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LITTLE RIVER VISIONS
by Philip A. Royer

May 25-27, 1985

My buddy, Clint Powell of Memphis and I had been planning this backpacking trip for some time since our schedules rarely cooperated. We finally settled on a weekend when we both could add a couple of days, but in our minds we knew we were violating a theory we had tested on other outings. We were convinced that when given enough advance notice the weather could get nasty. This trip seemed to prove the theory. We drove to the Clingman's Dome parking area in swirling fog. The weather in Knoxville had been overcast and damp, but with every mile the car climbed the temperature dropped until we were sure it must have been in the low forties. As we sat in the car, wind rocked us and sleet pelted the windows. We crawled to our packs in the back and took out warm clothing, of which we had little, and rain suits. Even after contorting ourselves to get fully dressed in the bucket seats, it took courage and stupidity to step out into the gale. We passed the tower and entered the woods turning south on the AT.

Sleet turned to rain. Clouds raced by and our windward sides became wet and cold. We wasted no time hiking to the Goshen Prong Trail. We decided to walk beyond the junction to the Double Springs Shelter. It made a nice place to munch a quick lunch and adjust our gear before returning to the trail junction. The descent brought relief from the cold and wind. I had always liked this trail's name despite the fact that I had seen my first rattlesnake here on a solo hike in 1976. The rattlesnake lay sprawled across the trail in the heat of summer. When I disclosed that fact to concerned listeners, I always liked to say that the snake had looked like a neon danger sign, and that there was no way I could have stepped on it. Later rattlesnake encounters have convinced me otherwise.

The rain continued lightly until we reached the Lower Buckeye Campsite #25. To get there we walked easily up the old railroad bed amazed at the corduroy surface left by rotted cross ties. The stream crossings were not particularly hard but required some hopping. The ragged remains of old bridges tempted us to cross them instead. We picked a nice site for the tent, complete with a cooking log. The old trail, which ended at the campsite, was covered with chunks of coal from long ago. We cooked quickly and luckily avoided the heavy downpour that fell most of the night.

Morning brought a damp chill that required hot chocolate. Even with all of our gear on, we were uncomfortable in the forty degree temperature. With a heavy soggy tent we retraced our steps along the old railroad to Goshen Prong, which led downhill broadly to the Little River Trail. At this grassy junction the sun broke through unexpectedly, and we lay in the grass and snacked while warming ourselves in its radiance. Like a forest phenomenon a lanky fellow walked up from the direction of Elkmont, carrying a bow and a full quiver of arrows. He was so goofy looking and yet mysterious that Clint and I exchanged wondering looks as if verifying in each other's expression whether this guy was real. We gingerly asked a few questions about what he was hunting and where he was headed. His answers were as disjointed as his appearance. While talking he kept jerking his head from side to side looking into the woods as if expecting a wild beast to emerge at any moment. Somehow it did not seem the appropriate time to explain to him that he would be in serious trouble if he crossed paths with a ranger. Asking if we planned to spend the night in a tent, his eyes bulged. He said that we should be careful and that he hoped we could defend ourselves. We laughed quietly, but a bit nervously, as he headed up Goshen Prong. scanning the woods for his quarry.

Easily we proceeded on the Little River Trail past large campsites until we passed the Rough Creek junction and started a series of three rock-hop crossings. Finally at mid-afternoon we walked into the lovely campsite, dry by some great luck. Only one tent stood sentry.

That evening was rainy at the campsite. Worse weather up above caused the first crossing the next morning to be more difficult than the day before. We both took a chance at the crossing and aimed for a lone rock which barely protruded from the surface of the water. Its curved head had to catch our boots or we would have taken an early bath. Somehow neither of us slipped.
We were up and moving especially early due to our desire to get back to Knoxville at a decent time. My mind had been troubled. My wife, Betty, was within two weeks of delivering our first baby. Betty said that everything would be fine, but I kept imagining all sorts of emergency scenarios. Maybe a ranger would come to get me and I would have to rush to the hospital. Clint and I discussed this possibility, but reassured ourselves that we were worrying needlessly.

