Good Golly, this was a fine summer trip full of unexpected gifts
Some trips seem uneventful as they unfold but eventful in hindsight as the experiences collect, accumulating enough heft to enter the lore and be retold, sometimes with a thin coat of varnish to accentuate the texture, grain and color and then, with each retelling, new coats of varnish, applied with logarithmic progressions of thickness.
Which is why I must get the facts down now, while they are fresh. The unvarnished truth, if you will. Now or never.
Strictly speaking, this was not a Patio Boys trip. It was a spinoff. Writ as an SAT analogy, it was to a Patio Boys trip as "Maude" was to "All in the Family." A spin-off, featuring females. The ensemble was me, Miss Kate (aka, Mrs. Captain) and her bud, Good Golly Miss Molly, who suffered a bad case of Patio Boy envy, for which she can be forgiven, as who wouldn't? An avid reader of this site and its accounts, Good Golly was ready to create a chapter or two of her own, and Miss Kate was a willing enabler. Girl power, boys.
Our destination was the Smoky Mountain National Park and Gregory's Bald, a place already in the Patio Boys' literary canon but inevitably bound to re-enter now that Miss Kate and Good Golly were putting their vibrant souls and Vibram souls to the task. Sure enough, our two days and two nights provided a grab bag of surprises, from abundant blueberries ripe for the picking to a newborn fawn tucked in for the night by its Mama Bambi just 40 yards from our tents, from wood that had been fireproofed by rain and resisted all efforts to light it to a toilet maze inhabited by a legendary copperhead, from howling coyotes to spectral trail runners, from two cans of the best beer ever to Good Golly Miss Molly's sighting of a notable species of salamander, from BLT's made with apple-smoked bacon and Grainger County tomatoes on the way in to Anthony DiFranco's pride of the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival barbecue on the way out.
And then there as Chaison and Levin.
The Smoky Mountains can startle in the usual ways, scaring the bejeezus out of you with a bear on the other side of a blind bend or rattlesnake sunning where you were about to step. The park can just as readily startle with beauty. After miles along a ridgetop with nary a peek of the peaks, a stand of sweet birches or pignut hickories might yield obstruction for vantage. There, laid out for untold distance, are the glorious Appalachians fading finally to an edge of blue-green mountaintops against a hazy horizon colored by the time of day.
Bears. Snakes. A gallery of panoramas. All good startle stuff. Be prepared, however, to be startled in less conventional ways, such as encounters with people named names rarely heard. I stray not an inch from verisimilitude in reporting that we met, in the flesh, Chaison and Levin.
We were introduced to them by Van, whose name, SH compared to theirs, was as ordinary as Bob, Jim or Jim Bob. "Spell it for them, Chaison," Van instructed, rhyming it with Jason, which was not quite correct. Chaison did as instructed and spelled his name. He also pronounced it for us and, when he did, it came out more like what country dogs do to cars and country boys do to girls, that is, go chasin' after them. We assumed that Levin always departs first (he's leavin') and Chaison follows (he's chasin').
Van we took for a preacher, as he had that easy manner of taking a seat, saying hello and launching into a conversation that moves relentlessly toward the question, "Are you saved?" Turns out, Van works for the Navy in Florida and educated us on a consortium of opposition there to off-shore drilling in the Panhandle, which was a story more tuned to saving the creation than the created. Maybe he preaches on weekends. Maybe he tells the congregation that "drill baby drill" is not in the Bible.
"I'm officially elderly," Van announced without explanation, but begging the question, which we obliged and asked: How's that? Van was well beyond his youth but he certainly wasn't elderly. He looked like John Ritter, had the actor lived a little past 55, porked up some and set out to hike 80 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 10 days with two teen-agers from the Deep South blessed with names they could uniquely inhabit.
So here's the story: Van's wife was in a car accident. Hurt? No, no. She OK? Is now, but she had to go to the ER. Made the news. What HIPAA, the hospital could not release names but did tell the local media that "an elderly woman" was among the injured. "We got a big kick out that," Van said, beaming. "But we decided not to tell her." And off he went, his mirth lightening the load of a 45-pound pack.
