It was supposed to be just a simple training trip. The Warner Parks had given us some good hill training, but we needed the physical and mental fatigue of long sustained miles of up, and significant altitude gain, in preparation for the Grand Canyon. So we headed to the Smoky Mountains for a couple of back to back hikes.
It was 2:00 in the east by the time we hit the trail to Rocky Top. Ten minutes in we had our first surprise. Mike was in the lead, but I saw her first. “Stop,” I whispered. He continued. I grabbed the back of his shirt and said, more helpfully, “It’s a bear.” He stopped. We were already closer than advisable so we backed up a little. Then the first baby tumbled out of the brush. We backed up some more. But not so far that we did not see the other two come chasing after their brother. They rolled and played, bounded and pounced, and mom mostly ignored them. They were in no particular hurry to get anywhere, so we just watched. And I tried to remember if I had any food in my pack that was not wrapped. Anything that might make me smell tasty. Once they finally left the path, we began to move tentatively forward, keeping an eye on them. As it turns out, they were keeping an eye on us too. The little guys stretched up onto their hind legs to see the tall funny looking people with humps on their backs. Mom, though, had apparently written us off as harmless. Good.
We climbed, mile after mile, practicing our rest step, hydrating frequently, stopping occasionally to remove our packs and relieve our feet. When we connected to the Appalachian Trail, the path began to go down, then up again, then down, as we moved across the crest of several mountains to get to the one we were after. This was more mentally fatiguing than you might imagine. It is difficult to give up altitude painfully gained, knowing you are about to have to climb it again. But then there was the up that was only up, and we ascended past the trees and onto the rocky crest and the world opened up all around us and it was so glorious that I thought I would gladly do it all again, though, in fact, I can’t imagine that that would have even been possible, but in that moment you feel invincible and will promise yourself almost anything. We dropped our packs and spread our arms and let the wind cool our hot, weary bodies. And it was so quiet. And still. And lovely.
The descent took roughly half the time. Still, darkness overtook us. We pulled out flashlights, listened as the song of crickets joined the gurgle of the stream, dodged a few diving bats, and tried to remember exactly where it was that we saw the bears. Mike wondered aloud if they locked the picnic area where the trailhead was located at night. As it turns out…
We suspected we were in trouble when we saw no other cars. We knew we were in trouble when we drove up to the gate. With the padlock. As we tried to figure out exactly who one might call in such a situation, I got out to see if just maybe the padlock was not locked. I suppose some ranger had gotten tired of being dragged away from his family to rescue crazy hikers who did not bother reading signs about parking areas closing at dark. Thank God for that. I slid the padlock out, Mike drove through, and I carefully replaced it just as I had found it and breathed a thank you to kind, practical human beings everywhere.
After a shower and a late supper, we looked at the forecast one more time before setting the alarm for an early wake up. No change.
A light mist fell as we commenced our ascent to Mount Leconte. We congratulated ourselves on our fortitude and thought how silly we would have felt for backing out for something as innocuous as this.
Though the Smokies are littered with waterfalls and cascades of every sort, Rainbow Falls is the tallest. That, and the rainbow it produces on sunny afternoons, are its claim to fame. But as a general rule, the output is rather meager. As a general rule…
A couple of miles in, the rain picked up considerably. We pulled on rain jackets and carried on. We noticed how the colors of the leaves became more intense when wet. We looked out through openings in the trees at a world swathed in mist. We gave thanks for the canopy that withheld much of the water. Several streams crossed the trail. There were log bridges for a couple. The rest were crossed by stepping on larger rocks that stood above the water. We remarked early on how even the trail itself looked like a dry creek bed. As we neared the top, it wasn’t dry any more. Rivulets of water had begun to course down the center of the path. A curiosity. A slight inconvenience. For now.
By the time we reached the summit, our breath poured out in clouds of vapor and there were bits of ice in the rain. A fire burned in the lodge. We poured the water out of our boots, wrung out socks and jackets and hung them over chair backs to dry, and snuggled up to the stove. We devoured our lunch and drank our weight in coffee and hot chocolate. The memory of that warm coffee would be a comfort to me for some miles after.
Tearing ourselves away from the fire was painful. Shoving my feet back into those cold, wet boots made me want to cry a little. But it’s amazing how quickly the body acclimates. We started back down the way we had come, but we soon recognized that a considerable change in the trail had taken place while we rested. The rivulet was now a stream four or five inches deep. We straddled the path walking on its sides where we could, occasionally finding large rocks in the middle, avoiding stepping into the water at all costs. We would eventually give up on that.
The first water crossing was the worst. It had occurred to me by then that the rocks we had crossed on before might be difficult to find now. It had not occurred to me that they would be buried under a foot of roaring water tumbling headlong down the mountain. We walked up and down the creek looking for a place to string together rocks and make a crossing above water. It was not to be found. We dared not cross on the higher rocks for fear of being washed off and carried over the cliffs below. So we walked behind them figuring that if the water took us, the rocks would stop us. The freezing water came up to our thighs. We held our breath and held onto one another and pushed through to the other side. My heart was filled with gratitude and my boots were full of water.
Mike made me jump across the second stream. I didn’t think I could do it. We were jumping from one wet, mossy rock to another and it was a big gap and the pack made me feel like a rhinoceros on stilts. But he would not let me be a coward. He jumped first and did not die. He promised to catch me if I fell. I also did not die. I was very glad about that.
We continued to dodge water in the paths until the last mile and a half or so. It was mentally exhausting, all that navigating. It took us as long to get down as it did to get up. That never happens. But, we were rewarded by a view of the falls that most people never get. People who were only hiking as far as the falls were turning back because a couple of the water crossings were on that side of the falls. Perhaps we would have turned back if we had started then, I don’t know. I am glad now that was not an option.
As a training hike, it was far more effective than we planned. We learned a lot about packing for rain and are making some adjustments in our gear. Though the Grand Canyon is in the desert, sudden thunderstorms are always a possibility. As an adventure, it exceeded anything we might have hoped for.
Mike said to me, “When I am old and can’t remember anything any more, will you tell me the story of how we almost died but didn’t?”
“Yes, my love, I will.”