On the Trail, a Play in Three Acts

Act 1: The Pre-Game Show

8:00am – I knock on the Padawan’s door to wake him up. I hear a grunt, so I know he is, at least, alive.

8:15 – A second knock, accompanied by a mild threat encouragement.

8:20 – The Padawan emerges, coughing, groaning, and sneezing pitifully. “I think I caught something yesterday,” he moans. His paroxysms would garner more sympathy if he didn’t fake his own death before every, single hike.

8:25 The Padawan flops into a chair with a dramatic sigh.

8:30 The Padawan reads “Penguins With People Problems.” Under normal circumstances, I would applaud his choice. It’s hilarious. But we’re going to rack up some miles! Times a-wastin’!

8:35 The Padawan pets a baby kitty. It’s about to get real all up in here.

8:45 After vaguely veiled threats to take him on the trail in his ever-lovin’ jim-jams, he is finally dressed and ready to go. Squish is easier. It’s the one time I’m grateful he sleeps in his clothes. All I have to do is put on his boots and point him in the right direction.

Act 2: On the Trail

11:42am – It took us a while because we got lost. More than once. went exploring, but we’re finally ready to step off at the trail head. Armed with four Clif bars and a bag of apples plenty of food and water, we are ready to get this done!

11:45am – Threaten to sell the Padawan to the circus.

12:30 – Threaten to sell BOTH boys to the circus.

12:45 – Wonder why I ever thought it was a good idea to go hiking on my own. I’m not sad that my Saloman boots are being repaired. I have these Timberlands. I love them so much that I have three identical pairs.

1:00 – Like a muscle that simply needs time to warm up, the Padawan’s attitude improves dramatically. We talk school and books and politics.  We keep our eyes peeled for good places to hunt salamanders.

1:10 – I get a terrific idea! The boys are skeptical. Kids have hiked with me before sure turn cynical quickly these days, don’t they? The little scamps! Hey, fellas, what say we add a few miles to this trail? Let’s make the turn and head up Goshen’s Prong for a couple of miles? Wouldn’t that be fun? Wouldn’t it?!! After a promise of Sonic Blasts or Yu-gi-oh cards, they agree. Fantastic idea, Mom!

Act 3: The Reckoning

2:30 – I’m not tired! Man, these boots are small. Wow, how did I forget how small these boots are? If it weren’t for that deformed long toe of mine.

2:45 – This was a good idea, right? Yes, it was. We’re going to get extra miles to help us to our 100 mile goal! Just think how close we will be! Did I ever mention that I am allergic to wool socks? Yeah, I forgot, too. That’s an interesting rash.

2:50 – Attempt to saw off my two deformed toes with a rock and a sharp stick.

3:00 – Not much further now, kids! We’re down and back! Down and back! Let’s catch us some salamanders! Or you boys catch them. My hands are swollen like two chunks of wood. I might squish the hapless amphibians. And my boots are feeling a wee bit snug. Isn’t that funny? Ha-ha?

Probably a species of Dusky Salamander. These things are EVERYWHERE up here. It's one place where there are more amphibians than tourists.

Probably a species of Dusky Salamander. These things are EVERYWHERE up here. It’s one place where there are more amphibians than tourists.

3:05 – Enough with the salamanders, boys. We’ve caught enough. We’ve each found one. Or we found one. I don’t know. Can we just go?

3:15 – My feet. At least the rapid swelling has replaced itchy with numbness. So there’s that.

3:30 – See that patch of sunlight up a ways? That’s the trail head! We’re almost there!

3:35 – Wrong #$%$ patch of sunlight, kids. Just stop talking and keep walking. Just. Keep. Walking. To the nearest boot store, if possible.

3:50 – That patch of sunlight was the wrong one, too. Keep frickin’ walking. Whose idea was this, anyway?

3:55 – My. Feet. Hurl boots into nearest stream and wonder if I can convince one of the boys to carry me.

I don't sit down with them. Mostly because I'm afraid I won't get up again.

I don’t sit down with them. Mostly because I’m afraid I won’t get up again.

4:00 – Oh, thank you, sweet baby Jesus, for leading us out of the woods! You are our light in the darkness! What do you MEAN, the car is another half-mile from here? I know the closest parking lot was full when we got here, but doesn’t the park service offer valet? How many Yu-gi-oh cards will I have to give for a helicopter rescue?

