Wed, May 14 2014 - Joyce Kilmer/Citico Creek Wilderness (sequel) (View Original Event Details)|
This morning as I sat on my back porch drinking coffee and looking through my daughters trip to Ireland, I felt myself being drawn into that part of the world, so beautiful, so different. But I wanted more than just pictures. Other than a few captions, there were no stories behind the scenes. Everyone these days, including me, only has a moment to flash a picture on these media sites, and move aside for somebody else to flash theirs. I saw a picture of three boys sitting on an old stone bench, adjacent to an old stone wall, each with their own unique musical instrument, guitar, flute and looked like a bag pipe.
I felt there was a story to be told here, but there wasn't, so I texted my daughter and asked her to tell more stories. Then I started reflecting on my own lack of desire to tell stories lately, and wondered why.
I decided to do something about it, and tell a story myself, since there's always plenty to tell.
It began with a group of 9 adventurers taking off into the southern Appalachian mountains in a rather little visited area called Joyce Kilmer Wilderness for 5 nights and 6 days in mid May. Starting off from Beech Gap after a pretty drive from Atlanta, the warm humid air was thick with the promise of soon to come thunderstorms typical of this area. We hiked the first relatively easy hike following the ridge to Strawberry Knob already sweating. After a quick photo, a drink of water and some shedding of clothing, we started up the mountain ridge toward Bob Stratton Bald at just under 5.4k'. We got a good warmup going up about 1k' on that ridge, as the temperatures continued to rise and the sun started to feel almost scalding in that humid air.
We knew there was the threat of a storm coming later in the afternoon, so we set to work immediately building our camp. Putting up the tents and rain tarps, collecting water and fire wood, and drinking a lot. I set up in my typical spot just off the bald in the trees on the ridge. The others mainly sticking to the bald, except for Greg who hung a tarp in the thick evergreens on the south ridge near the water source.
Evan also put up a hammock, but it was between two trees near the middle of the bald. After everyone started to relax a bit more, Mike decided to lead Bill, Kevin, and Armin down to Swan Cabin to see if they could meet Charlie and his group in case they got there early. I on the other hand, looked forward to just staying on top of the bald, since usually I led a group to Hangover after setting up camp, and always thought it would be nice to just hang out at camp some day. The rest of the group decided to stay as well, and we started a fire, since the buffalo gnats, or black flies, were out in full force. These pesky little buggers open your skin with their teeth, insert an anticoagulant, which in addition to allowing them to feed plentifully while you bleed, also has a slightly numbing effect so you don't know they're feeding, until you feel something like a stray, in my case, gray hair soon to be lost and discarded with a flick of the finger, only to come back full of blood. We lather up with DEET, but because it was hot and humid, those flies found the spots that weren't completely covered, by gingerly walking over the DEET, like the fire walkers over hot stones, to find the nice sweet sweat lathered skin we missed.
These flies carry all kinds of diseases, the worst of which called river blindness. I usually have a slightly allergic reaction to them, so as much as I dislike using DEET, I prefer it to the itching, swelling
reactions I've gotten from them in the past. To avoid waking up with bloody bed sheets, I put band aides over them, to avoid scratching them until I bleed in my sleep. But they get me anyway, because they specialize in...feeding. While I, on the other hand, am busy trying to prepare for the impending storm. As I tie my bowlines to anchor around trees, I get bit just under my bicep, so I spray some more after removing the blood with the back of my hand. Again, behind my ear as I tie a sheet bend, because the first rope is just short of the last anchor point. With my tarp up, and then my tent, I feel that's the last exposed area of my body they can find, since I'm smothered in DEET now,
but I'm sweating profusely as the heat continues to rise, and there's absolutely no wind in this sheltered area on the ridge. So as I'm blowing up my mattress, trying not to drip sweat all over it, another one gets me up inside my shorts. I quit blowing my mattress, and spray some more. I drip all over my mattress as I do this. I finish that chore, throw the mattress inside the tent as two black flies ride the mattress into my tent. I figure I'll get them later, and enjoy the thought that perhaps they'll die of heat exhaustion or starve while they sit in my tent wondering how to escape.
