Chilled to perfection in the Smoky Mountains

By Captain

There was a moment - or, upon further reflection, maybe several moments - when we thought maybe this trip wasn't our finest idea.

It being December, we knew a few things going in, like it would be cold and possibly wet, probably windy and maybe both.

We didn't know that bears would still romping about. Or that ice would have coated every piece of firewood. Or that a zero degree sleeping bag would be inadequate.

We also didn't know that for the 80 miles between Lexington and the Tennessee border a light but devilish snow would turn Interstate 75 into a hockey rink if hockey rinks were used for motor sports. Emergency vehicles became a common sight, as did flipped SUV's beside which a victim - invariably a woman and invariably in mom jeans - was laid out on a gurney being checked before loaded into an ambulance to be hauled but not rushed (this was no day for rushing) to the nearest ER. We started to get back on the interstate in Lexington only to see a line of endless cars that convinced us to turn back and risk the back road, the fine and scenic U.S. 25 from Lexington toward Richmond. Dusted with snow and, beneath that, sheathed in ice, U.S. 25 demanded caution. A Crown Vic unmarked cop came at us a touch recklessly at one point, slipping into our lane but getting back into his in the nick of time. On we went, returning to the interstate just before Richmond and proceed with car toward Tennessee and the Smokies. Thus was the inauspicious start of a trip intended to relax the participants.

Arriving well behind schedule at the Sugarland Ranger Station in the Elkmont area of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we hustled into the backcountry permit office, manned this day by Park Service Volunteer Mickey Sylvester, whose name seemed stolen from film noir but whose manner and service was kindness defined. Sorry, he told us, but our plans to go to Campsite 27 off the Jake's Creek Trail would have to wait for another trip. The access road up there was closed, and we wouldn't have enough time to walk it. Dear reader, I refer you to an earlier account of our efforts to get to Campsite 27 to understand what a setback it as to hear that Campsite 27 would once again be a difficult destination. To summarize, our little band of brothers attempted a Campsite 27 trip in October, only to be thwarted by the ungainly combination of misinformation about the permitting process, 36 hours of rain, ill-equipped newbies and some intractable logistics of our own making.

This trip was conceived by Silver Pops, who was on a Mission from God. That is, deep in his soul, he knew he had to go back, back to 27, back up the trail toward Siler's Bald.  He invited all the Patio Boys, but got few takers - only Captain and Brother Silver Pops, who was going on his first backpacking trip ever. Who goes on his first backpacking trip ever in the snow with threats of temperatures in the teens? Well, the clear answer is Brother Silver Pops.

OK. Back to Sugarland and the parking lot. We three strap on our packs and prepare for a hike up a closed road to a new trail destination, selected for us as the only option by Mickey Sylvester. Brother Silver Pops no sooner steps onto the road than a Park Ranger in a Park Service SUV spots him and tells him that roads will be opening in the next 15 minutes or so, as the sun is out and the snow melting from the asphalt. So back to the backcountry office we go, change our permit back to 27, and then load Silver Pops Jeep with our packs and drive the Jake's Creek Trailhead, about 3 miles from 27. We figure we'll go to 27 or, if feeling froggy, right on to 26 a couple of miles more uphill.

At the trailhead, we made the usual Patio Boy fantasy joke about the beautiful women who would no doubt join us on this hike, and then two minutes later two beautiful young women drove up and chirped, "Is this a good place to hike?" Well, yes, we replied, and then hiked off and left them. Their cold weather gear looked very solid, were you hiking from the parking lot to the mall over a distance of 75 yards. We couldn't be responsible - and so we hightailed it outta there and never saw the lovely lasses again. This would be a good time to mention this: We love our wives, who are beautiful and perfect in every way, including in the way they let us go off on these adventures to achieve spiritual fulfillment and life balance. Cheers, Patio Ladies.

Well, it is 4:30 p.m. by the time we get to 27, it's been a long day and we know it gets dark by 5:30 p.m., so we wisely elect to set up on 27, where we are of course the only people.  Campsite 27 is at 3,500 ft., which puts it right at the highest elevation in the state were we still in Kentucky, and thus plenty high enough to make things more froze. Campsite 26 would be another 1,000 feet up.
You can barely tell that it is a campsite because the snow has blanketed everything. It's not deep; a couple of inches maybe. But it isn't patchy. It's a blanket. Off come the packs, up go the tents, including Silver Pop's new two-man Eureka, with its double vestibule, which is impressive. Brother SP gets Silver's old tent, which leaked like cloth diaper the last trip but there's no risk of that this time. Any precipitation this time will be frozen.

