Well, this post is going to require a ton of memory recounting about the last part of the Smokies leading into the Cherokee National Forest, getting off the trail, and my eventual arrival to Asheville, NC. Here goes:
As I left Tri-Corner Knob shelter, my last stop in the snow, I grew giddy with anticipation at finally leaving the hellish cold. Although it had continued to snow most of the time I was in the Smokies, it wasn’t more than 3 or 4 inches total, and the path was still quite worn and visible. I don’t know if I was more energized by the great company I’d had in the shelter the night before, or the thought of leaving the snow, or both, but I traveled the remaining 3 miles of snow in record time. At that point, the trail began a 7 mile, 4,000 foot decline, and after the previous two days, this was more than a gift.
On the way down the snow turned to slush, ice, and more slush. I began to get hit by snowflakes that would melt instantly as they hit my jacket. I knew rain would be next. Further down, the rain did come, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Until my gloves got wet. The water started seeping through to my hands, and even in 40 degree weather, hands don’t like cold water. They began to hurt so bad from the cold that I had to stop and rub my hands together for 10 minutes or so just to stop cringing from the pain. Then I noticed that the water had started to seep through my jacket and my pack, and it had been only my body heat keeping me warm – once I stopped, I began to get extremely cold. There was only one solution: keep moving.
I got to a shelter just outside the Northern border of the Great Smoky Mountains – that in itself was surreal. As luck would have it, there were two guys there already making a fire, who graciously let me dry my jacket, gloves, socks, and any other removable clothing item I could stand taking off, with its warmth. They were really cool guys, “Shake” and “On Trak”, and we shared some good laughs throughout the night. The warmth of the fire, the laughs, the comfort of knowing I would be traveling snowless for the foreseeable future all combined to produce a sense of calm elation. I realized I had proved to myself I could do something I never thought I could do, or at least was less than faithful in myself and largely frightened while doing: I had hiked the entire Smoky Mountains, part of them in 3 feet of snow. It’s realizations like this, as you may have sensed from reading, that are all too common on the AT.
The next day I stopped through Standing Bear Hostel just north of I-40, and had the usual catch up conversations with the guys who ran the place. I was actually the first Northbounder they had seen since Sandy hit, and, while the guy who got airlifted out of the Smokies had stayed there a week or so before I arrived, they hadn’t had any word of mouth reports of the conditions up there. I informed them of the thick snow and seeing the man’s abandoned tent, which was exciting news to them. They said they knew it was going to be bad, but not that bad, and they had even warned the man to stick it out a few more days at the hostel, just to be safe. He declined, of course, mostly because he was so excited to be so close to finishing after venturing all the way from Maine.
I decided to venture on that day, mostly because a three mile day is incredibly short and at this point, too easy. I was no more than a mile north of the hostel, though, when I was (fortunately?) encountered by the first black bears I had seen my entire trip. They were quite small, actually, and I was much, much less scared than I anticipated I would be. What happened was actually, had there been an onlooker, probably quite hilarious. I had my head down, mini speaker blasting some Kooks or My Morning Jacket or something like that, and in the top of my field of vision, saw the creatures moving towards me. I looked up, realized just what the creatures were, and stopped dead in my tracks. It was a Momma bear and her baby. The momma was probably only as tall as my hips, about three feet, and the baby no bigger than a basketball. The lack of size, as well as about 50 yards between the bears and I, gave me a tiny sense of security. I immediately started barking like a dog, “Arf! Arf! Arf!” as loud and deep as I could. I then took my hiking poles and clanged them together above my head, to make myself appear bigger than I was. The bears started to retreat, somewhat, but they definitely were not startled or scared by me in the slightest. They moved about 10 yards north, away from me, then stopped, and looked back again, stopping completely. That’s when I got my safety whistle (my Fox 40 whistle from Lifeguarding) and started to blow it as loud as I could, continuing with intermittent “Arf!”‘s in between each blow. They seemed a bit more perturbed by the loudness of the whistle, and walked away, eventually leaving the trail. I continued standing where I had been for another two minutes or so, slightly wary of continuing onward, just to make sure they didn’t try to revisit me. I think their ears had had enough.
