A long short story by Craig Roberts
It was that special time of year between Christmas and New Years. The time we renew our faith, connect with family and friends and look forward to new beginnings.
I had the entire week-off from the GM factory in northern Ohio where I worked. And like in high-school just 2-years before, I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted during this time and decided to go camping in the Smoky Mountains National Park. It turned-out to be a good time to visit the Park. No tourists. Mostly college students who had the same idea as I did being-off for Christmas break.
So, we had the Park to ourselves and all the adventure, freedom and back-to-nature we could sardine into a week in the woods! To be able to touch paradise and be one with nature, like God’s original plan for man, is how I viewed it. I love the mountains and this would be my very first trip to the Smokies.
I remember first entering Pigeon Forge, TN and how abandoned it appeared in the winter of 1971. Basically nothing was open as I arrived on that quiet cloud-covered winter day. The Indian trading posts were closed for the season. There was one small gas station with winter hours. “Miles from nowhere, not a soul in sight,” as Cat Stevens’ song played in my head.
I pulled into Gatlinburg. At last some civilization. When I camp-out I like civilization not to be too close but not too far away either. Hot showers and coffee come to mind. Call me a civilizationalist but I am spoiled. And The Gatlin Bros…they must be from here!
I set-up my tent the first day at one of the campgrounds and met a few guys doing the same thing. We connected the way you do when you meet complete strangers in the mountains. You bond instantly because you have so much in common with your surroundings.
We collectively decided to hike-up Mt. LeConte the next day. Sounded like a plan as we would learn to say 20-years hence. We staged the cars to be able to take different trails up and back. 8-miles up the main trail and 5-miles down the back- side.
It was early afternoon when the 5 of us finally got going. Weather-wise it started-out as a nice day. Little overcast. Cool. Not cold. We would hike-up to the top of Mt LeConte, check the view and head-back down. When you are young and live in the now that was pretty-well planned out.
Cast of Characters
First, there was Leader. He was tall and fit and studied geology as I remember. After this experience I always recommended hiking with your own geologist. Then there was college guy. He was getting ready to graduate and already plotting on how to get-out of paying for his school loans.
There was Fat guy and now-a-days that may not be politically correct but that is what large men were called back in the day. There was one other fellow and all I remember about him is he was short. Then there was me…5-10, 135 lbs with great boots, a 4” bladed hunting knife and my canteen. Remember them?
We hit the Appalachian Trail first which was the longer way-up to Mt. LeConte. I remember thinking how this highway thru the woods extends nearly the entire length of the U.S. from Georgia to Maine. I always wanted to hike the entire trail and enjoyed reading about those who did. By the end of this day I would feel like I had also hiked those 2000 miles! While the trail was not considered hard, like any activity, it depends on your state of health. At work, I was on the factory floor for 8 to 10 hours a day. So I was pretty fit for my 20-years, or so I thought.
Fat guy had the most trouble and along with short guy actually bailed on us within an hour saying they just didn’t have the stamina to go on. How prophetic that would become.
That left 3 of us…Leader, college kid and GM man. For us, the Smokies didn’t disappoint. As the day wore-on their beauty and wonder was being engraved on my heart and my psyche. How fresh and clean everything was in the now cooler air of late afternoon deep in the forest.
I was new to hiking and I realize there are fitness freaks reading this who are laughing at something as mundane as a 13-mile hike. I see them jogging past me when I go hiking and see them again on their way back down as I am still climbing-up. I guess I’m one of those, ‘Stop and smell the flowers’, kind of hikers. I like to pace myself, find a good view off the beaten pathway, far from the maddening crowd, and sit a spell, have some warm tea with trail mix and look-out at all the wonderment around me. Perhaps even gather enough inspiration to write a poem. I get fit at the same time but it’s at my level of fitness both mind and body. That’s how I like to hike.
As we continued our climb we reached a clearing and gazed-out to discover why they call them the Great Smokies. They were on fire with rich deep clouds of misty haze rising from the wooded canopy. If you haven’t experienced it you must bucket-list this one! It’s definitely worth your while.
December is the time of the winter equinox when days are their shortest of the year. It was now approaching dusk and we were still unsure how far it was to the top. We were determined to make it to the summit. There was no turning back. But we would have to stay overnight. Could we find an empty cabin? Would anyone else be up there? Remember, we didn’t bring any sleeping bags.
I only had a few dollars on me. You aren’t supposed to think of money in the forest. That’s for civilization. That’s why you go hiking in the forest to leave those cares behind. But all those worldly concerns still follow you into the woods. You don’t leave this world. It’s just another part of the world.
By now, clouds had either moved-in or we had climbed high enough to reach them. Either way it began to snow ever so lightly. Little dancing flakes that soon forgot to melt as we climbed our way toward this now mystical destination at the top of the world.