Solitude for a day and other gifts
Van and his crew startled us for another reason. We left Good Golly's van (a Honda Odyssey that Good Golly calls "Hon Dawg" – an amalgam of Honda and dog, creating a name Chaison's and Levin's parents likely would approve) at a lot along the Parsons Branch service road and backpacked the four miles uphill to Campsite 13 along the Gregory Bald Trail, leaving at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday.
It was 4:30 p.m. on Saturday when, while toward the end of a day hike, we saw backpackers ascending Twentymile Trail. These were the first humans we had seen during our 24 hours out other than ourselves and two fleeting trail runners who may or may not have been human but in any case were not hikers. We assume they were spectral because at this point on the trail there were no entry and exit points close enough to explain even a mini-marathon. So count those two out as human. They were the spirit bodies of two trail runners who, I don't know, got poisoned by snakes, eaten by bears or otherwise dispatched some years back, presumably.
What I'm saying is that on one the most popular spots in the Smoky Mountains, Gregory's Bald, and at one of the most popular campsites in the park, No.13 (check the guidebooks, if you doubt me on this), we went 24 hours before encountering another hiker. When we did, it was Van, Chaison and Levin, who were headed in the other direction. The Smokies draw about 10 million visitors a year, twice as many people as the Grand Canyon, which ranks second among the National Parks. So solitude, even if it lasts only 24 hours, is a gift. How's that for being startled?
This trip teemed with gifts, beginning with the idea of it. It was born of Good Golly's wish to hike with Miss Kate. I was merely the guide, a Bogart to two Hepburns, albeit not down an African river with its crocodiles and gunboats.
Good Golly had not hiked since high school until this past spring break when she hiked the Appalachian Trail with her son, the estimable Noah, and some of his fellow students from Cincinnati's Clark Montessori High School, where spring breaks aren't for the Xbox and Angry Bird set. The Clark kids would go up in the space shuttle for spring break if that were an option.
Next up for Good Golly is the Pacific Crest Trail with her other son, Fynn, whose name is obscure but quite real – having been assigned to him on account of Good Golly's fond memories from her girlhood of hearing the author, Fynn, read from his book, "Mister God, This Is Anna." As for Fynn the author, he says this in the preface of his book about being named Fynn: "My name is Fynn. Well that's not quite true; my real name doesn't matter." So perhaps Fynn the author's name is not real, but since Fynn the boy was named for a real Fynn, Fynn the boy thereby owns a real name even if Fynn the author did not. No offense intended toward Chaison or Levin; they, too, may have etymologies for their names. We just didn't get to those details during our brief encounter on the AT.
The point I was about to make before losing my train of thought was this: Good Golly had an itch to strap on a backpack this summer and hit a trail. Any trail. So when she asked Miss Kate to arrange a trip, it needed to happen – and I was what women in Alaska call a handyman, that is, a man and handy, i.e., readily available. Mr. Good Golly, henceforth known as John, was not handy, as he had to work, attend to Noah and Fynn, and also represent the family in watching the World Cup finals, U.S. versus Japan. He may also have needed to stay home to powder the cat's nose. Whatever the reasons, they were good ones and he was indisposed for a mid-July excursion with his hike-addicted wife.
So off we went, Kate and I first, with a stopover on Thursday evening at the Snug Hollow Inn in Estill County, midway between Irvine and Berea, and situated as the name suggests in a hollow. This particular hollow is a narrow meadow atop a hillock squeezed on either side and from behind by Estill County's charismatic mountains. "Would you call these mountains? I think they are hills. Tennessee has mountains. Kentucky has hills," opined the Snug Hollow proprietress, the elegant country earth mother, Barbara, whose mouth has a little miniature motor that keeps it running like an iPod that you forget to switch off. You say hello. She says the rest, and you'll want to keep the earbuds in place because Barbara's cadence is musical, and her stories fun and full of flagrant flummery that, with the quickness of the beat of a hummingbird's wing, become little fables fit for explaining life's wiles, woes and wonders. "My friend tells me I'm a prisoner in paradise," Barbara tells her assembled guests, after a little testimonial about how much she loves Snug Hollow but how darn much work it is to operate a bed and breakfast. Trapped in paradise. One could do worse. Also, whole theologies have been constructed around that as a goal.
