Appalachian Trail through the Great Smoky Mountains

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Smoky Mountains Appalachian Trail, cont.

...appalachian trail story continued from this page

Jerri stopped again. She began to joke with Kyra and they laughed and jostled each other for a moment. We walked on, lurching to a stop each time they noticed something new. An hour passed. We dawdled through less than a mile. Another rest stop dragged. Resting...from what? Jerri set down her pack again after walking ten minutes more.

"What now?" I asked, exasperation setting in.

"There are things here I want to photograph."

I stood around, waiting, stewing.

"Are we going to walk today?" I asked.

"Sure," she said. "Why?"

"We'll have three miles by nightfall at the rate we're going."

"We'll do better than that. But so what if we don't?"

"We finally have a nice day and easy trail. I'd like to cover some ground."

"These are the things I came to see," Jerri said. "I'm not going to race past them just to make miles."

"We're not racing past anything. We're poking along."

"But it's warm and sunny at last and there's new, growing things about. This is what it's all about as far as I'm concerned. Why don't you enjoy it? Breathe the spring air, lay in the sun, run your fingers through the grass.

We've earned it!"

"I've been doing that every ten minutes."

"Don't be in such a rush. It's a good day to rest after what we've been through."

She took out her camera and focused on a cluster of purple violets. Kyra shed her pack and joined her. Bristling with irritation, I walked on, stomping away at top speed until Jerri and Kyra had fallen far behind.

I wasn't asking much... just a reasonable pace and a reasonable number of miles. I didn't mind stopping... I liked to see things, too. But why every ten feet? Was every flower that special?

I covered flat trail in a rush, feeling some urgent need to put miles behind. Feeling the freedom to walk, to go for miles and miles without being slowed by weather. Behind me, Jerri and Kyra felt new freedom, too-to stop and rest and loll in the sun-warmed grass.

After an hour I waited, sitting atop a fence and looking back over a wide meadow I'd crossed. Two figures appeared after a long while, moving slowly seeming very small on a distant ridge. What would I say? I needed time by myself, perhaps. No...that was Kyra's line. I started to laugh: forty days in the wilderness and he wants to be alone.

Jerri and Kyra arrived.

"Were you hoping to get to Maine today?" Jerri asked.

"I just wanted to walk," I said, "and not poke."

"We'll get there," she replied, as I helped her over the fence. "But if we can't enjoy what we're passing through, I don't want to go...."

The trail led next morning through sterile woods with hardly a sign of a white blaze. We walked over stony ground, negotiating carefully among intersecting paths and roads. Scenery looked dull, both near and far. A good stretch to cover quickly it seemed to me, but uncertainty about where we were going slowed us down. Surroundings had been pleasant the day before; I'd been content to mosey and take it all in. Now, with nothing of interest in sight, I wanted to move on.

We reached White Rocks Mountain Firetower about half past ten. Kyra had dropped behind again and was nowhere in sight. Ten minutes passed, then fifteen. She didn't appear. Suddenly angry I started down the long hill to find her.

I found her a quarter-mile back, crying as she climbed slowly toward the tower.

"Where have you been?" I demanded.

"I...I got off...the trail," she sobbed.

"If you'd keep up like you're supposed to you wouldn't have that problem. What happened? Why are you crying?"

"I didn't...get lost really," she went on, her voice shaken by sobs. "But I...I thought I had."

"Give me that pack and let's get moving."

I slung her pack over my shoulder and set a brisk pace. She lagged just behind, still crying and seeking to explain.

"I got halfway...up this hill and thought it was wrong so I went back down. At the bottom, I looked around...and decided I must have been right after all. But I still wasn't sure...and I didn't want climb all the way up again for nothing

"I thought this would happen sooner or later. You walk in the middle from now on."

"I'm sorry, Dad. I was being careful.

"What's the matter?" Jerri asked as we neared the crest of the hill.

"Miss Pathfinder here got confused and thought she'd lost the trail."

"Is she okay? Why are you carrying her pack?"

"Just to get her up this hill. She's not hurt."

"Tell me what happened," Jerri said, putting her arm around Kyra and leading her to the firetower steps.

Kyra sat down and haltingly explained.

