Monday, September 14, 2009

Anakeesta Conniption (Part 3 of 3)

On our off-trail hike along the crest of Anakeesta Ridge, I had hidden my daypack by the side the trail so I could slither through the obstructions on the ridgecrest. I would retrieve it as we backtracked our way out a few hours later. Unfortunately, after about an hour of slithering, Greg Harrell and I had somehow managed to wander off the main ridge and onto a small, obscure side ridge. We had stayed on what seemed to be not merely the main ridge, but the only ridge. There was just no other route to take. And yet, there we were, on that small, unnamed side ridge wondering how we got there.

In the distance below us an occasional car would pass along the base of Anakeesta, to the south, at the end of this side ridge. Greg pulled out his map, and we discovered that we were only about a half mile away from Newfound Gap Road. Greg later told me that at that moment he saw the gears start turning in my head as I began considering our options and doing the math: we could push our way for an hour back to the Boulevard then hike two miles up the Boulevard and another three miles on the AT, or we could hike about a half mile down hill and catch a ride back up to the truck. In my mind, the choice was obvious – hike down, then hitchhike.

I explained my thinking and my preference to Greg, who just stood there, listening patiently. He listened as I went on and on about daylight, gravity, old age, and travelling new paths. I went on for so long that I probably even covered some politics, history, and theology. PhD dissertations have been shorter and simpler than my impassioned monologue.

When I finally paused to take a breath, thinking that I had an airtight case and that we would be going down, not up, Greg looked down in the direction of the road and said, “Sounds good to me.”

I was a bit surprised at how easily he agreed with my analysis of the situation, but I assumed that even he, when faced with the overwhelming weight of unadulterated logic, had no alternative but to yield to the inevitable. Then he paused for effect and said, “Hey, pal…” – another pause, for even greater dramatic impact – “… where’s your pack?”

What followed can only be described as a conniption for the ages. I jumped and screamed and spun and kicked. Greg laughed. I wailed and moaned and ranted and spit. Greg laughed. Like Job, I recounted the unfairness in life, the capriciousness of fate. Greg laughed. Coyotes howled in the distance. Mothers in Gatlinburg covered their children’s ears. Rabbits and bears fled in terror. My disappointment was deep, reaching to the marrow of my bones and the core of my being. Greg laughed. He showed no pity, no sympathy. He seemed happy with our fate. Backtracking up through the tangle and rocks of Anakeesta Ridge was a small price to pay to witness my tantrum.

Then I paused and began a mental inventory of the contents of my daypack. Could I just leave my pack where it was? It was old and ratty. It held a water bottle and a fleece jacket, so I’d be losing a few dollars, but it might be worth it. It was hidden well, so I could even come back in a few weeks and retrieve it if the mood struck. Yes, there was a ray of hope, a chance for redemption --- which Greg saw written on my face.

At that moment Greg became a mind-reader and a sadist. He seemed to know what I was thinking because he looked at me as I pondered, paused for effect, and said rhetorically, “Hey… (another pause to heighten the drama)… where are your keys?”

In my pack. My keys were in my stinkin’ pack.

I swooned as the sun was blotted out and the moon turned to blood….

Our hike back to my truck was long and somber.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

South Happens (Part 2 of 3)

Our hike along the narrow ridgecrest of Anakeesta Ridge was difficult to manage but easy to see. Greg and I would simply follow the ridge as far as daylight would allow, looking for interesting sights, and then backtrack to the Boulevard and the Appalachian Trail before it got dark. So simple even a caveman could do it.

After a particularly difficult section which kept us descending faster and farther than we had expected, we stopped to rest and wonder. I looked at my watch and commented, “It’s three o’clock. We’re gonna run out of daylight.”

Greg muttered, “Yeah, I know.”

“Just out of curiosity… how long have you known?”

“Since we stepped out of the truck,” Greg responded. I giggled under my breath and braced myself for yet another comment about my age or pace or propensity for frequent rest stops – all of which are favorite topics of Greg’s commentary during our hikes. Instead, Greg added, “And that’s not our only problem.”

“What’s the other problem?”

“We’ve been heading south for the last 10 minutes.”

I understood the significance immediately: “No way! Are you sure?”

“Yep. At least 10 minutes.”

Greg and I both like compasses, and we use them often on these hikes. I don’t recall where Greg carries his. Probably in one of his pockets. I hang mine around my neck, tucked under my shirt so it won’t get caught on branches. So Greg held out his compass to show me. I looked back north up the ridge we’d been descending and looked south down the ridgecrest in front of us. Yes, south.

Anakeesta is an east-west ridge with an occasional north-south wiggle, but not a tenth of a mile, and not where we were standing. South just wasn’t supposed to happen. So I did something that I hate to do on these hikes because it feels like I’m cheating – I pulled out my GPS and poked around on it until the electronic bread crumb trail popped up on its topo map. And there it was, a straight blue line about a tenth of a mile long showing us travelling straight down toward the bottom of the screen – south, straight south.

