The Hilltop Hikers and Their Assault On Gregory Bald
What an adventure!
I'm not really sure how this whole thing got started... or how I got involved. I must have overheard Linda discussing it with someone at work and said, "Ooo, that sounds like fun... can I join you?" When I was growing up, I believe I was told quite frequently to keep quiet... this was one of those times that advice would have come in handy... if I had listened. And by the way, who in the world thought that a measly little mile-and-a-half or two-and-a-half mile walk through the Country Village subdivision was going to prepare anyone for an eleven mile hike up one of the tallest peaks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Hunh!?
Some of us decided that we would meet at the Bi-Lo parking lot at 7:00 AM and sort of caravan to Cades Cove. Others would join up with us along the way. Matthew Fink got there first and must have really looked like a hiker. While waiting for the others to arrive, a woman pulled up and asked, "Are you with the hiking club?" "Do you mean the Miller Industries group?" "No, the hiking club," she replied and drove away. Maybe he should have shown her his new backpack... that would have impressed her.
Wayne Rogers arrived, followed shortly by Linda & Eddie Maynard. While Wayne was inside Bi-Lo buying enough Trail Mix to hike to Jerusalem, Matthew was draining the battery pack on Wayne's new camera. But at least he has a really nice movie of the parking lot that ends with a shot of Eddie giving the camera the evil eye. Remind me to tell you about Eddie and his camera before this story is over. Jon Freeland pulled up and we were on our way.
As we flew past Exit 27 on I-75 North, Carolyn McBroom, with her niece, Laura and nephew, Brad, joined the group. Elaine Johnson would catch up with us somewhere along the way.
Breakfast at the Dinner Bell Restaurant was wonderful... (Great idea, Linda) and we were on the road again. Wayne started asking Matthew if he wanted some Trail Mix...
To the best of my knowledge, the remainder of the drive to Cades Cove was uneventful.
We arrived at the entrance to Cades Cove just a few minutes before the gates opened, and made the short (ha!) drive to the Visitor Center in a little over an hour. Jonís eloquent demonstration of road rage in the parking lot was quite impressive. I can still see him standing there waving his arms and yelling things like, "Hey, you! It's a deer... big deal! If you want to see wildlife, go to the zoo!" Or, "Lady, it's an open field. There is nothing to see. If you quit mowing your lawn, it would look just like this! Now, move that car!" We will have some Valium for Jon on the next hike.
After a quick look-see at the Visitor Center and a visit to the restrooms, we drove up Forge Creek Road to the trailhead of Gregory Ridge Trail.
Don't we look good! So full of vim and vigor! Ready to take on The Mountain and The World! Looks can be so deceiving.
We're off! Jon and Elaine rounded the first bend, and we (with the exception of Wayne) never saw them again until just before we reached the Bald... they had gotten tired of waiting for us on top and were on the way back down.
The scenery was simply gorgeous! No words that I could write or any photos can show how beautiful it really was... you just have to go there. Speaking of photos, don't let me forget to tell you about Eddie and the pictures he took.
After a little less than a mile-and-a-half, we crossed Forge Creek on a foot log for the first of three times... and Brad asked if we were there yet.
After the Forge Creek crossings, the next landmark we came to was Campsite #12. The trail description in the book Hiking Trails Of The Smokies says, 'It is a bit of an uphill climb.' A bit!? I think they left two letters off the end of that word. And I know for a fact that Brad would have gone back to the car and waited for us if anyone would have gone with him. So far, we have come about two miles.
'Now you will begin the 2,400' climb up Gregory Ridge to Rich Gap. At an average slope of 800 feet per mile, this is a challenging climb. It is also a dry climb, so carry plenty of water. The first few switchbacks will give you a good idea of what lies ahead - steep and beautiful.'
During the hike, the group would stretch out, as some of us moved faster than others, and then the leaders would pause to let everyone catch up. After Campsite #12, we had a three-quarter mile climb to a large sandstone outcrop. During this climb, I watched Wayne pull away with what seemed like little or no effort... and I realized the only shape I was in was bad. When my sister saw the picture of Eddie bent over, she said, "That guy standing next to you looks like he's really sucking air." He was. And so was I... I was just able to hide it better.
