I wake up with the jolted spring of a man who has passed out inside of an all-night Dairy Queen...the half groggy half-awakeness that usually comes after a long needed sleep. What did I just hear? There it is again...a kind of hurried gallop and the sound is coming from my left just outside the view from beneath my tarp. I begin to slowly regain my normal(normal for me) consciousness and attempt to focus my reluctant eyes. It's the sound of an obvious living creature that seems to be circling around our camp. It's the low thump of hooves meeting Earth. Seeing how I know that the elusive Appalachian Miniature Zebra is in hibernation this time of year, I assume the origin of the sound must be from a deer which has wandered it's way into our midst.
Fun fact: Without my contacts or glasses I am reasonably blind. I have my glasses stashed in my bag hanging from my hammock which unfortunately is on the outside of my bug net which is secured by an incredibly audible zipper. AT THE TIME...I was naturally under the assumption that any sign of life in camp would spook the deer which is now just standing in the middle of our hammock village. My friend's hammock is directly across the middle of camp so after sneaking a few sneaky photos sneakily I have the sneaking suspicion that my buddy might want to see this deer up close. So, in my shittiest attempt at a whisper ever, I rasp out a few callings of my friends name. This apparently doesn't startle the eight point buck who is still munching away at the grass not ten feet from the foot of Spencer's hammock. So after a reasonable time of watching the animal meander around us I decide that I need coffee. I unzip the mesh and pounce onto the ground and into my shoes.
When I emerge from beneath my tarp I encounter something unexpected. There stands the deer...there stands me. We're both just standing there. He didn't run away or even act startled. It comes to me suddenly that either this deer is so used to people (which is unlikely due to the remote location) that he doesn't feel threatened or, more than likely, we are possibly the only humans he has encountered. That being said, it is also very possible that he identified me as being a lower form of animal, and by association so too my accompaniment. It is this latter probability which I choose to believe and thusly use as the foundation for the remainder of the story about Rick. Yes, he told me his name was Rick. So, there we sit in the mid day sun drinking coffee and eating jerky with Rick the deer...esquire.
Spencer accepting Rick's petition to join our group....
After a reasonable time, Rick parts company and we break camp. We decide to continue on to the terminus of the Grapeyard Ridge trail. Grapeyard ends at the Roaring Fork Motor Nature trail so we travel light and make no real plans beyond that point aside from just making it to the end.
The last 4.4 miles of Grapeyard was similar to the first 3.2. Creek crossings separated with lush green and dotted here and yon with the remains of bygone homesteads. There are some more steep climbs and a few down hills which we welcome at first until we remember that the downgrades here will be the uphill climbs on our trek back to camp. These ill thoughts disappear like cheese at a ham convention when we began hearing the first sounds of the river from which the Roaring Fork MNT owes it's name. Finally we've made it to at least our tentative destination. We hit a small connector trail which hugs the banks of Roaring Fork. Guess why they call this river "Roaring Fork"? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? That's right, because it roars. It's course carves in between relatively large boulders that have all but been swallowed up by thick yellow-green moss. It is truly one of my favorite waterways in the Smokies. We don't go far before Spencer notices a spot to make our way down to the water. After wrangling ourselves down, we come upon a glorious deep water hole just below a pristine small fall. It even has a huge rock for us to rest our soggy asses and dry out our clothes. It doesn't take long for me to decide I might as well use this opportunity to get a couple more additions to the Underfalls Project. And that's what I do.
After reclaiming my testicles from the icy grip of the brisk mountain water I make a few underwater images from beneath the falls as best I can. We decide that there's simply nothing for us any further down the trail and that this will be as far as we need to go. We eat a little chow and then go for one more dive in the falls. We dry out and then gear up. It's back up the trail and the over the hills back to camp. Night is coming quick so we don't delay. My good buddy Spencer is first back to camp and he is already well into making a fire by the time I arrive back at the site. After some cheddar bacon noodles cooked in my signature jerky water the fire is fueled with our remaining firewood. The last night in camp is usually the best. True, it's more often than not tempered with an overtone of melancholy from the realization that I must soon rejoin the world. What makes it so great is that if all has gone to plan during the trip there is usually a surplus of food that must be eaten in the name of "lightening the packs". The last of the chow is torn through the way people in the middle of nowhere do after hiking ten miles and suddenly have no reason to ration their food stores. Fine times.
"...Welch." I hear Spencer say in a low whisper(a legit whisper) but the tone catches my attention. "I hear voices." Immediately I'm on my feet make my way to Spencer's shelter. There's no moon and I don't turn on my headlamp given the circumstances. My buddy relays to me that he can hear what sounds like footsteps on the trail directly behind our camp...and what's more, he heard something that sounded like hushed talk as well. At this point, I'm in a "guarded state of alarm." There's no moon. So we sit there, he in his hammock and me crouched on the ground. We listen. Then I hear it too. The low sound of footsteps and they're close. We come to the conclusion that it's simply too dark for someone to be making their way in the night with no illumination. Since we've saw no lights I'm almost certain that the chance of this being a human is quite slim. Still...I'm not going to sit here the rest of the night with the lingering thought that this is the one backcountry trip when I encounter that crazed mental patient who escaped the asylum. There's simply nothing for it...I have to know.
I inform Spencer of my intent to shift around to the back side of his tarp and spotlight the trail to see what's what. As I stand up in the darkness I can still hear the sound of something but I don't know what...and that is just the situation. With my hand on my headlamp I take a deep breath and then hit the flood light....
Wait for it......
"It's fucking Rick." I am told that this was the muted and somewhat relieved exclamation that I rendered as my headlamp illuminated our camp mascot. Not three feet away stood Rick. Good ol' Rick or "Fucking Rick" as he would now be called for the duration of our trip and the name by which you will hopefully choose to call him hereafter. As with our earlier encounter with the snake I would implore you to keep a safe and respectable distance from all wildlife...no matter how harmless they might appear. In this case, however, out there in the blackness my proximity was impossible to determine and so there we were. The Moose and an eight point buck locked in an apparent staring contest. Fucking Rick didn't startle or scare. Fucking Rick didn't run. He just looked at me, lowered his head slightly to get beneath the beam of my headlamp, and then simply walked to his left. All the while I stood there I had a sense of normalcy that eclipsed any expected feelings that such an encounter might bring about here in the world. There was no fear, no need for either of us to be alarmed.
Certain now that no machete wielding Leprechaun's were laying in wait behind each tree we decide to kick back for the night and retire.
Morning comes way too early and I wake up to the sounds of conversation in camp. I was surprised to see Spencer talking with a gentleman in NPS attire who turned out to be a backcountry Park Ranger out on patrol. Chase, as he introduced himself, was very polite and personable in checking our permits and we all talked for quite a while about the area and the Park. I have to say this was my first encounter with a backcountry ranger in all my years on the trail. Chase, if you're reading this let me extend to you the thanks of every responsible hiker in the Appalachians. And that's not hyperbole. You perform an under-appreciated duty.
After a farewell cup of coffee with fucking Rick we pack up and head back towards the trail head and the walkout is fairly mundane. Spencer and I talk about the usual things: the fall of Rome...The Big Lebowski...beer...and most importantly...when do we return.
No doubt it won't be long before the mountains pull becomes too much for me to ignore and hopefully I'll be back on the trail sooner than later. My first non-solo backcountry trip had been a refreshingly welcomed change. Away from people...with people, wasn't so bad after all.