grabbing what little mind she had left, dissolving years of memories and causing confusion even in the present.
“No mom…. Inez did not come with me today, but she wanted to.” I answered, playing this silly game that I was thrown into.

“Oh…. She’s so sweet…..You are too… You know you are my favorite.” Again the weary smile.

“I love you mom…. I missed you.” I answered, looking for the right words.

I watched her as she gazed into my eyes trying to piece together the broken pieces of life that lay in the depths of her mind as jumbled pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
We talked for an hour, her some, usually not making much sense, and I picking up the slack and talking a lot about nothing, delusional myself perhaps but it was good. We had that connection, that mother-son bonding that was almost forgotten by me. We laughed and reminisced, talked about the old days, and the present. I’m not sure she understood anything I was saying and I understood very little what she said, but I felt her love and I think she felt mine.

I kissed her on the cheek, told her good-bye but that I would be back soon. I glanced at her as I walked to the elevator, her eyes following me, and I saw that same beautiful mother in that family portrait with all the love, hopes and dreams that I was so much a part of.

As I rode the elevator back down to the first floor, I realized that communication, with anyone, whether they are seven or eighty, should be from the heart. It doesn’t matter what you say, what you talk about, or necessarily how well you listen, just the fact you are willing to participate and to let your heart do the talking. That is usually enough.
Thanks Mom for everything…

This great visit with my loving mom took place September 25, 2010. She taught me one more lesson of life. How to communicate!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Walking Back In Time

My whole life I have been intrigued with the concept of ‘time travel’. Movies and books such as H.G. Wells, ‘The Time Machine, and Richard Matheson’s ‘Somewhere in Time’, are just a couple of examples that captured my interests at an early age. I did thirty five years of research about my family’s ancestors and was captivated by the emotions I felt as I mentally traveled in time to the lives of many generations past. I once again was given the opportunity to not only experience an unforgettable backpacking experience of six days, but was also proffered the chance to travel and walk the trails of a century past.

Rick Harding, Tom Harding and myself hiked thirty five miles in some of the most rugged North Carolina Mountains, retracing old logging roads, camping at old homesteads, stumbling upon old cemeteries long forgotten and left for the wilderness to recapture with its forests. Rock chimneys, appearing as monuments to the families that once called it home, still stood in plots of land, terraced by river rock stones to make the terrain easier to farm. Now the only vegetation was huge Poplar trees, fir and spruce, the wilderness now taking ownership, swallowing the evidence of the past.

The journey would take us down the steep slopes of Clingman’s Dome, following Forney Creek, one of the many major tributaries of Fontana Lake. Other major creeks that cascade down the steep slopes that feed Fontana Lake are, Chamber’s Creek, Eagle Creek, Noland’s Creek, Pilkey Creek, Hazel Creek and many other smaller streams, some unnamed. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there were small mountain communities that sprung up along the northern slopes of the Little Tennessee River, which carved it’s way through some of the most rugged and isolated mountains in North America. Rocky, dirt roads, although sparse and difficult to navigate, connected the small communities and the small homesteads that strategically placed themselves along many of these streams using the creek’s currents to power grist mills and provide water for their families.

After the Civil War, the demand for lumber skyrocketed and the logging companies began to look at the virgin forests of the southern Appalachians to log. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that technology, such as the band saw, and innovations in logging railroads, allowed the loggers to begin to log this area effectively. Logging operations such as the Norwood Lumber Company and W.M. Ritter Lumber Company, logged the slopes heavily between 1907 and 1930, removing as much as two-thirds of the timber from the very slopes we would be walking down. Eighty years later, the forest has recovered. Tall stands of Poplar, Oak, Yellow Birch, Hemlock and Fir has reclaimed the steep slopes, with only traces of the operations in years past.

We began our journey at Clingman’s Dome, and at 6,643 feet, it is the highest peak along the Appalachian Trail. One can stand and gaze 360 degrees, looking down on towns, rivers, and miles of mountains in all directions, making one feel small and insignificant to the vastness of what lay below. It was a beautiful day, cloudless and a cool sixty degrees as we shouldered our packs and began the steep descent down Forney Ridge heading east down the steep and rocky slopes of Clingman’s Dome. We descended rapidly, carving our way through stands of Eastern hemlocks mixed with red spruce, the trail rocky and unforgiving to our feet and knees. Occasionally on the upper part of the trail we would see evidence of logging. Scars along the mountainside, caused by ball-hooting, which is when loggers cut trees high above the nearest roadbed, they then cleared a swath and shot or rolled the logs down the slope. The Norwood Lumber Company logged this area in the early 1900’s taking as much as 40,000 board feet of timber per day from this valley alone.

