Illustration by Ward Sutton
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of tripping one’s ass off, it was the age of getting one’s ass shot off in ’Nam, it was the epoch of Monty Python, it was the epoch of Richard Nixon, it was the season of All in the Family, it was the season of The Partridge Family, it was the spring of Earth Day, it was the winter of muscle cars, we had the sexual revolution before us, we had the population explosion before us, we were all going to listen to The Concert for Bangladesh triple album, we were all going to not listen to the album’s Ravi Shankar cuts—in short, the tale that unfolds below is an ancient one, that of a juvenile Baby Boomer, at large in a world lacking the hi-tech equipage, featherweight provisions, wireless resources, and navigational appcoutrements of today but brimming with a teenage ignorance that transcends the generations.
“We should do it.”
“For, like, a week.”
“Day-after-tomorrow Monday or next Monday?”
“Day after tomorrow.”
“Cool. It’ll be a blast,” I said. And I believed it.
We were in the waning weeks of the summer between out-of-high-school and off-to-college. Chance and I were hanging out, bored, idly blue-skying monotony breakers. And just like that, we’d landed on it: hiking the Great Smoky Mountains.
(Note to future filmmakers: Insert ominous orchestration here.)
I grew up in the middle-middle class suburbs of Cincinnati in a newish subdivision, an ordered environment where nature was not so much tamed as terrorized, a landscape of ever-roaring Lawn-Boys and one-to-a-yard staked saplings. My heritage, a long line of German fussbudgets on one side, couch-napping Anglos on the other, predisposed me to judgmental analysis over action. And though my inherent health and robustness were undeniable assets, I chose not to exploit them, preferring instead a life of gorging on television, bingeing on carbs, and—to burn fat and calories—hurling sarcastic remarks. All of which is to say, going for a weeklong hike over rugged mountain trails was further out of character than James Bond in tie-dye. On the other hand, agreeing to such a trip couldn’t have been more in my wheelhouse since my teen years were, largely, a daisy chain of uninformed decisions enthusiastically pursued.
Chance (not his real name, unless by some incredible coincidence he’s changed it to that recently) lived out in what demographers call the exurbs and what non-demographers call the sticks, the boonies, The Land Subject-Verb Agreement Forgot. His house, a bland, red brick one-story, was 30 percent smaller and 70 percent scruffier than mine, his yard far bigger, less domesticated, more cluttered. He lived with and among shotguns; rototillers; bib overalls worn without irony; dogs chained to outdoor houses surrounded by hard turds on bare, worn earth; and rusted, broken down machinery kept on hand indefinitely “for parts” that were never needed. Unlike anyone else I knew, Chance had stories of hunting and fishing and frog gigging—a thing I could not believe was enough of a thing to have a name. Yet, in no sense was Chance some backwoods rustic or cob-rough rube. (That would be his father.) On the contrary. Chance had a charisma, a quasi-goofy, guileless, authentic bonhomie that made him remarkably popular at school, a clique-busting anomaly accepted by jocks, preppies, greasers/hoods, brains, snobs, druggies, et al. Unquestionably, hiking with such a self-reliant, personable outdoorsman was a win-win: good company to whom I could turn over all responsibility.
“What’s that?” Chance asked.
“My stuff.” We were in my driveway, loading up the trunk of his dad’s Tempest.
“Yeah, I figured. But whattaya got it in?”
“A duffel bag,” I said. “It was my dad’s in the army.” A tall cylinder of beefy, olive drab canvas, it was easily roomy enough to carry a member of the Lollipop Guild. I had its single, even beefier canvas strap slung over my right shoulder. “It’s the only thing I’ve got.”
“Hmmp,” he vocalized.
“So what’s your stuff in?”
In answer, he opened the trunk of his car, revealing a used but not worn backpack, a taut, khaki rectangle, front and sides a patchwork of bulging pockets, their flaps buckled shut.
“Hunh,” I vocalized.
“What all’d you bring?” he asked. By this time, we were out of the driveway and pointed toward the interstate.
“Instant soup. Couple cans of pork and beans. Jar of peanut butter. Bread. Matches. Pocketknife. TP.”
“Yeah.” It was a big square, plastic, lantern type. Powered by a fresh 6-volt, the unofficial albatross of batteries.
Other packed essentials included: sleeping bag, mess kit (borrowed), change of T-shirt and underwear, thin plastic poncho ($1.79 at Kmart), three books, spiral notebook, pens (primary and backup), and a boxed, full-size chess set, for evenings around the campfire.
