Trial By Trail: Backpacking in the Smoky Mountains

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Trial by Trail
Backpacking in the Smoky Mountains

ISBN: 0-87049-913-0

This book contains 14 true adventure stories that take place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These stories are culled from over 400 nights of backpacking in the park. Smokies lore is interwoven into the tales, which also chronicle my evolution from city dweller to modern day mountain man.

Scott Davis holds a copy of Trial By Trail in Afghanistan

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Greenbrier to Newfound Gap
(one story from the book)

Perched on a cliff, we hung on to the loose, wet rocks. Thick fog and billowing clouds allowed an intermittent view of 30 feet in front of us at best. I was drenched to the bone. My pack felt like an anvil on my back. Calvin and I stood there in the ethereal beauty of the ragged, rocky landscape wondering what to do next. We had no idea where or more importantly, at what elevation we were. If we knew our elevation, we might figure out where we were. Then Calvin looked at me with icy blue eyes behind dripping blonde hair and said, “There’s only one way for us to go–up.” This was my initiation into the world of wilderness travel.

It was proceeding terribly.

I had been the instigator of this misadventure. Being the epitome of a novice backpacker, I made the classic mistake of biting off more than I could chew. Through my subsequent explorations of the Great Smoky Mountains, I have run into hundreds of beginners from the hinterlands who, from the comfort of their easy chairs at home, look at a map and think they can march 12 or 15 miles a day and usually with a grossly overloaded pack. They know they’re heading to the mountains but for some reason don’t account for the fact that those twisting lines on the trail map go up and down in addition to the four cardinal directions. Ninety percent of the terrain in the Smokies has grades of 10 percent or more.

So Calvin and I, while sitting on the front porch back home in Knoxville, planned my initial backpacking trip. As I listened to his suggestions and experiences my baseless confidence mushroomed. I would climb those mountains as if they were ant hills. Then I opened my all too large mouth and said, “Find the toughest hike in the book and let’s do it.” The book in his hand was the “Hikers Guide to the Smokies,” by Dick Murless and Constance Stallings.

So Calvin found the Porter’s Creek trail, leading up to the Appalachian Trail and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line, in the Greenbrier section of the park, in Tennessee. The guide book states:

“For four miles it is an easy walking trail through the undisturbed forest. After that it turns into an unmaintained manway and becomes very steep, rising nearly 2,000 feet in the last mile. This section is for the experienced hiker only and even for him, one way. Nobody should attempt to descend this trail from the A.T. The latter section is the most difficult and dangerous stretch of trail described in this entire guidebook. Don’t do it!”

Having read that, we had to do it.

The next day we gathered our gear and made the customary several stops between Knoxville and Gatlinburg to purchase fruit and stew meat and some odds and ends such as water bottles, flashlights and gourmet coffee. After arriving late at the end of Greenbrier Road and loading up, we hiked barely a mile before dusk settled in. Our shirts were soaked in the stifling summer humidity. We set up camp at the junction with the Brushy Mountain trail, in the late June dusk, just as a drizzly rain started. I had no idea at the time that we were getting off on the wrong foot by camping illegally at an undesignated site. I had entrusted the guiding duties to Calvin. This was my first trip. We ended up eating snacks in the tent for supper, having been rained out of a proper campfire. Now I’m glad we didn’t build one; we’d have been breaking yet another park regulation– building fires at an undesignated campsites.

I tossed and turned that night, unaccustomed to sleeping on the ground and being too excited about our challenge the next day. First time campers often have trouble sleeping in a wilderness setting. The dark of night and an overactive imagination mix, conjuring up wild animals, bad men, and other nebulous dangers. Hard ground and no pillow compound the matter.

The rain still fell when I awoke, dampening my spirits. Doubt crept into my psyche. But Calvin was undaunted. We hurried through a light fruit and coffee breakfast. After loading up, we donned our ponchos and packs and set off. The first 2.5 miles were easy, as we trod uphill over a maintained trail. The mature forest formed a canopy that made the morning seem like twilight, as Porter’s Creek thundered down the valley floor.

At 3.7 miles, at the Porter’s Flat campsite, the maintained trail ended. We forged on, discussing the trail description in the guidebook, which we had committed to memory. The rain came down in sheets, but we didn’t bother to stop because the manway was marked with rock cairns, little piles of rock left by previous hikers to show the way. We proceeded up Porters Creek and forded it six times in half a mile. The rushing water ran no higher than our kneecaps on each crossing. I considered the possibility of a flash flood, though I noticed only a moderate rise in the creek. My real concern was finding the guidemark rock cairns amid the limited visibility of a mountain thunderstorm.