Next comes the building of a campfire. Now we acknowledge more talent in campfire building exists among the Patio Boys. Take a bow, Ank. Take a bow, One Match. But here's the problem: You didn't come. So we did our best. Every stick, no matter how tiny, was coated in ice that had to be melted off before ignition. Likewise every larger piece of wood. So this took awhile. Thank goodness for the Friday USA Today that made the tip with us and keeps our little fire stoked until we could get lasting flames, which after an hour of work we had. Soon, we had a fire any Patio Boy trip would be proud to call its own. And we made a point of staying very close to it, because once the sun went behind the mountains; it was cold, cold, cold.

We had dinner - noodles and chicken for me; freeze-dried stuff from Silver and Brother SP. Silver's was crap. Brother thought the lasagna was as "good as any I've ever eaten at home." Silver would say later, "I said that the first time I tried it too. But the truth is that freeze-dried food is terrible. I'm not buying it again." I had this food epiphany in 1975, and it's good to know that others are still having it. Buy real food; skip the freeze-dried aisle. Always.

Dinner done, we settled in closer to the fire, kept it blazing, and talked about this, that and the other and celebrated the indisputable fact that Verizon's mobile service is superior to AT&T's when you are camping. Three bars. Texts from home and scores and news were at our frozen fingertips.

The problem with it getting dark at 5:30 is that by 7:30 you feel like it's late, and time to go to bed. We made it until about 8, then turned in. I had an iPod with me, and listened to the new live Stephen Stills album until I fell asleep, which was about two songs into it. With a zero degree sleeping bag, I was mostly warm, although my head-hole drawstring was jammed up and I couldn't get the head hole closed enough.  That seemed to elude me all night, so I kept waking up and turning on another album to go back to sleep. I doze off once to Dylan, once to Clapton, once to Van Morrison. It was a long night. About 5 a.m., I ventured out for a bladder matter. It was nearly full moon, and so it was bright beyond belief outside. And brisk beyond belief too. Properly de-urined, I returned to the tent and bag and got warm and went sound asleep, noticing before I did that Brother SP in the tent next door was snoring to high heaven, so he must be warm.

We got up between 8 and 9, me first - and got the fire fired back up. Silver reporting a difficult night, during which he was rarely warm and contemplated just coming out and sleeping by the fire. A ski jacket finally solved the chill enough to let him get a little sleep.

Our morning included one curve ball: The Pocket Rocket fuel canister either was empty or too cold. We made coffee on the open fire - a first for Silver Pops.

Finally, around 10:30 a.m., we headed up the trail toward the AT and, if time permitted, Siler's Bald.  Well, time didn't permit. The trail up to the AT is about five miles, much of it uphill and often steeply so. There is a mini-bald on the way up and we hit that when the sun was up and out, and enjoyed some warmth and marvelous views along with water and some snacks before pressing on. Brother SP warned me at this point that Silver was struggling and that this could be difficult going. But Silver was up to it, as the day would prove. We marched on to the AT, arriving there just after 2 p.m. For some reason, I had in mind that Siler's Bald was 1.9 miles from the AT junction; it is actually 2.9, meaning we would have nearly six miles to travel - far more than we could cover and get back to 27 with the available daylight. So we savored our time on the AT, and then turned back around 2:20 p.m.

The snow on the trail kept a record in footprints of the animals who had been about - squirrels, rabbits, dear, mice, some birds and at least one turkey, something with a dog-like print (fox?) and, twice, bear, once an apparent cub who had walked up a small fallen log that would not have supported an adult, but the other full-grown with a print the size of dinner plate.

I sped downhill and got to camp around 4:30 p.m. and struck my tent, then got a fire going. Silver and Brother SP arrived just after 6 p.m. We packed them up and headed out in the dark, getting back to the Jeep an hour later and, once in cell phone range, ordering two large pizzas. By half time, we in front of a flat screen TV in Brother SP's vacation home north of Pigeon Forge, with a cold beer and a salad to boot. As Silver Pops put it, describing the contrast, "Only in America, boys. Only in America."