Because, I mean, the point was to rough it, not forsake our humanity.
We left the highway late in the day, pulled into struggling, smallish Pigeon Forge, tourism’s rundown remora to Gatlinburg’s prosperous shark. The plan, hatched en route, was to rent a cheap motel room (rates researched via roadside billboards), get some good sleep, then rise early and hit the trail.
And so we spent our last night in civilization like kings: sitting on our respective beds, sucking the bones of a 12-piece bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, watching TV late into the night. Had I been the scion of a wealthy family, I might be there still.
We rose at the teenage crack of dawn, a.k.a. 9:30. After showers and breakfast, we drove through Gatlinburg and into to the park, hit the visitor center for a trail map (a tip from our waitress), pored over it closely, selected a trail (basing our choice on mileage between shelters/campsites, difficulty rating, and how cool the name was), found our way to the trailhead, and made some final tweaks to our packs. At about 1 p.m., we walked into the dark wood, glad we’d followed through with our plans for an early start.
Why had we chosen a backcountry ramble to break our boredom, rather than, say, pitch a tent near a lakefront beach? Simple: to “get back to nature.” To be swallowed up and awestruck by one of the planet’s unspoiled sanctuaries. And we were not disappointed. For about an hour. Because after that, our hippie-tinged eco-hike morphed into more of a rugged trek, then, in increasingly rapid succession, a demanding schlep, an encumbered lumber, a strenuous haul, an arduous trudge, a grueling slog, an interminable affliction, and finally, a crippling blight. Somewhere in there, the scenery just started blending into the scenery.
Several factors contributed to this degeneration: way too much up terrain, far too little down; rocky, rooty trails torturous to feet and treacherous to ankles; permanently soggy air that could cause a dead iguana to sweat. Mostly though, it was my goddamn duffle bag. It was too heavy, the strap digging hard into whichever shoulder I switched it to. Just as bad, its bulging bulk rubbed and bumped my leg on every stride.
Unquestionably, I was slowing our progress. Duffleless, chess set-less Chance was holding up much better than I. Even so, the distances on our map seemed off, too. Or maybe we’d taken a wrong fork (or two) in the trail. Because after six hours, we still hadn’t reached the shelter that was supposed to be 2.7 miles away. (Shelters are sturdy, park-maintained structures for use by hikers without tents. Us! Not good.)
The sun dipped. The woods dimmed. We reviewed our options: Walk on and hope to reach the shelter before being enveloped in total darkness or make camp where we stood while we could still see. Chance voted for option two, I voted for option three (suddenly waking up and finding we’d never left the motel). As the smart guy with the backpack, Chance won.
We unceremoniously unrolled our sleeping bags next to each other on a broad patch of thick, hopefully cushioning ivy, then went in search of firewood. But no. Mountain mist had rendered every stick too wet to catch. It would be a lightless night.
One job left: A bold text box on the map advised hikers to hoist and hang packs with food from a tree branch, 25 feet in the air and away from the campsite, so as to foil hungry bears that might be attracted to it. This struck us as mighty overkill-ish. After all, we’d seen no hint of a bear thus far, plus it’s a huge park—what’re the chances? Oh, and we’d brought no rope. So, splitting the difference between Nixon-era paranoia and take-a-’lude laissez faireness, in the last lumens of the day, we each took our gear a short distance away and lifted it onto a head-high tree branch.
Moonless night. Dense forest canopy. Mercilessly darkdarkdark. No shelter. Damp. Shivering cold. An unnerving magnitude of not-quite-silent-enough silence, a concentrated hush arrhythmically broken by over-there twig snaps, what-was-that leaf rustles, the otherworldly laments of undersexed insects and a hundred other too-fleeting-to-identify sounds. I scrunched down into the sleeping bag, cocooning myself in by folding its open end shut over my head, aching to muffle the unsettling clicks and ticks and crackles, foil the ear-obsessed mosquitoes, and breathe some warmth into my bones.
I lay awake for hours. Terrified. Of all the things contained in this living, feral, lawless Eden, I was the one that didn’t belong, the trespasser. I split my time between trying to speed the earth’s rotation (and thus the arrival of morning) through force of will and mourning the dearth of revving Lawn-Boys.
