And this is why the balds are bald. Ranchers would bring their livestock up to the ridge lines of these mountains through North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia to let them graze, which essentially created an artificial treeline throughout many of these sloping mountain tops.
Here we are at one of the coolest shelters on the Appalachian Trail. Overmountain Shelter. It is a 2 story barn with an upstairs loft that is about 90% enclosed. Named, apparently, after the famous Overmountain Men - a group of Revolutionary soldiers from Western Appalachia, whose trail took them along this route to Virginia.
Happy Easter! Our Easter celebration on Sunday, April 11, 2004. An area Church group had set up at a road crossing not far from the base of Tray Mountain to hand out Easter goodies (fresh fruit and candy) to the passing hikers for Easter Sunday.
Fears. We all have them. Every single one of us has this thing that will make us jump out of our skin (read: spiders). You can put a rationality behind it, or it can be completely irrational. Doesn’t matter, the end result is still the same.
Growing up, I had two of these fears that would instill a fright in every single inch of my being: lightning and owls. Lightning, certainly, could be understood. A bold product of mother nature, non-discriminatory in its acts, and as unpredictable as it is powerful. Owls, too, but that’s another story.
All children are afraid, at some point, of loud, clapping things, and those other indistinguishable things that go bump in the night. It’s a natural uncertainty of the unknown. Most of us may have run to our parents when we hear that loud, booming, thunderous crackle at one point, but we eventually grow out of it and move long. Myself, not so much.
I recall hiding behind walls, doors, furniture, anything that could be used as a shield (even indoors) when a thunderstorm began to threaten. Growing up from adolescence to adulthood, I still had that fear set in when a storm blew in. The clap of thunder sent me to the most interior room, and forget about sleep until it moved on. I wouldn’t necessarily call it an irrational fear, however. The childhood experience of playing outside when a tornadic thunderstorm came rolling in was the specific catalyst for this adulthood trauma I would have when lightning flashed outside.
One bright, sunny, but soon-to-be erratically stormy afternoon, all of the neighborhood kids were playing outside at a house about a block from mine. Wind began to blow, clouds started rolling in, and then the distant sounds of thunder were heard. As my friend’s parents came out to chase us home, due to the imminent storm, a few drops of water started falling from the sky. I started walking, and the rain started pouring. Halfway home, it abruptly stopped, and the wind died down. The thunder and lightning quickened its pace and tenacity, though, and so I followed suit in my pace to get back home. As soon as I reached the entrance of my yard, I paused and looked down the street, where I saw a dark, funneling cloud passing behind the treeline of the neighborhood. I froze in fear and the hair on the back of my neck began to raise. In that split second, a deafening boom and bright flash of light exploded to the direct right of me. A tree in the woods about 30 feet from me split and cracked. I stood there, paralyzed for a moment, and continued to watch the funnel cloud pass by and out of my view, then shook myself out of my stupor and ran inside. From that day forward, you couldn’t get me to set foot outside when a thunderstorm hit.
Flash forward to the day of the first real thunderstorm we had on the Appalachian Trail. Of course it was in the Smoky Mountains, where we were hiking and camping on ridge lines throughout the entire length of the Park. Of course we were going over the famed Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountains, the latter named after the erratic and unpredictable weather received in the vicinity. Of course we would soon be crossing over the highest peak of the entire trail. And of course we would be hit by a few feeder storms of the worst breakout of storms and tornadic activity in the history of the United States (ref. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_2003_tornado_outbreak_sequence).
The terrain and ridge walk across the Great Smoky Mountains on the Appalachian trail, in the southern portion of the park, consists of fields and balds created by settlers’ cattle being brought up to the ridges to feed for the summer months. All along the southern portion of the Great Smoky Mountains/Appalachian Trail you will find a few green tunnels, but the larger portion is across these herd-created, grassy fields. On a clear, sunny day, it is a gorgeous walk. On a dark, stormy day, it can be sheer terror, especially if you have this one particular fear.
The first morning in the Smokies, we woke up to that torrential, unforgiving rain. Soon after starting out for the day’s hike, the wind and lightning started. It was cold, rainy, scary, slippery, and miserable. Added to the fact that I was deathly afraid of these elements and we were talking across bald, naked fields about 50% of the time, I spent a lot of time halting, shuddering, and nervously laughing as I planned out my traversing across these huge, open fields. At the end of the first day (more like mid-morning, after putting in just over four miles) I arrived at Spence Field. I had been able to hop around and dodge certain fields and balds for the smaller part of the hike, I couldn’t avoid the traverse across Spence Field, as the shelter was located on the other side. I stood there for a moment, thunder clapping overhead, and started off. Every few feet, I would freeze and look up at the sky when a flash of light or thunderclap could be seen or heard. It literally took everything I had to start back up and take the next step after freezing up. I had nowhere to run, though.
Running back into the canopy of the woods provided no real shelter. Even the three-walled, roofed-over shelter that was to be our home for the night couldn’t protect us if mother nature wanted to strike us. Slowly, as I crossed that field, I realized that this was something that I just had to overcome, or else I may as well walk off that mountain and go home. Even that would be no small task, since it would be a day’s hike to get to any location that would eventually bring me home. So, I had my choice. Either crumble up into a little ball in the middle of a field on the ridge line of the Smokies during a torrential rainstorm, or suck it up and keep moving. So, I sucked it up, and kept moving.
We went through almost 2 more days of this weather before a respite. The next day had us crawling over Rocky Top and Thunderhead, one being a bald summit, and the other bring sprinkled with brush. As I came up to Rocky Top, I paused and looked around to see nothing but grey skies and rain. It didn’t matter, though. I had finally defeated a fear that had held onto me since childhood. So, with both distant and nearby claps of thunder and bright flashes of lightning in the vicinity, I paused for a picture. It’s a fairly unremarkable picture to the average eye, but to me it is a picture of victory.
I now have a healthy respect for mother nature and her light shows, but I now can say that I can enjoy the beauty of it without the fear of what it may do to me.