The Slog through Wet Bottom, and Our Unspoken Tribute to Hiker

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Spring 2013 trip to Abrams Creek in the Smoky Mountains: April 26-29

By Captain

One tent floated atop a tiny lake exactly the dimension of the tent above it. Another just leaked from the top and sides. Waterproof boots weren't. Rain jackets apparently were so named because they attract rain, not repel it. Strike-anywhere matches do in fact strike anywhere. They just don't light anywhere, particularly in a 48-hour downpour.

Blame Sean Hudson. He, Bob told us, was the reason for the rain. Sean was pissing on us.

By the time of this declaration, we were in the parking lot of a barbeque joint in Maryville, Tenn., damp, smelly and headed home a day early from Abrams Creek in the Great Smoky Mountains. Misery may love company but company, even good company, doesn't love misery. We'd had enough.

But Sean pissing on us? Really? Why? Pissing on us because he was pissed off? Doesn't fit the schema. I don't know the full nature of the afterlife, but I would like to believe at the very least it does not involve being angry. Heaven may or may not have many mansions, streets of gold and a winged Billie Holiday singing "Ain't Misbehavin." But at the very least it should have eternal joy.

Bob may be right. The rain was Sean's doing. But the big man, Sean, not God, was having some fun, showering us, drenching us, saturating us with no more malice than if he'd had squirt gun. "Look at those guys," he must have said, with that chuckle that came as naturally to him as speech. "I got 'em good!" He was like a kid writing his name in yellow in the snow. He was taking aim and hitting all his marks.

Two shadows cast themselves long and dark of this trip. One was the fresh memory of the fall trip to Pine Mountain, when rain turned to sleet and sleet to snow. The group got split in two, one more lost than the other as the weather turned foul and fouler. The threat of hypothermia was real and pressing. The snow came as a blizzard, making the exit more challenging. It blew hard against the trees, obscuring the trail markers, and fell deep enough to hide the trail. This was our first since Pine Mountain, and no one was in a mood for another weather fiasco.

The second shadow was the loss of a friend. Sean Hudson died unexpectedly in February. We don't know why. We do know that we loved him and loved his company. He made us laugh, he made us think, he made us jealous of his gear and he made us more or less affectionate toward Gimli, his hot-breathed, slobbering dog, who carried his own dog food inside the canine panniers Sean strapped to Gimli's sides because canine panniers are cool gear and Sean was a sucker for cool gear.

We also know this: Sean loved - adored - his kids, Sam and Carley. By one account they had been with him at his place the weekend before his passing. It had been a glorious day. Sean was splitting some wood and working up a sweat. He seemed a little too exhausted from it, and that has led to speculation about what might have brought on his death. A heart attack? An illness? We don't know. In fact, we barely knew of his death. Bob found out because of some cryptic postings on Facebook, where, by the way, in his profile picture Sean sits with Carley, who is as slight as he is large. Both are smiling. Both look like they are ready to get the picture over and get back to whatever fun they were having. If you look through the pictures Sean posted on his Facebook page, they show you what he liked to do. One photo is with his son, a pickup truck and camping gear. Another is of him with both kids on a rock at a lake, ready for a swim. He didn't bother posting pictures boasting of his personal achievements or his political positions. He wanted the world to see him in the context he most valued, as a dad.

His obituary was matter-of-fact, as death notices usually are: "HUDSON, Sean M. of Cincinnati passed away Saturday February 16th, 2013 at the age of 45. Devoted son of Cynthia Palmer and the late Ronald Hudson. Loving father of Sam and Carley Hudson, caring brother of Mark Hudson and Amy Cowart. Loving companion of Christine Boyle. Mr. Hudson is also survived by his former wife Elizabeth Meyer. Sean was a Free Mason and Eastern Star. No flowers please. Private services will be held at the convenience of the family. Expressions of sympathy may be made in the form of memorial contributions to the Sean Hudson Memorial Fund (education fund for his children Sam and Carley) at any Fifth Third bank location."

It might have added: And proud Patio Boy, known to his companions by his trail name, "Hiker" - a tribute to how natural it seemed to be with him on the trail.

