It is foggy Tuesday morning, but I see a few people from the lodge walk by on their way to Myrtle Point in hopes of seeing sunrise. We are lazy and don’t bother. Annette and I brought oatmeal packets for a filling breakfast that would stick to our ribs. We don’t boil quite enough water, and it winds up sticking to the roofs of our mouths as well. Mr. Briggs and his family pack up and head out first. They are going down Alum Cave. Our descent is on Bull Head. We make one last stop at the lodge to sign the guest book and look for Mr. Brigg’s picture hanging on the office wall.
We must retrace our steps on Rainbow Falls Trail for about half a mile over small flat stones and cobbles that clink and clatter with each step. Bull Head veers left at the junction and takes us 5.9 miles to its terminus at Old Sugarlands Trail. At the beginning, the trail is little more than a slit through a thick layer of knee-to-thigh-high herbaceous plants – all carrying a full load of water droplets. In places the plants have been mashed down and bear scat is visible. Wood Nettle is everywhere. Many plant stems sport a frothy mass of white bubbles from spittle bugs. Annette spots the shiny foliage of Kidney-leaf Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia asarifolia). We find a Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum) in flower and spy Carey’s Saxifrage (Saxifraga careyana) and Minnie-Bush (Menziesia pilosa).
As we work our way down the mountain, we run into two problems, both of which can occur at any time in the park. First, the weather turns threatening. Darkening skies and rumbling thunder don’t bode well, especially along a higher elevation ridge. The prospect of lightning is a good motivator to quicken the pace. Second, a misplaced foot on a slanted rock sends me crashing down on top of my right leg. My right foot slides left twisting at the ankle, and I come down hard, smashing my lower leg against that darned rock. The leg bruise will cause trouble later, right now it’s the sharp ankle pain that worries me. Annette helps me straighten out my legs; Clarence gets my pack off my back; and both watch as I catch my breath and slowly wiggle my foot around. It hurts, but it appears to work. After a few moments, Clarence gives me a hand up, and we move on…slowly. Clarence trades his trekking poles for my tripod. When the rain comes, he even stows my camera in his pack. And boy, did the rain come! Twice!! Two different storms push us down the trail. We barely glance at “The Pulpit” in pouring rain.
Between storms, we finally spot Mountain Fetterbush (Pieris floribunda) in flower. I’ve been looking for it the whole trip. It is a rare plant in Tennessee, found only in GSMNP and said to be on both trails. The persistent thunder forces me to move on without a photo. We find Partridgeberry in full flower thickly covering a flat rock and just begging to be photographed, but it is too dark, too rainy, and too thundery to even consider it. Passing up such opportunities is tough but necessary. Safety first.
After hobbling on a sprained ankle for well over 3 miles, I am quite relieved when we hit Old Sugarlands Trail. The smooth road bed doesn’t jar my ankle, the parking lot is just a half mile away, and our friend and Fern Foray leader, Pat Cox, has a warm, delicious meal waiting for Annette and me at the cabin we rented in Townsend. Aside from the fall, it has been a fun and productive trip. I’ve had three firsts in two days: 1) my first hike up Mt. LeConte, 2) my first overnight backpacking excursion, and 3) my first Smokies injury. I’m anxious to add to the first two and sincerely hope to avoid any repeat of the third.