فصل 07

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فصل 07

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For two days, Katz barely spoke to me. On the second night, at nine o’clock, an unlikely noise came from his tent–the punctured-air click of a beverage can being opened–and he said in a pugnacious tone, “Do you know what that was, Bryson? Cream soda. You know what else? I’m drinking it right now, and I’m not giving you any. And you know what else?

It’s delicious.” There was a slurpy, intentionally amplified drinking noise. “Mmmm-mmmm.

Dee-light-full.” Another slurp. “And do you know why I’m drinking it now? Because it’s 9 P.M.–time for the ‘X-Files,’ my favorite program of all time.” There was a long moment’s drinking noise, the sound of a tent zip parting, the tinkle of an empty can landing in undergrowth, the tent zip closing. “Man, that was so good. Now fuck you and good night.”

And that was the end of it. In the morning he was fine.

Katz never really did get into hiking, though goodness knows he tried. From time to time, I believe, he glimpsed that there was something–some elusive, elemental something–that made being out in the woods almost gratifying. Occasionally, he would exclaim over a view or regard with admiration some passing marvel of nature, but mostly to him hiking was a tiring, dirty, pointless slog between distantly spaced comfort zones. I, meanwhile, was wholly, mindlessly, very contentedly absorbed with the business of just pushing forward. My congenital distraction sometimes fascinated him and sometimes amused him, but mostly it just drove him crazy.

Late on the morning of the fourth day after leaving Franklin, I was perched on a big green rock waiting for Katz after it dawned on me that I had not seen him for some time.

When at last he came along, he was even more disheveled than usual. There were twigs in his hair, an arresting new tear on his flannel shirt, and a trickle of dried blood on his forehead. He dropped his pack and sat heavily beside me with his water bottle, took along swig, mopped his forehead, checked his hand for blood, and finally said, in a conversational tone: “How did you get around that tree back there?”

“What tree?”

“The fallen tree, back there. The one across the ledge.”

I thought for a minute. “I don’t remember it.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember it? It was blocking the path, for crying out loud.”

I thought again, harder, and shook my head with a look of feeble apology. I could see he was heading towards exasperation.

“Just back there four, five hundred yards.” He paused, waiting for a spark of recognition, and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t forthcoming. “One side a sheer cliff, the other side a thicket of brambles with no way through, and in the middle a big fallen tree.

You had to have noticed it.”

“Whereabouts was it exactly?” I asked, as if stalling for time.

Katz couldn’t contain his irritation. “Just back there, for Christ sake. One side cliff, other side brambles, and in the middle a big fallen-down oak with about this much clearance.”

He held his hand about fourteen inches off the ground and was dumbfounded by my blank look. “Bryson, I don’t know what you’re taking, but I gotta have some of it. The tree was too high to climb over and too low to crawl under and there wasn’t any way around it. It took me a half hour to get over it, and I cut myself all to shit in the process. How could you not remember it?”

“It might come to me after a bit,” I said hopefully. Katz shook his head sadly. I was never entirely certain why he found my mental absences so irritating–whether he thought I was being willfully obtuse to annoy him or whether he felt I was unreasonably cheating hardship by failing to notice it–but I made a private pledge to remain alert and fully conscious for a while, so not to exasperate him. Two hours later we had one of those hallelujah moments that come but rarely on the trail. We were walking along the lofty breast of a mountain called High Top when the trees parted at a granite overlook and we were confronted with an arresting prospect–a sudden new world of big, muscular, comparatively craggy mountains, steeped in haze and nudged at the distant margins by moody-looking clouds, at once deeply beckoning and rather awesome.

We had found the Smokies.

Far below, squeezed into a narrow valley, was Fontana Lake, a long, fjordlike arm of pale green water. At the lake’s western end, where the Little Tennessee River flows into it, stands a big hydroelectric dam, 480 feet high, built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s. It is the biggest dam in America east of the Mississippi and something of an attraction for people who like concrete in volume. We hastened down the trail to it as we had an inkling that there was a visitors’ center there, which meant the possibility of a cafeteria and other gratifying contacts with the developed world. At the very least, we speculated excitedly, there would be vending machines and rest rooms, where we could wash and get fresh water, look in a mirror–briefly be groomed and civilized.