There are aspects of Sean's life that the Patio Boys are not able to address. The truth is, we didn't know him well off the trail. We knew about some of his struggles, as we know about the various struggles all of us have had. We lose jobs, we lose parents. We've fought cancer, survived heart attacks.  Some of us struggle with faith, or love, or addiction. Our family members go astray. We go astray. Money is short. Time, too. The is joy in life, too, and we share that on the trail. Sean certainly did.

There is time on the trail to talk. On any given hike, two or three of us will shoot ahead, or lag back, and just chat: What's up with your kids? Your job? Your life? We might talk religion or politics. We might talk religion and politics. Or music. Or sports. Or movies. Anything really. But for hours on end through the short hikes and long, we talk in ways that people rarely do these days. We don't talk in 148 characters or by posting pronouncements for people to "like."  We listen. We reflect. We share without abash. You could call it male bonding, but that would sell it short. We are bonded already. And male already. It's as if we are brothers, and our hikes are a chance to catch up. We may or may not see much of each other between hikes. Some of us are neighbors and see each other often. Others live further away and don't interact much in between, and Sean was in that group.

My own memories of walking with Sean Hudson begin with gear discussions. Proud to be a gearhead, he always had the best stuff. He once worked at boutique outdoors shop, so he knew how long one stove took to boil a quart of water versus another, which purifier's filter clogged too soon, what "zero degree bag" really meant when it turns frosty out and the only thing between you and freezing to death is duck feathers. I think he was carrying a Gregory backpack on my inaugural Patio Boys hike in October 2005. Only gearheads carry Gregories. No LL Bean or Kelty for them.

Sean was an original member of the hiking group – a member even before the group had a name. He and Bob knew each other from Children's Hospital, where they both worked in the 1990s. They and their merry band started out by hiking Kentucky's Sheltowee Trace Trail - Boone's route through Kaintuckee - knocking off sections of it one weekend at a time until they had done all 282 miles.

In pictures from those early hikes, Sean is oddly slender and hardly recognizable to those of us who got to know him later, by which time his body was transformed. Tall and broad, his was Hemingwayesque in stature, all head and torso atop spindly legs. The Gregory looked small on him, as if he was carrying a kid's pack. Somehow, that pack carried everything but the kitchen sink, and it may have had one of those in a side pocket. We have some Patio Boys who are known for bringing gadgets and gizmos. Frenchie, so named because of his French press, also carries a coffee bean grinder and a titanium mini-cot so he can sleep as if at the Westin. But Frenchie is an archenteron of accoutrement next to Sean, and he knew it. He was in awe of the big man's pack contents, as well as of the toll the load took on Sean's feet:

"He was the Patio Boys' gentle giant - always smiling, even through blisters so frequent and so horrible that applying moleskin was akin to putting a Band-Aid on a gash. His 60-pound backpacks were legendary, with cans of meats and pork-n-beans (plus a can opener!) and half pound cheese wraps, and once even a full-length of polish kielbasa that he cut into sections and dispensed to the entire group. You never knew what would pop out of his pack next. I marveled how it all could fit inside. I worried about ounces while passing through the aisles at Kroger, while Sean worried only about protein while empting his refrigerator and pantry. Mary Poppins' handbag had nothing on Sean Hudson's backpack."

The pantry transformed his bowels, causing one Patio Boy to label him "Sean Rectal Disorder." As Frenchie explained: "When Sean finished his meal, his 'cheese' guaranteed him plenty of elbow room around the fire. Its odor was strong enough to make bears keep their distance, and usually lasting long enough and loud enough to replace a bear bell for the next day's hike."

Sean wasn't boastful about this talent. On the contrary, he seemed to admire his competitors in the gaseous arts, as this excerpt from his contribution to the pages of the Patio Boys' common journal attests: "Dave is passing something toxic from his ass. Bob stays close behind with a bottle for stove gas." Elsewhere in the same October 2004 entry, Sean described the scene around the campfire: "The high altitude has pressurized Dave's bowels eliminating the need for musical instruments or radio." Mel Brooks would be proud. Blazing Saddles II could have been filmed live on this trip, with little need for a scriptwriter. In a final entry on this topic, Sean writes: "If Dave keeps farting, I'll have to duct tape his crack." You can almost smell the fun.

