“Coyote attacks on people are very rare. More people are killed by errant golf balls and flying champagne corks each year than are bitten by coyotes.”
-The Humane Society of the United States
Boredom is far better than it is cracked up to be
when bathed in the beauty of an Appalachian fall
By Mark A. Neikirk
A pack of coyotes was menacingly close, and John Hennessey was alert to the imminent danger. One searches one’s memory at such moments. What have I read or heard about coyotes? Do they or don’t they attack humans? How will I defend myself? Is death painful? Or is it instant, like birth? One minute you’re here, the next you’re in a new place, bathed in the bright lights of the ob-gyn delivery room or of heaven itself.
There was little time to contemplate those deep questions as one of the coyotes lurched forward, its snarl now a full-on Wes Craven terror scene. John, born tough, threw his forearm out as if blocking a lineman, knocking the attacking animal back toward its brethren and sistren.
So wild was the scene that it woke John from his dream, as well as the other two people sleeping in the Appalachian Trail’s Vandeventer Shelter, one being through-hiker Buttercup and the other being me. “What the hell?” one of us asked. I honestly don’t know which of us. Maybe both of us.
The shelter’s tin roof and wooden floor amplified John’s wild reaction to his mind’s horror movie. A dark, moonless night and the rain outside added to the moment’s mayhem. Startled from a sound sleep, neither Buttercup nor I was quite sure what was taking place. It was easy to believe someone not of sound mind had stolen into the shelter with ill intent.
The evening before, we had discussed the ax murder that took place in this shelter in 1975, which is described on, of all places, a website for Green Belly, which sells trail-ready meals. Somehow, finding information about murder on a food vendor’s website made me think of the play, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” What do they put in these “2GO” meals? In any case, here is the site’s chilling and succinct account:
“Janice Balza was sitting at a campfire at the Vandeventer Shelter when she was murdered with a hatchet by a former mental patient named Paul Bigley, who supposedly ‘coveted her backpack.’ Bigley was tried and convicted of murder and spent the rest of his life in prison. The Vandeventer shelter is sometimes believed to be haunted by Balza’s ghost.”
For an instant, at least, the shelter certainly seemed haunted. Or worse, had Bigley returned to kill again?
While a hike on the Appalachian Trail is widely considered safe, there was the fact of 12 murders since 1974. Our encounter with danger was not so bad in comparison. John’s coyote dream was only that. A dream. And the mad deer was, in the end, not deadly.
Mad deer you say?
Well, yes. This was a four-day hike, beginning on Thursday, October 12, 2023, at the Cross Mountain trailhead along Tennessee State Highway 91 and concluding just before reaching the dam on Watauga Lake, about 20 miles total. Our first night was spent by the Iron Mountain Shelter, which has a broad, flat front yard, if you will. That is, it was a mostly cleared spot in the forest with more than enough room for our crew of ten with our nine solo tents and one hammock.
Packing up the next morning, a young buck with spikes on its head wandered into camp, seeming harmless at first. Deer do this from time to time, especially out West where we have learned to call them the “camp deer.” Their presence is routine, like mosquitos, body odor, toe blisters and other minor annoyances.
The West’s visitors are mostly mule deer rather than the East’s more common white tail deer, which is what this one was. Both species are typically shy and, even if they come into camp, tend to graze a safe distance from humans and scurry off if approached. Not this one. Within minutes, our Bambi buddy began bashing its head against the little trees around the campsite. OK, they do that during rutting season, right? Interesting to see it. No big deal.
Not satiated by the trees, Bambi decided his bam, bam antics were better directed at our packs, which at that point were resting against various trees as we loaded them to depart. This was getting interesting.
Then, seeing us, he came charging like some kind of ungulate Paul Bigley.
Yes, this was actually happening. A spindly deer, too thin and young looking to be a menace and its still-undeveloped antlers a BB gun compared to a mature buck’s carbine, was trying like hell to take us on, one at time. He ducked his head, prongs protruding, and came charging as if taking on a competitor in mating season. This deer was deranged!