A little over three miles into the hike we came across our first sights of metal culverts and stonework left from the loggers in years past. There were steel cables partially buried in the rocky forest floor. These cables at one time were undoubtedly used to haul the heavy logs to a nearby roadbed where the loggers would load them on wagons to send them further down the mountainside toward the lumber mills located in Proctor. Forney Creek, even this far up the mountain was a tumultuous creek, spawning nice waterfalls (Rock Slab Falls) and deep pools. Evidence of an old boiler which once was used to power the steam engines that operated the cables and winches that moved the heavy timber, lay above the falls, almost hidden by rhododendron.

The trail became less steep as we began to follow an old roadbed toward our first campsite at Huggin’s Creek. Ten foot high stone walls, made from river rock, kept the roadbed at a manageable descent using a series of multiple switchbacks to descend the steep slopes of Clingman’s Dome. I could imagine the barren hillsides, with deep erosion gullies, caused by the heavy logging. I contemplated the dangers the men faced logging, the hardships the men and their families endured as they logged and carved a life for themselves and their families during the early 1900’s. At mile five, we had our first major creek crossing of Forney Creek. Fortunately there were good stepping stones to maneuver across the tumbling rapids.

Seven miles into the hike we came to the area where Huggin’s Creek and Forney Creek merge, forming an even more formidable Forney Creek. Here we decided to camp in a flat area between the two creeks, amongst Poplar, Beech and Maple trees.

The weather forecast predicted clear skies for the first several days but we also knew that this first evening was to be the coldest. I was a little concerned by the fact that I chose only to bring my 45 degree sleeping bag, forfeiting the warmth of a bigger bag for the weight and size advantage of the smaller 45 degree bag. I figured that I could stand one cold night and felt sure that the next several nights would be much warmer due to our lower elevation and the forecast predicting warmer days and nights.

We had a nice campfire and the three of us enjoyed the camaraderie, discussing our day’s journey and the sites that we had witnessed. We studied the maps and trail descriptions of our next day’s journey and was pleased to realize it was going to be a short hike (about five miles) the following day. We also noted that we had several Forney Creek crossings, which in the trail guide was described as difficult, challenging and even going so far as to say after rainy weather, choose another trail. This we discussed but we were not over concerned. We should have been!

7:00am the next morning and the sun crept over Forney Ridge to our east, casting rays of sunlight through the canopy above as we ate our oatmeal and drank our coffee and began packing our gear into our packs for the day’s hike. We all were feeling the efforts of our previous day’s hike. Our feet, knees and hips were aching, responding to nature’s way of the constant pounding and twisting that a steep, rocky trail effects. The three of us were in good spirits as we donned our packs and set off down the trail looking forward to our next day’s adventure.

There were cast iron machine parts and pieces of rail along the trail, almost hidden by the Buffalo-nut shrub, poison ivy, and rosebay rhododendron, that flanked the trail. Only a third of a mile brought us to our first difficult Forney Creek crossing. The trail dumped us at the creek’s edge and we stared in disbelief at the width, the depth and the impossibility that lay before us.
We walked twenty and thirty yards up and down the creek’s edge searching for a possible way to cross. We of course would like to stay dry, although if all we had to do was take off our boots and wade across, that would have been what we chose but the rapid current, the depth of hidden pools, and rocks the size of cars some slick as ice which blocked almost any path, prevented this from being an option. We would need to find an area, shallower that offered enough stepping stones to navigate across this foreboding creek.

I led as we began to cross, carefully testing the depth of the pools surrounding the jagged rocks as I leaped from one to the next, my forty five pound pack shifting on my back causing lack of balance and near disaster at every step. At times I would spot a relative flat rock beneath the surface, allowing me to step ever so gingerly on to it’s slick surface only to find the rock shifting beneath my weight causing me to grapple for a more solid surface before I fell headfirst into the frigid waters cracking my skull against other jagged rocks which littered my path. Half way across I stopped to rest, sweat pouring off me from the bundle of nerves that were in a frenzy as I willed myself to a point of no return. My legs and hands were shaking, spasms of fear and tension, as I studied what lay ahead and my next few steps. I did not dare look back across my shoulder, fearing that it would cause me to become unbalanced, and I instead yelled to my buddies to be careful, trying to describe to them which rocks to be careful with and they would respond with their on advice, the voices laced with the tension and fear which I also felt. Twenty minutes later I had navigated across the creek, only twenty yards, but it felt as if it had been twenty miles. I watched as Rick and Tom followed in my footsteps, each making it to the creek’s edge with no mishap. Once safely to the far side, we huddled together on solid ground shaking our heads, laughing at the danger in an attempt to make it appear as less dangerous.