Finding those passages had me paging through the common journal, looking for other stories signed by "Hiker." I found this gem, also from 2004, when the Patio Boys went to Pretty Hollow Gap, a trip that rises in the annals because much that would come to define the Boys happened on this hike, including Frenchie's decision to dump his bourbon, and his water, to save weight, whiling holding onto the French press and grinder, decisions Bob would describe in his journal entry a "two of the top ten dumbest things a backpacker can do and he did them at the same time. What a rookie mistake!"

If that seems cutting, consider Sean's takedown of his elders, which, as it happens, is most of us. The time and date, 8:15 p.m. on Oct. 8, 2004, were dutifully recorded in Sean's signature san serif printing, which seems to have been written as fast as he could write it without sacrificing legibility. It was probably a skill he developed around the hospital, where his communications needed to be accomplished forthwith but with clarity, lest someone's dose be misread. Funny how life off the trail mixes into life on the trail. The day had been a difficult, uphill mostly, and the Boys were tuckered out. I'll let Sean take it from here:

"Here we all sit trying to psych each other up about tomorrow's forced march to the clouds. We fear we may lose one or two of our new recruits in the A.M. We're considering making an offer on his sporty new tent due to the possibility that it will never be used again."

"The big group is nice, and quite entertaining. I hope when I get as old as they are I can still hike without my dentures falling out and my bowels losing control. I admire their fortitude. They'll be the studs of their nursing home next year. The stories about who wins the most absorbent undergarment on the trip are getting sort of tiring. They are excited about getting lunch at Bill Knapp's upon our return."

Ironic, isn't it, that we, his elders, outlived him. Maybe that pissed him off. But again, anger just wasn't in Sean's DNA. Ire and Sean Hudson would be like sexy and Ma Kettle, smart and the Three Stooges, kind and Dick Cheney. They not only don't go together. They're polar opposites. The occasional scowl, you could expect that from Sean. But anger? Wrong guy. As Frenchie put it, "I never heard Sean say a cross word about anyone, nor ever raise his voice in anger. Something to aspire to."

We have tradition of taking a group photo just before we head on the trail, and there's one from when we went to Mammoth Cave. Sean has his arms crossed and, sure enough, he's scowling. His middle fingers - twin birds - extend proudly, impishly, the right bird resting on the left forearm and the left bird resting on the right forearm. Time to hike. Time to cut up.

So I don't imagine Sean plotting 48 hours of rain anger. But plotting a prank? That's our boy.

From his celestial perch, he could see us gathered in Bob's basement the night before departure for the vaunted Planning Meeting. The maps were carefully laid out on the ping pong table. Bob handed us each photo copies of the five options, as if we were going to have a say in this. We had a say in beverage (beer or bourbon) but little else. We debated the pros and cons of each option and even concocted an Option 6 and 7. In the end, the discussion was  for show. It always is. The Patio Boy trip planning is not democratic. Bob tells us what we are doing and we follow like blind mice. Lemings. Lambs to slaughter.

It's amusing even when it is happening all around you, so I imagine it was even funnier for Sean while sitting around an Elysian campfire with an all-star lineup of dearly departed outdoorsman: a caveman named Ug (being Paleolithic, he predated the Patio Boys but is our truest ancestor), Socrates (OK, he didn't camp so much but he did prefer philosophizing outdoors at the agora to being indoors at the Erechtheion), John the Baptist (locusts and wild honey qualify him, for chrissakes), Gregory XII (the first pope to resign liked the woods more than his palace), Daniel Boone (naturally) and Pots and Pansy (the first Patio Boy to die). There they were, a Patio Boys II assembled by Sean, to see what pranks they could pull at our expense.

They knew about the last trip, the one to Pine Mountain that put lives in peril. They agreed, nothing so serious this time around. But a little rain never hurt anyone. They laughed, bumped fists and said, "Let's do this thing." Actually, Socrates said: "A system of morality which is based on relative emotional values is a mere illusion, a thoroughly vulgar conception which has nothing sound in it and nothing true." The other guys took that to mean: We're a go.  Let's rain on the Patio Boy parade. If Noah were a Patio Boy, he would already have been counting his cubits.