Eric Krosnes found himself in the crosshairs, and danced backward – a matador in a need of cape. He reached for an antler and caught it, thus successfully parrying a blow that might well have injured him seriously. The young buck then stabbed Eric’s pack, poking a small hole in it. On another charge, he left a hole in Eric’s pant leg.
Seeing all this, Jim Ankenbauer arrived with a can of bear spray and delivered a squirt. Bambi shook his angry head, scurried back for a moment and then returned to charge Eric again. Jim let him have another taste, and Bambi retreated into the woods a little further, where he smelled something worth eating and began to graze. We were no longer the focus of his attention.
We thought perhaps the deer was suffering from chronic wasting deer disease, which causes a deer to lose it fear of humans and behave erratically. But a wildlife officer told us the more likely explanation is that someone bottle-raised the deer and then let it go, which had habituated it to humans even as it teen-age hormones kicked into high gear.
I hope you have found the above narrative exciting because, were it not for the dream and the deer, there would not be much to tell about this hike. A kind of boredom settled over the rest of it. Not to disparage this hike. Or boredom. Boredom can be a gift if experienced in the Iron Mountain range of the Appalachians in October when the leaves are green on Thursday and, then by Sunday, well on their way to being a kaleidoscope. Walking through these woods as nature adjusts its color bar is exponentially superior to boredom most anywhere else.
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We, that is, our hiking group, got started with a commitment to hike, over the course of however many weekends it took, the length of Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace Trail, which is roughly 300 miles and runs the length of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Some of us, me included, joined the group after the Sheltowee hiking already started so we will have to go back and do our missing sections if we want to be classified and Sheltowee through hikers --- and I for one plan to do so.
The group then began going to the Great Smoky Mountains, and over the course of several years we have covered most of the trails there that are practical for weekend trips.
These days, we are committed to hiking sections of the AT, which is 2,190 miles long, At 20 miles per trip and one trip per year, it will take us another 100 years and none of us expects to live so long.
Even if we had the time, we might not use it hiking the AT. Too often, sections of the AT are beautiful but redundant, passing atop ridges alternately through tunnels of laurel or among stands of hardwoods, sometimes young, sometimes old, sometimes a mix of both depending on what long ago loggers did and when they did it. Some of the mountains in the AT were clear-cut and so have few if any old oak, ash, hickory or maple trees. But the younger versions of these species are common, and hold the promise of a mature forest of giants in the years ahead.
It is unfailing beautiful and restorative to be unplugged from modern life among these trees, but after a few miles one longs for a waterfall or an overlook or some other “feature” to contemplate. This is especially true atop a ridgetop, which – although having “top” in the names suggests you have reach the top where inclines and declines are not – is nothing of the sort.
Mountain ridgetops are undulating sequences of uphill and downhill. They are called hogbacks when one peak is distinct enough to be its own and saw tooth if the ups and downs are in sufficient succession to look, from a distance, like a saw’s blade. This section of the AT had both.
Every time you started downhill, which should be a relief, you have to remember that you’ll soon make up any loss of elevation, if not more, come the next incline. When I asked my fellow hikers what stood out most about this trip, they were unanimous in listing three things. One was the beauty of the forest. Second was the lack of water, which I’ll get to. And the third was the strenuous hills. Everyone’s thighs and calves were screaming at them once home. John Hennessey offered an account that spoke for all of us:
“Based on how my legs felt on Sunday night, this had to have been one of the tougher hikes. Maybe rivaling the Pine Mountain’s frequent ups and downs. Overall, the trail topo shows a steady downhill hike, but no such thing on the AT. The first big bump about a mile from the start was about 500 feet in 1.5 miles. It does not look that bad on paper, but a tougher start than expected."
“Looks like we started at 3,700 feet and climbed to 4,200 feet at the three-mile mark, then a few more 50 to 100-foot bumps over the next two miles to the Iron Mountain Shelter at 4,100 feet. We stayed at 4,100 with the exception of 100-food climb out of gate the next day, and several more 50-foot bumps.”
