Sadly, a true story…
The best hiking advice I can offer is 1) know yourself and 2) know the trail. I‘ve spurred trembling acrophobes across mountain ridges — acrophobes who thought they could handle it because, you know, *shrug*. I’ve yanked spines out from beneath my best friend’s fingernails after he tripped and tumbled atop a cactus.
I’ve experienced heat exhaustion, intense cold, dehydration, and severe chaffing that led to a burning urethral meatus. (If you don’t already know what a urethral meatus is, please don’t look it up. Just know that you don’t ever want to feel like it has been stuck by a sizzling-hot poker. There’s not enough Advil in the world.) So, bonus wisdom: 3) know your pants.
Unimpressed? Fair enough. I admittedly don’t have Bear Grylls’s track record. But who does?
Still, each miserable instance could have been avoided if we had admitted our own limits and planned better for the trail. These are not the revelations you have years later, while sipping spiked wassail in a fat armchair by the hearth — like some old-timer in a Smoke Bellew story. These are revelations you have on the trail, pumping your fist at the heavens and screaming, “Damn you, Dove chocolates! How dare you mock me?!”
Wait, let me explain…
Several years ago, I visited Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had seen mountains only twice before — the word “seen” being operative. Hiking in the Smokies would be my first experience in mountains. I traveled with my usual crew: Slob, Barky, and Darshan. With our school and work schedules, we only had a weekend to drive the seven-ish hours to the Smokies, see something awesome, and drive back to Alabama.
I read weather reports that predicted temperatures dipping around 20˚F. I was reared in the hot and humid Texas coastal prairie, where temperatures timidly tiptoe below freezing maybe once a year. Aside from a summertime trip to Europe, at this point in my life, I had only once ventured as far north as Knoxville, TN (also in the summer). What the hell is 20˚F? Cold? Yes. Damn cold? Guess so, at least, for someone who’s never known 20 ˚F, much less slept in it. Where can you buy damn-cold socks? What weight and fill is a damn-cold jacket?
I read trail guides. We traced a loop comprised of Abrams Creek Trail (4.2 miles) a section of Hannah Mountain Trail (1.8 miles) and Rabbit Creek Trail (5.1 miles), totaling about 11 miles. I remember boldly proclaiming to the group, “I walk seven miles almost every day. Takes me about two and a half hours and we’ve got all day.” True. I was on a strict regime of exercise and calorie counting, what men try not to call a “diet.” It never crossed my mind that a mountain trail is not a suburban sidewalk or that “seven miles almost every day” is still four miles short of eleven.
The Abrams Creek Trailhead sits beside an often-congested gravel parking lot tucked in the grassy cove, roughly 5 miles (or just shy of halfway) around the Cades Cove Loop Road (the red road on the right side of the map above). Rustic structures that hint at the cove’s recent history line the Loop Road along the way. Among these structures is a 19th-Century Methodist Church that houses a beaten and ill-used upright piano. As we studied the pews with mild interest, I began thumping the Peanuts theme, “Linus and Lucy,” on the keys. We briefly raised a ruckus, singing, “Bah dah dah! Bah dah dah! Dah! Dah!” along with the tune.
Aside: In 1979, Charles Bukowski published a book titled, Play the Piano Drunk like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit. More on that later.
We guffawed, stomping through the church’s exit and back into the cove. A middle-aged couple (bedecked in L. L. Bean), stood solemnly in a nearby graveyard and glared at us from over their shoulders. Noise pollution. I’m sure the dead didn’t mind.
At the trailhead, Slob stuffed a couple dinner rolls in the pockets of his 100%-cotton hoodie. Darshan brought along a half-empty bag of Dove chocolates. We had two, 16-ounce water bottles between the four of us.
Heading northwest, Abrams Creek Trail begins easy enough, crossing the babbling creek via a stone-and-wood bridge of the school of architecture that complements the surrounding forest and beckons hikers to the trail. Yet, the first 2.5 miles of Abrams Creek Trail — a steady, yawning climb — is misleading. The soil has been packed around rocks and roots by so many hikers that the trail, in places, resembles a cobblestone road. Wide, worn, blazeless trails are typical of Smoky Mountains front country. Laurel Falls, Little River, and Jakes Creek Trails have similar terrain until you reach the first big trail junction or landmark, where day hikers tend to turn back. Beyond these checkpoints, something like wilderness happens.
Abrams Falls was crowded when we reached her. Children shrieking. Parents barking. The traffic that stomps these well-worn trails is also typical of the Smoky Mountains front country.
A sign at Abrams Falls warns, “Dangerous water currents. 4 deaths have occurred here from drowning. Please, don’t be next.” I have since read in Backpacker Magazine that un-roped falls are the most common cause of death in the wilderness. Drowning is second. Backpacker Magazine also lists Abrams Creek Trail among “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes.” Surprising, considering the trail’s dense traffic and the easy hike to the picturesque falls that seem so family-friendly.
