Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nature Deficit Disorder

It was the summer of 2008 when I first noticed them. I had seen them a couple of times without really letting the message sink in, and I’m sort of proud of that. Most TV commercials are best ignored, but then most TV programs are best ignored, too. Right there on the TV screen was a commercial – a public service announcement, actually – that showed kids playing kickball, running, and hoola hooping. Then it suggested visiting for more suggestions on how to play outside. Yes, that’s right, how to play outside. “Get out and play an hour a day” and “Be a player” were, I think, their catchy jingles.

Wow. (I thought about putting an exclamation point after “wow,” but I don’t want to give the impression of excitement. We really need a punctuation mark of some sort to express sadness or defeat, indicating that “wow” should be said with a heavy sigh.) A government program to encourage kids to play outside. I never thought it would come to this. Okay, I guess that’s not entirely true. Because I think that video games, TV, movies, and cell phones in the hands of youngsters (and a few adults who haven’t yet developed that lost virtue known as self-control) are undermining the best of Western civilization, I sort of saw this coming. We’ve all noticed, haven’t we, that kids just don’t play outside anymore. They are too busy playing with all their gadgets.

I once heard a conversation in which a woman was telling a guy that he needed a life, that he needed to get out more. His response: “But who would watch my TV?” Okay, he said it to be funny (which it was.), but it’s one of those times when the truth was spoken in jest. Or, when a guy said he was going to get rid of his TV, a friend of his exclaimed, “But what will you point all your furniture toward?” Again, funny and true. (For the sake of full disclosure – and the fact that someone might recognize those two conversations and call me on it – I saw them both on TV – The Office and Friends. So save this article in case you are ever asked to give a speech on hypocrisy. It will make a good illustration to drive your point home.)

In 2005 a journalist by the name of Richard Louv published a book entitled Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. He speaks of three phases in American history. First was the frontier phase in which people were closely connected with nature, but their view was one of utilitarianism – use it, conquer it. The second phase is typified by people like Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Robert Frost, and up through the Baby Boomers. It was a period of romantic attachment to nature in which nature is seen as good and beautiful, something to be preserved and cherished. Thank goodness for that second phase! Without it, we’d have no national parks, including the Smoky Mountains.

Louv described the third phase (today) as electronic detachment from nature. As one child said, “I like to play indoors better because that’s where all the electrical outlets are.” Or, as I’ve heard adults say, “I love to go to the mountains because there are so many stores there.” Yes, some people call shopping in Pigeon Forge “going to the mountains.”

So in the spirit of resisting nature-deficit disorder, I’d like to suggest a few family-friendly outings in the Smokies – the mountains and rivers, not the stores.

First, if you have a child who is suffering from a chronic case of NDD, then start with something exciting. I’d suggest tubing on the Little River near Townsend. This won’t be a quiet, solitary mountain experience, but it will appeal to kids of all ages. It’s not dangerous – just a few bumps and grinds – unless there was a heavy rain the night before. The water is cold, of course, but hundreds of soft, urban people do it every day from May to September, so you and your kids will survive. You’ll improve your chances of success if you’ll first walk around to work up a good, summer sweat. That will make the cold water inviting. There are tube rental shops and shuttle services in Townsend. Just bring a few dollars, snacks, towels, and a change of clothes.

Next week I’ll offer another trip that’s quick and easy but a notch or two higher on the wilderness scale.

Sunset on Mt. Cammerer (Part 7 of 7)

After about 13 hours of hiking, Keith and Greg arrived at the Cammerer lookout tower about 10 minutes before I did. They heaved themselves up the final few feet of rocky ledges and into the rustic, rock-and-wood firetower. (There’s a sign next to it explaining that this is a “lookout” not a “tower.” Okay, whatever.) They were shouting at me to hurry, and I got to the tower just as the sun began to sink behind the distant ridges. Pictures were snapped. Kudos were expressed. Feet were sore. We sat in the lovely, old CCC tower for 15 minutes, trying in vain to recuperate.

As we sat there, Greg muttered, “Boys, I just spent my last nickel.”

Well said. “Spent” was the perfect word. We were spent like mayflies after sex, quivering and dying after a once in a lifetime experience, thinking, “Yeah, it was worth it.”

Our problem was not only that we were completely spent, ready to quiver and die after a mountaintop experience, but that we still had five miles to go. The fact that the sun had just sunk over the horizon didn’t help the situation. This was the downside to being on Mt. Cammerer at sunset. We’d be hiking down to the car in the dark, and the moon would not rise to shed its light for another four or five hours. We didn’t know it at the time, but we would soon discover that the trail would be ankle deep in oak leaves, hiding the rocks and roots in the trail and making for treacherous walking. A sprained ankle just waiting to happen.

