Backpacking the Appalachian Trail 75M, Great Smoky Mountains, NC/TN
May 22-26, 2015                                  Scrolling Photo Album
Before telling the story of this adventure I would like to go back forty years to the first
time I hiked the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smokies.  It was March of 1975, Spring
Break, with nine days to do something cool.  My college buddy Jeff Alexander and I 
hitch-hiked from PA to TN, taking about a dozen or more rides and a day and a 
half to reach the northern terminus of the AT in the Park at Davenport Gap.  We were
young and reckless and going to live forever.  There were no rules and the world was
ours for the taking.  With sixty-pound backpacks and a permit in hand we hiked the 75
miles over these magnificent ridges to reach Fontana Dam to the south before taking
another two days to hitch back in time to resume classes.

This stretch of pathway is perhaps the most iconic backpacking trail in the world.  In
March, the trees are bare, the trail still frozen, and winter is far from over.  We didn't
take a tent, so stayed in shelters behind bear cages.  The permit (which I still keep) 
indicates we were registered to stay at Mt. Chapman, Icewater Springs, Silers Bald,
and Spence Field shelters.  I know we stayed at three of these.  Therein lies the two
most vivid memories I have of the trip, which I shall relate.  Those three nights in
shelters were enough for me to forever after bring a tent so that I would never have to
smell stinky socks and hear snoring all night ever again.

Jeff and I were feeling pretty good on our third day and decided to knock off thirty 
miles, so blew right past the shelter at Silers Bald, finishing at dusk.  Temps were
chilly, but we were tough, so decided to just bivouac along the trail when we finally
stopped at dusk.  Finding a large fallen log along the ridge, we rolled out our bags
on its lee side away from the wind, cooked some dinner, and settled in for some much
deserved rest.  Little did we know that a storm would roll in from the west during the
night, shifting the direction of the wind, threatening to freeze us to the ground behind
that log under a drift of snow.  Winds must have been thirty or forty miles per hour in 
gusts with horizontal snow pelting us.  I woke up absolutely freezing cold, even though
I had a very good down sleeping bag and was sleeping in my down vest as well. When
you begin to shiver inside your bag, you know you are in trouble.

It was 0400 in the morning when I called out to Jeff, laying on the cold, hard ground
next to me, hollering at him above the wind four times before I got a response.  I 
seriously believed he may have already frozen to death because his bag was not nearly
as good as mine.  Relieved to find him still among the living we quickly decided we had
to get up and move if we were going to survive.  There was no time to waste.

For nearly four hours we struggled to follow a nonexistent trail without flashlights 
in a pitch black world with horizontal ice and snow pelting us from the west, impeding 
limited visibility even further.  Often we backtracked.  Our feet and fingers were numb,
creating an urgency to keep moving, even if in the wrong direction just to prevent
frostbite, let alone keep the body core temperature up enough to survive.  Often finding
the trail only by looking at the break in the trees above the trail, we persisted in our
plight and prevailed into sunrise when the storm abated and we were treated to a
crytalized salmon-colored sunrise as we topped Thunderhead Mountain.  Every tree and
outcropping for as far as you could see from the top of the mountain was coated with a
reflective frozen glaze of snow that captured the dawn's first rays in a twinkling array of
pinkish-salmon color that one might only encounter in a fantasy dream.  Never before or 
since have I seen such a display of ethereal beauty.  The only thing missing was angels
with harps.  We stood in awe for a long time atop Thunderhead.  At the time it occurred
to me that this was the universe giving us a celebratory gift or reward for the heroic
struggle we had endured to survive the night.

We moved on to the next shelter where early risers were shivering around a campfire.
Reports were that the temperatures had reached minus thirty with the wind chill.  By
this time Jeff and I were sweating, and the others just starred at us as we loosened our
collars to cool off and mix powdered milk with ice water to pour over our oatmeal for
breakfast.  There was no way we could share what we had experienced.  Jeff and I still 
speak of this special shared experience of courage and beauty nearly every time we 
meet.  It was just one of those events that forever changes the way you look at the 

The other noteworthy story that I enjoy retelling, but am recording here for the first
time, is the night we arrived at one of the shelters late.  Each of us found a rack to
roll out our pads and bags and crawl in without disturbing the other hikers that had
already retreated to bed.  At the time, the beds were made of one-inch screen stretched
between logs, with accommodation for six people in the upper bunk and six below.
Today the beds are made of wood and they have removed the bear cages that used to
keep you out of reach of wandering bruins.  I quickly grew to appreciate just how nasty
it could be to stay in one of these, with stinky wet socks hung everywhere and snoring
people in every direction.  But this night doesn't stand out for its shortcomings.  This
night was a bit magical.

I awoke at some point to feel the warm breath of a woman next to me, apparently no
more than an inch away from my lips in the dark.  There was no way of knowing who
was laying next to you when you got there.  It could have been another guy, but it 
wasn't.  I'd had enough experience by the age of 23 to know this was a young woman,
and I couldn't help but wonder if she was awake too and attentive to the magic of the
moment.  It was emotionally very moving as I layed there and just let my electrified
senses absorb the moment.  In the morning I met my bunk-mate - a young, attractive
woman hiking with a geeky Peace Corps guy.  She seemed to acknowledge by her look
and attention that she shared the same curiosity of that night.  But who knows!  Neither
of us were bold enough to say anything and we went our separate ways.  That tender
moment will forever touch me and leave me smiling.  Just another good memory of the
Appalachian Trail.

