Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Autumn/Winter 2003-2004

Gary Robe had an article in the very first Challenger, and has appeared here often. Now he takes us into the wilderness, where more than one trail is being blazed ...

Kevin and the Mountain

Gary R. Robe


Woods are not like other spaces. To begin with, they are cubic. Their trees loom over you, press in from all sides. Woods choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a child lost in a crowd of strange legs. Stand in a desert or prairie and you know you are in a big space. Stand in a woods and you only sense it. They are a vast, featureless nowhere. And they are alive.

-Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods


Ever since we moved to the Blue Ridge area I have wanted to camp and hike at Mt. Mitchell, NC and in early April of 2003 I got my wish. This is the highest peak in the Eastern US at 6,684 ft. I like high places and vistas and have wanted to explore the mountain more ever since we first visited it in 1991. I got my chance when my son Nick's scout troop planned an excursion there and needed adult leaders. Not that I would not have I invited myself along anyhow.


The southern Appalachians in general and the Black Mountains of western North Carolina in particular may not seem that impressive compared to the grandeur of the Rockies or the Andes, but believe me when you have to climb one of them a 3000 ft altitude change is the same on Grandfather Mountain as it is on El Capitan. Furthermore when you are on a backwoods trail in the Carolina Appalachians you are on your own. If you run into trouble you have three options. You can hunker down where you are and send a runner to the trailhead for help, you can hold up and hope that another hiker passes you by, or you can tough it out and finish on your own power. There is a reason that the Scout Motto is Be Prepared because on the trail you had better be.


In typical Scout-like efficiency the logistical plan for the outing was quite clever. About half of the group wanted to hike up the mountain from the base camp and spend the night on the trail. The more sane part of the party wanted to camp at the base, drive to the top the next morning and then hike down. That way those descending would be able to leave the vehicles at the summit, meet those ascending on the trail, hand over the car keys and let them dismantle the campsite at the base while the others hiked down.


We camped at the Black Mountain campsite on the banks of the South Toe River in the Pisgah National Forrest. This huge national reserve straddles the Blue Ridge Parkway in western North Carolina many miles away from much of anything. When we arrived at the camp the ranger warned us that the bears had just recently become active, were very hungry and extremely aggressive. He showed us where a bear had taken the plastic top off a supposedly bear-proof dumpster two days earlier. This meant that we had to take extreme bear avoidance precautions.


We were careful to leave all of our food locked in the vehicles and to not bring anything like shaving lotion or toothpaste that might smell interesting to a bear into the tents. When cooking and eating we were careful that no food scraps or packaging was left on the ground. We were also diligent that no grease or wash water was spilled from cooking or cleaning. We even saved and disposed of the wash water in the dumpster rather than establishing a grease pit. All these measures seemed to be effective because we had no ursine visitors in the night. In this case I will accept negative evidence as proof that we had taken enough anti-bear precautions.


We had a great night of telling tales around the campfire and teaching the greenhorns the intricacies of snipe hunting. The knowledge that there were actually hungry bears known to be lurking in the woods gave an extra frisson of excitement to the camp. There was one boy I'll call Kevin that drew my attention right away. When I was a scout 30 years ago there always seemed to be at least one boy in each troop who just doesn't get it. I am afraid that this hasn't changed. Kevin had just graduated from Cub Scouts and this was his first real outdoor experience. This was not enhanced by the fact that Kevin was badly overweight and remarkably clumsy. Within 30 minutes of arriving at the camp Kevin had managed to fall into the creek and loose his glasses in it before the rest of us had even gotten the tents up. Through the rest of the night Kevin managed to get ashes in the food while playing in the fire, fall in the creek a second time to soak his backup pair of shoes and knock at least one tent over while running through the campsite. Kevin did, however, make an excellent snipe hunter and was genuinely disappointed when we called off the hunt at lights out.


The next morning we dressed warmly and made the 3,800 ft drive up to the top of Mt. Mitchell and the trailhead at the summit. You always take a chance with Mt. Mitchell weather. At that altitude it has a climate approximately like that of Timmons, Ontario. It is actually one of the coldest and windiest places in the Eastern lower 48. We got lucky because the day was about as perfect as one could ask for. Early morning fog and drizzle had given way to a nearly clear sky and temperatures rising into the 60's by midday. Once on the trail the only way off the mountain was to complete six miles of horizontal distance and 3,800 ft vertical drop in altitude. Better down than up. We met up with the uphill group a little before noon. They had had a more adventurous night than us. They had no bear encounters either, but since they were camping at over 5,000 ft they had a bit different weather. They estimated that the wind gusted to 50 mph at times and they were in the clouds for most of the night. Their tents had not stood up to the wind so they had to improvise windbreaks with pine branches and sleep in the open.


