By Rick Waggener, 2008
As I approach my fifty-third birthday I realize that I need to spend less time working and more time in the Smokies. I grew up there, but moved away. Smoky Mountain Hiking Club activities and hikes with my dad, Cole Waggener, dominate my childhood memories. In fact, all of my earliest memories take place not at home but in the mountains. I don't think there could be a better activity in which to involve your kids; I'm grateful for the many club experiences that have had such a profound effect on my development, especially my self confidence and my persistence and optimism in the face of adversity. Even when quite small, club members treated me like I was just another hiker. Every off-trail scramble boosted my self-esteem; and a slim eight-year-old can slip through a rodo hell pretty handily.
My mom, Rose Marie Saathoff, met and married my Dad in the SMHC. In fact, she met him while waiting to hike back to the cars after a workday at the Hiking Club Cabin. She tells me she first laid eyes on him that afternoon when she heard a commotion from the direction of the fittified spring. Two grizzled guys (Dad & Earnie Dickerman) burst out of the brush after two days off -trail. Dad always preferred off-trail hikes.
My very earliest memory happens to be of riding in my Dad's musty canvas army ski pack, about 1957. I soon graduated to riding on his shoulders; he was the 'locomotive' and I the 'engineer.' He ALWAYS took me along. I clearly remember the first hike I made entirely on my own two feet. I was 5, and I hiked to the lodge via Alum Cave. We lunched at the cave (Vienna sausages, mustard sardines, and saltine soda crackers), and I enjoyed getting filthy playing in the deep dust. LeConte lodge at night in 1960 was truly an adventure for a 5-year-old. Cool bunk beds in front of balsam log fires (no stinky kerosene), itchy buffalo-plaid wool shirts, Hudson Bay blankets, Bean boots laced up to the knees; and the memory of Dad reaching out of the lodge dining room door to jerk me inside away from a pair of bear cubs, while the sow charged down the steps.
I remember being awakened in the middle of the night at the hiking club cabin; Mom was insisting we all leave immediately. An entire family of aggressive skunks had come out of the woodbin. Dad agreed to take us to Gatlinburg for the rest of the night to stay at the Mountain View with the Huffs. So we walked down to the car in the dark and headed west on 73. About Pittman Center Dad realized he had left something behind. We were unaware of a roadblock set just ahead; our suspicious u-turn brought the revenue agents swooping down on us. They thought my Dad was running moonshine.
I remember my sixth birthday. Dad took me with his teenaged Sunday-school class to stay overnight at the cabin in the Greenbriar; girls in the upper cabin and boys in the lower. He and I preferred to sleep outside in the grass, under the stars. Problem was, Dad forgot a chunk of Canadian bacon in his pack, our pillow. We awoke suddenly to something wet poking in our face; a bear as startled as we were! We spent the rest of the night inside;
At about seven I learned to carry my own food and equipment. I left my dad behind to finish the climb up Little Shuckstack while he napped after lunch. He could sleep anywhere, anytime. I hated to wait. So I just forged ahead with several of the faster club members. I ended up begging for food on the fire tower steps because all our food was in my dad's pack. I learned the 'older' ladies were a pushover for extra food. And when dad caught up he wasn't upset - he knew he could trust me with the hiking club.
I remember fish fries at DeWine Spring - I was afraid of the spring, it was deep and mysterious; AT work trips, swinging a weeder from Wesser to Cheoa - fat timber rattler by a water bar. I remember square dancing; winter nights at the Mountain View; flapjacks ceremoniously tossed over the smokehole rafter and back in the pan at the cookshack outside the hiking club cabin; trying to catch a crawdad in the springhouse. I remember waiting after dusk ('interminably') for the bears to show at the garbage pit behind the cabin, and progressive dinners Halloween night in Emert's Cove - walking in the dark between cabins with 'ghosts' in the trees, a haunted house.
When I was 15, we hiked LeConte on a Friday to help Herrick Brown open the lodge and ready it for the Saturday/Sunday club winter overnight. We used a blowtorch to thaw the cabin locks enough to enter. That night Dad and I decided to sleep outside to 'test' our new down sleeping bags. A front came through while we were asleep and we awoke covered in snow. " Big Jim" (or was it Dan?), the winter caretaker, wore shorts! That morning he taught me to use snowshoes so that I could help bring in firewood, most of which I split fine for the cookstove. Saturday morning I remember Iva Thatcher threatening (good-naturedly) to whack me with a cast-iron skillet 'all the way down Roaring Fork' because I sat down to eat in the kitchen without fetching her water as I'd promised; might have been the best breakfast I ever ate. That day the club hikers came up, mostly by Rainbow Falls (and its ice cone) and Bullhead; Alum Cave was too iced to be safe. That night (since the front had passed through) it became very calm and clear. The temperature dropped to 15 below, not a breath of wind - and we were treated to the most fantastic light show of stars I've yet to see.
I remember summer Saturdays; after my chores were done we'd drive up to Grassy Patch and hike up to the lodge to see Herrick Brown and watch the sun set from Clifftops. When I got older we'd sometimes go fast just for the fun of pushing ourselves a bit. At 16 (Dad was 54) we climbed by alum cave to the horse gate in 55 minutes. We came down in the dark on moonlit nights - it was always better to let our eyes accommodate rather than to use a flashlight.
Most of all, I remember the manways and railroad grades. This to me was true adventure - and much better than TV. Scratch Britches. LeConte by Bearpen Hollow, by Huggins Hell - brush so thick we were off the ground, and up from the horse barn in Cherokee Orchard by following the old phone-line glass insulators that were then still left on the trees. Breakneck Ridge to Three Forks and up to Tricorner Knob. Wilson Falls. Rock-hopping. Winter was the best season; fewer people in the park, easier going cross-country, backpacking the whole week between Christmas and New Year.
Four years of college took me away to Kentucky, and then four years at UT Memphis. Three years military service in California , then ended up settling on the Space Coast of Florida in 1985. But I still make it to the Smokies a few times a year to 'recharge my batteries' and expose my sons to the intangible benefits that these mountains have to offer. I take them to the Jumpoff and Sawteeth; to Three Forks to swim in the summer, White Oak Sink in the Spring for flowers, the ridge above Hyatt Lane for the bears in the trees in the Fall; Gregory's Bald in June for the flame azalea; Andrew's Bald at Labor Day for the berries, Myrtle Point for the sunrise and Clifftops for sunset.
My last hike with my dad was to the Chimneys. He was an arthritic 71 years old and I remember listening to his hip make an audible grinding sound as we slowly climbed. He declined to scramble over the outcrop of rock that makes up the summit, but waited patiently for us as I took my four-year-old son on out. I carried him on my shoulders to where I could introduce him to the view that can only be had from the top of Ole Smoky.