Appalachia Revisited

Consider this Part II.

Despite a few unfortunate meals, the trip to the western end of North Carolina offered ample activity and food for thought.

Some people follow a regular physical regimen, with routine visits to the gym or other daily physical activity.  Mr. NewYorker, for instance, goes bicycling three or four times a week, and when he doesn’t he swims laps.  Lifelongnewyorker prefers a more sporadic approach to fitness.  Sedentary for most of the year, she thinks of vacations as boot camp and throws herself in, headlong.

Last September’s trip to southern Utah was a case in point, although in truth I prepared for that by walking from Worth Street to Prince Street every morning.  We arrived in Utah, drove to Cedar Breaks, elevation about nine or ten thousand feet, and took our first hike.  For the next ten days we hiked about six hours a day.  I then returned home and resumed my sitting.

Since North Carolina’s elevation was considerably less — between 2,500 and 6,000 feet– I felt no need to prepare in any way.  True, the farthest I walk here in Alabama is from the garage to the elevator, but I’m resilient. I always bounce into shape.

By the way, we usually do these intense activity vacations out West, where it’s hot but dry.  And I firmly believe that, yes, it is not the heat, it’s the humidity.  

The first few days in Asheville were not taxing at all, but the walk through the Biltmore gardens and around the pond did produce the first injury:  a blister on my foot.  Once we hit the mountains,  and began to hike, I wore appropriate footwear and used poles.  No hike was more than six miles, with elevation gains of less than 2,000 feet, but I seemed to feel every step.  The Abandoned One strode forward, never needing to stop and rest as I did, frequently (claiming that it was important to enjoy the view).  I had mixed feelings.  On one hand, I remembered trudging and gasping back from the canyon bottom to the rim at Bryce Canyon when he was about 10 years old, and seeing him run up ahead, impervious to the elevation, the exertion or the heat.  On the other hand, I remember his grunts of complaint and sloth-like sluggishness when, at the age of 15 and 16, we tried to urge him along on other hikes.  It was good to see him return to his youthful form, but his 20-something vigor did not contrast well with my middle-aged labor.

The fact that parts of Smoky Mountain National Park are considered a temperate rain forest didn’t help.  Neither did the fact that my overlong shoe laces kept getting caught in the hooks of the opposite shoe.  Usually I caught myself, and used my poles to prevent a fall.  But the “walk” up to Clingman’s Dome was paved, and poles were useless and silly.  So when my looped lace latched onto the opposite hook, all I knew as I pitched forward and toppled over like a felled tree was that my feet were suddenly and completely hobbled together.  I made a two-point landing on my knee (a scrape any 5-year old would be proud of) and the heel of my hand.  Bewildered by super-consciousness of the slow-motion fall, I just rolled over and sat down right there on the path thinking “who the hell am I trying to kid?” 

There is a bit of a lesson here.  Yes, you can bounce back into shape, but it gets harder each time.  I swear I’m going to start a routine.

Lesson number two:  tuck the shoelaces into the shoe. 

We did about four hikes all told.  In the national forests we were usually alone, but in the park, we encountered lots of fellow hikers.  The variety of hikers never ceases to amaze me.  There are those who read the signs at the trailhead, see that it’s 5 miles in with an elevation gain of 2,600 feet, and set off without water while wearing flip flops.  Then there are the through-hikers, coming along with their 60-pound packs, bandannas, and joyless determination.  And there are the seniors — folks in their 60s and 70s who take their time and manage quite well, thank you.  The trail we hiked in the park was tough underfoot–rocky and laced with roots–and hard to get a good stride going.  I was feeling the climb and making mildly complaining noises when a pair of older ladies passed us coming down.  One had a cane and a knee brace.  I shut up.

Zip-lining helped prop up my wounded pride.  In fact, it requires little in terms of physical endurance or strength.  You can’t be shy about looking ridiculous, because you will be strapped up into a harness that allows for no residual dignity.  Next you don a huge pair of gloves with sueded palms that look a bit like fireplace gloves.  These, the guides explain, are your brakes.  What zip-lining mainly requires is that you have no fear of heights–or of gravity–good hand-eye coordination, and a reasonable degree of upper body strength.  Being able to yell like Tarzan helps. My only canopy tour injury came when I braked a little late and grabbed the cable to stop rather than using the flat of my hand under steady pressure.  It felt like my shoulder got pulled from its socket, but only briefly. 

The ultimate proof that I am not yet over the hill was our decision to take single inflatable kayaks out on the Nantahala.  Mr. NewYorker and I have tried the double kayak in the past.  For the sake of our marriage, we’ve agreed not to in the future.  The Nantahala is a dam-fed river with a daily release of water that begins around 9 am.  The release guarantees that there will be whitewater (class II and III mainly) and that the water will be cold — about 43 degrees. 

One cannot stay dry in an inflatable kayak, so we all opted for yet another assault on our dignity–wet suits.  Well worth it, though.  A man and his youngish son, perhaps nine or 10 years old, were the only others renting kayaks and heading up with us in the van to the put out spot.  They did choose  a double, and I heard the kid claim the front.   Bob, the Dad, told us that they’d never done this before (they’d gone in a group raft previously), and so they’d stay close to us if we didn’t mind. 

When we got to the put-out point, eight miles up river from the take-out point, I suggested to Bob that he might want to take the front because that was the power position — the rear man (or kid) helped steer, but the front had to dig through the holes.  “I know,” he said, “but I want to keep on eye on him.”  I understood.