It soon became evident that our party had some troubles. The Scoutmaster Charles Hasbrouk and I were the only adults in the group to keep eight scouts on the trail. I took up the rear to keep the stragglers from falling behind. Unsurprisingly, Kevin just couldn't keep up with the pace of the group. He also had poor depth perception without his glasses and the trail was very rugged. Within the first third of the hike he had fallen several times and had skinned all his knees and elbows. Kevin and I had quite a nice conversation as he gamely puffed along and gingerly climbed down each place the trail dropped off more than a couple of inches. Before long we were so far behind the rest of the group that I could not hear them ahead. I signaled for a halt and Charles and I decided that the only way to keep the party together was to put Kevin in the front. This almost caused a mutiny because it dropped our progress to a snail's pace and it soon became obvious that we were not going to finish the trail until early evening. It was, however the only thing to do for Kevin because it allowed him to hike with Charles and take advantage of his 30 years of hiking experience.


The slow going was exacerbated by the condition of the trail. The park had only opened for the season one week earlier and so none of the winter damage had been repaired. It was especially tough going in the rhododendron thickets, known to hikers as rhododendron hells. There had been an ice storm recently that had splintered the normally resilient trees and produced a nearly impenetrable tangle that made progress and keeping on the trail difficult. In the midst of a rhododendron stand visibility is about 10 feet and there are frequent animal runs that can easily be mistaken for the trail unless you are careful to watch for blazes. On top of that the last few years have seen an especially bad infestation of Southern Pine Borers. These nasty rice-grain sized bugs get just under the bark of pines and eventually kill the tree. Thus most of the woods in the area are filled with dead pines just waiting for a good wind to knock them over. It seemed like everywhere there was not a rhododendron tangle there was a deadfall blocking our path. Of course, Kevin was barely capable of climbing over the fallen trees and his size made it difficult to pass him under. If the conditions did not allow him to go around a fallen tree then we just had to lift him and pass him over.


I would like to say that the older boys acted like good Scouts and cheerfully teamed together to help the weak link of the group make the hike. Scouts or no, the rest of the troop was still a group of teenage boys and their tolerance level for a young, disabled, slowpoke was not high. They complained and they pouted and begged to be allowed to split the party and race for the bottom. I must say that on Kevin's part he never cried from his obvious pain and took the abuse his fellow scouts were heaping without any outward distress. Although he was near his physical limit, Kevin didn't cry for mommy or whine about when the trail was going to end. He just went slower and slower. Charles and I, however, had our hands full in helping Kevin and keeping the rest under control while negotiating a trail that was truly dangerous.


With most of the area trails the main problem is not that they are overgrown and disused it is that they are in danger of being loved to death. Nobody knows how many thousand people hike sections of the AT although it is well documented that several hundred manage to hike its 2000+ miles each year. There is hardly ever more than one foot of topsoil at any point along the AT and almost everywhere the trail leads the track is worn down to bare rock. The hiker must stay within a track that is seldom more than a foot wide and lined with anything from gravel to solid bedrock. It was no wonder that Kevin had such a hard time negotiating the trail because the path was so treacherous. I had taken a face-first pratfall in the first mile of the hike and had dislocated two of my fingers. I didn't bother complaining about it because I could still grip my walking stick and I was mobile. We were on the trail. So as long as my legs worked I saw no point of advertising my injury. What could have been done about it anyway?


Even with the slow pace I loved the hike. The weather was perfect, the trail was challenging, the scenery was interesting and the flora and fauna were fascinating. It was fun for me to observe how the composition of the forest changed as we descended. Near the top there were only hardy spruce pines. These gave way to juniper, Frazier Fir, maples and the dreaded rhododendrons at lower altitudes. Also at the summit the deciduous trees had not yet leafed out for the year so we got to see spring arrive in an afternoon as we climbed down. All of this grandeur was set to the music of a gaggle of increasingly discomfited teenage boys as the hike dragged on past five hours.


We did not end up having to carry Kevin off the mountain but it was a close thing. Charles finally had to implement the one measure short of improvising a stretcher that we could use. We scouted the woods for two stout limbs and then with Charles in the front and our of the older Scouts in the rear, held the poles parallel with Kevin in the middle and let him use them like handrails to support himself. This actually picked up the pace since it took some of the weight off Kevin's feet and removed some of his fear of falling. We limped into the base camp at about 6:00 when our projected ETA was more like 2:00. We would not have broken any speed records in making the descent even if we had taken the pace that the older boys preferred due to the horrible condition of the trail. Charles, who has almost 5,000 miles of lifetime hiking experience, declared that this was one of the most decrepit trails that he had ever hiked.



I can report that six months after this adventure that Kevin is still active in the scout troop and may have even knocked off some of his rougher edges. He just completed another 5-mile hike on the AT in October and by all accounts nobody was ready to strangle him at the end of it. As for myself I just bought a new pair of hiking shoes and plan to cover a 16-mile section of the AT with the troop in mid-October. The trees should be at near the peak of fall colors and the weather is predicted to be cool and dry. This should be a great hike. See, there's at least one in every troop that just doesn't get it!


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