Less Than One

In the spring of 1973 I hiked the Appalachian Trail. A short segment of it, that is. 

Okay, I barely touched the doorstep. 

What started out with great ambition devolved into misadventure.

I was telling my wife about it the other day. We were out for our long morning walk, our favorite leg of it, up the mile or so of Echo Road. It’s one of the few dirt roads in the area. It promises scenic views, occasional wildlife, lots of nature. Dirt, grass, weeds, bushes and trees, vines. Embedded in the natural world like this, I am always keenly aware of how little flora and fauna I know, and  the limits of my control of the nomenclature. Dirt, grass, weeds, bushes and trees, vines. That’s about all I got. 

“What vines do you think these are?” I said. I pointed to a cottonwood tree (that’s one I can name) by the side of the road, a tangle of vines in full leaf clinging to the bark and winding up the tree, skyward.

“I don’t know,” she said. Up the road, a couple walkers were coming at us. She shouldered me toward the side of the road. We were social distancing in the almost wild. 

“Ivy, do you think?”

She told me stop and take a picture. I could look it up when I got home.

“Ivy,” I said, aiming my phone at the tree and vines, “always reminds me of James Joyce, Portrait of an Artist and the whining ivy.”

I tried to remember: Was that a joke? That’s not exactly a funny book. When I got home, I looked up whining ivy and Stephen Dedalus.  “The ivy whines upon the wall, And whines and twines upon the wall. The yellow ivy upon the wall, Ivy, ivy up the wall.” That was that. Then, this comment came next, which I did not remember: “Did anyone ever hear such drivel? Lord Almighty! Who ever heard of ivy whining on a wall?”

Ridiculous. Exactly.

There are no walls on Echo Road. So it’s probably not ivy whining and twining up the trees.

“I don’t think it’s ivy,” my wife said.

The walkers, two women in colorful shoes, hugging the opposite shoulder, waved as they walked briskly past us, each holding a 20 ounce water bottle.    

Three of us planned the hike for spring break, me and my two pals Joe Lewandowski and Dennis Zulupski. Lew and Zu. We would do 5-6 nights in Smoky Mountain National Park. I saw myself hiking the trails, at one with nature, humming Bob Denver songs.  My main concern was would we get there before the bears woke up.

“Do you have gear?” Zu asked me. We were drinking beer one evening at a place called Hungry Charley’s. A month before leaving, we were seriously planning the trip. Seriously. This was pre-Internet time. We knew there was a park down in the Smokeys. We’d seen pictures.  We’d seen “Deliverance.” Maybe Zu had done some research, at a travel agency (I doubt it) or in a library (I doubt it).  

“Do you think there will be bears?” 

“There shouldn’t be bears,” he said. “They don’t bother you, anyway. Do you have gear?”

“How do we get there?” Lew said.

Zu topped off our glasses of beer.  “Gatlinburg. It’s practically a straight shot from here.“

“Yes, a sleeping bag,” I said.  And from my boyscout days, I had an old canvas pup tent. I was going to need a backpack.

“We can go to The Army Surplus store together,” Lew said, “and gear up.”

We talked about provisions, who was going to bring what food, insect repellent, snake bite kit, toilet paper, and other essentials. A whistle, in case of bears.

In addition to nature (dirt, grass, weeds, etc.), the nice thing about Echo Road is the hills. There are a total of two: one hill down, at the lowest point of which is a pond that fills up with run-off in the Spring months. As the days warm, the pond shrinks and thickens into a shallow greenish custard. And a second hill back up, to a main road with sidewalk. Twice we’ve seen a long-legged bird called a heron (that’s one I can name) standing in the pond, wading in the thick green gick.  

The hills, I think, may dissuade some walkers and runners, leaving Echo Road mostly to ourselves at 6:30 a.m. On the south end I have two favorite spots where I stop to pee. Once we were surprised by a runner, just as I was finishing.

My wife waved and made apologetic gestures in the direction of the runner, a guy. I have no doubt he understood.  

“You really ought to go before we leave,” she said to me.

“And forego the pleasure of a nature pee?”  

“You can catch up with me.”  She huffed. I heard her take off walking down the road. Her huff was unmistakable. 

