A Smokey Walkabout

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“Wrong Turns Write Life”

Tucked deep in the Arts & Crafts district of Gatlinburg, we unpacked while marveling at the skyline of mountains piercing the low blanket of marshmallow clouds. Did someone say wine and a hot tub? I did after my wife got a case of the giggles rummaging through my backpack for something but found pepper spray, bowie knife, snake bite kit, air horn, whistle, bells – oh, and a machete.

She couldn’t stop laughing and mocking me.

A little defensive, I felt compelled to explain my survival tools. The snake bite kit was self-explanatory. It may surprise you that the knife and machete weren’t for bear encounters. Rather, they were reserved for the psychopath roaming the Appalachian Trail. As the Boy Scouts say, Be prepared! For the bear, I figured I’d use my blow horn to scare it away or pepper spray if it got too close.

Snow fell with darkness as we read about prospective trails by firelight to explore at daybreak.

After we left Rainbow Falls and the tourists, we only saw one other person on the ascent to summit Mount LeConte. A ranger suggested we backtrack a bit to see a spectacular overlook. Our legs and feet were yearning for the summit and rest. But a view as he described prevailed. Although the detour wasn’t that far, all said, it was far enough to hear my feet bark at me, “Why-whyy-whyyy…”

The swaths of greenery to our sides, stepping stones at our feet, and canopy above all rose together to a blue sky at the end of nature’s tunnel. It was a remarkable visual. Thank goodness film is obsolete because we would have used all we had here. Afterward, we walked and talked, “This one or that one?” Delete. “This one or that one?” Delete. “This one or that one?” Decide later. “This one or that one?” Both.

Just a couple hundred feet from the summit was LeConte Lodge. This rustic batch of weathered wooden shacks, a small provisions store, and a quaint lodge served hikers energy by the pound. It was an unusual sight but welcome. The shacks provided the essentials; a roof over a bed and a tiny porch to strum an acoustic guitar. The panoramic view made us wish we had a reservation to spend the night.

Ironically, the question of the hour was, “Are you staying the night?” Most people spend the day hiking up and another day hiking down. We were the fools who thought we could do both on the same day. We contemplated the time it would take for our descent down a different path called Bull Run. The daylight hours were slipping away.

We topped off our water supply and checked out the store. I asked where I could find a restroom, and the extremely friendly lady in the store pointed the directions. I followed them until I was inside someone’s shack. It was a little embarrassing. Tripping over myself, I scrambled one more row and found the potty shack. They all looked the same, except this one had a toilet.

We chatted with other hikers when it dawned on me that I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a non-friendly person on a trail. The irony of my machete sticking me in the back didn’t strike me then.

Relatively rejuvenated, we began down Bull Head. My shin splints and footaches quickly said, remember me – still here!

It was just my wife and I, so I started complaining about my aching this and aching that. About an hour into the one-track conversation, I realized what she was thinking of me, so I spent the next hour trying to rationalize it. She had fun with me the whole time …at my expense.

She was the daughter of a podiatrist and said it’s my hiking shoes causing the problem.

Bull Head Trail was a backwoods paradise. Not a soul was on it except us. The trailside scenery and mountain ledge views made me think of becoming a mountain man – until I took my next step, muzzling my agonizing pain.

“I hurt too, but I just don’t complain about it,” she said, sarcasm dripping from the corners of her grin.

“Bear droppings.”

I moved my pepper spray and air horn to where I could easily grab them from the sides of my backpack.

My wife wasn’t convinced, but I saw more and more as we walked. We were definitely tracking a bear down this desolate path in early spring when I imagined they were especially hungry.

“What do I need to prove it – a bear?” I said in frustration.

“If you see one, just know that while you fumble with your weapons, I’ll be running the other way,” she joked …at least I thought she was joking. “Outrunning you shouldn’t be difficult, considering you’re limping on bloody stumps to hear you go on about it.”

So, this was our memorable adventure. When we hit bottom, literally and figuratively – speaking for myself of course – my mind had prepared for the car to be right there. But it was miles away, so we had to trek another trail to get where we started just as night closed in on us. Finally, she even complained of her aches and pains and said we pushed our limits too far (14 miles of mountain hiking from dawn to dusk). We were slap-happy, laughing as if delirious, going on about our sore muscles and joints.

A funny thing happens when you walk up and down a mountain, as we did for an entire day, and then suddenly stop. And by stop, I mean put our feet in the car and drive. When we put our feet back down in a restaurant parking lot, joints like knees didn’t function like the brain intended. We both waddled into the restaurant, determined to feast as a reward for our stupendous journey.

On our way out, having nothing alcoholic to drink, two people wanted to get us a ride so we wouldn’t drive. Our bodies and minds were pretty rubbery, and it was clearly no secret. We clutched each other to avoid collapsing, laughing hysterically at our failing bodies, saying, “Naw, naw, we got this.”

By Frank Rocco Satullo, The OhioTraveler, Your Tour Guide to Fun! 

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