Day 12: A Condemned Bear

I was crossing the dam for the third time at 5:30am. Crossing in the bleak morning light produced a much different feeling in me than in the heat of the day. It pumped me as if walking out to a hard base line as an athlete.

I was loose and ready to climb after a quick stretch at the permeant box. (I had borrowed a pen from the local who showed me where the shower room was and had finished my permeant.) I had not eaten and planned on eating once I summited the first climb. I had 2 miles.

I ate plenty of spider webs along the way; a negative to an early start on the trail. I finished the 2 miles at a 3min pace and set up my burner to prepare 2 oatmeal packets. While cooking I flipped to a random chapter in my bible, which happened to be James 3. On that day I’m sure I spaced this reading and only took a note of it out of habit. (Now, while reviewing my journal for this post I see its relevance to that day, especially verse 14, even more so for the day before.)

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart do not boast and be false to the truth.” James 3:14 ESV

James 3 is more famously known for warning us about the power of the “tongue.” But also has much to say on pride. Since pride often leads to misusing our words, to tear others down, or lead others in a wrong direction. Confidence can make people follow, and with pride comes confidence. When we forget that our accomplishments come from the Lord and boast from our own “selfish ambitions;” we do not lead to God, this I believe is why God humbles us so that we do not lead others into wrong. Jesus warns us in Luke 17:1 that it is a terrible sin to lead others into sin, and threatens those who do with punishment worse than drowning. God protects others by humbling the prideful but also protects the prideful by this humbling them since teachers and leaders are held to a higher standard and will face judgment for the faults of their followers.

I wish I could say I quite being haughty and judging towards others but still on this day, just as my first day on the AT, I was putting all my self-worth and pride in my pace and not in the Lord. It would be on week 3; one stress fractured foot and ill-nourished body later that I would lose my pride and view myself not superior to every other hiker.

Not long after breakfast I saw my first bear on the trail. I was hiking to the tune of some song in my head when I heard a grunt followed by some thumps crashing through brush going up a steep incline. I looked up to see the black bear, it was large in the 250 to 300 range. It stopped at the top of the hill, then sat down as if winded from ascending too fast. (I’m sure it wasn’t.) I stopped to focus my eyes on it and it avoided eye contact. I thought cool and then moved on.

After Birch Spring gap, (a camp ground,) but before Mollies Ridge Shelter I saw 2 hikers going south bond.

“Hey you guy keep your eyes out for a bear I saw one not too long ago.” I greeted the two.

“Do you think it’s the bear that attacked that guy?”

“Someone got attacked?”

“Yeah just the other night, the rangers are closing down a lot of the shelters.”

“Shit, do you know if Derrick Knob is closed I’m trying to get there for the night.”

“Could be but we don’t know.”

“Well alright. Y’all have a good hike.”

“You do the same.”

The day got increasingly cloudy and mist started to form. It was easy to see how the Smokys got there name. The trail was also slick it had obviously been raining in these mountains for a few days.

Just after passing Mollies I saw my first park ranger she greeted me by asking for my AT permeant and I was glad I had filled it out.

“You know about the bear right?” She asked.

“Yeah just heard. Do you know if Derrick Knob shelter is closed?”

“Could be but I’m not sure, Spence Field Shelter is closed, that’s where the attack happened.”

“Thanks.”

“This kind of stuff wouldn’t happen if you AT hikers took responsibility and stored y’alls food correctly.”

This was the attitude of most Rangers in the park. They were all on edge and upset about having to kill the bear. AT thru-hikers probably were the culprit but I knew it wasn’t me I never left trash, I wasn’t even burning trash at that time. But too many hikers were beyond ill prepared for a thru-hiking. But by the end of the Smoky’s these would be weeded out.

I believe I ran into the aggressive bear between Mollies, and Russell Field Shelter. I came around a corner to a bear the size of the one I saw earlier. Instead of crashing away It squared up, and then began bluff charging, making a sprint to 10 yards away from me then lunging away again. I somehow was able to smoothly roll my pack from my shoulders, unsheathe my machete, and hold my pack to the side with one hand and the machete in the other all the while yelling the guarantied bear deterrent phrase. “Hey bear fuck you, fuck off bear!” After 2 to 3 more bluff charges the bear darted off the trail and I could hear it crashing through the woods out of sight. I then felt accomplished and didn’t mind the rain trickling down through the canopy.

