Smoky Mountain Book Review on "Gimme Shelter"

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Gimme Shelter - Book Review

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The following is one of fourteen lively personal essays from Trial by Trail (University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1996) in which Johnny Molloy describes the adventures by which he came of age as a backpacker. Born a "flatlander" in Memphis, he first visited the Smokies while attending the University of Tennessee-Knoxville in the 1980s. Initially, he treated the park as a personal playground-a place to cut loose, break rules, and act irresponsibly. After many hiking excursions, however, he gained a more profound appreciation of the mountains, becoming an avid park volunteer intent on the protection and improvement of the area. He grew, as he puts it, both as an outdoor adventurer and as a human being.

Book Review

PIN OAK GAP TO LAUREL GAP - After ten-hour night shifts tending bar at a raucous campus saloon, veteran backpacker Bob Davis and I decided to rest up a while at Pin Oak Gap, our departure point, before we struck off on our adventure. The gap is difficult to get to from my home base, Knoxville, Tennessee. Located on the winding Round Bottom Road on the North Carolina side of the Smokies, this spot marks the southern terminus of the Balsam Mountain Trail. We had crossed the Smokies via Newfound Gap Road in the night, turning onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and then back into the park on Balsam Mountain Road, which then turns into Round Bottom Road and passes through Pin Oak Gap. Around 5:30 A.M., we arrived at the gap, pulled out our sleeping bags, and slept beside the truck. Bob woke me just before noon. I knew by looking at him that he was ready to hike. Below his droopy walrus mustache he wore a secretive smile, and his glasses were pushed to the back of his nose - the signal

that he is ready to go. The clear, crisp day signaled the arrival of autumn. The long hazy days of summer, when the sun heats the heavy, humid air, forming monstrous thunderheads, were just a memory in this neck of the woods. The cloudless cobalt blue sky afforded awesome mountain panoramas. It was simply a great day to hike. My new Vasque boots felt as comfortable as the refreshing breeze when I slid them on and prepared for the climb of four and a half miles to Laurel Gap shelter.

Summer had peaked. The leaves on the trees would never be greener and, at five thousand feet, even the days would start to cool soon. Half a mile beyond the truck, we left the old logging road upon which we were walking. Bob maintained his usual snail's pace, stopping every now and then to wipe the moisture from his glasses and then push them back on his nose. I tried to hold back, but I was giving the new boots a run for their money as Bob and I passed through a couple of dark and shady hemlock stands to climb to Ledge Bald, now overgrown.

We continued down the trail, to arrive at Beech Gap, on Balsam Mountain. During pre-park days, this was the location of a logging camp. In fact, over 65 percent of the Smokies were harvested for timber. This particular spot has recovered well from its scalping. Even the beech trees are back. They sometimes occur in nearly pure stands in high, windy gaps. It is thought that they may produce a chemical that discourages spruce and fir from growing in these gaps. These second-growth forests lack the splendor of virgin old-growth woods, but they are attractive in their own right. The current beech trees may have survived the logger but now face a new threat, an exotic bug known as the beech scale insect. Less than half of the mature beech trees are left in New England, where the beech scale insect has been active since the turn of the century. Found in the Smokies in August 1993, the trees of this park probably will suffer similarly. As of now, there is no way to stop the bug, but some trees in the North are resisting this European invader, offering hope for the future.

After resting among the beech trees, their smooth gray bark cool on our backs, we slogged through a muddy section where my new boots received their baptism in grime. On Balsam Hightop, as I strolled among the Fraser firs there, my nose gloried in the aroma of evergreens. Soon we arrived at the shelter. Around its perimeter the fruits of summer abounded. Blueberries and blackberries hung heavy on the vine, even at this late date, August 30. An open, grassy area around the shelter revealed this spot to be a bald that slowly was being reclaimed by the forest. The origin of these balds near the tops of mountains is unclear; various authorities believe they originated with fire, grazing, or Indians.

