Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Man-Camp 2010 - The Descent (Part 2)

Before I get to the descent down the mountain, there is a little housekeeping that needs to be done.  I was asked this but I didn't realize there was a difference.  In the Rocky Mountains (and probably EVERY other mountain chain) people drive to the base of the mountain and ASCEND the mountain as the first part of their hike.  When they are done, they DESCEND the mountain to get back to their vehicle.  The Smoky Mountains are a little different.  You drive to the top of the mountain.  That's where you will find your trailhead. You then descend the mountain to your campsite (in a valley).  When you are done, you ascend the mountain, get back in your car and then drive back down the mountain.  Weird... I know.  But that's the way it is.  You learn something new every day.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program already in progress...

We crossed the threshold of the trailhead.  So there was no turning back.  The Scoutmaster, The Dr., The Rookie and myself (with my baby backpack and #2 pencil) made our way to our old campsite.  It was going great!  The air was fresh.  The scenery was beautiful.  And the first few hundred feet were filled with excitement and anticipation!  Each step just as I remembered it almost 20 years ago....  Then came the next few hundred feet...  The steps were slower (even though we were going downhill).  The scenery didn't seem quite as important.  Something was different.  The next few hundred feet were the feet of discovery.  I found the "something" that was wrong.  It was sitting out on the trail staring me in the face.  I found the last 15 - 20 years of my life just waiting for me to catch up to it.  And those extra years were really asking me what the hell I was doing hiking down the side of a mountain without any preparation or getting in any kind of shape!  I had no answer.

All I know is that when I was a teen I heard crickets and birds on this trail.  Now, with all of us in our 30s (some farther in than others), the crickets and birds have been replaced with gasps for air, grunts from aching muscles and general uneasiness.  The trail was the same but WE were different.  And I don't know which one of us was a savior.  Some kind, gentle soul made the world a better place with just 2 words... break time!  We all rejoiced.  Unfortunately, you couldn't hear it because we were all out of breath.  But the good news is that before the hike started, I called this hike the 'no pride' hike.  That meant we put our manly egos aside and if someone needed a break we would stop.  No ribbing.  No poking fun.  Besides, when someone called for a break, we ALL needed it whether we admitted it or not.

After about 1/3 of the 4-mile hike (or about 1.32 miles (just guessing because there are no mile markers in the wilderness)) we started to get a rhythm.  We knew how fast to go and how far to go without pushing ourselves.  This trip was looking up.  Then something hit me on the head. At first I thought it was that same stupid bug that had been trying to get into my ear since the beginning of the trip.  (I really, REALLY hated that bug!)  But it wasn't a bug.  It wasn't even an insect at all.  I look up to try and figure out what it is.  Just as I did, another one landing on my glasses... SPLAT!  You've got to be kidding me!  It was a drop of rain.  And it brought ALL of its little friends to play.  GOD was making us earn this man-camp.

This was fine because it completed the Trifecta: The first trip down the mountain was in the snow (I wasn't there for that one).  The next trip was at night (an awesome story (wish I was blogging then)).  This last trip was in the rain.  It wouldn't have been much of a problem if I didn't wear glasses. (I actually wear contacts but the economic downturn meant you prioritize differently.  And contacts didn't make the cut.)  There were times I couldn't see the trail from all of the rain on my lenses, but I managed. As a matter of fact, we didn't lose a single man when I was trail leader.  So I considered it a success.

Another thing that was different on this trip was our memory.  I promise you we passed the same tree/rock/roots combination a thousand times.  This deja vu affect really plays tricks on the aged mind.  It caused one of us (not me) to claim every few hundred feet that we were almost there.  For those who haven't been camping this is the equivalent of the 'are we there yet' syndrome on long trips.  It actually got to the point (spawned by extreme exhaustion) to where I was going to attack if I heard it one more time.  The only thing that kept me from doing so was the fact that I was carrying a #2 pencil and everyone else was carrying a weapon of single destruction.  So I endured the constant torture.  But truth be told, I was thinking the same thing but I wasn't saying it out loud.  Every time I saw the tree/rock/roots combination I thought we were close as well.  But trust me... we weren't.

After 3 hours and 15 minutes we FINALLY made it to our campsite.  It was great.  We hit the trailhead at 4:30 PM and we landed on our campsite at 7:45 PM.  After such an ordeal, civilized people would rest.  They would sit on the ground and thank all that is holy for getting us there safely after everything we had gone through.  But we left civilization 4 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation away.  So the Scoutmaster says we need firewood and shelter.  That was code for 'I'm getting the firewood while you set up our tent.'  We got it and started to work.  He and the Dr. went to cut the firewood and the Rookie and I set up the tent.

