Seiler's Bald and Other Tales, Told Honestly for the Ages

 

By Captain

A hiking trip is not one thing. It's the sum of parts that, together, create a whole to become the trip's legacy, stored in our memories to be told and retold, occasionally with accuracy.

Because one part frequently reigns above the others, a trip ends up remembered more for the defining part than for the whole. Hence, the Patio Boys' catalogue is replete with tales such as the Death March, the Landing Party Two Trip and the Fate Saves the Lost Boys Trip. Some us remember Three Frozen Men and a Hot Pizza, a trip when it got down to 15 degrees but each year in the reteling the temperature gets lower ... 14 ... 13 ... 12. One day it will have been cold enough to have solidified the oxygen. Maybe it was.

Each of these hikes possessed a theme or event that overshadowed the bits and pieces. For example, no matter what else happened on the trip when Steve poured out his bourbon to save weight but kept his French press so he'd have gourmet coffee the next morning, that trip will forever be best remembered as the trip when Steve became Frenchie forevermore.

The rightful title for the Spring 2011 trip to the Smoky Mountains could well be the Quest Achieved Trip. Or perhaps the Quest Disappoints Trip. I'll explain that later, but for now let's just say I'm having rouble labeling this trip. It didn't lend itself to a simple sobriquet. It's parts were the trip more than its sum.

The hike was mapped out as a point-to-point trek designed to finally fulfill our goal of bagging Seiler's Bald, a Smoky Mountain POI that had eluded us since we first determined to go there for the ill-fated Fall 2009 trip, when it rained forty days and forty nights but did so in just four days and three nights. As your faithful scribe, I will tell the story of bagging the bald, but I must tell it for what it was, a slice and not the pie. From seeing a bear to seeing ants, from becoming (arguably) Appalachian Trail Section Hikers to missing out on the Rapture, from being insulted to doing a little insulting ourselves, this trip had more variety than W had wars. For the Republicans out there, I'll explain it this way: more variety than Obamacare has flaws.

Here is my account, told as always with veracity and minor, unintentional errors.

Seeing a bear: Most people who see a bear in the woods live to tell the story, as bears eat more grubs and berries in one day than people ever. Still, Ursus americanus is quite capable of dining on Homo sapiens, so no matter how many statistical assurances are offered nothing changes the fact that there are good ways to see a bear and unfortunate ways.

A few years back in Alaska I saw bear one-on-one and up close. The bear was beautiful to behold, and he didn't threaten me. He just looked at me and then at my pack propped against a nearby tree. He wanted the pack; I needed the pack. I Googled my brain to see if I could double-click on a quick link on how best to avoid being dinner. First hit: Give the bear an escape route. So I took a side step slowly toward my pack, which was to my right and to the bear's left. The bear scuttled away. Crisis averted.

The bear we encountered in the Smokies provided a much better (read safer) encounter, largely because three elements changed: more people, more distance and no pack at stake.

We were nearing the end of our hike. The AT was behind us as was the day's heat and it was all downhill from here. A walk in the park. Bob was in the lead and alone; the rest of us chasing. Because the trail curves a lot as it follows the contour of the mountain, Bob remained mostly out of view. But after about 10 minutes, I rounded a bend and saw Bob, stopped in his tracks and urgently giving me some hand singles as if he were a base coach. There, in the hollow below the trail and in plain view was a black bear, munching on the forest's spring banquet and not especially interested in either of us. Bob was close enough to be nervous – 100 yards at the most and probably no more than 60. A few minutes passed before enough Patio Boys arrived for the bear to be bothered by being watched, at which point he ambled up the hollow's steep embankment toward the trail, and then on down the trail. "Whoa!" Bob said, as the bear disappeared around the next bend. And then gave me some instruction. "You can lead now," he said.

We walked on, putting ourselves on high alert and soon saw our bear on the upper side of the trail. I had been hollering out an old nonsensical camp song, "Thought I heard a chicken sneeze ... oh, Mona!" The camp counselor who introduced me to this tune, if a tune it may be said to be, in 1967 was a flat-topped, drill sergeant of a man, who banged a big spoon on a pasta pot as he walked at a fast pace through camp to wake up his pre-pubescent charges and get them to breakfast. If "Thought I Heard  a Chicken Sneeze" could motivate bleary-eyed, homesick boys to get moving, it was also certain to frighten off bears. Or so I assume. It did not. Our bear stopped dead, turned and looked at us as if we were weird. He stayed put long enough to get his photograph taken, looking as harmless as a golden retriever. And then he sauntered off.