There was indeed a visitors’ center, but it was shut. A peeling notice taped to the glass said it wouldn’t open for another month. The vending machines were empty and unplugged, and to our dismay even the rest rooms were locked. Katz found a tap on an outside wall and turned it, but the water had been shut off. We sighed, exchanged stoic,long-suffering looks, and pushed on. Over a view or regard with admiration some passing marvel of nature, but mostly to him hiking was a tiring, dirty, pointless slog between distantly spaced comfort zones. I, meanwhile, was wholly, mindlessly, very contentedly absorbed with the business of just pushing forward. My congenital distraction sometimes fascinated him and sometimes amused him, but mostly it just drove him crazy.

Late on the morning of the fourth day after leaving Franklin, I was perched on a big green rock waiting for Katz after it dawned on me that I had not seen him for some time.

When at last he came along, he was even more disheveled than usual. There were twigs in his hair, an arresting new tear on his flannel shirt, and a trickle of dried blood on his forehead. He dropped his pack and sat heavily beside me with his water bottle, took a long swig, mopped his forehead, checked his hand for blood, and finally said, in a conversational tone: “How did you get around that tree back there?”

“What tree?”

“The fallen tree, back there. The one across the ledge.”

I thought for a minute. “I don’t remember it.”

“What do you mean you don’t remember it? It was blocking the path, for crying out loud.”

I thought again, harder, and shook my head with a look of feeble apology. I could see he was heading towards exasperation.

“Just back there four, five hundred yards.” He paused, waiting for a spark of recognition, and couldn’t believe that it wasn’t forthcoming. “One side a sheer cliff, the other side a thicket of brambles with no way through, and in the middle a big fallen tree.

You had to have noticed it.”

“Whereabouts was it exactly?” I asked, as if stalling for time.

Katz couldn’t contain his irritation. “Just back there, for Christ sake. One side cliff, other side brambles, and in the middle a big fallen-down oak with about this much clearance.”

He held his hand about fourteen inches off the ground and was dumbfounded by my blank look. “Bryson, I don’t know what you’re taking, but I gotta have some of it. The tree was too high to climb over and too low to crawl under and there wasn’t any way around it. It took me a half hour to get over it, and I cut myself all to shit in the process. How could you not remember it?”

“It might come to me after a bit,” I said hopefully. Katz shook his head sadly. I was never entirely certain why he found my mental absences so irritating–whether he thought I was being willfully obtuse to annoy him or whether he felt I was unreasonably cheating hardship by failing to notice it–but I made a private pledge to remain alert and fully conscious for a while, so not to exasperate him. Two hours later we had one of those hallelujah moments that come but rarely on the trail. We were walking along the lofty breast of a mountain called High Top when the trees parted at a granite overlook and we were confronted with an arresting prospect–a sudden new world of big, muscular, comparatively craggy mountains, steeped in haze and nudged at the distant margins by moody-looking clouds, at once deeply beckoning and rather awesome.

We had found the Smokies.

Far below, squeezed into a narrow valley, was Fontana Lake, a long, fjordlike arm of pale green water. At the lake’s western end, where the Little Tennessee River flows into it, stands a big hydroelectric dam, 480 feet high, built by the Tennessee Valley Authorityin the 1930s. It is the biggest dam in America east of the Mississippi and something of an attraction for people who like concrete in volume. We hastened down the trail to it as we had an inkling that there was a visitors’ center there, which meant the possibility of a cafeteria and other gratifying contacts with the developed world. At the very least, we speculated excitedly, there would be vending machines and rest rooms, where we could wash and get fresh water, look in a mirror–briefly be groomed and civilized.

There was indeed a visitors’ center, but it was shut. A peeling notice taped to the glass said it wouldn’t open for another month. The vending machines were empty and unplugged, and to our dismay even the rest rooms were locked. Katz found a tap on an outside wall and turned it, but the water had been shut off. We sighed, exchanged stoic, long-suffering looks, and pushed on.

