The morning brings cool temperatures, a chilly breeze, and clear skies. By our departure at 8:30, the breeze has abated, and beautiful sunshine is warming the day. We have an easy hike planned — 5.7 miles to Spence Field. The trail generally descends 500 feet to two Abrams Gaps, climbs 800 feet to Mt. Squires, and coasts through the initial open spaces of Spence Field to the junction with Eagle Creek Trail and the shelter.
Despite an intent to document the trail, it is all too easy to fall into a hiking rhythm and buzz right past a section highlighted in the Smokies trail guide or The A.T. Guide. Devils Tater Patch is one such area. It is a slight dip in the crest of Mollies Ridge that is so unremarkable we all fail to notice it. It is so unremarkable that Place Names of the Smokies doesn’t even mention it. I have no idea what prompted its name, but other place names featuring “Devil” typically indicate very difficult terrain. There is certainly nothing difficult about this nearly level ridge. Perhaps potatoes failed to grow well here, or an unwelcome plant grew too well here. Whatever the backstory, this benign landscape doesn’t seem to warrant such a provocative name.
We do notice Little Abrams Gap and Big Abrams Gap, however LAG is so little, we aren’t sure about it. BAG is more obvious. I photograph Mary hiking into it, but to be sure we must continue walking and confirm in retrospect. We are climbing along a ridge leading up to Russell Field Shelter. There are Fraser Magnolia, Catesby’s Trillium, and Witch Hazel. The constant cheer of Thyme-leaved Bluets, with their smiling blue faces and bright yellow eyes, greets us each day, lining the trail like little children waving along a parade route. It is tempting to smile and wave back.
On top of the ridge are many Beech trees, old stalks of Beech Drops, large patches of Hayscented Fern, and a Cucumber Magnolia. I photograph a Red Oak whose trunk is contorted into the shape of a lightning bolt. We stop midmorning for a snack at Russell Field Shelter. A young couple from last night stop by to show us a picture of the mother bear and cub, now foraging on this side of Mollies Ridge. They came upon the bears shortly after we left this morning! Those bears are simply hiding from us.
After our snack, we climb to Mt. Squires at 5,000 feet and gently drop into the first part of Spence Field, the park’s largest grassy bald. In the 1830s, James Robert Spence cleared these fields for his cattle. He occupied a cabin here in the summer and wintered in Cades Cove. Of the nearly 100 acres Spence cleared for grazing, about 30 remain unforested, affording one’s gaze and soul an opportunity to expand up and out, much like The Sound of Music’s opening scene.
In the first meadow, we find “Spirit Walker,” the thru-hiker from Atlanta. His clothes did not dry overnight, and he is laying out damp garments in the sun while he eats lunch. Thru-hikers are always looking for simpler and lighter gear alternatives. “Spirit Walker” carries a hollow walking stick that holds various instruments of survival — an emergency blanket, compass, first aid, matches, fire starter, mini flashlight, fishing line and hooks. It even has a scoop for digging essential holes. Earlier this morning, his Steripen, a UV light to treat water, was misbehaving. Dismayed, he was studiously working on a fix. His drinking hose had broken too. We inquire about their status, and he reports with a smile that all are now working. I tell him I hope his troubles have ended for the day. He replies, “If they don’t, I’ll take care of those too. I love being out here. This is my church.” Amen, brother, amen!
Rolling into Spence Field Shelter at noon, we lay out our sleeping gear to air and eat a leisurely lunch. A few other hikers have paused here for their midday repast. The Michigan couple, “Drifter” and “Strutter,” prepare a hot meal. “Drifter” is filming other hikers telling their stories of the trail on a pocket camcorder. He talks to one young man, “Indian Brave,” who relays his impression of the Appalachian Trail this way. He was sitting in a Georgia privy feverishly smoking a cigarette in hopes of calming a swarm of bees also occupying the privy, when he noticed a large, beautiful butterfly perched on a shovel coated with human excrement. He and the butterfly “chilled together” in the bee-plagued privy. So when asked to describe hiking the AT, “Indian Brave” replies, “It’s like a butterfly on a pile of shit.” On cue, a Mourning Cloak butterfly flits through the shelter to bask in the sunshine.