The next five minutes involved a lot of staring down the foggy ridge, staring back up the foggy ridge, staring at each other, shaking the compass, poking more GPS buttons, and general bafflement. It’s like those moments when my car dies, and I open the hood and stand there staring at the tangle of wires and metal wondering what it all means. Because I know nothing about the mysteries of internal combustion engines, I have no business looking under the hood, but I do it anyway in hopes that there will be a flashing, neon sign with an arrow pointing to the problem saying, “Replace this.” There’s never a flashing arrow under the hood, and there was no flashing sign for us on that side ridge.

Without going into the details of our conversation, I’ll just say that we had no idea how we wandered off Anakeesta’s main ridge and onto an obscure, southern side ridge. No idea whatsoever. We had stayed on what seemed to be not merely the main ridge, but the only ridge. There was just no other route to take. I’ve sometimes seen the trail under our feet just disappear into the dirt, rocks, and leaves, but this was the first time an entire ridge simply dissolved into clouds and thin air. I wondered if we had wandered into the Anakeesta Triangle where planes, ships, hikers, and ridges disappear. I don’t know. I didn’t get it then, and I still don’t get it.

But there we were, on that small, unnamed ridge. As we stood there dazed and confused, the only reasonable option was to backtrack up to the main ridge. We’d try to find the split in the ridge where we had made our mistake, but because it was getting late – we still had about five miles of hiking to get back to the truck – we’d have to hustle back to the Boulevard and the AT. The point where we were standing would have to suffice as our “destination” for the day. But then we heard cars below us… [To be continued]

Anakeesta Ridge (Part 1 of 3)

On one of our very first off-trail hikes, Greg Harrell and I looked up the creek valley which we were to follow and commented, “Just follow the creek. Easy. Only an idiot could get lost.” Of course, we both knew what that meant for our impending hike: we could get lost.

“What if there are two idiots? Does that make it half as likely or twice as likely?”

A couple of years later on Anakeesta Ridge we discovered the answer: twice as likely….

Greg and I stepped out of my truck at Newfound Gap on a Saturday morning in the middle of February. We were on the tail end of an unseasonably warm stretch, so the weather was bearable, although a bit on the moist side. Our plan was simple: hike about three miles northeast on the Appalachian Trail to the Boulevard trail and then about two miles on the Boulevard to its intersection with Anakeesta Ridge. That would be the point where the real fun began because we’d step off a popular, maintained trail and onto a ridge that had no official trail, so it would probably be littered with blown-down trees, mountain laurel, and briers. It would also be rocky and narrow, with a smattering of sand myrtle and rhododendron.

If you’ll look at Anakeesta from the road just below Newfound Gap, you’ll see huge, rocky scars where landslides of the past 60 years have scraped and scoured the ridgecrest. Greg and I thought it might be interesting to see those scars from above.

This stretch of the AT and the Boulevard is often fairly crowded, being a good route to Mount LeConte. The fact that there is a backpacking shelter near their junction means that many a hiker has made this route into a two night trip, the first night being spent at Icewater Spring shelter and the second on top of LeConte. The fact that the Jumpoff, Charlies Bunion, and the Sawteeth are nearby adds to the appeal of this route.

So at about 1:30 pm, Greg and I stepped off the Boulevard and into the tangle of Anakeesta Ridge. Because we’d be gone maybe two or three hours at most, I decided to fill my pockets with granola bars and my GPS and stash my daypack by the side of the trail. I’d be waterless for a few hours, but I was pretty sure I wouldn’t die of dehydration, and it would be nice to squeeze my way through laurel thickets without being encumbered by my pack.

Our first order of business was to crawl and push our way over logs and through mountain laurel and briers to the top of Anakeesta Knob. We then began a steady descent down the narrow, rocky ridegcrest toward a deep swag in the ridge about a half mile away. As with many of our off-trail jaunts, there was a remnant of an old trail along the crest, occasionally visible and clear, more often overgrown and tangled. It was dirty, wet work as the wind and lingering clouds kept us and the underbrush dripping wet. Forty degrees and wet is not one of my favorite combinations, but the exertion of pushing and weaving our way down this steep ridge kept hypothermia at bay.

The route was difficult to manage but easy to see. It was a nice change of pace from those off-trail excursions where you aren’t really sure which ridge to climb or which creek to follow. This route was obvious – stay on this narrow ridge. We didn’t have any particular destination in mind. We would simply follow the ridge as far as daylight would allow, looking for interesting sights, and then backtrack to the Boulevard and the AT before it got dark. So simple even a caveman could do it.

So for the next hour and a half we enjoyed the challenge of a steep, rocky, tangled, ridge hike. On a clear day, the views toward LeConte to the north and the main crest to the south would have been fabulous, but today the clouds and mist meant that visibility was 25, maybe 50, yards. I would have preferred warm sunshine, singing birds, blooming flowers, panoramic views, and a tailwind, but clouds and mist are useful for reinforcing our delusion that we are a couple of manly guys who aren’t afraid of some scratches, bruises, blood, and mud. [To be continued]