Again we awake to a gloriously beautiful morning. It is day three, and we are hitting our stride with established routines. My gear is quickly rolled, stuffed, and ready for packing, a process made easier in the extra space of an uncrowded shelter. It has taken time, moving through an inevitable learning curve, to refine both gear and technique, and I am still not consistent.
The trick to effective and efficient packing is simply a more compact version of the old adage, “a place for everything, and everything in its place.” Easy enough, but the devil is always in the details or in this case, stuff sacks. Preparation requires hours of thought and planning, not to mention expenditures, well before the trip. In a future blog post, I’ll explain the process, its benefits, and the pitfalls of slipping back into disorganized ways. Today, however, I am anything but disorganized and impress both Mary and Clarence with my laser focus!
It is another short day of 6.3 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. Our hike takes us over two signature sites in the Smokies — Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain — within the first two miles. To reach these locations, we must walk through the remaining open acres of Spence Field. The trail through this undulating meadow is terraced into a long series of steps, presumably to reduce erosion. Since most of my miles in the park have traversed enclosed, shady forests, this expansive, sunny exposure is a refreshing change of scenery.
There is a small, precisely balanced rock cairn sitting beside the trail in the middle of Spence Field. It does not appear to mark anything in particular. Cairn is a Scottish Gaelic term for a manmade pile of rocks. They are typically used to help people navigate barren landscapes with no detectable path. All cultures have used them, including peoples in the arctic region of North America where such a structure is called an inuksuk. It means “something which acts for or performs the function of a person.” Trail markers like these are sometimes called “ducks” or “duckies” as they often feature a protruding rock or “beak” to indicate route direction. “Ducks” come with a caveat — “two rocks do not make a duck.” Nature could easily place one rock on top of another; three or more must be a deliberate human act.
This cairn could be a “duck.” A large rock at the back points into the meadow. Perhaps there is a great view from the clearing’s far edge or an interesting natural or manmade feature. This presumed “beak” may simply be a necessary counterbalance in the delicate engineering required to keep this little stack of stones standing. Perhaps there is no more intent beyond the desire of previous travelers to hail those currently sojourning — to bid us welcome and offer assurance of safe passage as Thunderhead looms before us against the clear, blue sky.
The approach to Rocky Top is steep, but many inspiring views reward the effort. There are two summits that could lay claim to the name Rocky Top. The first one, which isn’t the real one, is by far the more impressive. Vistas to the north, south, and west are spectacular and include a glimpse into Cades Cove. The place is about as bare and rocky as any I’ve seen in the Smokies and has budding Catawba Rhododendrons fringing the steep slopes’ upper edges.
A bit further is the actual Rocky Top, an unassuming small grassy knob with a few large, low boulders barely protruding from the ground. Shrubs have grown higher here giving a more enclosed feeling, though the views are still grand. The most celebrated rock on Rocky Top has been carved with names over the centuries. In particular, Hop Harris and Red Waldron engraved their names in large, uniform block letters in the late 1880s. A memorial mason could not have done better. Identified in the Smokies trail guide as herders, they visited the site on at least seven occasions between 1889 and 1920, permanently recording each year on this mountain logbook.
Of course, a person cannot stand on Rocky Top without singing the same-named anthem of the Smokies (and the University of Tennessee theme song) composed by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant. This husband and wife songwriting team penned many great songs during their successful careers and, according to Gatlinburg.com, wrote “Rocky Top” in room 388 of the Gatlinburg Inn in 1967! Even if you aren’t a UT fan, you can’t help getting wrapped up in the rapid rhythm of the Osborne Brothers rendition — smiling, clapping, and singing — and just like the song, today there “ain’t no smoggy smoke on Rocky Top” to mar our experience.
It is a short jaunt to Thunderhead Mountain. Walled in by tall Rhododendron, the Geological Survey marker (5,527 feet) is essential to recognizing the summit. Standing on a precarious jumble of rocks might get your head high enough to peek over. Clarence tries it. I’m distracted by a flowering shrub in the Rose Family that I’m fairly confident is Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa). Another shrub in bud is obviously a Viburnum — Witherod (V. cassinoides).
The trek down Thunderhead is very steep in places. To complicate this descent, the trail is rocky and rooty, requiring close attention to foot placement and the desire to protect knees from the constant jar & jam of weight pounding down step after step. Once we reach the mountain’s base, the trail roller-coasters up and down, climbs Brier Knob, descends to Starkey Gap, arches into Sugartree Gap, and rises gently then steeply to Derrick Knob. All this up and down is tiring, yet I remain strong with no complaints. We come upon a very large turkey on the trail. He warily steps aside and moves downhill, eyeing us with suspicion.
