A hot, sticky morning. We climbed through lush, humming forest towards Swim Bald…
..up through a hundred shades of green, leaving the rocky Nantahala below.
We were both sleep-hungry, and stopped early to rest where water trickled down out of mossy rocks and roots to creep down into the gully.
Birdsong, silence. Droning insects, silence:
Forensic Man told stories.
A bear hunt, relatives on his wife’s side: cartoon-hillbillies, drunk and stupid, shooting up the woods on a hunting trip that ended awfully for a mother and her two cubs.
Those bears weren’t mere trophies either. They were food — in sausage form. “It’s good, Ian!” he exclaimed. “Oh, it’s good!”
And there were chitlins, the boiled and fried intestines of hogs, first stump-whipped “to get all the shit out”.
“When we were kids, we used to joke about those chitlins. ‘How many times these been whipped, Ma? Hey, Ma, you sure these been 10-times whipped?'”
It was all very educational.
Seven miles from the river, we pulled into Sassafras Gap Shelter for lunch — surprising two dazed and glazed young fellows sitting in the loft, inexpertly stubbing out their joints as we came in.
The youths quickly vanished. Some primal survival instinct told them this was no man to share a roach with. But now Carlos was consumed by an inspired professional rage.
“Dopeheads, I call ’em!” He was pacing back and forth, spitting fire and invective. “Those damned dopeheads! You see their eyes, Mountain Goat? Like little pink slits, they were!”
“Yeah. Not exactly hospitable, were they?”
“Now, that really ticks me off…” He continued pacing and ranting.
I leaned back against the shelter wall. Well, I’d made my choice, I’d chosen my side.
A spicy hint of the weed lingered in the cobwebby corners. I sighed.
It smelled pretty damned good to me.
The dilemma now — the current dilemma — was camping. Our intended campsite was at Locust Cove Gap, 3.6 miles on, but we had a feeling the Dopeheads would be there, blowing fumes of anarchy into the treetops.
We rested again, 5,000 feet up, at Cheoah Bald…
..and sure enough, when we got to the Cove, there they were, comic-book campers with a Coleman tent half-erected and an innocent sapling half battered into submission with a tomahawk.
After a whispered consultation, Carlos grabbed just enough water from the stream to get us to Stecoah Gap, three miles on, where his map indicated more water. We hurried on without farewells.
Disappointment at Stecoah
Carlos filled the hour’s walk with WWII stories from his vast collection. At last we reached the side of a highway slicing into the mountains.
There was no water. I searched a forestry road and Carlos went down N.C. 143. While he was gone, a truck hauling a demountable building screeched past, rounded the bend, and soon after emitted a terrifying racket from somewhere below. He’d blown two tyres; traffic began banking up through the gap.
Carlos returned at last, fuming about the unreliability of maps, his bottle unfilled:
Mike & Some Night-Hiking
We were ready to dry-camp and ration out our single litre of water when a hiker called Utah Mike* I’d met a couple of days earlier came out onto the road. He’d already done 19 miles that day and was doing another 2.5 to the next shelter.
We declined Mike’s offer of water; he hurried on, head down. Forensic Man and I looked at each other, smiled, shrugged, shouldered our packs, and hit the trail behind him.
This meant another laborious climb, much of it by headlamp light, but the cool of evening, the lure of water, a fresh challenge — we traded jokes, and arrived in good spirits at the crowded shelter at Brown Fork Gap with its sweet, cool H²O.
A Phone Call
We didn’t break any records the next day, either.
Carlos got a phone signal at Cody Gap and called his wife, back in Alabama, who was worried about some criminal who’d escaped from custody in the area.
He reassured her and handed me the phone. Her voice was sweet Southern honey as she made me promise not to let him drive home from Fontana Dam if he was too tired.
We moved on, stopped at ancient Cable Gap Shelter, for lunch and some sock-laundry…
..and then on, on, on into a hot, dry afternoon.
Periodic glimpses of cool blue taunted us through the trees: the dam restraining the Little Tennessee River. I started work on a song that’s in my head to this day; Carlos told stories till the heat and work killed them off.
A final, awful climb and we were at the dam. The shelter — a luxurious affair nicknamed the Fontana Hilton — was nearby. Carlos located the big, shiny pick-up truck he’d had shuttled there (a US-flag sticker announced UNITED WE STAND) and drove me to a store to resupply.
We didn’t speak much. His adventure was over, mine was taking another twist.
Tootsie’s & Beyond
We drove to a restaurant Carlos knew called Toosie’s. I ate diner-cuisine, marvelling at the incredibly incompetent “folk art” adorning the walls.
An enormous family — that is, a family of enormous individuals — got out of a groaning pickup outside. Carlos spoke to them, and informed me, as we returned to the dam, that they lived nearby and had never heard of the Appalachian Trail.
The road wound nauseatingly and I felt awful, struggling to hold all that grease down. Carlos was talking about snake-charming Primitive Baptists but all I wanted was air, ground, motionlessness.
Too soon, they were mine. We were shaking hands, and Carlos was offering his address and any help I might need.
“I won’t be your trail angel, Mountain Goat, but I will be your trail buddy.”
He drove off, and I hauled up my freshly laden pack and lugged it towards the Hilton.
We stayed in contact for a year or two off and on. Then tragedy intervened — Carlos’ son died of a rare illness — and over the years we lost touch. I still think about him a lot though, and hope he’s doing well…
* We’re still in occasional contact, and Mike met up with me two years later in the Maine portion of the Trail.
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote