Maybe you remember the scene where the main kid (a boy, of course) is frustrated because “it was like salt in an open wound; even my own mom, a grown-up girl, knew who Babe Ruth was.” Or the scene in which the ultimate insult was hurled by one of the boys: “You throw like a girl.” This was followed by a moment of stunned silence; a line had been drawn in the sand, a gauntlet thrown down.
When Greg Harrell told me about his hike on Woodchuck Ridge, I told him that we ought to hike it tomorrow, and he agreed. He’s a firm believer that if a hike is worth doing once, it’s worth doing again – even two days in a row. An hour later when I called to confirm the details, he broke the news to me: Keith and his wife, Pam, would be going, too. There was a moment of silence, just like in Sandlot. “Pam? A girl?” This was unprecedented. We had never considered bringing a grown-up girl along with us on one of these rough, off-trail trips. It was the notorious good ol’ boy network writ small. We didn’t intentionally leave our women out of the equation; we just never thought of it as a realistic possibility.
Knowing what I was thinking, Greg broke the silence by saying, “It’ll be okay. If Pam gets…whatever… she can wait for us at the heath bald while we go on ahead to Sharp Top.” In this case, we both knew that “whatever” could include injury or illness, but “getting whatever” really meant “if she can’t handle it because she’s a girl.” Of course, we didn’t say that out loud. We didn’t have to. That’s how the good ol’ boy network works. It’s mostly unspoken.
So a little after noon we four – three boys and a girl – piled in Pam and Keith’s car and drove to the Smoky Mountains. Greg directed us to the obscure parking spot where the old trail began. This is a trail that appears as a small, dotted line on an old map of the Smokies, and it shows up on the ground today as an overgrown, half-visible trail. It’s yet another example of an old, abandoned trail that is maintained not by national park work crews, but by the feet of the few people who know about it.
How do people learn about old paths like this? It must be either by word of mouth or by studying the old maps, as Greg had done. Since Greg first mentioned this path several months ago, we had heard of several people who had, in their own words, “gone to Sharp Top the hard way.” We weren’t sure if this was the route they had taken, but it seemed highly likely. There are no other obvious routes to the top except the popular, well-maintained trails.
It was a cold day in January with patches of snow and ice on the ground as we hopped out of the car and shouldered our daypacks, so we wore hats and jackets. I watched in horror as Pam donned a pink bandana. Yes, pink. She seemed to sense that she had broken through the glass ceiling and was rubbing our noses in it.
This route to Sharp Top would be a mere two miles, but it would climb about 2,500 feet in those two miles. It would travel steadily along tiny Woodchuck Creek for less than a mile, then would ascend to the crest of Woodchuck Ridge for the second mile. So this hike was serious work from the very first step. Greg and Keith maintained a quick pace and pulled away from Pam and me. We hiked more or less together, talking occasionally about the trail, the views, the sweat and dirt, families. It was all fine. Although there was a moment when Pam mentioned something she had bought at TJ Maxx. I had to stop her at that point to tell her that shopping trips were unacceptable topics of conversation. In her defense, I think she was going to tell me about a fleece jacket or gloves that could keep you warm while hiking in January. Nevertheless, I couldn’t take the chance that Greg and Keith might hear us talking about a shopping trip. Pam was treading on thin ice, and I couldn’t let her pull me down with her. [To be continued.]