The International Writers Magazine:Hacktreks in North America
in the Smokies
Eric D. Lehman
my senior year of college I had lost everything I gained from
years of soccer. I never had much muscle, being thin and sticklike,
a one-hundred-sixty pound, six-foot three insect. But I had at
least been able to play a ninety-minute game with only a few hard
breaths. What was even worse was my loss of connection with the
outdoor world that I had grown up in.
I didnt realize that at the time. After four years of alcohol
and sloth, my friends and I decided to hike The Great Smoky Mountains
during spring break. Unlike my friends, I lacked training, muscle, and
will. In fact, I didnt even know what real strength was. But with
the pride and forgetfulness that comes with male ego, I convinced myself
that I was tough.
Keith, Dave, Juanito, Billy, and I camped on the North Carolina side
of the mountains the first night, planning on leaving one of the cars
there. The strategy was to climb Mount LeConte, then cross the main
ridge and go down the other side, and three days later, return to our
car in North Carolina. We found the parking lot and excitedly prepared
our backpacks. Mine didnt seem heavy and I jauntily headed down
the mile-long path to the campsite. Birches and ferns covered the ground.
Juanito and Dave set up the tents where a bend in a stream allowed a
peninsula to jut out. The other clearings stared emptily at us. I crouched
down by the fire that my friends quickly lit. Keith and Dave stripped
and splashed into the stream.
"You idiots," I warned them. "The waters probably
They answered with whoops of excitement. I considered joining them,
but simply walked to the edge and dipped my hands in the icy rill, rubbing
them together. Juanito turned on the little burner we brought. Yum...dinner.
Hungry now, I munched a granola bar, brain soaking in the wilderness.
A small ridge cragged to the south of us, beyond which lay the Cherokee
"Lets climb that ridge before dark, maybe we can see the
reservation." Dave suggested.
"Doesnt look that bad."
Keith stayed behind and attempted to cook himself some noodles on the
little burner. The other four of us found a spot where we could cross
the stream over a log. One by one, we flew over, myself last. Dave and
Billy started running for some reason, tearing aimlessly up a steep
hill. But a tributary of the stream cut us off from the actual ridge.
"This isnt the right one."
"Itll connect up here."
"No, actually I dont think it will. Theres a stream
down there." I pointed, sighing.
"Well, lets keep climbing this anyway."
"Its getting dark." I complained.
The four of us kept going, but the hill grew steep, nearly a cliff.
I tired quickly. The sky bled magenta. The ground hazed with un-light.
Unspoken words passed between us and we headed back. Dave and Billy
charged down; Juanito and I followed at a slower pace. I imagined my
broken ankle ending the trip. At the bottom, Keith still hadnt
cooked his noodles, and told us that the burner wont boil water.
Dave grunted and made a bigger fire to cook dinner. As we clambered
into the tents for bed, another group showed up and set up camp in the
adjoining clearing. When we woke up, ready to head to Mount LeConte,
they were already gone.
We piled into Keiths Trooper and zipped to the trailhead on the
western side at the base of Mount LeConte. As we walked, a river roaring
to the right of us, I realized that I was completely out of shape. No
one else seemed to be having a problem. Billy sported a gut, but his
legs were unnaturally powerful. Juanito and Keith played college sports
and Dave was actually an award-winning decathlete. Crossing a rocky,
white stream on a bridge, I slipped, but caught myself. Then, we started
to go up, up, ascending a stairway through a tunnel of natural limestone.
I stopped to take a picture, secretly blessing these photographic pauses.
I had to rest after another quarter mile. The terrain rose sharply here
onto sort of a ledge from which we could see out across the valley that
we had ascended. In the distance loomed Clingmans Dome, another
imposing mountain. Another quarter mile ground away and we approached
a huge cliff, actually an overhang, over a hundred feet up. The map
read Alum Cave Bluff. These sorts of cliffs were so rare in eastern
America that Dave and Keith called for a rest. I collapsed, sweating,
and took off my pack, which now felt like a ton of rocks. We sat for
a while, eating lunch, wondering how far we had to go. Rick mentioned
that our water supplies were running out. My own bottle was now empty.
Suddenly, Dave shouted, "Look at this!" A cloud moved in like
a giant belly and quickly enveloped our group. I felt tiny, trapped
between the mountains of rock and water vapor. Then the wind that was
driving the cloud smacked me and nearly threw me to my knees. Immediately,
icy cold air dug under my clothes.
"Lets move, guys, were really exposed here."
I lugged my pack to my shoulders again and snapped the belt strap on,
tightening it around my thin hips. We climbed a steep but short hill
and were sort of protected by some trees. However, this whole section
of the trail curled around the side of a cliff, and the fog rolled all
around us. At times we had to hold on to a rope attached to the rock
face on our right, while a three-foot ledge was the only savior from
the oblivion that waited below. Water cascading down the mountain made
our job even harder as it washed across the narrow trail. I realized
that we were in actual danger, that out there on the skin of nature
I was a microbe that could be swept away in an instant.