Mr. NewYorker and the Abandoned One set out first and were soon into the first set of rapids and out of sight around a bend.  I let Bob and the kid go ahead of me, so I could keep an eye on them–actually I figured in a motherly way that by being in the rear I could keep an eye on everybody. 

And then I was in the moving water and whisking around the bend, only to see Bob and the kid in the water, their kayak overturned, their paddles floating rapidly downstream.  I managed to manuever to them and grab their kayak so that Bob could concentrate on the boy, who was crying and panicking at the same time.  Bob was kinda panicked, too.  “I knew this would happen,” he said.  Over and over again. 

I watched as the paddle skimmed five feet past a guy fly-fishing from the bank, and watched too as he steadfastly ignored both it and us.  Bob managed to get the kid into the kayak while he and I held onto it and I grabbed a tree branch with my other hand to keep us in from heading farther downstream.   We started to consider the next course of action.  That when the kid discovered his bravado.  “Let’s just go down without a paddle–the river isn’t that rough.” 

I bit my tongue to keep myself from saying, “Kid, there’s a reason for that saying about being up a river without a paddle.”  But Bob was faster and simply said, “NO.”   All he wanted was off that river.  

The fisherman had now left, but where he had stood was a small beaching spot on the opposite bank, about 60 feet away.   We discussed how best to get across.  I wondered whether we could go in tandem with one of us holding the kayaks together and the other paddling on just one side.  I knew I probably wasn’t strong enough, and frankly, I didn’t really want to give the only remaining paddle to Bob.

Finally we realized that the bottom wasn’t too rocky and, while the current was strong we were out of the whitewater, so Bob decided he would walk across, pushing the kayak, beach the craft and walk back to the take-out point and surrender to whomever showed up first.

I have a feeling the rest of the day wasn’t a happy one for the kid, who alternated between “I’m sure we can do it,” and “I’m sorry, bwah bwah bwah.”  Bob, I suspect, would not be angry at anyone other than himself.  He let go of his paddle, true, but all he was focused on when I got to him was holding onto the kid.

So I left Bob and kid behind and set off downriver myself wondering if I’d ever catch up to Mr. NewYorker and the Abandoned One.  That’s when I hit the first set of real Class III and wondered if  my arms would fall off before the 8 miles was over.  But, surprisingly, the arms got used to it.  And once I rounded another bend and the rapids played out into calm water, I found my two guys waiting for me.

I only got dunked once — and not in a rapid either.  In fast water I ran into some tree branches.  The kayak rode sideways up the branches and simply overturned and dumped me out.  I got a noseful of water and a nice bruise on my hip, but the Abandoned One was nearby and headed over to steady my kayak as I scrambled back in.

At the end, I looked at my hands — two matching sets of raw skin on either thumb from the paddles.  So, to recap: one blister on the foot, one scrape on the knee, one bruised heel of hand, one black-and-blue on the hip, and two stigmata on the hands.  

That was yesterday.  After we showered we headed to a stable and did the two hour trail ride with the taciturn mountain man wrangler who only spoke to me (I was on the horse behind him).  I got to hear about his whole family.  Granddaddy helped build the Fontana Dam.  His Daddy and his Uncle were in the logging business before it ended and now, like so many others, “they jest head down to Florida fer the winter.” 

Speaking of the logging business — virtually all of the forests and woods in the area are second or third growth.  There are only pockets of old growth forest left.  It’s immensely green and dense, but it’s a shadow of what it all was–40 percent of the Great Smokies were covered with American chestnuts trees before the blight hit in the early 20th century.  Today, invasive insects are sucking the life out of hemlocks and certain kinds of firs.  Although the yellow and white pines tower a couple of hundred feet in the air — straight up — and the tulip poplars also soar aloft, few of these tree are more than 80 years old.  What was there, before the logging, was mind-boggling.  Trees with circumferences so large that it took a dozen men to circle them.  Trees so large that a single tree would provide all the lumber needed to build a settler’s cabin. 

As we rode through the woods, I thought about what wasn’t there anymore and the words from the end of the Great Gatsby came into my head — the ones about the “fresh green breast of the new world …

“…Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

I thought of this, sadly.   And then my wrangler spat, and started talking about the time him and his brother decided they were going to get themselves a baby bobcat. It involved a BB gun. 

We ended the night having a wonderful dinner at Thirteen Moons restaurant in Nantahala Village.  The picture windows overlooked those blue mountains covered in trees and shrouded with mist.  And I thought about our capacity to wonder.

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3 Responses

  1. Absolutely wonderful! I felt like I was right there with you, except I was spared the stigmata. 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing this story!

  2. Nice post Maureen…..vacation sounds exciting and worthy of “wonder”.

  3. It must be a family thing, Anna Marie and I have also sworn to only go in single kayaks.
    Additionally, I have the same approach to vacations and exercise and it is getting harder to keep up on the hikes, etc. In Vermont, Mike and I did a pretty steep trail (only about 5 miles round trip) and I had to stop and admire the scenery often. Unfortunately for me, the end of the trail was a wonderful waterfall with an extremely sharp drop and I was unable to get as up close as I would have liked. Mike, like a mountain goat, was climbing around taking pictures while I stayes as close as possible to something at my back. As for horseback riding, it was a good thing that my horse didn’t like to move to fast (our guide had to get off her horse and push it for a while — it ws much happier and faster on the way back which was downhill. I’ll have to send the pictures.

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