This is how you want to see a bear.

Stick to The Plan ... or not: We Patio Boys put a high premium on planning our trips, usually at the insistence, and persistence, of Bob, who excels at logistics.

Before this trip, Bob stopped by my house one evening and I mentioned the need to have a planning meeting soon. Our spring trip was about three weeks off and we still hadn't agreed on a plan. Why bother, he asked. No one actually talks about the plan during a planning meeting; everyone just eats, drinks and gets merry. That is sort of true, though Bob, to his credit, does attempt planning and, though at age 57 he has never registered to vote, he does seem to hold dear the truths our founders found self-evident about all men. He's democratic. He presents options, seeks alternatives and puts it all to a vote. Invariably, someone asks, "Bob, which one do you like?" He hesitates, citing the value of the majority over his singular opinion – but finally gives in to the peer pressure and let's his preference be known. The votes then fall into place.

The bigger issue isn't whether to have a party, but where? It is the obligation of every Patio Boy except Frenchie to hold a party. Frenchie's obligation is simply to say he will host one. If he actually did, we would be denied the joy of bitching that he has the best patio among us yet he never actually hosts a party. This bitching is one of the great pleasures in our lives and we'd be really irritated were Frenchie to ever deprive us of it.

For this trip, Mr. McGinnis stepped up immediately. "I will host," he emailed with speed and clarity. Bob vetoed the offer as Mr. McGinnis lives in Campbell County and the Patio Boys are Kenton County based. Not that we're provincial, but crossing a county line is asking a lot. This particular crossing would put the Boys, who have sworn allegiance and life to Covington Catholic within the jurisdiction of Highlands, a high school attended only by cake-eaters and reprobate football stars with unestablished residency (and the children of one of the most likeable Patio Boys, they being quite likeable children to boot).

In the end, the ever-hospitable Silver Pops offered his Kenton County abode, with its very fine basement, wet bar, big-screen, HDTV and location within sight of several yard signs that read, it being May, "A Covington Catholic graduate lives here" -- which is sort of the modern-day equivalent of smearing the blood of a lamb on our doorframe. Here, a plan could be hatched.

For those of you who have followed our fortunes, you'll know that in 2009 and 2010 the Patio Boys had some disquieting experiences after some members of our band of brothers failed to follow The Plan. We had devolved into the habit of leaving town not only at different times, but even on different days. Confusion resulted. Some hikers were misplaced on the trail for the better part of a day -- not lost; we have never been lost, dammit! So in 2011 we were resolute: leave together, hike together, stick to The Plan.

So what did we do for the first big hike of 2011? We left together, more or less. We hiked together, more or less. And we amended The Plan together, more or less.

It happened like this: After the 12.5 mile Day One hike had rendered everyone sore, many of us blistered, and Silver Pops sick to his stomach, it was clear no one wanted to go on the 15-mile day hike the next morning, even without packs, as The Plan called on us to do. We would see waterfalls, the last of the spring wildflowers and who knows, maybe another bear. And the next day we'd have a long hike out, eight or nine miles.

It wasn't going to happen. We held a camp council. Options were devised, discussed, dissected, dismissed and new ones concocted. A man in the next camp came by and mentioned that his teen-age son had just informed him that he needed to be home by 3 p.m. the next day for a Chinese exam. A Chinese exam? Really? The Tennessee schools are better than we'd assumed.

Dad and Kids would be leaving at the break of dawn. We could have their campsite, he offered. Never mind that. How about a ride? Their car was a couple of miles downhill at a different exit point from where our cars were parked. We had a bad case of exit point envy. He could then shuttle a couple of us to our vehicles, and our guys could shuttle a couple of our cars back to the nearer trailhead to pick up the rest of the gang. Good plan.

"Good luck with that," Dad replied to our inquiry, thus proofing that ill-considered, rude, arrogant, thoughtless remarks are not strict province of TSA body inspectors and the woman who answers the phone at my urologist's office. Did we say something to offend this man? At times like this, you ask yourself: Who would want to ride to Jake's Creek with that lower-than-worm-sweat knothead anyway? Whatever his name was, it was short for the name he earned by his failure to assist us in our time of need. This name begins with an "a" and when pronounced quickly rhymes with castle.

