In early 2005 I was still trying to locate the Sag Branch Poplar. Initially I only had a vague idea of where it was. Later, Will Blozan of ENTS gave me specific directions. So I had them with me very early one morning as I got up before dawn and headed to Cataloochee to finally find the tree.
Imagine my surprise, on arriving at the trailhead in the early light, to discover that I'd left those instructions at home. I didn't realize as I headed away from my truck, that the lack of directions would soon be the least of my problems.
So, once again, I was left to try to locate the biggest tree in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park by trying to recall landmarks only vaguely described to me. Still, I set out with some hope that I'd find the tree at last and get some decent photos. At this time I was still almost exclusively hiking alone, and I was at just about my heaviest in many years. I weighed about 230 pounds around this time but, as always, I never had any trouble hiking steep slopes or bushwhacking off trail. Even at the worst of my weight gains I tended to have enough good lung health to tackle the toughest slopes.
The thing about this particular hike, though, was what happened after I'd hiked about three miles into the forest:
At pretty much the halfway point in the hike, I realized that I was sick. Not just feeling a tiny bit under the weather, but completely sick. A flu bug had invaded my body and picked that precise moment to let me know that it had its hooks in me. As I walked along I got sicker and sicker and knew that I was going to have a long, difficult, painful hike back to my truck. The worst part was that I was precisely in the middle of the route on the Boogerman Trail and so I decided to just push on rather than backtrack. Either way was equal in distance and I recalled from earlier visits on the loop that each way back was as good as the other.
So, for the next couple of hours I would hike for a while, stop and rest, then continue on until I had to stop and rest again. I was truly and completely sick. Fortunately, I was well dressed against the cold and I had plenty to drink and even food to eat if I hadn't been too damned sick to think about food. Trying to find the Sag Branch Poplar was out of the question. There was no way that I was going to be able to trudge off trail in the ice and snow to locate the tree, so I stayed on the trail and made my way agonizingly back to the road in Cataloochee.
After several very miserable hours I got back to the truck. I climbed in, drank some more water, and warmed up. There was now the task of having to make the two-hour drive back home. I seriously considered just finding a hotel room and holing up for the day and evening, but I decided against that and instead made the decision to tough out a drive back home. If anything, the drive home was as miserable a the hike had been, but I got home well before dark and ended up taking a hot shower and climbing into bed, where I pretty much stayed for the next few days.
Later, I did manage to find the Sag Branch Poplar. Fortunately I was in much better shape on that trip and the previous attempt was by then just a very nasty memory.
It had just stopped snowing as I got to Cataloochee. Only the rangers had been on the road--one of them I encountered told me to close gates behind me as I drove in--he said I was okay because I had four-wheel drive.
As I hiked into the forest I was surprised to note that the only other being on the trail that morning was a coyote.
I stopped on the way out to snap a few self-portraits. At this point I was extremely ill, but not too sick to want to capture some shots of me in the big forest.
I think this hike was the last one I took when there were still lots of living hemlock trees in Cataloochee. Go there now and every single hemlock you encounter will be a dead husk.
And I had to pause to snap a few shots of the elk. I will never be able to get over the fact that elk have been returned to the southern Appalachians.
And a parting shot from an overlook of the incomparable ranges of my native South. After this, it was a long and excruciating drive back home to a warm bed and much needed rest.