We hit Thunderhead at midmorning under clear skies. As the day advances, clouds build and cover the sky. During our final steep climb, rain begins to fall. It doesn’t last long, but we need no further motivation to get moving and reach our destination. At Derrick Knob Shelter, we eat lunch with the solo thru-hiker who arrived late our first night at Mollies Ridge — “Packman.” He’s got a cold and is taking a “zero day” (hiking no miles) to stay at Derrick and rest. By the end of lunch, the sky opens, and it literally pours rain for a good hour. The temperature drops, a breeze kicks up, and out come the Puffies to stave off chills. These ultralight insulating jackets are indispensable. We’ve needed them every evening.
Once the rain stops, we make a muddy trek to the spring for water, then I slip off for some personal attention. Time to freshen up a bit and change a few essentials. After all, it is our third day out. Tomorrow I get a new pair of socks!
To pass the afternoon, I examine the plants in the immediate vicinity. There are several pure stands of a particular grass. I photograph it in hopes of making an ID later. Grasses are nearly as hard as sedges, but I think it might be Grove Blue Grass (Poa alsodes). I’ve seen it in several other locations, and the park checklist says it occurs frequently over a wide elevation range.
I also photograph what I assume to be a small bee or wasp in the Order Hymenoptera. I’m as good at identifying insects as I am sedges and grasses, but I get a big break here. My photo shows just two forewings and is clear enough to plainly reveal two small, yellow, knobbed structures on either side of its body. These are halteres, the reduced remnants of hind wings that function as gyroscopes and help the insect with balance and guidance in flight. Only insects in the Order Diptera have halteres. This makes the ID a little easier, but there are not many photos of the tens of thousands of fly species on this continent. Once more, luck plays a role. Flipping through a field guide, I happen upon an image that is very similar to my fly. It is a Syrphid Fly, also called Hover Flies or Flower Flies, (Family Syrphidae). There are 870 species in North America, and many of them mimic bees or wasps. Several characteristics of this family appear on my little guy.
As the day progresses, other hikers arrive at the shelter. All are drenched and mud splattered from the torrential rain. There is a young couple thru-hiking the AT with ultralight packs. A young man from Germany, recently graduated from college, is hiking as much of the AT as he can before returning to pursue a job. His trail name is “Red Data” in recognition of the red Buff he wears around his neck and his training in computer technology. Two men, one an architect from Asheville, are out for a weekend hike in the Smokies. Everyone’s primary objective is to get warm and dry, and fire, however improbable after rain, is the means.
There isn’t a twig anywhere that is not thoroughly wet, but we have not one, but two, determined pyromaniacs. “Packman,” snuffling with his head cold, makes long runs into the forest for wood and launches his effort in the shelter fireplace. The two men on the weekend hike arrive later and stake out their territory at the fire ring. They have a small saw to cut larger downed limbs. “Packman’s” fire is weak and reluctant, despite the expenditure of much time and fuel. The architect shows his superior fire making skills with a beautiful teepee and incredible lung power to blow faint sparks into strong flames. “Packman” dubs him “Thunder Lungs.” Soon his fire offers enough warmth to make a dent in his soaked shoes and attract the other shelter residents. The two men light up cigars. “Packman” pulls out a pipe. “Red Data” stretches a wet shirt on his trekking poles and waves it near the fire.
“Packman” does not abandon his smoldering attempt, and that persistence eventually pays off. His fire is now burning fairly well, and even though there isn’t room to gather round the fireplace, he pulls everyone in with a generous offer of strawberry marshmallows and cinnamon graham crackers. We all toast at least one marshmallow and sandwich it between crackers. While the fires helped everyone in many ways, our main source of warmth comes from moderating temperatures and decreased wind in the hours following passage of the storm.
Derrick Knob is a fairly nice shelter on a level site. It has a skylight, decent headroom above the sleeping platforms, and adequate benches. Like several of the shelters on this end of the park, there is no privy. Like all shelters, it is overrun by rodents. Mice and chipmunks have learned the pickings are good in these locations. Chipmunks are active during the day, and mice can be heard scurrying around throughout the night. A mouse darts across the dirt floor in the middle of the afternoon and dives under the sleeping platform.
Through a long, damp afternoon and fading evening light, total strangers become friendly acquaintances via shared experiences and conversation. At Derrick Knob, talk turns to TV and movies. “Red Data” is surprisingly well versed on American film and television. In an astounding coincidence that could only happen on the AT, he and I discover a shared love of Scrubs, the hospital comedy with a heart that ran several seasons on NBC. J.D., Turk, and Elliot would be so proud. Dr. Cox would grimace.