Dad's Vertical Mile
It was 20 years ago this month. My husband Gary and I had moved from Knoxville to Middle Tennessee, yet still found ourselves in the Smokies almost every weekend; summer vacations were spent in the Tetons or Rockies.
Gary, an avid hiker and rock climber with a passion for the West, and my father, firmly rooted in East Tennessee geography, had an ongoing friendly "discussion" regarding the relative attributes of each. Bottom line: My father accepted our challenge to find a route that would be the equivalent of hiking a vertical mile—5,200 plus feet of elevation gain—not an easy achievement east of the Mississippi, much less Tennessee.
After studying both flat and topographical maps, the course was determined. The three of us set out before sunrise from the Howard Johnson's, the lowest point in Gatlinburg, hiked through the (then) village, hung a left at Airport Road, proceeded up the long steep slab of highway asphalt to Cherokee Orchard and then climbed Mount LeConte via Bull Head. Earlier we shuttled a car to Newfound Gap so that we could descend via Alum Cave—the shortest of the five trails. It was a long, long day... insane yet inspired.
My father continued to pursue his many and varied hiking goals, and within four years had hiked all 900 miles of trail in the park—not once, but twice—in both directions. I continue to make at least two annual pilgrimages to LeConte by more conventional routes, yet I ponder that crazy quest of the vertical mile each time I sit on Myrtle Point. When my father died two years ago, my family took his hiking boots to LeConte, where they were reverently left on the cairn adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, thus adding another 12 inches to the elevation of the mountain.
—Cynthiana Cook Spangler
One day during a hiking trip in New Mexico, a few guys and I covered more than 12 miles with heavy packs. At the end of the day we were frazzled, so we pitched camp, ate and turned in pretty early. I woke up to hear one of the guys in the next tent quietly saying, "Here kitty, kitty, kitty." I thought he was nuts and went back to sleep.
A little while later the "kitty" came into our open tent. While I was lying on my stomach, it walked up my legs, up my back, and stood with its front feet on my shoulders and sniffed my hair for a few minutes before leaving as quickly as it had appeared. I just fell back asleep because I was so exhausted from the hike.
The next morning I asked my tentmate, "Hey, man, did that freakin' cat get into our tent last night or was I dreaming?"
He looked at me with big wide eyes and a funny face, then slowly said, "That wasn't a cat, it was a skunk!" He told me he was hoping I didn't try to roll over and "pet the kitty."
—Andrew Holt, Outdoor Outfitters
An Age-Old Tale
It's our second day in the Grand Canyon. My friends and I are on spring break from high school. We are all 18 and we all figure we can do anything. But it doesn't take long for us to begin hurting from blisters and scraped legs. We have only nine miles to hike and we are about half way through. Our problem: It's all uphill. We have to labor with every step and pant with every breath. Our water supply is dwindling so we all sit down to take a break. Everyone starts complaining.
"It's too hot!"
"My feet are killing me."
"I can't do this anymore!"
Soon we see someone coming down the trail towards us. We can see his old external frame pack gleaming in the sun from about a mile away. The guy seems to be running. It's only a few minutes before he's right there beside us.
The hiker appears to be about 80 years old. His pack is torn. It looks older than any of us. We just sit there looking up at him and thinking about the thousands of dollars we'd spent on gear.
The man greets us, "Hey! How are you gentlemen doing? Isn't it a beautiful day? This hike sure is incredible."
We exchange pleasantries and he tells us that the day before, he did the same hike we're doing now. He tells us it's hard, but the view at the campsite waiting above makes it worthwhile.
With this word of encouragement, we stand up and put our packs back on. We're ready for anything. Sure, we're tired, but if the older guy can do it, surely we can. Maybe we are invincible.
Then, just as we begin to walk away, the old man says over his shoulder, "Hey boys! Don't forget to say 'happy birthday' to my wife. She's about a mile down the trail behind me. She turned 82 today."
We immediately throw off our backpacks and sit back down.
—Michael Malone, Outdoor Outfitters
Grin and Bear It
Hiking in the Smokies up to Mount Cammerer fire tower on the Cosby side, my wife, a friend and I stop to eat lunch after a steep stretch of trail. We are on a hill that slopes straight down the mountain. The trees are growing on the downhill side upward, so we can see into the tops of the trees.
While we eat, we keep hearing what we think is a squirrel in a tree about 20 yards from us. I finally spot where the movement is coming from. About that time, a bear pokes its head out from the branches with a mouthful of acorns. He looks me right in the eye with a drop dead gaze that only a wild animal can give. I'm hoping his acorns are more appealing than my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The bear starts down the tree and we start up the trail double time. We never see the bear again, but that was one exciting lunch we didn't finish.
—Andrew Holt, Outdoor Outfitters
Carter County vs. a Toyota Corolla
As Knoxvillian Jean Gauger tells it, her last trip to the backcountry around Roan Mountain could have been perfect.
"It was primo," she says, describing a camping spot on Big Hump Mountain where she spent a summer night with her husband and friends. "There were flaming azalea along with rhododendrons and this rare lily that blooms up there."
But all was not well on this Fourth of July weekend. The first night of the trip, the group camped on Grassy Ridge where heavy rain tested the design of their tents. Later the clouds parted enough for the group to spy fireworks displays down in the valleys below. The rain never returned in force, but the trip was still dampened by what the group discovered after hiking out.
Gauger's prized Toyota Corolla had been stolen.
"Apparently they've had some trouble up there in Carter County," says Gauger. The theft happened where the Appalachian Trail crosses near the intersection of 19E and Bear Branch Road. Authorities later located the Corolla at the bottom of a steep, wooded slope. After a spell of joy riding, the thieves apparently just let the car roll to its death. Packed into their friends' car, Gauger says she and her husband "rode home in stunned silence."
Bearded Camper vs. a Mini Bear
When Aaron James, or AJ, isn't working at the Blue Ridge Mountain Sports store in Western Plaza, he sometimes guides backpacking trips in New Mexico. Once, while touring the high desert, AJ says he awoke to find a "mini bear" standing on his chest.
This "mini bear," or chipmunk, was busy feasting on an M&M that had somehow become lodged in AJ's thick beard. Then, when the mini bear realized that he'd roused a sleeping giant, it began to panic. To be exact, it began to pee.
That's right—not only did the mini bear steal an M&M from AJ's bear, it also whizzed all over AJ's chest.
Boy Scout vs. a Canned Ham
When Aaron James was growing up, he went on a backpacking trip in the Smokies with his scout troop. One of his fellow scouts, a growing boy who apparently loved to eat, decided to carry a second pack full of food. The boy wore the pack up front like a mother toting her newborn. Inside the pack, the hungry scout carried a five pound ham and other "necessary" provisions.
AJ says that part way through the hike, the double-packed scout sat down on a log and leaned back thinking a tree was there to recline against. However, there was no tree, so the hungry scout toppled over onto his back. This sent the rest of the troop into hysterics. The laughter continued for several minutes as the hungry scout struggled to right himself. He struggled and struggled, like an upside-down turtle unable to get back on his feet.
Cocky Camper vs. his Stove and Tent
Blue Ridge Mountain Sports' Tom Leavy recalls one customer who came in looking for a new tent and stove to replace the ones he'd recently destroyed. Here's what happened:
Proud as punch of his new gear, the camper was showing off for friends, priming his stove with vigor while he sat in front of his new tent. When he went to light his stove, the camper didn't notice the white gas covering his arm. Poof, the flames raced up his arm and the man jumped back—directly into his new tent. The collision sent tent poles piercing through the tent's fabric, and when the smoke cleared, both the stove and the tent were damaged.