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.