Friday, February 28, 2014

135. Blue Blazing

"Oh come on," Hotdog says with a big smile on her face, "the sign warns you to 'Closely Control Children.' It sounds dangerous. We have to do it."

Apollo shifts his weight from one foot to the other uncertainly and consults his map.

"But... it's 0.1 miles parallel to the trail. If we take this blue blaze, it'll connect us back with the AT on the other side. Then we'll have missed 0.1 miles of the AT."

"Yeah, but it's still the same distance, there's supposed to be a wicked cool view, and Whistle's already gone down it," I explain, trying to entice Apollo, "It's only like a couple hundred feet to the left of the actual trail. It's still in the spirit of the Appalachian Trail. I'm sure Benton Mackaye won't rise from the grave and send smoky mountain zombie bears after us. It won't kill us."

"Well, it might kill us," reasons Dumptruck.

"If you really want, you could come with us, and then double back to take that same 0.1 miles down the AT. You're such a fast hiker I'm sure you'll still get to camp an hour before us anyway," Hotdog offers.

"Okay, okay," Apollo agrees. "I'll come. But I'm doubling back afterward."

"Fair," we all chorus together, and then head off down the blue-blazed side trail to "Charlie's Bunion."

We are in the Great Smoky Mountains, and our merry band of 5 hikers has been traveling together for a few days. This is our first encounter with a side trail that could potential cause us to "skip" a section of the AT. We have gone down some blue-blazed trails before, like in Georgia when we went a mile off-trail to see the second largest Poplar tree in North America, and it was totally worth it. But with that small blue-blaze, we knew it was a dead end, and after we marveled at the monstrously huge beauty of the tree, we could hike back up and join onto the trail where we left it.

Some folks that hike are purists, in that, they feel that they must have their feet touch every single part of the trail. I completely admire their dedication, and think that it is the most legitimate way of hiking. In this particular case, I feel like it's alright for me to sway a little non-purist, because I will be still walking the same amount of distance. I believe that in either scenario, both people are still thru-hikers. Or rather, this is what I tell myself so that I don't have to double back. I would also respect that if someone felt that damaged some of my thru-hiker cred. That's fair.

This is the tricky part about blue-blazing. There are a lot of delightful blue-blazes that lead you to something gorgeous, like the tree, or a waterfall, or a park that has public restrooms with toilets that actually flush. It is easy to take those side routes without any sort of crisis of conscience, because you know you will just turn back after you enjoy the scenery, and then rejoin the AT where you left it. But sometimes there are blue-blazes that run parallel to the main arterial flow of the true trail, and then hikers have a choice whether to just jump back onto the AT at the conclusion of the blue-blaze, or to walk all the way back to the diversion point.

I am not a purist. Not on the trail, and not in regular life. I wear white after labor day, sit like a dude with my feet planted a meter apart if I'm wearing pants, and even if I am eating in a fancy restaurant, I will push the last bite food on the plate onto my fork using my fingers. This is because I am a monster.

We start off down the trail toward "Charlie's Bunion" and all I can picture is a mountain-sized man who wore pointy-toed shoes one time too many, and now has to reap the consequences. This is not what we find.

Instead, we find a craggy rock outcropping, so treacherous that no plants can grow taller than a few feet. The lack of plant-life allows us a view that goes for miles across the landscape. The clouds pull away from us, curling through the valleys below and stretching backward for what seems like forever. It feels like we can see the entire Smoky Mountain range, and we become aware of our presence on the back of an ancient, sleeping giant.

I gasp as I see Whistle clambering over the rocks like a lithe monkey. She suddenly disappears from view and I let out a squeak of fear, certain that she has fallen to her death. Instead, she pops up a moment later, her cheeks flush with the excitement and physical exertion of climbing around.

"Oh my goodness!" I cry, pointing at her, "We have not closely controlled our children!"

She sticks her tongue out at me. The rest of us drop our backpacks and head out onto the rocks to explore.

This is one of my favorite memories of the Smoky Mountains, and it wasn't even technically on the Appalachian Trail. Sometimes a blue-blaze is just a blue-blaze, and sometimes it takes you on a wonderful adventure.

If you're wondering - as far as I remember, not only did Apollo double back, but so did Whistle (I think). I can't be sure. I was too busy, skipping merrily off down the trail with my heathen non-purist self.

Worth it.
Clever Girl


  1. There's a photo of Whistle dangling from a rock in Northbound that illustrates the above. Ya'll are gonna have to put a leash on that girl. Holy cripes....

    Also, I want to go make a trip to Nepal and I'm not certains why? (Bern)

    1. Oh man, I get spammed by that Nepal Trekking thing once every couple of months (they go through and leave a comment on at least 10 entries), and I have to go through and delete all of them. Woof.

  2. I am so absolutely certain you have a Clever Girl tee shirt that I'm not sending this. Sisu

    1. You are more right than you know - I actually already own that exact tee shirt! Dumptruck got it for me for christmas :D