We continued down the trail only to discover we had to cross the difficult Forney Creek two more times, each as difficult as the last. The second crossing was the most difficult. Rick and I chose to cross twenty to thirty yards upstream and after we finally navigated across safely, we found ourselves in a Rhododendron thicket that was so dense we had to get on our hands and knees and squirm through the twisted branches the twenty to thirty yards back to the trail. It was in this thicket where Rick and I both disturbed a nest of yellow jackets, resulting in several stings to the both of us.

We did eventually cross Forney Creek several more times, but there were some that were bridged or else there were easy stepping stones across.
We had hiked a total of about two miles for the day when we reached the trail junction of Jonas Creek Trail. There is another campsite here which lies between Jonas Creek and Forney Creek, but we planned to camp three more miles farther down the mountain at the bottom of Forney Creek where it empties into Fontana Lake. At the campsite at Jonas Creek there was evidence of both a tub mill and a custom mill. The Woody family had operated this grist mill during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Many families during this time operated water-powered tubmills, which had two legs in the water and two legs on a high bank, to grind corn into cornmeal. The larger custom mills were probably for community use. An old hunting camp made of bark slabs was farther up the creek.

We continued down the trail, passing an open area that may have been a logging camp. The trail climbed a small ridge before plunging down to yet another campsite, a horse camp. This campsite used to be the location of the Bee Gum Civilian Conservation Corp camp. A large two-story chimney with brick fireplace centers the area. The building that once enclosed the area has long gone, but remnants of the foundation and the fireplace still stand, reminding us that once this was home to workers that helped work the area making this land viable, livable, and accessible to others.

As we walked into the clearing, which was easily half the size of a football field, we smelled the smoke of a campfire, and after glancing around the area we noticed two men, standing around their smoldering fire, apparently having camped there the previous night. They had apparently come in on horseback, their horses tethered to some trees beside their shelter, which consisted of a lean-to-tarp stretched between a few trees. Their bed rolls and supplies stored beneath. I wandered this large area as we rested; taking pictures and imagining what it may have been like seventy years past.

The Civilian Conservation Corp came into existence as a work relief program not long after the Great Depression It was an attempt by President F.D. Roosevelt to provide work for the unemployed men from the ages of 18 and 24, while at the same time improving the country’s public lands by planting trees, building roads, and improving water sheds. This program worked the lands from 1933 to 1942.

I wandered the area, studying the piles of rock that once was the foundation of a building that housed the two story chimney. It was no doubt the building that was probably used as a mess hall for the young men that had come to work. I imagined hundreds of canvas tents, surrounding the building, home for these young men for months as they worked, improving the land. I wandered, dreaming, imagining, the hardships these young men must have faced, having to endure the unforgiving elements of the environment, while at the same time, doing hard manual labor. Forney Creek roared beside the clearing, and I could almost see the young men filling water canteens at it’s banks.

My buddy Rick yelled across the spacious clearing, “Hey Jeff, you want a deer burger?”
I looked his way, realizing he was talking to one of the guys that had come in on horseback. At first I was unsure what he had asked, but after a quick evaluation, I understood what he had said and I could not pass up the opportunity to jokingly respond, “A beer and a burger. Sure!”
I strolled their way, immediately accepting the offer, realizing the stranger and his friend, who had come in on horseback and had camped the previous night, had offered to share some of their food. I have learned to accept such offers, unconditionally, realizing that some day this may come back to haunt me, but the immediate benefits, the friendships, the conversations, the understanding of such people are worth the risk.

“Sure, I’m starving….. you said deer meat?”

I walked over to where they had camped, their fire still smoldering, their camp appearing to be in transition of packing to leave. Their horses still tethered to the trees alongside the clearing. We introduced ourselves, both Rick and Tom cautious, staring at me in amazement as I knelt and spooned a large portion of the sizzingly deer meat and onions wrapped in aluminum foil onto two slices of white bread.

As I introduced myself to the two guys, I could not help but think about the 1970’s movie ‘Deliverance’. The two guys, named Clifford and Billy Ray, looked like the two characters that made Ned Beatty ‘squeal like a pig’. They spoke in the language of the southern Appalachians, slow and with a twang, every statement ending as if it was a question. They turned out to be Native American Indians, Cherokee specifically; at least that is what they claimed, although they did not appear to be native American Indians to me. Billy was short and very skinny, constantly pulling at his jeans to keep them on his hips. Cowboy boots protected his feet, although they did not appear to have much more life in their soles, nor did they appear to have ever been cleaned, except by a rain shower that he may have been caught in at some time or other. Clifford was a little heavier, a heavy beard and long black hair, black as a leopard. He was less talkative than Billy but would occasionally make a statement and then look at Billy to see if he approved. They appeared to be good friends and in their early thirties. They spoke with a Tennessee, backwoods, redneck, accent. “Where youuu...enz from?” Billy directed his question to me, tilting his head in such a way that made me think he was trying to look beneath a ledge or an arch, to better be able to see my response (although there was nothing in his line of view).