I'm in the shade while I do this, so in the back of my mind somewhere I think of sun screen, but I don't put it on, because I'm basically lathered in a combination of sweat and DEET. I don't want to eat, because I'm hot and I don't want any poisons on my food. I don't want to go near my gear or I'll spread more sweat, so I go get water, and collect firewood. Which if you're still listening, because it's so hot, I start sweating even more. So I drink, and drink some more, and head over to the bald with my firewood.
The fire is already going thankfully, because this trip is with experienced backpackers who know the value of contributing. It's hot, but the smoke keeps the black flies away, so we keep the fire small, and cherish the smoke. There's also a slight breeze on the bald, so the combination makes this a much better place to hang out. I join Lindsay, Greg, Evan and Matt, as MikeP drifts toward Swan Cabin bringing the rest of the group. We sat and talked on that bald for quite some time, as the thought of the sun on my skin occasionally entered my mind. But I didn't want to get up and go put on sun screen, so I baked.
Eventually I got up and put on more clothes, but by then, I had some type of blotchy sun burn. I didn't recognize it, because it was so blotchy. It looked like some form of sun poisoning or reaction to all the DEET, I wasn't sure. Regardless, I put on clothing as the world spun and the horizon reached for the sun.
Let me tell you this however. This is beautiful country. Looking over the blue haze of the southern appalachian mountains, with a panoramic view over the mountains to the south and west. Beginning with the Snowbird mountains to the south and the Citico Wilderness to the west. They have a seemingly endless scattering of mountains as far as you can see. So as I sat there, with a few bites,
a little sun burn, or poisoning, still wasn't sure, and still a bit hot, I talked to friends who've joined me on many adventures, and new friends I just met. I was very happy. This is literally god's country.
With the slight southern breeze sliding over the bald, the bees floating from one flower to another, the song birds singing the spring choruses, the large raptors soaring above, the scent from acres of wild flowers surrounding us as they reached for the sun across our bald. I felt this place was ours in a way. The rambling traveler I have always been, in another land, with another band of fellows who share my passion of paths least traveled. Satisfying the desire as John Muir quoted “The mountains are calling, and I must go”. I was there, and I couldn't be more pleased with myself. After all the trials of life, approaching the age close to when my father died, I was still strong, healthy and doing what I've always wanted to do, hike to places others can't. Do what others won't. It's not always about doing what's comfortable, it's about getting out and exploring. Having adventures just like the ones I imagined as a kid, watching Tarzan movies, or Clark Gable in “Mutiny on the Bounty”, or dreamily flipping through the pages of National Geographic, which my parents always managed to subscribe to, even though they were always pressed for money, while raising eleven children. Here I was, and it was good.
After a nice evening talking, eating dinner, sitting around the camp fire late into the evening, with a longer respite from the impending storm than was predicted, the first drops of rain started falling, the the air stirred, and we scattered for our sleeping quarters.
I went to great lengths in setting up my camp site knowing the storm was coming. The protective trees just off the bald on top of the ridge. The angle of my tent, the rain tarp, the hammock stretched under the tarp so I could read the latest story on my Nook. One of my favorite gifts, which I had no intention of allowing to get wet. My food line hung up in the trees earlier, with the counter balance method, so that even a mother bear, coaching her cub to climb the tree, couldn't cut the rope and send it down to the ground for an easy snack. This taught to me the first time I backpacked in Yosemite back in the 80's. I found it quite informative, knowing even when the branches were too small for an adult bear, she could send her cubs up to cut the rope. I've been teaching this to many fellow backpackers over the years, but it seems they prefer anchoring it to the trunk of the tree, which a hungry and educated bear can easily solve with a quick chew or rake of the claw. And this has been proved on one occasion on Blood mountain. A bear came into my friends camp, easily knocked the food down dangling from a rope anchored to the trunk of the tree, making a lot of noise as all the men stayed in their tents shivering in the dark. One lone woman got out of her tent, and started yelling at it, banging on metal pots, and the bear slowly and reluctantly left, quite to the satisfaction of the shivering men in their tents.
