Month: September 2019

Smoky Mountain Retreat

Hopefully I’ll be on trail soon. This stopping and starting is not what I had planned. I’ll admit it has shaken my confidence a little. But I’ve got two things in my favor. One is, I don’t give up easy. My old basketball Coach used to say “Winners never quit and quitters never win”. I’m not considering this a win or lose situation but I intend to persevere. To refocus my mental approach (and just to get away} I decided to spend a few days in the Smokies. My new friends in the “900 trail miles of the Smokies” club is in Spain hiking the Camino. They are having an extraordinary time and doing remarkably well. I just needed to get away for a few days in the outdoors.

The first day I just experimented with different ways to setup my tent. I also tried cooking some new meals for the trail. Talked with the Park Rangers about my plan to hike the Old Settlers trail the next day. They had good information for changing my choice. I also received my first Senior discount, half price camping at National Parks! Every now and then being older does have a few benefits.

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Black Snake

But the highlight of the day was when I saw a pretty good size mouse scattering around my camp. At first I thought it was a chipmunk but the gray color tipped me off. Next thing I saw was a black snake chasing it. The mouse had a pretty good head start so the snake retreated.. Then it turned around and headed my way. I thought to myself “surely he doesn’t want a piece of me!”. Turns out he didn’t. I stepped aside and watched what was about to happen. He stuck is head{could of been a her I don’t know} down a one inch hole five feet from my tent. Went in and brought out his dinner. Ate it right in front of me. I felt sorry but that is how nature works. So I started thinking: Is there a nest of mice below my tent or a snakes den. I don’t even know if snakes have a den but in a way I was glad he was controlling the mice population. After that he went back in the hole and stayed for awhile. Every now and then he would stick his head out until I moved, then promptly went back down out of view. We agreed to share the space at least for the night. Thankfully I didn’t see him the next day.

The Park Rangers had told me the Old Settlers Trail was in bad shape and hadn’t been maintained for some time. Blowdowns blocked the trail in spots and over growth made the trail at times almost impassable or at least unrecognizable. So I decided to climb Mt. Cammerer. 4950 feet. There are two ways from camp to climb that Mountain. Both climb up to the Appalachian Trail which is the ridge line through all the Smokies north to south. Where Lower Mt. Cammerer trail (7.6 miles) meets the Appalachian Trail junction, you still have to climb 1500 feet. Or you can take Low Gap Trail and climb to 4200 feet in 2.9 miles and then head North on the AT, a 700 foot climb to the Mt. Cammerer peak. I chose the Low Gap approach. I wanted to do the whole loop but changed my mind after walking up, up,up 2.9 miles, climbing the whole way. Even then it was two miles more climbing to get to the top.

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Sign at top of Low Gap

A few interesting things happened on the way. First of all I started down the wrong trail. Luckily I had only climbed a couple hundred feet before my intuition said turn back . For some reason the signage in the Smokies confuses me. I’m getting used to it but until then I HAVE TO BE CAREFUL! The trail itself is used by horses as well. There are no big rocks but mainly loose gravel. Not sure how the horses like it but I found it kind of slippery. Slippery enough that at one point I hit the ground hard, mostly on my forearm but thankfully it wasn’t broken. Picked the gravel out and kept on hiking. It was again pretty dry so any water source was gone after 30 minutes. What I carried was all I would have for the day.

If I decided to do the loop it might be late before I made it back, it was already 10:30. I carried 4 liters. On the way up I met several hikers usually in pairs. More on that later.

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Headed up there somewhere!

As hard as the climb was I enjoyed it even as my quads screamed. One younger lady passed me as I had a snack on the side of the hill. A few hours later Later I met her again coming down from Low Gap. She told me “Once at the top of Low Gap she just wasn’t up for the 2 extra miles to the peak. “Very disappointing” were her words. She seemed in better shape than myself so I decided to take a longer break. My big plan for the day just got smaller. Eventually I came to the intersection of the AT where a section hiker on his way to Georgia had stopped before his 1100 foot climb southbound to Deer Creek Gap. I decided to snack and he had lunch. We talked a few minutes when up from Low Gap came 3 horses with riders, a mule in tow. I had never seen horses on the Appalachian Trail. They dismounted and rested the horses checking shoes and other equipment. The three of them were locals, two of which were father and son. They were riding this day conditioning the horses for an elk hunt in Colorado.

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Horses on the Appalachian Trail

The father had hiked most of the trails around the area and had some solid information. The son was also vey friendly. I would see them again later in the day. They rode off to the top and I tried to keep up at first but thought better of it. The next two miles were a challenge but not as much as Low Gap.