In the end, we settled on moving closer to our cars by hiking back to the AT the next day, and on to Campsite 27, a legendary site for the Patio Boys. It was where, on the Fall 2009 trip, a splinter group of Patio Boys camped after veering from The Plan. And it is where Silver Pops and I camped that same winter when it was snowy and 15 degrees out. It was from this site on both of those trips that we intended to hike to Seiler's Bald, failing twice.

Camping on 27 would put us a short, downhill hike to Jake's Creek on Monday morning. Good as the plan was, there's no avoiding the fact that we did what we said we would not: We did not stick to The Plan.

Don't let the rapture pass you by: Robbie Robertson has a new album out and I recommend it simply because if Robbie Robertson is writing lyrics, playing the guitar and singing, it will be an exceptional album. If you doubt this, go back and listen to "Storyville," his first solo album, and see if your are not transported to the muggy, night streets of New Orleans by his song about a street preacher and his "proud shoes, coming on up the alley... tipped his hat, just like Don Quixote and said, 'Don't let the rapture pass you by.'"

We arrived at the Elkmont Campground on the afternoon of May 20, one day before the predicted 6 p.m. rapture on May 21. And as luck would have it, we arrived simultaneously with an RV painted in many colors and celebrating the end of the world on May 21. The paint job advertised an internet radio station, where, presumably, all the latest news on the rapture and its implications could be heard.

As we walked into the ranger hut to register for our campsite, the RV rapture couple was wrapping up their registration. They were African-American. She was a large and vocal woman, who fanned herself in the heat and was urgently curious about dining options in Gatlinburg for the evening. He had the distinctive dignity of a minister of the gospel you might find at a neighborhood Methodist A.M.E. church. He was the kind of man who could comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, either one with equal ease and authority. Upon his successful registration, he looked the park ranger in the eye with stunning intensity, as if there were no other person on earth at that moment and no message more important than the words he was about to say, and he said, "Thank you. You have brought joy to us."

And with that, he and his wife left, circled the campground once and, presumably, were off to Gatlinburg for dinner on the eve of the rapture. Would that the rest of us possessed the peace in our souls to simply go for a quiet dinner in a tourist town with faith in tact and our beloved in tow, even as Earth's final hours ticked away. I'll have the fishes and loaves, please. With water. No, make that wine.

We did not see them again. So don't be so sure that the rapture didn't happen. By biblical delineation, the rapture is not the end of the world. It is, instead, exactly what another part of the painting on the rapture RV said, "the beginning of the end." The chosen move along to heaven; the balance of humanity is stuck below to wait out the end, and given a second chance at redemption. Don't let the rapture pass you by.

Section hikers: The AT has its day hikers, who just visit. It has its overnighters, who get a taste of the big trail but little more. And, of course, it has its through hikers who make it from Georgia to Maine, a feat worthy of admiration whether accomplished one weekend at a time over the course of years, as some do it, or accomplished between one spring and one fall, as others do it.

We met a young college student – trail name, "The Quiet One" – who was started on this journey. He was purifying water at a small stream behind an AT hut at the same time as us. "I had another trail name," he explained, "but this old guy said to me one night, 'You don't say much. You are the quiet one.' I kind of like that, so I think that will be my trail name for now on." He started with a 60-pound pack but now had it down to 40 after 200 miles on the trail. He had replaced his boots once, and was otherwise learning to be a more optimal hiker. It would be great to talk to him again in a month or two to learn of his latest advancements. A student at Auburn University, he had decided to take a semester or so off and see if he might find in himself a burning desire to do something purposeful with his life, to be a more optimal human. He had come to the conclusion that his old course of study was the wrong direction.

So it is with the AT; people come here to reboot, literally and figuratively.

We also met two women whose husbands consider roughing it being in the long grass along a fairway. The two women, one 60 and the other a decade younger, had geared up to hike the AT. This was their shakedown cruise. This night would be their first in a tent. Adventure almost surely lies ahead. The AT lets you meet an endless stream of interesting people like those two ladies – people who are bold enough to try something, and for whom life is journey that may or may not have a destination, but it certainly has steps to be taken. Onward and upward, dear people.

Until this trip, the Patio Boys were AT overnighters. We did a section of the trail last fall in North Carolina. Now we were doing another section. That could qualify us as "section hikers" – that is, backpackers who set out to do the whole AT, one section at a time, in no required order but with the ambition of finishing the whole trail at some point.

There's just one problem with this designation as it pertains to us: We don't plan on doing any other sections of the AT. Not that we don't like the people. But the trail tends be a bit of a trudge. There are better walks in the woods.