That makes 90 miles for me. Only 10 more to go. Let’s go again TOMORROW!


Taming the Mountain

We’ve talked about it for years. We both wanted to do it. We would do it. Someday we would pack our gear and get it done. On Saturday, someday arrived. We hiked to the peak of Mt LeConte.

For weeks prior, I was plagued by doubts. LeConte is the third highest peak in the Smoky Mountains. We’ve done the Alum Cave Bluff portion a year and a half ago, and I remember it being a real challenge. This time around, we would be in the company of the Padawan’s Webelos den. Would I be able to keep up with the kids? Would I be that mom who slowed the whole group down? I didn’t want to ruin it for my husband or my son, especially since our den leader had planned the whole trip so he could award the boys their Webelos rank at the top of the mountain. It was a big deal.

Husband and I had some disagreements prior to stepping off the trail. I let him win on both counts, but I still resent it a little. He talked me out of taking my “real” camera, and I had to settle for my daughter’s point-and-shoot. He also balked when I packed my book in my backpack. “You’re not going to have time to read, and you’ll be sorry for the extra weight.” Yeah. I did, and I wouldn’t have. But whatever.

On the way up, I couldn’t stop smiling. It’s not every day I get to cross something off The Dream List. The trail was so much easier than I remembered, maybe because I didn’t have a thirty pound preschooler dangling off my back this time. We got to Alum Cave much faster than I expected, and it was actually fun. It wasn’t a fear of heights that made our last trip so terrifying, it was a fear of Squish plummeting off the side of the mountain. No Squish, no worries.

Yes, it's as steep as it looks.

Yes, it’s as steep as it looks.


We tagged about 1/10th of a mile behind the Padawan’s group, well ahead of the middle-of-the-pack. My husband and I hiked essentially in solitude. We talked. We are at our most honest on the trail. Being in the moment brings the things that matter into clearer focus. We can solve the world’s problems at 6,000 feet. As the path grew more difficult, the talking stopped, and our thoughts turned inward.

We hit the top after just under three hours of hiking. Actually, we hit it sooner than that, but we missed the trail to the lodge and kept hiking another 1/4 mile before I realized our mistake and we got turned around. While we waited for the last group, we took a side trip to the actual peak.

Please ignore the cheesy grin. Please?

Please ignore the cheesy grin. Please?

I must have framed a thousand shots that I did not take. The breathtaking peaks and valleys; tiny deer mice scurrying across the trail; tangles of tree roots spilling downhill like so much water; my husband, rosy-cheeked and smiling, mist hanging over the hills; my son grinning with the triumph of 11 conquered miles.  I carry those images in my heart.


At the Trailhead: Alum Caves Bluff

We’re not ones to sit around the house while the sun shines. There are too many trails out there just waiting to be explored, so when my husband and kids had a week off, the first thing we did was plan some hikes. One of my goals this year is to hike at least four trails that are new to me, even if the rest of the world has already been there. Twice. And Alum Caves Bluff trail seems to fit into both categories.

The Smoky Mountains are a bit of a drive for us, so we made sure to get an early start. According to the map, the trailhead was close by the Sugarlands Visitor Center. This well-staffed visitor center is a destination in itself, containing a fascinating 25 minute film on the history of the area, a museum with taxidermied native species, and short nature trails with guided tours.

After a quick visit (read: pee break) at the center, we headed to our final ultimate destination, the Alum Caves trail. It’s apparently a very popular trail, as both parking lots at the trailhead were full. We don’t actually know where all those people went, however, since we saw almost nobody on the trail itself. Not that we were complaining.

The trail is only 2.5 miles long. After more than a mile of hiking, I asked my husband if I should be getting worried that we were gaining almost no altitude. The answer was yes. Shortly thereafter, we hit Arch Rock, a narrow pass up a rock staircase, and it was all hard uphill from there.

Straight up, and hang on tight! The cable handrail was much appreciated!

There were a number of water crossings, all over wooden suspension bridges.

Just one of the many foot bridges along the trail

The trail got steep. Very steep. We gained most of the 1300ft elevation in the last mile of the hike, but we are made of stern stuff (read: we did a little whining) and we pressed onward.

Everything seems to spill downhill like water. Even the roots of the trees.

After what felt like an eternity, we heard voices. Friendly ones. And they weren’t inside our heads, so we knew that we were close to our destination. Another steep, rocky path with a cable hand-hold, and we got our first view.