Luckily, after about another half mile of crossing slippery black rock,
we finally reached a section of trail on the other side of the ridge,
protected from the snapping wind. But this was also the point I couldnt
carry the pack any longer. Humiliation ensued when my friends had to
take turns carrying my pack for about half a mile. Our water also ran
out, forcing us to use some of the trickles coming down the mountain.
"I doubt this stuff will carry too many bacteria, being so high
up." Dave assured us. Juanito, the other expert, agreed for once.
As the light began to dim, I took my pack back. Old snow choked this
trail, ice forming a cover for water flowing underneath it. At last,
the shelter loomed ahead, hunching in a field of tall grass near the
summit. I cheered silently. The snow had disappeared for some reason.
The three-sided wood structure had a fence-like metal front and door.
Tattered plastic kept out the wind, hanging on the metal like some futuristic
tapestry. Upon entering, the smell of cooking punched my sensitized
nostrils. The muddy floor was half the shelter. Two long shelves of
wood formed a sleeping area, where six other hikers had stationed themselves,
mostly on the top. I unfurled my sleeping bag and mat and claimed my
own territory. Everyone removed their wet clothes and tried to dry them
near the fire. Cold air licked my skin. Dinner wasnt unsatisfying,
but the mud and cold made me miserable. No one spoke there in the womb
of the sky. Almost immediately after dinner, I cocooned in my sleeping
bag, lulled to sleep by the roar of the night winds outside.
We slept far too long. Dave was up, though, boiling water to make instant
oatmeal and hot chocolate. After breakfast, the five of us gathered
our things, but again were too slow. The other hikers were gone from
the shelter already and others congregated outside, two ready for retirement.
I hadnt expected anyone up there in March. After a few short yards,
we crested the actual summit, marked by a cairn of stones. Dave placed
a rock on top. The view would probably have been incredible, but we
were still in cloud. As we descended, an extraordinary layer of snow
appeared through the firs. We had slept above the snowfall.
The five of us trudged on, making our way through the snow. The white
powder was about a foot deep, so we had to guess where the trail went
and step blindly into the snowbanks. Two hours passed as we circled
around the Olympian peak. I didnt tire much, because the trail
was either flat or downhill. However, Keith twisted his ankle at one
point and we stopped, eating carbohydrate bars, peering out into the
mist that obscured views of the plains of Tennessee. I secretly cheered
at Keiths misfortune, feeling guilty but glad that I wasnt
the only one who would delay us.
We moved off Mount LeConte and the path ran along a ridge; a few feet
from the unspoiled muddiness the trees dropped away on both sides. This
continued for what seemed hours and Billy cursed the fog. I had problems
as soon as we started going up again. Dave tried to encourage me. "Just
put one foot in front of the other." But he wouldnt help
me with my pack, despite my groans. My legs burned with helpless fire.
At last we climbed the Blue Ridge and headed along the Appalachian Trail.
We sighted an outcrop called Charles Bunion and headed out along
a rock ledge, dropping our packs to find better balance on this thumb
that protruded west from the ridge. The thick cloud cover suddenly drifted
away and the valley floor emerged a few thousand feet below. Through
a space between Mount LeConte and another peak, we could at last see
the plain of Tennessee, and the whole world, stretching into blurred
I felt good, like I had conquered something. But then, rain began. We
put on ponchos. The path plunged down the eastern side of the mountains
and into darkness. Rain pounded down in fists and sought to pummel us
from the mountainside. Grabbing trees and ferns for support, we stumbled
down the muddy track. Waterfalls had to be crossed and they beat at
us angrily. Then Keith slipped off the trail, falling backwards, grabbing
onto roots, and Dave yanked him up. He had wrenched his ankle again
and we stood there, probably close to the next shelter by now, dripping
I gave up. "We cant hike all the way to the car tomorrow,"
I told my friends. "Keith cant go back up this hill."
Of course, I was really talking about myself and I think they knew it.
I pointed to the map. "We can walk out to the road from the shelter
and hitchhike back."
That night I realized I had failed. I couldnt even build a fire,
much less carry a twenty-pound pack for more than a few miles. I had
contributed nothing to the team and in fact had held us back. My body
was pathetic and useless. My will was feeble. The next morning we retreated
downhill from the shelter and back to comfortable motels and restaurants.
And I was happy. I was happy for the lazy, modern life I lived.
I wish I could say that this failure sparked some renewal, that I began
to train at the gym, or run, or hike regularly. But several years would
pass before I really entered the woods again and five before I began
to consider myself strong. Weakness had triumphed over endurance. I
© Eric D. Lehman Jan 2005
Eric is an English professor at the University of Bridgeport
and has traveled extensively throughout the world. He has been
previously published by various web journals, such as August Cutter,
Niederngasse, Simply Haiku, and of course Hackwriters.
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