Meet the Porch Boys: Picture this. Nine of us sprawled out in various states of disrepair, weary and blistered, sore and in serious need of anti-inflammatories. This was the scene at Campsite 28 at end of the first day's hike, which seemed an especially long 12.5 miles, probably because of the hills and heat. Up on the AT, every downhill was followed by an uphill that was, inexplicably, steeper than the downhill that proceeded it. The weather felt more like muggy August than comfortable May.

Arriving late, we were relegated to the left-over fire and tent sites at 28, and it was tight quarters for the nine tents already pitched, and tighter still for adding two more once the last of the Patio Boys arrived. Seven tents had to be pitched along the camp's access trail, on a narrow shelf of land from which the mountain quickly rose straight and steep. At a really spacious Smokies campsite, our tents might be 30 yards or more from each other. Here, vestibules emptied into each other. We'd be sleeping closer to each other than a Tea Party zealot sleeps to his copy of "Atlas Shrugged." The arrangement of lime green, duck yellow and the occasional beige fabric made it look like Christo has passed through.

Into this sorry scene walked two 20-something hikers from the better tent sites just up the trail. They shuffled purposefully into our midst, fearing, no doubt, that they might be catching a glimpse of their own futures and worrying they, too, might in 30 or 40 years look like this pitiful crew after a mere day hike. Perhaps they thought we should have had the dignity to stay home amid the begonia beds.

Whatever their thoughts, they kept them to themselves. They were here as messengers. Messengers of Doom. "Uh," one began with the reluctant deference of a young man forced into respectful intercourse with elders he could not bring himself to respect. "Are you guys the Porch Boys?"

The Porch Boys? It was so dismissive and distaining that it didn't register. Porch Boys. Who would call themselves by such an idiotic name? Get out the rocking chairs and sweet tea! These grandpas are ready for the porch. And then it dawned on us collectively. "Do you mean the Patio Boys?" Yes," they replied, unable to recognize the important distinction between porch and patio, the latter emblematic of men in full and the former emblematic of denouement and numbered days.

"We passed a couple of your guys up on the AT. One has really bad blisters all over his feet and can't walk. The other is really sick. They said send help."

OK, that sounded really urgent, didn't it? We thanked them, they turned and left, and we stirred slightly has we pondered the fate of our comrades. Blisters – how bad could they be? And what does really sick mean, anyway? Missing was Doc, who often walks slow but strong, and Silver Pops, who walks slower but also strong. We didn't expect them for another half hour or so. But "send help" had the ring of need, and so we organized a rescue posse. Three of us, Dave, Bob and me – being the least beat up – set off to see just how bad things might be and to render aid as needed.

Suffice it to say matters were not as dire as reported. Doc was within a quarter mile of camp and Silver Pops within a mile. Both were upright and, though tired, walking reasonably well. We took Silver Pops' pack for him, and returned. He had in fact been tossing his lunch up on the AT, and taking frequent breaks. But at 62, he's the oldest among us. It was hot. The trail challenging. His pack on the heavy side. Considering those factors, he was doing quite well, thank you very much.

Porch Boys? Kiss my wallet pocket, kids.

Dinner, on the trail and off: We have a new tradition on the front end of the trip (a steak, well-seasoned and seared to order on portable charcoal grill) and an Option B on the back end of the trip (Five Guys rather than a Sonic, if one is nearby). Who says the Boys are set in our ways? We can change. We can adapt. We cannot progress beyond our usual Pleistocene ways.

What happens before and after a hike is important, but with regard to dinner the rubber meets the road on the trail and at the end of the day around the campfire, when calories are burned up and refueling required. So, pun required, we divide into four camps with regard to dinner: freeze-dried, Lipton Noodles, gourmet and Mooch.

The freeze-dried camp has become partial to the Mountain House Chili Mac, for the same reasons expressed by an online review: "Delicious, Easy to Make, Fairly Filling, Best freeze-dried food." Couldn't have said it better ourselves, although "delicious" is relative. It is not delicious at all; it is only more delicious than other freeze-dried food. Trail food involves compromises, and with freeze-dried you compromise taste for convenience. Just add boiling water and dine. No muss, no fuss. It's fast, it's light and requires only a spoon since you can eat straight from the bag.

Lipton Noodles aren't much more difficult, although it is important to avoid the varieties that require milk and butter. Combined with a foil pack of chicken chunks that don't require refrigeration and you have yourself a cheap, easy meal. For variety, change Lipton flavors for night two and use a foil pack tuna rather than chicken. Highly recommended.

