Savage by name, tame by nature

By Captain

It is, of course, appropriate and in no regard surprising that a drinking club with a hiking problem that goes by the name of the Patio Boys would order carryout pizza while camped in the woods. After all, the day was done and the prospect of freeze-dried particulate matter wasn't all that appetizing.

So when McGinnis and Doc arrived back in camp to report that they arranged for pizza delivery, the rest of us at first took them at their word. Why not? It had been a full day. The waterfalls of Savage Gulf turned out to be just as awesome as billed. The one spot where a whole river disappeared into some unseen sinkhole was unlike anything we'd seen in the woods before. Here was a rushing mountain river. There it disappeared, as if the water had consumed itself in a giant swirling, flushing toilet of pristine, cool water created by geological forces eons ago.

Just beyond, the old riverbed snaked through the gorge, or as they call it here, "the gulf," looking exactly like a mountain river minus one thing: water. Snaked, I say, because, one, it did snake, and, two, to foreshadow what happened here. That is, Silver Pops almost stepped on a rattlesnake, which was stressful but exciting. He alertly snapped a smart phone photo, creating an instant archive. Later, he would show people his screen and say, with an edge of uncertainty, "See, that is a rattlesnake, isn't it?" Yes, it was. The raised rattle on the tail was a dead giveaway. Maybe I shouldn't use dead as the adjective, given that with one more step Silver Pops might have been just that. Dead. As is happened, he would be home in time for pizza, if home is understood to be a Therm-a-rest and a mummy bag.

When you go to the woods, you want to see wild things, whether the wild thing is a rattlesnake or a bear; but you want to see these things without getting bitten or mauled. It makes the hiking more interesting without making it too interesting. Too interesting would be, "And then Silver Pops said, 'Tell Maryann I love her and she can have the Jeep...' and ascended heavenward to the tune of the theme song from “The Rifleman,” his all time favorite television show.

But I digress, because I always digress.

My job in these essays is to describe each hike. The description should be recognizable to those who participated, though I'm often told it is not. Bob likes to tell people, "They're good stories. I just don't remember being on the hikes he describes." I'm protesting that accusation as false inasmuch as my accounts are true. It's all a matter of emphasis. If I wrote honestly about this hike, and by honestly I mean a way that made you feel like you were there as it happened, then you would simply be bored, as this was a boring hike. Nine miles. Ho hum. Over undulating state park trails, which were well-marked. Ho hum. We did not get lost even once. Ho hum. Some people walked by. They said, "Hi," we said "hi" back. Ho hum. A dog barked at us. Ho hum. A flower bloomed. Moss grew fat on a rolling stone.

After the snake, the only really menacing creatures we encountered was a church group from Alabama – all boys, some of whom had watched enough "Survivor" to tie kerchiefs over their heads and enough "Hunger Games" to make spears to hold while taking selfies. Selfies? The woods aren't want they used to be.

Nor are our backpacking trips, which once were eventful, sometimes dangerous and quite often challenging. There's a reason we used to call them "Another Pauly Death March." Bob put us through our paces. The coach he once had been was unforgiving. Nevermore, quoth the raving, the raving being his complaining charges, I.e., us.

We're accustomed to weather that makes you wonder why God made the outdoors. Not this time. It didn't rain. The temperatures were in the 70s. There were no trails shared with horses, meaning there was no recycled hay to step into, feeling the mush of it and exclaiming, "Shit!" The hardest climb had steps and, at the top, benches for resting. We didn't run out of water. We didn't run out of food. One of us nipped  on a Swiss Army knife while preparing lunch and required a Band-Aid.

Let me spell it out for you: We didn't rough it. So when we got back to camp, ready for a nap and maybe a nip, we really were not in the mood to start roughing it now. Why cook backcountry when the whole vibe so far was easy-peasy? Pizza sounded good. Pizza sounded right. Delivery pizza sounded plausible In these woods.

McGinnis and Doc had veered off on their own, tacking an extra mile or two to the day's hike by going to the parking lot where the Ranger Station sits next to public toilets with indoor plumbing and running water, which apparently attracted them with more immediacy than our campsite. A word about that campsite: It was three miles in from the parking lot across one of the easier trails the Patio Boys have ever selected. We might as well have been walking from our cars in the parking lot of the Florence Mall to buy some of Victoria's Secrets for our wives. The mall trek, assuming the usual mistake of parking on the lower level and thus requiring a walk to level two, would have involved more elevation gain than this hike.

Once at the campsite, we had to ourselves a spacious, flat paradise with an acceptable fire pit. We could pitch our tents far enough one from the other to avoid serious aural damage from the inevitable snorefest that begins once two or more Patio Boys doze off, or perhaps even one (I've been so accused). Firewood was a sparse but could be found within 50 years. We had three saws with us, so in short order there was a half cord of hardwood stacked and kindling ready for a match.

As the sun set, a kindly ranger stopped by to chat and, we assume, scan for illicit booze. Alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden in Tennessee state parks. It is a good thing we had none or we might all have been sent to prison then and there.

The ranger counseled us on trails we might take. He invited us to return, as the trail systems in Savage Gulf are abundant and we could spend years exploring all of them. He declined our offer of some homemade trail mix, saying, "No thank you. I just had a big steak on the grill." Finally, he warned us that Friday night in Savage Gulf was not like Saturday night. Come Saturday, he said, "The woods will be full. You'll have some company."

And we did. Friday night the woods were ours. Saturday night, not so much. It was party night. Over there, college students. Boys and girls. Spring. Need I say more? Next to them, Scouts. Somehow, they had carried in a cast iron pot the size of a Sony Trinitron and surely weighing as much, just so they could make chili over the campfire. Boys, we'll let you in on a secret: The scoutmaster's chili is not that great. Next time, bring yourself a can of Vienna sausages and some Slim Jims. Or some humus. Leave the Trinitron at home.

Beyond another stand of trees, there was a smattering of single and double backpackers, out for whatever. Not solitude. Our peaceful campsite had become a suburban neighborhood with the tract housing replaced by festival of nylon tents and chattering, grilling white people talking sports and politics. Somebody's kids kept running through our campsite, playing some version of hide-and-seek that involved being a nuisance. I felt like Mr. Wilson, ready to shout, "Dennis!" But we coped, calmly. Given that bourbon is an alcoholic beverage, and that alcoholic beverages are forbidden in all Tennessee state parks, let me say for the record that we most certainly did not cope by sipping bourbon. We just coped. And coped some more. We shared one another's cope, including some 12-year-old cope that was especially tasty.

So there you have the scene. A warm, spring evening. Everyone was back in camp except Doc and McGinnis, who had taken in those few extra miles in the service of their punctilious bowels and general fastidiousness, about which no one should tease without first witnessing the outhouse at the Savage Gulf campsite where we were bedded down for two nights at Alum Gap. The unpleasant deposits of untold legions of humans fed on the unholy combination fast food (before entering the woods) and trail food (after entering the woods) had piled nearly to the perimeter of the seat, pleasing the flies and perhaps some vermin but disgusting anyone born with even a modicum of olfactory capacity. Walking a mile for a flush toilet in a private stall with running water and a soap dispenser seems altogether reasonable to anyone who has darkened the door of the Alum Gap outhouse, a truly memorable landmark of the woods if a malodorous malebolge deserves to disgrace the word landmark.

Arriving back in camp, Doc and McGinnis had a story to sell. I mean tell. "We ordered pizza," they reported, piling on the detail as thick as the human detritus at the aforementioned outhouse. They had, they said, encountered Ranger Rick at the parking lot. He remembered them from the night before and, with a fond recollection of the pleasant and stimulating conversation then, was in an accommodating mood. He had graciously agreed to drive into town to order some pizzas, and bring them back to within a few hundred yards of our campsite, where a road open only to the ranger led to a parking place right by the trail. Doc gave him $40 for his trouble and set a rendezvous time of 7:30 p.m. for the pizza delivery.

I'm not saying Doc and McGinnis were not believed. For a time they were. But within a few minutes, water was boiling on the Pocket Rockets (don't Google that at work) and Jetboils so as to reconstitute the mysterious substances that Mountain House labels "Chili Mac with Beef" and Lipton labels "Pasta Sides! Alfredo." Maybe the doubt about the pizza was rooted in knowing that any self-respecting Patio Boy would sooner walk over hot coals to a Papa John's than pay someone $40 to go there for him.

As the sun set and the Scouts calmed, we settled around the fire. We uncorked some cope, recounted the day and cranked up iPod mini-amp (the woods are not what they used to be). As Clapton blistered his fingers, Silver Pops worked his over the screen of his iPhone to fact check someone's trivia about "Layla." True or false, the song was written for Pattie Boyd, George Harrison's ex-model wife with whom Clapton was madly in love? That more or less checked out on Wikipedia, which also told us that George, too, was madly in love with her, at least at one point, and used the following pick-up line: "Will you marry me? If not, will you at least have dinner with me tonight?" Clever fellow, that George.
And so it went, a normal night around a crackling, popping campfire.

And then things changed. Out of the woods comes Last Call, arriving like a beached Sasquatch.

