Heavens to Betsy, a good time was had by all


By Captain


Civilization has its markers. Suits. Ties. Showered people. Three or more bars of cell service. 

None of this is every far removed from the the woods. This isn't the Age of Boone, when Daniel could kiss Rebecca bye, walk north out of the Yadkin  settlements and disappear into the unspoiled wild for months on end, antagonizing the native nations as he whittled and whiled. Leaving civilization meant exactly that for D. Boon, as he spelled his name when carving it into trees (who can say, maybe he was a great speller but was being pursued by hostile forces who disapproved of anyone defacing the Happy Hunting Ground's hardwoods).

When we disappear into the woods,  a lot of the 21st Century comes with us.

To get to the Great Smoky Mountains NatIonal Park, for example, requires passage through not one but two commercial cesspools -- each a mucky pond of ick, oozing with kitch.

The older these, Gatlinburg, is bad enough, with its Hillybilly Golf, overpriced fudge, and  coonskin caps. Those are quaint next to the offerings of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee's plasticized town with its mashup of Walmarts, Taco Bells, KFCs and Comfort Inns serving strip after strip of outlet stores, selling everything from Tommy Hilfiger (for the inordinately slim) to Lane Bryant (for the inordinately unslim.)

Add in the tourist traps. Dixie Stampede, which with its name at least, conflates lingering affection for the Confederacy with lingering romance for Old West cattle drives. On down the road is a Titanic-sized replica of the Titanic because nothing says family fun like visiting an icon of disaster. Dollywood defines the local kitsch. This is the town that Parton built, creating a sort of Silicon Valley of cheap commerce on the  back of her own silicon assets. Or maybe not the backs. Dolly’s an alpha femal.

This nether world sits between Yee-Haw Industries right off of I-40, a business that by its own admission makes not art but "art-like products" and that could exist nowhere else, and the very welcoming "Welcome to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park" sign 35.8 miles later ‒ a sign that arrives like the first gasp of oxygen to the lungs of a Heimlich Maneuver recipient.

MapQuest optimistically forecasts an hour and four minutes to get through this abyss, as if you (ha! ha!) will be going 35 mph. Good luck. A fender-bender. Gawkers. A holiday. A sunny day. A rainy day. A New York driver. The Lunch Hour. Any one of those could add hours to your travel time. God forbid someone in your vehicle wants to stop and shop, which should make your head spin like Beetlejuic‘s noggin. Speaking of Beetlejuice, this landscape kind of reminds me of the world outside the safe house in tnat wierd movie.

Being veterans, we routed around Pigeon Forge, opting for Sprawl Lite by going through Marysville, the more western route into the Smokies. But no route extricates you entirley from the madness. It comes down to this: From Inferno to Paradise requires a passage through Purgatory. The trip to white from black is through grey. The world and the woods encroach, one on the other. There is no bright, clear line between civilization and escape from it. Indeed, we, like all modern backpackers, carry civilization with us. We cart in Maxwell House International Café Français, which has a letter its name I can't find on my keyboard. ("Siri, what is the letter 'c' with the tail of a 'q' attached?" Answer: "A marketing gimmick.") Our favorite stove is a Jet Boil, a name offensive to solitude even if the device is not. Our favorite water purification method involves a miniature, battery-operated ultraviolet-ray mechanism that kills Giardia with the flick of a switch, though how is a mystery. Maybe it frightens it death, since the phosphorescent light must look like an alien attack to the pesky little microbes. They only wanted to inflict gastro-intestinal discomfort. We answer with an Apocalypse.

All that aside, once you are in one or out of the other, Paradise or Inferno, you know it. In? Atop a hogback ridge on the AT, a skinny trail slithers beneath a canopy of laurels and leads to a grassy bald, sun-bathed in early afternoon and inviting a nap. That's paradise. Out? Inferno is civilization's rush and rumble, cloaked in the foul odor of dysfunction and deranged priorities. You might be confronted, as was I a day after our return, by a sign, rendered in bold, red letters, "10 Minute Botox Parking."