I settled near the shelter and took off my new boots, revealing a patchwork of nasty blisters on my feet. I had neglected the normal precaution of breaking them in before hiking because I had had an identical pair before these. And I had always felt that the boots actually break in the foot, rather than vice versa. My pair certainly was doing the job today. Despite my blisters, in such an idyllic setting as this, the mild, sunny weather made my spirits soar. I sat in the sun and read Johnny Majors' biography, You Can Go Home Again, while a cool mountain breeze tempered the warm air of the glade.

Trail by trail - Backpacking in the Smoky MountainsThen I walked barefoot among the brush, getting my fill of tasty pickings. Of the two fruits most plentiful in the Smokies, blueberries, with their dark sweet flavor, are my favorite. The tart and tangy blackberry, with its more watery texture, is a close second, but either berry can turn a bland pancake into a mountain morning delight.

Later I set up my hammock between two trees at the glade's edge and enjoyed a woodsy nap. Around 5 P.M., Bob began dinner and soon woke me to eat. Because the Laurel Gap shelter is one of the few in the park with a picnic table, his preparations were easier than usual. By the time we had set up and I had fetched water from the spring far down the hill from camp, it was dusk. We drank coffee with our ham and cheese sandwiches. After dining, we stored most of our gear and all of our food in the shelter. Our after-dinner cleanup was perfectly timed. Having just resettled around the table, we noticed the bear, on all fours, not ten feet from us. This bear was huge. He looked like he had been using the long daylight hours to fatten up for the cold winter. The abundance of berries and the prospect of human food at the shelter made this area part of his stomping grounds.

Many bears have figured out that the shelters along the AT inside the park can offer easy, delicious meals. Many backpackers ignore the posted signs warning against feeding bears. The creatures may appear cute and cuddly, but they are, of course, potentially dangerous wild animals. A wild animal is an unpredictable animal. Consequently, many feeding incidents turn nasty.

Bears learn to associate backpacks with food. So they scare hikers into dropping their backpacks and then, with reckless abandon, go after the food inside. A bluff charge is their primary tactic for inducing fear. They stand on two legs and "woof," acting as if they are going to charge forward and attack. At this point it is hard to remember that the bear wants your food and not you. But it knows that you and your food must be separated. You must muster the courage to disregard the impulse to drop your pack and run nonstop to the car. Instead, face the bear. Eventually it will see that you are not going to fall for the bluff charge tactic and go away.

Never feed a bear, and never give up your equipment. If you do the latter, both you and the bear lose. You sacrifice your stuff, and the bear who encounters humans finds his life expectancy cut in half, according to research. Every instance in which his bluff charge is a success will encourage him to try it again on another backpacker.

You cannot blame bears for wanting human food. It is in their nature-they are opportunistic feeders, eating anything their territory offers them. When they emerge from their winter dens, pickings are slim. They survive on grasses and squawroot, which grows on the roots of oak trees. Then comes summer--the berry season. When the weather begins to cool, nuts and acorns become the main fare. In short, bears eat whatever is around, with 90 percent of that being plant matter. Ants, beetles, even carrion constitute part of their diet.

To promote a good time for all the creatures of the forest, including man, the three-sided stone shelters are fronted by chain-link fence and a latching gate. We were grateful for the shelter's presence, as the proper procedures for encounters with bears quickly flooded into and out of my mind. It was a lot easier to remember what to do when telling bear stories in the rec room back home.

The bear circled the camp perimeter, sniffing and huffing. We followed his moves in the dusky dark but had not yet sought out the shelter, the entrance to which lay about ten feet behind us. The bear passed back and forth in front of us, as we sat frozen at the picnic table. Having approached to within six or eight feet, the bear grew bored and disappeared. We quickly retreated to the shelter for the night, repeatedly commenting on the size of the bear, the likes of which I have not seen to this day.

We woke as early morning rays brightened the east-facing shelter. Shortly I hobbled outside barefoot, sipping coffee as the sun dried the morning dew and warmed the day to fifty degrees. My blistered feet still looked bad. After trying on the boots and stepping around the camp, I decided the discomfort was too great and the chances of further serious blistering too great. We would not hike on as originally planned.

