National Geographic : 1952 Oct
Pack Trip Through the Smokies You Can Ride Part Way into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, But in "the Wilderness" You Must Leave Your Horse and Go on Foot BY VAL HART With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerRobert F. Sisson " BOUT that groundhog you saw yester day," Sam said, "did you know they make mighty fine eating? I'll tell you how we cook them. First you got to get yourself a nice fat young groundhog, dress it, and boil it." Sam paused to throw a log on the fire, then continued. "Now, if you're out in the woods, you get sassafras or spicewood for season; then you take the meat out of the water and bake it." He smacked his lips. "Has a wonderful flavor," he said. "Could n't tell the difference if it was coon or bear." This introduction to mountain cooking made my kitchen in Washington, D. C., seem far away. We were on a pack trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and by now our horses had taken us deep into the mountains (map, pages 476-477). Escape from "Modern Living" My late-September vacation was an escape from television, banging screen doors, and the gray routine of housekeeping. No change could have been more complete, for I had never camped before nor ridden a horse very far. I glanced at the friendly and now fa miliar faces lit by the fire and thought how odd it was that only a few days before we had been strangers. We had met at Tom Alexander's Cata loochee Ranch near Waynesville, North Caro lina. Tom, rancher and forester, was our out fitter and guide. For years he has taken pack trips into the Smokies, and he knows every trail, ridge, and stream. In his very quietness at that moment he seemed a part of the mood of the hills. So did Glenn Messer, Tom's helper, and Sam Woody, our camp cook. The rest of us Tom called his "trail riders": Ruby Bere, a bacteriologist from Madison, Wisconsin; Genevieve Bass, a housewife from Lakeland, Florida; Elizabeth Yates, a writer from Peterboro, New Hampshire; Bob Sisson, a staff photographer for the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, and I. We were up early for the first day's ride. Tom gave us last-minute instructions: Don't tie a horse close to another until you learn their preferences-some horses hate each other; keep a distance on the trail; watch out for yellow jackets; and hitch up with the halter rope, never the reins. "Come on, you cowpunchers, let's get go ing!" Tom yelled, and led the way from the ranch stables toward Hemphill Bald, first steep climb from the ranch house. Ruby and I glanced at each other. Both inexperienced riders, we were pleased that our horses took their place in line and moved at all (page 479). We entered the park and headed northeast along the crest of Cataloochee Divide. From this height of 5,100 feet we watched clouds in the long distance drifting low, merging with deep haze and veiling the tops of the Plott Balsams, Mount Pisgah and Pisgah Ridge, and Mount Sterling. This blue haze, which looks like smoke ris ing to the sky, gives the mountains their name. Except for treeless balds on isolated peaks, the dense vegetation of the valleys extends to the top of the highest spruce- and fir-cov ered mountains. This section of the Appalachian Mountains astride the border of North Carolina and Ten nessee, the highest mass in eastern United States, is too far south to have a true timber line.* Many of them tower a mile high; 16 peaks are more than 6,000 feet above sea level. Timber line in this area would not begin at less than 10,000 feet. The trail narrowed suddenly, and we passed through a jungle of rhododendron, the first of hundreds we would see. Masses of dog hob ble (Leucothoe), dense and intertwined with the trunks and branches of rhododendron, covered the forest floor. So thick was the growth that only occasional patches of sun shine lit bright-red partridgeberries growing along the trail. Mountain Berries Ripen Late The Smoky Mountains, we soon discovered, conceal surprises for those who venture off the park highways. From the quiet darkness of the jungle mass we emerged into the full sunlight of a meadow of goldenrod, sunflow ers, purple and white asters, and vagrant but terflies. Ripe blackberries and blueberries dotted our trail; at lower levels the fruit had ripened several weeks earlier. Leaving the crest of Cataloochee Divide, we turned northwest into McGee Branch Trail * See "Rambling Around the Roof of Eastern America," by Leonard C. Roy, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, August, 1936.