Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 19

June 17th, 2021

Walking to the Smoky Mountains, Day 19, June 16

Chambers Creek (#98) — Pole Road Campsite (55)  22.5  miles

Right up to the end, a perfect hiking day. I remember moment in Earl Shaffer’s Walking with Spring when he describes how he hit a point where he ate twice what he had been eating. Long distance hiking burns huge calories so there is a point a few weeks into a trek where most of your body fat is burned off, and you have to increase consumption (though you can never keep up as long as you trek hard). I doubled my food last night and woke early (5:30) ready to go. I knew if I were to get in position to finish Saturday, I had to make up miles that my Smoky Mountain permit didn’t support (all part of a not particularly intuitive website inflicted on my schedule).  So my goal was a good 4 miles past my scheduled campsite, and more if possible.

Another experiment was coffee. I had packed some Starbucks instant just in case I wanted to fire up the jetboil stove in the morning before starting. That impulse never materialized (in part because I didn’t have any of that sweetened condensed milk in a toothpaste tube that they sell in New Zealand— a backpacking item worth its weight in its weight). So I dumped some packets in my nalgene for the early morning walk (I did feel a certain spring in my step.

As I said, a nearly perfect hiking day. The Smokies are in some places, incredibly isolated and untouched, but this area shows signs of long habitation, with most paths following what were some decades ago, primary roads to communities, so the trail was usually well-graded and a fast walk (necessary as I walked almost 23 miles). After miles of horse prints and piles of horse shit, I did finally meet two men astride soem amazing animals, so glad to see people following these traditional paths on the critters that made them.

The flowers were also getting dominant. Every shade (and of course the occasional “almost” ripe blackberry regularly appeared, as did, of all things, a long stretch of Day Lilies (the orange kind) lining the path.  I remember wilderness paths in Virginia near West Virginia as a child where those lilies also appeared which I guess is why I’ve never thought of them as a home garden flower. And as always, there were many streams with opportunities to re-water.  Much of the day was on Nolan Creek, a favorite of fly fisherman, and well worth the trek. One thing that struck me when filling my nalgene was the odd bass-drum thump that plays on the stream by the water in sudden holes in the streams. A fascinating symphony.

I made it to Bald Creek camp— which was further than my itinerary—by 3:30 so I decided to push on to the next site which was 4+ miles. Definitely my longest day if the trip, and of course the smooth trail I’d been on all day turned to a narrow, rooty, steep climb. Undeterred as I still felt good I continued on until I ran up on a huge timber rattler. He was coiled across the trail and I didn’t  see him— just heard. First response was to leap away, which was on the downslope side of the trail. There I found myself laid out prone, but I could see the rattlers— at least 10 pairs—shaking insistently. I scrambled to get up, only to discover my backpack was caught under a downed tree, so I watched to see if the rattler moved while I unstrapped in order to move on. Fortunately he stayed coiled— he was much bigger around than my biceps (maybe closer to my calves for those of you who need anatomical metrics). I made my way past his rattling circuit, stopped for a moment to consider getting out my iPad for a picture, then realized the snake needed his dignity too, so I proceeded on to the Pole Road Campsite— another completely empty one, to settle in (after 22.5 miles) for a good nights sleep.

Unfortunately that was interrupted by inspection of my long-sore toe which had now blown up to full-fledged infection. There I had to make the decision to abandon the trek just a two-day walk from the end, but a merit badge is not worth compromising health. My last night on the trail (and the last night in my ZPacks soloplex tent— a tent I’ve pitched on every continent except Antarctica— is now to be retired. The fibers after all those pitchings are now stretched thin (moment of nostalgia)). An uneasy sleep after what had been a glorious day of trekking. At least it was an evening of lightening bugs, a bright moon, and flood of stars— all observed because of late evening micturation.