A saga that was soggy

Some trips weren't meant to be. Some trips are defined by rain and chaos. By missed connections and wet sleeping bags. By cut-short nights out. By chest pains. By misery.

Maybe their main purpose isn't to provide the instant gratification of the trip itself but rather to provide stories for telling for years to come. So it was with the fall 2009 trip to Campsite 27 in the Smoky Mountains. Among the Patio Boys, this trip has been tossed and turned in the brief time since its occurrence. For posterity, I should note that the fall of 2009 is a time of great debate over health care and war policy in these United States, but for the Patio Boys no debate rages hotter than what went wrong with the planning and logistics on the way to Campsite 27.

I've been asked not to focus on that debate because it is like airing the family's dirty laundry. Keep this within the inner-circle. Don't let the wide general public see inside the Patio Boy fissions, frayed and fractured. But friends, the divide is not disturbing to the long-term health of our fair crew. Hike on, we will, but armed henceforth with new tales. Here's mine. It will be disputed, but it will stand for all time as the official account of Landing Party One. Here goes.

This trip started fine and in traditional fashion. We attended a planning party hosted by Silver Pops and presided over by our fearless leader, Mooch, who laid out options. We settled on Campsite 27, leaving from a trailhead near the Elkmont Ranger Station. We would leave on Friday, return on Monday. The regular routine.

All was well until yours truly realized his presence was required on Sunday afternoon at an important conference on health care reform (see above). So, at the 30th wedding anniversary of Billy Goat and his bride (Billy G, how'd you marry so high above your station!?!? The same could be said of all the Patio Boys, of course, as the Mrs. Patio Boys are a glorious lot each and on the whole).

Your humble correspondent suggested leaving on Thursday instead and hiking directly in with no car camping and returning on Sunday instead of Monday. Some like this idea, and it was formalized as a Plan B involving some in the party. At this point, some Patio Boys would argue, the chain of tradition was broken and chaos fated. I would respond that there was adequate precedent for staggered arrivals (Silver Pops to Mammoth Cave, Scout to Glacier). I would not argue, however, that staggered arrivals are a good thing. This trip proved that.

OK, here is the true history of Landing Party One. We planned to leave Thursday morning but didn't leave until Thursday evening, and we drove to a cabin by Nolan Lake just north of Knoxville. There were three of us. We enjoyed some so-so BBQ, excellent baked beans and a selection of fine beverages while watching the World Series. Next morning - Friday - we arose and went to the Waffle House for breakfast, where Dolly Parton without her make-up waited on us. Dolly has tattoos that mainstream America does not know she has, but she is a fine waitress. She did not confide in us that she was really Dolly Parton but we figured it out.

From there we drove to Sugarlands and asked the procedure for getting a backcountry permit. We were sent to see Pam and Caroline, two great-grandmothers who were working on their Christmas embroidery projects because backcountry permitting was slow. "Hi, ladies, we need a permit for Campsite 27."  With this began the derailing of The Plan. The great-grandmas told us Campsite 27 was too small for our party and instructed us to go to Campsite 20 instead, and wrote our permit as such. We then called the next group of Patio Boys - who at this hour, around 9 a.m., were leaving home to head south. We reached them, confirmed the switch and then headed off to day hike to Mount LeConte.

It was a fine day for hiking. A little cool, but shirtsleeves were fine once you worked up some body heat. We took about a five-mile route to the top of LeConte, where we had an excellent lunch of gorp and turkey sandwiches. I picked three cords on the house guitar; Scout duck-taped his feet with tape borrowed from the LeConte kitchen staff; and then we hiked to the spectacular overlook. It was a mostly clear day so we could see for miles. The wind whipped hard atop LeConte, but that was a small matter given the other glories. The llamas used to transport food and supplies up the trail to the lodge were tied up behind the dining hall, and that was interesting to see. And we toured a cabin, just to see what the insides were like. They are, by the way, quite nice.
Down we came, and headed back to the trailhead at Elkmont. We had limited cell phone coverage and got no calls from "Landing Party Two" - so we proceed on to Campsite 20 as the Caroline-commanded revised plan required.  We did notice that the Landing Party Two vehicles were at the trailhead.

The little two mile hike was undulating but never taxing through deep and cordial woods. We found ourselves wondering if this would be the new Patio Boys' standard: an easy 2-miler to the campsite.
We arrived near sunset; only to see that Landing Party Two was not present. Bummer. But we set up camp, built a fire, filtered some water, made dinner and commenced to discussion of world affairs, human history and a few Saint Joseph Parish matters before knocking off in a dry and lovely evening, although the wind was pickup up.