Overall, it would be downhill from there but the downhill was accomplished via a series of incremental up-and-down segments, each with a net loss of elevation but still requiring an uphill slog before clearing the hump and going downhill. What’s more, the uphill portions seem to go on and on and on. You would look up and not see the end. Most were straight up. No switchbacks, which trail designers usually include to ameliorate the hills. Not here.
I’ll let John take you across the trail’s final miles: “The elevation continued to drop in numerous 50-foot ups and downs to the last campsite at Wilbur Dam Road at 2,400, leaving a tortuous up/ down 4.5 mile to the cars at 2,000 feet.”
Suck it up, Buttercup!
That’s what through-hiker Buttercup’s wife told him early in his trip when he called home once and complained of this or that trail misery. He made the mistake of having her on speaker phone, so his fellow hikers heard her. Bingo, they had his trail name.
On the AT, other hikers give you a trail name. It’s yours for the duration, if not for life. Though you have veto rights, Buttercup’s trail name stuck, largely because once his wife and family learned of the selection, it spread like wildfire back home. There was no going back to find something that might have sounded a little tougher. A retired Navy pilot, Buttercup deserved something like Ace or Jetspeed, but Buttercup was what he got – and he was living with it unashamedly and he pressed own toward Mount Katahdin in Maine, which he likely will reach next summer after taking the winter off. Props to Buttercup.
One of the joys of section hiking the AT, as we are doing, is that you meet through hikers and hear their stories. What they have taken on, an eight- or nine-month hiatus from their lives to endure the trail’s hardships, is impressive. The trail has its joys, solitude (if you want it) and beauty are chief among them. There are difficulties, too. And risk. People fall and break bones or cut themselves. Sprained ankles are common. Yellow jackets sting. Poison ivy leaves a nasty rash. Snakes bite. Ticks take up residence on your body, sometimes in the most inconvenient places. Chiggers, too. Bear attacks are rare but possible. And you never know when a deer might go postal.
Contaminated water wreaks havoc with the digestive tract. Things like norovirus get passed hiker to hiker, rendering their inflamed intestines an internal enemy as it hunches them over. Try hiking with this unpleasant combination of symptoms: Vomiting. Diarrhea. Fever. Cold sweats. Headaches. Stomach pain. Covid was a risk and still is. Social distancing would seem easy on the trail but all trails have chokepoints and, on the AT, the shelters are the obvious ones. People sleep side by side, often like sardines. Public health guidelines for avoiding infection include not sharing food and washing hands frequently. Neither of those behaviors mirror trail behavior.
Further, there are the routine nasties of hiking. No one smells good. Everyone snores. Going No. 1 is not so bad but No. 2 requires yoga-like balance, and running out of TP is a bummer. Tents leak. So do rain suits. Sleeping bags don’t live up to their temperature ratings. Blisters are unavoidable. Sunburn happens. Matches get wet. Stoves fail. The coffee sucks. Ramen noodles, though cheap, light and easy to prepare, are gradually constricting your arteries. So are most of the mainstream freeze-dried dinners. A Mountain House favorite, Buffalo Style Chicken Mac & Cheese, has 1,440 mg of sodium or 63 percent of the daily maximum recommended intake. Chili Mac, another Mountain House favorite, has even more salt ─ 1,520 mg.
In short, Buttercup and all through hikers do suck it up.
As weekend warriors, which is what the through-hikers call the likes of us somewhat derisively, we experience all of the above as risks and realities. The consequences generally are not as great since we are near our cars. This trip, someone fell, busting his spectacles and his head. A couple of trips ago, another of us fell and split his head open too (stiches would have helped) and someone else came down with vertigo and could barely walk for 24 hours.
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If it is hard, so risky, and so, well, miserable at times, why hike? Fair question. As a cousin of mine put it when I posted on Facebook that we were about to take off, “Knock yourself out!” He was commenting from the comfort of an ocean cruise. His intended implication was clearly that he would sooner drive cross-country with Joe Biden and Donald Trump in his passenger seats than go backpacking in the mountains. He might even prefer a colonoscopy and root canal on the same day to AT hike with undulating elevation.