The trail crossed the lake on the top of the dam. The mountains before us didn’t so much rise from the lake as rear from it, like startled beasts. It was clear at a glance that we were entering a new realm of magnificence and challenge. The far shore of the lake marked the southern boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ahead lay 800 square miles of dense, steeply mountainous forest, with seven days and 71 miles of rigorous hiking before we came out the other end and could dream again of cheeseburgers, Cokes, flush toilets, and running water. It would have been nice, at the very least, to have set off with clean hands and faces. I hadn’t told Katz, but we were about to traverse sixteen peaks above 6,000 feet, including Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet (just 41 feet less than nearby Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the eastern United States). I was eager and excited–even Katz seemed cautiously keen–for there was a good deal to be excited about.

For one thing, we had just picked up another state–our third, Tennessee–which always brings a sense of achievement on the trail. For nearly its whole length through the Smokies, the AT marks the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. I liked this very much, the idea of being able to stand with my left foot in one state and my right foot in the other whenever I wanted, which was often, or to choose at rest breaks between sitting on a log in Tennessee and a rock in North Carolina, or to pee across state lines, or many other variations. Then there was the excitement of all the new things we might see in these rich, dark, storied mountains–giant salamanders and towering tulip trees and the famous jack-o-lantern mushroom, which glows at night with a greenish phosphorescent light called foxfire. Perhaps we would even see a bear (downwind, from a safe distance, oblivious of me, interested exclusively in Katz, if either of us). Above all, there was the hope–the conviction–that spring could not be far off, that every passing day had to bring us closer to it, and that here in the natural Eden of the Smokies it would surely, at last, burst forth.

For the Smokies are a very Eden. We were entering what botanists like to call “the finest mixed mesophytic forest in the world.”

The Smokies harbor an astonishing range of plant life–over 1,500 types of wildflower, a thousand varieties of shrub, 530 mosses and lichen, 2,000 types of fungi. They are home to 130 native species of tree; the whole of Europe has just 85.

They owe this lavish abundance to the deep, loamy soils of their sheltered valleys, known locally as coves; to their warm, moist climate (which produces the natural bluish haze from which they get their name); and above all to the happy accident of theAppalachians’ north–south orientation. During the last ice age, as glaciers and ice sheets spread down from the Arctic, northern flora all over the world naturally tried to escape southwards. In Europe, untold numbers of native species were crushed against the impassable barrier of the Alps and its smaller cousins and fell into extinction. In eastern North America, there was no such impediment to retreat, so trees and other plants found their way through river valleys and along the flanks of mountains until they arrived at a congenial refuge in the Smokies, and there they have remained ever since. (When at last the ice sheets drew back, the native northern trees began the long process of returning to their former territories. Some, like the white cedar and rhododendron, are only now reaching home–a reminder that, geologically speaking, the ice sheets have only just gone.)

Rich plant life naturally brings rich animal life. The Smokies are home to sixty-seven varieties of mammal, over 200 types of bird, and eighty species of reptile and amphibianall larger numbers than are found in comparable-sized areas almost anywhere else in the temperate world. Above all, the Smokies are famous for their bears. The number of bears in the park is not large–estimates range from 400 to 600–but they are a chronic problem because so many of them have lost their fear of humans. More than nine million people a year come to the Smokies, many of them to picnic. So bears have learned to associate people with food. Indeed, to them people are overweight creatures in baseball caps who spread lots and lots of food out on picnic tables and then shriek a little and waddle off to get their video cameras when old Mr. Bear comes along and climbs onto the table and starts devouring their potato salad and chocolate cake. Since the bear doesn’t mind being filmed and indeed seems indifferent to his audience, pretty generally some fool will come up to it and try to stroke it or feed it a cupcake or something. There is one recorded instance of a woman smearing honey on her toddler’s fingers so that the bear would lick it off for the video camera. Failing to understand this, the bear ate the baby’s hand.

When this sort of thing happens (and about a dozen people a year are injured, usually at picnic sites, usually by doing something dumb) or when a bear becomes persistent or aggressive, park rangers shoot it with a tranquilizer dart, truss it up, take it into the depths of the backcountry, far from roads and picnic sites, and let it loose. Of course by now the bear has become thoroughly habituated both to human beings and to their food.