Yet, the rocks in and around the creek are always wet and slippery. The undercurrent and submerged traps at the foot of the falls have claimed 29 hikers and swimmers since 1971. We scrambled up the slick, muddy cliff to the falls, anyway. I wanted to snap a photo of the falls from an angle that the crowds below could (or would) not.
Watching Abrams Creek rush over the falls, we became aware of our lack of water. We debated turning back but decided that re-seeing what we had already seen would waste the day. Darshan, by far the shapeliest among us, contemplated our predicament over a Dove chocolate and passed one to each of us.
Like fortune cookies, Dove chocolate wrappers say lots of things — sweet and insightful things. “Friendship is a gift in itself.” “Time spent is more valuable than money spent.” My wrapper said, “It’s definitely a bubble bath day.”
A thin layer of drying mud coated my hands. I wiped the mud on my jeans, sticky with crotch sweat. Then, I wadded the wrapper and stuck it in my pocket. Pack in. Pack out. Right? I had heard that somewhere.
Continuing northeast on Abrams Creek Trail, the crowd rabble faded with the murmuring falls. Finally, solitude. Just my crew and the trail.
There is something primal about the mountain laurel and rhododendron that lace Smoky Mountain trails. Their leaves seem harsher, hardier than the suburban oak and ash that I was used to. Healthy and usually emerald beyond words but, on this November day, the forest blazed auburn, burgundy, and gold.
By the Hannah/ Hatcher Mountain Trails junction at the end of Abrams Creek Trail (only 4.2 miles in), we had devoured Slob’s dinner rolls. Again, we considered turning back but pressed on. We passed a yellow sign warning of “AGGRESSIVE BEAR ACTIVITY” in bold, black letters. About one hundred feet farther, we stumbled across a discarded can of bear spray. Red-orange liquid oozed from tiny holes pierced in the can by teeth. Bear or dog or hoax?
Darshan handed me a chocolate. It said, “It’s definitely a bubble bath day.”
Just past the Hannah Mountain/ Rabbit Creek Trails junction, I slipped and dunked my cross-trainers into a chilly stream. Water flooded over and between my toes. Sitting atop a rotting stump near backcountry campsite #15, I wrung my socks.
Darshan sipped creek water from his cupped hands. He shrugged, “It’s good.” The rest of us passed, hoping to poop straight in the weeks to come.
A couple on horseback hailed us from the trail. We looked dogged but told them about our loop. They chuckled, “That’s crazy! We’ve done it on horses but we’d never walk it.” I jerked my socks back on (still damp but no longer dripping). The couple said, “You still got a long way to go.”
Squishing — each step wringing out water that had been sucked-up by the spongy, meshy part of my shoes — we continued east on Rabbit Creek Trail. I shoved my hand into Darshan’s bag of Dove chocolates and blindly pulled one out. It said, “It’s definitely a bubble bath day.”
Hiking is a poor time to diet. Calories are encouraging. We were two-thirds of the way in when I began feeling the pangs wrought by my meager eating up-to and on the trip. I greedily took another chocolate from Darshan. He looked at me knowingly but almost afraid to ask, “What does it say?”
“It’s definitely a bubble bath day.” Darshan and Slob had pulled “bubble bath day” chocolates, too. It wasn’t just me but it felt otherwise. Few things are more degrading than being mocked by chocolate.
Near the end of Rabbit Creek Trail awaits one final obstacle, an un-bridged creek crossing. We looked up and down the creek for an easy crossing. My tongue had dried and felt swollen, seeming to fill my mouth. Likewise, my feet had finally (mostly) dried. I had stopped sweating hours ago but my cotton sweater thirstily hoarded moisture and stuck to my back. I took one last chocolate. It said, “It’s definitely a bubble bath day.”
By the creek, I pumped my fists in the air and shouted, “Damn you, Dove chocolates! How dare you mock me?!” Exasperated. Exhausted. We had had enough. Giggling madly, we marched into the frigid creek and waded, calf-deep, to the parking lot on the other side. From our car, we could now see the bridge that we had initially crossed when we began the trail not far from where we had just waded across the creek. Somewhere along the way, we must have strayed from the trail.
So, we didn’t traverse the Continental Divide or summit Everest. Still, we struggled because we bit off more than we could (or knew how to) chew. But we learned. Water is god. It giveth and smiteth. Cotton holds moisture. Denim is cotton. Thin is not necessarily shapely. Knowing suburban parks is not knowing ascend-descend-ascend, roller-coaster mountain trails. Still, that trip awoke the long-dormant hiker within.
In 1979, Charles Bukowski suggested that we play the piano like a percussion instrument. Life is fleeting. Perhaps, we should play our bodies the same way. Hardened. Sharpened. Through trial and lots of errors, we learn how to handle what comes next.
Backpacker Magazine “America’s 10 Most Dangerous Hikes”
Backpacker Magazine “A Dozen Ways to Die“