This was at Rookwood Plaza in "greater" Hyde Park. If you are from Greater Cincinnati, as the Patio Boys are, you will get the joke implied by those air quotes. Don't say it is in Norwood or you'll offend somebody unless the somebody is from Norwood and then you will offend the somebody's civic pride by not saying Rookwood is in Norwood.  "What's wrong with Norwood, buddy?" are the words that warn you to shut up before a carry concealed permit is unconcealed.

Hyde Park is just what it sounds like. Think knockoff of FDR's Hyde Park. Think new money pretending to be old. Think snooty and too stupid not be proud of your false status, which will be confirmed in time as dust returns to dust and, as Isaiah 66:24 warns, when it's time to "go forth, and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh." OK, it's not that bad. But Think Whole Foods and Sur La Table. That's Hyde Park, Cincinnati, Ohio.  Norwood, on the other hand, is where a lot of GM workers built their own town and stayed after GM left. It's where people still remember the Latin Mass fondly, not because they remember Latin fondly but they like the way things used to be. It's where a big night out is dinner at the Quatman Cafe, which uses paper plates and serves one thing, burgers, but serves them two ways, with cheese or without. Same with the beer, two choices: Hudepohl or Hudepohl Delight. Here, IPA means "I Prefer America."

Within the Rookwood compound, it's just better for commerce if it is considered in Hyde Park even if it is at the Norwood exit. It's better for Whole Foods. It's better for Sur La table. It's even better for REI, the outdoors outfitter that has a women's flannel shirt for $89 in its fall collection ‒ the same shirt being $10.99 at Kmart. Google it. You'll see I'm right. To get someone to spend $89 dollars for a $10.99 shirt it is better to be in Hyde Park than Norwood. It's better to be in a place where prime parking is reserved for those running in for a quick injection of the toxin that causes botulism but also erases wrinkles. Got $400? Say good-bye for the next four to six months to your crow's feet.

Welcome to civilization. Modern civilization. Advanced civilization. Civilization that took millennia to achieve. Civilization that can boast putting a man on the moon, medical advances that have eradicated once devastating diseases, and, as Kurt Vonnegut observed, reached its pinnacle with the invention of the electric guitar. It also has given us Botox, not to beat aging but to allow us to lie to ourselves about beating age ‒ and be awarded with a better parking spot while doing so.

Not that I got Botoxed. I most certainly did not. When it comes to aging, I take my cue from our Silver Pops, the oldest of the Patio Boys, who says this: "Age is a number and mine is unlisted."

This became a thing around the campfire on Sunday night, when beloved Bob, the Patio Boys' leader and life coach, disclosed Silver Pops' age, though inaccurately adding a year. Since Bob turned 60 this year ‒ as did several among us ‒ blistering someone about his age was, as my father was fond of saying, the pot calling the kettle black. In self-defense, Bob pleaded, he meant the disclosure as a compliment. This kind of compliment: "I hope I'm still hiking when I'm your age." Give the man a shovel. Anyone digging that deep is going to need one.

Speaking of digging deep, the Powers That Be who govern the Smoky Mountains want you to bury your bowel deposits at least six inches. But horses, which are allowed on some of the trails and which have the right-of-way over people, can deposit freely with no obligation on the part of the horse or the human to leave no trace. The Powers That Be need to be the Powers That Were.

Does that thought seem random? Try this. Betsy, who joined us after dark at Camp Site 21, was told by the ranger that it was going to get cold Sunday night and therefore, "You better have your toboggan." Being from Anchorage, Alaska, by way of Boston, Massachusetts, she knew about toboggans. Why she wondered, would she need a sled to hike? What she did not know, however, is that in the South a toboggan is the customary name for ski cap.

You like random? Try this. At the Appalachian Trail shelter, someone had written a fanciful note in the shelter log about leaving a companion behind. "Dear Hortense," it began, proceeding to some odd counsel about milking the cows and selling the horses to the Fergusons. Methinks some would-be Shakespeare was smoking too much weed. But give the hallucinating hiker credit. His entry was far more entertaining than the average AT trail book entry, too many of which say, "2,000 miles down, 168 to go." Really? Is that all you have to say after 2,000 miles of time alone to think of something to say? Didn't you hike to pursue the meaning of life, to draw closer to something spiritual, to get in touch with something deep? Write that. Recording the miles down, miles to go is less demanding than, "See Spot run." The shop where they manufacture Botox parking signs practices a higher level of creative writing.

Still like random? Here's some more. Did you know that Ank's pack weighed 60 pounds? He knows because he weighed himself (200 pounds) and then weighed himself with his pack on 260 pounds, including two water bottles. Do the math. As for Bull's pack, it weighed 48 pounds, as determined by the same careful procedure. Who knew such high-level analystics were transpiring in the bathrooms of Villa Hills? Bob didn't weigh his pack but he assured us it was the lightest because "you guys bring too much crap." He brought a gallon of bourbon, which weighs 8.34 pounds. He saved weight by bring no food. Come dinnertime, he invited himself to share the food of others, which is why his trail name is Mooch. But let me say this on Mooch's behalf: He freely shares his bottom-shelf bourbon with his friends when they run out of their top-shelf bourbon. What defines friendship? That.

If you have never packed in a can of Skyline Chili and poured it over tortellini and topped it all with sharp cheddar then you haven't eaten properly around the campfire. Mountain House freeze-dried Chili Mac couldn't hold a candle. Also, fog at elevation in these mountains should not make anyone say, "What is that?" We're in the Smokies, Sherlock. A modicum of deductive reasoning should be a perquisite for backwoods travel.

So why all this random nonsense? Because there's not much else to tell. This hike was uneventful. And here's the thing: Uneventful is good. Uneventful is inspiring. Uneventful is worthy of a new Beatles song or Psalm.

Uneventful is why we hike. We don't hike for eventful. We know eventful. Eventful is unrelenting rain. Eventful is a sudden, whipping snow that the weather forecasters forgot to mention. Eventful is separated hikers, some disorientated and shivering through a long, icy night. Eventful is kindling encased in a quarter inch of ice that must be beaten off each stick before there's any chance of ignition. Eventful is miles and miles without water on a hot day. Eventful is being lost for 20 miles and realizing you just walked in a circle instead of the straight line you'd planned. Eventful is a blister the size of a silver dollar. On both feet. Eventful is a tick that discovered the comforts of your sphincter. Eventful is a stranger walking into your campsite, dazed and dehydrated and telling you his name is Chicken Feathers. Eventful is our late and loved friend, Murph, a few weeks out from his liver transplant and, as it worked out, three years from an untimely but very dignified death, putting a Patio Boys hike on his bucket list. My God, have we ever been so highly honored as that? We took him to the Red River Gorge, where Murph would take five steps and rest, five steps and rest, five steps and rest as he worked his way up the mountain. Agent Orange did no one any favors, neither did that damned war – certainly none for Murph. Eventful is our other late and loved friend, Sean, who between one trip and the next just left us, too young, too soon, too alone.

Eventful is not the goal. Uneventful is.

This trip was uneventful. Uneventful is no rain. Uneventful is when "cold" means the forties, not the teens. We came to the Great Smoky Mountains as fall settled in. Five inches of rain fell the weekend before, weighing down any leaves that turned early, so they had fallen to the ground already. That left fewer leaves and leaves that were a lighter green as they worked their way toward their eventual fall colors ‒ be they yellow, orange, red or brown. The overall effect was to give a fall feel to forest that looked somewhat like spring, with bright, sparse foliage.

Uneventful is a cloudless night sky with amazing stars, so amazing, in fact, that Ank pulled out his iPhone and demonstrated the very cool app, SkyGuide. Stargazing was never easier. Point an iPhone upward and it tells you whether you are looking at Pegasus or Pisces. I defy you find the naked Queen Cassiopeia with the naked eye. She's quite the lady, but like many of the constellations she is the product of the ancients' vivid imagination. They seemed to randomly select five or six stars that, if you connected the dots, would form a bent "L" at best. From that, they imagined the B.C. equivalent of Miley Cyrus, twerking the Milky Way. You can't find Queen Cassiopeia but SkyGuide can, just as it found a Russian rocket on the move for us. James Bond never had it so easy, whether he was searching for Cassiopeia in a bikini (to their lasting credit, the Greeks did imagine her with her top down) or an interstellar warhead.

Uneventful is arriving lazily on a Friday afternoon and hanging out briefly at the Cades Cove parking lot, where a man and woman were evangelizing nonstop. Senator Rand Paul's now famous anti-drone filibuster was an amazing act of fortitude; but this couple put him to shame in terms of droning on. They did at least take turns for this spiritual marathon. She would sing gospel tunes as he rested in a lawn chair. Then she would take the seat and he would preach. "I have a message from God," he extolled. "God came to me around my campfire this morning and He told me to tell you this, to carry this message. Yes, from God. He told me. I'm here to tell it to you, praise God!" He never quite got around to saying what God actually told him. Love thy neighbor? Repent? Tithe? We came back through on Sunday morning and he was still preaching, she was still signing, he sounding like Billy Graham cast in "Deliverance" and she like the Carter Family's lost daughter. Ain't America great?

From Cades Cove, we hoisted our packs and headed uphill to Campsite 10, where we crammed into the smaller site of two ‒ pitching six tents for six people around one small fire ring. Three of us brought one-man tents that take up less room that a Smart Car. Three others brought tents that would comfortably sleep King Kong, with or without Fay Wray. This night, without.

Next morning, it was up for a light breakfast before heading off on a 12-mile loop, up to the AT Russell Field Shelter, over to the Spence Fields Shelter and then back down the mountain and back to Campsite 10, where one of our number ‒ Goetzy ‒ packed and left because of some obligations at home. On the way out, he saw a bear. He always sees a bear. He's a bear magnet.

After that Saturday hike, we arose Sunday morning ‒ after a cooler, cloudier night ‒ and headed back to the cars so we could drive to Elkmont and find a new campsite. Stopping at the Cades Cove Ranger Station on the way out, Bob tried to change our Sunday night permit from 10 to 21, while the rest of us enjoyed the preaching and indoor plumbling. Bob met with an immovable object: government bureaucracy. He exited the Ranger Station looking frustrated. "We're paid," he declared, which meant our obligation to the fiscal stability of the National Parks was satisfied even if our reservation was imprecise. Not to worry, he assured us as we headed toward Campsite 21 unauthorized to be there: In all the years we've been coming to the Smokies, we've never been checked by a ranger. Were this a novel (and at 4,600 words it almost is), that sentence would foreshadow trouble to come, a few chapters ahead.

The hike to 21 from Elkmont is special, spectacular even. Following the Little River, the trail slopes up enough to make you huff but not too much. A Patio Boy on his patio might tax more hunting for the remote control to avoid watching another Chevy ad. With just one night out ahead of us, we had emptied our packs of any extra food or clothing, making the trek even less taxing.

The trail was busy ‒ and well photographed. You've seen this many tripods before but only on the sidelines of Monday Night Football. A lot of people seemed to want a photograph of the winding, cascading waters of the Little River. Hard to blame them. It's something to see. Clear pools of water are energized in the snap of a finger as they pour over and between boulders, churning and spitting white thrusts of power that then calm themselves into rolling waves that are as mounds of sand, but glassy as they swirl into the next pool, only to prepare for the next roil. It's a sort of rinse and repeat of nature, cleansing the stream and the soul of those fortunate to see it.

Two miles of that and then we turned right for .9 miles through poplars as tall and straight as the masts of great sailing vessels, with tufts of leaves up top that blocked some sun into a pattern of shadows cast on the forest's floor ‒ a pattern that could be mistaken for lace, if only the images cast were whiter and tinier. Even writ large, they were delicate, intricate, elegant.