I climb in my tent as the rain is starting to fall a little harder, feeling satisfied that the only thing outside my tent, is either in dry bags, or as in the case of my backpack, covered in my backpack rain cover, safely nested within my hammock under my tarp.
By the time I was laying down inside my tent, happy to be reading from my Nook, saying a silent thank you to my friend who gave it to me, the rain was coming down hard. The wind started to increase to an intensity which was seemingly angry. A thought came into my mind of the prediction which actually mentioned a possibility of a tornado in the area, along with severe thunderstorms, and almost gale force winds, with or without a tornado. I sat there wondering if I spent enough time looking for dead limbs above...thinking yes, I spent at least 30 seconds looking as I was spraying bug repellent, tying knots for my tarp, and discarding my blood on the back of my hand. Then I remembered those black flies who came in with my blow up mattress which seemed to be loosing air. I looked up, and sure enough, there they were clinging to the top of my tent, and I killed them with much satisfaction.
I decided I didn't want to put more air in my mattress, even though it felt a bit more deflated, and went back to reading when I heard what sounded similar to a train. Or perhaps not a train, but a roar, like a giant lawn mower going over the tops of the trees, and it's getting closer fast. Is that a tornado? No it would be louder, is my last thought as it hit my tent.
My tent is a Big Agnes Copper Spur, reputed to handle strong winds in the Rocky Mountains. That's one of the reasons I bought this tent. To get a light weight tent for backpacking with my college room mate in the Maroon Bells/Snowmass Wilderness. The poles are made of a very strong durable material that is very flexible...so it doesn't break.
When this wind hit my tent, it was like a giant's hand came down from the heavens and pushed directly down on it. All sides seemed to take the pressure equally, it came down several inches, and then it was released and bounced right back up. I decided I couldn't actually get more than a few sentences in my book before begin interrupted with this wind, so I put it away and turned off my light.
Then my rain tarp outside, and the rain tarp on my tent started snapping in the wind. I just lay there basically unable to sleep. I thought, why didn't I position my rain tarp at a different angle. The rain was coming at me at an almost horizontal angle, obviously getting under my tarp at to my hammock. But I thought, at least I put my backpack cover over my backpack, and anything that shouldn't get wet is protected inside additional water proofing. For hours, the storm went on like this, hearing the gusts of wind across the forest canopy before it hit. Even though the rain was pretty much coming down all the time persistently washing the mountain tops, and flooding the valley's, the wind was inconsistent. It continued to let up for a bit, then you'd hear the roar as it raked the tree canopy, before tent would bend and the tarps would start snapping again. I knew my knots and ropes would hold, but I now wondered if the tarp itself would hold. Would the grommets eventually just tear right through the material. It was loud, and it was impossible to sleep. Just when the sleep would start winning over, since I'd now been up 20 hours, after a long drive, a good hike up the ridge, a lot of work setting up camp, collecting fire wood, and basically other than sitting around the camp fire, staying active just about the whole time, I was very tired. You'd feel yourself slipping into a dreamy thought, then the wind would howl, the tent would partially collapse, and the tarps would start snapping. Just as I finally fell asleep, one of my last thoughts was, if it's this bad in the protection of the trees, I knew it was worse for those on the naked bald. I remembered Matt's tent collapsing in the middle of the day while we were sitting around talking at the fire, when there was little wind. His tents are one of those that are ultra light, and you use your hiking poles to hold the tent up. I thought man, he's either completely collapsed and nestled inside it like a cocoon, at least staying warm and dry, or he's miserable. But I rolled over and finally went to sleep thinking at least I told them the storm was coming.
A few hours later, I woke to go relieve myself, and realized my mattress was deflated almost completely, and regretted not filling it up completely earlier, so I did it after I went outside in the rain. The wind wasn't as hard, and the thunderstorm moved on, but it was still raining steadily. I stood under my tarp, happy that it was still up and rather taut. Then I put more air in my mattress, and happily fell back to sleep.
