Published: March 21st 2012March 13th 2012
Stop by the visitor center, grab a map, start planning the trip. Pick a vague route, it will probably change, subject to nature's whim or other hiker's endorsements. This looks like a good parking spot for the trail head. Pack up the duffel bag. Only necessities, don't make it too heavy. Plenty of food, all the emergency stuff. Sleeping bag for sure, tent...guess so. Bulky, but probably going to do a night away from the shelters. Mushrooms Demystified? Heavy, but have to hunt some shrooms. Alright, that feels fine. Find out for sure in a few hours.
Map says this path will run into the trail, good place to start. Five minutes in, and already a river is in the way. There has to be a bridge near by, parallel the water and it will show up. No more trail, maybe there are some rocks to cross on at least. Not close enough together. Lose the shoes and socks, pull up the pants, wade across. Cold water, and moving pretty fast, go slow, keep your footing. The moss is soft. Bare feet conform to the rocks and land better than shoes ever could, their own intelligence. Made it, keep the
Deformed mass of bark on left is tinder fungus, will smolder for hours.
shoes off for now. Damn, thorns. Shoes back on.
Ah, there's the trail. Everything is so green, moss everywhere, jungle looking bushes with huge leaves. Log bridge set up, flexes with every step. How do they test the weight it can hold? What if it rots? This bag is heavy, shoulders and calves aren't used to the extra weight. Hiking backpack disperses the weight, but given time to adapt, this should work out. Soldiers have to get used to it. Body is regulated by the brain, focus thoughts on building muscle in shoulders and calves, send all extra nutrition to bulk them up. Jerky for some protein. That one guy only eats candy, how does his body turn that into muscle? And that Indian guy who only swirls water in his mouth, even during two weeks in the hospital under surveillance, not one bite of food. Supernatural. Thinking takes a lot of extra energy, concentrate on the movement and let go, conserve the energy for hiking.
Some people coming up from the river, fishing pole in hand. Am I looking for the shelter? Guess so, got a late start, tomorrow I'll find somewhere more rugged to sleep. It's
Cool Arbitrary Border
Left is Tennessee, right is North Carolina. Looks like dirt and trees to me.
just up ahead, cool. Throw my stuff down, pull out the bag, start reading. You seem friendly, but not ready to socialize yet. Head to the river, large flat rock covered in moss. Yoga. Meditate.
I get back to the shelter, and start talking to D about the area. He grew up in Tennessee, and knows these trails well. He recommends a few different routes with good areas to climb that are more desolate, given that this is when all the through hikers will be on the Appalachian Trail. His fiancee, K, and her brother, H, are testing their balance on rocks and logs, and play fighting like little kids.
They have come up here for an overnight, a first excursion for the siblings, which explains why they've been reminding me of camping trips with my sister and dad when I was five, and how we used to goof around. D pours drinks and offers me one. I sip on my beverage and try to set up my homemade gasification stove, which finally has the proper airflow to burn consistently hot. Unfortunately, my plan to elevate the pan on rocks, so that it doesn't smother the flame, fails,
as the rocks keep slipping out. Finally I give up and concede to eating jerky for the evening.
As the sun falls behind the mountain, and the temperature begins to drop rapidly, we light a fire in the shelter and huddle around. We share stories, and they tell me about their dogs. Quartz, D's weiner dog, will chase and bite the owner of the leg of her affection until allowed to complete her romance. Porsha, H's beagle, loves to have her belly rubbed so much that she will roll on her back, legs splayed, at the first scent or sound of a new visitor. Chunks, K's black lab, runs to the kitchen at the first sign of danger in order to hide any accessible scraps of food. In her stomach.
Instead of the usual trail food, like blocks of cheese or anything dehydrated, they had brought hot dogs and marshmallows, adding to my pangs of nostalgia. They had plenty, and happily shared some with me. While roasting mallows, D started talking about an insane asylum nearby and how there had been a recent escapee. H was truly panicked by this, apparently still afraid of the dark at 16,
and I took the queue to start playing with my knife, adding how the runaway probably would use these woods as a hideout.