Around 7 a.m. we arose and rain was coming. By the time we'd had breakfast and packed up, it was 8 a.m. and the rain was here. We decided to go to the trailhead and meet Landing Party Three - and relay to them the mix-up over Campsite 27 and 20. We assumed we could convince all parties to rally at 20, as Caroline had commanded. We arrived at the trailhead at 9 a.m. and ten minutes later, right on schedule, Landing Party Three pulled up and Mooch said something like, "Well, let me hear it. This has to be a story." And so we told the story.

As Landing Party Three headed into the woods to Campsite 27 without their packs - and with plans to day hike to the bald as The Plan called on them to do - we tried in vain to improve their rain readiness, but were ignored.  We, the three of Landing Party One, then decided to drive a mile to a site with cell phone reception and check our voice mail. Sure enough, Landing Party Two had left a voice mail saying they were sticking with Plan A and going to Campsite 27. A bit irritate to have been ignored and not told of the change back to Plan A via a confirmed communication, we elected to go to the Ranger Station and talk to Caroline and Pam. Only Pam was there, but she confirmed that Landing Party Two had come and gone, saying they were not going to go to 20.

By now, it was still drizzling steadily with little sign of a reprieve. A friendly fellow with a weather radio told us it was supposed to keep raining until 3 p.m., then more or less clear up. Well, then, we decided to go into town for lunch and come back afterward, then hike back to 20, get our stuff and hike to 27 and join the full group. Our trip to town included ribs at Corky's (delightful, they were) and a visit to the very nice Orvis store in Pigeon Forge, where stuff cost a lot of dinero but where we accumulated some fine fishing knowledge from a well-informed and personable clerk who showed us some of his smallmouth bass conquests. He also said of the Pigeon Forge: "I not only don't keep the fish to eat them, I don't even bite my line that river is so polluted." So much for the pristine Smoky Mountains.

OK, sated, we advanced to Wal-Mart to purchase some dry shirts and socks and rain gear for Landing Party Three - because we knew they'd need it. Hypothermia was in the original or subsequent plans. We could so some good. Wal-Mart, by the way, sells some of the largest bras you have ever seen. You could put a soccer ball in one of those cups. They seem to be spread around the whole store. We could avoid them. But there were some women in the store who obviously need support of this sort - and unfortunately, their bodies are in exact proportion to the size of the breasts that would fit into bras that size, which is to say they are women who have consumed way too many Twinkies and Moon Pies or whatever. Big women. Very big women. OK, we moved on, with rain gear in hand.

Back at the trailhead, we found Landing Party Three in a mess. Mooch was taking his pulse and complaining of chest pains. The new fellows were cold, wet and slightly discouraged by their First Patio Boy Experience (FPBE).  We made them hot drinks and distributed the dry clothing. We made sure Mooch was NOT having a heart attack, and then we got Landing Party Three on the trail safely, relieving Mooch's anxiety enough that his chest pains dissipated a short while later. Whew!

We, the three of Landing Party One, then hiked back through undulating beauty of the two miles to Campsite 20, and did so with every intention of gathering our gear and moving to Campsite 27 to consolidate the Landing Parties at one site. We arrived at 20 to find some of our stuff wet, and it was still raining. But we packed and hiked back to the junction, where one either goes to 27 or back to the cars.

It was 4:30 p.m. and still raining. We were 2.5 miles downhill from 27. It was Saturday night, and we were scheduled to hike out Sunday morning. So we Yogi Berra'd it: We came to a crossroads and we took it. Rather than hike uphill in the rain to arrive at 27 at 6:30 p.m., where we would be setting up tents in the rain and cooking in the rain, and then sleeping in the rain, and then packing up and out in the rain, we elected to return to the trailhead, drive back to the Nolan Lake cabin with food, and watched the World Series, then get up from our warm, dry beds and drive back home on Sunday morning.
And so we did - enjoying on the way the amazing scene of Gatlinburg on Halloween evening, with people dressed as clowns, vampires and Wizard of Oz characters parading down Main Street. Very, very weird, it was. At Starbucks in Pigeon Forge, the staff was in costume. At the Mexican restaurant where we stopped for dinner, the UK football game was on and the beer cold. We were not exactly missing the great outdoors at this point.

So there you have the true and real story of Landing Party One. I know there are those who will read it and say: "Landing Party One veered from the plan. You must always stick to the plan." To this we calmly respond: "Would you have done anything we didn't do?" And we point out - politely to our good friends and fellow Patio Boys - that you also did NOT stick to the plan, or you would have been atop that bald and hiking 15 miles in the rain on Sunday. That was The Plan. Remember?

Yes, there was a great debate about "nights out" - and we, the members of Landing Party One, readily acknowledge this: We spent one night out. But we want credit for this: We changed from site 27 to 20 for the best of reasons (Caroline commanded it!) and we rescued Landing Party Three from certain death from hypothermia, for which all should be eternally grateful to us.
Amen, brothers! See you on the next trip. Can't wait. Here's an idea, too: Let's all leave at the same time next time!