Yep. That's it. For scale, note the tiny little handrail in the center of the photo. I

View from the top of the bluff. Note the delightful 45 degree angle. We're overjoyed that we didn't die here.

We discovered that the footing under the bluff is basically course sand. One wrong move, and we’d plummet to a painful death. What’s not to like?

This one gives a little better idea of the angle. It's incredibly steep. My advice: bring hiking poles and stay low to the ground!

I have an irrational fear of heights (more accurately a fear of falling from great heights), so we didn’t stay long. The descent was terrifying, but I am proud to say that no pants were pooped in the hiking of this trail. But it was close a couple of times.

Due to my irrational (or in this particular case, perfectly justified) fears, Squish remained in the Ergo for the entire trip. But he was okay with it. He got cookie cake.

If you enjoy hiking and are in the Smokies, I do recommend trying this trail. It’s short and scenic, and there are some views you just can’t catch anywhere else. But it’s not a trail for the faint of heart.

Trail Ratings

Difficulty: on a scale from 1-10, I’d give this one a 7. The first part is very, very easy. The last half, not so much!  It’s better suited to people who are in good shape.

Length: 2.5 miles. 3-5 hours, depending on how fast you move and how long you stay at the bluff.

Kid friendliness: I’d recommend it for ages seven and up. There are some very tricky spots, and when it gets steep, it’s a challenge even for those who hike regularly.

Scenery: It’s simply beautiful up there. We’ll go again, but maybe not with the kids next time. We’d like to continue the trail up to Mount Le Conte, but doing so means gaining another 1500 ft in under a mile.

Tips: Bring hiking poles if you have them. If the weather is rainy and you are bringing kids, skip it altogether. The path would be dangerous in several spots in inclement weather. Pack a picnic lunch to eat under the bluff if you are brave!

And a parting shot

There were a number of waterfalls on this hike, but this one is my favorite. It's a little thing - no more than 30 inches tall, but it thinks it's Niagara Falls.

Weekend Wanderers

"Not all who wander are lost." J.R.R. Tolkien

For my family, a weekend with good weather is a weekend that is meant to be spent out of doors. One of our favorite things to do is hike, so when Saturday dawned all cool and sunny and delicious, we knew we had to get out and hit the trail!

There are several state and national parks close by, and sometimes it is difficult to choose one. This time, we voted to choose a trail we had never done before in a park we visit with some regularity. Having learned from past mistakes when we stumble back home exhausted and starving, I set out our dinner. All we needed to do was toss it in the oven for 15 minutes when we got back. We packed water bottles, apples and some bunny crackers for the trip home, and we were set.

We got to the park in less time than I had expected, and we were feeling fine.  One thing we enjoy about this park is that we don’t usually see very many people. We squashed our dismay at seeing the parking lot nearly full. Apparently someone was throwing a birthday bash in the closest picnic shelter. A raucous one. Oh, well, we thought. We’ll get back on the trail, and we won’t even realize that they are there. We parked the car and sun-screened ourselves. We forgot the bug spray, but what difference does that make, really?

After taking small ones to the restroom, we checked the trail map. 2.7 miles. No problem. A casual stroll for our family. We’d be home and eating dinner by 5:30. We grabbed our hiking poles, popped Squish into the Ergo and headed out.

The trail was nearly flat at the start, and nice and wide. After about 15 minutes of brisk walking, we noticed that we could still hear the merry-makers at the picnic shelter. Quite loudly, as a matter of fact. It was some party. Apparently the trail begins by looping back to the east and makes a very gradual turn back toward our destination. It took over half an hour of hard walking to finally get away from the noises of civilization and finally feel like we were back in the woods.

The trail sloped gently upward as we climbed the hill. My first dilemma of the hike came sooner than I expected. The kids were the first ones to find the scat. Yes, even when I write about hiking, I will still find a way to mention poop. After careful examination (from a distance, I will add), my 9 year old announced “That animal ate berries.” And he was right. The rest of the family dashed blithely on ahead as I debated whether or not to mention that turd was left by a bear. I decided against it. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The sun was so hidden by the trees that it appeared as though we were on the verge of a huge storm, but as I found myself continually rubbing gnats out of my eyes, I left my sunglasses on. The big kids slapped at the bugs that were chewing on their arms, and Squish choked once or twice on a gnat. Next time, we’ll actually use the bug spray. But nothing was going to spoil this day.