Snug Hollow was where I heard this trip's first stove story. Barbara is an exceptional cook. Bread – the kind the Godfather would break open and sniff the innards of – is among her skills. Such bread, with its stiff, crusty exterior and pillow interior, requires a proper oven, and Barbara has one. It's a six-burner monster that she acquired by throwing herself at the mercy of a stove dealer in Lexington whose starter stoves were $3,000 but who happened to have one in the back that, upon witnessing her in tears, he agreed to repair, paint and sell her for $200. She wanted red knobs, she sobbed as an addendum. He threw those in, no extra cost – and with that, the culinary arts were advanced in Estill County. Lest you think advancing the culinary arts in Estill County is small potatoes, I assure otherwise. This is the county where my grandmother made biscuits, which when buttered provided a canvas for Edith Clem's blackberry jam. No finer food has ever been known to mankind. Now, with Grandma Clem's passing, this food of the gods is lost to all but memory. You cannot replicate her work, any more than you can paint a new Mona Lisa. But Barbara Napier at the Snug Hollow Inn makes quite a fine biscuit and her jams aren't too shabby either.
Onward to the big mountains
Good Golly picked Miss Kate and me up behind the Boone Tavern in Berea at 11:30 a.m. on Friday and by 4:30 p.m. we were at the start of the Gregory's Bald Trail along the Parsons Branch service road.
It wasn't easy getting there. Parsons Branch is a spur off the Cades Cove Loop, which means you must follow a caravan of people watching for bears from the safety of their SUVs. When a bear is spotted, the caravan stops. Rangers soon appear to monitor the people and make sure no one disturbs the bears beyond the general disturbance of 50 people with digital cameras and an attitude of entitlement to see wildlife since this is a national park and we by god pay taxes, even if we'd rather not. Molly is tailgating and fanning a bit, as Hon Dawg were a Formula One Ferrari stuck behind a driver with a busted gearbox. A thought ballon is visible above her head, "Move along people. We have a trail to walk and you have an outlet store in Pigeon Forge to get to."
The Cades Cove attractions include, according to our guide books, a "perfect example of Appalachian architecture," i.e., a long cabin. Also available for viewing is a preserved Missionary Baptist Church and an equally well-preserved Primitive Baptist Church. At these, people believed in the same God and the same Jesus but believed in both is differing ways, with such differences seeming slight to outsiders but substantial within the congregations. I cannot explain the need for two Baptist churches in one backwoods settlement in any more detail, but I would note that parsons is plural in Parsons Branch, and over time it is possible the community had one more parson that a single cove might need, while today a congregant might want for a parson but find only a road. It is a primitive road, so perhaps that sect got in the last word.
By 7 p.m., we were at Campsite 13 with tents up and firewood gathered. It was time to start a fire. It rained and what little firewood at the campsite already was damp. I've started many fires over the past 40-plus years of camping and done so in all conditions. This night, however, it was not meant to be. Three matchbooks, two lighters and one attempt with the propane blast of a Giga stove later, even the twigs seemed to be made of asbestos. One Match, where were you when I needed you most?
Using the Giga, we had a dinner of tortellini in tomato sauce with onions, pine nuts and olive oil, washed down with a splash of bourbon – and with nightfall upon, called it a night.
Next morning, I went with Good Golly to what passes for the water source at Campsite 13. It's what the guidebook called a "seep." No pool along the seep was large enough to provide direct pumping. Instead, we found a miniature waterfall, just large enough to stick a Nalgene bottle under the fall's pencil of water. We filled that bottle, then pumped from it into another, and in this way purified sufficient water for the day's hike. It was here, below the waterfall, that Good Golly saw a salamander. She had read that the Smokies have 101 species of salamanders and she was hell-bent on spotting at least one. The one she spotted was no easy sighting. Brown and black, it blended into rocks of its habitat with its born camouflage. Good golly, Molly – nice pick up.
Our plan was to go back and have out morning coffee, but dinner the night before – combined with the brief use of the Gigi as a fire-starting blowtorch – had exhausted one fuel canister and we still had another dinner to go, for which we would need the second Giga canister.
So we had a breakfast of water and Clif Bars before heading off on what would be 13.2 mile hike across Gregory's Bald to the Appalachian Trail and on to the Mollie's Ridge Shelter. It was a cool, foggy morning, made all the more comfortable by the fact that it had been 99 degrees and humid when we left the Ohio River Valley. The fog meant the bald had to be enjoyed for what you could see on the bald; there was no view into the valley below. But the bald provided. It was overwhelmed with its summer supply of blueberries, so we had a second breakfast, this one served in handfuls of hand-picked wild blueberries.