“Georgia, Roswell Georgia. Up here doing some hiking. Where Ya’ll from?”

“Cherokee, born and raised… do’in some ridin’ enjoy’n git’n ‘way from the ol’ lady… you know?” Help youuu..enz self to more of that dar’ deer meat…it’s good, we had some beer a bit’ go but we drank it for breakfast.”

“Thanks, this is good. Backpacking we don’t get no good food.” I began to lapse into my second language of southeastern redneck. Billy, Clifford and I talked as I ate the deer meat. Rick and Tom seemed to wait, watching as I ate my deer burger, apparently waiting to see if I would kill over from food poisoning or immediately grab my stomach with gut wrenching pain. I continued to eat with no ill effect and only then did Rick and Tom jump in and helped themselves to the aluminum foil wrapped deer meat as Billy and I conversed in what seemed to be a foreign language to Rick and Tom.

Clifford talked about the number of black baarrr he and Billy had seen and warned us that they had heard from other backpeckkkers that had seen some huge cat prints, probably mountain linees (mountain lions) on the trail below us. I could not help but think they were just trying to scare us a little, reveling in the fact that us being city boys, would not have any experience with the wildlife in the area.

They had three horses tethered and I questioned Billy Ray, “I seez’ youuu…enz got three horses thar. Is one of um a packhorse?”

Billy Ray nodded to the horses, tilting his head slightly, again as if he was looking under an obstruction, “yep…the one with no tail is my peck horse. Everyone gits a kick out of seeing a horse with no tail.

I again could not help myself and said, “Was it the baaar or the mountain lion that bit it off?”

Both Billy Ray and Clifford got the joke and chuckled, although I could feel the tenseness in both Rick and Tom as I began to test the two hillbillies.

“Nah….his’n tail was broke as a young’un. Kep gittin ‘fected so we cut it off.” Billy Ray said as he began to try to sound more professional.

“Did he squeal like a pig?” I asked, again not being able to help myself, and I thought Rick and Tom were going to slap me.

Fortunately, neither Clifford nor Billy Ray understood my statement and simply answered,

“Nah…just one quick chop..took car’ of the prob’lm. Poor thing git’s mad as hell when he can’t swish flies away from his ass though.”

Clifford, the bigger of the two offered some of his Canadian Mist Whiskey, which I did not accept, because as he took a swig, I realized he had a big chew of tobacco lodged in his right cheek, and I could only imagine the ‘back wash’ that may lay as residue in the bottom of the bottle. I instead explained that I preciate’d the offer but I was strictly a Makers Mark man and offered him a swig of mine, which he graciously refused, but took a big swig of his Canadian Mist, spitting a glob of who knows what at his feet, smiling and toasting, seemingly all at the same time.

Billy Ray told us that they had offered some of their deer meat (they did not want it to go to waste) to some backpeckkkers who had camped there the previous night, but they had refused. Billy Ray could not believe someone would refuse such an offer. “You know, my momma always to’ld me that it was unsoc’ble to refuse an offer to eat.”

“I would ne’vr …..besi’dz I is hungry. Maybe they we’rnt.” I offered as a possible reason for the previous backpacker’s unsociable behavior.

“Yeah…. Yu prob’ly rite….they were kind-a thick.” Billy said as he was deep in thought.

Rick and Tom continued to eat their deer meat burgers, standing in amazement at my ability to speak in such a foreign and exotic language, savoring the food but more so the moment, the experience that just seemed to happen in the middle of nowhere, a time past.

We said our good byes, thanking them for the food and headed further down the trail toward the end of Forney Creek and Fontana Lake.

The last mile or so was relatively easy, following an old road bed, which was once the only way between Bryson City to the East and to where now stands Fontana Dam. Small mountain communities and a major lumber mill located in Proctor were only accessible by traveling this treacherous, narrow, dirt road. This road was the only link to the outside for many of the mountain families that carved a living from the rugged terrain. Old, rusted car bodies, from the early 1900’s can be seen laying as scrap next to the road, as if the car, a hundred years earlier just quit working and the owner just left it where it was, letting the forest claim it as it’s own. Old wash tubs, rusted from a hundred years of unforgiving weather are found here and there, scattered along the forest floor, evidence of lives that once attempted to scratch out an existence.

The next three to four days would find us on the 41.9 mile Lakeshore trail which basically follows the shoreline of Fontana Lake from Bryson City to Fontana Dam.

We had planned to hike the next twenty-one miles, over the next three days, to the old ghost town of Proctor. It was at Proctor that W.M. Ritter set up a massive lumbering operation around 1907. The small settlement of Proctor grew rapidly, boasting a hotel, school, several churches and a company mercantile store, becoming home to hundreds of families, only to be displaced by the construction of Fontana Dam which was completed around 1944 and flooded most of the valley.

