The Smokies

June 15 (continued)

I went up a 60-foot fire tower with poor railings (kind of scary, but a nice view) and then made it up towards the shelter even though I missed the last water source and arrived with, well, no water.

And as I rounded a corner, there was my friend, Mr. Bear. Or perhaps Mrs. Bear. I didn’t try to find out. My reactions: shock, camera, surprise. But he was timid, and gone before reaction number two could capture an image. Various estimates say there are anywhere from 400 to 1600 bears in the Smokies. In most places, bears are very timid, at least in the last 400 years, because that was when the learned to associate humans with guns. However, with hunting prohibited in the park, they now associate humans with food, to the point where rangers sometimes go after them with beanbag guns to try to keep a bit of fear, and separation, in the populations. The bear went galumphing in to the woods. Bears really do galumph — but they galumph at up to 30 mph, so you can’t outrun them.

In addition to the bears, the Smokies are very rich in life. Supposedly there are more species within the park than in all of Europe! The park, indeed the entire Appalachian Mountain range (especially in the South) is practically a temperate rainforest, and in the summer it can feel tropical. There is thick foliage, diverse species, and lots of rain — nearly 100 inches in some places, particularly, near where I was hiking right now. Thus, the fact that forest fires are suppressed in the area is folly. Forest fires are important to the local ecosystem, yet they are put down by the local forest service. Word has it that Smokey the Bear (not Smacky the Frog) was created to feign the danger of forest fires and get the forest service more money at a time when the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other such agencies got the bulk of the funds. And in a rainforest, just getting a fire going is hard enough, yet they go to great pains to keep them from starting and putting them out. We are, of course, in a drought (not that you’d notice it), so I won’t be going setting any wildfires any time soon.

The bear was gone, but I wasn’t content. I proceeded to bang my hiking poles together. And started singing songs. After four renditions of Barrett’s Privateers (Stan Rogers is really good to sing, since it can be deep and booming and has catchy tunes) and some dumb bear songs, (Bear, bear, go away, etc.) I reached the shelter. Dismayed to have no company (surprised, too, this is the nation’s most visited national park) I made dinner, almost burned down the shelter (I really only wound up adding a burn mark to the cooking area; there are many there already.), added Tennessee to the list of states to which I have been—the shelter is on the left side of the trail—and went to sleep.

June 16 — 17.2 Miles today, 191.1 miles from Springer, 1983.5 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: +910 feet. 
Climbs: 3,4,4,4,4,3, Wx: 80s, 70%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: +, Overall: 4.

I started slow and finished fast. On-trail procrastination. It was chilly, too, in the morning, the first time I have worn more than a t-shirt while hiking. I needed to make 18 miles. And I needed to make it up a hill. It is the “long, green tunnel” indeed (as it is called by many who become bored in their travels). So much of the trail is mental. It might not be the longest or hardest of the long trails in the country, but it is the granddaddy, and it is psychologically challenging. Every day you wake up and you have to hike the same green tube. Especially when you need to make 18 miles per day to finish out on time.

Tonight, I’m at another re-done, non-fenced shelter. The shelters used to all have “bear-proof” fencing across their fronts. But it encourage poor food storage practices among hikers, and encourages bears to come to the shelters rather than to stay away. It does make you feel better. Tonight, at least, I have company.

There are bugs out, too. And horses. Goddamn horses. Before we rag on horses on the AT, let’s give an exhaustive list of the pros of having horses on the AT (like we did with dams). Okay, now that we are done with that, the negatives. They tear up the trail. They poop ALL over the trail, and do the owners care? No. They attract bugs. Their feed spreads invasive plant seeds in to the wilderness — it’s not supposed to, but the horses’ owners don’t especially care to buy the right feed. They’re allowed on for historical reasons. Humbug. You have to get out of their way. C’mon NPS/GSMNP/Dept. of Interior. Get the bloody horses off the AT!

Dinner, however, was great: masala sauce and coconut milk and rice, etc. And pudding. Fabulous.

June 17 — 22.9 Miles today, 214 miles from Springer, 1960.6 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -180 feet. 
Climbs: HC, Wx: 70s, 50%, Shelter: 4, Dinner: 4, Overall: 4.

It was a good day, until I resprained my ankle. Yup. I did it again.

I got up to Clingman’s Dome, at 6641 feet the high point on the trail. It’s all downhill from here. Sort of. The top of Clingmans (Down here they say “Clingums”; parse that one.) is like Mount Washington, with a bigger, higher observation deck (that looks very weird) and a lot of car folks (although no overpriced snack bar or cog rail station). Some memorable summit quotes: “Let’s climb that mushroom thing”, “We made it all the way [up the half-mile, paved trail]!” Although once on Washington, I heard a couple of drivers/coggers, not ten feet from the actual summit, which is actually left uncovered by buildings, have the following conversation:

Person 1: “You want to go to the summit? It’s right over there.”
Person 2: “Nah, it doesn’t do anything for me. Let’s go to the snack bar.”

And you wonder why America is obese.

I made Newfound Gap for lunch and a toilet break, and it was bustling. With people driving through the park. The Smokies are picturesque, the northern part of the trail more rugged and steep, yet almost everyone who visits sees just a rest stop on US 441. The park was empty, except for Clingman’s, Newfound Gap and a mile of trail on either side.

I made it to another occupied shelter around dark. It was only late in the day that my ankle really started to bother me. But I walked along, a bit in the dark, made dinner, and went to sleep. 23 miles tomorrow to a hostel. Yippie.

June 18 — 23.3 Miles today, 237.3 miles from Springer, 1937.3 Miles to Katahdin, Net elev: -3430 feet. 
Climbs: 4,4,4,3, Wx: 70s, 80%, Shelter: -, Dinner: 4, Overall: 3.

I’m staying in real backwoods Appalachia tonight. No screen, space between the boards in the bunkhouse, a one-seater (real showers, though). I had a long day today. I saw bears (momma bear and cub) and an owl. And my ankle hurt more and more, especially going downhill, which I had a lot of. I totally hobbled the last three miles. It was awful. The pizza at the hostel is $10. Right. I grabbed some $2 chowder and chowed down. I may go hiking tomorrow, but with the searing pain down on my ankle right now, I may not.