Thursday, January 15, 2009

Not as snowy, or painful, as November, but still a good time

We don't get to do our twenties over again, as far as I know, so I figured this week I better make one more poor decision before I turn thirty.

Instead I just went for a pleasant walk in the mountains. I had every intention of fucking it up; really, that was the plan. I had an insane Smoky Mountains bushwhack all mapped out, one with plenty of potential for extreme fatigue, wet feet, hypothermia and stumbling around in the freezing woods after dark, cursing loudly at the emptiness and at myself for being such an idiot to undertake such foolishness. But I guess I'm mellowing in my old age, and I quit while it was still just a nice walk in the snow.

Weak, I know, but I'd forgotten that the notion of a "Smoky Mountains bushwhack" is pure fantasy. The woods here, especially the rhododendron- and laurel-choked ridge lines of my chosen route, are essentially impassable. Any attempt at fighting through them reduces you to a thrashing crawl as your flailing limbs and backpack become snagged and tangled on every twisted branch.

Pulling into the trailhead parking lot at eight in the morning, I hurriedly grabbed my pack and trekking poles from my truck in order to keep from getting stuck walking behind the group of twenty hikers assembled there for departure. Being a sub-freezing Wednesday, I had hoped I'd have the area to myself, but it appeared I'd just have to be glad I was going somewhere surely no group outing would follow.

After a mile and a half or so on the wide, well-traveled main trail, I found the unmarked, unmaintained dead-end path that would carry me for the next few miles and two-thousand vertical feet to the top of a mountain called Greenbrier Pinnacle. The walking was surprisingly easy. Like most trails in the Smokies, this one followed a former logging grade, which ensured that it never got terribly steep. Aside from the fallen trees across the path that would never see a chainsaw, this trail wasn't much different from the park's maintained and signed trails. It wasn't a bushwhack, but knowing that it also wasn't a destination that would be sought out by the RV set made it feel like a bit more of an adventure.

Hiking in the snow is nice. It's quieter. Plus, you can see the tracks of any animals that have passed your way. I didn't see any bears this time out, but then I figure they're all probably sleeping off 2008, as we all should be, really. Keeping up the pace and gaining altitude quickly, I came to some rock outcrops that created openings for some views. Not happy with these branch-restricted vistas, I endeavoured to scramble to the top of an outcrop. This is when I was reminded of the difficulty of off-trail travel in the region. Just getting up through forty feet of trees cost me about fifteen minutes, several scratches and much cursing of the foliage. This is when I decided to just have a pleasant day instead of a hallucinatory death march. I think my intended route could be done, but it would probably be a multi-day excursion rather than a day hike.

The view near the top of the trail was as good as the internet message boards had boasted, and I lingered there, taking pictures and resting, until I thought I heard, carried up on the cold wind, the sound of voices. Voices! On my trail of solitude! How dare they?!

The trail, now more overgrown, continued away from the precipice and into the trees behind me, so I grabbed my pack and took off into the concealment of the rhododendron before the source of the offending noise made an appearance. The trail terminated after another mile at the site of a former fire lookout tower, the foundations of which gave me a good spot to sit and eat some lunch (peanut butter and banana on some kick-ass multigrain bread, along with leftover Christmas cookies.)

After some time on the top, I went back down to the scenic overlook to find the snow had been trampled by many, many feet. That group from the parking lot! Damnit! I again lingered at the overlook, this time hoping that I'd give them enough of a headstart going down that I wouldn't overtake them, because actually seeing a group of people would completely ruin the illusion of solitude I always build up in my head when I'm in the mountains. Unfortunately, however, I am fast and groups of people are necessarily slow, so I caught them about twenty minutes down the trail, all strung out single file. Luckily, they were stopped for some reason, so I was able to step around them, one by one, tossing back a "Thanks for letting me by" when I'd put the leader of the group behind me. Really, the wilderness is no place for people traveling in packs. Did we learn nothing from the Donner Party?

Swift and solo, I dropped back down the switchbacks to the main trail in the bottom of the drainage, cruising back to the parking lot before 3 o'clock, plenty of time to get home and take a shower before dinnertime.

A trailside stream.

The first decent view of the day.

The view from the overlook near the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle, looking northwest. The contour lines are very close together here.

Part of the foundations for the former fire tower. It looks like a well, except it's on the top of a mountain. A cistern maybe? The shitter? I wish the forest service still employed fire lookouts. Sitting on top of a mountain for months at a stretch with no job but to keep an eye out for smoke is something I would have excelled at.

Had I carried out the original plan, my bushwhack would have begun here. Not happening.

In lieu of flowers, I give you snow settled on the mossy side of a tree.


ck said...

snow hiking is the best! i would recommend the southern part of cherokee national forest if you want to avoid herds of day hikers. the smokies are just too jam packed, even in the winter. the bald river wilderness is a favorite- easy to get to but solitary.

Julie said...

Wow, Mickey. You make cold look pretty and fun.

And for what it counts, I've seen a few friends turn 30 already and most handle it with grace and say it's not so bad. I'm kinda hoping you'll freak out and dye your hair blue in an attempt to 'stay young' but you go on ahead and take a walk. It's your birthday.

The Dutchess of Kickball said...

Sounds like you need to start carrying a machete to aid your bushwhacking.

A Free Man said...

People suck. Especially when they get all up in your solitude.

Aaron said...

I sometimes forget that other people are in their twenties, being as I'm in my thirties. I think the word is "solipsist".

But seriously, you'll have lots of time to make stupid decisions in your thirties. Don't sweat it!

nancypearlwannabe said...

Your pictures are very pretty and all, but really the only thing I could think while reading this was, "Isn't Mickey older than me?!"


Allie said...

30 rocks. Seriously.

I was starting to get worried that there wouldn't be a flower picture. The moss is passable.

The Modern Gal said...

You are totally going soft in your old age.

I bet if you'd bushwacked you would have found a flower.

Noelle said...

That sounds like a most excellent way to ring in a new decade.

Happy Birthday!