Sean laid out his prank carefully. As with any Patio Boy worth his Woodford Reserve and Diet Mountain Dew can tell you, you make a plan and you stick to it. It involved embarassment. Ours. It was less about the rain, more about what would make us dress in gift shop rain ponchos decorated with Disney characters and be seen in public?

Our plan, before Sean messed with it, called for us to arrive at the Abrams Creek campground on Friday, April 26, hike in, set up camp, lounge round Saturday, day hike 20 miles on Sunday, then hike out on Monday morning.

Things started more or less OK. We arrived in shifts, with Bob, Jim, Bill, Silver Pops and McMark all arriving early in the day, when it was still sunny and dry. They did a day hike, got dinner in town and then hiked on to Campsite 17, just as outlined in Option 5 – the chosen option. Seventeen is a beautiful site: spacious, with good fire pits, plentiful firewood, flat places to pitch tents and within earshot of Abrams Creek's rushing waters, a calming sound any time of day but a wondrous sound to fall asleep and wake up hearing.

Hennessey and I arrived around midnight on Friday. We slept in his SUV, with the backseats folded down and a gentle rain that ceased at daybreak, as if on cue. We hiked the 3.2 to Campsite 17 with the forgivable allusion of a dry day ahead, the forecast (showers followed by showers) be damned.

By 9 a.m. on Saturday, our tents were pitched and our gear organized. With everyone together the day young, we decided to take a long hike on Saturday rather than hang around the campsite all day. So by 10:30 a.m., we were on Little Bottom Trail, headed for Abrams Falls, a trip that took us over a high ridge that had been stripped clear of its woods by a 2011 tornado. The winds left a sweeping view of Abrams Creek and the valley it cut through the mountains over eons come and gone. With some brush and other new growth, the damage is taking on a kind of raw beauty that distinguishes this section of the Smokies from the park's routine lushness. It reminded us of being in Glacier, where the trails wind over weather-scarred, exposed mountains with grand views of the surrounding range.

Abrams Falls was less than an hour's walk, and rewarding to see in its own right. It is a 20-foot cascade, mesmerizing to watch as the patterns of falling water dance in repetitive splendor. We snacked on trail mix and sausage, quenched our thirst and moved on.

Silver Pops suggested a walk to Cades Cove, just to extend the day hike. Abrams Falls can be reached via the backcountry route we took, or from a shorter, wider trail emanating from the Cades Cove Visitor Center. We were still fresh and mostly dry, so sure, why not? Let's hike on up. Consensus reached. Jim ("the Guru") had shin splits that were acting up, so he headed back to camp.

Climbing toward Cades Cove, we were no longer is a wilderness alone. Tourists streamed down the trail almost as much as the rivulets of rain. Each group seemed less qualified to be in the woods than the one before. We passed a great-grandma wearing New Balance walking shoes (white) and carrying an umbrella to keep her stretch pants dry in one hand and holding her 4-year-old granddaughter's hand in the other. We passed a Japanese man smiling and chattering endlessly, gleefully in Japanese and, as if he felt compelled to be a stereotype, snapping pictures in every direction, while his wife and another woman frowned at the prospect of going one step further. We passed a Swedish woman who barely out of the comfort her Volvo's heated seats at the Cades Cove parking lot, asked, "Am I almost there?"

Feeling superior, we hiked out, bathed in hubris.

Almost unnoticed, some of the Mountain Hard Wear, Marmot, Columbia and North Face GoLite gear was starting to fail. With each step, my socks squeegeed the puddles of water inside my boots. Is that what makes the wool smart? Others felt their clothing dampening beneath their Gortex jackets.

At the top of the trail, we could see the Visitor Center about a mile off across a field. It beckoned. Ours being a backcountry hike, the Visitor Center at Cades Cove was not on the itinerary. Going there would be like a NASCAR driver bowing out of Daytona in favor of the bumper car arcade. But we went, imagining a warm, modern – and dry – Visitor Center.

What we found instead was something Silver Pops later described as "like Daniel Boone's carriage house." It was a log cabin with a porch, on which were gathered an assortment of tourists. Honeymooners. Grandpas taking grandsons for the day. Mennonites. They streamed in from the parking lot to browse the postcards and picture books. It was too wet to hike, but not too wet to shop.