So to ask it again: Why hike?
Certainly, the natural beauty is part of backpacking’s allure, and a big one. But so is the chance to be in the company of friends. Today’s America seems peopled by unkind human beings who delight in picking a fight. Our hiking group is, to the person, peopled by kind people.
Consider the crew this trip. Bob Pauly, who organizes these trips, is a nurse by profession and caring by nature. Mark McGinnis, an IT professional who volunteers his time to maintain our website, has never said a disparaging word about anyone. Ditto for Bill Ankenbauer, who is among Bob’s closest friends and who takes the time after each trip to organize and post everyone’s photographs. Bill’s son, Kyle, is a quiet and witty architect and, though newer to our group, an instant fit. Bill’s brother, and Kyle’s uncle, Jim Ankenbauer was educated to be a listener and comforter in the seminary – he didn’t enter the priesthood but, though now 50-plus years removed from the seminary, his demeanor is still that of a man of the cloth. Brandon Zembrodt is a big teddy bear who eats more food than seems humanly possible and, each time he sits down to do so, shares. His storehouse is impressive, this trip including a flavorful hard cheese and slices of prosciutto. John Hennessey, the previously mentioned dreamer, is the epitome of a family man, who he treats his trail companions as his extended family. Eric Krosnes, the deer matador, keeps everyone laughing and can start a fire no matter how much rain falls. Mark Talbert, also newer to our group, was part of the same high school class of 1972 that included Bob, Bill, Mark McGinnis, and John. Mark, though relatively speaking a stranger, takes the time to get to know everyone, taking an interest in old friends and new.
We are not a homogenous lot. Besides our variety of occupations (from international sales to journalism, from nursing to landscaping), we differ, too, in our politics. One of us wore a t-shirt celebrating a specialty rifle and also bought a new $1,300 pistol at the gun shop located in Hampton, Tenn., near where we went into the woods. Another of us believes the Second Amendment is grammatically flawed, doesn’t protect individual gun rights, and would love to see automatic weapons made illegal immediately. Our religions differ as does our marital status, our preference in cars, and how we take our coffee. None of the differences renders us incapable of caring about each other and enjoying one another’s company. Being on the trail with this group, as well as others in our group who did not make this trip, is a grace.
There also are the good people you meet on the trail, and the AT especially has this benefit. Every AT hiker, whether hiking it all or some of it, has story. One we met this trip had just retired. Like the day before. He and I talked a lot at the Iron Mountain Shelter picnic table. He had been an engineer, and he already had arranged to volunteer is services to a local nonprofit.
Life’s passages can motivate an AT hike. Graduating from college with no job prospects. Getting fired with no job prospects. A broken heart or broken marriage. A death in the family. Recovery from cancer or another medical scare. Any one of those might motivate a person to pack up and walk. The most famous AT through-hike, Grandma Gatewood, worn out from farm life and cruel husband, was 67 when she said good-bye to all that and left Gallipolis, Ohio, for the AT. She became the first woman to hike it alone, and then thru-hiked it twice more. Her hikes drew nationa media attention, and even an appearance as a guest on "You Bet Your Life" with Grocho Marx, where she said her parents raised "tobacco, corn, wheat and a little Cain" -- which drew a Groucho chuckle.
With television appreaances, newspaper and magazine stories, a documentary, a popular biography, and a Wikepedia page, Emma Gatewood was well-known then and now. Most through-hikers are not, although their stories may be. Protected by the anonymity of their trail names, they often share. Taken together, their stories are the human story, delivered by men, women and alternately gendered people, who, as an amalgam are a little grimy but usually smiling. Likely each is dressed in some lightweight nylon fabric, probably with a bandana as part of the ensemble, and shod in Altra trail runners, the current preferred footwear on the AT. Our prototypical AT hiker is carrying a much lighter load than we weekenders. Buttercup was amused by our backpacks and almost immediately observed, “You guys could carry a lot less.”
We, by the way agree. Every one of us ended the trail asking: What did I bring that I should have left at home?
