The Greenbrier section of the Smoky Mountains is a good place for off-trail exploring. So, in a futile attempt to prove our manhood, Greg Harrell and I spent about six hours on Porters Mountain, pushing our way through rhododendron, mountain laurel, saw briers, sand myrtle, cliffs, boulders, and blowdowns.
Once we reached the crest, we’d occasionally encounter a long, narrow heath bald covered in mountain laurel, Catawba rhododendron, and sand myrtle. The month was late May, so the rhody was starting to show its purple blooms, but the real star of the show was the sand myrtle – a low growing, thick shrub covered in clumps of delicate, white flowers. Those heath bald moments were magnificent and made the dirty, sweaty bushwhacking worth the trouble; although a bit less bush whacking and a bit more heath balding would have been fine with me.
I had once read about an off-trail hike where one of the guys was actually hiking on top of the mountain laurel and rhody bushes while his partner was on the ground below him. To be honest, that didn’t make sense to me, and I couldn’t quite visualize it.
Until it happened to us.
The bushes were so thick and tangled that it was impossible to push our way through. We found ourselves crawling and slithering our way under the branches, which ain’t easy. Occasionally there would be a tiny gap in the brush, just enough to let us stand up to stretch our backs, and to enjoy the vertical dimension for a moment, hoping to see a gap in the branches a few feet ahead. It was at one of these points that I tried to step over a branch rather than crawl under it. I just instinctively put my foot on a branch that was two or three feet off the ground. Suddenly I was several feet off the ground, standing on a rhody branch. As I prepared to step back to the ground, I noticed that there was another branch at about the same level a few feet away; so I stepped on it. And then I stepped again, and again, and again. I suddenly found myself walking on the rhody instead of crawling underneath. At several points I was a few feet above Greg, looking down on him as he crawled below me. He was travelling on dirt and leaves. I was travelling on branches. It wasn’t something we consciously attempted; it just happened as we each looked for a path of least resistance.
Walking on rhododendron is not an ideal method of hiking. It’s not necessarily faster or easier than crawling on your belly (rhody branches are slick when dry and slicker when wet). It’s really just a change of pace, a respite from the monotony of crawling underneath and being able to see only a few feet in front of you. Crawling through and under rhody is like walking in the dark – you can’t see the route ahead, you just keep going until you run into a wall. Walking on top of the branches is like walking in the dark, using a cigarette lighter for light. You can see a little more, but it doesn’t change the fact that the wall is still there blocking your path.
About seven hours after we left my truck at the trailhead, we reached the Appalachian Trail near Porters Gap. That’s mostly a good thing, except for the fact that we’d been out over seven hours and were only about halfway finished. As we sat on a log on the AT, I told Greg that this was a great trip, I was glad we were doing it, but I was exhausted and wouldn’t do it again.
I once heard a veteran of World War Two say that the war was hell, he wouldn’t wish it on anyone, he’d never want to do it again – but he wouldn’t have missed it for anything. Yeah, some things are once-in-a-lifetime experiences because you’ll never have the chance to do them again, while others – like Porters Mountain and war – are once-in-a-lifetime because you are glad you did them, but once is enough.
Within 48 hours, Greg was talking about when we should do it again. That was well over a year ago, and I still haven’t given him an answer.