And then we walked.
A half marathon that undulates
The first 3.1 miles of the trail before connecting with the AT was a glory of wildflowers. I could not begin to name them, but I've never seen so many, so lushly displayed. One lily-like flower hung over the trail, dangling its flower as if from the line of a fishing rod. There were fire pinks all about. This is flower was unknown to me until this trip, but so distinctive that it was easy to Google and confirm once I was back home. It's presence at various places along the trail made it the defining flower of this trip, like Glacier's bear grass; but it far for the sole wild flower. We saw dozens of varities, most of them delicate but representing a spectrum of color.
It was along this stretch of the AT that the spectral runners passed up, pacing 8 minute miles or better and carrying only water packs. Where did they come in? Where were they going? The barely said a word and ran on, teasing our imaginations and reminding us that, until that moment, we'd seen no one since leaving Cades Cove.
Our destinataion was the Mollie's Ridge, Shelter, which we felt compelled to see given the name. The Mollie's Ridge is a perfect example of the Appalachian-style of architecture, i.e., it is a log cabin, though, in the style of AT shelters, it is open on one side and equipped with a community bunk bed.
We found a shelter journal and browsed through it, where the report of the copperhead in the toilet maze was made. I say toilet maze because the sign pointing to "Toilets" did not, as such signs often do at AT shelters in the Smokies, point to an outhouse, but rather to a cross-stitch of mini-trails providing semi-privacy for pulling your pants down to do what needs to be done. Ponder this: Is it better to know about the copperhead before you visit the maze? Or after?
By now, we had figured our pace: 30 minutes per mile, counting our pauses for water and breath. We might have been faster, but the AT and its companion trails undulate unforgivingly. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up, up. Down. By the time we arrived at the halfway point, where the AT and trail back to the bald split, we needed a rest. And it was here that we met Van, who took and seat and proceeded to talk with us as if we were born in the same hospital, attended first grade together and married into the same family. One of us must have noted that we "saw you all coming up the trail," and Van seized the "you all" and wondered how people from Cincinnati would know to use the second person plural pronoun so effortlessly. Well, we're educated Yankees, Van, and we aren't exactly from Cincinnati. You see, there's this river. The Ohio, owned by Kentucky. South of it is the South, not the North. We are from south of it. Or have been long enough to learn the language.
What does it mean to be in the South, in any case? Well, this seemed a good time to educate young Chaison and Levin, and I took Van's stage for a few minutes. It means first of all that all tea is sweet tea. When you don't have to ask for sweet tea, you are below the Sweet Tea Line and, by providential principle, in the South. The Deep South? This is when biscuits and all breads are brought to the table along with butter that is accompanied by a butter knife, which, under no circumstances, can be used to spread the butter. The butter knife exists solely for transporting the butter from the butter dish to the diner's plate, beside which the diner's own bread knife rests and is to be used for applying the butter to the bread. This in an inviolable rule which protects not only the butter from becoming granular with bread crumbs – like Yankee butter – but also protects young Southerners from the evils of ill manners. I believe it was Levin who at this point said he would require no knife at all for his biscuit, much less two knives. He would just use his hands. Do you see my point? This kind of education is lacking in today's American public schools and must be addressed forthwith or surely little children from India and China will rule the world. Civilization is danger.
On we walked, Van, Chaison and Levin one way, me, Miss Kate and Good Golly the other.
Back at the bald, the sky was clear. We picked a few more blueberries, took in the view and headed to Campsite 13 for dinner and another crack at starting a campfire. While we were gone, Campsite 13 became populated and looked like a more usual communal campsite in the Smoky Mountain National Park. We had neighbors: Bill and his son, Will, age six, who wore a green parka and blue stocking cap which made him into a mini-Bill. Very cute. Also joining us was Roger, who is an editor at the newspaper in Athens, Ga. – "I herd cats," he said, describing his job. And with us, too, was Bob, who works for IBM in Rochester, Minn., is a father of five, and was in Knoxville for two weeks on business so he brought his backpack along. "I like elevation," he explained, after telling me he doesn't camp much in Minnesota but loves the Smokies.