Many of the small towns surrounding the Little Tennessee River in the valley, such as Fontana, Forney, Bushnell and Judson that had sprung up in the early 1900’s were flooded with the completion of the Dam and now lie at the bottom of Fontana Lake, erased from the face of the earth forever.

The trail would rise and fall as it followed the shoreline, climbing the finger like ridges that projected into the lake, then descending once again to yet another valley, channeling many of the streams that feed Fontana Lake.

We camped at designated campsites that were once homesteads. The stone chimneys still standing, giving witness to the lives that once tried to scratch a living from the unforgiving terrain. Stone walls, built from river rock, still existed, giving evidence of the past families attempt to terrace their land, an attempt to make their meager plots easier to farm. The stone walls still standing in rows, being swallowed by the bog hemp, round leafed greenbriar, and dodders, crumbling, surrendering to the elements and to mother time.

During the next three days we would stumble upon small cemeteries. The plots, usually located on high ridges above the homesteads would be the final resting place for several generations of a particular family, a family that worked hard to try to make a life for itself on the slopes below. The tombstones giving witness to the hard lives the people endured. Forty years old or older was rare, being more common to see children under ten and young adults in their twenties being buried in these forgotten plots. Rick, Tom and I would wander the cemeteries, each lost in his own thoughts, trying to imagine the souls, the love and sorrow, which these families had to endure. We drank water from the same springs and creeks, walked the same trails that these past souls had in years past and we could not help but feel the emotion of the experience.

Over the last few days of the hike, we would see a total of four Black Bear, proving the two hillbillies, Billy Ray and Clifford to be true with their warning and we began to wonder about the huge cat prints they had described. Could it be?

The last day brought us to Proctor. Some of the buildings still standing, giving witness to what was once a thriving community. Several cemeteries dot the area, each resembling those we had passed earlier, again testifying to the short, hard lives they had endured.

It was a great five days of hiking, with two of my best friends, enjoying the peace, the solace and the beauty the wilderness so graciously provided, but what moved me the most was witnessing the evidence of the past, the past souls seemingly to still linger amongst the ruins; souls that seemed to drift on the light mountain breezes, gently stirring the leaves of the canopies above, whispering, “I was here.”

I had a constant sensation that as I walked back in time, they were watching.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clarion ForeWord Review of my new book

ForeWord Clarion Reviews
Lost Then Found
Jeff Morgan
Five Stars (out of Five)

Jeff Morgan has written a deceptively simple, short tale about hiking the Appalachian Trail, one that is rich in detail and meaning.

While Lost Then Found is a work of fiction, Morgan draws heavily from his experiences as a long-distance hiker. "All of the characters in this novel are real," he says in a note at the beginning of the book, "but they may have been embellished to make them more interesting to the reader – not that they were not interesting to begin with."

Indeed, it is the interesting characters that make this story engaging. The reader learns that everyone has a nickname on the Appalachian Trail. Kirk, the semi-retired baby boomer narrator, is known as Piece Maker. He sets off on a hike from his Atlanta home by himself and meets a number of colorful personalities along the way, including the fun-loving Bruiser and Tooth Fairy, a large woman who is not at all what she seems.

Kirk stays a few nights at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in North Carolina and befriends a young woman named Caroline. Caroline, despite her youth, stirs emotions in Kirk but their relationship remains platonic. A central character in Lost Then Found, Caroline makes an unexpected appearance later in the story.

Kirk must move along, and that’s when he meets the somewhat mysterious Pops, an old man who is unusually fit for his age. Kirk and Pops end up hiking together and sharing details of each other’s lives. Their talks cause Kirk to reflect on his marriage, his
daughter, and the meaning of life. It is Pops who awakens a spiritual side in Kirk that he didn’t realize he had.

The author does a fine job describing Kirk’s journey (both the actual one on the trail and the metaphorical one) with just enough detail to give the reader a sense of what hiking the Appalachian Trail is like. The first-person narrative provides the reader with an intimate view of the hiking experience as well as Kirk’s thoughts on life.

Morgan skillfully paints pictures of the story’s characters so that they have realism and depth. The narrator himself is the most developed character, but Caroline may be the most complex; in fact, the story is as much about her journey as it is about Kirk’s. Pops, as Kirk’s spiritual guide, is the most mystical and endearing character in the book.

Lost Then Found is a thought-provoking story that uses the Appalachian Trail as a backdrop to what is, ultimately, a story about spiritual enlightenment. With an unusual twist at the end, Lost Then Found is a satisfying and enjoyable book that will likely make the reader take stock and think about his or her own life.

