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’
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.
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.
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.
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.
HOWE GELB (GIANT SAND): ‘CRACKLIN’ WATER’
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote