Monday, July 07, 2008

Sick in the Woods

The Hiker Hell blog got me to thinking about some of my hiking and backpacking trips.

I do almost all of my backpacking trips and most of my day hiking trips alone. It's really tough for me to find companions when I go hiking, due to my weird work schedule. I've been momentarily lost a few times on my hikes, but you have to be a total moron to get really lost in the eastern USA. For the simple reason that you can find a road within a few miles by simply walking downhill or following a creek. The east is highly developed and there is always a road nearby with the only exceptions being places like the Okefenokeee Swamp, the Great Dismal Swamp, or the Everglades. Other than those, if you can't find your way to an inhabited place within a few hours, you shouldn't even be in the woods.

However, a couple of times I have gotten sick after I'd hiked well into the forest. The worst time was on January 17, 2005. For several years I was trying to locate a tree known as "The Sag Branch Poplar". It's the world's champion Tulip Poplar tree. I kept missing it or forgetting my GPS coordinates when I'd go to find it. Well, I drove up to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park very early on the morning of January 17, 2005 to find that damned tree.

Not only did I fail, I got monstrously sick.

Coyote tracks on a footbridge along the trail.

After I'd hiked about six miles into the Cataloochee area of the park, where the tree is located, I began to feel sick. The day was beautiful, the ground was covered in snow, and it was pretty damned cold (for the deep South). But I was prepared for the snow and cold, so that was no problem. However, as I climbed the mountains and took the trail looking for my grail-tree, I started to feel achy. Then a slight fever seemed to creep through my body, but I ignored it for a while because I figured it was just an effect of the cold.

I must add here that I was the only person in the Boogerman Grove that day. The ground was, as I said, covered in snow, and mine were the only footprints in it. I saw a few coyote tracks, but other than those canids and a few elk, nobody else seemed to be in the the forest there.

Around the area where I was supposed to leave the trail to go bushwhacking to locate the Sag Branch Poplar, I realized that I was far too sick to risk venturing off trail. My joints ached, my head and body were on fire, and I was just so totally ill that I had to keep stopping to rest. I tried to eat something, but I was too sick for that, too. And this was all about the point where I was farthest from my truck.

Slowly realizing just how sick I was, I began to make my way back to the truck. Very damned slowly. Every time I'd stop, I'd take some photographs of the cold, stark forest. This was probably the last time I was in that part of the park when the hemlock trees were more alive than dead. All of the hemlock groves in Cataloochee are completely dead, now. It's very sad. This was the last time I witnessed those enormous old evergreens in decent health. Unfortunately, I was far too sick to enjoy the experience very much.

After some hours, I made it back to my truck. No doubt about it, I was in a pretty bad state. I considered finding a hotel room and checking in, but I was afraid that I might get even sicker and be unable to drive all the way home the following morning. So I just started up the engine, pointed the truck toward Charlotte and drove home as quickly as I could while staying as safe as I could.

That night and the following couple of days I suffered through the flu. Why it waited until I was neck deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to cave in on me, I can't say. I'd felt great that morning and even as I hiked into the park. Although I must admit that the beauty of the snow from the night before, and the crisp air of the morning may very well have taken the edge off the bug, thus making me unaware of what was going on inside.

At any rate, it could have been far worse, and I do have some striking photographs from that day of sickness.

In retrospect, it was the last time I saw the grand old hemlocks of Cataloochee green and alive.

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