Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 3

June 4th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountain, Day 3, May 31

Wallalah Mountain to Garland Gap 13.8 miles

I’m walking this trail with the Guthook app on my phone. Guthook (Atlas Guides) has emerged as the premier navigation app for long-distance trails. All the data is downloaded prior to hiking so the phone can be in airplane mode in low power setting. It just pings the gps satellite and can tell you in an instant where you are, how close the next water source, campground, turn in the trail is. It also gives elevation data. On a trail like the BMT,which is a real roller coaster, that graph is a great help (though also a source of stress). Guthook does vital work well. The problem (for me) is it turns me into a quant— a hyper version of those Fitbit junkies looking for extra steps. A day’s trek gets measured out in 10-15 minute intervals. As with just about everything the internet offers, there’s pluses and minuses. As I took from Walt Whitman on the first posting of this series, the open road is a way to shed the quotidian, or at least to formulate it anew. Quant-life denies it all, turning focus away from the path traveled to it simply being measured. I shudder to think of the day where trekkers were glasses with a Guthook heads up display (like the Terminator) where, instead of looking through to the trail, the hiker will look at the data stream.

When not looking at my phone to see how fast I was moving (on some imaginary scale of efficiency— maybe Guthook is just one more neoliberal plot — trekking’s version of annual review or “like and subscribe”), I did get some fauna to go with yesterday’s flora. Particularly a two foot black snake sunning herself across the trail. The dominant critter was, as most Americans are well aware now, the emergence of the cicadas. The sound in the woods is of an alien invasion straight out of Hollywood. Initially I didn’t see many, just heard them, but I noticed what I first took as trekking pole holes in the trail until their numbers overwhelmed. Then I flashed to a summer trekking in Maine when the cicadas were emerging—same pattern. (That moment made its way into this essay “Tree Rings”)

Two points of concern are the efflorescence of poison ivy growing on these mountains. The BMT is well maintained, but no one can hold back this oily green surge. In my last ZPacks order, I picked up some gaiters which I’ve never needed, but they are just the thing to avoid itching. The other is the water—or sometimes lack of water. The BMT has a lot of ridge hiking so of course there’s no water to be found there, and often the gaps are dry. As there aren’t springs in every draw, I just need to plan water stops more carefully, maybe using my Guthook app.

In the afternoon, I found myself crossing a series of burned out ridges. I didn’t recall any recent reports of fires in North Georgia, so I’m pretty sure they were controlled burns. In one section the smell lingered and some understory trees has crisped buds, making me think it was an early spring forest service burn. The understory plants were doing their best to make a green carpet over that black soil. You could feel the exuberance of those plants making their statement. By the trail was a less than exuberance box turtle, caught and roasted in the fire.

For all his faults, Ernest Hemingway wrote one of the best trekking tales in his “Big Two-Hearted River.” Ostensibly about fishing, much of the story is his crossing from the train to the river, much over a burnt out forest. As I recall he notices black grasshoppers thriving in that blackened space (a questionable observation), but he does a good job invoking the strangeness of the trees that survive, the pathos of the fallen, and the rapid, seemingly spontaneous emergence —surge—of all that new green.

In Patagonia Day 6

February 24th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 6
Punta Arenas — Puerto Natales

I was thinking today about the couple of pages Hemingway wrote on the craft of writing that were to be part of “Big Two-Hearted River.” As I recall, he wants to write the way Cezanne painted—daubs of paint invoking the scene (apples I think) rather than filling in all the details. Perhaps that is a commonplace and Hemingway’s influence has long since passed, but I was struck to learn that Bruce Chatwin carried In Our Time with him while wandering South America. Near the end of his book, he writes, “The walls of the dining-room were a hard blue. The floor was covered with blue plastic tiles, and the tablecloths floated above it like chunks of ice.” Ernest was looking over his shoulder as he wrote that. This morning I skipped the hotel’s free coffee [sic] for one last tall cappuccino at the Tapiz. Today the sidewalks and cafe swarmed with backpackers, most with clean bright equipment to match their smiles. The barista proudly presented my order in a tall clear glass perfectly layered—dark coffee, milky middle and foamy top. It reminded me of Jello 1-2-3 from my youth, but was much more satisfying. The bus station was even more crowded by mammoth backpacks dwarfing their carriers. After some jostling and confusion, we made our way out of the city and past the airport. Now I finally got a sense of the sheer vastness of the Patagonian desert. Flat fields covered with brown grass and choked in places by gorse stretch to the distant horizon. Nothing interrupts the view except the occasional shabby estancia and, in the far north, the edges of the cordillera. The road runs close to the Argentinian border and it is definitely cattle country. The bus passed several towns or villages, it was hard to tell. Some seemed a main house surrounded by an expanding circle of smaller places. One was larger and looked to have some sort of stadium which I first thought was a soccer field, but a horse track is maybe more likely. A place for 21st century gauchos to show their skills. I never think of the word “gaucho” without being taken back to music classes at Woodstock Elementary School where Mrs. Danley taught us a song: “See the gaucho ride the pampas/ ride the pampas green and wide/ with his ? And ? And a bolo by his side.” I have no idea the provenance of that song, but it was the first time I learned of South American cowboys, bolos, and the pampas. Like all sorts of other detritus, it sloshes about my head even today (along with my gratitude for Mrs. Danley’s infinite patience).

Puerto Natales has the feeling of a ski town without skiers. Full of outdoor stores, equipment rentals, some micro-breweries, and lots of people wandering around in trekking clothes. Most of the houses are one-story sitting on small lots, and the town spreads out widely over the flats edging right up to the curve of the lake. Across is the Torres del Paine park. At one time this was a meatpacking town with a small train to move the product (I’m not sure if it was cattle or the butchered meat). The narrow gauge engine sits in a place of honor in its own square looking very much like a missing friend of Thomas the Tank Engine. Across the street is a brewpub that makes surprisingly good ale and has bottles of some great USA brews. Beside it is a restaurant roasting full carcasses on leaning iron crosses over an open fire, so the meat tradition continues. Getting reservations to trek distance in the park is like trying to thru-hike the White Mountains on a limited budget, but more difficult. I’ve gone from trying to do the O circuit, to the W, and now maybe just the I (I made that last one up). Have a day or two to get organized, and there will be plenty of trekking further north later so no worries. To be honest, the park is probably as crowded as the White mountains, so not exactly the solitude required for good trekking. For now I’m enjoying a very clean and pleasant hostel—when everyone speaks, it sounds like the UN.

T. Hugh Crawford