“Drifter” has his own interesting story. Each upper arm features the full figure tattoo of a sports player — a baseball pitcher on his right arm, a football player on the left. I keep staring at the baseball player rendered in a green and gold uniform. The player has a mustache and long hair. Deep memories stir in my brain, and I ask him, “Is that Dennis Eckersley?” He gives me an astonished look. Not too many people recognize the image, and certainly not many women hiking the AT, but I’m not your ordinary woman hiker. My late husband, born and raised in Kansas City, was a lifelong Athletics fan and developed many friendships on this and other teams, including an acquaintance with Dennis, who is now in the Hall of Fame. Nick loved baseball and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport. I couldn’t help absorbing some of that over 30 years. “Drifter” and I talk about baseball and an admiration so strong it led him to permanently ink Eck on his skin. Now that is a fan!
Those eating lunch soon venture onward to shelters further up the trail. Clarence turns in for an afternoon nap, and Mary reads the shelter journal. I go exploring. The forest around the shelter is an open woodland, a mix of second growth trees underlain by a luxuriant sea of sedges rippling in the mountain breeze. The effect is stunningly beautiful. Possessing no expertise in sedges, it is my reasoned opinion that this fine-textured plant is High Meadow or Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica). Eighty-nine Carex species are listed in the park’s flora, and this one is common (“characteristic and dominant”) at middle to high elevations. My photos are dead ringers for the images of this sedge on the University of Tennessee’s Herbarium Web site.
This deep, soft carpet pulls me in. I just want to lie down and roll in it, (but I don’t). Instead, I meander through this wonderland of a woodland turning my camera lens on whatever insect, flower, lichen, or tree catches my eye. Loosely scattered Serviceberry, Yellow Birch, Red Maple, Sugar Maple, Red Oak, Yellow Buckeye, and Beech trees shade the green waves of sedge. Mountain Holly is in bud. Both Highbush and Hairy Blueberry are in flower, with the former setting fruit. There are small hawthorns, possibly Big-fruit Hawthorn (Crataegus macrosperma). A tiny grasshopper sits quietly on a hawthorn leaf. The Large Lace-border Moth (Scopula limboundata) rests among shaded foliage.
Below the shelter is a Beech Gap of young trees amid the lush cascade of sedge. Horse hitches are located here. Eagle Creek Trail winds its way behind the shelter and crosses the spring that gives birth to Spence Cabin Branch, which in turn tumbles rapidly down slope to join Eagle Creek. Southern Lady Ferns are along the path to the spring. I arrive there to find Clarence and Mary replenishing our water supplies.
Any water collected in the mountains should be filtered, boiled, or treated with UV light or chemicals before drinking. They are using my new filter, the Platypus Gravity Works system. Clarence fills the “dirty” bag from the spring pipe and holds it aloft. Mary plugs the filter tube into our bladders, and untreated water flows down through the filter cartridge and fills them one at a time. No pumping required, it is simple and surprisingly fast. I lend a hand, and we fill the spare four liter “clean” bag for cooking dinner and breakfast.
Spence Field Shelter has been renovated with a new roof and skylight. There is plenty of headroom in the sleeping area that accommodates 12, and it is one of the few shelters on this end of park with a privy. Given the incomparable bucolic surroundings, I would consider it my favorite.
Only two hikers join us for the night, Christian and Catherine, preternaturally happy brother and sister on summer break from college doing the same hike we are but in reverse. They have way too much fun together to be related, laughing and playing cards. These two could easily be mistaken for von Trapp children with their good looks, bright smiles, and musical voices. Catherine is continually singing “My Girl” by the Temptations and occasionally breaks into “Rocky Top,” their most recent trail highlight. Her tunes inspire American Robins nesting in the shelter’s outer eaves, and mama bird hops around foraging tasty protein for her brood.
The sun drops below the mountains behind us in a red blaze. Christian and Catherine wrap up like little mummies in their down sleeping sacks. Mary, Clarence, and I settle in too and drift away.