Wednesday, October 26, 2011

KIndred Spirits (4 of 7 on the AT)

The Smokies are such a revered location among hikers that you see quite a few people on the 72 miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the main crest of the Smoky Mountains. You won’t normally feel crowded, but you definitely are not isolated. This catches novices by surprise because they expect a wild, empty wilderness, but what they get on most of the 2,170 miles of the AT is a variety – some wilderness, some small towns, a few farms, and even an interstate highway or two. You see plenty of people, both hikers and trail-side residents. I don’t know what the longest stretch of AT between paved roads is, but I suspect that the 41 miles from Fontana to Newfound Gap and the 31 miles from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap are both in the top ten.
Two Kindred Spirits

Most of the people you encounter on the AT are normal, well-adjusted folks, but there are a few screwballs and eccentrics.  

Many years ago I spent a week in the Smokies hiking the 72 miles of the AT. My hiking partner and I spent a couple of nights in shelters with a guy from England, who had quit his job and was taking a couple of years to wander around “the New World,” as he called it. He’d recently traversed South America and the Pacific Crest Trail in California and was now hiking the AT, although probably not the entire AT because this was late August and he was still in the Smokies, heading north. If his goal was Mt. Katahdin at the north end of the trail, he was about 4 months behind schedule and would arrive in Maine in December. Yeah, I’m guessing he got about as far as New Jersey and then went to visit the Statue of Liberty before heading back to London. We envied him.

Then there were the two carpenters from Florida. They’d work about 4 months a year, November through February, building houses. The other 8 months were spent camping and backpacking, sometimes in the eastern US, sometimes out west. Eight months of free housing in shelters and campsites, seeing the prettiest parts of the US. No health insurance, no families, no retirement plan, no permanent address. They were being very irresponsible, and we envied them for it, wishing that we had the guts to be so free.

When you are out on the AT, you’ll frequently run into young couples, maybe married, maybe not. Although you might think there would be some interesting stories that would emerge from this, there usually aren’t. Generally, these young couples keep to themselves and don’t have much to say to the rest of us. Although, occasionally you’d hear some giggles from their corner of the shelter late at night. Young couples always sleep in the corner, away from the riff-raff.
An old man and his wife

The most entertaining are the groups of college-age guys who know each other well and are hiking together. They laugh and joke until late into the night. Occasionally their light-heartedness is enhanced by mind-altering substances, which often jump starts a song or two. Every now and then one of them will pull out an obscure musical instrument, a harmonica being the most common, although occasionally it would be a ukulele or wooden flute. If you’ve never heard Stairway To Heaven accompanied by a ukulele, then … well, actually you haven’t missed much. When it’s happening you feel like you’ve stumbled into Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but usually with stout southern accents.

It’s not exactly a wilderness experience, but even an anti-social type like me can’t help but love the sense of camaraderie that develops among those kindred spirits you meet on the AT. In those moments, there’s a sense of fellowship that most churches would envy.

On the other hand, there’s also the occasional oddball who appears to have graduated from the Ted Kaczynski School of Charm… [To be continued.]

Monday, October 10, 2011

Don't Feed the Bears (Third of 7 on the AT)

In recent years the National Park Service has changed their policy toward the rock and log shelters on the Appalachian Trail in the Smoky Mountains. There are now steel poles and cables outside of every shelter. You hang your food bags on these cables so the bears, raccoons, skunks, and mice can’t get them. These cables don’t seem mouse-proof to me, but apparently the mice haven’t figured out what’s going on because they don’t seem to get into the food bags hung high on these outside cables. Maybe they are afraid of heights. Climbing these poles and cables would be like climbing a tree. These are, after all, field mice, not tree mice, right? I have no idea why squirrels haven’t cracked the code. For whatever reasons, the cables do their job most of the time.

The main problem now is rain on your food, so you must use a waterproof bag for your food – or just cover your bag with your rain jacket. Even so, I always hope it rains at night because one of the greatest sounds in the world is rain on a tin roof, which all these rock shelters have. A rainy night in a tin-roofed shelter on the crest of the Smokies is a simple, delightful experience. Just one more compelling bit of evidence that Thoreau was right when he wrote, “That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.”

The NPS’s rationale for removing the fences across the front of the shelters was to enhance the wilderness experience, and in my opinion, it has. But even more importantly, it is a refreshing step back into the past. If you think about the overall trend of our society toward litigation, disclaimers, and bureaucratic rule-proliferation, this move by the NPS is an astounding, unprecedented step backwards, in the right direction. It’s the only example I can recall of a major government or corporate institution bucking the trend of more stupid rules to protect us from ourselves. You’ve heard all the stories – lawsuits over hot coffee and slippery floors. Don’t swim here. Don’t run there. No trespassing. Let me add one more example. While eating out of a can of almonds recently, I looked on the back of the can, and I noticed an allergy warning. It said, and I quote, “Warning: Contains almonds.” Yeah, thanks for exposing that hidden threat. I guess the corporations and lawyers think we’re a nation of idiots – or greedy pigs who will sue an almond company for putting almonds in a can of almonds without a warning. A few of us probably are, so the rest of us have to put up with being treated like morons. Welcome to modern life.

Take a moment and try to think of any change in the last 30 years that knowingly increases risk. Imagine… opening up a shelter, risking the possibility that a bear might enter! Whoever had this idea should be identified, named publicly, and have her face carved onto Mount Rushmore. She would get my vote for president. I hope she’s still working for the National Park Service, but I’m afraid she probably has trouble keeping a job because she just doesn’t fit in with the prevailing government or corporate culture. Maybe the NPS is the last bastion of sanity in Washington, but that’s not something we can expect to last forever.

So if you are worried about bears, take a couple of rocks or a stout walking stick to bed with you because now there’s no fence to protect you. You can throw the rocks at any bears that show up, or just bop him on the nose with your stick. He’ll get the point. And don’t put any food in your sleeping bag. I’d hate to get to one of these shelters and see signs all over it, stating and restating the obvious: “Warning: Bears are attracted to food.” Of course, anyone who hasn’t figured that out by now will probably be removed from the gene pool by a hungry bear anyway, so the problem will correct itself through natural selection.