Last weekend a group of my friends and I set out to backpack a lollipop trail, one that leaves from the trailhead and soon splits to make a loop that returns to the access trail leading back to the cars. Maybe there’s another name for it: spoon or lasso? The trip through Joyce Kilmer and Citigo Wilderness areas was beautiful, challenging, and rewarding. The whole weekend seemed to be tinged with the magic of the old growth forests, or the serendipity of life on the trail itself, when everything just works out.
Despite our attempts to arrive at the trailhead at varied times, the three groups of folks coming from different locations arrived within minutes of each other at about 8:45 p.m. We finalized gear to include in packs, laced up boots, and as is commonly the case when backpacking with my aptly named friend Last Minute, we set off onto the trail just after nightfall. We slipped onto the trail just over a guard rail, then turned sharply right to walk parallel to a landslide before crossing a bridge at a 45-degree angle that slid from it’s higher purchase on the mountain, to settle firmly enough in its current location. The trail connected with a wide road bed that we followed, walking in clustered sets of two or three, headlamps and conversations breaking through the dark forest as we slowly and steady ascended Bob Stratton Bald.
We awoke in our little thicket of trees on the bald, packed up, and set out for the trail that would take us to Hangover Rock, along the spine of the ridge. We initially missed the turn for Hangover Rock but quickly recovered from the mistake, turning back after one descending switchback, to take the high point. The slight delay allowed us to perfectly time our arrival on the scenic overlook with the sun’s first appearance of the day, revealing the Great Smoky Mountains, Fontana Lake, and the forests and ridges we would cover in the next days. We snacked, snapped pictures, and rested before descending steeply to Big Fat Gap.
Around mile 5 or 6 of our 9-mile hike, I noticed our dog Annie’s fatigue. Compelled to lead or unite the group at all times, her enthusiasm for her role overshadowed her fatigue for most of the day. I instated longer rest breaks for us in looking out for her best interest.
We navigated trail intersections, crossed Slickrock Creek, scampered down to swim in Wildcat Falls, and then climbed steadily to our ridge top camp. During one break during the climb Annie laid down in a mud hole and slept with her head still high. Poor dear. Hot and tired, she’d taken to cooling herself like swine.
At camp, Annie ate immediately and slept. We pitched our tent, ate dinner, and gathered round the campfire to celebrate Last Minute’s birthday with s’mores and moonshine. The sudden pelting rain around 9 sent us scattering to our tents. Thunder and lightening prevailed until around midnight, and the rain stayed on until morning. I awoke at 6 from more thunder, lightening, and what I could make out as the break of dawn with the dense cloud cover. Talking commenced between the nylon walls of tents. We ate our breakfasts staying as sheltered as possible between the intermittent rains and the wind that blew more off the leaves above. When we’d performed every last possible morning ritual to delay packing and walking in the rain, there was a break in it. It lasted just long enough to deconstruct our tents and organize the essentials back into backpacks. Just as well-timed as the break in the rain was the sudden, pelting onslaught that followed, so we slung on our packs, cinched them tight to our rain jackets and hit the trail.
The rain persisted all day, from the time we got on the trail at 8:30 until we got off the trail at 2:30. I regulated my temperature with adjustments to my clothing. Rain jacket off for the big climbs, with my body pumping out enough energy to keep me warm. Rain jacket on for descents when the wind pierced through every bit of my wet clothes to prick my skin into goose bumps. The lightening would shatter the darkness of the forest (the darkness of forest in the daytime entertains me because it’s so novel) then I would count the seconds to know the distance of the storm. This happened again and again throughout the day, as if the storm gods were lining up to take their chance at seeing how wet we could become with each downpour. So much so, that I would find myself noticing in my soaking wet state that, indeed, “I think I just felt water travel a new route down my backside. Had it been there before?” Of course it had, but the rivulet that streamed down my body on this downpour was greater than before, it seemed.
As I walked through sheets of torrential rain, in one moment I felt my sheer insignificance in the world. Encased by the magnificence of the thunder, the bright illumination of lightening, and the world in all its complexities of nature, I realized that I am nothing but just that: a flash of light, passing energy. Here. Then gone. This precious life. So fleeting. My part here so small.
Marcus, Annie and I were apart from the group, hiking steady through the fog and rain until we reached a junction where we waited. It seemed longer than the ten or fifteen minutes we stood there. There wasn’t a place to be out of the wetness or the cold. We drank hot tea I still had in my thermos I had prepared that morning. It helped. When we forgot, briefly, that we were waiting, they appeared. We walked out the last mile on that wide trail of a forest road through deep puddles, talking about food, but no one mentioned our next adventure.