I’m writing from Max Patch, a bald originally intended for cattle farming, now maintained for hikers and visitors to come enjoy the 360 degree view of the mountain ranges surrounding it. By the way, a “bald” is exactly as it sounds. Picture the mountain as man’s head, it has foliage all up and down the sides but absolutely nothing up top.
In front of me as I type stands a wall of mountains. They stand roughly 1500 feet higher than the summit I currently sit on and encompass a third of entire field of vision. That wall is the Great Smoky Mountains. That wall was without a doubt the toughest overall, mental and physical, challenge thus far.
I entered the Smokies with Narwhal and Beach Party. I’ve hiked the last two weeks with them. They’re great. Beach Party doesn’t talk much, but it works, cause I do. Narwhal is a ray of sun in our group. He never complains about a thing, which also works, cause I do.
Back to the Smokies. In order to hike, you must apply for a pass online and pay $20 to hike through. You are required to sleep at shelters as well. To not do so results in a $500 fine. Between the rules, the altitudes, and the stories of bears and blizzards, your mood entering is a blend of dread, terror, and anxiety. The opening climb is daunting in itself. You climb 3000 feet over 8 miles with a couple downhills mixed in just to ensure your knees collapse in on themselves.
After that climb, the terrain books makes the hiking look tame. It’s anything but.
Before I continue, I must admit we had the greatest weather you could possibly ask for. It was 70 and sunny every single day, and it still kicked our asses.
Anyway. That first day was straight uphill. As we ascended, the snow went from small patches to lining the entire trail. We hiked 14 miles and, per the rules, had to stay inside the shelter. Shelters look quaint and peaceful. Nice and cozy, tucked in amongst the peaks.
First, within 2 hours of other people arriving, the entire enclosure smells like a fart. Think, 14 sweaty hikers eating protein bar lunches and tuna dinners gathered in a 10×8 box with 3 walls and a tarp covering the 4th. They begin to disrobe the long johns that have been cooking up a sweat stew all day and are, inevitably, filled with farts. There’s a small 30 minute window of relief. Somebody will light a cigarette, pipe, or joint and the smell will improve. But then they just get the munchies and eat more tuna.
The camaraderie inside, however, is more than welcome. I swore before I left that if somebody started playing guitar by a campfire I would John Belushi from Animal House the guitar, however, I appreciate it. The one kid, GQ, who plays at most fires I’m at, is an aspiring musician. He’s practicing his craft. He doesn’t bitch and moan when I take out my keyboard and type, so I won’t be splitting any guitars. But if you’re gonna play for an hour, you gotta learn more than four songs brotha.
Sleeping in a shelter is laying down on a wooden platform, so, well, yeah. My first night, I slept about 90 minutes total. There’s no escaping the back pain when your ceiling is 2 feet above you. Sitting up isn’t an option. It’s a tomb for tall people.
It wasn’t a total kick in the nuts though, I learned a lot. You wouldn’t believe how many different types of snores there are. There’s the classic “cutting wood” snore. The standard movie snore. Long, extended rips of head rocking rumbles followed by a soft exhale and repeat until nobody around you is happy. Then there’s the “I might die” snore. There’s no rhythm or consistency. Sometimes, there will be up to 10 seconds between snores and you consider checking if he/she died. It not only keeps you awake, but provides a nice little internal struggle when the smallest part of you thinks if he did indeed die, at least you could sleep. Then there’s the “I’m just old so my body makes noise”. They cant help it.
I ended up frying my battery listening to podcasts in an effort to at least enjoy the insomnia. The next 4 days, the shelters were full, so I hung my hammock and returned to sleeping like a baby.
Amazingly, the sun rises, you pack your bag, start hiking, and everything fixes itself. After you shake the aches and pains from the prior days miles off, your body comes alive. I can only compare it to a jump ball in college. My knees and ankles always hurt all the way through warmups, but when the ref approached that middle circle to toss the ball up, everything went away.
The second morning, we woke up at 4 am to hike 3 miles up to Clingman’s Dome for the morning sunrise. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point of the Appalachian Trail at 6,667 feet. The view was absolutely breathtaking. Or at least I heard it was.
I missed it.
My headlamp died after about 7 steps and I hiked the first mile in total darkness. It was 20-something degrees, windy, and all the melted snow either created thick, heavy mud, or froze into death traps. I struggled mightily. For the first time since I left, my surgically repaired ankle ached, adding stress to an already boiling pot of negative emotions. My hands were frozen to the point of pain and loss of grip. I couldn’t yank my hiking poles out of the mud, but couldn’t walk without them. Also, because of the rush to see the sunrise, I skipped breakfast.
When the sun rose, it brought my energy up with it.
The moment of clarity after such trying times are extremely self satisfying, and becoming familiar. After this particular battle with temporary misery, my head slowed down and I was finally able to take in my surroundings.
I was surrounded by green and white, a small strip of brown leading me along. I found myself fascinated by the fallen trees. The roots stood up to 15 feet tall when they tipped over. I looked through my phone and saw dozens of pictures of just fallen trees. The gaps their absence created received sun for the first time in decades and right where they once lay, a new six inch version stood ready to replace its century old ancestor. As strange it sounds, I felt a concern over all the fallen trees, but the little trees stood as a reminder of the natural cycle.