I went up and down on a mini roller coaster till I reached Derrick Knob Shelter. I found it to be full so I was forced into overflow camping. The rain had stopped so I set my tarp up in the dry and with little problem.

Talk about the bear attack circled with everyone at the camp. A ridge runner was there and she tried to dismiss many of the rumors with truth. But most wanted to believe the most sensational stories about what happened.

The most popular being that the man was dragged out of this shelter and almost died. I would find out the truth latter that it was a man in over flow camping that was bit once on the foot after waking up to the bear sniffing around in his tent for the coconut sunscreen that he was wearing.

Also at this Shelter were the Hatchet brothers. A notorious trail group of two who rumor had it carried 80 pound packs. I had heard of them since before the NOC, but didn’t realize I was eating with them since they had there packs stored in the shelter minus there food. I heard the Wolf Pack was also close by, but they planned on zeroing in Gatlinburg the next day. I had wanted to meet both these groups.

Before going to my tent I checked the trail log and found that Geronimo was 2 day ahead. And I still hoped to catch him. I also found that Quiet and Twister ate lunch at this shelter.

Day 11: Pride Check

I was up early and organized, ready to go in less than an hour. The air was thick with humidity. This air chilled me; it being early morning with the sun still hiding behind the mountains.

The shelter still did not stir but I saw six pairs of feet tucked away in mummy bags as I left Cable Gap Shelter.

The landscape of the 7 miles of trail stood out to me with its ruggedness. Grey stone rock covered the trail in spots and outcropping of the same color lined the trail. These 7 miles to Fontana went by quick, but were slick and near technical. I tripped and nearly fell flat to my face if I had not caught myself with both hands as if engaging a push up position. Also I remember an instant of having to shimmy sideways along one rock wall to stay on trail or tumble off. I have had people ask me what physical requirements are needed to hike the AT and the only two I would say is balance and the ability do a burpee. If you don’t have these physical traits it is unsafe to hike the AT.

IMG_0235At NC 28 there was a vending machine as well as a phone to call a shuttle to the general store. I needed to resupply because I didn’t at the NOC. First I walked in to the bait shop at Fontana Lake, got a snack, and tried to resupply but the bait shop didn’t have enough. So I called the shuttle to take me to Fontana Village (2 miles off trail.)

While waiting I noticed a lot of Z-Cars traveling down the road and would latter find out that Fontana is a driving destination, and holds many driving club events. The week before was a Mini Cooper convention.

My shuttle driver was a young man of 19 who worked seasonally at Fontana on the yard crew. I could relate, being a seasonal resort worker myself. I tipped him well when dropped off at the General store and he returned to weed whacking.

The general store at Fontana had everything I needed. I bought up 5 days’ worth of food to get me through the Smokys which I planned to enter after my resupply. I was going to make it to Davenport Gap 4 day that way I could meet up with my Aunt and Uncle for a day in Ashville NC. I had agreed to this earlier and would let them know my exact plan of arrival at Newfound Gap, so I bought the extra day’s worth of food so if our schedules didn’t match I would be able to camp an extra day.

On top of my resupply I bought some bananas and ice cream to enjoy on the porch of the general store. I later planed on getting pizza at the Fontana Pit Stop (a gas station that sold food) after I found the ATM at the Fontana Lodge.

A couple came to the porch hauling 2 packs they were too clean to be thru-hikers I thought, and assumed them to be day-hikers over packing for their outing from a hotel room. (I was feeling arrogant this day.) They ignored me and went in the general store, but were soon to come out and joined me on the porch with their own ice cream.

“You a thru-hiker?” the man asked he was really tall (6’4) and had a full blondish beard and his smile showed in his voice.

“Yeah, how about y’all” I said smirking.

“Sure are I’m Quiet.”

“And I’m Twister.” The Woman said.

“Cool, I guess I’m Joedirt but just got that at the NOC, not sure if it’s going to stick.”

“Awesome, Joedirt, how many days ago was that?”

I was hoping and waiting for this question.

“Just the other day. I went from the NOC to Cable Gap shelter and now I’m hear about to go into the Smokys.”

“Sweet we just finished zeroing here today, It’s good to meet someone at our pace.” Twister said in a way to congratulate. And I felt a little humbled.

“Hell yeah we’ve been passing hikers like crazy, kind of made it a challenge, but it’ll be good to have someone around for a while.” Quiet said still with a smile.