Drrmp. A thick, heavy thump landed hard at the bottom of my sleeping bag. In the first positive since bacon at breakfast, my feet weren’t there. They were drawn up as I curled in a tight fetal ball seeking warmth. The blow felt big, powerful, then whatever made it slowly slid away, withdrawn. The inquisitive pawing of a curious creature! Holy shit! Bear flashed in my brain, more picture than word, a massive clawed mitt dominating the foreground.
I stayed curled, held my breath, thinking in a scream WhaddoIdo, whaddoIdo, whaddoIdo above the mad drumline of my heart. Minute-long seconds hung in the night air. Then: drrmp. Another blow, this one inches higher on the bag, and another sliding withdrawal. With no answer to whaddoIdo forthcoming, I switched to a declarative incantation: Goawaygoawaygoawaygoawaygoawaypleasegoaway. The third drrmp, however, detonated a cranial concussion grenade of white noise and static, extinguishing all language, thought no longer being helpful or productive. But the fourth and final blow could not be countered with strategic immobility, panicked inaction, and/or calculated vacuity. Because instead of sliding away, the paw, the maw, the MEGAMAWPAW EVOLUTIONARY ANOMALY, or whatever, gripped my sleeping bag and pulled, dragging me along the ground to, I could only imagine, its cave where I’d be bear-raped and eaten. Action (see above: not my strong suit) was required. And I could only think of one: I exploded from my sleeping bag, ready to face, then instantly turn my sprinting ass to, my ursine assailant.
Except I didn’t have to. The drrmp-er was Chance. Somehow, in the hours since turning in, our tossing and turning had repositioned us from side-by-side to his head well below my foot. He’d been the one doing the pounding, and when I sprang from my sleeping bag he was pulling me in his direction.
“Jesus, Chance! What the fu…”
“D’jou hear that?” he half-whispered.
“You pounding, asshole? Yeah! I did! I thought you were a b…”
“I heard something over there.” He flicked on his flashlight, pointed it, swept it in an arc. The purity of the darkness stifled the beam, consumed it, without illuminating anything.
“Why’d you do that!? You scared the shit outta…”
“Trying to get your attention something’s over there I heard it how did you not hear it,” poured out, punctuationlessly.
Chance was badly spooked. As the de facto outdoors expert, his fear validated my own, roughly quadrupling it.
Morning. Adult morning. Dawn’s dim light seeping through the trees. Maybe we’d slept after our middle-of-the-night scare, maybe we hadn’t. But in the pitch-black hours stretching between the commotion and daybreak not another word had been spoken by either of us, a completely spontaneous and thoroughly dim-witted attempt at aural camouflage.
It seemed best to maintain our silence, too. Because the bears were close. No more than 60, 70 feet away. Three of them. Standing and staring at us across the distance. We laid still, both of us on our sides, stiff with cold, frozen by fear and staring back, instinctively avoiding eye contact.
This was not the zoo. No fences or deep chasms separated the species. Neither was it a hunt, with humans all cocksure and comfortable behind high-powered weapons. We were in nature, the wild, where the bears’ ways held sway. Until that moment, I’d never fully realized “top of the food chain” was situational, never felt it to be so tenuous. Out in the woods, oversized brains and opposable thumbs and walking upright seemed more like an evolutionary joke—laughable, bargain-basement attributes the eons had palmed off on us instead of a titanium exoskeleton.
It was a long, tense 15 or 20 minutes before the bears wandered off. Only then did we slip out of our bags.
It was immediately obvious my gear had been disturbed. And by disturbed I mean destroyed. My duffle was ripped open like a prey’s carcass, its contents strewn across a wide area. Peanut butter jar: licked clean. Bread bag: shredded and empty. Soup and bean cans: bitten in two. Nonedibles had been examined-cum-ravaged and discarded, the toilet paper unfurled, books reduced to loose pages, chess pieces scattered, my flashlight’s housing pierced with four perfect fang holes around the lens. Much of the detritus was within eight feet of where we’d slept. That I hadn’t heard any of their gluttonous raid was, I felt, both a blessing and a potential gold mine for an audiologist or sleep disorder specialist.
Chance’s pack was, miraculously, intact. We chalked that up to its relative distance from mine, as well as the fact that all his food was tinned, and therefore scentless. This meant his hike back to the car—a retreat we commenced even before the body heat had fully leached from our sleeping bags—was just as encumbered as the day before. Mine, though, was much lighter, with the bulk of the freight now borne a few inches above my shoulders.
“Slow down,” Chance called to me up the trail. “What’s the rush?”
Illustration by Ward Sutton
Originally published in the January 2015 issue.