"It's all because she keeps dropping behind," I burst in before she'd finished.

"Maybe," Jerri said. "But don't be so harsh. She's scared and upset."

"If she'd keep us in sight she wouldn't be upset!"

"I know, but she needs comforting, not yelling."

"She'll walk in the middle now, that's for sure."

"SIMMER DOWN, will you?"

"Dammit, I don't know how we're going to get anywhere. We go slow when it's nice. We go slow when it's boring. Delay after delay. We'll still be poking through Virginia in December, if we ever get there

"Hi," said a voice above us. I looked to the top of the tower stairs and saw Jeff. He'd been visiting the ranger on duty and could not have missed the disquieting scene below.

"I brought you a present," he said with a smile. He bounded down the steps and handed Jerri a bouquet of ramps he'd dug and cleaned.

"Happy May Day" he said with a smile.

I felt foolish and at a loss to explain. Jerri said something to Jeff, then we put on our packs and headed up the trail in silence. Kyra walked in the middle. I followed some distance behind. An hour passed. The scenery did not improve. Later, at our lunch stop, Jerri sought to describe the problem.

"We have different goals for this walk, it appears," she said, gently "It wasn't obvious till the days got longer and nicer."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"When the weather was so bad, we all worked together. We did our best and didn't worry about how long it took. Walking is getting easier and more interesting now. The things I came to see are growing and blooming all around, and I want to stop and see them. But you want to go, go, go."

"1 don't mind stopping to see things," I said. "If we do our ten miles like we agreed, and maybe some extra to fill in short days, you can stop all you like."

"But that's the problem, don't you see?" Jerri said. "You're on a schedule: ten miles a day seventy miles a week, three hundred miles a month. You're hiking to Maine, not to see what's here. I want to enjoy each day as it comes, watch the birds, smell and touch the flowers. You're turning this into a quest. Gotta-Get-to-Maine, that's what you've got!"

"If we plan a section for six days, and we bring six days' food, then we should try to do it in six days, right?"

"Sure, and we're doing that. But why get there early? Why carry food to town? Shouldn't we take time when we have it?"

"I guess so," I replied. "But we've been trying to get to shelters when we could. They'll be more crowded in the summer and we won't find space if we take all day getting there."

"Shelters are handy" Jerri said. "We can sometimes stretch a bit to reach one instead of putting up the tent. But why get there at three in the afternoon? Did we come to the woods to see shelters?"

"No, but that's where water usually is, and I'm tired of nights in a wet tent."

"What you're really worried about, I think, is winter hitting Maine before you get there."

"Baxter Park closes October 15," I said. "Two thousand miles in two hundred days puts us there October 6. Add a week because the trail's longer than that, and because we're a little behind ... it doesn't leave much room."

"What are you going to do when you get there?"

"Well, when we finish the trail we can take our time driving home."


"What I meant was...

"You have everything backwards. It's spring-the beginning. Flowers are growing, the sun is warm, and we can finally do what we came to do. You're thinking about the end. You want to rush through everything to be sure to be there for the end!"

"That isn't what I said."

"Isn't this a little early to be concerned about that? And does it really matter? Didn't every hiker's story we read say 'I wish I'd taken more time'?"

"I suppose."

"Look, I want to get to Maine too," she said. "It's too beautiful to miss, especially in the fall. But I want to live this whole experience and get there the last possible day If snow starts to fall as we come off Katahdin, that will be perfect."

Jerri was ready for any argument so I took my medicine and agreed to be more patient. Sure, I wanted to go, go, go. Sure, I wanted to reach Katahdin and finish before winter shut the mountain down. Was that so unusual? What I'd tried to say was just what she was saying: let's enjoy the experience; let's reach the goal in time. But it came out different when I said it, like I wanted to race through the hike and relax when it was over. That wasn't what I'd meant. This was simply my approach to problems-set goals; work toward them at a regular pace. It had always worked before....

The moment was lost, in any case. It seemed prudent to be more accommodating for a while. Perhaps we'd make better time as months went on. We'd kept to the plan so far; maybe everything would work out. I'd just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, I guess I could claim one distinction. I had possibly the earliest reported case: Katahdin Fever in Tennessee....

