By Logan Boldon
Member Events Specialist
When I think of the ultimate backpacker, Samwise Gamgee from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings series immediately comes to mind. This stout little hobbit who’d never left the Shire made it all the way to Mordor toting a simple rucksack. With pots and pans clanging, Sam climbed over mountains and waded through swamps, camping out along the way with enough fortitude to give lectures on the goodness of potatoes and contemplate the taste of strawberries as the world turned to chaos over a silly little ring. Who can compete with that? Certainly not me.
My first-ever backpacking trip this past June in the Twentymile area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park actually began several weeks prior at REI in Knoxville. My in-store guide, who was much more pleasant than Gollum, led me up and down the aisles in search of gear to meet my needs and my budget. Unlike Sam’s simple satchel and his need to sleep on the ground wrapped in a cloak, I’d be heading into the woods with an anti-gravity harness system and an inflatable sleeping pad.
Lisa Duff, Great Smoky Mountains Association’s marketing and membership director, agreed to supervise me on this journey. When the day finally arrived, the first thing we did was head into her kitchen with my bags of groceries. She gently helped me understand that I’d brought too much food for one night in the backcountry. I had to say goodbye to some tasty morsels as we loaded up for our two-hour drive and headed toward the infamous Tail of the Dragon, also know as Highway 129. Riding this stretch of road is supposedly a thrill, but I couldn’t stop yawning as we took curve after curve in the early afternoon sun.
I’d never heard of Twentymile before our trip, and when we got there, it was easy to see why. Twentymile is a short spur of gravel road within the park boundary running next to a ranger station and a parking area at the trailhead. After taking the obligatory pre-hike photos, we started off on our leisurely two-mile walk up Twentymile Trail to Backcountry Campsite 93 – a perfect pick for beginners. Carrying about 40 pounds on my back was certainly a different feeling, but I was pleased it wasn’t uncomfortable. I’m sure that changes as the mileage increases.
We arrived at our campsite to find two hammock campers already set up in the trees. After careful scouting, we pitched our tents in the open area near a campfire ring and made our beds for the night while there was still plenty of daylight. Then we explored the area, gathering twigs and branches in anticipation of an evening fire. That’s when I discovered a pile of animal dung at the back of our site. “It could be a bear,” I said, but as bear-aware as we are, we didn’t let it phase us.
As it turned out, that particular pile was probably not a present left by a bear, but rather a boar. As Lisa boiled water from the stream next to our site to rehydrate my chili mac and cheese, I looked up the hillside and found myself staring into the eyes of a wild boar. I alerted Lisa just as the boar took off into the woods. There’s no way to know for certain how long it had been watching us.
After our meal, we started a fire as the final light of day slipped away. Twinkling lights began to appear in the forest around us to our delight. Fireflies! With apple turnovers in hand, we enjoyed nature’s cinema. As the show continued, we decided to add our own act with renditions of our favorite campfire songs. There was just one problem – we couldn’t remember any! When the fire was nothing but embers, we made sure our gear was properly stowed on the bear cables provided by the park service and turned in.
Our plan for the next day, after a breakfast of omelets and hash browns, included hiking to Shuckstack fire tower. We fashioned daypacks for ourselves with water and snacks and hung the rest of our gear back on the bear cables. We chatted as we continued along Twentymile Trail, but our chatter soon gave way to huffing and puffing as the elevation steeply increased and high spirits gave way to trite utterances like, “This is stupid.”
One bend at a time, we finally emerged onto the Appalachian Trail with big sighs of relief. A cool breeze licked at our sweat-laden clothes as we reposed on rocks to catch our breath. Once recovered, we made short work of following those signature white blazes along the ridgeline, enjoying the buzzing of the bees as they flew from flower to flower collecting and distributing pollen.
Shuckstack fire tower is located a short distance off the AT. When we reached the spur trail that would take us to its base, we encountered a sight we did NOT expect or enjoy – clothing, towels, a bottle of Clorox and packaged cookies strewn about. As individuals trained in Leave No Trace principles, we were appalled to behold such a sight.
I clambered up the metal-framed structure without a second thought and entered the square room perched above. The adrenaline of the climb was sustained as I felt the tower swaying from side to side. Windows on all sides provided me a stunning 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and Lake Fontana below, where I could see tiny boats bobbing along.
After our fill of vistas and snacks, we turned towards the trail for the return trip. We recovered our packs back at Campsite 93 and made it to the car, through the Tail of the Dragon, and home after a stop for frozen yogurt. Like Samwise on his jounrey, we had made it there and back again with many tales to tell.
For more on camping in the backcountry, be sure to pick up a copy of Hiking Trails of the Smokies.