In the morning, since it was still raining, I just went about my business making breakfast under my tarp and got prepared for the hike down off the bald with the rest of the team. At the predetermined time we gathered up and started down the trail in the rain. The stories gradually trickled over to me about almost everyone getting wet during the night for one reason or another. Greg and Evan in their hammocks got wet. Matt's tent collapsed as expected a couple more times. Lindsay's tent was positioned in a way that the rain came in from her front door...a Fly Creek. I believe the others were less wet, can't actually remember, but everyone talked about the sound of the wind, and wondering if it was the sound of a train, which everyone knows, is what all the tornado survivors coin as the sound most like a tornado as it approaches. Nothing inside my tent got wet, but the wind took my backpack cover off and flung it into the woods, and my backpack even though it was in a hammock under a tarp, felt like it had been laying in the bottom of a lake.
It was a rather beautiful walk along the ridge as we came down from Bob Stratton at just under 5400' down to Naked Ground and beyond toward Haoe at just under 5300' undulating along the ridge the whole time. Sometimes the ridge is so narrow it reminds me of the razorback ridge we used to walk along in the Rocky Mountains as teenagers. We'd hike across the prairies, full of prairies dogs, cattle and occasional jack rabbits. The jack rabbits were cool, because they were so unlike the rabbits of the mid-west. They were large and fast. Along with the cows, were cow pies, and the hot western sun baked those cow pies to a crisp. And under those cow pies, were often western diamondback rattlers.
My older brother Donald liked to catch them. So we'd hike across this prairie, go up the ridge to the razor back ridge, and we could see for miles on either side, two different geological landscapes.
Only it was very dry looking and brown. This, the opposite. Very green, lush, flowering, very scented with so much life. The air so sweet, but very thick and wet. And my glasses fogged as I plodded on.
Just after Haoe, we began our 3500' drop. If you've never gone down a steep mountain in the rain, with your glasses fogging up, where everything is slippery, you'll never know why I kept thinking of Michale Douglas and Katherine Turner sliding down the mountain in Romancing the Stone. There was briar full of thorns. There were rhododendron branches ready to knock you off your feet if you didn't look up from your boots often enough. If the black berry thorns weren't enough, there is a thick, very strong thorny reed like plant that can rip your skin to shreds for the unwary. The rain was coming down
so long now, that everywhere there were little tributaries feeding the mighty Slick Rock river down below, and often flowing on our trail to get down the mountain. I was leading, and heard people falling, but nobody getting hurt. We continued the long descent, while almost everyone fell at one time or another, but bounced right back up and continued warily down the slippery steep slope. By the time we got down to Big Fat Gap, we had gone down about 2500'. Kevin was slightly limping from one of his falls, but otherwise in good spirits. As a group, all sodden, but ready to continue we started down the rest of the descend down to Slick Rock.
The river was higher and faster then I'd ever seen it when we finally got down, Kevin having fallen again, and hurting a bit more. But yet, he was still seemingly in good spirits, and I was glad to have a good group of people who weren't here because it was easy.
But because Kevin was hurting I asked him if he wanted me to carry his backpack across the river and he declined. As I was putting on my river shoes to cross, I see Evan not only carrying his backpack, but Kevin's across the river. I guess Evan didn't ask, just grabbed it after Evan slipped his off to change his shoes. Again I was glad to have this group with me today. It was a very long wet dangerous descend, but everyone was in good spirits and not one looked like they had this look on their face like, “oh shit, what did I get myself into”.
The river crossing, though cold and fast, was not very slippery, unlike Jack's river, where some strain of algae grows on the rocks, I suspect because of all the horse shit that gets dumped into the river, and even a bit pleasant to have all that cold water on my feet, which had really gone through the ringer on that last section.
