July 27, 2007
Camping with Steve and Rick (and a skunk)
Originally published February 22, 2003
In my younger days, I backpacked frequently in the Appalachian Mountains. When I mention that fact today, most people ask, "OOOH! Did you hike the Appalachian Trail? I always answer, "Not unless I had to."
My friends and I avoided the Appalachian Trail except for a few times when we had to hike a part of it because the trail we WERE hiking intersected the damned thing. I saw more scary beasts there than I ever did in the middle of nowhere. We carried a .357 Magnum pistol on those trips, not for bears or panthers, but for the two-legged goonies who reside along the Appalachian Trail. We encountered a few people who had been hiking the trail for months and resembled missing members of the Charles Manson family searching for a reunion. We never had to whip out the hogleg and start blasting away, but more than once that weapon gave us a warm, fuzzy feeling just because it was there. Some people enrich their spiritual sides when they spend time in the mountains; others go coo-coo for Co-co Puffs.
We took turns packing the heat because that rascal was HEAVY and weight you carry for three days or more up and down a mountain trail is something a good backpacker always considers before he sets off on a trip. I learned through experience to be fully equipped and light. I was good for any kind of weather, any kind of trail and one extra day beyond what we planned with 40 pounds on my back, and that weight included a quart canteen of good Kentucky bourbon in case of snakebite or night time campfires. The only time I actually WISHED that I was carrying the pistol was when we found ourselves on the Appalachian Trail, which begins right here in my beloved state of Georgia and crosses Blood Mountain shortly thereafter. On our first trip up Blood Mountain, I thought I might have to use the pistol on myself.
The hike up Blood Mountain is not difficult. My son has hiked it three times, and he just turned eight years-old in December. Of course, the first time, his mama hauled him to the top in her belly, the second time, I hauled him to the top in a papoose-type pack and the third time, he hiked it by himself at the age of six. He hiked back down, too, then slept for two days straight, seldom moving the entire time.
Okay, the hike up Blood Mountain on the glorious Appalachian Trail is short, but STEEP. It's only 2.2 miles from the trail head and parking is available right next to the Wikki-Wachhi tourist/backpaker ripoff joint, where they sell anything you forgot to bring for triple the price you could have paid if you only had remembered to buy it from Wal-Mart before you left. They make a killing. A lot of people hike that trail because the view from the top is spectacular. I've been there a dozen times and I still find it beautiful.
The first time I climbed Blood Mountain, I was in really good shape, accustomed to hiking much tougher trails and surprised at how quickly my friends and I reached the top. A primitive shelter built from mountain stone with a shingle roof is on the left just before the crest of the mountain. We counted eight bloody, dead rats laying just outside the doorstep as we passed by. I've never stayed in one of those squalid hovels anywhere I've hiked, even when told to do so by the park rangers. Those shelters may as well have golden arches out front, because every vermin, vector, critter and thief within twenty miles knows to GO THERE for food. I always preferred to find a couple of worthy trees, stretch my hammock between them and sleep comfortably off the ground.
Which is what we all did on this trip. Setting up my hammock always took about five minutes. I tied it between two worthy trees, ran a cord just above it, threw a lightweight tarp over the cord, threw my sleeping bag in the hammock and had my bed made. I then picked one of the worthy trees with a branch at the right height, chopped the branch off with my Bowie knife and hung my pack there. My friend Steve always did pretty much the same thing, which was why he and I were always busy for the next hour or so gathering firewood and rocks, making a fire-pit, building a fire, setting up a cook-spit and generally doing squaw work while Rick, the regal camper, built his Hilton In The Woods.
Rick never was content with a simple hammock with a tarp over the top. No, his mountain bedroom had to have bells and whistles, glitter and glitz and all the comforts of a five-star hotel. He spent the hour or so that Steve and I spent doing squaw work doing, well... SQUAW WORK of his own. He ran cords and wires and fixed his tarp with an awning that could be raised and lowered by means of a pull-string. He set up some sort of battery-powered heater in EXACTLY the right position so that it would warm his lazy ass if a cold wind blew that night. He fussed and futtered, futtered and fussed, taking precisely as long to set up his wherewithall as it did for Steve and me to finish our squaw work. The he would bitch, "Hey, you guys don't have that fire going yet? I'm ready to eat!"
Why we didn't throw him off the mountain and split all his food is still a mystery to me.
Firewood is scarce anywhere along the Appalachian Trail, so Steve and I took longer than usual to gather what we needed. Rick, meanwhile, sat in his sultan's tent and gave us sage advice about what we were doing wrong, while sipping frequently from his scotch canteen. By the time we finally built a fire and settled down to eat, Rick was about fully crocked. His pack was still laying on the ground with half the zippers open when he ate some kind of freeze-dried bejeesus and staggered back to his Hilton in the Woods to collapse.
"Rick," I suggested. "You need to secure your pack"
"Fuck that pack," said Rick.
"Rick, you really need to secure your pack, man," said Steve.
"Fuck that pack," said Rick. Then he began to snore with his elaborate awning still up and his ass-heater turned off.
Steve and I looked at each other and grinned. "Fuck that pack!" we said together.
I went to bed. A few hours later, I awakened to the sound of something rustling the garbage bag I always put over my SECURED PACK in the woods. I slept with a flashlight tucked under my arm, and I figured a raccoon was attempting to rob me, so I whipped out the flashlight, turned it on, pounded my palm on the ground and shouted, "GET OUTTA HERE!"
My flashlight illuminated the business end of the biggest SKUNK I had ever seen in my life. The damned thing was sleek and striped and stretched out as far as it could be trying to grab my pack out of the tree. I swear to God it turned its head and grinned at me. I immediately turned the flashlight off and pulled my sleeping bag up over my head. I wished I had the pistol so I could do the honorable thing if the creature sprayed me, because I knew I would never be allowed in ANYONE'S car after that. I heard the skunk's heavy paws hit the ground, then I heard it sniffing under my tarp. It walked into my mountain domain, put its two front paws on the sleeping bag so that I could FEEL THEM ON MY FACE and proceeded to sniff and snort and give me the olfactory once-over. Then, it went back on all fours, waddled down to the end of my hammock and put its two front paws on the sleeping bag so that I could FEEL THEM ON MY LEGS. I would rather have encountered a bear. I would have been less frightened.
But the skunk was satisfied that I wasn't a sugar daddy and waddled down the hill to Rick's unsecured pack, laying on the ground with half the zippers open. It proceeded to feast, making plenty of noise while it ate. I saw Rick's flashlight come on, then go off. I saw it come on again for a little longer, then go off again. Then it came on and stayed on. We watched the skunk eat him out of house and home. The skunk finally got a belly full and waddled off into the darkness. We never saw it again. But it ate about a pound of salt-cured country ham Rick had in his pack, and it probably went in search of water after that.
The next morning, Rick was the last person up, as usual, timing his emergence from his sultan's tent to coincide with the crackling of a fire somebody else built and the aroma of coffee somebody else brewed. "Did y'all see that skunk last night?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said. "I watched it eat everything but the toilet paper out of your pack."
"Fuck that pack," he replied. "You got anything I can have for breakfast?"
"Yeah, there are eight dead rats outside the shelter just down the trail from here."
All content © Rob Smith