Seeing the Elephants

Long-distance hikers are cut from the same cloth as pioneers. If dropped in 19th century America, we too would’ve struck it out west on the Oregon Trail (2,100 miles). The AT is close in length albeit a microcosm of hardships experienced in the wild west. Still, we are made of same earth and DNA of those pioneer folks. What remains the same is that iron will and determination to complete those 2,200 miles.

Elephants were a novelty back in those days, it was the year’s highlight. Families traveled to town to “see the elephants.” As the century turned over, “seeing the elephants” became the maxim for adventuring into the unknown to succeed in a new way. Pioneers and Gold Rusher’s used this saying as they clambered out into the west for Manifest Destiny. In my eyes, I too am trying to “see the elephants.” How the hell else do I explain this quixotic mission?

Vistas are becoming redundant. If one moved to paradise, how long would it cease to be paradise? Hiking the AT is so repetitive that a vista becomes all in a day’s business. I look out in the cut nodding my head with my feet never stopping. Remember when Clark Griswold brought his family to the Grand Canyon for a minute, nodded, and quickly whisked them off. That’s what I feel like.

Just Enuff is a LASHer (Long-ass section hiker), or BASHer (Bad-ass section hiker), who I’ve read in the shelter journals for sometime. He’s sixty years-old, Mainer, black hair,  and a recovering alcoholic and long-time smoker. He confessed to me in the first five minutes that he is an insomniac, diagnosed bipolar, off his medications, and felt an episode coming on. If he didn’t reveal himself so forwardly I wouldn’t have known, nor do I treat him any different because those labels don’t hold a candle to his friendly demeanor and down-to-earth kindly nature. After a ramble, he says “you know what I mean, right?” I do. His Mainer accent reminds me of my ex-pat Mainer grandmother.

We watch the sun set over the mountains standing next to a lone apple tree on a grassy knoll. Sunsets are rare on the AT. He’s not bothered with sunsets because he’s seen thousands of them over the ocean. Then he told me of the Green Flash, a shot of green light from a sunset that disappears over the ocean’s horizon. At 3:30 a.m. he starts reconstructing a new fire pit and arranging his pack. He didn’t leave until 8 a.m. Maybe that’s his episode? Another night, same time, he talks loudly with another older hiker. Even a late night hiker passerby and chats them up.

My AT bucket list includes Max Patch. I ate lunch while talking to geriatrics, watching college coeds dancing making selfie videos, and couples pointing out all the mountains surrounding us. The wind kisses the well-maintained green bald. It feels great drinking in all the wilderness and beauty in people’s faces.

My favorite part of the Smokies was ridge-walking. The trail runs along a knife’s edge, still in the trees, while drop-offs on either side are immediate. My memory harks back to the exposed ridges of the White Mountains, another spot in the bucket. A stiff western breeze streams over the ridge continually. Frost stole over the night making my feet cold  while putting my sleeping bag to the test. Cold weather gets me excited. I’m jumping around in the morning to warm my bare skin. I’ve only got shorts. This cool weather pushes my stride faster than ever.

Oak trees surround my home back in Wisconsin. Those leaves turn brown blending with the brown bark of the brown soil they fall on, making for mostly a drab fall. This fall in the south is unseasonally warm and colorful for me despite the colder climes of the Smokies. Painterly colored ridges split off in many directions as I stand atop the East Coast. When I take off my glasses the bright yellows, reds, and purples stick out to me like brushstrokes of an impressionistic painters knife. This collage of color drowns out the over-familiar redundancy of green creating a new wrinkle in my walk. The dying leaves are sending out a final green flash, a charming welcome mat for Winter’s coming.

I learn about “seeing the elephants” walking over Siler Bald in Smoky National Park. False advertising creates false hope as the picnic stop I envision Siler is just a crown of barren oak trees. Fall comes early to these mile-high mountains. The Smokies are cold and crowded leaving me with the same anxiousness of a tightly packed city. I felt like the head-counter clicking off each body passing through the museum’s doors. First day, 77. Second day, 237. These numbers tell me the problem with the Smokies is its on the East Coast. These tourists stick to their own tribe of people while my tribe is scattered ahead or before me. It’s hard to see the elephant in a Wal-mart-size parking lot at Newfound Gap.

Those elephants on Siler compel me to hike my first thirty-plus mile day. Another AT bucket list item. I want to see what I’m made of. Just Enuff is huffing and puffing behind my fast stride, faster than any sixty-year old man I’ve ever met. Soon, I’m far passed him never seeing him again. He’s the last person I hike alongside for the last two hundred miles. Halfway through the day I’m spent. I push on. The day comes into it’s own as twilight crouches in. In the dawning dark blue and purple, I hurry to Shuckstack Fire Tower to see the sun fall over the Smokies. Five miles away I see the twinkling track lights of Fontana Dam.

Once again, I’m walking at night. I admit, I’m paranoid of the dark. I’m also afraid of deep water unless I’m snorkeling. Like everyone, I’m afraid of the unknown. I constantly look over my shoulder in the pitch dark. The forest is hollow and I pick songs I can sing loud enough. Crunching leaves probably scare off every animal for a mile off anyway. I like to walk as long as I can without my headlamp to see if my eyes can adjust to the dark. It works only for awhile. Perhaps I’m not trying hard enough. For a few miles, I see the track lights of Fontana Dam peep around the trees disappearing quickly. A wide empty avenue opens up and becoming part of the trail for the next mile. Road construction on the dam reveals an unused road filled with damp leaves and broken sticks. Those track lights make it seem as if I was entering a runway. I walk down the double yellows. Everything feels deep: the open sky, water to the left, and the steep drop-off to the right. I’m so high I’m riding an elephant.


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