“Yeah, I plan to make it to Mollies today. Then just three more days to Davenport Gap.”

“Nice, we plan to go through the Smokys pretty quick too, they can be pretty miserable.”

“That’s what I heard, also been told that it takes more than a week to get through.”

“To do 80miles, who told you that?” Twister asked.

“Sir Packs a’lot.”

“The guy at the Top of Georgia? He’s full of shit.” Quiet said.

I was glad to find someone who shared my dislike for Sir Packs A’lot, and looked forward to seeing them at Mollies. By the time they headed for the trail I learned that Quiet had previously hiked the AT and that both him and Twister had hiked the PCT and Arizona Trail. (They meet on the PCT.)

After they left I headed to the lodge to find the ATM passing a parking lot full of Z-cars fully decked out and surrounded by pin-ups. I attracted my share of attention and my ego was stroked more and more with each question and remark. I came away feeling overly confident in myself and proud, and I left Fontana Village with a full belly some cash and needing a good ass kicking. I wouldn’t get the ass kicking but by the end of the day I would be reminded of how inexperienced I was.

IMG_0236The Dam itself was bigger than I was expecting and the trail went right over it. (it is the biggest Dam on the Eastern sea board.) Some where there was a shower room that I planned on using but did not see it at first glance so I passed on un-showered. Across the dam I saw the sign that welcomed me into the Smokys. I was smiling with confidence ready to prove Sir Packs a’lot wrong. I saw a white mark ahead of me, (not a white blaze.) This led me down the BMT.

I zoned out for 3-5 miles assuming I was still on the AT. I don’t know how I assumed this, (there was not near enough elevation gain,) just pride that would be shattered when I stopped and reviewed my AWOL.

When I realized I had gone the wrong way I threw my AWOL to the ground snarled curses to myself. All I could do though was shoulder my pack again and back track. An hour of seeing the same uninteresting wooded surroundings of the BMT made my pride limp but I hustled physically.

At the actual internes to the Smokys I was knocked back even further when I realized a pen was not provided to fill out the permit, and that I had dropped mine. So there was more back tracking this time back over the dam exposed in the baking sun over the asphalt.

I could see a hiker coming towards me through the heat haze and recognized him as the guy I meet on Cheoah Bald.

“Hope, you got a pen,” I greeted him.

“Why.” He answered with the same confident smile I had had going northbound over this dam.

“There’s not one provided.”

“Well alright.”

Neither of us let off from our strides and passed each other. I murmured under my breath, “Fucking Prick” and was angry that he was entering the Smokys before me. Between the sun my anger and the sound of the rushing water going through the dam I lost the will to continue hiking that day. And when I found that the visitor center was closed and I would not be able to barrow a pen I decided to stop and stay the night at the Fontana Hilton an AT shelter at the dam.

It was 4pm and only a mother and daughter were at the shelter. The mother said there were more coming but they went to the village to get supplies for a party. When the party showed up I found out it was a getting off trail party as everyone at the shelter was calling it quits. They all talked of how hard the trail was, some were depressed being away from loved ones; they all missed feeling clean. So this was a big celebration for them all. I didn’t like it and it was upsetting to me. I now realized that there was nothing wrong with this since they all had happy lives to live off the trail and hiking these 166 miles lead them to appreciate it.

I drank with them accepting two lite beers, which got me buzzed. Then out of the trail came 4 Europeans with one local. The Europeans were hikers and had just finished a 20 mile day the local was showing them where the shower room was at the dam and I went with them. The shower room was one big communal shower that offered no privacy like a high school locker room. The Europeans were comfortable with this, me being American It was a little weird, but being on the trail you learn to lose a little modesty.

Once clean we all dried in the sun. (Clothed!) The local passed around a bowl, as the sun was setting. I watched Old Glory fly in the red hues of the fading light, and could faintly hear the rushing water. I was not angry or prideful I enjoyed the company around me, and answered questions the Europeans had about America, but feed them lies about myself and the reasons for being on the trail.

Storms where building over the Smokys but it was a clear night at the Fontana Hilton. I had no trouble falling asleep with the laughter of the party. I set my alarm of 5 and had everything organized for easy packing in the morning. I knew the next day I would get wet but was ready for it. I said a prayer for strength before falling asleep, and this prayer led into a prayer for humility and to live for actions not words or thoughts.