Great Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, USA
by Eric D. Lehman
By my senior year of college I had lost everything I gained from years of soccer. I never had much muscle, being thin and sticklike, a one-hundred-sixty pound, six-foot three insect. But I had at least been able to play a ninety-minute game with only a few hard breaths. What was even worse was my loss of connection with the outdoor world that I had grown up in. I didn’t realize that at the time. After four years of alcohol and sloth, my friends and I decided to hike The Great Smoky Mountains during spring break. Unlike my friends, I lacked training, muscle, and will. In fact, I didn’t even know what real strength was. But with the pride and forgetfulness that comes with male ego, I convinced myself that I was tough.
Keith, Dave, Juanito, Billy, and I camped on the North Carolina side of the mountains the first night, planning on leaving one of the cars there. The strategy was to climb Mount LeConte, then cross the main ridge and go down the other side, and three days later, return to our car in North Carolina. We found the parking lot and excitedly prepared our backpacks. Mine didn’t seem heavy and I jauntily headed down the mile-long path to the campsite. Birches and ferns covered the ground. Juanito and Dave set up the tents where a bend in a stream allowed a peninsula to jut out. The other clearings stared emptily at us. I crouched down by the fire that my friends quickly lit. Keith and Dave stripped and splashed into the stream.
“You idiots,” I warned them. “The water’s probably freezing.”
They answered with whoops of excitement. I considered joining them, but simply walked to the edge and dipped my hands in the icy rill, rubbing them together. Juanito turned on the little burner we brought. Yum…dinner. Hungry now, I munched a granola bar, brain soaking in the wilderness. A small ridge cragged to the south of us, beyond which lay the Cherokee Indian Reservation.
“Let’s climb that ridge before dark, maybe we can see the reservation.” Dave suggested.
“Doesn’t look that bad.”
Keith stayed behind and attempted to cook himself some noodles on the little burner. The other four of us found a spot where we could cross the stream over a log. One by one, we flew over, myself last. Dave and Billy started running for some reason, tearing aimlessly up a steep hill. But a tributary of the stream cut us off from the actual ridge.
“This isn’t the right one.”
“It’ll connect up here.”
“No, actually I don’t think it will. There’s a stream down there.” I pointed, sighing.
“Well, let’s keep climbing this anyway.”
“It’s getting dark.” I complained.
The four of us kept going, but the hill grew steep, nearly a cliff. I tired quickly. The sky bled magenta. The ground hazed with un-light. Unspoken words passed between us and we headed back. Dave and Billy charged down; Juanito and I followed at a slower pace. I imagined my broken ankle ending the trip. At the bottom, Keith still hadn’t cooked his noodles, and told us that the burner won’t boil water. Dave grunted and made a bigger fire to cook dinner. As we clambered into the tents for bed, another group showed up and set up camp in the adjoining clearing. When we woke up, ready to head to Mount LeConte, they were already gone.
We piled into Keith’s Trooper and zipped to the trailhead on the western side at the base of Mount LeConte. As we walked, a river roaring to the right of us, I realized that I was completely out of shape. No one else seemed to be having a problem. Billy sported a gut, but his legs were unnaturally powerful. Juanito and Keith played college sports and Dave was actually an award-winning decathlete. Crossing a rocky, white stream on a bridge, I slipped, but caught myself. Then, we started to go up, up, ascending a stairway through a tunnel of natural limestone. I stopped to take a picture, secretly blessing these photographic pauses.
I had to rest after another quarter mile. The terrain rose sharply here onto sort of a ledge from which we could see out across the valley that we had ascended. In the distance loomed Clingman’s Dome, another imposing mountain. Another quarter mile ground away and we approached a huge cliff, actually an overhang, over a hundred feet up. The map read Alum Cave Bluff. These sorts of cliffs were so rare in eastern America that Dave and Keith called for a rest. I collapsed, sweating, and took off my pack, which now felt like a ton of rocks. We sat for a while, eating lunch, wondering how far we had to go. Rick mentioned that our water supplies were running out. My own bottle was now empty.
Suddenly, Dave shouted, “Look at this!” A cloud moved in like a giant belly and quickly enveloped our group. I felt tiny, trapped between the mountains of rock and water vapor. Then the wind that was driving the cloud smacked me and nearly threw me to my knees. Immediately, icy cold air dug under my clothes.
“Let’s move, guys, we’re really exposed here.”
I lugged my pack to my shoulders again and snapped the belt strap on, tightening it around my thin hips. We climbed a steep but short hill and were sort of protected by some trees. However, this whole section of the trail curled around the side of a cliff, and the fog rolled all around us. At times we had to hold on to a rope attached to the rock face on our right, while a three-foot ledge was the only savior from the oblivion that waited below. Water cascading down the mountain made our job even harder as it washed across the narrow trail. I realized that we were in actual danger, that out there on the skin of nature I was a microbe that could be swept away in an instant.