And who will they find to take food from out in the back country? Why, from me and Katz, of course, and others like us. The annals of Appalachian Trail hikes are full of tales of hikers being mugged by bears in the back country of the Smokies. And so as we plunged into the steep, dense, covering woods of Shuckstack Mountain, I stayed closer than usual to Katz and carried my walking stick like a club. He thought I was a fool, of course.

The true creature of the Smokies, however, is the reclusive and little-appreciated salamander. There are twenty-five varieties of salamander in the Smokies, more than anywhere else on earth. Salamanders are interesting, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. To begin with, they are the oldest of all land vertebrates. When creatures first crawled from the seas, this is what came up, and they haven’t changed a great deal since.

Some varieties of Smokies salamander haven’t even evolved lungs. (They breathe through their skin.) Most salamanders are tiny, only an inch or two long, but the rare and startlingly ugly hellbender salamander can attain lengths of over two feet. I ached to see a hellbender.Even more varied and underappreciated than the salamander is the freshwater mussel.

Three hundred types of mussel, a third of the world’s total, live in the Smokies. Smokies mussels have terrific names, like purple wartyback, shiny pigtoe, and monkeyface pearlymussel. Unfortunately, that is where all interest in them ends. Because they are so little regarded, even by naturalists, mussels have vanished at an exceptional rate. Nearly half of all Smokies mussels species are endangered; twelve are thought to be extinct.

This ought to be a little surprising in a national park. I mean it’s not as if mussels are flinging themselves under the wheels of passing cars. Still, the Smokies seem to be in the process of losing most of their mussels. The National Park Service actually has something of a tradition of making things extinct. Bryce Canyon National Park is perhaps the most interesting–certainly the most striking– example. It was founded in 1923 and in less than half a century under the Park Service’s stewardship lost seven species of mammal–the white-tailed jackrabbit, prairie dog, pronghorn antelope, flying squirrel, beaver, red fox, and spotted skunk. Quite an achievement when you consider that these animals had survived in Bryce Canyon for tens of millions of years before the Park Service took an interest in them. Altogether, forty-two species of mammal have disappeared from America’s national parks this century.

Here in the Smokies, not far from where Katz and I now trod, the Park Service in 1957 decided to “reclaim” Abrams Creek, a tributary of the Little Tennessee River, for rainbow trout, even though rainbow trout had never been native to Abrams Creek. To that end, biologists dumped several drums of a poison called rote-none into fifteen miles of creek.

Within hours, tens of thousands of dead fish were floating on the surface like autumn leaves. Among the thirty-one species of Abrams Creek fish that were wiped out was one called the smoky madtom, which scientists had never seen before. Thus, Park Service biologists managed the wonderfully unusual accomplishment of discovering and eradicating in the same instant a new species of fish. (In 1980, another colony of smoky madtoms was found in a nearby stream.)

Of course, that was forty years ago, and such foolishness would be unthinkable in these more enlightened times. Today the National Park Service employs a more casual approach to endangering wildlife: neglect. It spends almost nothing–less than 3 percent of its budget–on research of any type, which is why no one knows how many mussels are extinct or even why they are going extinct. Everywhere you look in the eastern forests, trees are dying in colossal numbers. In the Smokies, over 90 percent of Fraser firs–a noble tree, unique to the southern Appalachian highlands–are sick or dying, from a combination of acid rain and the depredations of a moth called the balsam woolly adelgid.

Ask a park official what they are doing about it and he will say, “We are monitoring the situation closely.” For this, read: “We are watching them die.”