Last Call is the trail name of a pale and pudgy, good-humored invader from Mississippi by way of Memphis who announced himself by saying, "Good Gawd! Are ya'll the Patio Boys! Ya'll famous. Ya'll on the world wide web! Good Gawd!" Last Call didn't need verbs in his declarative sentences. But he thrived on exclamation points.

He spoke with the deep, baritone of a southern boy who orders RC Colas and Moon Pies for his girl as easily as he sings, "How Great Thou Art" to his Momma with tears in his eyes. Last Call loved Momma. He also loved beagles, tractors, old pick-up trucks, little baby ducks and all the stuff Tom T. Hall loved.

Us? We were acclimating to Last Call's arrival, the way prehistoric man must have acclimated to the space aliens who showed them fire. We were not sure what had come into our camp. But it sat down, pulled out its iPhone and its bottle of booze and declared, "Good Gawd! I'm outta Blue Top!" What? We asked? What's Blue Top?

"You all call yourselves backpackers and you don't know what Blue Top is? Good Gawd!" It's vodka, he said, enlightening us. We're from Kentucky, we explained. We don't drink vodka. Bourbon. And this is Tennessee, where alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden in all state parks. "Good Gawd!" Last Call expleted. "Bourbon! That's brown liquor! I don't drink that stuff. It'll kill ya."

He'd spent the day rappelling with a ranger (our Rick?) and told us how he was good at going down the side of the cliff, but not so good climbing back up. He made it halfway, then had to be lowered back to cliff's base, as if he were cargo being winched.

"It was a Meet Up," Last Call told us of the rappelling outing, referencing the online social media site were like-minded people meet virtually and jointly sign on to join each other for a non-virtual, i.e., real and actual, activity, be that knitting or hanging by a rope over a cliff with men named Last Call.
Last Call? How'd you get that name? "Good Gawd, boys, let me tell you! I was walking up Springer Mountain. You know, the start of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Whew! Good Gawd! That was a bitch, boys. I'm telling ya! But I carried a six-pack of Bud Lite to the top. I did! A six-pack! A whole six-pack!" At least it was light beer. That weighs less, right?

"There were some fellas up there, getting ready to hike the trail," Last Call went on. "And I said, 'Who wants a beer, dammit?' And everybody took one. Except one guy didn't. Don't know what was wrong with him. Didn't like light beer. Wanted and IPA or some damn thing. Damn! It was free! And I carried it up there. Anyway, the other boys, they drank theirs right now. Good Gawd! So they gave me my trail name then and there: 'You're Last Call.' And that's me: Last Call."

"Well," said Bob, ready to have his fun at Last Call's expense, "Last Stand..."

"It's not Last Stand, dammit. It's Last Call. Good Gawd!"

"OK Last Man...."

"Last Call! Good Gawd! Get it right! Last Call. Not Last Man!"

"OK, Last Call... what music would you like to hear?"

"Johnny Cash. The Man in Black. Let's hear some, Johnny. I love Johnny, man. Johnny's the man. THE MAN, man!."

"We just played Johnny Cash, Last Dude."

"Call! Last Call. Good Gawd!"

"How about some Otis Gibbs. Ever hear of him?"

"No. Play some. Good Gawd, play some Otis. Right on, man. I love that shit."

And so we listened to Otis Gibbs sing "Joe Hill's Ashes" which is Otis at his best, and Last Call was moved to ask, "Mind if I smoke?" To which Bob answered immediately, "Yes, we mind." Before he finished saying "yes" Last Call had a cigarette lit and said, "Not a cigar or anything smelly like that. Just this cigarette." He leaned forward, tossed his match into our fire, sat back down, exhaled some Marlboro toxins, and resumed talking.

Last Call's life story was next. His wife left him, taking the kids with her, for a man she met online and thought was rich and going to care for her. Last Call tracked them down in a trailer park in Pennsylvania and brought them all back to Mississippi, so the kids could be enrolled in school and so his wife could sleep on the couch until, after enough time for forgiveness had passed, invited her back to the marital bed. Things were better now, Last Call shared. Even if she only has a fourth-grade education, she's a good woman and she made a mistake. She'd cleaned $50,000 from the family bank accounts, going from ATM to ATM, apparently so the rich man in the trailer park in Pennsylvania didn't think she wouldn't contribute to the new, blended family's wellbeing. She returned to Mississippi penniless but you cannot hold that against a woman for the rest of her life or yours. It would just eat you up inside, knowing she didn't mean any harm. She just needed a little space between herself and Last Call. Who wouldn't? There's only so much of Last Call that you can handle. Too much could drive you to coping.

