Climbing a mountain
|On Mondays, I practice with my 3.0 tennis team in the morning and hit with a beginner tennis player after work. Both sessions lasting approximately one hour. This Monday, I bagged the 3.0's, opting instead for the coolness of my air-conditioned office, the comfort of my office chair to sit and sift through 100 emails, punishment for a three-day weekend. My body needed a break – eight miles of hiking yesterday in the mountains of Tennessee has a way of rendering your thighs, your calves, your feet and other body parts almost useless.
Sunday morning's agenda placed Laurel Falls first on the hike list. Coffee, breakfast, hiking. Somehow, antiquing barged its way to the front of the line making it noon before we parked the car, got out and loaded up our small hiking supplies. Two pints of water each, one granola bar each. The digital camera – for bear sightings.
I've hiked the 1.3 miles to the falls several times before and never tire of the beauty. A paved trail offering magnificent views of maple, mountain laurel (my favorite), and dogwood. It's easy to see why Laurel Falls is one of the most popular trails of the Smokies. But this time, after reaching the 75 foot multi-leveled waterfall, we planed on crossing over the falls and up into the woods. The old growth forest peaked our interest; we had to see it. Stepping off the paved part onto the steep dirt trail brought a fresh rush of adrenalin.
A switchback or two with almost vertical inclines and I could have sworn we made it past the .75 miles needed to hike before reaching the forest part. No such luck. At least I had a canopy of mountain laurel over my head providing cool shade, breath-taking beauty, and a magical Lord of the Rings kinda feel. I trekked on.
Ascending into the virgin forest my tired muscles forgotten. Yes, I took a deep breath, surrounded by huge hemlocks, poplars, and oaks reaching up into the sky, I wondered who passed by this path 50 years ago, 100 years ago...when the hemlock trees were younger. Were they impressed with nature as me?
After hiking upward – didn't this trail ever slope down? 3.1 miles later, we reached the end of our trail. A junction. Signs pointed in different directions offering trials, you know, for adventurous hikers. One such sign - Cove Mountain - .9 miles, stood, taunting us. Well, not me, but it taunted Bryan. "It's only point nine-tenths of a mile," he reasoned. I should have drawn my walking stick in protest. Should have said 'this far and no further'. Should have turned around, headed downward, back through the forest, the laurel canopy, the falls themselves and then to the car, where a cooler full of sliced cantaloupe, red seedless grapes, and fresh cherries waited - taunting me. But no, I somehow got sucked into his twisted logic. What's 1.8 miles more when your roundtrip is already six-something?
Ha! Somewhere deep in the woods, the hiking gods laughed. "Look," they sneered. "Day hikers! Trying to step up their game, we'll show them!"
Holy smokes what a climb. A mere .9 of a mile, but it was the steepest inclined I've hiked in the Smoky Mountains thus far. More than my leg muscles screamed, my arms, and lungs joined the campaign. 'We wanna go home,' I kept suggesting it, too, out loud. To Bryan, "If you want to head back, that's fine with me," I let him know, not wanting to be the first to whimp out. He declined every offer. Who was I to argue?
Finally, we reached the summit! What? A worn out fire tower long closed to the public and no lookout view in sight. All overgrown with underbrush? You gotta be kidding me! After I climb 1,800 feet in four miles up to the top of a mountain, I want a stinking view, okay? And not just any view. I want a breath-taking, magnificent, holy crap this is a mother of a beautiful view! Up here, at 4,077 feet. Yeah, that kind of view.
My calf muscles didn't care, neither did my growling stomach, nor my parched throat; plopping down onto the dirt my fingers dove into my pack for a dry – tastes like sawdust - granola bar. I devoured every morsel like Heresy's Extra Dark Chocolate. I sucked on my second pint of water. Jeepers, I'm on my second pint? Four miles for the return trip. Oh great, I needed to watch my water consumption. Can someone call a cab?
"It will be easy," Bryan said, trying to coax me off my butt onto my feet. "It's all downhill from here."
My brain said 'get up' but my body stayed put, not moving an inch. I could hear him, "We'll be down before you know it." I didn't believe him. Four miles from the car! What the heck were we thinking?
"Whose bright idea was it to keep going?" I asked him, still firmly planted on the ground.
Taking a deep breath, I struggled to stand, catch my balance on legs that felt like jelly. "Where's the cab?" I joked before heading back in the direction I came. The decent proved quicker. But the easier part? Wrong. Moving downward at a fast pace creates a different set of problems. Balance for one, especially when the trail is filled with rocks, and huge roots. Thank goodness I had a walking stick to lean on.
I joked with Bryan, "Yeah, the next time you even think about adding even one tenth of a mile more to our original hike," I paused. We both laughed. I mentioned something about my walking stick and where I'd put it if he talked about extending the hike. He laughed even harder. We never should have added on to the trip. Novice day hikers like us should stick to five miles max!
I said a thank-you prayer when we got back to the falls. Paved trails, ah, easy sailing from here. Right?
Midway down Bryan, a few steps ahead of me froze. "A bear!" he whispered sticking his arm out to block my movement. I looked up and fifty feet in front of me, a huge black bear lumbered in our direction.
Yikes! Only this isn't what I said.
Bryan grabbed my arm, trying to drag me in the opposite direction. I wouldn't move fast enough for him. You aren't supposed to turn your back on a bear. You aren't supposed to run away from a bear. Make noise. Scare it away. I know. I read two pamphlets and one book on bears. Fear gripped my chest. Logic took over and I joined Bryan in turning to, not run but walk really fast away from the bear's direction.
We stopped the first people we saw to warn them. A teenage girl with her parents. The teenager reached into her purse and pulled out her digital camera. She took a few quiet steps forward while her mother whispered strong words of disapproval. By now, more hikers stopped. In the safety of numbers we tiptoed forward in time to see two small, cubs, about forty pounds each, run across the path up the mountain in the direction of the mother.
Bryan and I took this opportunity to dart past the group. I never wanted the front seat passenger's side of my burgundy Avalon so bad!
I knew one day I'd run across bears hiking in the Smokies, but I never dreamed it would be on a well-traveled path – one that attracts 200,000 visitors each year.
All in all it was an awesome hike. I've never seen old growth forest before. The next time Bryan says, 'It's only point nine tenths of a mile," I'll remind him about my walking stick and ask him, "Are you sure?"