We would now descend a final 3,000’ in 5.2 miles, in the dark, in ankle-deep leaves, on sore feet, using sore legs and flashlights. The hike didn’t go well. Or, actually, it went as well as it possibly could, considering the circumstances. Amazingly, we had no mishaps, no twists or breaks. The hike was just slow drudgery, and I was almost lame by the end. The backs of my knees – hamstring tendons connecting calf with thigh – were hurting fiercely. I know it’s common to say “I couldn’t have walked another step” at the end of a tiring hike, but to tell you the truth, if the hike had been another mile, I would have been crawling on hands and knees by the end, or not moving at all.

At 8:15 pm Greg and Keith arrived at the car they had left in Davenport Gap about 24 hours earlier. I came limping in about 15 minutes later. For the first half of the trip, I had stayed motivated and moving from the combination of peer pressure, testosterone, and carbohydrates, but those had all evaporated into thin air several hours ago. Now for this last leg the only thing that kept me going was the lack of alternatives. I kept hiking down that ridge because I had to keep hiking down that ridge. There was no other choice.

At Davenport Gap we snapped a couple of pictures, got in the car, and drove toward Big Creek and I-40. There was not as much talking as you might expect because we were tired, and there was nothing left to say. About all we could manage was, “Can you believe it?” Or, “Yeah, that was amazing.” Pretty primitive conversation, actually. You’d think three educated friends could come up with something more stimulating and thoughtful, but we couldn’t. About all we could do was re-state the obvious in four-word sentences.

When it’s all said and done, our day had been the hiking counterpart of a hurricane. The rush of trees, rocks, wind, sun – it was all a blur. We were battered and bruised and a bit numb, and we felt lucky to have survived. It was one of those experiences that you’d like to tell your friends and co-workers about, but you quickly realize that they just don’t get it. Someone at work asks what you did yesterday, and you tell them that you had a great 33 mile hike in the mountains. Their response is, “Wow, are you serious? That’s a long way!” Then the microwave beeps, and they walk away to get their soup. Thud. End of conversation.

It’s very possible that this was my first and last marathon day hike. It’s as crazy a stunt as a middle aged guy can do without getting in trouble with his wife or the law. That alone is reason enough to do this trip. Although, I may have just slipped in under the wire, before this aging body becomes incapable of doing it. As Keith says, “Your only problem is that you’ve had too many birthdays.” Yeah, I’ve got to stop that.

By the way, you probably noticed that “it” never happened – no broken bones or lost equipment. Of course, there were aching muscles and joints and burning blisters, but that’s normal and expected. The weather was perfect. We had the right equipment. Our feeble bodies (barely) passed the test. Unlike most excursions, nothing – absolutely nothing! – went wrong.

I really dread the day that our dues for this trip get paid. It won’t be a pretty sight.

Racing the Sun (Part 6 of 7)

Greg, Keith, and I reconvened at TriCorner Knob, the halfway point on our 31 mile trip, around noon, seven hours after the start. This was one of those places where Greg and Keith had to wait 15 minutes for me to catch up so we could fill our water bottles. I, the weak link in the chain, was ensuring that we didn’t make good progress. Greg and Keith’s fast pace wasn’t helping us to get finished faster. It simply meant that they got to rest longer on our rest stops. It probably frustrated them, but it’s their own fault for having a hiking partner who’s 10 to 15 years their senior.

At TriCorner Knob we spent some time doing sock adjustments and foot repair. We cut moleskin and stuck it to every red or sore spot possible. Uphill hiking is tough on legs and lungs. Downhill hiking brutalizes legs and feet, especially toes. Since there were plenty of ups and downs, we were getting a nice variety of blisters and bruises. Blisters on our heels. Blisters between our toes. Bruises on the top of our feet. Sore knees, both front and back. Even our toenails ached. It would have been nice to relax at these occasional stops, but they were more like NASCAR pit stops than rest stops. We’d spend the entire time patching, pulling, rearranging, readjusting, and refueling. We also did some math…