Or consider the grassy balds–treeless, meadowy expanses of mountaintop, up to 250 acres in extent, which are quite unique to the southern Appalachians. No one knows why the balds are there, or how long they have existed, or why they appear on some mountains but not others. Some believe they are natural features, perhaps relics of lightning fires, and some believe that they are man-made, burned or cleared to provide land for summer grazing. What is certain is that they are central to the character of the Smokies. To climb for hours through cool, dark forest and emerge at last onto the liberating open space of a sunny bald, under a dome of blue sky, with views to everyhorizon, is an experience not to be forgotten. But they are far more than just grassy curiosities. According to the writer Hiram Rogers, grassy balds cover just 0.015 percent of the Smokies landscape yet hold 29 percent of its flora. For unknown numbers of years they were used first by Indians and then by European settlers for grazing summer livestock, but now, with graziers banished and the Park Service doing nothing, woody species like hawthorn and blackberry are steadily reclaiming the mountaintops. Within twenty years, there may be no balds left in the Smokies. Ninety plant species have disappeared from the balds since the park was opened in the 1930s. At least twenty-five more are expected to go in the next few years. There is no plan to save them.

Now you might conclude from this that I don’t much admire the Park Service and its people, and that’s not quite so. I never met a ranger who wasn’t cheerful, dedicated, and generally well informed. (Mind you, I hardly ever met a ranger because most of them have been laid off, but the ones I encountered were entirely noble and good.) No, my problem is not with the people on the ground, it is with the Park Service itself. A lot of people point out in defense of the national parks that they have been starved of funds, and this is indubitably so. In constant dollars, the Park Service budget today is $200 million a year less than it was a decade ago. In consequence, even as visitor numbers have soared–from 79 million in 1960 to almost 270 million today–campsites and interpretation centers have been shut, warden numbers slashed, and essential maintenance deferred to a positively ludicrous degree. By 1997, the repair backlog for the national parks had reached $6 billion. All quite scandalous. But consider this. In 1991, as its trees were dying, its buildings crumbling, its visitors being turned away from campgrounds it could not afford to keep open, and its employees being laid off in record numbers, the National Park Service threw a seventy-fifth anniversary party for itself in Vail, Colorado. It spent $500,000 on the event. That may not be quite as moronically negligent as tipping hundreds of gallons of poison into a wilderness stream, but it is certainly in the right spirit.

But, hey, let’s not lose our perspective here. The Smokies achieved their natural splendor without the guidance of a national park service and don’t actually need it now.

Indeed, given the Park Service’s bizarre and erratic behavior throughout its history (here’s another one for you: in the 1960s it invited the Walt Disney Corporation to build an amusement complex in Sequoia National Park in California) it is perhaps not an altogether bad idea to starve it of funds. I am almost certain that if that $200 million a year were restored to the budget, nearly all of it would go into building more parking lots and RV hookups, not into saving trees and certainly not into restoring the precious, lovely grassy balds. It is actually Park Service policy to let the balds vanish. Having gotten everyone in a lather by interfering with nature for years, it has decided now not to interfere with nature at all, even when that interference would be demonstrably beneficial. I tell you, these people are a wonder.

Dusk was settling in when we reached Birch Spring Gap Shelter, standing on a slope beside a muddy stream a couple of hundred feet downhill from the trail. In the silvery half-light, it looked wonderful. In contrast to the utilitarian plywood structures found elsewhere on the trail, the shelters of the Smokies were solidly built of stone in an intentionally quaint, rustic style, so from a distance Birch Spring Gap Shelter had the snug, homey, inviting look of a cabin. Up close, however, it was somewhat lessenthralling. The interior was dark and leaky, with a mud floor like chocolate pudding, a cramped and filthy sleeping platform, and scraps of wet litter everywhere. Water ran down the inside of the walls and trickled into pools on the sleeping ledge. Outside there was no picnic table, as at most other shelters, and no privy. Even by the austere standards of the Appalachian Trail, this was grim. But at least we had it to ourselves.

Like most AT shelters, it had an open front (I never really understood the thinking behind this–what principle of design or maintenance necessitated leaving one whole side, and all the occupants, open to the elements?), but this one was covered with a modern chain-link fence. A sign on the fence said: “BEARS ARE ACTIVE IN THIS AREA. DO NOT LEAVE DOOR OPEN.” Interested to see just how active, I had a look at the shelter register while Katz boiled water for noodles. Every shelter has a register in which visitors make diarylike entries on the weather, the trail conditions, or their state of mind, if any, and note any unusual occurrences. This one mentioned only a couple of odd bearlike noises outside in the night, but what really caught the attention of the shelter’s chroniclers was the unusual liveliness of its resident mice and even rats.