The weather was cool but humid. The ground was littered with green leaves and small branches, evidence of a recent and rather severe storm. But we shouldn’t have any water crossings, according to the map. We pressed on.

The trail narrowed significantly, until it was more of a suggestion than a path, barely wider than my two boots. A steep drop-off was on my left, a tangle of branches on my right. Thank goodness for hiking poles to give us a bit of traction. The kids counted enormous millipedes and woolly worms, both of which we found in abundance, discussing the differences between a centipede and millipede, and the niche each occupies in the ecosystem.

I realized about a mile in that I had worn the wrong boots AND needed another pair of socks, but bravely I plowed on. Another mile, and we began to have some doubts about the accuracy of the trail map. We’d have 2.7 miles behind us really soon, and the trail showed no sign of ending. Ever. Each time we crested a hill, our triumph turned to chagrin as we saw a still larger peak ahead. I wondered more than once if we had actually been transported to Middle Earth, to a mountain that was fighting back. Oh, did you not know that I’m a geek? Consider yourself enlightened.

At times it did appear that the mountain had a mind of its own. Remember that storm? Not only had it dropped so much bright green leaf-litter that we could barely see the path, it also took down a few trees. Over the trail itself, as it so happens. We found ourselves sliding down rain-softened earth and scrambling up steep hillsides to pick up the trail again. And more than once we had to leap and limbo over the trunks of massive trees that had lost their battle with the storm. My daughter stayed close behind me to keep a visual on her baby brother and prevent me from knocking his head off as I slid under tree trunks with him perched on my back. American Gladiators has nothing on me.

After awhile, no one talked. We were too tired/daunted/annoyed to speak. And suddenly my husband said “Look at that!” And so we did. We crowded close to examine his find. It was no millipede. He had discovered one of our favorite things to come across in the forest, a carcass. This particular animal had been dead a few weeks, it’s pelt peeled partially back from its skull. The teeth were fascinating, consisting of large, thin, curved canines. Definitely carnivore. The rest of the remains were a bit of a puzzle. Long tail, tawny colored fur, once-powerful long legs designed for jumping. We spent the rest of the hike speculating what it might have been. It appeared to be a young animal, as there was another set of canines beginning to make their appearance, much more substantial than the first. I do love a good mystery.

After forty-five more minutes, the shine had worn off of that particular mystery. We began to wonder when and if the trail was going to crest and begin to loop back toward the east again. My biggest fear was that, having laid a long, gently sloping trail that stretched for miles, the trailblazer would have lost interest on the home trip and blazed a steeper, shorter trail for the return.

And so it was. The upside was that going downhill took pressure off the backs of my heels and allowed my boots to chew on  a different part of my feet. We did learn something, too. When a trail is named after a creek, that sometimes means that the trail once was a creek. Complete with large, slippery, moss-covered creek rocks. It makes for an exciting and sometimes unexpectedly speedy descent!

The trail seemed to improve marginally for a bit, and then we came to this:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

This is the actual trail. The photo doesn’t quite do it justice. The portion that you see is actually about 25 feet of rock. Steep, slippery, rippled rock with a lovely rock pit below ready to offer a landing you’ll never forget should you miss a step. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to slither across the bottom rim. Have fun! This photo represents our next dilemma. Do we attempt this crossing, or do we turn back, knowing that we will have three miles to cover should we double back.

My husband was ready to throw in the towel. “We can’t do this,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. My 9 year old considered carefully. Is he brave or was risk of injury preferable to hiking back three miles? A little of both, I think. He and my daughter studied the footpath and said “Oh, Dad, we can do this! Just put your feet here, and here, and then you hop over.” My husband did a test run for us, and we discovered they were actually right! It was way easier than it looked at first glance. Lesser people may have turned back, but we will not be vanquished! On we plowed.

Gradually, the trail began to smooth out. Fewer rocks and a wider path  meant that we could speed up a bit. We were done. Ready to go home. Enough fun for one day. And a mile and a half later, we made it back to the car.

We arrived home an hour and a half later than I had really hoped, my feet had been completely chewed by my boots, my hips were so tired from lugging Squish’s nearly thirty pounds that I could hardly move. And as the sun rose on Sunday morning, the first words out of my mouth were “Yesterday was so great! You want to go for another hike today?! ” We didn’t manage to find the time to do it again, but you’d better believe we’ll be out next weekend, if the weather holds and the creek don’t rise. Adventure awaits!