Charlie Klabunde crouches under a fallen tree trunk in the shallow bottom of a rocky canyon, looking for a way to scramble through the branches overhead. Even squatting with his shoulders and knees at nearly the same height, there's barely room for his thin frame in the space between the tree and the smooth stony ground.
"Ah, this is so much fun," he says, but he's not smiling. "Whatever's up above had better be worth going through all this crap."
He is trying to cross from one side of the narrow gully to the other, where he hopes to be able to negotiate the end wall of the canyon to higher ground. That means navigating the jumble of trunks and branches that have fallen into it from higher up the mountain. But even if he doesn't show it, Klabunde is enjoying himself.
At the age of 67, it's not as if the retired Oak Ridge physicist has anyone forcing him to spend his days bulling through underbrush and easing up granite inclines. He does it because he can't help doing it. After decades of hiking in and around the Great Smoky Mountains, he still gets curious every time he crosses a creekbed or hears about a fresh rock slide. He wants to know what's up there.
Klabunde didn't start out as an off-trail hiker, or even as a hiker at all. As he recounts while climbing the easy first mile or so of the Alum Cave Bluff Trail leading to Mt. LeConte, his childhood in Niagra Falls, N.Y., included occasional forays to the woods with his father but no concentrated trailblazing. Even after coming to Oak Ridge in the 1950s, it took him nine years to find and join the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club. It started with some friends he met in the Oak Ridge International Folk Dance Group (he still dances, too), who talked him into taking a few hikes. "Then when I actually joined the club, the three people I would carpool with were off-trail hikers," he says.
There are all kinds of hikers: casual once-a-month types, obsessive trail- and mile-counters (some of whom boast of walking all 900 miles of Smoky Mountain trails multiple times), gear fanatics, overnight backpackers, and so forth. What most of them have in common is that they stick to well-worn paths, the kind you can find on a map. Off-trail hiking is different. Although it often involves pieces of old trails or railroad beds, it also usually means making your own way through inhospitable terrain. The obvious danger is getting lost. You can be 50 feet from a trail in the Smokies and never find it if you don't know where to look.
"You don't do it without knowing what you're doing," Klabunde says, pausing next to Styx Branch, the creek he's following partway up the mountain. "Have a map and a compass and an altimeter. Don't rely on a GPS and a cell phone."
There's nothing fancy about his gear. Like the 15-year-old olive REI pack on his back and the weathered Wal-Mart boots on his feet, Klabunde's technical equipment is minimal and time-tested. The isotopic map he uses to trace possible routes through the ravines and hills has a handwritten dated entry for every hike he's taken it on. The first one says "10/28/67."
Today, he's scouting for a club hike he plans to lead next March, up a section of the mountain designated on maps as "Huggins Hell." (Klabunde also publishes the hiking club's monthly newsletter.) He's been through it before, but not recently. Turning off the Alum Cave trail where it crosses a dry spillway, he heads uphill over sunbleached rocks. He has to pause to shoo off a confused hiker about 30 feet back who has mistakenly followed his lead. "Is this the trail?" she asks. He politely sends her back to the crossing.
Maybe it's the scientist in him, but Klabunde doesn't exactly wax poetic about the joys of hiking. Ask him why he keeps coming back, and you get mostly generalized answers. "There are so many different things it touches, I think that it's hard to say," he says, pacing his words with his even steps. "It could be any combination of communing with nature...exercise...adventure..."
It's the last of these that seems particularly to the point. Once Klabunde gets off-trail, his demeanor changes. His eyes narrow a little as he scans the landscape, looking for the easiest way through. When he doesn't see an obvious path, he simply pushes forward through blackberry brambles or tree debris or whatever happens to be in the way. It's the exploration mode of an adolescent boy, fearless and curious, seasoned with the confidence that comes from decades of always making it home in one piece.
"I can see next time we scout this we should bring clippers," he says, pushing through chest-high bushes. The dry creek opens up then, and Klabunde has good view uphill, where the banks steepen to form canyon walls. The first time he came up here in 1993, a recent slide had wiped the hill clean, leaving just the exposed rock. Now, moss and plants and even small trees have sprung up and a lot of deadwood has washed down, complicating uphill progress.
Klabunde's own mobility has been similarly complicated recently. Although still wiry and fit, he lost the balance sensors in one ear three years ago to a viral infection, which left him unsteady on his feet for months. He's learned to compensate, but he still has to be careful. "It means that things like rock topping take a lot more concentration, and more recovery time from missteps."
Finally finding a way out from under the tree trunk and up a side of the gully, Klabunde plunges into even more taxing ground: a hillside covered with dense patches of scrub brush, rhododendron trees, and greenbrier. It takes 20 minutes or so to crawl, claw, and wriggle maybe 300 yards. He emerges higher up the spillway, at a spot he's sure is just a short hike from the trail. His altimeter reads 5,010 feet. If he has it figured right—and he almost always does—he'll come out a good half-mile above Alum Cave Bluff itself. Satisfied with the progress so far, and paying no attention to the bloody scratches on his left forearm and cheek, he sits down for lunch under some trees next to a small bluff. The sky is blue with low scudding clouds and circling hawks. Looking at the ridges along the near horizon, Klabunde points out several he has traversed via unconventional routes.
"This is what's supposed to make it all worth it," he says, a trace of his earlier sarcasm still there. Then his voice softens. "Not many people have ever seen this view," he says. And you know he'll be back.