When I saw Carolyn's face after the climb, I started to get concerned about any of us making it.
I think it was shortly after this point that Carolyn saw some day lilies and told Linda to be sure to put some on her grave because she didn't think she was going to make it off the mountain alive. Not surprising, considering what was in her backpacks. I've seen Wal-Mart Super Centers with less stuff.
When we got started again after a short rest, Wayne rounded a bend and the main group never saw him again until we made it to the top. For most of the ride back to Ooltewah, he complained about the group holding him back.
A little further up the trail we spotted a couple of extremely rare white-tailed 'elk' grazing alongside the trail. Carolyn said it was the largest deer she had ever seen with moss growing on itís ears. We also noticed several logs that had recently been clawed by bears. Carolyn perked right up after that observation.
The trail kept getting steeper and steeper and we kept getting slower and slower. We were plodding along now on sheer willpower. Every time Brad asked how much further, Eddie would tell him "just over the next rise" or "around the next bend". At one point he told him, "Donít worry about it, this will make a man out of you." I quietly told Eddie that it might make a man out of me, but I figured I would be crying like a little girl before I went much further.
The cover was so thick overhead, we heard the rain for a long time before we actually felt it. When Brad reached into his pack and pulled out his poncho, Eddie called him a big sissy! I was mortified! When the girls came around the bend wearing their rain gear, he called them the same thing. After that, I never even considered reaching for my rain jacket.
Eddie, Brad and I forged ahead and finally made it to the junction with Gregory Bald Trail... just 6/10ths of a mile to go to our objective!
Up on top, Jon, Elaine and Wayne had already met up with Johnny Grant. He came up to the Bald by way of Twentymile Trail.
And I have no idea why Johnny took a picture of Wayne tinkling. Notice that Wayne is wearing a poncho. Someone should have told him what Eddie thinks of people who wear rain gear.
It took the rest of us another 45 minutes or so to finally reach the summit. As I mentioned earlier, we met Jon and Elaine on their way back down just before we got to the Bald, but Elaine decided to wait and go with the rest of us when she learned that we were planning to eat when we got off the mountain.
It really was spectacular up there! You could see Cades Cove in the distance.
We took a well-deserved break and had lunch in the middle of the Bald. Eddie took several pictures while we were on top. He also had several of us stop in front of one of the more beautiful azaleas to take our pictures. When Linda brought the pictures in to work, I saw that none of those shots were in the package. I asked Linda, "Where are the individual pictures that Eddie took in front of the azalea?"
"I asked him the same thing," she replied. "He said that he had already run out of film, but was trying to squeeze a couple of extra shots out of the roll."
This became the perfect hiking trip when Eddie got to use his first aid kit and Linda got to use her little scissors. Laura had gotten some nasty blisters on the way up. Boy, it just doesn't get any better than this!
Refreshed, and in some cases, freshly bandaged, we started back down.
On the trip down the mountain, Laura suffered a nasty fall! If I had taken that fall, I would still be up there crying. Elaine had to be treated about halfway down, and Drs. Eddie and Linda came to the rescue once again with moleskin and little scissors.
Eddie sweated so much, that by the end of the hike he was having difficulty keeping his shorts up... and Linda nearly scared his pants off by blowing her bear whistle... repeatedly... with much encouragement from Elaine.
Earlier in this tale, I stated, "it just doesn't get any better than this!" Yes, it does! The last two miles were done in the rain... and the thunder and lightning. Two miles in the middle of a thunderstorm... in the mountains... surrounded by very tall trees. Are we having fun yet?
We made it! Worn out, wet and sore, yes, but we still made it! Considering the fact that this was the first real hike for some of us, and the fact that some of us are horribly out of shape, completing the hike is an accomplishment to be proud of... and a small miracle. For the week following our first hike, whenever we saw each other at work or talked on the phone, we would start laughing at the anecdotes from our trek.
Each and every one of the Hilltop Hikers contributed to this tale in some way... thanks to all of you! And a very special thank you goes to Johnny Grant for sharing his extensive hiking knowledge with a bunch of rookies... especially the suggestions about A-Devils (Advil) and Thorlo hiking socks.