As we sat at TriCorner Knob for a few minutes, we did some quick and easy calculations which told us that we were making a little better than 2 mph. We clearly would be hiking after sunset. Once that became clear, we began doing a little more math, and it began to reveal an option that we hadn’t seriously thought about before: where would we be at sunset? Our calculations told us that we had a pretty good chance of being on top of Mt. Cammerer – one of our favorite places on the planet – as the sun set. That would be too good to be true, spending sunrise on Charlies Bunion and sunset on Mt. Cammerer – two of the best grandstand views in the eastern half of the park. Then we began to consider how hard this was going to be – the pace and the timing. We wondered amongst ourselves how many others had ever seen the sunrise from Charlies Bunion and the sunset from Cammerer on the same day. At first we figured the number to be in the hundreds or thousands; then as we thought about hiking in the dark at both the beginning and the end, we talked ourselves down into the dozens. Then we began to wonder if anyone had ever done it. We hadn’t embarked upon this trip to be the first people to do anything, and we couldn’t believe (and still don’t) that we could be the first to do this because anything worth doing has already been done by someone. There have been just too many hikers and too many years for there to be any significant “firsts” left to do. On the other hand, we’ve never heard of anyone doing this particular combination. At the very least, membership in the club must be quite small, and we were hoping to be inducted that evening.

So, today would be like many other days spent outdoors – racing the sun. We had been hoping to finish by sunset, so we had been hiking rather vigorously. At TriCorner Knob we discovered that we were losing that race – we’d be hiking a few hours in the dark. So, the race was off. We could relax… until we decided to aim for sunset on Mt. Cammerer. The race – and the pressure to win – was on again. So we hurried, hiking as fast as the weak link, the old mule, would allow. But somehow, in this section, I didn’t lag too far behind, and we made pretty good time. We covered 10.5 miles in about 4¼ hours. That’s pretty close to 2 ½ mph. Not bad after having already hiked 15 miles.

But it was a tough, tough stretch. The terrain was no better and no worse than the previous 15 miles, but that extra quarter to half a mile per hour really took its toll on us. Going up and down and up again and down again without any significant breaks for over 10 miles (plus the added 0.6 mile side trail to the peak of Cammerer) was grueling. We were definitely in the “gotta get there” mode, which is not normally a good mode for Smokies hiking. It can drain the joy out of a hike pretty quickly. But we had an important goal in mind which made the rush palatable.

And the rush paid off.

[To be continued, one more time.]

Hiking Alone...With Friends (Part 5 of 7)

We covered the first four miles of our 33 mile day hike in two hours, so we now knew that we were averaging about 2 miles per hour. Thus began our debate: how fast should we try to go? Greg lobbied for 3 mph, which is a pace that I could manage on level, paved ground but not in the mountains, and not all day. Keith said we needed to travel at LEAST 2.5 mph. I, being the old mule, suggested 2.5 mph at MOST. What we soon discovered was that the debate didn’t matter. We’d make the best time we could. Calculating our speed wouldn’t help us to get done any faster, but it would give us an idea of when we would get to the end. We didn’t know it yet, but our overall speed for the entire day, including rest and scenery stops, would be a little better than 2 mph. Although, I have to admit that Greg and Keith had to wait several times for me to catch up. And, being good friends whose bark is bigger than their bite, they did have to wait, because Greg had the only water filter. (If I had been hiking with lesser friends, I would have carried the filter.) They would wait patiently for me so that we could all fill our water bottles together. Otherwise, I would have spent the entire day waterless and several miles behind them. This was definitely the “weakest link” principle in action. How long would it take us to finish this 33 mile hike? The answer: As long as it takes the slowest member of the group. That would be me.

If you want a nice, solitary hiking experience, hike with someone who walks at a different pace than you, either faster or slower. Not only did we not see a single other person for the entire trip, but we didn’t see each other much either. I tried for awhile – out of pure peer pressure and male ego – to keep up with Greg and Keith, but I just couldn’t do it. Peer pressure can be a powerful motivator, but it can’t work miracles. I spent the vast majority of the day walking by myself, which was fine. It added to the wilderness feel of the trip. When we got home and a woman asked me what we talked about all day (a typical female misunderstanding about men), I could not only say that we didn’t talk much; I could also say that we hardly even saw each other – a concept incomprehensible to females who can’t even go to the bathroom unaccompanied.

