Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Low Rhody and The High Rhody (Part 2 of 2)

[In August, 2009, a hiker got lost and was eventually found several days later on the crest of Porters Mountain. This story recounts a bushwhacking trip to Porters Mountain in May, 2008. As you’ll see, I won’t write another story about Porters Mountain because I have no intention of ever going there again.]

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.

Beaten and Bruised on Porters Mountain (Part 1 of 2)

[In August, 2009, an old, experienced hiker got lost and was eventually found several days later on the crest of Porters Mountain. It wasn’t me, but it could have been.]

Looking at the scratches and bruises on my arms and head, the lady asked, “Tell me again why you think that’s fun.” I couldn’t really explain why I enjoyed our hike up Porters Mountain in the Greenbrier section of the Smoky Mountains. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I really enjoyed it until a day or two after it was over, so that made it even harder to explain. I guess I should have told her that I never said it was fun. I had said it was great. Yeah, something can be great without being fun, and bushwhacking in the mountains is high on that list.

Maybe I enjoy off-trail hiking in the mountains because I’m having a mid-life crisis, and I feel the need to prove something. But I really don’t think that’s it because I had my mid-life crisis several years ago and have pretty much gotten over it; although I suppose an occasional relapse isn’t out of the question. Either way, there are worse ways to spend a mid-life crisis than hiking.

Or, maybe it’s because I’m a map guy. I’ve always enjoyed looking at maps, planning trips, considering options. I get the same satisfaction out of planning a road trip or hike that some people get out of crossword puzzles or Sudoku. The main difference is that my puzzles have topographic lines, rivers, and ridges instead of numbers and letters.

Whatever the reason, Greg Harrell is afflicted by the same map-related disease, so we set out on the Porters Creek Trail early on a Saturday morning. After an hour and a half we reached the Porters Flats campsite, where the trail officially ends. At the campsite’s wooden marker, the trail splits. To the right is the campsite. To the left are the remnants of Porters Creek Trail, Part 2. This is the part of the trail that was described in old guidebooks, but is no longer officially maintained by the NPS and has disappeared from the trail guides. One of those remnants [the one the lost hiker probably wandered off on] leads toward the western slope of Porters Mountain. Our plan was to follow this path to the crest of Porters Mountain and to follow this ridgecrest southeast to its junction with the AT at Porters Gap.

Within about 10 minutes that plan fell apart as this Porters Mountain trail fizzled out. It didn’t end; it just disappeared. “Ending” and “disappearing” may seem like the same thing, but they’re not. Ending implies that you’ve reached a destination, a site at the end of the trail; such as, the Appalachian Trail ends at Mt. Katahdin in Maine or the Ramsey Cascade Trail ends at Ramsey Cascade. These trails end when they reach the place where they go. That’s not what this Porters Mountain trail does; it just disappears among the leaves, logs, and bushes long before it reaches Porters Mountain, like a “lost creek” that just vanishes into the ground. In other words, there’s not a Porters Mountain Trail. There’s just a brief footpath that points you uphill, then disappears beneath your feet and before your eyes, leaving you on your own.

It was like a father teaching his young son to ride a bike. He runs alongside his young, wobbling bike rider and gives him a push… and his son is on his own, trying his hardest but unsure how this adventure will turn out. That’s how this disappearing path felt. Oh, and let’s not forget that the bike ride often ends with some bumps and bruises, plus a few drops of blood and tears.

So for the next six hours Greg and I walked, crawled, slithered, pushed, and slipped through, under, over, and around rhododendron, mountain laurel, saw briers, sand myrtle, cliffs, boulders, and blowdowns. Hence, the bruises and scratches. It was slow and hard. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was great; although I must confess that several times I had to ask Greg, “Remind me again. Why are we doing this?” He didn’t have any convincing answers; just something about being stupid or being manly, which are often the same thing.

"Why are we doing this?"

An open, rocky heath bald, lined with Sand Myrtle.
(The reason why we do this.)

This kind of hiking can give you a screamin’ case of claustrophobia. It’s relentless, even disheartening. You force your way through 50 feet of mountain laurel, walk about 10 feet in relative peace and freedom, and run into another cliff or another wall of rhododendron or another laurel thicket or another blown-down tree or another patch of briers. The astonishing thing is that in the early days of the park, hikers did this sort of thing on a regular basis. I’m tempted to say that the peer pressure from this past generation of hikers kept us pushing and shoving our way through the tangle, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to call them my peers. They were tougher than I am. I’m not their peer; I’m just a wanna-be. [To be continued.]