Long-Distance Walking, Mountains, USA
Comments 6

In the Weird, Wild Woods with Forensic Man

Then the rain stopped falling and the trees dripped and I helped to spawn a school of secret dangers. Oh, we can populate the dark with horrors, even we who think ourselves informed and sure, believing nothing we cannot measure or weigh. I knew beyond all doubt that the dark things crowding in on me either did not exist or were not dangerous to me, and still I was afraid. ~ John Steinbeck, ‘Travels with Charley’

Fontana Bound

That night at Cold Springs, Carlos shared a victory feast of bourbon and the Mountain House-brand “cheesecake” he assembled from multiple sachets.

The springs referenced in the shelter name were out front; as Carlos had warned, the name did not lie, and I stood out there in the darkness soaking my feet in those icily analgesic waters while he told gruesome tales from decades of Alabama police work. I was enthralled, but very tired, and slept the night through in the shelter unmolested by rodents.

Next morning nothing was said, but somehow I knew we’d be hiking together till he left the trail at Fontana Dam, doorway to the Smokies. Entertaining walking that day, despite our throbbing temples, novel for me in having conversation as I moved, and though my speed was down, the time and distance passed pleasantly, if sweatily.


Carlos was a goldmine of useful data about the trees and birds, and then we moved on to history, covering the Battle of Gettysburg, Stonewall Jackson, WWII, and a variety of other topics.

He even surprised me with the news that he was carrying, in addition to bear spray, a slingshot and ball bearings — “for the bears, or anything else that needs stopping.”

Carlos had an unflinching belief in tough laws, prison, the death penalty. He was no redneck, but his world view was, well, “hardened”. The military, a career in forensics will probably do that.

I wondered what kind of shot he was with that catapult of his. Probably deadly.

On Wesser Bald (4,627′), we had lunch on the wind-chilled observation tower…

..with its commanding views of the Appalachians and the dense cloud banked up against one side of the ridge:

Some “at risk” kids (“hoods in the woods” in the trail idiom) rolled noisily in with their supervisors; several declared their intent to hike the whole trail one day, hopefully with smaller packs and fewer shovels and cast-iron skillets.

Cruising Speed

It was hot and hilly. Carlos did his best, but he made me look fast. At times I found myself wishing I could lift my speed, regretting being roped into this shared walking when I should have been doing more miles, quicker.

But I saw sense each time: this wasn’t just a race to a distant and uncertain conclusion, and I should be savouring this unexpected friendship, this unique glimpse into Southern culture.

Nantahala Night

The first wild river of the Trail, swift, clear and high-spirited: the Nantahala. An outdoor-sports complex called the Natahala Outdoor Center, where we ate in style and talked with canoeists, bikers and former thru-hikers.

At dusk we crossed the bridge and explored a dirt road parallelling the stream till we found a stealth-spot. In the last light, sitting on boulders amid the white noise of the churning waters, we sipped bourbon, enjoying the illusion of its warmth as the cold and the darkness descended.

I’d felt one of my periodic glooms move in that afternoon — they always jimmy the door open when I’m tired — thinking about my daughter’s mother, our first trip to the States in ’93: self-recrimination, guilt. But now I felt content, utterly at ease, and privileged to be where I was. Maybe it was the hypnotic whisper of the river. Maybe it was the bourbon.

Crackling Tyres

I was almost asleep when Carlos said, low and surprisingly close, “Ian are you awake?”

“Yeah.” The scariest sound you can ever hear when you’re camping — tyres crackling on gravel inches from your bed — had woken me. The car had crawled back closer to the bridge and stopped. Doors had opened and closed, quietly. Then the river — only the river.

“Did you see that light?”


“They’re up to something down there.”

Voila: instant rural-American midnight paranoia.

I was already pulling on my hiking pants and groping for my knife. Carlos — nay, Forensic Man — was squatting near my tent door, when I gingerly unzipped it, like he was ready to draw up battle plans. He was mostly silhouette, but it was a big, dependable, capable man’s shadow.

“Creeping along here like that. No headlights. Then back up there, turned ’em on and off, left ’em off.”

“Hmmm?” I was a lot of use.

“It might be nothing, but I’m gonna go find out.”

“You’re going down there?”

“You wanna sleep tonight, don’t you? Don’t worry,” — he shook his can of spray, slapped his hip pocket — “I’ll be okay.”

Commando & Recon

He went down to the river bank and was immediately swallowed up by night and river talk. I waited five, 10, 20 minutes. What if he didn’t come back? I was so tired; my eyes were dustbowls. Then voices, brief and distant. And the river ate them up as well.

Footsteps. Carlos was back, alone. “We can go back to bed.”

“What are they doing?”

“Kayakers. Just some kayakers, looking for a campsite. Real nice fellas, in fact.”

“Oh. Well, I’m going back to bed.”

“Sorry about that, Mountain Goat.”

I had an awful night’s sleep, the river seeming to roar rather than soothe, and woke up wanting to be angry. But back at the NOC, past the kayaker’s riverside camp, we laughed heartily over our coffee and pancakes, thinking about how far off track our imaginations had taken us.


~ And that’s all the Goat wrote



  1. Nothing beats letting the mind wander when hearing noises in the bush at night. I’ve done it plenty of times! Usually the noise which I think is clearly a serial killer turns out to be some bumbling hiker wandering around in the dark. I should stop watching horror films I guess. Do you stay in touch with this bloke at all? He’s an entertaining sounding character.

    • Regrettably no, Greg. We stayed in touch for a while but he wasn’t much of an emailer – and then he had some personal tragedy and became even less of one. Great character, though, lots of good memories.

  2. Goat, I love reading your old Appalachian Trail stories, especially when they’re about somewhere just down the road from home. On my road trip this summer I was undoubtedly seen as the creepy guy pulling into trail heads late at night looking for a place to camp.

    Great song, by the way. I’m on my fourth straight listen. I’ll have to look those guys up.

    • Thanks, Josh, I’ve been on both sides of the Creepy Loner Divide. Glad you enjoyed the tale (which has one more episode) — that’s a nice part of the world you’re in.

      As for the music, Howe Gelb has wonderfully parched, brittle vocals which complement his dry wordplay perfectly. I love Giant Sand, and a couple of years ago I met Gelb when he played in a tiny club here in Brisbane.

  3. Good post. Carlos is very interesting. The type of person you meet for a short time and then still remember 50 years later. Dont know about the Giant Sand music for the Appalachians .. they always remind me of dusty the country side. The Band would seem to fit in more. But, Gelbs voice compliments your post well. And nice to see no references (unless I have missed it) to the film “Deliverance” which always crops up when referring to the Southern backwoods.

    • Yup, I won’t forget ole Forensic Man in a hurry. I’m not much of a “people person” but I do enjoy those shared experiences with former strangers on long walks. As for the music, I think The Band would be almost as cliched in a southern story as ‘Deliverance’ — but actually that film does tie in with a future southern post I have in mind…

      I chose this song as I’d mentioned “crackling” and the river, and I was reminded of this tune. While I agree that his music usually evokes the arid eeriness of the south-west, I also think its reflective, campfire-reverie quality was apt. And it sounds like Gelb’s enjoyed more than the odd bourbon as well, though I could be wrong on that score.

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