Arriving at Campsite 21, we found it vacant. We might have it to ourselves, we assumed. A silly assumption. It was still early. Maybe 4 in the afternoon. But for the moment, we had our choice of tent sites and there were many to select from. If Campsite 10 was a dorm room from the 1970s, cramped and utilitarian, then Campsite 21 was a McMansion, unfathomly roomy, with the poplars and their companion beeches leaving ample room between the trunks while sufficiently shielding the ground to keep the brush from thriving. We set up, spacing our tents comfortably with none within 30 yards of the other. At 10, we barely had 30 yards of circumference for all six tents.

Tents set, sleeping bags unrolled and boots off, sandals on, we cut wood, purified water and started dinner.

And then came the Cunninghams, Richie and Howard ‒ one a landscaper, one a U.S. Marshal, both good company. They were local, from outside Pigeon Forge and they spoke with the confident country accent of their native Tennessee. They introduced themselves by bringing some firewood for what, by evening, would be a communal fire. That was pretty neighborly of them, and exemplary communal camping protocol. We called them the Cunninghams after "Happy Days" ‒ you know, Richie played by Ron Howard. They seemed fine with it.

Next it was Betsy. Heavens! A woman of about 30 hiking alone in the woods? We assumed she had recently read Cheryl Strayed's Wild and felt compelled to emulate. No, she said, never head of Wild ‒ neither the book nor the coming film starring Reese Witherspoon. Rather, she was from Anchorage and was on her way to Chattanooga for a conference on outdoor and experiential education. She figured since she was close to the Smokies, she might just as well visit. Being fathers of daughters, we liked this about her good luck: She camped by chance in the proximity to Marshal Cunningham, who as a federal officer is permitted to carry a firearm into national forests and does so. Betsy would be safe tonight. Three-fifty-seven magnum safe.

Next came two more late campers, who set up away from us and never paid us a visit. Guess they came to the woods for privacy. Wrong woods. And finally came, Spence, a trout fisherman who brought his waders from Georgia. His headlamp bobbed through the dark woods until he came in to view, and greeted us cheerfully, seeking counsel on where to pitch tent. He set up, then joined us at the fire, sharing sips of his Elijah Craig. Spence had streamers with him, a fly he described as "a big ol' steak dinners for brown trout." Come morning, he'd be in the stream, catching and releasing.

It's amazing how well our guests tolerated our stories, although Betsy didn't tolerate them for long. She finished her dinner and walked off to her tent, not saying so much as goodnight. She missed the Creation Story, which dates back to the Fort Mitchell boyhoods of Silver Pops and Mooch. The tale revolves around Mooch's lingering fears that Big Bad Pops was going to beat the living tar out of Little Bobby, which apparently never happened but was a perpetual childhood fear. On it went into the night, eventually coming to the origins of the name. As Silver Pops explained it, there was a softball team visiting Fort Mitchell from Grant County, where the good old boys considered city folk "patio boys." Little did they know, 40 years later the Patio Boys would be a hallowed drinking club with a hiking problem, anxious to escape Fort Mitchell and absorb a little good ol' boy juju. Irony, thy name is this.

We also invited our guests to visit patioboys.com and read the record of our trips, written by yours truly, the Captain. "He's our scribe," Silver Pops told our friends. Bob said my work is okay, although he reads each account and thinks, "Was I on that trip? I don't recognize any of it." That's a little unfair. Everything written is true. It just that Bob prefers a story that goes like this: Friday, we drove down and hiked to Campsite 10. Saturday, we hiked a loop up to the AT and back. Sunday, we moved to Campsite 21. Monday, we drove home, stopping for a burger on the way home. It didn't rain. We had fun.