When we got to camp, the rain had let up, and we could actually see a patch of blue as someone, I think Armin, ever the optimist, says “Look, I see blue skies, it's clearing up!”. I think to myself, or perhaps I said something out loud, “Shit, now you've jinxed us!”. So again, we begin the setting up of camp,
as the rain starts drifting toward us again, but it seems to just be a teaser and passes. First I put up my tarp, then I put up my tent under it, and swing the tent out to the side, so the group can take advantage of it if it starts raining again.
We go about everything as usual, the collecting of fire wood, etc...when it starts raining again. Someone asks me, I think Bill, “Will we be able to get a fire going in this? And I say yes, as long as we get the right kind of wood...off the ground and dry on the inside, and start small. We collect, and we get it going. When you get a group of experienced backpackers, this is starting to be a rather easy task, and I'm free to continue collecting as they get it going, much to my gratitude. It's been more often the case in the past, where I'm not only doing work for the group in this matter, but undoing the burning of rotten or wet wood...which makes me look like the grumpy old guy more than I'd like to admit.
So even though it's raining, we get the fire going pretty well, when it starts down pouring, and I curse
Armin for having the audacity to say “The storm is leaving and the blue skies are here”, or something as challenging as that to the rain gods.
I went under my tarp and wonder why everyone went into their tent. I check my breath and decide it's not that. I check under my arm pits, and decide, yeah, maybe it's that. So I'm sitting there comfortably under my tarp wondering if I dare go into my tent to retrieve my Nook and read my current story, or just hang out here all by myself and look at the rain soak our camp fire, when Cedar comes over and joins me under my tarp. It's raining too hard even for him, so he leans against me getting my pants all wet, and basically waits impatiently for his back rub. I reluctantly give him what he wants, but I feel a little bad that he's the boss of me. But figuring if he's the only one that joins me in this mess, he deserves a good back rub after that long haul down the mountain.
Cedar I might add, is the best trail dog I've ever met. MikeP his owner, has gone on many backpacking trips with him, and he's joined me over the last couple of years many times. He's a rusty blonde lab, that just has the best attitude and loves being part of the group. He eats and drinks when he wants, and he loves when MikeP brings him along. MikeP grew up near where I grew up in the mid-west, and we had many of the same types of experiences as younger boys and men. Both baby boomers growing up in the mid-west, biking, hiking, fishing, and even both bounced in bars, him in Chicago, and me in a tourist down in West Michigan. Then off to college, and establishing careers down in the southeast where our paths crossed with the AOC.
So here I sit, rubbing Cedar when MikeP shows up and we start talking and joking around under the tarp as the rain continues to fall, but not quite as hard. Then the rest of the group starts to trickle over, I guess because they could hear Mike and I laughing and talking, and got bored with whatever the hell they were doing in their tents. But after a short time, the rain stops again, and to our relief, the fire has enough hot coals to get going again quite easily.
The sun pops out, and some of us head over to Wildcat falls, and get into the water for a nice very cold plunge. When I say I cold, I mean cold! Everything shrinks, everything, but you feel alive. You feel refreshed, and you start to feel a certain tingling cleanliness. You get out, rather quickly, and bask in the new found sun casting it rays on you as you sit on the rocks beside the waterfall. The roar of the waterfall forces you to almost shout to be heard, but by this time, most of us are ready to just feel the surroundings around us, and therefore content not to talk as much anyway.
The next day we spent the whole day just taking it easy in the beautiful valley. The time seemed to fly by, with one exception. Cedar decides to take a swim near the top of the waterfall, and as we try to call him back, he's dragged right over Wildcat Falls! We thought, broken bones, or something perhaps even worse, when he pops back up, and swims to the side of the river. The river is packed with cliffs and rhododendrons, with very few options to climb out of the river. So we try to direct Cedar to swim to the right places and have a few discussions about where that might be, and he finally rescues himself. I climbed a few rocks to guide him past a place he looked like he was about to attempt, which probably would have gone very badly, and he gets out unscathed...luckily. Seemed like a very close call, but disaster was avoided this time.