I didn’t have any food with me and I had already emptied my canteen. This is where the camaraderie kicked-in between the 3 of us and we became a team determined to survive our ordeal.
Leader, as it turned-out, had a little food on him consisting of some cookies and a few hard-boiled eggs. I had never eaten a hard-boiled egg before. Don’t get me wrong. I love eggs and their parents, chicken. But having them any other way than scrambled was unknown to me. I had food issues. There I said it.
We stopped in a clearing along the trail and I was kneeling by a tree. My legs were giving-out and the unknown still lay ahead of us.
Leader came over and handed me one of his HB eggs. There was no discussion. There was no bargaining. We were in this together as a team. I peeled the shell and bit into what would be the most delicious delicacy I ever ate. I was so hungry and exhausted and here was this soft little white life-line given freely to help me survive. I learned later they taste even better with salt. But salt would have been a luxury on this trip. Leader’s kindness showed us there was hope. He shared some of his water and we continued on.
It was growing darker by the minute and the trees made it even darker than in the clearings. It started to snow a little more but we couldn’t really see it because of the tree cover. And now it was getting cold. After all, it was late December.
Finally, the trail leveled-off and a huge clearing appeared in front of us! We made it! We had reached the top of Mt LeConte! I saw the cabins! Could we rent one for the night? We hadn’t seen any other hikers on the trail that day but we hoped for the best!
We barged into the cabin to a site I will never forget. There we were…wet, cold, tired and starving travelers on our Smoky Mountain trek to the summit and what was inside the cabin? Three or four bearded long-hairs who apparently lived on the mountain top all winter long! And they were being paid to do it!
It was their job to sit around and keep an eye on things in-case some stupid flat-landers decided to hike the mountain in the middle of winter without any provisions and now plan to stay the night. I glanced at the wood stove which took-up most of the kitchen which took-up most of the entrance. One of the mountain men was stuffing-it with fire wood. They were frying trout on top. I’m thinking… “We are going to have a feast of fish and hot coffee!” Civilization is mankind’s salvation!
Leader had some dough (money) on him that we agreed to pay back when we returned to our cars. So it’s all good, right? Wrong!
The mountain men began to laugh when they heard our story. “You should have turned-back with the others when you had the chance,” they all agreed sarcastically.
“Yeah, you can have a cabin. It will be $20 for the night and all the wood you can burn. Food? You need food? You didn’t bring any food? Hey, guys, do we have any food?”
While 4 or 5 trout were frying in a pan and hot mountain coffee was percolating on the stove these guys are quizzing each other if they had any food. What they meant was… did they have any food for fools?
As my senses were taking-in the smells of the fish, the warmth of the wood stove and the closeness of the cabin one of them yelled out, “Yeah, I think we have some Spam somewhere.”
Spam? What is Spam? He drew a can down from the shelf that was packed with every kind of canned food imaginable. But he picked the Spam. It sounded like ham. I looked at my hiking buddies and they were frowning. They must know what it is. But they wouldn’t say anything for fear the cabin people would turn us away without anything.
Leader spoke-up, “Sure. Spam will do, how much?” They all laughed.
“We can’t charge you for that (expletive). Here ya go…first cabin on the right.”
That was it! We were back in the cold with a can of Spam (I still didn’t know what it was) and some bread. But the good news was we scored a cabin and a place to stay the night.
The cabin was small and cozy with a few cots. We gathered the fire wood. At least it was chopped. We got a great fire going and now had fresh water. We finally opened the Spam. I can’t forget my first (and last) taste of Spam which was pretty darn great tasting to a weary traveler. I was really opening-up my taste horizons on this trip!
The day began with a long hike and was now turning into an adventure we would never forget. We had become great pals and the laughter and good conversation of that night stayed with me for years…46-years to be exact. We were warm, safe and now not quite so hungry! We still couldn’t get over the fish heads in the main cabin stuffing their selves with all that hot food. But at least we knew we would survive to live another day.
In the morning, we ventured-out into the cold and headed-back down the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail. This was the 5-mile hike which is mostly down-hill. In a few hours we were back at our cars. Glad it was over but glad we did it. College kid and I headed into town and settled-in at some café and had the best breakfast of our lives while I discouraged him from scamming the government. I even ordered my eggs sunny side-up! I don’t recall having any eating issues after that experience. I also had a Thermos and got some hot coffee to go! It was the civil thing to do.
What an adventure! On New Year’s Eve we went to Clingman’s Dome and got crazy there celebrating how we were the highest people east of the Mississippi! I’ll bet no one had ever thought of that before but it sure sounded original to us at the time!
Like most young people back in the ‘70’s I played a little guitar and composed a song about my first trip to the Smokies. I named it, "SMOKY MOUNTAIN WAY."