"I was, in fact, homesick for wildness, and when I found it I knew how intimately - how resonantly - I belonged there. We are charged with this - all of us. For the human spirit has a primal allegiance to wildness, to really live, to snatch the fruit and suck it, to spill the juice." - Jay Griffiths, Wild: an Elemental Journey

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Wild Smokies

I have hiked, camped, or backpacked in nearly every state in the northeast: Maine, Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia - to name a few.  As soon as I made my decision to move west, I knew that there was just one place I needed to experience before leaving the beautiful Appalachians - the Great Smoky Mountains.

For spring break, Oldman and I dusted off our camping gear and headed south.  The weather forecast was  sunny and warm for days on end, we had enough dehydrated meals to last us a week of being stranded in the woods, and I was jumping out of my skin with excitement at the opportunity to sleep in my tent for the first time since November.

Upon reaching the ranger station near the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we were surrounded by people.  Little, screaming people.  Big, slow people.  Swarms of people with fanny packs and cameras.  Our first question to the ranger was, "Where should we go to get away from all of these people?"

She gave us a great tip on a 16 mile loop completely on the other side of the park, where she promised we would see virtually no one but bears. We had to drive two and a half more hours through the park, out of the park, through the Cherokee reservation, and back into a remote corner of the park on the North Carolina side.  It was totally worth it.

As we started down the trail, the sun was shining, the breeze was blowing, and there were butterflies everywhere.  Yellow swallowtails, black butterflies with purple spots, and dozens of little, purple butterflies.  They flitted around us and rested on our packs, heads, and fingers when we stopped for breaks.  I felt a little like Snow White.  I sort of looked up towards the sky and asked, to no deity in particular, "Really?  Could you possibly drum up a more beautiful setting?"

There are also waterfalls.  Tons and tons of waterfalls.  The river was next to us the entire first day's hike, and the whole river is pretty much large, moss-covered rocks and clear water crashing over them.  The smell of the water and foam combined with the fresh buds coming out on the trees and all around on the ground was intoxicating.

After many distracted detours into the river, we reached camp with plenty of time to set up, build a fire, and make some dinner.

The next morning was another beautiful one.  We were leisurely about getting out of camp.  It was hard to move fast when the woods seemed to be in no hurry to get anywhere.  After about four hours of drinking coffee and tea, eating breakfast, filtering drinking water for the day, and packing up, we headed to our day's destination: Gregory Bald.

We hiked pretty hard all day (except for a long lunch break in which there might have been some very cold swimming in the river with very little clothes on. . . good thing the trail was so secluded. . .), including 3000 feet of elevation gain in about four miles.  Yikes.

About two miles from the summit, a monster thunderstorm hit.  On my various backpacking adventures, I've run into grizzly bears, moose, snakes, and getting lost, but never a thunderstorm.  We donned our rain gear, but began to reconsider hiking all the way up to the open bald on the top of a mountain to set up our tent with metal poles and sleep in it for shelter from the lightening. . . hmmm.

About a mile from the top, still pouring rain with lots of thunder and lightening, we found a flat area where we could set up a makeshift camp for the night.  Technically, you are only allowed to camp at pre-marked backcountry sites.  This was not one, but it would have to do for tonight.  The only problem was water. We were almost out, because we had been counting on the spring we heard ran through the campsite at the top of the bald.  We dropped our packs, covered them as best as possible, and ran ahead with just our bottles and filter pump in the hopes that we might find some water.

We came across a tiny trickle running down the mountain.  It was a viable source for filtering, but not nearly deep enough to even get our filter hose into.  Oldman set to work on a system of rocks and leaves that created a spout-type flow from which we could fill our bottles.  Then we simply filtered from one bottle to the next until we had debris-free water to boil for dinner and drink in the morning.  Brilliant!

By the time we got back to camp, it had stopped raining.  I set up camp while Oldman somehow magically made a fire out of completely wet wood.  We ate, dried off, warmed up, and were pretty happy campers.  We fell asleep reading Orson Scott Card fiction aloud to each other off of my kindle in the tent. What a great night.

The next day brought the return of the beautiful weather, and the enchanted forest came alive with buds, butterflies, and beauty once again.

We reached our goal - the summit and Gregory's Bald - and sauntered back down the mountain with aching feet and joyful hearts.  If this first trip of the season is any indication of what is to come this year in our backcountry adventures, we have much to look forward to!  Be blessed, my friends.  The earth is beautiful and the sun is on its way.

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