We propped ourselves up on a bench and held court. Seeing backpackers at the Visitor Center was a high point for many visitors, liked going to the zoo. We ranked higher than going inside to price pastel golf shirts that said "Cades Cove" on the breast pockets. One man talked rain gear with Silver Pops, and told us how he once had some Gortex socks that he wore when golfing in wet grass. The Patio Boys were fast becoming the Front Porch Boys, a poor excuse of a hiking club. A true embarrassment to the tribe.

It would only get worse.

Fault a simple question: Do you think the hand blower in the men's room would dry our clothes out? Sure, if we spent the day in the men's room, stripped to our underwear holding our pants under the Xlerator. But that was enough for someone to go look, and then return with the news: They have rain ponchos for $1.49.

We left the Visitors Center with three Patio Boys wearing ponchos over their expensive rain gear, including one poncho (the deluxe model) that, while it was a higher mil of plastic, was printed with little black bears. We might as well have slept in Disney princess sleeping bags. At least those would have been hidden inside our tents. Didn't matter. From that point on, it was all about two things: Getting home and staying dry. The ponchos were more functional than several hundred dollars worth of Gortex on this particular day.

As for the getting home part, a park service educator (she was pretty and had an iPad, so we trusted her) told us to take the trail behind the barn: Wet Bottom Trail.

It may be a great shortcut on a dry, sunny day; but it's called Wet Bottom for a reason. It's wet. A marsh. A bottoms. We trudged through, the trail sometimes evident and sometimes disappearing into mush. A rafter of turkeys gobbled at us. We paused to watch them wobble away, and then fly over the small creek. They flew not an inch more than necessary to reach to farther shore. I don't understand it. If I could fly, I'd maximize my air time. The turkeys looked like Wright brother wannabes, inventing flight but a long way from perfecting it.

We walked on. Within a quarter mile, the trail ended abruptly. It looked exactly like what it is: A trail that previously lost people have blazed to this point, and then turned around to find the real trail. Through the woods, we could see a bridge. On the map, we could see a bridge. Two plus two equals four. So we bushwhacked to the bridge. Now on a road, we consulted the map again and, after reading it carefully, headed the wrong way.

Eventually, we found our way to the Coopers Ridge Trail, which would take us back to Campsite 17. But with eight miles to go, the clock ticking and the rain unabated, our nerves were frayed. Hennessey reminded us we were one mistake from being lost. One mistake from being stuck outside overnight in hypothermic conditions. One mistake from another Pine Mountain.

Every uphill climb seemed as if it should be the last one. Every bend, too. But there was, each time, one more hill, one more bend until there wasn't. Back at camp, the one sensible Patio Boy, Jim, was under the tarp with a truly great campfire blazing. Logs six inches thick were arranged in a teepee, and the flames tickled through, warming we, the wet congregants. The Guru again proved his trail name is properly assigned.

Night was falling. We made some dinner, sipped some bourbon, told some stories and huddled under a tarp, which was large enough to protect three or four people though we were seven.

This was to have been our time around the campfire, reminiscing about Sean under the stars. But the weather wasn't allowing it. Sean wasn't allowing it. Maybe he didn't want to be reminisced over. Bob already was in his tent, reading by headlamp. The rest of us soon followed, tired but tucked in, warm and dry. We were due to camp another night, but we went to bed knowing this was it. No one had an appetite for another hike like the one through Wet Bottom. And those $1.49 ponchos were not manufactured to last a second day.

Up above, Sean and his assembly of Patio Boys II were maybe a little ashamed to have caused this, a shortening of the trip. But not too ashamed. Look up the definition of chortle. You'll get the right idea. Merriam-Webster weighs in with "to sing or chant exultantly" and "to laugh or chuckle especially in satisfaction or exultation," and for good measure offers a usage example from Lewis Carroll: "He chortled in his joy."

He chortled in his joy. Here on Earth, we were a little pissed. Not about the trip. We're over that. About Sean's death. Life is just too short, dammit. Sean, we miss you, brother. Come on back. Bring some rain gear. The good stuff.