Mark McGinnis, who got tagged years ago with the unflattering trail name “Tarp Boy” because he was kind enough to carry a Home Depot-style plastic tarp should it rain, is done with the trail name and the tarp: “I need to find another trail name I’m not carrying the big blue tarp anymore! That was about 2 pounds or more that we never used. And I seriously need to figure out how to drop some more pack weight.” Same thought from others:
• Mark Talbert: “I always plan to hike lighter, usually don’t. My areas to lighten include food and clothes.”
• John Hennessey: “My pack was the lightest ever at 36 pounds before water. I carried one liter in my bladder and one liter in my pack’s side pocket. That’s 4.4 pounds, which put my pack over 40 pounds. I did not use my big knife. I always use my pocketknife, so the big guy is not needed. I bought one of the chair pads to attach to the legs of my Helinox, but the ground was hard and did not use or need the pad. There are a few other things I need to eliminate to take the total weight down to 37 pounds with water. That might be the limit with my existing gear unless I leave the Helinox chair. That’s not an option.”
• Eric Krosnes: “I will invest in a lighter rain suit before the next backpacking trip for sure. And as much as I hate having crap hanging all over the outside of my pack, I will do all I can to use my Z-pack next trip, and strap gear on the outside if I have to. The difference between the Osprey and Z-pack is probably three pounds.”
• Bob Pauly: “I would like to lighten my load but not at an expense. I would like to know what I bring that you don't. Except lots of bourbon.”
Bob is diligent about cutting weight, but disinterested in spending a fortune to do so. He has a Nemo Hornet, one-man tent that weighs about two pounds. He’s had it for a few years, but if he purchased it today it would cost $400. To cut that two pounds further would be a major expense. A Big Agnes Tiger Wall constructed of the nearly weightless material, Dyneema, with carbon fiber polls weighs a scant 1 pound but costs, currently, on Amazon $1,800 plus another $51 for a ground cloth (honestly, Big Agnes, couldn’t you throw that in?)
Through hikers also save weight with lighter packs. Zpack, Gossamer Gear, and Hyperlite are brands you see. Expect to shell out about $400 to go from a standard four-pound pack with a capacity of 50 liters to an ultralight pack with the same capacity. Pack weight will drop to under one and half pounds.
As you can see, in saving weight, you will also lighten you wallet. Since I leave my wallet at the car (don’t tell the car thieves), that is inconsequential on the trail.
In the end, it is – and John Hennessey pointed out – difficult to get a pack as light as you would like it to be. Consider the typical contents:
Pack: 4 pounds, maybe a little less.
Tent: 3 pounds (yes, there are 2-pound tents. I have one. But by the time you add a ground cloth and the extra stakes that are prudent should it storm, real weight is 3 or more pounds.
Sleeping bag: 3 pounds. Some weigh a little more, some a little less. My goose down bag is rated to 15 degrees and weighs 2.5 pounds.
Sleeping pad: 2 pounds. Mine is more like 1.5 but 2 is typical. Also, I carry a small electric pump to inflate my pad and is makes the net weight of my pad and pump right at 2 pounds.
Clothing: 4 pounds. You can minimize clothing but you still need a change of underwear and socks, a rain suit, a puffy if it is going to be cold, and maybe an extra shirt and pants. Clothing is a real variable in you pack. Shirts and pants have gotten much lighter but they are not weightless. And this trip I brought a pair of long johns for sleeping because I thought it would colder than it was. Long johns are a godsend if the temperature drops below 30 at night.
Food: A pound per day so 4 pounds for this trip. Again, a lot of fluctuation is possible. A freeze-dried meal for one might weigh only 4 ounces, and a breakfast of oatmeal and instant coffee even less, and a protein bar for lunch also less. But if you toss in snacks and the like, you’ll end up close to a pound a day. Food can really change pack weight. On this hike, Mark Talbot and Brandon Zembrodt had notably large packs. It’s little secret why: food. Mark had steak one night and a sausage for breakfast the next morning, both cooked on a stick over an open fire. In contrast, through hiker Buttercup had a few balls of Brussel sprouts flavored with fewer slices of pepperoni, both atop ramen. He planned to eat that every night until he resupplied, when he would trade out the Brussel sprouts for broccoli. Through hikers obsess over calories per ounce.