From the moment–the moment–we put our heads down that night there were the scurryings and scamperings of rodents. They were absolutely fearless and ran freely over our bags and even across our heads. Cursing furiously, Katz banged around at them with his water bottle and whatever else came to hand. Once I turned on my headlamp to find a packmouse on top of my sleeping bag, high up on my chest, not six inches from my chin, sitting up on its haunches and regarding me with a gimlet eye. Reflexively, I hit the bag from inside, flipping him into a startled oblivion.

“Got one!” cried Katz.

“Me, too,” I said, rather proudly.

Katz was scrabbling around on his hands and knees, as if trying to pass for a mouse himself, enlivening the dark with a flying flashlight beam and pausing from time to time to hurl a boot or bang down his water bottle. Then he would crawl back in his bag, be still for a time, curse abruptly, fling off encumbrances, and repeat the process. I buried myself in my bag and pulled the drawstring tight over my head. And thus passed the night, with repeated sequences of Katz being violent, followed by silence, followed by scamperings, followed by Katz being violent. I slept surprisingly well, all things considered.

I expected Katz to wake in a foul temper, but in fact he was chipper.

“There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep and that was nothing like a good night’s sleep,” he announced when he stirred, and gave an appreciative guffaw. His happiness, it turned out, was because he had killed seven mice and was feeling very proud–not to say pumped up and gladiatorial. Some fur and a nubbin of something pink and pulpy still adhered to the bottom of his water bottle, I noticed when he raised it to his lips.

Occasionally it troubled me (I presume it must trouble all hikers from time to time) just how far one strays from the normal measures of civility on the trail. This was such a moment.

Outside, fog was stealing in, filling the spaces between the trees. It was not an encouraging morning. A drizzle hung in the air when we set off, and before long it had turned into a steady, merciless, deadfall rain.

Rain spoils everything. There is no pleasure in walking in waterproofs. There is something deeply dispiriting about the stiff rustle of nylon and the endless, curiouslyamplified patter of rain on synthetic material. Worst of all, you don’t even stay dry; the waterproofs keep out the rain but make you sweat so much that soon you are clammily sodden. By afternoon, the trail was a running stream. My boots gave up the will to stay dry. I was soaked through and squelching with every step. It rains up to 120 inches a year in some parts of the Smokies. That’s ten feet. That’s a lot of rain. We had a lot of it now.

We walked 9.7 miles to Spence Field Shelter, a modest distance even for us, but we were wet through and chilled, and anyway it was too far to hike to the next one. The Park Service (why does this seem so inevitable?) imposes a host of petty, inflexible, exasperating rules on AT hikers, among them that you must move smartly forward at all times, never stray from the trail, and camp each night at a shelter. It means effectively not only that you must walk a prescribed distance each day but then spend the night penned up with strangers. We peeled off the worst of our wet clothes and rooted for dry ones in our packs, but even stuff from deep in the pack felt damp. There was a stone fireplace built into the shelter wall, and some kindly soul had left a pile of twigs and small logs by the side. Katz tried to light a fire, but everything was so wet that it wouldn’t burn.

Even his matches wouldn’t strike. Katz exhaled in disgust and gave up. I decided to make some coffee, to warm us up, and the stove proved equally temperamental.

As I fiddled with it, there was the singing rustle of nylon from without and two young women entered, blinking and bedraggled. They were from Boston and had hiked in on a side trail from Cades Cove. A minute or two later, four guys on spring break from Wake Forest University came in, then a lone young hiker who proved to be our acquaintance Jonathan, and finally a couple of bearded middle-aged guys. After four or five days in which we had seen scarcely a soul, suddenly we were inundated with company.