A footnote to this: On the way down, I asked Doc what he brought for dinner and he was all about the Lipton/chicken combo. But he told me he brought just one foil pack of chicken, which I admired. At 8 to 10 ounces, a foil pack is real weight and when you double it by bringing one for each night you are quickly bulking up your pack. This is exactly how a 35-pound load turns into a 40-pound load, one innocent pound at a time. This trip, I was committed to the 35-pound pack so this was good stuff that Doc was telling me. What, I asked, are you going to eat on the second night out, he replaied: "I'm going to eat half the chicken one night and the rest the second nigh." "Won't it go bad?" I asked, mindful that this promised to be warm couple of days. "Not that fast. It takes bacteria longer to grow. And besides, even if it does, you won't get sick until you get home." That from gastroenterologist. Amen brother. I'm in.

Gourmet? Nothing will top finding some morels on the trail, and simmering them with olive oil, sea salt and cracked pepper, and adding them to angel hair pasta. Anyone bring a crisp, minerally chardonnay? But morels are rare; we've found them only twice. This trip, I tried a new concoction that I hereby commend. Fundamental was the discovery of mini-gnocchi, which are about half-sized. They boil in two minutes. That's a godsend on the trail. If you mix a few of these with a boil-in-the-bag brown rice and a dose of orzo, you have a stick-to-your-ribs base that can be easily dressed up. I dressed it up with some olive oil (bring 2 ounces), sea salt, pepper, paprika, garlic and some slices of sun-dried tomatoes ... and for good measure, a half foil pack of chicken breast.

Footnote number two: I used the second half on night two and lived to tell the story.

Mooching is the lightest, quickest, most convenient way to dine. Total weight: 1 ounce for a fork – best not to borrow one of those. Bob could go on tour as a consultant on this one. He's an expert.

Newbies: A trip is always improved by the company of new hikers, and this hike was especially improved by the presence of Ank's brother from California and Ank's son, recently graduated from Western Kentucky University with a bachelor's of fine arts in painting, which means this hike could soon be captured on canvas as a colorful abstraction. We may not recognize ourselves but we have mirrors for that, and it's not always a pretty sight.

New people give you the chance to tell old stories like they were fresh, and to hear some stories in return. Brother Ank's story was particularly compelling. He hikes a lot out West, often for a week or more at a time and with his wife – so he is setting the bar high for the Patio Boys. We've been looking for a role model, but we don't look all that hard so it was convenient for a role model to just show up out of the blue and hike with us.

Many times on our past trips our Ank had regaled us with tales of his older brother – and not just about his hikes but also about his gear wisdom. He was the unseen equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for trail gadgets. It was Brother Ank's early adaption of the Steripen to purify water that pricked our curiosity about this new, high-tech device. "My brother swears by these," Our Ank told us, as he stirred his new Steripen through a cup of water teaming with invisible evil-doers. The $100 pen may look like a $15 baby thermometer, but it disinfects like a water treatment plant that would fit comfortably into Sheldon Cooper's pocket protector. No runlet of water runs too foul to escape the powers of the Steripen to convert a cup of it into Dansani-quality hydration in 49 seconds or less.

So meeting Brother Ank was a big deal. The guru is humble in person and a regular guy, even if he has been through a resurrection. The story goes like this: An avid hiker who played basketball regularly and who is married to a woman 12 years his junior, Brother Ank seemed the picture of virility at age 61. But on his last hike out west, he had some chest pains – severe enough to signal he'd best get to a hospital. Sure enough, a blood clot was trying to kill him. "You are lucky to be alive," one doc told him. Aren't we all?

Whatever his death scare took out of him, it didn't take the ability to hike strong and steady and smile relentlessly, dawn to dusk.

As for Young Ank, he seemed to be taking in all in, and I can only imagine that this trip will live in his memory for years to come, and perhaps be a story he tells his own children some day – a story that will include admiring descriptions of Grandpa Ank and the Patio Boys. Plus, there will be the one-man show of abstract paintings one day a MOMA, featuring us.

Brother Ank and Young Ank, after three nights out, you now are officially Patio Boys yourselves. Welcome.

A quest and disillusionment: The signature fact about this trip was that we set out on a quest. Three times a Patio Boy contingent had left Northern Kentucky with one goal in mind: Seiler's Bald. Three times, the quest had failed. Once, drenching rains did us in. The next time, snow and ice averted the ascent. And most recently, Silver Pops returned with Mrs. Silver Pops – only to be turned back by wind and fog. Seiler's Bald, it was beginning to seem, was our Everest, our Grail, our Great White Whale.