Stove and fuel: 2 pounds, plus or minus. Depends on your stove and how big of a fuel canister you bring. Two pounds is about right for the trail’s post popular stove, a Jetboil, and a medium-sized fuel canister. I use a pocket rocket and a light tea kettle, which are a little lighter but not much.
Personal items: 4 pounds. This category can really vary, as it includes medicines, toilet paper and baby wipes, a “cat hole” spade (for No. 2), a lighter or matches, fire starter, a knife, a flashlight, a headlamp, a phone and charger, silverware, and who knows what else. Little things that feel weightless alone add up fast. I’m always amazed at the weight of my pack’s top pocket where I put most of these things.
Water: 2 pounds for a litter. Many carry more. Frankly, it depends on whether the route you are hiking is near to a water source so you can resupply. This section of the AT was not. It also depends on the temperature. Hot day equals more water to stay hydrated, and getting dehydrated causes more trouble on the trail than just about anything.
Camp chair: 2 pounds. You don’t have to have one but you wish you did. The lightest Helinox is a pound but a standard one is 2 pounds and even with the light one you’ll want a leg net that keeps the chair from sinking into soft ground. So this is another “plus or minus” item for weight, depending on exactly what you bring.
Water filter: 1 pound. Everyone doesn’t need one but I once hiked in the Tetons were no one did. If you are the one who is designated to bring this essential piece of equipment, then add this. You can bring a soft bottle filter for one person. Life Straw makes one that is just 4 ounces.
Those extras: We’ll say 2 pounds. To each his own. I like to bring something to read – a book, a Kindle, a magazine. Bill Ankenbauer brings a Blue Tooth speaker so we have tunes around the campfire. For all I know, someone brings a Water Pic.
Total that up: 33 pounds.
I suspect we’ll all find ways to cut our pack weight some. The irrefutable rule is that everything is weight. Ounces turn into pounds. A spoon and fork weigh more than spork. A flashlight with spare batteries weighs more than a flashlight with spare batteries. A toothbrush with toothpaste weighs more than one without and still cleans the pearly whites. A Shakespeare tragedy weighs less than anything by Dickens. Soy nuts weigh less than peanuts. Unfortunately, lite beer does not weigh less than beer beer.
However you do it, light up. Grandma Gatewood would agree. Today, she's considered an ultia-llight hiking pioneer, having left homewith a demin, drawstring bag that she made. She carreied no sleeping bag or tent. She sometimes heated rocks in a fire, then slept on them.. Her essentials included Band-Aids, iodine, a knife, and flashlight. Her rain gear was a shower curtain. She ate nuts and raisins, boiled boullion, and hiked in sneakers.
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There were two things this section of the AT did not have that an idea section would have: abundant water and spectacular views.
The Iron Mountain Shelter water supply was the first challenge. We were warned by another hiker that it had taken him 30 minutes to purify 1.5 liters of water, which is about enough for one person overnight and his meals. Furthermore, the water source was about a quarter of a mile away and down a hill. When you got to it, you could barely believe it was an “official” AT water source. A trickle of water emerged from the bed of a dry ditch, then snaked its way about 20 feet beneath rocks and roots to a pool about the size of doggie water bowl. And I’m being generous. Someone had cleverly rigged the water’s exit from the final rock so it would pass through a bright green, rolled up leaf from a nearby bush. This acted as a spout, so that you could set bowl beneath it, fill the bowl, dump that into a bottle until it was full (about five bowls later) and then use the water pump to purify water from that bottle into another bottle. We had a team of three, one filling the bowl and two managing the purification process. It was slow, dull work. Finally, I went upstream, knelt in the ditch and cleaned some debris. The trickle sped up considerably, and we went from one bottle every 20 minutes or so to one bottle every seven minutes or so. By the time we finished, we left with enough water to last everyone through the night.