This wasn't a huge deal.  I was happy to set up the tent.  I had done this before.  It was getting dark at the site and we needed to play to our strengths.  So they got the wood and we set up the tent.  They did an awesome job!  They got some great firewood.  Within 30 minutes we had a HUGE fire that was keeping us warm.  The  tent, on the other hand, was a different story.  The Rookie and I were working on a time frame.  The sun was going down so the clock was running.  We set that tent up in record time.  We were proud!  That was until we tried to get into the tent.  That's when we noticed it was facing the wrong way.  The fire was pleasantly warming up the back side of the tent.  Luckily, the tent manufacturers had US in mind when they were making the tent.  They knew that one day some idiots would set the tent up backwards and need to move it around.  So it was lite and easy to move... with 4 people.

We got the tent turned around the right way.  We got the fire going.  We changed out of our wet clothes.  The only thing left was to go to bed.  I know that's one thing I can definitely do.  So we picked our spots in the tent.  I was the second one to pick but I was LAST in the order that counted.  I picked the worst spot in the tent because there was root in my back (or side depending on how I slept).  I didn't complain because I'm not a complainer (in spite of what you are reading in my blog).  I just assumed that everyone else was sleeping on a root too because we were in the wilderness... the home of back roots.  The odd thing, though, is that there wasn't a tree for at least 15 ft.  What's the ROOT doing there to begin with?!?

The root and I finally came to an understanding.  We came to an agreement to live in the same space at the same time.  I knew it was going to be tough but that was the plan.  And the plan worked until a variable changed.  We had been trying to go to sleep in our isolated campsite for about an hour when I saw lights.  I'm not sure how many lights but there were definitely lights.  I decided to keep my mouth shut and see if I could determine what was going on.  We were in a campsite 4 miles from the nearest trailhead.  It had been dark for at least an hour and a half.  So why are there lights???

I was going to keep this quiet until I could tell what was going on but the crew was not as asleep as I thought they were.  Apparently, the Dr. was just as awake as I was.  The last time we came to this site we saw 5 people in 4 days... and NONE of them traveled the trail at night.  So this was pretty crazy.  So the next few minutes sounded like this...

Dr.: What is that?
Scoutmaster: What is what? (obviously just getting to sleep)
Dr.: What is that light?
Scoutmaster: It's just the campfire.
Dr.: That's not a campfire! (I agreed because I was facing the light and the campfire was behind me.)
Scoutmaster:  You are right.  Shhhhhhh....

At that point we all prepared for something moving toward us in the night.  I have to admit it was very exciting! There was a light coming toward us and it was something I was not prepared for.  We knew there was a chance for bears but not bears with flash lights.  So this was elevated into something serious (especially since the last time we came to this site we only saw 5 people in 4 days.)  Someone was making a midnight run into our camp.  What do we do next?

Here's the part where I wish I had a night-vision video camera.  It would have been a perfect scene for a movie.  We were all prepared for an impending confrontation and that's where the funny comes in.  The  camera would have panned to the Scoutmaster and would have seen him on one knee with his gun (completely licensed to carry (even in a National Park)) waiting on the intruder at the entrance of the tent.  The Rookie had his handgun in the same position waiting to backup the Scoutmaster.  The Dr. would not be outdone so he had his hatchet (capable of severing a limb with one swing) in the ready position in case someone tried to invade the tent.  And what did I have (just in case)... I had a baby knife.  Yeah... the small theme continued.  I had this baby knife waiting just in case the 2 handguns and a hatchet failed!  If there had been a camera here this would have been a funny sight to see. (Spuds would have been proud!)

Luckily for him (and us) the person was a good guy just getting a late start on his fishing outing.  So all was well.  But that didn't sit well with the rest of us who thought the campsite was going to be empty like it was almost 20 years ago.  We now had to share this site with someone.  And at least 2 of us wouldn't sleep because of it. The other 2 (with the guns) slept very well.  I know this because their snoring proved they didn't fear anything.  I just found it hard to sleep with a root in my back when there is a stranger in the midst.

Oh, well... I decided to TRY to sleep and worry about this the next day.

This looks like a good place to start Part 3.  Good night (or morning/noon/night depending on when you are reading this).  Come back for part 3 of the Man-Camp 2010 adventure.