Returning to 2015, this would be a return to the Smokies to share the same adventure
from the opposite direction with my favorite hiking buddy, my brother Don, and my son
Matthew.  I like to take on such adventures on the occasion of my birthday so that I can
avoid the usual attention and fanfare of something I see as having little value in 
celebrating.  Getting older is something I'd really rather avoid.  If someone asks me  
what I am running from, I always answer "old age", which is pretty close to the truth.

So, the three of us met at Fontana Dam after staging a vehicle on the northern end
at Davenport Gap.  With permits in hand we set off in high spirits around the lake and
across the dam before finally hitting the trail proper at the boundary of the park.  From
here you get a quick reality check with the initial climb of a couple thousand feet.


Our goal was Spence Fields shelter, giving us most of 18 miles and three thousand
feet of climbing in the first day.  Our enthusiasm was quickly dampened when Matthew
began to show symptoms of a stomach virus, upchucking everything, unable to keep
water down, with muscles cramping badly.  I'd never seen such a young, strong guy
disabled so quickly.  Call it bad timing.  He caught a virus from another guy at work,
we learned later, and had to be talked into returning to his Jeep after a very few miles
and giving up the goal of the hike.  I could see he was quite torn about quitting as I
accompanied him part of the way back down the mountain.  When he looked like he
could make it the rest of the way under his own power I turned back to catch up with
brother Don and continue regretably without Matt.

Matthew would make it home under considerable duress and be nursed back to health
through the weekend, but would be disappointed with such bad luck.  Don and I 
continued on to stop at the Russell shelter, where we sought refuge in our tents after
a tiring day.  There were reports of bear problems at the first shelter we passed at
Birch Spring Camp, and we later learned they had to shoot a bear there to manage it.
For all our anticipation of seeing a bear in the Smokies, we didn't see as much as a
track.  One report of a bear coming into the shelter we stayed at the night before was
not repeated when we stayed there.  All we saw was one deer and one fearless turkey.

Don was pretty spent, so needed some recovery time.  I felt pretty good as I had 
already spent quite a bit of time on the trails this spring and was conditioned to do
this.  My pack weighed but 30 pounds to Don's 40+ and Matt's 50+.  There is nothing
like the experience of carrying too much weight to create some urgency in trimming
away pounds you really don't need.

The weather was perfect with mild temps and pure sunshine and blue skies for the first
four of the five days we were on the trail.  With Matthew's unfortunate departure, Don
and I could cut our daily mileage and add an extra day to our hike through the park.
We arose the second day feeling the result of the first day's effort, but just as ready
and enthusiastic to go the distance once again.

As usual the highlight of these hikes for me is the people you meet.  We enjoyed the
company of several other hikers, stopping to take breaks and lots of pictures, fully
appreciating another grand endeavor without the need to push or suffer too much.  Day 2
saw us pushing perhaps another 17 miles to spend the night at Double Spring shelter
(sleeping in our tents, of course).  Don would tie his food up each night like he was
"supposed to" while I kept mine in my tent.  I brought non-aromatic foods, all vegetarian
and all in hermetically sealed packaging.  Besides, while I respect Ursus americanus
and its mythology and reputation, I do not fear the beast and think that the poor
creature is rather overrated, and far more timid than fierce.  I have had far too many close
encounters where I have observed the fear in the eyes of a bear up close.  So I sleep
with my food, and perhaps (deep down) wish for some aggressive encounter!!!!!

While at Double Spring the lot of us guys were sitting around talking about what guys
talk about, when into camp walks four young co-eds who totally flip-flopped the
mood.  It was fun to see how all these grown men perked up to the fun and frivolity of
these girls as they built themselves a campfire upon which they heated cans of Campbell
soup to eat for dinner.  They were just delightfully playful, engaging, and entirely
entertaining without intending to be.  Everyone there was charmed. It was a breath of
fresh air to watch these guys politely react to the lightness of these young ladies.

The third day was a bit of a recovery day of just 14 miles, stopping at Icewater Spring 
shelter after a side venture up Clingman's Dome at 6643', the highest point of our hike.
While we had two significant ascents during the day, Don showed signs of improved
strength and fitness.  Finishing by 3:30 pm gave his legs additional time to recoup and
put him in good shape to tackle more mileage the following day.

On the fourth day we knocked off about 21 miles all the way to Cosby Knob after starting
our descent to the finish.  The shelter was crowded and noisy, so we ate what was left 
of our food and headed immediately to bed.  Rain came in late in the night to soak our
tents, but we stayed dry inside.  After arising early we set off by 0630 to beat any further
rain and get back to the car at Davenport Gap by 1100 to conclude our 75-mile hike.

The conclusion was mostly down, down, down.  By the fifth day, Don was feeling stronger
and was in his best condition of the adventure.  He would later find, upon reaching home,
that he had dropped 11 pounds in body weight, which he was pleased with.  My weight
always stays the same, no matter what. We both reached home without incident.  
Neither of us had sustained either a fall or any injury.  The day after saw me pounding
out a stiff pace for seven miles to demonstrate that I was none the worse for wear, and
perhaps even a bit stronger because of the hike.

It was a great adventure, except for Matthew's unfortunate malaise.  It inspired both Don
and me to already begin talking about the next one we'll take on.  After literally
thousands of miles of backpacking together and countless trips, I look forward to many
good days ahead to share with my best buddy on the trails.


e m