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.