I was awakened soon after midnight feeling as if I was being watched. I turned my headlamp on red, back to my feet, thinking I’d see glowing eyes. There were none so I turned forward to look toward the trail.
Where the trail bent behind the shelter a red glow tinted the grass like my head lamp did. The shelter was quiet; not even a snore could be heard. I switched my headlamp off and watched. A group quietly walked around the shelter, and when they got closer and their black silhouettes showed crisper I was startled. The group cared AR styled rifles and I could see night vision goggles mounted on their heads. I soon however, remembered seeing signs in the park that warned of wild hogs, and this made me believe that this group was hunting the pigs.
I have seen professional hog hunting outfits and the near military equipment they use to slaughter hundreds of pigs a night; It’s become a lucrative business in the south. So with this thought I lost my panic and confusion and watched the group fade down out of sight.
It was a struggle to fall back asleep, as I listened to the wind blow on the ridge. However I eventually was lulled to sleep by the light taps of rain on my tarp. I was awakened again as day light muted by over cast cracked over the tree line early in the morning. It was cold and the light rain was still falling, so I stayed tucked in my quilt cat napping as it got lighter.
As time went by I could hear the shelter wake. I heard one woman mention the armed group pass and heard some say she was being dramatic. I did not rise to defend her story I had not the will to get chilled in the cold and rain.
I began to smell the packs of Oatmeal being cooked and this made me hungry. But the rain picked up so I stayed under the tarp. The smell of breakfast lingered as if the moister of the rain was holding the smell in the area. Those who had cooked and ate started to leave and passed my tent. One man who was a thru-hiker, but one I never got a name from asked as he walked by me. “You gona take an easy day?”
“I really shouldn’t.” I replied.
“Hey hike your own hike.”
“Yeah you do the same. Take care.”
I was up soon after when the water that was falling was just what the gusts of wind blew from the leaves. I took my time packing and cooking breakfast. The cold had me stiff. I pulled all my equipment under the shelter, which was now half full with the occupants still in their mummy bags. I expected most of them not to be asleep but still I tried to be quiet which made packing take longer between bites of oatmeal. I don’t remember the exact time I left Derrick Knob Shelter; I’d say after 9 at the least.
I made quick time hiking once I got on the trail, even with the off and on heavy down pours that flooded the deep tracks of the trail.
When I crossed each of the 2 shelters that were between Derrick Knob and Clingmans Dome, I found myself questioning why I stopped at Derrick Knob and did not keep going the day before. (The answer being because I did 23 miles and was tired at the reasonable time of 5:00.) I was being hard on myself and this lead to a bad mood that my sloshing boots did not help either.
The Ecosystem of this high altitude section in the Smokys was unique to the rest of the trail I hiked. The trees turned to conifers instead of the hardwoods, and the earth was tough packed clay between the grey rocks. This was slick with the rain.
I was in full mist that was so thick it felt like a sheet of water slapping me with every gust of wind. I still detoured off the trail to see Clingmans Dome. It was smaller than I expected and the only view from its peak was the mist. The wind would catch the side of my pack and turn me like it was a sail. I felt like I was in the cows nest of a 19th century ship searching for dry land, but all I could see was wet.
This mist didn’t stop the steady stream of park visitors hiking the paved trail up to the tower. I was hiking down hoping to find a soda machine at the gift shop. There was no soda machine, or many options for snacks. Just some local granola bars and high priced chocolate bars that I bought because I had snacked heavy and was near out of day snacks.
I waited at the gift shop for the mist to lessen. In the meantime a ranger first asked to see my permeant, than congratulated me with a soda and Oreos. I asked the ranger about the group I saw at midnight and he confirmed, they were for the hogs. While talking with the ranger visitors to see the tower, came to inquire about the trail and get pictures with the dirty Thru-hiker. Being wet and behind schedule I did not like this attention and answered their questions quickly and vaguely. This extra attention drove me from the gift shop before I wanted to while the mist was still heavy.
But as I dropped into Collins Gap the mist broke up and for a few minutes the sun poked rays out from the clouds. But this was short lived and a half mile from the side trail to Mt. Collins Shelter the rain came back, and by the time I reached the side trail I abandoned the days hiking for the shelter.
It was another half mile to the shelter and it was through thick forest that keep the rain from soaking me to the extreme. It was 3 when I claimed my spot. There was only one old man shirtless and in shorts letting his wet clothes dry under the shelter. How he was not shivering I don’t know, but he read a small Gideon New Testament Bible like reading a novel. Every minute or two you would hear the sound of a page turn.
I greeted the man and introduced myself as Joseph and then said “or Joedirt.” He gave me his name and did not have a trail name, and I went to change into dry clothes under the eve at the back of the shelter.
There was a fire place in the shelter, but no dry tender. I took some damp sticks and a fire starter and played with starting it. It was not a problem when I didn’t get it lit and so I gave up with not much effort.
A couple that spoke with a Scandinavian accent came to the shelter. At this point it had been raining hard for an hour and you could see joyful relief in their faces as they entered shelter.