It was now daylight as we made our way along the rocky ledges of the Sawteeth, crossing back and forth from the North Carolina to the Tennessee sides of the ridge crest. On the topo map, the Tennessee side of the ridge consists of crowded contour lines, indicating a steep drop into the Greenbrier portion of the park. It’s ironic that this rugged, mostly-untouched part of the park has farms, fields, roads, and Pigeon Forge as a backdrop. There is a 20 mile portion of ridge stretching from Mt. LeConte to Mt. Guyot which has no side trails connecting the ridge crest with the Greenbrier area below. The terrain is too rough to build and maintain trails here. This Greenbrier area is the watershed of the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River and is one of the best places in the park for off-trail exploration. You can walk on the Porters Creek or Ramsey Cascade trails and simply wander off in any direction into trail-less wilderness. Looking down into it from above is a beautiful, raw scene. In retrospect, that semi-civilized background of towns and farms actually accentuates its wildness.

The forest along the ridge crest is mostly 15’ firs and 30’ to 70’ spruce. There are also occasional beech gaps – low spots in the ridge that are small, flat, and a bit grassy – and filled with beech trees, plus a few birches. These high, windy gaps must be perfectly suited for these trees because virtually every southern Appalachian ridge in the 5,000’ elevation range has them. There are high gaps named Beech Gap all over the southern mountains from Virginia to Georgia.

[You guessed it… to be continued.]

Sunrise on Charlies Bunion (Part 4 of 7)

As we started our pre-dawn hike along the AT east from Newfound Gap, most of our night views were to the south into North Carolina, so we could occasionally see the subtle glow of Bryson City and Cherokee a few miles in the distance. That view to the south is a wild, uncivilized view because beyond the border of the Smokies lies the rugged, sparsely-populated Nantahala National Forest. As the day progressed, we would have many great views of purple ridge after purple ridge stretching to the southern horizon, with no civilization in sight.

Our views to the north into Tennessee were quite different, and that difference became immediately apparent as the AT crossed over to the Tennessee side of the ridge crest. Being night, the gaudy radiance of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville dominated the northern horizon. I suppose it’s in some way beautiful. But we were in the mountains for a wilderness adventure, and those city lights don’t fit in with a wilderness motif. Later in the day, after the sun had risen, the view would improve. The view into Tennessee is semi-civilized, with lakes, roads, farms, fields, hills, and towns. During the daylight hours, the tourist havens of Pigeon Forge and Sevierville don’t stick out like sore thumbs. In fact, they mostly just blend in to the green, hilly landscape. But during our night hike, they made their presence known with a vengeance. As one writer, George Ritzer, put it, Pigeon Forge is the epitome of “the consumption of fun and the fun of consumption.” Go-kart tracks and outlet malls, all under a blinding, halogen glow. At that moment, I had a bumper sticker idea: Nuke Pigeon Forge. It would be the perfect replacement for the Jon Stewart For President sticker that presently adorns my rear bumper.

About 6:15 am we passed the Boulevard, a trail leading north to the top of Mt. LeConte, and then we passed the Icewater Spring shelter, one of the most heavily-used backcountry campsites in the park. Normally, we would have stopped to rest and snack, but it was dark and there might be some backpackers asleep in it. We continued on another mile to Charlies Bunion, one of the most dramatic, unique spots in the Smokies. This barren, rocky outcrop was created by a fire in 1925 followed by a heavy rain in 1927 that completely denuded this spot. The result was a rugged, steep, rocky promontory with 360 degree views. Dawn was breaking as we arrived so we scrambled to the top and witnessed a dramatic sunrise. Schedule-wise we had hoped to be past the Bunion by sunrise, but scenery-wise it was perfect timing. There are numerous places in the park to watch the sun rise or set. None are better than Charlies Bunion. As a bonus, it will usually be an uncrowded event because very few people will hike in the dark. We had Charlies Bunion all to ourselves for those 20 minutes.

This was the point at which we parted company with Mark. The four of us had hiked 4 miles under a clear, moonlit sky in a beautiful place and had witnessed a dramatic sunrise with a few good friends. We should have had cheese and a bottle of champagne. In fact, if we all had gone back to the car, we still could have called the trip a success. I suppose that is the danger in having a great start to such a trip. It would be easy to be satisfied with those first 2 hours. However, a volatile mix of testosterone and peer pressure kept us going. So Mark went west while Keith, Greg, and I continued east.

Soon after we parted company it occurred to us that the point of no return had just shifted from the 16 mile point to wherever we happened to be standing at the moment. Mark’s return to the car would save us the trouble of having to drive back to Newfound Gap to retrieve the car at the end of the day, but we also realized that the three of us were now fully committed to finishing all 31.4 miles. When he drove his car away, we had at that moment burned our bridges behind us. We couldn’t go back now, even if we wanted to – which we didn’t.

[More to come.]