The Park Service allows hikers only one night per shelter. But I felt that, under the circumstances, it would be worse to keep on hiking than to incur the wrath of the park ranger, who I hoped might understand after a look at my pus-covered feet.

It is best to wear your boots around town a lot before hitting the trail, so as to avoid a nasty blistering. Even so, walking around town is not hiking, so on the initial hike in new shoes you should bring moleskin along to cover a blister or hot spot and enable you to continue down the trail.

About 1 P.M., we were sitting around the table planning a luncheon feast. Since the bear sighting, we had been careful about what food we brought from the shelter and made sure to latch the gate behind us every time we left the structure. Bob's calm, quiet nature lent an air of serenity to the day. That sense of serenity, combined with the nearly perfect weather, led us to cook outside. Bears that are habituated to humans usually investigate a campsite around dusk and dawn, and this was midday. Bob heated up some corned-beef hash while I prepared the fixings. I laid out the paper plates and bread. As Bob spooned the hash onto the bread, one of my eyes focused on the greasy treat before us, while the other furtively glanced sideways and noticed the bear. Standing on hind legs at the glade's edge and guided by his keen nose, which he crinkled to the aroma of the hash, the bear slowly swiveled his giant head. This wild animal had proved his unpredictability by coming around at this time of day.

The evening before, we had noticed he was a big one, but on hind legs he looked positively frightening. His girth, under his shiny black coat, was that of a sumo wrestler. Muscles rippled as he moved. His eyes resembled those of that other eating ma-chine, the shark. He moved our way; we snatched up the hot sandwiches and anything else we could get in an armload. We left the inedibles, including our stove, on the table.

With Bob right behind me, I scrambled into the shelter. I chained the gate shut just as the bear came up, rumbling and sniffing. He stood and shook the gate with his powerful arms, jerking it as much as slack would allow. I could see his sharp claws wrapped around the gate poles. We cowered in a dark corner, wondering what could be done. Of course, the answer was: nothing. Bob's usual calm had evaporated completely, increasing my already extreme agitation. In terror, we decided that if the bear got inside the shelter, we would dash out the gate as it came in.

Presently, the bear circled behind the shelter, out of our view. Deciding to strengthen our defenses, I used the opportunity to bolster the chained gate with some strong cord I had on hand. At about that time, the bear returned, rattling our cage for all it was worth. Bob and I exchanged looks of helpless panic. The bear immediately ripped away my lashed cord as it if were yarn. The two of us proceeded to gobble our food, nearly burning holes in our mouths, in hopes that the bruin would leave once the aromatic edibles had disappeared.

As the bear persisted, Bob and I felt imprisoned in the shelter. From time to time the beast would wander around back of the shelter or farther out into the campsite. We listened intently for sounds indicating his whereabouts. After a period of silence lasting nearly an hour, we ventured outside the dark into the warm and sunny day. No bear. We kept our eyes and ears peeled for the forager throughout the afternoon, never relaxing as we had the day before. By evening he had not returned, but we decided against cooking anyway, not wanting to lure him back.

About the time that he had shown up the night before, we heard rustling in the brush. Our pulses jumped, and our hearts raced. Though his efforts at getting our food so far had been fruitless, save for scaring the socks off us, he was back! When two hikers, a man and woman from coastal Carolina, emerged from the trail, our chests sank in relief. Naturally, Bob and I told the trekkers in vivid detail about our encounters with the beast. Their mood seemed to change quickly from relief at reaching camp to wide-eyed apprehension.

Darkness fell as we four huddled in the asylum, waiting. But the bear never returned. Our fellow woodlanders began to wonder if we had put one over on them. Eventually we retired, our comrades each keeping one eye open as they attempted to sleep.

We awoke to a beautiful, crisp morning. Bob and I breakfasted inside the shelter. I faced the reality of hiking on blistered feet. Packing up, the two of us bid good luck to our acquaintances and went our way, hobbling along with no bear in sight.

Copyright © 1996-2000 by The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.

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