“Do you think there’s poison ivy in here?” I yelled over my shoulder.  “Do you know what poison ivy looks like?”

At the Army Surplus store Lew and I shopped for backpacks. Zu, who had experience in these matters and had become our unofficial leader, said to look for a pack with a frame. The one we each bought was made of canvas, supported by an aluminum frame that looked like it could double as a coat hanger. The pack opened at the top. There was a draw string to hold the top shut and a flap that fastened down the back of the pack with a couple small brown belts. 

“I’ll tie my tent to the top of the pack,” I said to Lew as we left the store. “And my sleeping bag to the bottom.”

“This is going to be so great,” he said. He said he’d never been out of the state before.

I asked him if he had any rope.

We drove away from campus around 10 p.m. on the Friday classes ended for Spring break. It was eight hours to the park, which meant, with a little luck, we would be on the trail by 8:00 a.m. and enjoy our first full day of hiking. 

The next morning, outside of Knoxville, at the edge of the park, we registered at the visitors center (elevation 1462 feet), indicating we would be on the trail 3-5 days. We looked at a trail map–I think for the very first time–and selected the trail to Clingman’s Dome. The Dome would be our first destination. We could camp up there that night, maybe set up a new camp each of the next 3-4 nights.  

A light rain had begun to fall. 

The hike up to Clingman’s Dome (elevation 6644 feet), the highest point in Tennessee, was the longest hike in the park, about 14 miles. Somehow it seemed like a good idea. We collected our gear and locked the car. Lew’s Army Surplus pack hung on his back. He and I were carrying the canned goods. He leaned forward, adjusting his load, smiled and reached into his jacket pocket for a pack of Redman tobacco. He held it out to Zu, then me.  “Chew?”

I shrugged my backpack on and looked, really looked at Zu’s pack for the first time. Mine was army green, and felt like an extra large grocery bag hanging on my shoulders. The metal rack, now that the pack was fully loaded, seemed more ornamental than structural. Rain water was beading up on the canvas and on my tent tied to the top of the pack. Zu’s pack was rugged blue nylon, with a light frame twice the size of mine from his hips to his shoulders. The pack had a belt he fastened around his waist, zipper pockets up and down the sides. From one of the little rings attached to the frame hung a compass; from another a Swiss Army knife.

A couple hours into the hike, the rain picked up. An hour later, it rained harder. Low clouds settled on the trees along the trail, obscuring our view of anything but the path 25 yards ahead of us.

When we stopped for lunch, Lew opened his pack to take out a couple sandwiches his mother had made for us. He found his load had shifted. A full size tube of toothpaste he’d packed had broken open. There was Crest everywhere in his pack. 

“Why don’t we wait on lunch,” Zu said. He pulled the hood on his pancho over his hat. Lew and I adjusted our garbage bags that doubled as rain gear.  

“The sooner we get there,” Lew said, “the sooner we can dry out.”

Dry out. I had been thinking about that prospect. “I’ll take that chew now,” I said.

We walked, mostly uphill. 

Behind me, tied to the bottom of my pack, my old cloth sleeping bag, also wrapped in a garbage bag, swung with each step I took. It was heavy.  I felt like I was carrying a sandbag. I don’t know what possessed me to buy such a cheap backpack. I also don’t know what possessed me to chew tobacco that day. I kept a plug of it in my cheek, leaning to the side of the trail to spit when I had to, which was often. Lew was a baseball player, a catcher. He hadn’t made the line-up on the college team, but he had perfected projectile spitting. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep tobacco juice from leaking down my throat. 

Around 6:00 that night we reached Clingman’s Dome. The trail emptied into a parking lot. We were wet. We’d walked all day on no sleep and no lunch. At least one of us had a belly rotten with tobacco juice. At the edge of the trail, the park’s trail map was posted on a rustic sign. We looked. Where was the campground? Good God, did we have to walk further, and then set up camp? It was still raining. 

Ignominious defeat.  There’s no other term for it. 