Bob also said the stories need a little more character development. You don't get the feel of the people, he said, exercising his skills at literary criticism. Maybe so.  Maybe I should tell you that Silver Pops is one of the nicest, most conversational and caring people you'll ever meet, with a deep-seated love of baseball and a competitive streak a mile wide. Tell him he can't and he'll show you he can. Maybe I should tell you that Ank is one of the hardest working people you'll ever meet, working at least two jobs and getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning for one them, running the cameras for a morning news show. But he never, not once, has complained about it. If duty calls, Ank answers. He purifies our water, starts our fires, saws our wood. Maybe I should tell you that John, the Bull, is about as dedicated to his family as a man could possibly be, from his ailing mother, to his wife and children and his beloved grandson, and that his heart attack years ago couldn't and didn't diminish his heart. Maybe I should tell you that Goetzy, once an exceptional high school football coach and now an exceptional middle school principal, is naturally wired to ask about you and your family in an almost ministerial fashion. And maybe I should tell you about Bob, a natural but unlikely leader, who once coached Goetzy in youth football.

Since he's our leader, I'm going to give Bob his own paragraph. He deserves it. Bob played rugby without a helmet and, by his own account, suffered concussions but came out of it fine. His opinions are out of left field if left field were in outer space. His haircut is self-inflicted. His wardrobe is from the Charlie Brown Beach Collection. His singing voice is suspect but irrepressible, and his recollection of musical lyrics is atrocious. Who can forget his rendering of Elton John's "lay me down in sheets of linen" as "lay me down in sheets of lemon" with insistence in the face of all evidence that he was and remains correct; it was Elton who got it wrong. Sit him around the campfire and in time he'll "stir the pot," as he calls the questions he lobs like grenades loaded with nails. All of this is the outer shell of a man who inside wonders and worries about the meaning of life far more often than he worries about material wealth, which he worries about never.

Maybe I should tell you this: The Patio Boys are as fine of company as you can keep.

I'm not sure all of that came out around the campfire, although much of it was implicit in the stories told. Eventually, we ran out of stories. Or maybe firewood. Or maybe fortitude. We are old after all. One by one, we checked out ‒ heading to our respective tents.

Next morning, I was up first, then Spence, and we traded fish stories, including mine about the 25-pound, 48-inch Northern pike caught on 4-pound test line in Quetico, a world record though unrecorded. It was a pleasant morning, with the other Patio Boys sleeping in and the sun rising and warming. Then, from down the hill, a lone, lanky figure appeared, striding toward us.

A park ranger.

The ranger, unassuming and friendly, we'll call him "Rick," struck up a conversation before he asked the inevitable, "Could I see your permits, gentlemen?" Spence had his. You know our story. I explained: We were paid but our permit was for 10 not 21 ‒ though we had attempted to change it.

"Shouldn't be a problem," he said, walking over to Bob's tent to wake him up and see the permit. "You tried to change it, right? You made an effort?"
"We did," I said, and then called to Bob, "Bob, wake up. We need the permit. There's a ranger here to check."

"There's no ranger. You're making that up," he insisted as Rick stood by, ever patient and flawlessly friendly.

"Yes there is. Wake up."

Bob poked his head out, directed me to his pack and the permit ‒ and repeated the only two facts we had in our favor: He had paid our camping fees and he had stopped by the ranger station in attempt to change it. The very decent Rick was satisfied, and moved on. Federal law enforcement officers, it turns out, have some discretion in enforcing the law, sort of like Obama opting not to deport Mexican children living in America with a dream of opportunity and upward mobility. We were off the hook.

And that was that. Uneventful. The kind of trip you want.

Can I get an "amen!" Where's that preacher?


For those of you who must know the trip details, here they are by the numbers:

Day 1
Anthony Creek Trail 1.6 miles
Russel Field Trail 1 mile to camp site 10
Camp site 10 ranking -  2.5 - Level, water, wood was not easily available

Day 2 Loop
Russell Field Trail 2.5 to Russell Field Shelter
AT 2.9 mi to Spence Field Shelter
Bote Mtn Trail 1.7 miles
Anthony Creek 1.9 miles
Russell Field 1.0 miles

Day 3
Little River Train 2.4 miles
Husky Mtn Train 0.3 miles to camp site 21
Camp site 21 ranking - 2.5  - Level, wood, water was 200 yrds away