It was obvious, even to me, just how differently Jerri viewed the world than I did. I saw the grand and the magnificent. I had to reach for smaller things, have them called to my attention, as if some interest threshold had first to be crossed.

Jerri had no such threshold. The color of reflections in a puddle, the touch of light and shadow upon a tree, might captivate her as much or more than a waterfall or superb mountain view. The natural world held her attention and she found everything in it of interest.

She'd paged through every flower book, bird book, or other field guide she could find as a child and was still doing so. She had great respect and appreciation for the land and the beauty it provided, and wanted to know all she could about it. That's why she stopped to follow birds and listen to their songs, she said. And why each familiar flower that jumped from the pages of her mind to appear suddenly at her feet made her want to stop-to see and touch and smell it, to remember it forever.

I had already logged more than fifty different flowers she'd seen. I'd entered common things--daffodils, buttercups, even dandelions--on up to the exotic whorled pogonia, the few known locations of which were kept purposely vague. She'd stopped for every violet since Georgia, I was sure, and those with beaded raindrops nearly guaranteed a stop for pictures. She'd photographed a false hellebore for an hour one morning, intrigued by patterns in its leaves. She felt no forward-driving urge to see something bigger, grander, more spectacular around the bend. The daisy or rhododendron leaf at hand was enjoyment enough. She seemed content with such things. As she put it, watching and seeing was what she did.

She walked into a bonanza after lunch at Turkey Gap. It started quite innocently with trilliums, the large-flowered kind. Off came her pack and out came the Nikon. We followed from flower to flower as she photographed delicate white blossoms that did everything in threes. Back on our way we got maybe ten feet. She found more white trilliums and some in every shade of pink, lining the trail as far as we could see. We stopped again and again.

Lily of the valley joined in, then azaleas, yellow, pink, and orange. We all but crawled through a constant barrage of color that made those bleak, snowy days seem part of some other trip, so long before.

"Yellow lady slippers!" Jerri cried as we passed around another bend. She shed her pack again and got down on hands and knees to watch dozens of bobbing yellow slippers wave in the faintest breeze.

They were too lovely merely to be glanced at, Jerri said between pictures. We should admire each one for itself.

Kyra knelt down and lightly touched each blossom, saying, "You are beautiful... you are are beautiful.

"And look," Jerri said, pointing to one delicate, creamy bud bursting into bloom, "this one is just being born. Today is its birthday"

Kyra smiled and began to sing, "Happy birthday to you...."

We stopped at a rocky overlook beyond Sugar Run for a look at our next few days' walk. Pearis Mountain, the next day's program, presented a long, level crest one valley over. It would drop us in Pearisburg on a Thursday afternoon. Peters Mountain, a distant lump in the haze farther on, would keep us busy the day after. Nothing ahead seemed unusual or formidable...just another selection of ups and downs. Trees had leafed out nearly all the way up the mountain slopes. Only summits and ridge crests had yet to be covered in green.

Many hot and perplexing miles followed. We stuck with the new trail but confusion between old trail, new trail, and segments of former trail scat-tered other hikers like dandelion fluff before the wind. We directed the lost and bewildered as though we really knew the way but we were never quite sure.

A sign alleged Docs Knob Shelter to be 6.3 miles ahead. We walked more than ten miles and didn't find it. The five new miles had been inserted between the sign and the shelter, we concluded, but when evening came and the trail left the valley to take us up Pearis Mountain, we decided we'd had enough. We put up the tent and called it a day.

A car drove up at dusk and parked nearby Two high-school fellows got out and strapped on backpacks in fading light as if getting ready for a hike. I walked over to say hello.

"We've been looking for Docs Knob Shelter all day" I said. "Is it around here somewhere?"

"Sure," one of the boys replied; "two hundred yards up the hill. We're headed there for the night."

It had seemed a strange time of day to start a hike. The news gave us no inclination to move, however.

Navigation problems were common in stories of hiking the AT. More than a third of the accounts published over the years mentioned walking in a circle or hiking the wrong way. Some hikers did so more than once. Others might have preferred not to say. When fog, multiple trails, and lumbered-off blazes made directions a matter of guess, even the most attentive hiker could retrace his own steps. But it would never happen to us.

