Operation: The Wild
May 30, 2012
I’m not exactly sure what time it is, but I think I’ve been in the Smoky Mountains for 24 hours now. I feel fresh and clear. I haven’t seen a single human since I parked my car. I’ve only seen remnants of humans—some fresh, others ancient. For all I know, it’s just me out here. I haven’t really decided whether I like this feeling or not. It seems absolutely ridiculous that in a little more than a week, I’ll be doing this for 230 miles. I think that that the Superior Hiking Trail will be a bit different. I’ll be moving from A to B with designated campsites and most likely more people. What I’m doing right now is really just aimless wandering. SUPER aimless. Especially yesterday.
I’m sure people have a lot of great “On My First Time Backpacking…” stories, but I’m pretty sure mine is an award winner. Never mind the fact that this is my first time backpackingever,but driving into the park, I had absolutely no idea what trail I’d be taking and where I would be sleeping that night. I knew I wanted to get to Cades Cove because they have a lot of backcountry campsites that don’t need a reservation. When I went to the ranger’s station, I had to feint my plans in order to get a camping permit. Alone. Real sketchy.
I was at least accurate with where I’d be spending my first night, but that’s about it. Finding the trail head to the Rabbit Creek Trail (where campsite #15 was located) was an adventure in itself. I decided that the easiest way to park my car would be at a lot off of the auto loop. Still not sure if that lot allows overnight parking. whoops. By the time I got to the lot, it was 3pm. I wasn’t sure how far of a hike it was to #15, but it didn’t look close on the map and the sun would start to set at around 8pm.
I set off immediately, a springing and excited energy in my step. Within five seconds of walking on the trail, I felt so elated and free. To my right flowed a quiet creek, simple and full of life. As I walked, I felt like the trail occasionally sputtered out and died, leaving me a little confused before I spotted a slight clearing in the distance and found it again. But it wasn’t a trail—at least not as I’ve experienced them—with footprints and impacted dirt. The disappearance of the trail happened another four or five times before I suspected something was wrong. On the map the Rabbit Creek Trail didn’t indicate that it lined a creek, which was certainly what I was doing. A sinking sensation overcame me, and I knew I had to turn back. I had been walking for at least an hour. This definitely put a dent in my ability to make it to the campsite before dark. Not to mention I didn’t even know where the trail was.
When I arrived back in the parking lot, I was so close to hopping back into my car and driving to the nearest Best Western. Just for the night. It was starting to thunderstorm (rain and all), and I could get a fresh attempt at the trail tomorrow. I should have done that, but I didn’t. Instead, I walked back to the trail head, reassessed the map, and realized my mistake.
In the distance, past the twenty foot wide creek, was a sign that said: Rabbit Creek Trail. 5.2 miles. I had to cross the creek. For some reason, even though it was pushing 5pm, I didn’t give that water crossing a second thought. I gingerly removed my boots and socks, strapped them to my pack, and starting wading. The journey was a difficult one. The current wasn’t strong, but the idea of falling with so much weight on my back scared me. Despite how unbalanced the pack made me, I got to the other side—most likely on sheer determination alone. Immediately after crossing, a doe, one of the largest I’ve seen, hopped into the creek for some water. I took this as some assuring sign—I was going to be okay.
As the hours passed on the Rabbit Creek Trail, I wasn’t quite sure how okay I would be. 5.2 miles in 3 hours—possible, yes, but the ascents were steep and I was moving slowly. I wasn’t worried about making it to the campsite in time, however, I was worried about water. Looking over the map, the nearest source of water was at the campsite. Did I have enough water in case I needed to spend a night on the trail? 2 liters. I guess so, but I would need to ration. I dunked 2 electrolyte tablets into my nalgene to be safe.
Continuing on the trail, the rain started to mix with my sweat. My thoughts flitted crazily on all sorts of things. What if there was no where dry to pitch my tent? For water, I could just put out my pan to collect rain water. That works, right? Was my car okay? What am I going to write in my journal tonight? How am I going to do this for 230 miles? How did John Muir do this without a map or trail? I’m thirsty. I wonder if my friends think I’m dead. I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty.
My thoughts on water turned primal. As dusk settled in, my legs went unsteady. Even on flat land. It stopped raining, but an ominous fog settled in instead. I felt particularly creeped out and alone. I hadn’t seenanyoneon the trail. Several times I stopped, thinking I could hear running water, but it was nothing. Eventually the thoughts of hydration left my head completely and where replaced with Usher’sConfessionssongs on repeat. I have no idea why.
Perhaps only when I stopped thinking about water did the found of a running creek become apparent to me. It rushed into my ears, welcoming and intense and just in time. The sun was beginning to dip lower than the trees. Not dark enough to need a flashlight yet, but soon. I remember running that last section of the trail—probably about half a mile. And it was a good thing I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it to the site before dark. Finally I arrived at #15—a place REI should consider for a magazine cover photo. Right along it sat the creek. I stole a second to appreciate the view and then started to quickly set up camp. I did so with ease, having my tent and fly up in five minutes. I was worried it might rain again, so I threw everything inside and worked from there. No longer concerned about water, I drank half my bottle and then ate a cliff bar—not hungry for much more.
I then put all the smelly things in my stuff sack and went outside to hang it up. The next morning, the creek side campsite was a place of ease and pace, but that night I thought it menacing. The dark stole my thoughts, convincing me that 1.0x10e8 bears and 2-3 axe murderers were watching me. So when I went to throw my bag up into a tree and sack full of all my food broke off from the hook and into the dark bushes and/or creek, I thought I was going to die. After a couple of minutes of searching, I did find it again (thankfully not in the creek) and hung it properly, my heart racing. That night, I didn’t get much sleep. Most likely because of all the bears and axe murderers.
Today has been a slow one. Besides having to cross two more creeks (without falling, thankyouverymuch), the hiking has been beautiful and sunny. I hiked Hannah Mountain and did some buzzing on the summit while I waited for my socks to dry out. Now, I’m at the campsite that requires a reservation, but it’s too peaceful to leave and I haven’t seen anyone at it all day. Tomorrow I’ll be doing about 7 miles on the Abrams Falls Trail back to my car. The more I’m here, the more planning I realize I need to do for the big trip. I’m cutting the Smokeys by a couple of days, but I’ve gotten what I needed from them—a nice warm up.
Also, just took my first nature poop! Feels great!