Monday, March 19, 2012

Gardens and grass

Today (St. Patty's Day, March 17th*) found me doing my longest hike yet - 34 miles in one mega-trek through Smoky Mountain Park. To get it done I hit the trail at 4:10AM. I was back 'home' at 9PM.

And from all the vast array of sights and experiences, the above photo is my pick as the best moment. It is taken looking south (trail south) toward Spence Field from the open ridge below Rocky Top. To me this spot is one of the prettiest natural gardens I've passed along the trail. It is what it's all about for me (Fellowship with the Wilderness).

This third of the four 30+ mile mega-day-hikes had a character that was distinct from the other two: it was grassy ridge hiking. The section out of Davenport Gap featured well-groomed horse trail and the delightful mossy spruce walk above 6300 feet yet nearly level around Mount Guyot. The second big hike, North out of Newfound Gap featured the spectacular knife-edge rocky ridges and connecting 'suspension bridges'. The shorter leg between Newfound Gap and Clingmans highlighted the trail builders art through some extensive boggy deep-woods areas. And now this.

The grassy ridges begin almost immediately as you descend southbound from Clingmans Dome. They continue over Clingman's little twin, Mt. Buckley, and then begin sputtering out as you get to Siler's Bald. Crazy how all these open grassy ridges aren't called balds, and then when you get to Siler's Bald, you can barely find a single patch of open grassy terrain (there was exactly one postage-stamp-sized, Blackberry-overgrown 'bald area', and it wasn't on the summit.

From Siler's Bald Shelter south for many miles there's a different character to the trail - uncountable ups and downs, often surprisingly steep, usually short. The biggest of these, Cold Spring Knob (or Mountain) is the first climb anywhere in my experience that I'd call truly pointless (If there is a point in climbing it, somebody needs to clue me in). The map shows that a side-hill trail around the south flank of Cold Spring Knob would actually be shorter than the existing trail, and it could be nearly level. Cold Spring Mountain has *no spring*. It has no view, either from the top or anywhere along the slopes. It has no unusual geography, geology, flora or fauna - in summary, no point. Worst of all, there are mud wallows on the way up the north slope--places where if you stay on the trail but try to avoid the mud, you'll fail because you will slip sideways into it. Note to the trail planners: Eighty six this useless stretch of trail, or let the horses have it and put a no-horses AT reroute cleanly around this mountain. Strangely the next little knob north (from Buckeye Gap) has just such a reroute in place, so this change, southward from Buckeye Gap or the Miry Ridge Trail, seems a natural next step.

Okay, I'm off my soapbox now. All these uncountable ups and downs including Cold Spring Mtn took me to the low point of today's walk -- low in so many ways: elevation, mood, weather. At about 4400 feet the ups begin to exceed the downs, the rain started to fall in earnest, and I began to wonder whether I was going to make it back to my vehicle, given that I'd be hiking nearly 20 miles with wet feet (a sure formula for blisters).

Then came the first climb with a real point - and a serious climb it was, up from the excellent spring (a fine reason for a 'down') to the vista atop Thunderhead Mountain and the beginning (on its south side) of several more miles of grassy ridge walking, including Rocky Top, a popular day-hike destination for visitors up from Cades Cove camping area on the Tennessee side of the park.

Rocky Top transitions into Spence Field somewhere in the vicinity of the photo at the top. And somewhere in this area, the rain stopped too, and never returned. Time to change into dry socks and 'hang' the wet ones off my backpack to (successfully) dry and change back into once my nicely breathable trail-runner shoes dried thoroughly. I was back on high ground and loving it.

Yes, it was a trudge to get back through all those ups and downs. I was trying to hurry in order to get photos of Double Springs and Silers Bald shelters before dark (which I did**) and to see some of the scenery that I missed in the early morning. This sunset shot is the pick of the 'panoramic vista' photos for the day.

And so when I faced the thousand foot climb at the very end of a hard day, and as darkness descended, I felt truly bone-tired. That term is *so* apt. Muscles get tired quicker, but if you haven't actually injured them (running injures muscle cells), and if you keep them fed with sugars and oxygen, they find a way to push on. Blood, heart, lungs, mind (if you keep a positive attitude), can keep plugging along too. But when the weariness reaches the core of your bones, the very rock (literally) on which your strength relies, then you know it has been a hard day.

Every year at the Iron Man Triathlon the TV coverage features some 'also-ran' trying to beat the midnight cut-off, tottering, stumbling, weaving side to side toward the finish line in the dark, eyes dazed, falling flat on their face and being pulled up by onlookers and urged onward, struggling a few more steps and toppling over again. It's at once heart-rending and pathetic. Well, I was nowhere near to being in that kind of shape. But then I didn't swim 2.5 miles and bike 100 miles before doing this hike. Yes, that last half mile down the paved trail from the Observation tower to the parking lot seemed like it would never end. But it did. And then I slept.

*Note: This hike was taken out of north-to-south sequence because Clingman's Dome access road just opened yesterday. As a convenience for those following the trail documentation, I'm posting the hikes in trail succession (north to south), not in chronological order.

**Second note - personal in nature and a bit whiny: It was about 5:30AM when I passed Double Springs Shelter the first time. The trail goes right past the building. There was somebody snoring so loudly inside that I’m sure it was annoying everybody else, even the people in the tents nearby.

Personal opinion: there are so many reasons why I don’t want to "camp-out" as part of an AT hiking experience. I've hiked areas of Colorado where if you want to experience certain amazing places, an overnight camping trip is the only way. Not so on the AT, as I'm proving. And on the AT I want nothing to do with crowded-shelter issues such as snoring, smelly bodies, noise, hiker-to-hiker spread of germs, concentrations of parasite bears, mice and bugs, and the general social annoyances and disturbances from other campers all crowded unnaturally close together (like the worst of city life).

Who in their right mind would seek to spend a night in a drafty, crowded lean-to with a dozen smelly strangers? The homeless have it better under a bridge! No ... I would absolutely shrivel if forced to stay at shelters, and I have no great desire to spend nights in a tent (which is only allowed around shelters in Smoky Mountain Park anyway).

To put it bluntly, the classic AT thru-hike experience is one I would loathe. The popular sticker says the AT is “a footpath for those who seek fellowship with the wilderness, not fellowship with a bunch of other hikers, each of whom brings their outside-world baggage into the wilderness and puts it on display at the expense (or pleasure) of everyone else. But that pleasure is much more easily obtained without hiking, in an endless variety of other activities and venues. So for me, and for *my* hike, I'd rather leave the human entanglements far behind. And that's the trail's intended purpose - otherwise why is the AT Conservancy spending mega-bucks protecting and buffering the trail from encroaching 'civilization'?

In summary, the AT is my Walden Pond. "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." - Henry David Thoreau


Here's a map of the route of today's mega-hike. Embedded are a lot of photos - just follow the link.

AT Day 65 - Rocky Top at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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