Everyone was considerate and friendly, but there was no escaping the conclusion that we were hopelessly overcrowded. It occurred to me, not for the first time, how delightful, how truly delightful, it would be if MacKaye’s original vision had been realized–if the shelters along the trail were proper hostels, with hot showers, individual bunks (with curtains for privacy and reading lights, please), and a resident caretaker/cook to keep a cheery fire dancing in the grate and who would invite us, any minute now, to take our places at a long table for a dinner of stew and dumplings, corn bread, and, oh, let us say, peach cobbler. Outside there would be a porch with rocking chairs, where you could sit and smoke your pipe and watch the sun sink into the lovely distant hills. What bliss it would be. I was perched on the edge of the sleeping platform lost in a little reverie along these lines and absorbed with trying to get a small volume of water to boil–quite happy really– when one of the middle-aged guys drifted over and introduced himself as Bob. I knew with a sinking heart that we were going to talk equipment. I could just see it coming. I hate talking equipment.

“So what made you buy a Gregory pack?” he said.

“Well, I thought it would be easier than carrying everything in my arms.”

He nodded thoughtfully, as if this were an answer worth considering, then said: “I’ve got a Kelty.”

I wanted to say–ached to say–“Well, here’s an idea to try to get hold of, Bob. I don’t remotely give a shit.” But talking equipment is one of those things you just have to do,like chatting to your mother’s friends in the supermarket, so I said: “Oh, yeah? YOU happy with it?”

“Oh, yeah” was the deeply sincere reply. “Tell you why.” He brought it over to show me its features–its snap pockets, its map pouch, its general miraculous ability to hold contents. He was particularly proud of a dropdown inner stowage pouch, bulging with little plastic bottles of vitamins and medicines, with a transparent window built into it. “It lets you see what you’ve got in there, without having to undo the zipper,” he explained and looked at me with an expression that invited staggered admiration.

Just at that moment Katz stepped up. He was eating a carrot (nobody could cadge food like Katz) and was about to ask me something, but when his eye lit on Bob’s transparent pouch, he said: “Hey, look–a pouch with a window. Is that for people who are so stupid they can’t figure out how to get it open?”

“Actually, it’s a very useful feature,” said Bob in a measured, defensive tone. “It lets you check the contents without having to undo the zipper.”

Katz gave him a genuinely incredulous look. “What–like you’re so busy on the trail you can’t spare the three seconds it takes to open a zipper and looked inside?” He turned to me. “These college kids are willing to trade Pop Tarts for Snickers. What do you think?”

“Well, I actually find it quite useful,” Bob said quietly, to himself, but he took his pack away and bothered us no more. I’m afraid my equipment conversations nearly always ended up like that somehow, with the talker retiring with hurt feelings and a piece of formerly prized equipment cradled to his chest. It was never my wish, believe me.

The Smokies went downhill from there. We walked for four days and the rain fell tirelessly, with an endless, typewriter patter. The trail everywhere became boggy and slick. Puddles filled every dip and trough. Mud became a feature of our lives. We trudged through it, stumbled and fell in it, knelt in it, set our packs down in it, left a streak of it on everything we touched. And always when you moved there was the maddening, monotonous sound of your nylon going wiss, wiss, wiss until you wanted to take a gun and shoot it. I didn’t see a bear, didn’t see a salamander, didn’t see foxfire, didn’t see anything actually–just perpetual dribbles and droplets of rain adhering to my glasses.

Each night, we stopped in leaky cow barns and cooked and lived with strangerscrowds of them, all cold and damp and shuffling, gaunt and half mad from the ceaseless rain and the cheerlessness of wet hiking. It was awful. And the worse the weather got, the more crowded the shelters grew. It was spring break at colleges all over the East, and scores and scores of young people had had the idea to come hiking in the Smokies. The Smokies shelters are supposed to be for thru-hikers, not casual drop-ins, and words were sometimes exchanged. It was not like the AT at all. It was worse than awful.

By the third day, Katz and I both had nothing dry and were shivering constantly. We slopped up to the summit of Clingmans Dome–a high point of the trip, by all accounts, with views in clear weather to make the heart take wing–and saw nothing, nothing whatever but the dim shapes of dying trees in a sea of swirling fog.

We were soaked and filthy, desperately needed a launderette, clean, dry clothes, a square meal, and a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum. It was time to go to Gatlinburg.

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