Luckily, after about another half mile of crossing slippery black rock, we finally reached a section of trail on the other side of the ridge, protected from the snapping wind. But this was also the point I couldn’t carry the pack any longer. Humiliation ensued when my friends had to take turns carrying my pack for about half a mile. Our water also ran out, forcing us to use some of the trickles coming down the mountain. “I doubt this stuff will carry too many bacteria, being so high up.” Dave assured us. Juanito, the other expert, agreed for once.
As the light began to dim, I took my pack back. Old snow choked this trail, ice forming a cover for water flowing underneath it. At last, the shelter loomed ahead, hunching in a field of tall grass near the summit. I cheered silently. The snow had disappeared for some reason. The three-sided wood structure had a fence-like metal front and door. Tattered plastic kept out the wind, hanging on the metal like some futuristic tapestry. Upon entering, the smell of cooking punched my sensitized nostrils. The muddy floor was half the shelter. Two long shelves of wood formed a sleeping area, where six other hikers had stationed themselves, mostly on the top. I unfurled my sleeping bag and mat and claimed my own territory. Everyone removed their wet clothes and tried to dry them near the fire. Cold air licked my skin. Dinner wasn’t unsatisfying, but the mud and cold made me miserable. No one spoke there in the womb of the sky. Almost immediately after dinner, I cocooned in my sleeping bag, lulled to sleep by the roar of the night winds outside.
We slept far too long. Dave was up, though, boiling water to make instant oatmeal and hot chocolate. After breakfast, the five of us gathered our things, but again were too slow. The other hikers were gone from the shelter already and others congregated outside, two ready for retirement. I hadn’t expected anyone up there in March. After a few short yards, we crested the actual summit, marked by a cairn of stones. Dave placed a rock on top. The view would probably have been incredible, but we were still in cloud. As we descended, an extraordinary layer of snow appeared through the firs. We had slept above the snowfall.
The five of us trudged on, making our way through the snow. The white powder was about a foot deep, so we had to guess where the trail went and step blindly into the snowbanks. Two hours passed as we circled around the Olympian peak. I didn’t tire much, because the trail was either flat or downhill. However, Keith twisted his ankle at one point and we stopped, eating carbohydrate bars, peering out into the mist that obscured views of the plains of Tennessee. I secretly cheered at Keith’s misfortune, feeling guilty but glad that I wasn’t the only one who would delay us.
We moved off Mount LeConte and the path ran along a ridge; a few feet from the unspoiled muddiness the trees dropped away on both sides. This continued for what seemed hours and Billy cursed the fog. I had problems as soon as we started going up again. Dave tried to encourage me. “Just put one foot in front of the other.” But he wouldn’t help me with my pack, despite my groans. My legs burned with helpless fire.
At last we climbed the Blue Ridge and headed along the Appalachian Trail. We sighted an outcrop called Charles’ Bunion and headed out along a rock ledge, dropping our packs to find better balance on this thumb that protruded west from the ridge. The thick cloud cover suddenly drifted away and the valley floor emerged a few thousand feet below. Through a space between Mount LeConte and another peak, we could at last see the plain of Tennessee, and the whole world, stretching into blurred infinity.
I felt good, like I had conquered something. But then, rain began. We put on ponchos. The path plunged down the eastern side of the mountains and into darkness. Rain pounded down in fists and sought to pummel us from the mountainside. Grabbing trees and ferns for support, we stumbled down the muddy track. Waterfalls had to be crossed and they beat at us angrily. Then Keith slipped off the trail, falling backwards, grabbing onto roots, and Dave yanked him up. He had wrenched his ankle again and we stood there, probably close to the next shelter by now, dripping and cold.
I gave up. “We can’t hike all the way to the car tomorrow,” I told my friends. “Keith can’t go back up this hill.” Of course, I was really talking about myself and I think they knew it. I pointed to the map. “We can walk out to the road from the shelter and hitchhike back.”
That night I realized I had failed. I couldn’t even build a fire, much less carry a twenty-pound pack for more than a few miles. I had contributed nothing to the team and in fact had held us back. My body was pathetic and useless. My will was feeble. The next morning we retreated downhill from the shelter and back to comfortable motels and restaurants. And I was happy. I was happy for the lazy, modern life I lived.
I wish I could say that this failure sparked some renewal, that I began to train at the gym, or run, or hike regularly. But several years would pass before I really entered the woods again and five before I began to consider myself strong. Weakness had triumphed over endurance. I was beaten.