Barry Silverstein

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

'Little Beee-hind' the Rain

‘Little Beee-hind’ the Rain

‘Little Behind’, that’s what they call him. It’s pronounced, if you want to say it correctly, ‘Little Beee-hind’. That’s my buddy, Rick. I guess you can say he is probably my best friend. We share the same interests, about the same age, and fit socially in the same circles. We frequent the same neighborhood watering holes, grabbing free hugs from the young barmaids, captivating them as well as other patrons with our tall tales about our mountain adventures.
You might wonder how the name ‘Little Beee-hind’ was acquired by the previously mentioned and I will attempt to explain, although to do it justice, it would take an average size paperback novel.
We had hiked, climbed mountains, and backpacked all over the world, but never much together, until we decided to do a small stretch of the Appalachian Trail a few years back. We started at Springer Mountain and planned to hike about four to five days, enjoying the camaraderie with the mass of thru-hikers that begin their journey at Springer Mountain in early April and continue over the next five to six months till they reach their final destination at Katadin in Maine. It was on this trip that Rick was bequeathed, anointed, and given the trail name, ‘Little Beee-hind’, and I must admit it was well deserved. On the trails, especially the Appalachian Trail, hikers will be given trail names. These names are usually earned in some way by the individual. It will sometimes reflect an individual’s personality, state of origin, physical appearance, or almost any other identifying quality of that individual. On the trail there may be several Steve’s for instance, but there will only be one ‘Stuttering Steve’, or ‘Stinky Steve’ or ‘St. Louis Steve’, or ‘Stoned Steve’, and that is how trail names work.
‘Little Beee-hind’ from the very beginning hiked much slower than most of the group that we tended to hang with on the trail. I and many of the others would arrive at the next campsite a good one to two hours before ‘Little Beee-hind’ would meander into camp, usually at dusk, causing an unusual amount of worry on my part, for I did not want to go looking for my friend in the dark. I would sit at camp, with everyone else slowly drifting into camp, and I would question them, “Did you see my buddy Rick?” They would always acknowledge they had, usually explaining the general area where they passed him as he was sitting on a log or a rock, resting. This would normally set my mind somewhat at ease, but never totally relaxing until I would see him sauntering into the camp, grinning from ear to ear, looking like a Bluetick Coonhound that had bit into the ass of a Porcupine.
What made matters worse, or almost funny, was that once into camp, he would realize he had left something at the other camp or left a water bottle, or bandanna at one of the many locations he stopped to rest. He would then begin to retrace his steps back on the trail, hiking sometimes one to two miles to retrieve a necessary piece of equipment or gear. There was one incident where I had been waiting on Rick at camp for at least an hour, which I had begun to expect, and like always Rick strolled into camp right at dusk. I had already gathered firewood and was sitting at the fire when he walked up. He sat to rest before beginning to pitch his tent. Another hiker came strolling into camp even after Rick and I was curious as to who it could be. Who could be slower than Rick? I was watching the hiker, not recognizing who he was, but I did notice his cap. I looked at Rick and made a comment that the late hiker, whoever he was, had a hat just like his. Rick, curious as I, watched the lone hiker stroll toward the three sided shelter. The lone hiker removed his cap, waving it in the air, and questioning, “Anybody lose a hat?”
I immediately glanced at Rick. Rick reached for his head, where it was cap less. Rick immediately laid claim to his cap. The lone hiker explained that he had found it sitting on a rock alongside the trail. I was laughing so hard I thought I might have a coronary. Always leaving a little behind.
Don’t think I’m belittling my buddy Rick for hiking slow. This is merely his choice. I tend to be destination oriented, looking forward to reaching my next destination, where Rick enjoys the journey to the destination. He says he likes to stop and smell the roses, which I wished I could be more like. I sometimes hike with blinders on, huffing and puffing, sweating like a race horse, with only one thought, and that is to get to camp and that’s not necessarily right. Point is, over the years we have grown to respect each other’s different approach to hiking and realize there is not necessarily a right way or wrong way, just your way. With all that said, I as well as the others on the trail began to realize that Rick would always be a little behind.
One night sitting around the campfire, as we all discussed trail names, Rick was anointed by the group as being ‘Little Behind’, and me with my Tennessee accent and slow southern speech patterns, the name became ‘Little Beee-hind’.
It’s been several years since Rick was named ‘Little Beee-hind’, but he is still living up to his name. Just this past weekend, Rick and I planned a three day backpack trip to Panthertown Valley in North Carolina. It’s a beautiful valley, which has been called the Yosemite of the East, because of its numerous waterfalls and huge granite cliffs rising on both sides of the valley. It’s truly a beautiful wilderness to explore.
The weather forecast called for a sixty to ninety percent chance of afternoon thundershowers for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so we were fairly confident that we would see a little rain and maybe a lot of rain. No worries, we’ve been wet before.