Once we cleared the Smokies, it was 38 miles to Hot Springs where the one, and only, Cindy Wohlleb aka Mother Moodler aka Momma Dooks aka Big Cin aka my favorite woman in the world would be picking me up for a nice break. After the first day, I stopped at a place called Standing Bear Hostel.
Just off the trail, Standing Bear had a wonderfully priced resupply shop for Hiker Food and also cheap beer. That’s all that’s on your mind when you walk out of the woods. However, after my body cooled down and I took in the setting, this place was incredible. They had a library spread across the different shacks and cabins that must have been at least 1,000 books. Everything looked hand built, and all naturally amongst the mountains. After a Digornio pizza and a couple Fat Tire’s, a young guy with long hair asked me and a buddy if we wanted to check out his house. If you could see the setting,you would understand why this didn’t check out right. I mean, there’s NOTHING around.
He walks us around a bend and there it is. He took an open platform and built a small little cottage around it with spare wood and drywall. Once inside, I noticed another substantial library inside. As I pulled books from the shelves, he would drop a quote or excerpt from the book. Not just any books. Nicola Tesla books, the Third Reich, World War II Transcripts, fiction novels, and biographies amongst more.
He then pulls out a hand crafted crossbow. I pull the string back and it doesn’t work. He takes it from my hand and fixes it with few adjustments of a couple handtools he pulled from God knows where. He hands it back and I fire it, perfectly accurate. He takes out a crossbow. It’s laced in Bear fur. The bear fur comes from somewhere I won’t mention because I don’t want him getting in trouble.
There’s a lot things I can’t mention.
So he teaches me to shoot the bow and arrow, and on the first try the arrow banks left and buries itself in the leaves and we have to look around on hands and knees to find it. Second try, dud. Third try, I got one to stick in the general vicinity of the target and called it a day.
When we get back inside, I notice some gears lying around and asked, well, why? At this point, I have my notebook out and I’ve asked permission to write everything down. He obliged and began talking about the gears. They are from clocks. He disassembles old clocks, takes 1 gear out, then reassembles them with the missing gear and they actually work. This type of work, Horology, or the study of time, is a complicated field. It was huge in the 90’s and was an incredibly profitable field then.
He then takes that 1 gear and combines it with a few others of his choice and makes locks out of them. When the hostel needs a locksmith to come out, he says he lets them tinker with the locks and not one of them has ever cracked the locks. He claims he googled this type of lock and nobody else makes them. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’m still impressed. He talks about all of this like its putting together a Lego set and anybody can do it. He probably has no clue how smart he is, or he’s full of shit. Probably both.
When he’s under the influence, he begins speaking with a Russian accent, mixing in actual Russian words. For that reason, everyone around calls him Comrade. It’s weird. Anyway. He then takes out a pistol he found buried amongst the Hostel’s many acres and shows us all the reasons he believes it is a murder weapon, and I believe him.
By the way, he’s 23 years old and completely self educated, he just never left the woods.
So, the morning after Standing Bear, there was a 4.4 mile ascent that climbed about 2800 feet. I wanted to take it as a challenge and see how fast I could get it done. I tell this story for one person, Greg Turner. Greg was a very close friend of my Dad’s. He looks like Hot Dad Barbie, or a damn Corporate G.I. Joe. My brother and I used to work out in his garage with him and his son Brock, and I swear I’ve seen him do 50 straight wide grip pull-ups without breaking a sweat. He has the best reactions to workout challenges. Greg, I managed to tackle that 4.4 miles uphill in 88 minutes without a single rest or water break and a 50 lb pack on my back. The entire time I thought of your reaction, a simple “Wow” and a smile, just like the old garage days.
That takes us to Max Patch where I started writing this post. I’m now in Linville, NC at our family cabin watching my Mother stay busy. She doesn’t know it, but she’s provided the best 2.5 days any hikers could possibly ask for. Her knee’s been bothering her but it hasn’t affected her spirits. Still as warm and welcoming as ever.
We met up in Hot Springs, NC. A town without a traffic light and by the looks of it, no treadmills either. The people are extremely welcoming to hikers, and we really enjoyed our time there. We met up with a couple former thru hikers, Apache and Snarl, friends of Tiny Tim. Tiny Tim is a former US Marine and the salt of the Earth.. He caught us about to order dinner and immediately prompted us to join him for free food. I’ll upload a picture of him in the future as I’m sure we’ll see him again soon. Thanks Tiny Tim!
The next morning, we had a massive breakfast and wasted time around town until my mom arrived.
We left town and went to Easter Sunday church together, and met up with friends I met before the trail. My friend Susan’s husband is the town Preacher, Principal, Coach, and probably barber, mailman, and mayor. After church we went to Lana’s house for a real southern lunch and a couple bottles of wine. She even had Easter baskets for us. They were incredibly hospitable and offered to take care of us in another 2 weeks when we hike past here. Can’t wait.
It’s time to go. A lot of detail here. I hope it reads well, as again, I am rushed to post it. I swear I’ll figure this whole time management thing out soon, or not, who knows.
Thanks for reading.
Young Gandalf out.