As if that were not bad enough, the water source at Vandeventer Shelter was further away and at the end of an interminably long downhill. As Bob told us after going down there, “When you think you are there, keep going.” At least the spring was a little larger and flowing better here. It was still much smaller than a kitchen sink but deep enough that a water filter hose could go directly into pool. No need for a leaf, a bowl, and two bottles to fill one.
There would be no water the next day along the trail but some Boy Scouts took care of us. Our last campsite was beside an access road, and the Scouts were there with their dad to greet a friend of his who was through hiking. Dad offered us some bottled water, and his sons ran to the car and came back with enough to get us through the night.
As for scenic views, there were none.
Now and again if you got off the trail and went to the edge of the ridge and titled your head just right, you could see Watauga Lake off in the distance. The lack of scenic views probably made us think about pack weight more than we usually would. With so little sights to see, there were few distractions. A waterfall here, a bald there, a ruin (such as, an old cabin), a cemetery, or overlook with a broad view of the magnificence of the Appalachians are all sights that call on you to put your pack down and pause and take them in. Here, the trail was all work with little reward other than the tail itself.
What passed for scenery were three bear hunters, with their rifles and their dogs. Friendly gentlemen, but oddly with no apparent way to haul a bear back to their truck should they have shot one – which they did not.
Our last few hours on the tail underscored the value of such sights. By then, we were officially off the trail and drove to another section of the AT at Laurel Fork Falls, a 1.3 mile hike from the cars to the falls. It was mostly flat until the last quarter miles or so, when the trail plunged precipitously to the streambed below the falls. We were no sooner out of the cars than we arrived at a textbook trout pool in Laurel Creek, after which the trail went uphill modestly, then down to a well-constructed bridge over the creek, then up some steps to a flatter section before plunging to the site of the falls.
The falls is 50 feet wide and a 40 foot drop, its water on the day we were there split into twin falls. Here was a little mountain paradise, worthy of lingering. We were gloriously packless, just hiking from the cars and back before heading to Johnson City, Tenn., for lunch before the five-hour drive back to Northern Kentucky.
I, by the way, turned left instead of right coming back up from the falls, and hiked probably three quarters of a mile before realizing I was off the AT, and so turned round and came back. Two trail angels, John and his girlfriend, Dev, from Raleigh, set me on the right path. For the record, a Patio Boy is never lost. Just misplaced. I live to be misplaced in places like this one.
OUR HIKE BY THE NUMBERS & TIDBITS
Day 1, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023
• Cross Mountain Trailhead, State Hwy 91 to Iron Mountain Shelter: 4.5 Miles (near Hampton, Tenn.)
• Campsite rating 2.5 stars: wood, flat; water from a small trickle a quarter mile from the campsites
Day 2, Friday, Oct. 13
• Iron Mountain Shelter to Vandeventer Shelter 6.8 miles
• Campsite rating 1.5: flat but not enough wood and death hike down to water
Day 3, Saturday, Oct. 14
• Vandeventer Shelter to Wilber Dam Road: 4.5 Miles
• Campsite rating 2 stars: flat and wood but no water but trail angels provided bottled water
• Walked 4 miles to cars without packs and brought cars to campsite
• Jim Ankenbauer took tumble in the dark, smashing his reading spectacles and incurring a cut severe enough to require Bob Pauly’s nursing skills.
Day 4, Sunday, Oct. 15
• Packed up in rain
• Got in cars and drove to Dennis Cove Road - Laurel Fork Falls trailhead for a hike: 2.6 miles (round trip)
• Mark Neikirk got misplaced, taking a left where a right was correct, hence adding a couple of extra miles to his trip for which there is only ignominy not honor.
• Drove afterward to Johnson City for lunch at Voodoo Chicken JC (Nashville-style hot chicken; yum)
TOTAL MILES HIKED: 22.4 miles
NOTE: Bob Pauly developed a Five Star Campsite Rating System, with one star each for water, flat tent sites, available firewood , available water, and a fifth star for the presence of one or more women dressed like a statue of Venus. No campsite has ever achieved a five.