That there were three of us accounts for this good fortune. Whenever we got off the trail, one would soon notice and we'd fan out to look. Who-ever found the brush-covered blaze or not-obvious turn called the others with a whistle and we'd be on our way again. After a few hundred miles, we'd developed a feeling for where the trail would likely go. We found the right way even when markings disappeared altogether.

Our differing orientation methods helped as well. Jerri grew up in the Minnesota woods and learned to find her way as a child. She'd studied the positions of the sun and stars at different times of the year and could relate them to compass points in nearly any locale.

Kyra found her way in a different fashion.

"Where's north, Kyra?" Jerri would ask.

Kyra would look around, think a bit, and point:

"Squaw Peak is over there."

"Squaw Peak is in Phoenix," I might say

"Uh-huh. And if we were in Phoenix, Squaw Peak would be over there, and that's north."

She'd usually be right on the mark.

I grew up in town and didn't know about north. My world went left and right. I could find north with a compass all right, but the significance faded once I put the compass away I only used the information to get the map pointed right. Astronomy wasn't my strong suit, either. I first noticed the moon up in the daytime when I was nearly thirty years old. I figured it out mathematically one day then went and looked. And if you asked me what direction I was going as I hiked into the setting sun, I likely wouldn't know.

But I knew left and right. If we came into camp from "this way" (Georgia), we should depart "that way" (Maine); never mind that we were walk-ing due east.

"If this trail's going to get us anywhere," I might say "it has to turn right pretty soon."

"North," Jerri would reply

"Toward Squaw Peak," Kyra might add.

Soon the trail would bend to everyone's satisfaction. Seeing things in different ways helped us. We stayed on the trail, moving forward, and would till we sighted the last blaze.


Kyra grew more confident and comfortable in the woods on her AT hike, she says, and more self-reliant, but she tells of her most lasting lesson this way:

"I remember watching you and mom make decisions, working with available data, considering options, deciding what to do on the fly. Children don't often see their parents making family decisions; I did and even got to take part. The most valuable lesson for me was learning the willingness to go on when you don't have all the information-learning to look at a situa-tion, take your best guess, and go for it.

"The outcome of our hike was committed to those decisions. You made them and stuck with them. You were ready for opportunity when it came along and took it, saying 'Let's see what happens."'

Wisdom from the so-much-talked-about ten-year-old.

I've been asked many times if I would hike the trail again. My feelings on that have changed over the years. At first I said my next adventure would be a cruise of some sort where I could sit down most of the time and have people bring me things. I did that, on the Alaska ferry between Juneau and Sitka, which was long enough. In Alaska I've taken to hiking again and think often about walking the AT or some other long trail. Some things would be different next time, however.

We were, I think, the best-equipped hikers on the trail that year. I've since replaced nearly all my gear with new products so would be even better equipped if I walked the AT again.

If I kept a journal I would write about different things-what I saw, who we met, what I was thinking and feeling, not what we ate for breakfast and our statistical rate of travel.

I would do about the same amount of planning next time: not so little I was caught unprepared, not so much the walk lacked adventure.

I doubt I would "take more time," as most hikers vow when asked; we took most all the time there was, 214 days, starting in snow and ending in snow. But I would try to use the time more profitably thinking more about the moment, about what was happening now, rather than being so intent on how far we needed to get that day how we would get through the White Mountains, or whether it was snowing yet on Mount Katahdin.

My reason for returning would be to recapture that view from Saddleback Mountain, that feeling of being at home, of being part of the natural world. I can't help but think that insight was just an introduction and that some wider vision lies beyond it.

Lowther, Mic. Walking North. Anchorage, Alaska: 1990, as quoted in Emblidge, David, The Appalachian Trail Reader, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996

Mic Lowther is currently retired from a 33-year career as a computer systems analyst, and has been writing children's adventure stories since 1990. Mr. Lowther writes through the Alaska winters, and goes on various wilderness adventures in the summer. He has been writing about the most interesting of these adventures and plans to publish them as a book which picks up after Walking North.. He has completed five books and is working on a sixth. All six books follow the adventures of the same characters.