To the tune of "O What a Beautiful Morning":
O what a beautiful switchbackThis is a song that HWWLLB made up as a young camper and remembered as we were toiling up an 800-foot climb wearing 30-pound packs, streaming sweat.
O what a beautiful trail
O what a beautiful hike, but
I feel like I'm carrying a whale!
Despite the heat, I'd call Week Two and the trip to Joyce Kilmer a resounding success. We did a few other things and took some side-trips, but for today I'm confining my comments to the woods (and I'll try to leave out the wide variety of minor physical ailments which I am now nursing at home with beer).
I can't do this forest justice with my blathery prose, so let me just say that it was beautiful, and a little bit magical. We kept joking about seeing elves. The section where we hiked (on the Tennessee/North Carolina border) is a wilderness area that sits at the juncture of several national forests: the Nantahala, the Cherokee, and the Smokies. Joyce Kilmer/Slickrock might be the wildest place east of the Mississippi - by "wild" I mean big, full of critters, far from town, and relatively untrammelled. I like camping in designated Wilderness Areas because there are not many people around (since there are no amenities and lots of restrictions). On Friday, we saw nobody. On Saturday, we saw a father & son. On Sunday, we saw a couple (who had left us a bouquet of wildflowers on the hood of our car - before we had met). On Monday, we hiked a more popular and accessible area and saw a handful of people. Sometimes it's kind of scary for me, but in general I really love being someplace where the bugs and animals are in charge of things, and the people are just out-of-place visitors.
On Friday afternoon we got started later than we meant to, and it was rapidly getting dark as we finally arrived at a place with a little level ground where we could camp. Unfortunately, HWWLLB ran into a wild boar who was busy hunting where we wanted to make camp. He was big and hungry, and we didn't stick around to find out whether he'd like us to move in on his territory. By the time we found a decent level place away from Boar Country USA, you could just barely see your hand in front of your face. We were also slightly freaked out (well, HWWLLB and I were - his brother, our traveling companion, is never freaked out) and kept whispering things to each other like "What the heck is that?". All three of us crammed ourvelves into one tent, which might not have been so bad if it hadn't been so dang hot. But nobody wanted to go sleep by themselves with the boar. In the middle of the night I either dreamt the boar was poking the tent, or a little mouse came by and nudged me from outside, and in my sleep I screeched and lurched across the tent, but other than that nothing actually scary happened.
In the morning, things looked much better. We got over our city jitters and had a lovely breakfast with the morning birdsong. Waking up in the woods when you know you're going to be there a while feels so good. There's nothing in the world to do but relax and take it all in. We hiked through amazing throngs of wildflowers: woodland sunflower, summer phlox, black-eyed susans, and riotous red bee balm. Anyplace where sun could come through, the wildflowers were insanely thick. Anyplace it was dark, there were mushrooms. I don't know how many different kinds of mushrooms we saw, but for four days it seemed like anyplace you looked was another one. The hiking was challenging - it was the first time I had carried a pack since hurting my hip two years ago, and we had not chosen an easy place to break back into it - but there were rewards everywhere.
Tramping around that wild forest was such a joy, even if my pack felt like a whale and my knees and hips and back and shoulders were begging me to ditch my gear and drag myself to the nearest highway to hitch into town (wait, I said I wasn't going to mention my ailments...). Besides the birds and salamanders and dozens of kinds flowers and butterflies and thousands of mushrooms and beetles and rocks we saw, there were even things to eat! The wild blueberries, huckleberries and blackberries were all ripe, and made the trails so much more pleasant. Trudge, trudge, yum! Trudge, trudge, yum! Sadly it also seems to be yellowjacket season, and HWWLLB didn't escape without a few reminders that he was an unwanted guest in the kingdom of the Vespera (that's the danger of being last in line - whatever gives chase will get you). But it was also butterfly season (apparently). This little blue guy (what is it, Bugheart?) really liked my sweaty hands and spent part of an afternoon probing my right ring finger.
I'm really lucky that HWWLLB and his brother are very experienced hikers. It saves me from having to worry too much about where we are on the map, what's the best route to take, how to pick a good campsite, etc. So I get to be in charge of the food. As always, we brought too much, but that's far better than going hungry. Anyhow the food worked out fine and wasn't bad at all, but I think my favorite thing was a fancy kind of gorp that I got out of a book called Backcountry Cooking. Here's the recipe so you can take some on your next walk in the woods:
Bedouin gorp (I know, it's a dumb name):
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/2 cup pistachios
1/8 tsp ground cardamom
Makes four 1/2 cup servings.
there may have been a little privation on this trip, but i did not go without tea.