We developed a rapport that was stronger than a lot of long term friendships I've had. For one night, we were a tribe, dependent on one another for knowledge and resources that would increase our survivability out in the bush.
The next morning, after a bit of yoga on the same mossy rock, I packed up and said goodbye to my clan.
Head up the trail, towards the summit, find a good campsite on the side of the mountain tonight. Mushrooms growing on that tree, first find! Drop the pack, collect a few, take a break and try to identify. Soft, white, medium size. Growing on side of tree, no stem. No gills on bottom, more like a sponge. Skin peels off easily. Tree is rotting brown means mushrooms consume the cellulose. Polypore of some kind. So many. Well, learned what to look for, pack it away for now, try again later.
Either a skunk just sprayed or someone's burning medical grade nearby. Smell has wafted five times already.
Sun is only
about eight fingers from the ridge line, roughly two hours til it passes behind the mountain. Should start finding a spot soon, will need some time to set up camp and cook dinner before it gets dark and cold.
Alright, 6000 feet and not a soul around. Can see for miles when the jungle clears. Not a cloud in the sky. Brain is so lucid. Time to look for a good place to set up. Need a flat spot, cover from the wind, and a decent fire pit. Verticle root system of a fallen tree across from a couple of pines, narrow and slightly downhill spot in between to lay the bag. Not the best, but will have to do, wasted too much time searching, down to two fingers til sunset. Gap between root system and hill should make for a decent fire pit. Lay the pack down, gather wood. Everything is so wet and rotten. Alright, that should be enough, getting pretty cold, still have to cook. Fire pit is too deep, smoke just goes right to the eyes. Bad idea. Too late now. Eat quickly, kick the fire into coals, get in bag. Sleep.
What time is it? Dark o'clock, who cares. Bag is getting wet. Ugh, have to do something about this. Throw on rain gear inside bag. Pack is getting wet, wrap up books. Everything else will be fine. Back to sleep.
Rain is heavier. Bag is getting soaked. Gotta string the tent up like a tarp, use the branches above to tie it down. Angled the wrong way, tarp runoff is uphill from camp spot, running right into the bag. Adjust the ropes, elevate the uphill side. That should do it. Bit too late, bag is pretty wet. Rain gear works well though. Nothing more to do tonight, back to sleep.
Brain is foggy. Terrible sleep. Clouds engulfing the mountain, constant mist. Can't tell where the sun is. Could be seven, could be noon. Can't really dry anything here, pack it up, head to the shelter, dry it off there. First hike up to 'the jump off', only half a mile out of the way.
Path follows the edge of a cliff all of a sudden. Who jumped down there to earn this spot its name? Eerie the way the clouds hide the depth of the drop. Cool spot. On to the shelter.
First mushroom not attached to a tree! Small, black, gilled, paper thin. Too wet for identifying, pack it away, get to it later.
I tie my bag up to dry, and peel an orange. The shelter is on the Appalachian Trail, and a variety of hikers pass through while I wait. Three grad students, spending a week in the Smokies for spring break, stop for lunch. One guy trades me a can of tuna for a cigarette. I mention the prevalence of skunky smells, and he says it's actually moss phlox, a pink flower that gives off a dank scent. Interesting.
My bag won't dry in this misty fog, so I give up, pack up, fill my canteen at the spring, and head down the mountain. I decide to cut my second solo backpacking trip short, take note of the problems I endured, and do better next time. On the way I hit two rock scrambles, one solid chunk of rock, a summit at about 5000 feet, called Charlie's Bunion, that I am sure has excellent views when you aren't hiking through a cloud. The other, a rock slide of loose boulders towards the bottom. At the latter, I discovered what I believe to be the initial bulbs, or vulva, of some mushrooms that failed to grow, as well as one interesting find stuck to a rock. By the time I finished, my mushroom count was up to nine species, seven shelf shrooms growing on trees, one from the ground, and one on a rock.
I get back to the car, shed down to my long johns, throw all the wet gear in the back, and drive to the next big city where I consume a giant pile of greasy onion rings and pizza.