Tuesday, November 18, 2008

That was frickin' bananas rolled up in nuts

Yup, I made it out alive. I did run into some bears, but bears can't catch me because I pop wheelies. Sorry, haven't used the wheelies line in a while. Or maybe ever.

Yeah, so I went for a hike today. It's been a while since I've gone on one of my patented death marches that are the reason people don't want to hike with me (so I've been told), so I picked myself out a nice 33-mile loop and got out the door this morning at 6:30.

Problem is, it gets dark at 5:30. It doesn't matter how many wheelies I pop; I can't walk 33 miles in 10 hours (it took an hour to get there.) So I'd have to stumble the last few hours in the dark, no biggie. That's why I carry a flashlight.

It didn't really work out that way, though. These things rarely do. I had to abort the mission at around the half way point because it was already 4 p.m. Luckily, half way on this hike was Newfound Gap, where Hwy 441 crosses the Smokies. I threw up my thumb and hitched back down.

Ahh, but there is so much more to this story, and if you guessed that I'm going to share it, with photos, then you deserve a Bluth Frozen Banana, because you are absolutely correct.

I hit the woods at 7:30 in the a.m., trekking poles a-blazin'. The first leg of my trip was cross-country, as I parked at the end of the trail I intended to finish on and had to bushwack at the start until I hit the trail I needed. I dropped down off the roadway and, after finding a spot I could safely rock hop, crossed the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. From there I just had to contour at one elevation until I hit the trail. In theory.

In practice, once I hit the trail, a former road bed that couldn't have been more obvious, and took the prescribed right-turn, I was going the wrong way. I failed to account for trails that aren't on the map. I followed the unknown trail for maybe a mile before it ran into a stream at what was formerly a bridge and came to an end. The misdirection wasn't for nothing, however, because right after I turned and started heading back, I came over a rise and saw Ursus americanus coming my way, about 50 yards off. She had a cub with her and we both froze, regarding each other with that mixture of suspicion and respect that all interactions between two animals should probably begin with.

I think I need to have a run-in with an aggressive bear one of these days, just to keep me on my toes. Every bear I've ever encountered has done exactly what I expected. I fear I'm becoming complacent. Today's bear kept the streak alive by changing course and, cub in tow, headed up and away from the trail. It occurred to me that maybe the best offense is a good defense, but the best defense is total avoidance. The natural world appears to bear this out. Oh, shit! Did you catch that! Bear this out! I didn't even see that coming, honest.

After seeing the bears on their way, I backtracked until I found the right trail and was on my way. My little wrong turn cost most of an hour. On the right path, I started putting some vertical feet beneath me, heading for the summit of Mt. LeConte at 6,593 feet. At this point in the story, I'd like to take a moment to ask Bob Becker, Matt Hinkin and the other two local weather people what exactly they mean when they say "some snow for the higher elevations." I knew I'd see "some snow" as I went higher up, but I figured that meant just enough to make things pretty.

Then again, Bob Becker doesn't strike me as a guy who laces up a pair of running shoes for a thirty mile hike. Maybe that's why nobody told me there was close to a foot of snow up there.

At first, the snow made me giddy. I'm one of those people who gets excited about frozen precipitation, but that's easy when you live somewhere that doesn't see a whole lot of it. Eventually, though, the extra effort required to move through it started adding up, and yet more time was slipping by.

I stopped for lunch just after noon at the LeConte shelter, but had to rush through my PB and J (I'd like to lie and say I had a PB and B, but I won't, though I do prefer them) because my hands were exhibiting a numbness that I've never quite experienced before. It was really, really cold. And windy, to boot. Speaking of boots, I wasn't wearing any. It is an indication of how cold it was that after many hours of slogging through snow in light-weight running shoes, my feet never got wet. The snow caking them wasn't melting at all.

I put on all my layers and left the shelter in a power-walk, trying to regenerate some body heat. I crossed the summit and headed across the Boulevard trail, my new favorite in the park. Lots of views. And today, lots of snow.

By that time I was already thinking of bailing on the second half of the loop, the mathematical contest of miles remaining vs. hours of daylight becoming ever more lopsided. I passed four guys, all dressed in Carhart and construction boots, heading for the LeConte Lodge, the highest inn in the eastern US and only accessible on foot. Miles later I finally intersected the Appalachian Trail and hung a right to Newfound Gap.

At the Gap the wind was howling and I once again layered up. A bunch of people had me take a group picture of them. It turned out that two of them had just gotten married on the spot (I'm guessing the girl with the flowers was one half of the lucky couple.) Nothing like a freezing, windy parking lot for a wedding. Seriously, it was like twenty degrees with a thirty mile an hour wind. I figure if they stood up there together and made their vows in those conditions, they just might make it. One of the wedding party (to help your imagination along, everyone was dressed appropriately for the elements, so they weren't that crazy), pointed out that I had ice frozen to my beard. My response: "Ice, snot, I've got all sorts of stuff frozen to my face right now."

With that I went and stood by the road, thumb in the air, staring down every car headed my way. I'd never hitchhiked before, but I couldn't think of a better time to start. It was either that or spend the next five hours tripping along another 16 miles of trail. The road was busy, and maybe fifteen cars passed me by, but it was only about five minutes or so before someone took pity on me, a van full of former missionaries from Florida. Okay, just the husband and wife were former African missionaries, but maybe some of those kids went along too. There had to be seven kids, plus a dog. Nice people, even if families that require full-size vans to get around freak me out a little.

And that is the story of 17 miles and 4,900 vertical feet in the snow. A good day, all told.

Looking for a way across the Little Pigeon River.

Looks like the kind of trail that would be on a map, right? That's what I thought, too.

I promise that black thing is a bear.

Looking up to the peak of LeConte before I really got into it.

Why didn't you warn me about this, Bob and Matt?

You can tell I'm a sensitive person because I take close-up pictures of nature. None of those flower thingys on this trip. They're out of season.

You can't see it in the photo, but along with my breath condensing on my beard my snot was frozen to my 'stache. Apparently the snow had an affinity for my hat, as well.

Looking south from the AT into North Carolina. Didn't they end up for Obama? Goddamn right they did.

Looking back at the Le Conte massif, biggest mountain in the east from bottom to top.

Newfound Gap. Incidentally, what you see is the spot where FDR gave a speech upon the dedication of the park.

And no (for those still reading for some inexplicable reason), I have not forgotten today's banana song. This one is not funny. Or about bananas. But it comes from an iconic album that features a rendering of a banana by Andy Warhol on the cover, and that's good enough for me. Also, it's about something that could do more for my sore legs than those wussy ibuprofen tablets I took tonight, if I was into that sort of thing.


Courtney said...

I do NOT like you hitchhiking. It's dangerous. Bad Mickey.

The Modern Gal said...

I can't decide whether to congratulate you for your adventurous nature or laugh at you for hiking LeConte when there had been mention of snow, so I'll just say instead: pretty pictures.

Julie said...

My initial reaction was to reject you given your stench of failure. But then I saw the snow, which was awesome. Southern people go crazy for the snow. And your frozen snot 'stache self-portrait is the best one I've seen for a while. Good on you. Except for the hitching. That could have been bad.

nancypearlwannabe said...

Yeah, I just heard a terrible hitchhiking story the other day. Don't do it! No good can come of it, even if your face is frozen solid with boogers!

The Dutchess of Kickball said...


surviving myself said...

Dude, please use the wheelies line more often.

Jacob said...

You're just as likely to get murdered by hillbillies hiking in the dark and probably more likely to die or get seriously injured falling in the dark hiking back than you were to get murdered hitch hiking. Besides the likelihood of coming across a sociopath hitch hiking is about the same is about the same as winning the lottery.

A Free Man said...

Have you ever read Bill Bryson's book on his attempt to hike the Appalachian trail? That's what this post reminded me off. Well done, sir. On the post, not the hike. You're a wuss for bailing on the hike. I mean if you can't hike 33 miles through the snow in the day then what kind of man are you, really?

Stefanie said...

I feel very dim-witted, but I don't get the wheelies line. Is it just me? (It's just me, right?)

I promise I read this whole post, but everything after "33 miles" is kind of a blur. Seriously: 33 miles?? In one day?? On FOOT? Admit it: you're not human, right?

sid said...

Can I just say how lucky you are? The snow looks amazing. I hope I get to see some snow again ... some day.

Chris said...

I'm with Jacob: Hitchhiking back to your vehicle was the right choice.

Walking the rest of the trail in the freezing cold and dark would have been the crazy-dangerous choice.

Nice snow photos. I feel so adventurous just reading this.

Allie said...

Wow! I would kill to be able to go on death march hikes like that. Well, without the hitchhiking and risk of death and all.

Aaron said...

Snow beard! You, sir, are like a junior Kurt Russell, too busy fighting aliens in the snow to worry about frozen facial hair.