The next day, we pack up and walk up and out of the river valley to a ridge in Citico Wilderness, now back in TN. It's also fun while hiking to be able to cross state lines. Always liked that for some reason.
So we set up camp again, as the rain starts to fall again, but it goes away as I think Armin says he sees blue skies, and a few of us roll our eyes again, thinking some guys just don't know when to stop teasing the rain gods.
But we get the fire going again, and the rain holds off for another hour, then comes, then goes, then comes, then goes, and so on pretty much the rest of the day, but it's a good group, and spirits are high,
and the conversations continue around the camp fire.
We stay up late into the night again, because the rain holds off. I think it was around 1am by the time the die hards went into their tents the night before, and it was probably close to midnight this time.
And the whole time, one of us is telling us a story.
Evan is telling us stories of his adventures across the globe, diving and such, and boy hood antics similar to my own, and I'm thinking this is why I like being a trip leader for AOC. You just keep meeting people who have a story you want to hear. Matt telling us his stories. Greg and MikeP throwing in their quips, Bill getting his stories in as well, and throwing in his share of insults making him quickly become one of us, or one of the exclusive members of the elite backpackers of the AOC,
which I'm proud to be surrounded with on this trip, as in many others. Kevin giving us a dose of what he experienced as well, along with a long list of knowledge that can only come from a lot of reading.
Sometimes even Lindsay throws in her comments. Being the only woman on the trip, I'm thinking she has more uh gonads than most men I know. Here we are, in the middle of the wilderness, miles from any of the closet towns. And by closet towns, I'm not talking about civilization, we were even further from there. The occasional star would pop out between some clouds and everyone would groan as Armin says “It's clearing up!”, knowing that rain was probably coming our way.
We talked, and we laughed, and we talked some more, surrounded by nothing but forest, and the glow
of a late evening fire. It's a beautiful thing being out in the middle of nowhere, in a very thick remote forest, just talking with friends around a fire. Almost primitive. Your attitude is different. You can have bugs crawl across you, and you don't flinch, just flick them away. You can drop food on the ground, pick it up and eat it, without a thought. You can get scratches all over your skin sometimes bleeding when you inadvertently rub against an earlier tangle with a thorny bush. Have dirt all over you, some part of you always wet, yet you're happily kneeling in the dirt and throwing another branch in the fire,
or cracking a joke.
The next morning most of the group takes off earlier than usual to get a head start, so the faster group doesn't have to sit at the parking lot waiting too long. I think when MikeP thought of it, that this was great idea, since I love my mornings around the camp, talking and drinking coffee. Morning is my favorite time of day. So they leave about 7:40 and start the 8.5 miles out following the ridge on the Benton Mackaye trail. It's the best marked trail in the whole wilderness. Since I wouldn't be leading the first group, and therefore the first time I'm not leading on this trip period, I go over briefly with MikeP the trails on the way out, and remind him not to take the trail we took last year, which probably was a great trail back in the 90's, but not any more since it's no longer maintained, and the BMT was completed through this area after that trail map was revised in '96.
So off they went. Armin, one of the strongest hikers I've ever met, Matt and Greg hang back with me, and enjoy the morning. Let me tell you about Armin, this guy can fly like the wind, even when he's carrying close to 50lbs. He brings cans of food, and eats very simply. He'll eat oatmeal with no sugar. He's not on facebook, and I don't think he watches TV. He trains like a Spartan warrior, and he seems to live his life like a Spartan to me sometimes. Matt used to be over weight, and when I first met him, he'd lost most of that, but he continued to loose some wgt, and packs less gear now. He trains on his mountain bike, when he's not going on grueling long distance backpacking trips. The same with Greg. He's out doing long distance solo backpacking trips. Both Matt and Greg have backpacking down to a science. They're both doing this 6 day backpacking trip with I believe the mid 20 lb range. They both continually want to get better, and be more efficient, and they're achieving their goals.
So I being me, take my time breaking camp, never grab my map or compass nestled down in a pocket in my backpack, and we take off.