That night was only my third night alone, but the shelter, of course, one of the hundred whose name I forgot, was amazing. It was in a nice, open area on relatively flat ground, in a gap of sorts. I don’t know exactly what it was, but it just felt so open, free, and different from any I had stayed in before that it was somewhat homely and inviting, despite the fact that I was alone. I set up my hammock again, felt motivated enough to gather a ton of wood for a fire, and cooked up my signature rice, hot dog, and velveeta risotto. It stayed warm enough for the hammock to be cozy, which was new to me. I did get visited by something with four legs in the night, most likely a coyote because his steps were quick and I heard the signature sniffle sniffle of a curious canine. I had been visited by one, before, though, so I wasn’t too worried. Plus, the hammock give a nice false sense of security, sort of like a cocoon or a womb.
The next night, though, I got visited by the scariest visitor yet. As I lay in my hammock, I heard a very slow “Swoooosh. Swoooosh. Swoooosh.” sound of feet of some sorts dragging through the leaves. At first I thought it was a human, which was pretty scary itself. Was there some backwoods murderer traipsing around my campsite, walking slowly to try and not be heard? And, oh crap, I left my machete in the shelter! It was the first time I had done that. I guess I just grew complacent. My heart started to pound as the steps came closer. “Swooooosh. Swooooosh. Swooooooosh.” I tried to look out of the hammock, but I had secured the rain fly so well over the top of it that it prevented me from seeing anything but the ground directly below me. The sound got even closer. “Swoooooosh. Swoooooosh. Swoooooosh.” My heart began to pound harder, louder, faster than I thought was humanly possible. This guy had probably seen my machete in the shelter, grabbed it, and was coming to start hacking away violently at the hammock and whoever was in it. Which was me.
My mouth involuntarily dropped open. Sweat began to pour. I was fully conscious that this was the fight-or-flight response we had learned about in biology class. Not the mild form that occurs when you talk to a girl at the bar. Not the butterflies in your stomach before you give a speech. I’ve experienced both of those. This was those feelings on steroids. I heard my heart pulsating in my throat as my mouth hung open. More swooshes. I thought my heart was going to jump out of my throat. Then, sniffing. I hadn’t heard the sniffing yet. Humans don’t sniff like that. The swooshing stopped almost directly under me. I heard more sniffing, then what could only be described as the muzzle of a large, adult male black bear touched my butt and sniffed it directly. And that was probably why he quickly shuffled away and kept on his search for food. Thank god for swamp ass.
I sat quietly in the hammock, unable to return to sleep for at least thirty minutes, when I decided it was probably a good idea to get my machete. I hurried out of the contraption as quick as I could, surveyed the scene with my headlight, and dashed to the shelter, only about 15 yards away. I breathed a huge sigh of relief upon discovering my machete untouched, even though I knew a bear could not have grabbed such an object anyways. I peed directly under my hammock to spread my scent, threw my machete inside, and removed the rainfly – which I promised myself I would NEVER place over the hammock upon bed time EVER again, unless it was actually raining at the time of set up. Once I laid back down in the hammock, I looked up, and through the mosquito net and leafless trees above, saw, perhaps, the most beautiful night sky I had ever seen in my entire life. I realized I hadn’t contemplated the universe in some time, something I often did when I was living in society. I thought about how far away they were, the light traveling billions of miles to reach my retina, where it traveled down my optic nerve to my occipital lobe, and was there interpreted by my brain as a star, which is just a word for whatever that burning ball of gas really is. Nucleus of a really big atom. The spirit of a deceased soul. Whatever.
I just stared and thought and appreciated life for a while. I was glad the bear had, most likely, been deterred by the fervent odor of my buttocks that had been caked in sweat for a few days on end. I was peaceful, alive, and happy. Finally, I slowly drifted off to sleep, machete held tight across my chest.