Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime – Mark Twain
Kimsey Creek Trail started innocently enough; a wide path along a pretty stream. But it soon became narrow, and for the first time I had to remove my pack and carry it. The trail then emptied into a grassy service road. I followed this until it merged with a paved road. After 20 minutes without any blue blazes, I realized I’d made a mistake, and backtracked. This involved maybe a mile of needless walking.
I returned to the grassy road and only then saw a blue blaze on a boulder, where an overgrown path was barely visible. “Come on, folks, how ‘bout a little trail maintenance?!” I yelled to no one.
Just a little further, I descended into the largest grove of rhododendron I’d yet seen. It was in a little glade right next to burbling Kimsey Creek, which was more like a large stream. A great maple tree had fallen here, and there was a soft, loam clearing in front of the trunk, just big enough for a pup-tent. Perfect riparian camping spot. Though I’d intended to overnight at the public campground a few miles ahead, I couldn’t ignore this woodland haven. So I became Bilbo Baggins, and pitched my tent in this secluded Shire.
I still wanted to call my wife as soon as possible, though, so I decided to walk – without backpack – the couple miles into the campground, and return later. Heck, no one was coming by here anyway.
So I walked. And walked. And walked.
I’d violated my own maxim: ten miles on the bike trail back home is equivalent to one mile on the AT.
On the brink of a nervous breakdown, I gave up and – once again – retraced my steps. Another half-mile of needless walking.
The good news was that this was my last night of sleeping on dirt and eating cardboard. Formal Night! I’d saved my best meal for tonight: Mountain House freeze-dried chili mac. Oh yeah!
So I took a cold bath in the stream, then brushed my hair to make myself presentable. Dipped my saucepan in the stream, then boiled some water, which I mixed into the chili mac packet, using my bandana as a potholder. Then gobbled greedily while seated on a small birch log. Hoisted my bear bag, smoked my last cheap cigar in the Gentlemen’s Club by the maple tree, made my diary entry, then crawled in my tent to read some Jack London by headlamp. After about an hour I clicked off the light and listened to the calls of the wild. Then drifted to sleep.
This was perhaps the best campsite I’ve ever had. But the air here was so succulent with mountain dew, when the drops smacked the hard rhododendron leaves they sounded like tiny rubber bands snapping. They were a most unusual alarm clock, and I was awakened long before morning light.
Since I was already familiar with part of the day’s hike, it went quickly: rhodo grove, then cascades, then yellowjacket bridge, then sign bridge, then railroad ties, then meadow, then… unknown.
The “unknown” turned out to be another endless slog. At the end of a grassy road I saw an outdoor amphitheater. But the trail curved left into the mountains. Being a good boy, I followed the blazes and hauled my tired body yet another half-mile until – finally – I came to a road. On the left the road disappeared over a river. On the right it led to the campground. I turned right to look for the campground office and pay phone.
It was surreal walking into this large open area filled with RVs. Modern living once again. A few early-birds were outside and tending small morning fires. I imagined the others peering open-mouthed through their trailer windows, wondering about a bedraggled, wild-eyed mountain hermit who was probably looking for a free breakfast. On the left I saw an elderly man in a white t-shirt, sitting in a lawnchair in front of a fire. I approached him hesitantly, so as not to startle him.
“Excuse me, sir, but do you know where the campground office is?”
“It’s back that-away, other side the river.”
(Why didn’t this bit of information surprise me?)
“Oh, ok, thank you,” I said.
“You been hikin’?”
“Yessir, for about eight days.”
“Seen any bears?”
This is without a doubt one of the most common questions AT hikers get from non-hikers.
“No, but I saw some bear footprints, and bear scat.”
“Oh. No bears though?”
Then the door of the camper opened and a pleasant-looking, silver-haired lady emerged, holding a cup of coffee.
“Would y’all like a cup of coffee?” she asked.
“Oh, no, thanks ma’am, I just needed directions.”
Then the man interrupted. “He’s been hikin’. Ain’t seen no bears though.”
“You sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?” the woman asked.
“Well… sure, maybe I will after all!” I answered. She handed me the Styrofoam cup and I took a long sip. Just like Dustin’s wine, the best coffee I ever tasted.
“That tastes so good, ma’am, thanks very much. I’ll bet I look a sight, though.”
“You look like you needed a cup of coffee.”
I backtracked again and continued on over the river. Before long I saw a quaint little store with a cute perennial garden in front. A sign on the door indicated it opened at 9 am. I had about 20 minutes, so I slipped off my pack and plopped into a big wooden rocking chair.
Soon, a man came along to unlock the door (I’d seen him walking a little dog earlier). Part of his face drooped, as if he’d had a stroke. But he had a nice smile. When I asked about the pay phone mentioned in my AT guide, he told me they’d removed it due to vandalism, but that I could use his cordless phone. He asked how I’d arrived at the campground, and I told him about the trail.
“You know,” he slowly drawled, “if you’d have taken that service road by the amphitheater, you’d have cut off about a half-mile.”
I just took a deep breath and counted to five.
Well, I finally reached my wife, who was able to change the motel reservation. I know she’d been worried, since she hadn’t heard from me in five days. It was the longest we’d ever gone without talking to each other.
After hanging up, I had to practically force some money on the proprietor for the long distance call. I left him and his buddy chewing the fat in their rocking chairs and headed up the campground road, where I picked up the AT again at Wallace Gap. Despite our occasional disagreements, the AT and I by this point were like old friends, and if felt good and right to get off pavement and tromp on trail dirt again.
From Wallace Gap it was just a couple easy miles to Winding Stair Gap and U.S. 64 to Franklin. I left Biff 2 leaning against a rock wall; he’d make a superb companion for some future hiker. I then hitched a ride with a friendly guy wearing an Ole Miss ball cap, who took me straight to the Hampton Inn.
Franklin is a town that’s used to seeing AT hikers, so the motel employees weren’t too freaked out when they saw me. In fact, the desk clerk was extremely nice. She went out of her way to be hospitable to a Neanderthal like me. It took me a few hours to wash up, pamper my feet, get some real food – well, Taco Bell anyway – and dry my wallet contents, which were still damp from the first day’s rain shower.
The reunion with my wife and daughter later was pretty special. Hugs and kisses everywhere. It was so good to see them after eight days in the woods. We later treated ourselves to an all-you-can eat dinner at a nice restaurant. The only thing missing for me was some cherry-blackberry wine.
No, I didn’t see any bears. Didn’t even see a thru-hiker. But I hiked over 90 miles, traversed over 20 mountains, and averaged 12.5 miles per day while carrying my home on my back. I saw beautiful mountains from the inside, bathed in mountain streams, and visited scenic waterfalls, a river source, and trees so ancient they sent chills up my spine. I saw bear tracks, a red salamander, an Eastern fence lizard, a dead timber rattler, a flock of wild pheasants, heard three barred owls, a whippoorwill, a lonely raccoon, saw exotic plants, colorful mushrooms, and met some interesting people. Oh yes, and saw a little white dog.
Though, like author Bill Bryson, I’m no mountain man… I’m glad I did it.