We hitched a ride with a guy in a blue van down to the visitors lot where we’d left the car, loaded our stuff into the trunk, and drove 45 minutes back to Gatlinburg. There were lots of hotels. In the cheap room we rented, Zu lit his one-burner camper’s cook stove and reanimated some freeze-dried beef Stroganoff. I don’t remember the hotel’s name.  It should have been Nice Try, Suckers. Elevation, way below self respect.

“Water,” I said to my wife. “Everyone brings water along when they go for a walk. Can’t they go an hour or two without a drink of water?”

“You’re cranky this morning,” she said.

We were on the uphill part of Echo Road. No heron this morning.  But a lot of bug life was getting in my hair.   

“We’ve got all that bottled water in the garage,” I said. Eight ounce plastic bottles we’d bought when guys came to work on the house.  They didn’t drink it.  

“It’s no good,” she said. “You’re not supposed to drink old water in a plastic bottle. Especially after it’s been sitting in a hot garage.”

I knew that. But still.  “What’ll we do with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I hate to waste it.”

“Water plants with it,” she said.

I couldn’t think of anything more wrong, twisting caps off Costco water bottles and emptying them over the geraniums. It was something one would want to do at night. The only thing worse was pouring the water down the drain. 

“What about boiling it?” I said. “Can we make it safe by boiling it?”

“Really?”

Next morning, over a big Gatlinburg breakfast, we decided to think smaller. Less would become more.  We’d pitch a camp somewhere out there, preferably next to a rushing stream, make that our base of operations, and take day hikes. 

There was nothing wrong with the rushing stream we found. Another gap in our preparation, however, had become apparent.  

There’s a product called “Clever Hiker, Chlorine Dioxide Drops and Pills.” You use it to purify water in the wild.  Bugs like cryptosporidium will send you into the bushes with diarrhea, abdominal pains, nausea and gas and dehydration. 

We forgot all about the Clever Hiker.

There’s also a device called the Katadyn Ultra. It will purify about 5 days of water for 2 people (50+ liters). It has a rechargeable internal battery. 

We didn’t have one of those.

We also didn’t have the Platypus GravityWorks. You fill up a “dirty” water bag, let’s say the water we might have harvested from our rushing stream, hang it above the “clean” bag, and gravity does the rest. You can choose between the two liter system and two liter bottle kit. 

What we had were puny little canteens we had to refill by walking two miles every day back to the parking lot.

We stayed two nights out there. On day hikes experienced campers went flying past us on the trails, toting tents, sleeping bags, food and shelter that weighed half of what our Surplus packs weighed. 

I grew to hate beef Stroganhoff. There was also a freeze dried shrimp dish.  An abomination. 

Two nights I crawled into my damp cloth sleeping bag, sore from the day’s hike, and thought about food. I didn’t whine, but I most certainly silently pined, dreaming of greasy fries and a Reuben sandwich and mugs of beer at Hungry Charleys.  

When we woke up after second night, we packed up our base of operations and hiked back to the parking lot water faucet. We enjoyed long draughts of cool water, stowed our junk in the trunk, and headed for Knoxville.  First hamburgers.  Then Nashville. Then home. 

“Stuffed grape leaves,” my wife said. 

I’d taken a picture of the whiny ivy. 

“You see the Chaldean women clipping leaves from vines at the side of the roads. For stuffed grape leaves.  I think that’s the leaf.  That’s the vine.”

She was right.

Vitis riparia (wild grapevine), not to be confused with menispermum canadense (common moonseed), which is poisonous. It pleased me to think of those women, usually older, usually dressed all in black, foraging by the side of the road, knowing the difference between food and poison, at one with nature for a short time. 

Smokies 1973, I was less than one. Still am.

Wandering around online that morning, I stumble upon an article in New York Magazine, in a section of the magazine called “The Strategist.” According to “An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Camping, According to Camping Experts,” people this summer are “exploring less-trafficked parts of the great outdoors.” Camping is in.

One of the experts, Karen Bor, who has a website called “Barefoot Theory,”states the obvious: “You’re going to have more fun if you’re prepared.”

2 thoughts on “Less Than One

  1. I like the way you juxtapose the past and the present here—we can see how much the world (and you) have changed, but how some things—like nature—stay the same.

    Liked by 1 person

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