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LASTING FIRST IMPRESSIONS
by Philip A. Royer
September 9 - 12, 1972
Photo Credit: Philip A. Royer
My brother, John, was the first one of us to develop a curiosity about backpacking about the time we were ten to twelve years old. He read articles in magazines and books until he had some idea of what was involved. Growing up we always enjoyed camping on Beaver Ridge, which was directly behind our house. However, backpacking, as he described it, seemed very different from lugging the bulky canvas tent up the hill to our campsite beneath a huge old oak tree. There we cooked the same hobo stew that all summer camps inflict upon unsuspecting kids - kids naive enough to believe that those potatoes and carrots are going to cook perfectly with the hamburger meat inside aluminum foil. John convinced me that with the advantage of his backpacking research we were experienced enough to take on the real wilderness of the Smokies, so we began planning a trip.
Our gear consisted of one old canvas boy scout knapsack, a homemade wood and canvas pack frame that looked like something out of Kephart's book Camping and Woodcraft, heavy duty skillet and aluminum plates, cups and canteens, and cotton filled sleeping bags. Our clothing was also made of cotton, and our boots were leather soled black army boots. The food we packed was from the kitchen and included ground beef, eggs and potatoes. It was all heavy, but at our age we figured that we could carry anything. We discussed our trip with the ranger at Sugarlands, fully expecting that he would exercise his option to inspect our packs, as the backcountry map stated he could. Uninterested in the packs, he handed us a permit. This would allow us into the national park that up until now we had experienced only by car. Our parents apprehensively said goodbyes to us in the Newfound Gap parking area, and we headed north on the Appalachian Trail overdressed, overpacked and overconfident.
The views into North Carolina dazzled our eyes as our lungs begged for a chance to catch up. This was long before we arrived at the Sweat Heifer trail. We turned right at a gnarled birch tree and headed down hill, a welcomed change due to the weight of our ill fitting packs. At a small cascade we stopped for a photograph and listened to our transistor radio for any news from the first Tennessee football game of the season. I remember that everything in the forest was new to us from the skunky smell of galax to the sweet smell of the hemlock trees. We reached our destination, Kephart Prong Shelter, late in the afternoon and immediately began the chores of gathering firewood for cooking and getting water from the creek. My boots slipped on a smooth rock as I dipped for water, and I saw stars when I landed on my tail bone. Sleep came easily to both of us that night.
Even though we awoke early to gather more firewood, start a fire and cook breakfast, we were still the last ones to leave the shelter. After a delicious breakfast of eggs we climbed steadily toward the AT on Grassy Branch and Dry Sluice trails. We thought we heard a bear crashing in the underbrush near the ridge top, but never saw it. When we arrived at the Appalachian Trail, we got our first glimpse of Charlie's Bunion, which is always a spectacular sight. That day the clouds threatened rain, but we stayed for a long time taking pictures of each other climbing the rocks. We shouted to hear echoes, threw rocks into the chasm and carefully climbed onto the rocky protrusion where the trail bends. The views into Greenbrier took my breath and I wished I could soar with the ravens enjoying the air currents above us. We climbed to the very top of the knob and tried to orient ourselves to the 360-degree view. Finally, we walked onward and upward to Icewater Springs Shelter.
The ruins of an old shelter were still evident near the good cold spring slightly downhill from the beautiful setting of the newer shelter. We were amazed when we realized that there would be some girls staying the night in the shelter along with us. Somehow that possibility had not crossed our minds before. We cooked in the shelter fireplace that night making ourselves dizzy, trying to start a fire with wet wood. The possibility that we would have to start fires with wet wood had not crossed our minds either, but we were learning. The gas stoves of some of our fellow backpackers seemed a good investment.
Cool temperatures greeted us in the morning and I was envious of the high-tech warm clothes which some of the other hikers sported. One fellow had a suit of fishnet underwear, which I had never seen before. His memory remains vivid because he stripped naked before getting into his bag the night before, and emerged the same way in the morning, girls or not. I was impressed!
Leaving Icewater, we starting up the Boulevard. John and I took the side trail to the Jumpoff. We took advantage of the opportunity to engage in some more shouting and rock throwing from the shear bluff. Of course later as we matured, we learned better etiquette for the backcountry. We posed beside the upturned roots of a giant spruce blowdown, which still gripped rocks tightly in its roots. The narrow ridge top amazed us with its steep drop on either side of the trail. Every turn in the trail promised to be the top but instead revealed the next challenging section of steep trail. I learned that day that Mt. LeConte never gives up easily. Wearily we reached the dark summit, shrouded by balsam trees, and wondered at a tall pile of rocks placed there by hikers in what I assumed was an attempt to raise the elevation. The green woods dripped fragrant drops of perfume reserved for areas above 6000 feet. The shelter was a very welcome sight. On the way to the spring at the Lodge, we were startled by a large black furry animal. Our imaginations changed the back side of a mule into the visage of a huge bear. We learned that the mule was used for dragging logs from the north summit to the lodge. Another surprise was the sound of a metallic thumping in the woods below the spring. The constant noise proved to be a water hammer busily pumping uphill to the reservoir.
We ended the day quietly watching clouds float upwards and over us while we sat at Clifftops. The setting sun made the clouds glow red orange and pink, and the breeze stiffed the long grass that hangs from the rocky cliffs. Conversations slowed and then stopped as we took in the last rays of the setting sun.
John and I awakened to the sound of feet shuffling up the trail in front of the shelter, clattering on the loose stones in the earliest twilight. Our curiosity urged us out of the sleeping bags as we followed folks toward Myrtle Point. We stumbled along past the summit and along a rough side trail, which had gone unnoticed the day before in our exhaustion. We had plenty of time to orient ourselves and prepare for the show. Mount Guyot was backlit by the orangish sky, but many lower peaks were engulfed in clouds. Finally the sun made its entrance, and immediately those watching from the rocks felt its warm hand. That same warmth soon stiffed enough wind on the Carolina side of the ridge to cause clouds to move like a hot brew in a caldron, bubbling and boiling to overflow the confines of the state line and pour over into Tennessee. Through the Sawteeth and Newfound Gap a great Niagra of white cascaded in slow motion into the ravines below.
Back at the shelter we cooked our last meal over yet another smoky fire and then headed down the Bullhead Trail. We peered down on Gatlinburg from the Pulpit lookout and felt lucky to be there. Soon the large gray boulders gave way to the flats, and finally we walked into the parking lot at Cherokee Orchard. We filled our parents with stories on the trip home, but foremost in our minds was the sunrise we experienced on LeConte. I wondered when I would ever be able to return to those wonderful heights.
My first backpacking trip has served as a steadfast foundation for my love of the mountains, especially the Smokies. It undoubtedly played a role in my brother's growing ambition to hike the entire Appalachian Trail, which he would accomplish in 1977. We learned so much from nature and the hikers with whom we shared shelters in those three days. Some of the technology has been replaced since then, but the basics are unchanged. During this past summer I had the privilege of designing and helping to build a new front porch at the Icewater Springs Shelter with the hiking club. In some ways I suppose it was a way to give back some of the immense pleasure that I have taken from the mountains. Perhaps another pair of brothers shared their first backpacking trip there this summer. I hope so.