Landing Party Two, as we later came to be known, left Northern KY at about 9 am Friday with 5 of us in two vehicles. We arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the early afternoon after a couple of detours in Pidgeon Forge to try to find rain gear for Frenchy, whose son had spirited his off to UK and not returned it.  A couple of the boys went to the backcountry office to register and got our permit for camp site 27. Mooch and the Newbees who were to arrive later were added to our permit.   We were informed that Landing Party One had been directed to site 20.  We decided to stick to the original plan and see if site 27 was big enough for all of us.  It looked to be a decent day for hiking.

Jakes Creek trail is a moderate, steady uphill climb. The early part of the trail is on a gravel service road, which was covered with leaves from the late fall foliage drop.  The remainder of the trail to the campsite is in good condition.  There was one log-bridge and one rock-hop stream crossing.  Site 27 was rather large and spread out, with several distinct sites with established fire rings along the hill side. After arriving we scrounged up some firewood from a wide area as there was not much downed wood close by.  We set up our tents and a tarp (in anticipation of overnight rain) and replenished our water supply from the nearby creek.  We left messages for the first group to join us.  The evening was clear, but quite windy with gusts that we presumed were in the 30 to 40 mph range.  The tarp didn't last long - we had to take it down after it took a beating and one of the guy lines broke. We enjoyed dinner, a nice fire a bit of bourbon, and a few tales before retiring for the evening for a fitful nights rest interrupted by many threatening wind gusts.

It started raining early in the morning - somewhere around 6 or 7 am.  Most of us stayed in our tents through the early morning assuming it would stop or at least let up a bit. It didn't.  We managed to get the tarp back up and have some breakfast. After Mooch and the newbees (LPIII) arrived we discussed the conditions, the lack of proper clothing, and LPI's deviation from the plan, LPII headed up Jakes Creek while LPIII headed back down to get their gear and meet up with the errant Landing Party I, who had been at camp site 20.  Although the rain had let up when we started out, it wasn't really over.  We endured a light drizzle most of the afternoon.  Our destination was Indian Flats Falls on the Middle Prong trail, via the Panther Creek trail.  The downhill trek on Panther Creek was wet and muddy at places and somewhat difficult due to several swollen stream crossings.  We nearly reached the junction with the Middle Prong trail when we stopped to have a late lunch below a nice set of cascades. We decided to turn back due to the late hour (after 3) - we were afraid we would be hiking back in the dark if we pressed on to our destination.  The return trip took much less time though - we already knew the best way to do the stream crossings, and we made better time uphill having better control of our footing.

We arrived back at the campsite, in the rain, and managed to rustle up more rather wet firewood.  We fixed dinner under the tarp and Ank somehow built an at times roaring fire.  He and I enjoyed it as best we could after everyone else retired to their tents.  We finally gave up ourselves at about 8:30.  I haven't gone to bed that early since I was a child.  I didn't get out of the tent for at least 12 hours, and then got out only briefly to take care of business. I got out for good around 10 when the rest of the happy campers gathered under the tarp.   After some brief debate we all decided to put this trip behind us.  It was doubtful we would be able to make our planned destination - Siler's Bald - due to the late hour; and even if we could it would be shrouded in fog.  There was also a risk of hypothermia for some of us and the bottom line was we just weren't having much fun.

Landing Party Three
I was picked up Saturday at 3am by newbee Goetz in the rain. We drove to Lexington to pick up 2 more newbees, Nate and Holden, in the rain. We had breakfast around Knoxville and it was raining. We got to the trail head and met Captain and Scout and it was raining. We decided to walk up to site 27 to make contact with the first group. It was a nice uphill 2.5 hike in the rain. We did this without packs because we figured when it stopped raining, we would go back down the trail and bring them up while it was dry. At about 2:30 we walked down the hill in the rain to get our stuff and decide if we were going back up. We met Captain and Scout again. They had gone shopping at Walmart to save the young boys from hypothermia. The youngsters went up the trail with packs while Goetzie and I waited to see if I was having and MI and to see if the rain would stop. It didn't and I didn't. We went up the hill anyway. At site 27 I got in my tent about 6pm, with the belief that I would get out in a few hours, when it stopped raining, to join the group for food, bourbon and stories. At 9am the next morning, 15 hours after I climbed in the tent the rain was down to a drizzle. I got back in the tent and read and drank until about 10am when others started to get up. The first thing I heard was Frenchy telling Pops he was going down to the car regardless of what anyone else did. Damage control came up with Pops, Frenchy, Walmart and Nate totally soaked. We had to descend and regroup. Visions of staying in Pop's brother's cabin were squashed and so was the group. Everyone headed home except the newbees and me. We tried to make the best of Sunday by spending the night in a cabin in Townsend and sitting around a dry campfire. This trip was a disaster.