Upon setting off for the Great Smoky Mountains, we had heard reports of tornadoes tearing through Missouri and parts of Tennessee. Naturally, I thought this was cool, and emailed family and friends, relaying this very exciting news. Unfortunately, this was the last they would hear from me for five days, given the trip to the Smoky Mountains was taken as a slightly last-minute event. And, with reports of over one hundred dead, this resulted in a lot of worry Back Home. But, this cursory email from a guy regressing back to his days when he wanted to be a storm chaser was soon forgotten, and Tom and I piled into our rented Smart Car with all our travelling gear, plus borrowed camping gear, all with just enough room for supplies to be bought en route.
The Smoky Mountains form part of the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and straddle the border of Tennessee and South Carolina; they’re also the US’ most visited national park.
Leaving just after lunch, we arrived in the newly settled dark; and as in Chile, I had the opportunity to view a landscape I had been sleeping in for several hours as the morning light touched upon the canvas. Tom and I awoke as the sun filtered through the Appalachian trees, and noticed that the RVs present the night before had, for the most part, moved on, and we were sharing the campgrounds with very few people.
Tom had noticed there was a scenic drive going on a loop around some of the other campsites, and decided we’d take it in with the other (literal) Sunday Drivers. Pleasant would be the word to describe it, and much of the cleared frontier land was aglow with the warm heat, and the greens of the fields brightened under the sun.
Scenic times indeed
We later offset this sojourn with an easy walk on a nearby track. It was the first of three increasingly difficult walks we were to take, and in the interests of succinctness, it involved three things of particular note:
– An utterly crystalline swimming hole that the stream we were walking beside opened into; with a waterfall pouring into it from another source, somewhere in the mountain, high above the lagoon. After a couple of hours’ walking, a splash into the water was crushingly refreshing.
– At lunch beside the stream, just below a walkbridge, Tom called me over – he had spotted an enclave of thirty to forty butterflies, forming a melange of colour whose pulsing did not change even when approached by two curious humans.
Not even half of them...
– A bright yellow-and-black-striped snake, which only made its presence known when I came within two inches of stepping on it. Visibly aggravated, it thankfully decided on flight rather than fight, and irritably slithered away up the slope next to the track.
Next day, we Stepped It Up A Notch, deciding to take a track that was a little longer, climbed a little higher, and would take us into the guts of the Smokies. It was a warm, muggy day (as they all had been since setting up the tent), and we were around twelve minutes into our expected four-hour hike when I spotted what was to be one of the highlights of my entire trip: a rustle of black and tan fur and movement off to our right, about four metres from the path. We HAD taken the “beware of bears” signs seriously, to the extent that we had put our food in the car at night, and read about the possibility of sightings. Of course, whilst doing so, we had wordlessly acknowledged that we were childlike boys at heart, and agreed on how COOL it would be to see one.
I alerted Tom in a quiet but urgent voice, which I later reflected sounded like my Teacher Voice, an indispensable part of a profession that I’m absolutely convinced has never been this instrumental in saving lives: “Tom, bear. To the right. TOM. BEAR. JUST. THERE”. A brief, hasty search on his part followed, and an identifiable stiffening of the limbs to match my already-frozen stance. Gradually, however, we stepped backwards from the creature, around ten metres away from us. It became aware of us (or at least acknowledged us) at this point, raising its head and looking straight at the two disbelieving Australians. Much later, it was agreed that the bear’s subsequent two or three steps in our general direction constituted a definite indication of an intent to rip our limbs from our torso. The colouring remained a mystery, however, and we were busily racking our brains trying to remember any content in the literature that could shed a light on whether Grizzlies roamed these mountains. We were (and remain) reasonably sure it was an adolescent, and the presence of a mother was the main worry for both of us. By this point, we had backed away twenty steps or so, and we watched with equal parts fascination and frustration as its presence prevented us from moving with our planned hike. Finally, we decided it had disappeared enough into the foliage for us to go and do the same into the path, and onward we went. It was later confirmed to be likely an adolescent Black Bear, whose colouring starts light, and grows darker as they age. With a little research, it was also confirmed that the mother was indeed the more present threat to us, given they are normally quite a docile species, EXCEPT when cubs are involved.
We collected a stick or rock each, and made plenty of noise as the path took us higher, knowing that a surprised bear is an aggressive bear, so the more warning they get of our presence, the better. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the leafy green foliage began to give way to brown-tinged, skeletal trees studding themselves into the strangely wet ground, eventually falling away to one side of us, whilst climbing the other. The wind began to build, too, in seemingly ravenous gusts, as though it had had to make do with devouring leaves for many years, and had not seen souls up in these parts in a long time. This was a beautiful but desolate place, so close to the lush scenic-drive-dominated lands below.
Forearmed is forearmed.
Contrast to the lushness below; note the birds in the air
The next day I was very excited for, because we planned to venture not only into another state, North Carolina, but because we were going to do it on the infamous Appalachian Trail. Both Tom and I were fans of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk In The Woods”, wherein the author embarks on an attempt to “through-hike” the entire Trail, along with his equally hapless companion, Katz. Whilst the Trail is usually many hours hiking away from the nearest town, in this case it pauses near the once-beautiful-but-now-altogether-vomit-inducingly-kitsch town of Gatlinburg. We drove up a mountain, finding a park amongst the globs of day-trippers, to where the trail picks up again after breaking off on the other side of the asphalt, meaning that every through-hiker must pass through the parking lot as something of a curiosity on show, which must be mildly mortifying to a person who, at this point of the Trail, must have gone several months having very limited contact with modern civilisation. Buying into the zoo-display analogy, both Tom and I were keen to catch sight of a real-life through-hiker in its natural habitat: the Trail. And, given our luck the previous days, we were quietly confident. These people usually spend at least six months hiking the Appalachians, an undertaking that requires a very certain degree of insanity – not to mention a tolerance of body odour beyond most people’s comprehension. Before long we had begun hiking the path, and left the gathered masses behind, and ruminated on how remarkable it is that a slight gradient and ever-increasing distance from one’s car can act as such strong deterrents for so many people.
