Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three Generations of Hikers (Part 1 of 2)

Not long ago I visited an unnamed ridge and peaks with Keith Oakes, his son Matt, and Greg Harrell. Our route took us a little over a mile up Alum Cave Trail to Arch Rock, a neat spot where the trail passes through a modest “tunnel” in the rock. At this point, we hopped off the trail and wove our way up the ridge that actually ends at Arch Rock. Within a few minutes we were doing our usual off-trail ridge routine: pushing through and under the shrubs and vines. The shrubs are mostly Rosebay Rhododendron, the large-leaved, white-flowered species that is common in all the creek valleys and low slopes in the Southern Appalachians. The vines are mostly Greenbrier (Smilax), thin green vines that look delicate but are about as strong as steel cable, with the added feature of thorns. It’s a brutal combination that you can’t just fight your way through. You have to dodge and weave, tip-toeing and high-stepping to avoid any unpleasant encounters.

About an hour above Arch Rock the terrain opened up and we emerged from the thick forest, shrubs, and vines into the open daylight of small heath-and-rock patches where the Rhododendron changed from Rosebay to Catawba and Carolina and the ground changed from dirt to exposed rock and Sand Myrtle. We walked along the heathy ridgecrest to the first of two open, round, rocky peaks called Parton Peaks, in honor of Dolly Parton. Those aren’t the official names, but that’s what some people call them. Ironically, they aren’t the biggest peaks in the park, but they are… what’s a good word here…? Prominent.

Nothing overly dramatic happened on this trip, just a nice, autumn day with great views and some scrambling up some steep spots. All in all, it was a typical day on an exposed, trail-less ridge. Officially trail-less, I mean. On these ridges there’s usually a bear trail for us to follow. We’ve never actually encountered a bear on these paths, but we have seen plenty of evidence – large, brown piles, usually cluttered with whatever berry or nut is in season.

Several hours later we reached the Boulevard near the east end of Mount LeConte. As we ambled up the trail to LeConte, we came across an Alabama Crimson Tide hat by the side of the trail. I started to pick it up because a bald guy can always use another hat, but one of us who is a rabid UT fan – I won’t name any names – decided that the hat should be properly desecrated. So he desecrated it in a thoroughly disgusting fashion. (Note: The next Saturday, Alabama beat UT 12 to 10, thanks to two blocked field goals. Payback, I think.)

From the point of defilement we walked to a spot somewhere below Myrtle Point, LeConte’s dramatic, eastern overlook where hundreds of hikers watch the sun rise each year. We hopped off the trail one more time and pushed our way through bushes and up a few more rocks and emerged from the tangle to the exposed rock of Myrtle Point. And our timing was perfect – there were six folks sitting there when we arrived. (It’s good for our egos whenever we emerge from the bushes to the stares of skeptical onlookers. Their first question is always: “Where did you come from?” That’s the only invitation we need to begin the tale of our most recent exploits. I’m sure we tell them more than they want to know, but hey, it’s their own fault for asking.)

Greg was the first of our party to arrive at Myrtle, and he was already describing our route when Keith and his son, Matt, arrived to join the conversation. Several minutes later, I emerged panting and sweating from the bushes. I guess none of the tourists were expecting a fourth guy to show up because when I made my entrance, everyone turned and looked. After a brief pause, the young lady of the tourist group smiled and said, “So, are you three generations of hikers?”

It took exactly two seconds for the meaning of that statement to sink in. [To be continued]