Normally I would leave early Friday morning, driving myself, and arriving at the trailhead around noon. I would hike through the valley and climb the southwestern ridgeline of Little Green Mountain where I would set camp in a small pine forest at the top of Little Green. I would be there early enough to set camp, gather firewood, eat one or two meals, and relax on the granite outcroppings of Tranquility Point which proffers tremendous views of the valley below. Rick, ‘Little Beee-hind’ would normally arrive at the trailhead much later, sometimes at dusk, meander his way through the valley, and arrive at camp at dark. This was never a problem, because he had grown accustomed to reaching camp late in the day and hurriedly setting camp and then fall easily into a relaxation mode that night around the campfire brings. I on the other hand require an ample amount of time to organize my camp, arranging my gear, stacking firewood neatly, falling into a rhythm that eventually allows me to relax, reaching that state of mind that Rick can accomplish at a drop of a hat. This particular trip I decided to ride with Rick to the trailhead. Don’t get me wrong, I was a little concerned from the get go, but after questioning Rick when he thought he may be able to leave town, he assured me we could get a way around noon. That would put us at the trailhead around 3:00pm which would still allow me plenty of time to hike in, set camp, and begin to unwind, before dark. What concerned me was the fact that the forecast called for afternoon thundershowers!
‘Little Beee-hind’ picked me up at 2:00pm-running a little behind- and then informed me that he still had to stop by the laundry, the grocery store, and a drug store before we began the three hour drive to the trailhead. The skies were turning dark gray suggesting rain.
We made our necessary stops, and arrived at some of the most congested areas of Forsyth County just in the nick of time to watch everyone leave work- rush hour! I could not help but wonder why they call it rush hour. I never see anyone moving fast as if they were in a rush. Matter of fact, I began to see what it was like to stop and smell the roses! Oh well, at least it’s not dark yet. Was that rain drops I saw on the windshield?
After stopping for gas, then a bathroom break, then a snack, we finally reached the trailhead. There were only two vehicles parked at the trailhead, which was a good sign. At least the valley was not going to be crowded with hikers. Most everyone had more sense than to walk into the wilderness at this time of day, with the aforementioned weather forecast. I couldn’t tell if the clouds were making it so dark or had the sun already started its final descent. Either way, I knew we were running a little behind.
I began to worry. Why? Was it because we only had about one hour of day light left, or was it because I smelled rain and I heard rumbling, thunder, or was that my stomach? Was I worried because I only had about one liter of water in my pack and knew that once at camp, I would have to hike another ½ mile to fill my water bottles, and it seemed I may have to do this in the dark? Hiking down a trail that even in broad day light is snaky. I wondered what it would be like hiking down that trail, through tunnels of Rhododendron, the trail covered with roots that always seemed to resemble serpents, slithering across the dismal trail. Rick interrupted my thoughts, “I think I left my water bottle in the car, hold on,” as he turned to retrace his steps to his car, lifting the back hatch and retrieving his water bottle, grinning, apparently proud of himself for remembering it before he had walked the usual one to two miles. We were definitely getting a little more behind!
Walking through the valley was pleasant, at least there was no sun beating down on us, and the occasional raindrops were a little refreshing or were they depressing? To walk the valley floor, one walks through a huge pine forest, the floor covered with a deep layer of pine needles. The canopy of the surrounding trees sucking what little light was left from the forest floor. The woods deathly still, the only sound were the crickets that seemed to be rejoicing that the weather forecast seemed to be right on. I take that back, the crickets were the only sound when it was not thundering. I told Rick that I was going to stop at Boggy Creek and fill my water bottles before I climbed up the ridge of Little Green. He looked at me as if to question if I was serious. A gallon of water weighs 8.35 pounds. I was carrying about forty five pounds and if I filled all my water containers, that would push my pack weight to close to sixty three pounds. That in itself would not be of great concern, but first I had to stop and take about fifteen minutes to fill my containers, and then lug that extra weight up the steepest part of our climb. I realized I may even have to do this in the dark, as it was getting ever darker, or worse it may finally make the crickets day and rain. I may have to climb it in the dark and rain!
I stopped, filled my water bottles, sending Rick on his way ahead of me, to try to reach camp before it started raining. I carefully filled each container, calculating that with this one effort, I may not need to get anymore water for the weekend, saving myself that dreaded ½ mile hike down to School House Falls to retrieve water, stepping over the serpent roots in the dark. I almost felt like I had outwitted nature, until I tried to pick my pack up. The weight seemed to magically double. Had I mistakenly filled a forty-five gallon drum and placed in my pack unknowingly? It was dark you know!
I shouldered the gargantuan mass of a pack, and started up the mountain. I had climbed maybe one hundred yards and suddenly I felt like I needed to stop to rest, I like to say it was to smell the roses. I continued to climb eighty yards and stop, sixty yards and stop, forty yards and stop; I was getting this Rick thing down pat.
I made the last half mile, across the granite face of Little Green, just as the sun, I think it was the sun, but it may have been lightning slipped behind the mountains to our west. Rick was finishing setting his tent. I hurriedly pitched my tent, throwing my gear into the protected space, keeping what I may immediately need, like a shot of Maker’s Mark Whiskey out and within reach as I plopped down to rest my weary legs. Rick busied himself with gathering firewood.
The rain seemed to pass us, as we sat around the comfort of the campfire, watching strange shadows dance across the wall of trees surrounding us. The Cicadas began their musical arrangement of “Flight of the Bumblebee” in stereo no doubt, drowning out every other noise except the occasional rumble of thunder and the ever so often snap and crackle of the fire as it consumed the carefully cut pieces of timber we had gathered.
Surprisingly, I began to relax, realizing, after all the worry, we were here. Dry and for the most part settled in, even if the rain did come. Darkness now was welcomed, bringing with it a sense of solitude and peace, a blanket of dark comfort, not necessarily hiding me from the world, but the world from me. The Maker’s Mark warming my insides just as the campfire warmed the out.
I was facing west, watching the embers rise from the fire, drifting slowly in the still air. Distant flashes of lightning danced across the western sky. I pointed and told Rick that it was lightning. He assured me it was only ‘heat lightning’, which I immediately questioned, “What’s the difference?”
“I guess it has something to do with the temperature,” he tried to make it sound as if what he said was positively scientific fact, no question about it, absolute, concrete evidence that it was hot and yes it was lightning in the distance.
I had been told by a reputable source that ‘heat lightning’ was a misnomer. Actually the lightning you see is associated with thunderstorms, it’s just off in a distance, and the sound of the thunder is not heard, because it dissipates over the distance, long before the flashes of light do. These distant thunderstorms are frequent in the southern summers when it is so hot, thus it became known as heat lightning. So I knew, regardless of Ricks assurance, that the lightning I was witnessing, even though still far away, was evidence bad weather was still a possibility and possibly moving our way. I listened for the crickets wondering if they were still singing their happy tunes expecting the rain but they could not be heard. It could have been because the Cicadas were so loud that the crickets chirping were drowned out by their cacophony or because the crickets were all ready seeking shelter to prevent being drowned by the oncoming rain.
As we sat trying to solve all of the world’s woes, I could not help myself but brag a little to Rick about the amount of weight I drug up the side of Little Green Mountain. I explained to him that even though it was tough, and physically trying, I would benefit by the fact that I would not have to make the ½ mile hike down to School House Falls for water. He agreed that it was quite a physical feat to drag that amount of water, with a full pack, up the side of the mountain, but he himself was glad to find that there was a steady stream of water, filling a small pool, just twenty yards down the granite bald. He informed me that once he had pitched his tent that he leisurely filled all his water bottles at the small pool and suggested that if I needed more, which he doubted I would, that I use the same source of water.
Thanks Rick.”
10:00pm and getting a buzz from the Maker’s Mark and beginning to think that the Cicadas had changed melodies and were now singing ‘Wipe Out’, the song by the Surfaris in the 60’s.
Rick went to his tent to retrieve some reading material, I guess my discussion about the heat lightning got too deep, and that’s when it began. It was a sound of wind in the tree tops. A whooshing sound and the Cicadas stopped mid chorus. I listened wondering why the sound of the wind was so evident but was not felt. Then I felt it….. Not wind, but rain. I stood doubting my senses, but only for a second, because within two seconds the bottom fell out of the sky.
Rick, with all his wisdom, rain pouring from the sky, yelled from his tent, “Is that rain?”
“No Rick! It’s just heat rain…. You know like the stuff that comes from heat lightning!” I answered as I was gathering gear running for my tent, which for some stupid reason, I had left open.
The rain was deafening as it pelted our tents. I tried to remember what I may have left out in the elements as I rushed for the confines of my abode. Too late to worry about it now. I fell asleep before even removing my wet clothes dreaming about storms, snakes, drowning and leaving a little something behind.
It rained off and on the whole next day, never allowing me to dry any of my gear. I had wet clothes, wet sleeping bag, wet pack, and wet tent, but still I was having fun. Rick and I sat under a make shift tarp and would laugh as we each brought up stories of our past. We goaded each other about our insecurities, our mistakes in life, and praised each other for each of our successes. You see, once in nature you become part of it. If it rains, you rain, if it is sunny and bright, then you become the sun. This particular trip, I was just a little beee-hind.
Thanks Rick for a great trip. See you on the trail soon!

This trip took place on August 13, 2010 and we returned to Atlanta on August 15, 2010. Camped two nights on top of Little Green Mountain, in Panthertown Valley, located about five miles, North East of Cashiers, North Carolina. It RAINED!