Soon after, we sighted our first streak of white paint on a tree trunk, the emblematic marker signifying the Trail. We passed bear traps and beautiful old-growth trees, all the while drinking in – and moving amongst – the silence up there. Eventually we came upon one of the many shelters that dot the Trail, and there we found a heavily bearded man of about sixty, very well worn-in clothes and a nature about his personality that was ever-so-slightly askew…this, undoubtedly, was that most fascinating creature of the Appalachians; a real life through-hiker. I did not get his name, – a typical situation on my travels, when you’ve been speaking for so long that it becomes a little strange to ask their name at that point – but we found out he had been on the Trail for two months already, and that he and his as-yet unsighted friend were a little “delicate” after a night out in Gatlinburg on the Whisky.
“It’s a hell of a lot different down there from up here, that’s for sure,” he observed.
“Hell of a lot different down there than most anywhere!” his Trail partner cheerfully chimed in from behind the shelter’s blue tarpaulin facade. He emerged a minute later, and began gathering firewood just as it began to rain. We stayed on the balcony, eating our lunch as the drops formed a sheet of water in front of us. It emerged that they were in need of reading material, and were extremely grateful when I left an old National Geographic with the first man: “better than food! I finished my book a week ago!”
They did not know how far they would get, nor did they seem to mind if they finished or not. It turned out the first man had a deadline; a wedding – in September.
“However far I am by then, I’ll be happy enough,” he said, as the conversation’s spark eased, along with the rain. Here were a man and his friend so used to each other’s company, it seemed both a relief and a challenge to have third party conversation partners. Sensing our time was up with these two men – what mystery surrounding them! Where did they come from? What motivates them? Could they even put it into words? – Tom and I said our goodbyes. As we were walking back the way we came, it struck me that these men, indeed, all those who walk this trail, would find the practice of going back to where you came a difficult one to undertake. They walk in the same direction for over half a year, never going backwards, always edging closer to an endpoint so far in the future that maps showing it on the same page as the beginning are reduced down beyond all recognition. For many months on end, their life is viewed in a 1 : 250,000 scale, a massive shock of perspective. I tried to understand what that does to someone’s mind, but could not comprehend it. Going from such a macro-oriented viewpoint, to ensuring menial tasks are completed, is such a leap beyond me and how I perceive my life. As if to demonstrate this, just as the two men were about to disappear from our view, I turned and saw the first man stare out at the vista for a while longer. Finally, he turned, walked down the steps of the shelter, and wordlessly began helping his friend gather firewood. To them, this was just another day on the Appalachian Trail. At this very pre-September moment, they will still be somewhere in the very definition of “backcountry”, completing their stated aim of “at least eight, hopefully twelve miles a day”.
The next morning we packed up the Smart Car again, and hit the road. The weather seemed to have closed in, and the wind had really picked up, wobbling our feather-light vehicle all over the road. Then, after an hour or so or NPR (our sole oasis in a desert of preacher-personality-driven Christian radio), the radio began making strange sounds. Buzzing, zapping, whining, screeching…then a fuzzy, male, Southern-US-accented voice came on, saying “there is a tornado watch current for…” – at which point he began reeling off mysterious names. This presented something of a problem; namely that we had no idea if the green-sided highway we were wobbling down was included in this “Tornado Watch”.
“Is that us?”
“I dunno, where the hell are we?”
“I dunno, but that second county sounded kind of familiar for some reason…”
“Is that the one the tornadoes are east of?”
The view from the car
We decided to simply continue driving, knowing full well that the What You Don’t Know Can’t Hurt You maxim never was less apt. The rapidly blackening clouds told us we may in fact have been in danger for the third time in four days. We kept a sharp eye, and when the clouds had reached a shade resembling that of the highway we were hurtling down (insofar as hurtling is possible in a Smart Car), the snap, crackle and pops began once again. This time, the ghostly announcer had replaced the “watch” in Tornado Watch with “warning”. Tom and I immediately wrestled with the semantics and concluded that our likelihood of dying in a manner befitting the film “Twister” had just increased. What were we supposed to do? Pull over? Speed up? Stay in the car that went into death shakes at the slightest shiver of a tree’s leaves? Or run to…where? The very trees that in the wake of such events are inevitably described as having been “snapped like matchsticks”? Finally, we used our regional upbringing – and thus years of obsessing over oncoming weather – to analyse our approximate direction, the proportionate lighter shade of black that towered over that portion of the highway, and concluded that, in fact, we would be fine. This was cosily followed by a detailed analysis of who was the Helen Hunt, and the Bill Paxton, of our Twister-esque situation.
It was absolutely pouring down by the time we got back to Nashville, and after meeting a Bostonian in town for a marathon, I logged on at a Starbucks whilst waiting for the Greyhound to Memphis, we realised the seriousness of the situation: the tornadoes we had been warned of were in fact the tail end of a spate of disastrous twisters that had been pummelling Tennessee and its surrounding states since we had left for the Smokies; since, indeed, I had emailed my family and friends with the exciting news that tornado warnings had been issued for our area, then been conspicuously silent for four days. With a great deal of guilt, I finally replied to the increasingly concerned and urgent emails that had been sent to me in the past few days, and boarded the bus, in one last push of Southward travel.
The mission across the road, Nashville