“Good evening all of you.” The woman said. Who was short and fit, and whore glasses and hair pulled back in a tight pony tail.
“Yes Good evening to you all.” The man said, after hanging both his and his wife’s pack up off the ground. He had short greying blond hair and was tall but muscular.
“Hey y’all.” I said back, while snaking on one of my chocolate bars.
The man reading his bible smiled and nodded.
“Is this all who is here?” The man asked.
“Yeah so far, I’m Joseph, or Joedirt. Are y’all thru-hikers?”
“No just hiking the Park, we started at Clingmans Dome.” The woman said.
“Yay stopping early for the day because of this dam rain.”
“Yay no need for use to get wet and be miserable for our whole trip. We haven’t got to make as many miles every day like you thru-hikers.”
“Yeah I’m afraid I’m being lazy today. I’ve only done about 12.”
“That’s not bad most thru-hikers don’t go over 12 till after the smoky mountains.”
“Yeah well I should be on my last day in the Smoky’s, I’ve got to meet family at Davenport Gap on Sunday.”
“That’s 25 miles you can do that.” The woman said.
As I talked with the couple I found out they lived in D.C. Both were originally from Denmark, and he was a researcher and she was a college professor. They were both familiar with the trail having hiked the Whites, and Shenandoah. They hoped to hike across every national park.
“While they shared this information about themselves Red, the cheerful old man with homemade gear, strolled into the shelter.
“Is that Joedirt? You should be in Hot Springs by now.” Red said.
“Between going five miles down the BT screwing up my permeant, and wimping out to this rain I’m surprised to be this far.”
Red joined in with the conversations with the Danish and me. Then took over. He had lived in Denmark so while the conversation switched to this subject I began cooking my meal.
Then The Lieutenant, (or Dickspatcher,) stomped into shelter soaked through his military surplus gear.
“I need a fire.” He said, and through a signal torch into the wood I had previously tried to light. I was sure this would light the fire and I guess he thought the same, so I watched him pile in more wet wood into the small fire place. As soon as the flare extinguished, only smolder and wet smoke remained.
That was the lieutenant’s last flare. Desperate he muttered “fuck” multiple times from the back of his throat.
Red cracked something wise, while the rest of use stood around confused over the situation. All of which the Lieutenant just ignored and got down on his hands and knees and began to blow the few coals red. I could now tell that he was legitimately worried.
The rain had not stopped but slowed. I took off my dry shirt and replaced it with my soaked rain jacket. Grabbed my machete and went to look for a fallen dead tree. It took a while to find one that was not taken with rot. But when I found a solid log I hacked away out of the saturated to the dry, making a pile of dry tender. I then hacked off the smaller branches from the down trunk and cared them and the tender back to the shelter.
When I returned the lieutenant was still blowing on the smoldering coals, and from his exertion steam rolled off his body. At least he is staying warm this way. I thought as I began splitting the branches with a rock and my machete.
When my prep was done I approached the lieutenant with the dry wood and my fire starters. I expected to receive some anger from him because of his frustration.
“Hey I got some dry shit here.” I said as I knelled down to the fire place and began pull out wet wood.
“Thanks. You’ve got fire starters as well.” The Lieutenant said.
“Yeah I almost dropped them a few days ago in a hiker box glad I hung on to them now.”
Soon we had all the dry wood lit. Then slowly we added the wet. The fire lasted till I fell asleep.
With all of us dry we listened to the rain hit the shelter in peace. The old man continued reading his bible, although now he was laid out in his bag looking out. The Danish looked through a map of the park and made cups of hot coco. Red, the Lieutenant, and me talked about the trail. How we were all behind schedule.
There was nothing fake about our conversation we didn’t down play our concerns with finishing the trail, or as with Red and the Lieutenant wanting to finish. The Lieutenant missed his wife, and Red felt his health could be at risk, and he had too much love for his family to risk leaving them in death due to his own dream.
“I’m too old should have done this when I was your age Joedirt.” Red would say.
“To me it doesn’t seem worth being separate from her, or fair.” The Lieutenant would say.
“I’ve got nothing to go back to off trail, well not until September when I move to Montana.” I would say hiding all the truth in my statement with a smile as if joking.
There were pauses in our talk which Red would relive by saying. “We’ll hang in there.”
When I got in bed my mind filled with doubts. I thought on how ill prepared I was, and how I was behind schedule. Quitting crossed my mind. But It didn’t last long, as I asked myself what would I be quitting for? Comfort: on most days I wasn’t uncomfortable. As for this rain I’d figure it out, I had a Z-packs poncho waiting for me at Ashville that wouldn’t get saturated like my jacket.
When the headlamp of the bible reader went out I closed my eyes and mind. Accepted the 25 miles I would have to hike to make it to Davenport Gap in time, and fell asleep.
I would find out that it was 34 miles but I’d do it non the less. This was the only time on the trail that quitting crossed my mind. Even when I would become eaten up with Lyme disease I would not think about quitting.
I look back at this day and have to laugh at myself for how dramatic I felt. All over a little rain, and so real talk with good men.