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Approach to Mt. Cammerer

I knew I was getting close when the trees turned to shrubs. Just before the lookout tower I spotted the four animals tied up just below the observation area. What a grand view it was, a 360 degree view of North Carolina and Tennessee. I’ll post a video on Instagram. David, one of the horseman took the time to show me what I was looking at. The town of Cosby, the post office, and Interstate 40. He even showed me the trail I had originally planned on going back down. Seeing the ups and downs from up there and the thought of 5 extra miles solidified my decision to go back the way I came. It was almost three o’clock and even though I was prepared to cowboy camp if it came to that I chose the easier path. Before leaving, David gave me his phone number and told me to call him If I needed a shuttle off the trail or just to come ride horses. I just keep meeting such kind, giving people on this journey. Every body at the peak continued on, leaving the summit all to myself, for awhile. It was an awesome view and such a rewarding experience having made the climb and meeting more friends along the way. I retraced my steps back to Low Gap and began the steep climb down. This time I was like the horse who knows that the barn and food were at the bottom. I quickly covered the 2.5 miles in less than an hour. Didn’t see a snake or a mouse!

View from Mt Camerer
View from Mt Camerer

How do I think this hike will be different?

I was having lunch with a friend and hiker the other day. A question was proposed as to what I think might be different this time around? Immediately I thought of what gear changes were planned, trail conditions, diet, and weather. All the physical things. I could tell by her expression that I hadn’t understood the question correctly. She was referring to my spiritual approach, the Pilgrimage. Have my goals changed now that I won’t be a thru hiker? At that moment I really didn’t have an answer. I’m so happy she asked the question because I had been off trail close to 12 weeks. I had purposely put on hold, most of the thoughts about returning to the trail. By this time my grandchildren were back in school. I thought about ways to improve my diet and lessen the weight in my pack. In the process I put off revisiting why I was going in the first place. It was time to get my spirit ready.

Before my first hike was interrupted I had a routine of reading, meditating and praying each morning and evening. Most of which was preparation to receive the days gifts with humility and thanksgiving. When I started walking each day I sought to go with a sense of wonder and mystery. I knew every morning that something was going to happen, maybe many things. But what? I tried to be alert and attentive each and every step. A day on the trail without that wonder and mystery is a day lost. A day lived with less excitement and anticipation. Days that are, sad to say forever lost. Without the right mindset I would have had a meaningless hike. Oh I would have witnessed some beautiful sights but there impact would be short lived. Instead I brought them home with me. They are part of me. Truthfully be told that same sense of wonder and mystery can be found any place that you find yourself. I just choose to go to creation with opened eyes and ears, feet on the ground, connected to my maker.

So what will be different this time around? Mostly it will be the same, with one important difference. The difference is me. I am starting from a different place spiritually. Remember there are two journeys going on at the same time. The physical journey and the spiritual journey. My legs and feet are taking me there but my heart and soul are driving. I’m further along the path with more and greater wonders awaiting. Thank be to God the journey continues…

Two quotes from “The Art of Pilgrimage” Phil Cousineau

What matters most on your journey is how deeply you see, how attentive you hear, how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul” Huston Smith/Foreword to “The Art Of Pilgrimage”

“For those of you about to embark on your journey, I pass on to you what an old Irish poet once told me on the cliffs of the Aran Islands: We should all be grateful for the beauty of this world, but more, we should take the trouble to get off the bus of life and put the soles of our feet to the soul of the world and see the sacred sites with our own eyes.” Phil Cousineau The Art Of Pilgrimage” Phil Cousineau

It’s time to go hiking again!

I have to be honest. This has been a great summer. The disappointment of leaving the trail was put to rest rather quickly. Thanks to the encouragement I received from all my friends. I also think my focus on mindfulness helped. I left the negative thoughts behind and focused on the experience of living on the trail for 415 miles. There were so many memories to cherish.

I was able to spend all the time I wanted with my family. I contacted and was contacted, by old and new friends. We had lunch talking about not only my experience on the trail but what was going on in their lives. I met new hikers and even did my first hike in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I continue to grow with my church family. Many of whom I had no idea even knew I was hiking. It’s heartening to know others are praying for your safety and success. My goals I set in retirement are in motion and alive. Despite the early pause in the hike I remained positive. Rest and calories is what I needed and received. Family, friends, and a positive attitude made for a great and memorable summer! But it’s time to go hiking again! The journey continues…