The second crossing down the trail was the Little River, which was flowing knee deep. We picked a spot to cross and released our waist belts in case we fell. Carefully we picked our way across at least 50 feet of thigh deep, bone-chilling water. I was in front but did not notice someone on the bank watching our progress. I finally sensed a presence and glanced up long enough to recognize a ranger in uniform. I nearly slipped. Shaking like wet hound dogs on the bank we could not help noticing she was a beautiful ranger, with a long blonde ponytail dressed in a neat green uniform.

She inquired, "Were you guys at Campsite #30 last night?"

"Yes," I blurted thinking that my fears had been prophetic.

"Good, I have a message to deliver to a camper registered at #30 last night," she informed me.

So, I was right! I was ready to ask, "OK, what's the quickest way out?" when above my pulse throbbing in my head I heard her ask, "Which one of you is Mr. Jones?"

"Neither of us is Mr. Jones," my lips moved in horror.

"Was anyone else at the campsite with you last night?", she pursued.

"Yes, we did share the campsite with a man and a boy, but I don't know their names," I stammered.

"I have to get up there as soon as possible and bring them out," said the ranger.

We were both shocked and relieved. We helped her tie a rope across the river in case it rose farther on her return trip. She was so pretty we wondered if she was an imaginary vision like the surreal hunter the previous day. Every time we told the story, Clint and I have referred to her as "the vision." I never looked at her badge to check her name.

At Rough Creek we started to climb toward Sugarlands Mountain. Reaching the trail along the ridge crest we turned uphill and soon began to enjoy nice views of LeConte and the Chimneys. Eventually we found the manway leading down to the Chimneys. Through briars and around tree limbs we climbed, struggling to maintain footing on the steep spur. I slipped and injured my left wrist when we were midway down the ragged trail. We emerged from nowhere at the Chimneys, among tourists in street shoes. Their questions were amusing. "Where did you come from? Did you sleep in the woods? Have you seen bears?" We scrambled to the top and marveled at the view. Steeply we pounded along the rocky surface of Road Prong to our waiting car at the Newfound Gap Road.

Back in Knoxville all was well, and my daughter, Lane Elizabeth Royer, was born on June 10. 1 did not miss her birth after all, and by then my wrist even felt better.

 

September 1996

I read an article regarding volunteers performing trail maintenance in the park. To me that seemed like a good way to increase my mountain time, which since the birth of our second child, Ben, had dwindled to almost nothing. I decided to attend a seminar at Smokemont to learn how to install waterbars.

On the appointed Saturday I met thirty or so other folks at Oconaluftee. We proceeded to Smokemont and the Loop Trail for the demonstration. Babbette Colavo, the Volunteers in the Park (VIP) coordinator, a tall and attractive park service employee taught us to peel logs. That is when I met two nice ladies, Anna Marie Stefanick and Mary Chollman, who despite their interest in waterbars, were probably there to recruit naive people to help them maintain the Sweat Heifer Trail. I volunteered. The locust logs had been precut so we dug trenches and installed them "by the book." Afterward I walked back to the car with Babbette, and we talked about the importance of maintaining trails. She mentioned that since becoming the volunteer coordinator she did not get out on the trails as much as she had when she was a backcountry ranger. Something clicked in my head. I asked how long she been in the Smokies.

She replied, "Since 1982."

"If you have a few minutes, I have a story I would like to tell you," and I recalled the weekend backpack in 1985 for her.

As I related the tale, now a favorite for Clint and me, about "the vision" we met during the unusual river crossing in 1985 just days before the birth of my daughter, she hesitated just a second then said, "That was me! I remember that day because the river was so high, and I was in such a hurry to get to Campsite #30 to deliver that emergency message to the backpackers." She added, "Here is something you don't know. The message I delivered to that man was that his wife had gone into early labor. He needed to get to the hospital as soon as possible."
I think often of that day in 1985. 1 am always thankful for the birth of our daughter, which was a blessing to our family. But I suppose it also taught me to treasure the friends, strangers and the odd events, which make life unique and interesting.

Vision: the art of seeing things invisible. Jonathan Swift