It's hot and humid, and pretty quickly as we're going up the ridge, my glasses fog up again, and I decide I can see without my glasses better than without. I'm carrying in the mid-40's, because I can, and like my stuff. I spent a lot of money on it, and I'm bringing it with me, whether I use it or not.
I have my nice comfortable chair. I have my sort of heavy sleeping mattress that goes flat in the middle of the night. I have enough bug dope to smother a horse. I have lots of wet gear, great expensive water shoes that I only used for two river crossings. I have a tent and a hammock, and a tarp that me and Cedar can share. I have enough clothing to survive a snow storm in this hot humid spring day. I'm still
close to 20 lbs lighter than I used to hike with, so I'm not feeling bad about this. I'm two pounds lighter
than Armin, but that's nothing to brag about, since he brings heavy stuff, which evoke memories of those 13th century radical priests that believed in flagellation as a sort of penance. Matt and Greg
have this look on their face, if I squint my eyes enough to see more than 5 feet, a little smug grin on their face, as if to say, without saying a word, “I'm carrying so much less than you, that you look like a donkey to me”. Or perhaps they were just enjoying the hike, I can only imagine.
We got to the first fork, and I barely glance at the trail sign, wondering if the others even saw it, but
they're right on my heals so I don't really care much whether they saw it or not, because I'm enjoying the rush of the hike up the ridge, even if I can only barely see the trail...because I'm near sighted in case you didn't catch that earlier.
We get to the second fork eventually, and we pull off our packs, drink and eat a quick snack. I clean off my glasses, and thankfully, I can see more than 5' again. I wring out my bandana, with what seems like enough sweat to fill an 8 ounce glass of water, but probably not quite. There's a path to the left, but I barely glance at it, as I take another gulp of water. There's a path going straight as an arrow from where we came, which looks like it just follows the ridge for a bit, so that women can take a private moment off the trail. There's another path that scoots over to the left of that, that I take the group down, and almost immediately notice that we're the first ones to be on this path, and I mention it to the group. They are all concerned by this and ask if we should turn around, and I say lets go a little further to make sure, and they shrug and follow loyally. Not one whiner in the group.
We go another 100 yards or so, and I say to the group, there's no way they came this way, and I say I'm afraid the other group went the wrong way. Have I pulled out my map or compass nested down behind me in my pack out of reach? No, I do not.
We go another 100 yards or so, and the fog lifts a bit, and I can see a ridge to my left, which in my mind I know shouldn't be there. I think as I continue down the trail, that doesn't make sense. Do I stop?
No, I keep going. We go another 100 yards or so, and I say, we'll go a little further, and I'll know if this path is going to the right place or not. We go there, and I decide, now finally, I'll pull out my map and compass. I take a short reading, and the path at this point is going south, by southwest. I look at my map, and the path does sometimes briefly go SSW. So I say, this is right, I'm afraid the other group went the wrong way. How do I know the other group didn't go this way. Because if you've ever led a group in the wilderness, you run into webs, lots of webs. You see tracks. At one point on the trail, I saw someone slip. I thought to myself, someone is getting tired, because they dragged their boot here. Someone wasn't looking where they were stepping, and they stepped on this mushroom, or this bear shit, or they over turned a rock, and then more webs. And not the least of which, the rain water on the brush. There's more. When nobody has gone before you, your boots are getting wetter, even with the gaiters, covering the boots, like a funnel, directing all water from the brush to your boots.