On the way down, someone declared that this would be the trip on which we finally got the job done. Scratch Seiler's Bald off the bucket list, boys, we got 'er done. Not so fast. It is the nature of a quest that its success is never assured at a journey's start. Murk and muck may await. Like the mighty knights in the Monty Python's classic, we could be averted at every turn. Frenchmen might fart in our general direction. There's just no telling.

At Clingman's Dome – our starting point – things began ominously. Bob took off without the rest of us because, well, he was there and ready to go; if others were not, that would be their problem no his. We're used to that. Let Bob be Bob. We'd catch up.

The rest of us did a final check of our packs, put foot powder on to avoid blisters, talked to some cyclists who had pedaled up in less than an hour, averaging 10.2 mph, and without the known use of steroids or other chemical supplements. Wow.

In due time, we set out, only to come immediately upon a choice: low road or high? We did what we knew we should not. We split up. Half one way, half the other. One group followed the expert counsel of two guys in a janitorial truck, who advised taking the low road. The other group (I among them) had our doubts because the low road went downhill and it just didn't seem right that we would be going downhill right off the bat. Too easy. So we headed uphill, toward the Clingman's Dome tower. Turns out, either route was fine. They merged. The low road boys got the advantage of going downhill; the high road boys got to see the view from the tower (impressive) and bragging rights (we actually hiked from Clingman's Dome, and did not take a shortcut).

And so we were off, and on the way to Seiler's Bald. It was a hike over sawtooth ridge that at times opened to fantastically expansive views of the lower mountains laid out like a vast green, lumpy carpet. Much of the early hike was gentle ups and downs, and the heat had not yet taken its full toll. The Quest was on.

Some three or so miles into the hike, the trail headed straight uphill. This was the final assault on Seiler's Bald. After two years, three failed attempts and a silly fixation that, at this point in our lives, should have instead been focused on maximizing our retirement wealth and not on the perceived and exaggerated difficulty of bagging Seiler's Bald.

To be honest, a bowling team could walk from Clingman's Dome to Seiler's Bald while drinking warm beer and eating chili dogs. This wasn't Denali. The AT is to Seiler's Bald is to Denali as a Panera's parking lot is to the Indy 500. Challenging at times but only occasionally death defying – in the Panera's parking lot, only during the three minutes after Urban Active's morning Zumba class ends and there's a moms' rush of SUVs, hungry for crunchy cinnamon bagels and skinny lattes, light whipped cream. In the case of Seiler's Bald, the challenge is when ice, snow and wind combine to convert the ridgetop into a misplaced Artic environment. Even then, it's not Denali. The truth is, time and comfort (no one really wanted to walk up there in the rain) had more to do with our failure than the difficulty of the task.

All that said, the Patio Boys had in fact tried before to get to Seiler's Bald and failed. This was it. The moment. The quest was at hand.

One by one, we climbed that last hill, and one by one we arrived, each anticipating an expansive, remote bald, blessed with a 360-degree view of Smoky majesty. The wait was over. Glory was upon us! Praise the awe! Sing to the majesty!

One little problem. Seiler's Bald is none of that. Memo to the Seiler family: You might want to complain to the Park Service, which has clearly favored the Gregory family in naming Smoky Mountain balds.

The Park Service has given Seiler's Bald back to nature, and nature is reclaiming it with a fury. Balds are not natural; they were created by man, clearing trees. In the case of Gregory's Bald, azaleas were planted to replace nature's garden of deciduous trees. The acres and acres of azaleas blaze red in the fall, creating a spectacular meadow of color atop a high mountain where you expect Julie Andrews to burst spectrally from nowhere, like ball players from an Iowa cornfield. People like this kind of bald experience and consider it a seminal Smoky Mountain back country venue, the facts of its fakeness and manmade landscape be damned.

So we set our sights on Seiler's Bald with expectations. We did not expect what we found. We did not expect Seiler's Bald to be an anthill. That's right. An anthill. When we finally got to Seiler's Bald and plopped down by the U.S. Geological Survey marker for the lunch we had saved for this moment, we found it impossible to remain for than a microsecond without an attack of the razor-toothed ants of Seiler's Bald. We moved on.

So there's our account. The Quest Achieved. The Quest Disappoints. The shorter version goes like this: Veni, vidi, vici, brother. Seiler's Bald? Check it off the list.