In time, we each stretched, yawned and headed off to our respective tents, leaving Bob to entertain and be entertained by Last Call, who also is a musician with a YouTube video that he showed us on his iPhone. Like I said before, the woods are not what they used to be. Last Call apparently can work his way convincingly through a set of country classics. And he considered the genre's heroes his heroes: "Hank Junior! Bocephus! I love Hank Junior! Good Gawd!"

By morning, Last Call was a like a dream you just had but cannot exactly recall. Was he even there or perhaps a result of some undigested morsel of undelivered pizza? There was no evidence of either.

Sunday morning was, for all intents and purposes, the end of our trip, though Monday morning was supposed to be. Doc and McGinnis need to be back home by afternoon, and so rose early and hiked out. The rest of us planned to hike back to the cars and drive to another part of the park to find a new campsite and new trails. We'd exhausted the opportunities at this one. By the time we got to the parking lot, half of us were ready to head back up the highway – and did. Another snake. An aching knee. A sore back. An unrequited appetite for pizza. The sum total had them thinking, "Time to head home."

The rest of us went looking for lunch. That was a fool's errand before noon on a Sunday in the Bible Belt. The beauty of this part of America is there are no fast-food franchises. It must be the last 50-mile stretch east of the Rockie's without golden arches. As beautiful as that is an an ideal, it was maddening on an empty stomach. We finally found a gas station with pizza, burgers and ham sandwiches. The sole customers upon arrival, we got great service. Then church let out, and the place was packed, the pizza orders poured in by phone and a fat, old dog started wandering the parking lot begging for scraps. The store's lone employee was quickly overwhelmed but managed admirably. The assortment of customers did not all come from church. The ladies with the stiff hair probably did. But the young me with the sleeves torn off their t-shirts so you could see their tats probably did not. But they new the local schedule. You don't buy fresh cigarettes and Mountain Dews until after church lets out. You have to respect their respect for local custom, even if you don't respect their tailoring, their assumption that we'll take good care of them after they have diabetes and lung cancern, and their disregard for an automotive device widely used elsewhere, the muffler.

An hour later, fed and watered, we moved on, in search of trails.We found them on the other side of the park, and hiked to a couple of more waterfalls. Savage Gulf is perhaps the waterfall capital of the South. When you find one, it is likely just the top step of a staircase of waterfalls, each with its own character. If you love the sound of rushing water, and I do, and love the beauty of cascading mountain streams – the kind that would make Frank Lloyd Wright drool over his sketch pad – then you'll love Savage Gulf. This is not to say that the park is an ideal backpacking park. Day hikes, yes. But the campsites are almost Winnebago-ready and the trails are cakewalks. As we came back up the trail from the waterfalls, a group of teen-agers were walking down in flip flops and, in one young lady's case, patent leather school shoes. They were carrying gear: towels. They might just as well have been walking from the Five Seasons lockers to the pool.

Back in the parking lot, we went to see about a campsite that was a short stroll from where we were parked. Our smart phone weather maps were lit up in bright colors. Bad weather was coming. It was dire. Torrential rain. High winds. Maybe tornados.

It has been beautiful all weekend, but a few miles away and headed our way was a fury. We went over the pros and cons, then the rain started and we retreated to our cars to wait it out. A ranger came out in shorts and a t-shirt from the ranger residence. Funny, even in shorts and a t-shirt, he looked exactly like a ranger, like Rick's brother.

"You guys aren't camping here tonight, are you?" he asked. Well, we planned to do so, yes. "You know a storm is coming, don't you? I can't tell you not to camp but don't coming knocking on my door at 2 in the morning," he said, smiling and conveying to us that if we did he would rescue us but he'd rather not. He told us about some Scouts he had to march out through chest high water last year, past some recently returned Gulf War vets who were sleeping in hammocks in the rain and said, "We love the rain. We were in the desert for two years. We don't mind getting wet. This is great!" Not having had the desert experience, the idea of a night drenched and sleepless held little appeal.

The cons were beginning to outweigh pros, and so we hit the road for home, pointed the GPS to a Longhorn Steakhouse in Knoxville and then north to Fort Mitchell. Another trip in the books. Another tale to be told. What I've left out would only bore you.

All in all, the whole trip put us in mind to reflect on a favorite movie, the excellent epic, Jeremiah Johnson, which for many men of our age is considered a training film for how to live your life. Will Geer, grandpa from The Waltons, serves as life skills and spiritual guide to Robert Redford, who is Jeremiah and, in this role, is almost as handsome as a Patio Boy. Will says something to the effect, "I keep movin' deeper into the mountains cause the peoples keep coming."

We know the challenge for our next hike. We have to move deeper into the mountains. We have to get away from the peoples.