A successful campfire does not have to be started by you personally
Bill and Will went for water, and just outside Campsite 13's perimeter they found a newborn fawn, left to rest by its mother as mother deer do. Fawns at this stage are odorless and so they are safest, according to Miss Kate, who as a preschool teacher knows these things, when left hidden from the site of predators. Perhaps Mama Bambi reasoned that a spot near camping humans would be particularly off limits to predators.
We would learn more of Bill, Will, Roger and Bob later in the evening around the campfire. Why, you may wonder, were we around the campfire with Bill, Will, Roger and Bob rather than around our own campfire? Well, that would be because they had a campfire and, for the second night in a row, we did not.
Bill brought little fire starters. "Something in aluminum foil. He just lit it and, poof! A campfire," Bob recounted. I, meanwhile, burned through three more packs of paper matches, a baggie full of birch bark that I'd set aside in the morning as fire starter for the evening, and 90 percent of a notebook stuffed in my pack for keeping track of the trip. At one point, I had flames a foot high and all the little stuff was burning as if a little ant-sized Sherman had walked into my fire ring and mistook my twigs for Atlanta. And then it went out. If Atlanta has been constructed of wood from Campsite 13, the war might still be unresolved today. (Yes, I realize that sentence implies the war was resolved at Appomatox, which argumable it was not. Can we debate that another time?)
I walked over with nicely sawed logs and gave them to Bob, who said, "Thank you. And come on over and enjoy the fire. You'll be welcome." So we had dinner (rice and chicken, with onions, Giga-cooked) and then retired to their fire for stimulating conversation before turning in.
Dinner, by the way, was the occasion for the Best Beer Ever. Good Golly had two cans of Caldera, an Oregon Amber Ale, which she broke out and shared to celebrate arriving back at Campsite 13 after 13.2 miles of undulating hike. Any number of brews could have had the title of Best Beer Ever but, as Mark Twain said, much of life's success is attributable to showing up and the Caldera Amber Ale showed up. "You know when I decided to pack the beer?" Good Golly asked. "When I weighed my pack and it weighed 29 pounds. I had room for two beers." The average Patio Boy packs weighs 57 pounds. We might needs some wise counsel from Good Golly on this matter.
Next morning, we had sufficient fuel left for coffee and oatmeal and, for Miss Kate, her tea. Afterward, we packed up the tents and sleeping bags, hung them out of the bears' reach on the Campsite 13 cables, and took a walk over the Parson Bald, which the Park Service is allowed to grow back. So visiting a bald like this is like being a head louse and visiting a bald man who had discovered Rogaine. The conditions are changing all around you, perhaps for the better.
Final gifts, and another encounter with a great oven
What Parson Bald did have was abundant blueberries. We filled a Nalgene bottle with them for personal consumption, that being a to-die-for pie back home on Monday evening. Mission accomplished, we returned for our packs and headed back down the four miles of trail to the Parsons Branch service road, which is one way so we didn't have to return to Cades Cove and its First Circle of Hell.
We ended up in Marysville, Tenn., where the final gift of this trip was to pass Fullservice Barbecue. Oh, my, I thought, we should have stopped there. It was an old Texaco, with three picnic tables outside and several smokers sitting about. Something about the place said finest barbecue for miles around. But Good Golly was on the phone with her Bill, not Will's Bill, and I didn't want to interrupt the romance. Turns out, however, that we needed to turn around and go back. We'd missed our route to the interstate. OK, I said, this is fate. Now we are going to have barbecue. Fullservice didn't disappoint. The pulled pork was smoked but still juicy, the sauce sweet with a bite and the cole slaw pretty dang tasty.
When it was time to go, I had a word with the proprietor, one Anthony DiFranco, who was putting some more ribs in a huge smoker out back. He also had some smokers setting about that he can hook to a trailer hitch and haul to a catering job. He told me of how has earned great popularity at the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, leading the pack among food vendors. He also sells frozen online. But it was the big smoker that really made a statement. It was the size of Tundra set upright. "Quite the smoker, you have there," I told him. "Yes," he said, proud of it and proud of his own savvy, "I stole it for $1,000 from someone who didn't know what they had. It's worth $10,000."
And so I had my second big stove story of this trip, bookended perfectly with one as the trip began and another as the trip ended. Maybe it wasn't so bad that we didn't have a campfire. We had stove stories. We had gifts. We headed north toward home.
Trip: July 2011