Our ponchos were soon shredded from thrashing through the dense undergrowth along the creek. It didn’t matter because every leaf, twig and bush was soaking Calvin and me as we swept past them. We shed the ponchos and returned them to our packs. Our feet were wet from fording the creek, leaving us thoroughly soaked. At that point, our trail was the creek itself. Here, Calvin voiced his old adage, “Every trailbed is a creekbed.”

This manway was the epitome of it too. My initiation ritual was becoming more gritty. The trailbed steepened, but the rock cairns were still there to guide the way. Ahead, Calvin slipped and smashed his shinbone, attempting to lift himself onto a rock in the creekbed, shedding blood and raising a gnarly, painful knot. He shook off the pain and marched on. I admired his gutsy determination. We came to an open area marked by a jumbled rock field rising up several watery ravines. No cairns were visible. Calvin backtracked in order to find the last cairn we’d seen, but to no avail. He returned and at this point we agreed to stay together– to lose one another would compound the mess.

The two of us vainly searched the sloping mountainside for a marker. Even the immediate surroundings looked foreign. We now accepted the fact we were lost. I began to wonder why I had ever wanted to do this. Fear enveloped me like the surrounding fog that had invaded and settled. That fog blocked any hope of reorienting ourselves. And we hadn’t thought to bring a compass. At that point I vowed never to enter the woods without a compass. I have since broken that practical vow shamelessly. Of course, the compass vow preceded by moments my swearing off of hiking altogether.

We headed straight up the steepest ragged gulch. That was another of our compounding errors. At that point a cairn marks a little opening in bushes to the left, and the real manway swings around an abrupt rock outcrop, then heads up another ravine to Dry Sluice Gap and the Appalachian Trail. Grappling to surge upward, we struggled up the ravine hand over rock and finally settled, exhausted, on the godforsaken ledge. We had no real choice but to forge farther up. Descending was even more dangerous than climbing.

I felt a wave of panic rising inside me; my voice quivered and cracked as I repeatedly apologized to Calvin for suggesting this hike as my initiation into the great outdoors. Luckily though, Calvin reassured me he could lead us on just before I wretched in hysteria.

We continued upward, with Calvin in front. I crawled 25 feet but became dizzied and unbalanced due to my heavy pack. Suddenly I was falling–bounding, scraping and sliding down the rock wall. Fruitlessly, I reached for hand holds, tearing my skin, thumping the nerves in my paws. My feet flailed, searching for any impediment. I bounded like a rag doll down the rocky precipice. Enshrouded in fog, dampened by mist, my plunge had an eerie slow motion aura about it. But my body was falling faster than my mind would comprehend. Suddenly, my descent stopped with a painful jerk as I grasped a small outcropping. My life-and-death grip endured, despite my ravaged fingers and palms. I settled myself and fought my way back up, gradually laughing and crying as Calvin urged me on. Having regained my position above the ledge, I collected my composure. We veered left into brush, then literally pulled ourselves upward while lying on our stomachs, gaining elevation all the while.

Perched almost 5,000 feet high, we alternately climbed, slithered and crawled upward until, at last, we had reached the top–the very peak of the ridge defining the state boundary of Tennessee and North Carolina. But the A.T. was nowhere to be seen. The fast-moving clouds soon parted, revealing the trail some 200 feet below us. The death defying climb we’d just finished was mostly in vain. But at least we knew where we stood. Knowing where you are after being lost is a great feeling!

We rested awhile, until our soaked bodies began to shiver. We hiked a mile or so west to Icewater Spring shelter, our original destination and rendezvous point with friends. At the shelter, we changed into dry clothes and slipped into our sleeping bags. Although my hands, arms and legs throbbed, I fell into a luxurious sleep in the dry, dark shelter. After all the struggle, we’d reached camp by 1 o’clock.

I awoke around 7:00 that evening, hungry as a bear and feeling better overall. The storm was long gone, leaving a vivid and washed sky in its wake. I sat outside the shelter breathing the rain-cleansed air as Calvin tended my cuts with antiseptic cream from his small first aid kit. He rustled up a supper of vegetable stew, while I convalesced. Our pals arrived at sunset and together we congregated at the fire, swapping notes. They couldn’t believe our harrowing tale. Next day we all hiked three happily uneventful miles along the Appalachian Trail to Newfound Gap, which was crowded with tourists, enjoying the park from their automobiles. Some vacationers from Ohio had brought along their folding chairs, which they set out along the overlook.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I compared their leisure repose with the mountain hell Calvin and I had endured. What an initiation it was.