The most amazing thing happened this summer. I held a snake! A perfectly docile, nonvenomous corn snake. Okay, so maybe that doesn’t sound like much but snakes are to me what clowns or heights or gherkins are to fellow overly imaginative, cripplingly irrational people.
This July, I returned to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the Institute at Tremont’s SANCP (Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program) Reptiles and Amphibians course. I had so many questions. Why study reptiles AND amphibians in a single course? Why does herpetology exclude avian reptiles (i.e., birds)?
I can’t quite explain my want to become a certified naturalist. I do not intend to make a career of it. Rigorously studying flora and fauna might make me a better volunteer. It might even make me a more rounded and informed citizen of my community, nation and planet. All that sounds great but, really, I enjoy going all-in with like-minded, equally interested and engaged students. I simply love the academic experience and that feels like justification enough.
Core courses run from Friday evenings through Sunday afternoons and are scattered throughout the year from February to November. Students can take classes at their leisure and in any order that they see fit. One of my classmates for the 2017 Plants course had begun his naturalist journey in 2012 and was in no hurry to wrap things up. The Birds of the Smokies and Plants courses occur over the same weekend in May each year, meaning that students cannot complete the course in a single calendar year.
“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.” – Richard Proenneke
I guess I had a busy winter, which seems like a weak excuse for taking it easy. With birthdays and holidays, I always find it hard to escape during the off-season. I’ve been outside plenty but I haven’t found myself at peace on an empty trail in some months. Barky, Slob and I set out to remedy that injustice as March became April and winter became spring.
Our destination was a chunk of backcountry called Panthertown Valley in the eastern corridor of Nantahala National Forest. If you’ve never heard of Nantahala, you wouldn’t be faulted. It’s tucked in the far southwestern corner of North Carolina and has some flashy neighbors. To the southeast is Gorges State Park. Immediately south is Georgia’s Black Rock Mountains State Park and Chattahoochee National Forest. To the northeast rises NC’s Pisgah National Forest and Mount Mitchell State Park, the tallest temple of earth in the eastern United States. Immediately to the north stretches the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is God’s country.
At long last, Barky has shat in the woods! Archivists take heed for History trembles, prostrate to the deeds of great adventurers.
To put this momentous occasion into perspective, Barky has spent numerous multi-day excursions in the backcountry – trips that include lots of coffee and carb-heavy food. Yet, until April 2017, at the tender age of 30, Barky had never taken a shit of any kind in the woods.
It became a joke. I laughed for want to weep, watching Barky bolt to the nearest toilet as soon as we returned from the woods to our civil comforts. One Christmas, I gifted Barky a roll of toilet paper, an orange-plastic trowel, and a copy of Kathleen Meyer’s seminal masterpiece, How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. Coincidentally, that was the very day that I met the woman whom Barky would wed. I am uncertain whether she found the gift humorous or thought that Barky should invest in new friends. Either way, we’re still friends and I feel that my encouragement has added experience to Barky’s life.
Shitting in the woods is a practical and perfectly human skill. Humans have popped backcountry squats for tens of thousands of years before indoor plumbing and the first flush toilet ushered our bumbling species into the modern-era. Pooping is a natural function of the natural world. I shit. Therefore, I am.
The most daunting aspect of striking-out on your first backpacking adventure is not the mileage, the prowling creatures lurking in shadowy forests or even the unpredictable and unforgiving elements. It is stepping into an outfitter, like REI or Whole Earth Provision Co., finding myriad products produced by countless name brands and absorbing all the pitches and slogans about how these boxers are odor resistant and this stove is ultra-lightweight while that bear spray wicks moisture somehow. The simple truth is, no one can test everything and too many reviews are based on initial use.
The following is a list of 5 backpacking essentials that allow for longer and more comfortable excursions. Each item is “old” in two ways — “old” by outfitter standards (i.e., discontinued and/or outmoded) and “old” in that I’ve used them regularly for anywhere from 4 to 10 years. These products are great on their own but also hint at the quality of their successors.
I imagine Hell has the biggest TVs and comfiest couches. Sure, you get Game of Thrones streaming in HD but there’s a little window through which you can see—but can never venture into—perfectly pristine wilderness. Torture.
Work. Family. Court-ordered tracking anklets. We all have personal constraints that keep us home when we’d rather wander. So, how do you seize every sliver of freedom you’ve earned? How do you buck the burbs and get out more, see more, do more? Plan for spontaneity… duh…
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?!”