So here I am, plodding down this trail, knowing we're going where the others didn't go, knowing there's
a ridge to the left that shouldn't be there, and I'm still walking! But it's pretty! The flaming azalea's
are going nuts on this ridge. This beautiful cast of orange. Blazing a very bright glow of brilliant flaming orange. All alongside this narrow trail just below a ridge to our right, and over a deep lush valley down below to our left. We stop again. I pull out my map and compass, finally in an easily accessible pocket now, and take another reading, and it seems we're going too far to the west now. Matt and Greg pull out their GPS's and can't clearly see what trail we're on, but Matt says eventually we'll come up on Pine Ridge...and I think well, that's what we're supposed to do, come up on it. Armin says “What about that trail that went off to the left when we took that last break”. I look at the map again, knowing exactly what trail he meant since I was sitting just about on top of it, while I slurped on my bottle like a baby, and cleaned my glasses. So I'm looking at my map, this time actually studying it for the first time on this trip, and say “F'ck!, we need to go back, sorry guys!”. You know that feeling you get when the woman you love walks out of your life? Well, it's nothing like that. It's like a pit in the stomach that comes from nowhere and grows. If you let it, I imagine it could make you sick. But you man up, and think of your older brothers who had to march in the forests of Vietnam, and you think, nobody is shooting at us, we're not lost, we just went the wrong way for...a fucking mile, and you need to get moving, and fucking fast.
They grumble something to the effect of that's okay, and take off like a bat out of hell. And when I say take off, this is coming from someone who prides himself his whole life in being fast. I snap off a couple of pictures of them with the flaming azaleas off to the side, and as I'm putting my stuff back on, they're already 50 yards up the trail and flying. The fact that Greg and Matt, are carrying 20 lbs less, and are young enough to be my children, doesn't help. Armin is carrying a couple pounds more than me as he flies around a bend wrapping back up the mountain from which we just came. Matt and Greg charging up, trying to catch Armin, and from my point of view, doing a pretty damn good job. So I step it up, going up the mountain, carrying over 40 lbs as fast as I can walk, just short or running. And I don't want to run, because I have my backpack on, and my glasses are fogging up again. I figure this is a bad place to get injured, so I go up as fast as I can, my heart is pumping, my sweat is pouring, and oh yeah, I have to stop each time I want to drink, pull out my bottle, drink, and try to manage to stick it back in it's holder without dropping it, all while I am stopped. They were using camel backs, and I'm thinking, not for the first time, I need to buy one of those.
We get up to the trail fork, not too long after they're sitting there looking proud of themselves for getting back up the mountain much faster than me, and I look at the trail sign, for the first time, and it's obvious to me, because I had just studied the map for the first time in like a year, that we needed to go to the left. So I take another drink, and start up the ridge. After awhile, as they're heads are practically stuck to my ass, I offer them the opportunity to go ahead of me with a reminder about the forks up ahead. They gratefully except, and again, leave me behind, fidgeting with my glasses, and my water bottle, which is near empty now, and I hate the idea of stopping and switching bottles as they leave me even further behind. Now I don't mind going solo, in fact, sometimes I seek it, but in this case it's because I screwed up, and I know the first group is waiting on us and probably starting to worry, and that Armin, Greg, and Matt are going faster than me.
So I plod ahead, and at some point, my glasses are off again, and I slow down a bit, because I don't want to get injured on a slippery rock, or log, or step on one of the many poisonous snakes around here.
I think, why didn't I bring my contacts? Why didn't I buy a camel back? Why did I bring no less than 10 lbs, more stuff, than I actually needed? In the back of my mind, I was thinking, this is a beautiful forest, stop and smell the roses, but I was humiliated enough as it was. As I got to one of the last forks, Matt says “You okay grandpa?”, or something to that effect. I grumpily replied, “You guys don't need to wait on me”, and then made some lame excuse about not being able to see very well, and they continued merrily on their way. I plodded on literally running at times when the trail was easier
to see, but I still wasn't catching up to them. When we got the end of the loop section, which is Strawberry Knob, they were sitting there waiting on me again. Again I said you guys deserve to reach the cars way ahead of me, because you kicked my ass. They said, “We know, but we don't care if anyone else knows.”. I had a sense of pride in these young guys, for some reason. Anyway, the rest of the way, they again went much faster than me on the last leg, but waited just before the cars, and we almost came out together.
As expected the rest of the group was worrying about us after awhile, and everyone was anxious to get to our long awaited lunch spot of a good meal and some cold brew.
It was a great trip, even if I did let my guard down on that last day. Glad everyone took time away from their busy careers to spend 6 days in the mountains with me.