Sixteen degrees. The forecast only called for a low between twenty-three and twenty-five. It’s 2:30PM which is over two hours later than I hoped to be at the trail head. I’m walking into the Laurel-Snow and it’s sixteen By God degrees. I wonder if the ground…wait, I’m already ahead of myself. I should start at the beginning(which is usually the best place) and hurl my words at you in an effort to convey just how extraordinary my time in the pocket wilderness actually was. The telling will require two or even three volumes and I don’t mind saying that it will be hard for me to decipher just what to include in each. Just know that it was cold, and lonesome, and difficult, and dangerous. It was to a toe-to-toe square off between the Moose and Mother Nature. It was exactly what I live to do.
As I find myself beginning to type I can only assume that this is in fact the genesis line and without a doubt the most appropriate place for me to start the tale. Sleep was hard to come by the night before I left. I awoke in the familiar and comfortable panic that is common to a man who thinks he has overslept. A wave of relief washes over me as my eyes focus on my watch. I was two hours early in waking. Grabbing this opportunity by the throat I realize that I can make it to my camp two hours earlier than I had scheduled if I get up now. So get up I did.
With familiar resolveAdventure, I go down my gear list and check off every single piece of clothing and food and gear that I’ll need for the excursion. This is one of the rare and unfortunate times you will ever witness me in a serious state and methodically going by the numbers. Satisfied with my check-off I load the truck with my pack and camera gear. I feel that all too familiar excitement that borders on dread as I lock the door to the house. Only one more thing to do and that is to give old Hank(my vehicular manifestation of a brother) a once over before we strike out on the four hour burn to the Laurel-Snow. Oil? Solid. Tires? Solid. Tire pressure? Sol…no, no it’s not. As soon as I remove the valve stem cover of my passenger rear tire I hear the depressing sound of air hissing out into the world. If I had left without checking it would have meant returning to a three-tired truck at the trail head. It’s roughly 6AM and my usual tire place isn’t open till 8AM. What to do? Well, I kiss all hopes of an early arrival goodbye. I procure a respectable bag of doughnuts and wait for the tire place to open. Spirits…are low.
While we wait for my tire to be fixed I might as well tell you about the place where I aim to go.
It is called a “pocket” wilderness. It’s just a little piece of land on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau. The Laurel-Snow segment of this wilderness is a 2,259 acre section of terrestrial wonderment and is dotted with old coal mines, caves, and waterfalls. It’s named for the two main waterfalls that are found there: thirty-five foot Snow Falls and its larger sibling, the eighty foot Laurel Falls. The trail head isn’t far from the city of Dayton, TN but believe me it is in my attestation, a truly wild place in the winter. I’ll tell you now that I didn’t make it to Snow Falls. I lost the trail twice on the way there and given the conditions and my time restraints Laurel Falls became mission priority.
“White Z71!” Oh sweet mother of weeping mercy. The tire is fixed and I can be on my way. With a belly full of coffee and doughnuts I sally forth to a three day and two night stay in a place I have never been in weather that’s unsure and with a camping setup that’s untested. Far out.
I think this is where we started before we actually started.
I make it to the trail head…well, about a mile from the trail head. You see, on the way to the location I placed a call to a very helpful and knowledgeable park Ranger named Dan who was good enough to email me the day before. In the email he informed me that the dirt road leading to the trail head proper was virtually impassable. After speaking with Dan I was allowed to park my truck at a spot not far from the gate and hike in the rest of the way. It only added about a mile to my trudge so not much difference was made. I was also informed the fifty foot steel bridge that crossed Laurel Creek had recently been crushed by a fallen tree and was extremely hazardous…more on that grand encounter later.
So I park the truck. Realizing the temperature is way below the forecast I have the foresight to throw a long orphaned hoody from behind the seat into the pack. This was a pivotal decision. I truly believe without that ragged piece of cloth, the Jesus hoody we’ll call it, I wouldn’t have made it through that first night. Walking around the locked entrance gate I head into the ice covered unknown. It doesn’t seem like I’ve gone a nearly a mile when I see the trailhead at the base of the hill. It’s right along the river which is now nearly all but frozen over. I go no further than fifty yards when the snow hits. As I hike on I think to myself “What in God’s name are you doing here, boy?” At the time I’m not entirely sure I can hack it with the gear I have. After all, I have no tent on this trip. In a bold attack of Mooseness I had decided to “test out” my cold weather hammock setup. Hammock. Snow. Rain. Single digits. As I said…far out.
Suddenly an elderly couple appear out of nowhere from a bend in the trail. I set aside all thoughts of woe and let the lady cross in front of me with her husband behind. We exchange niceties and she says to me, “It’s a winter wonderland!” I agree with her and we all keep hiking in our respective directions. They are the last humans I will see for three days.
It is crushingly apparent to me now that this story calls for no less than three chapters. So for the sake of your attention and for my memory I will end this portion here as I make my way into the bone chilling, toe numbing, grit testing wild. This has been what William Shakespeare called “the rising action.” And just as Bill said, “This shit writes itself.”
Originally posted in February of 2015
Photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find me on some distant trail making photographs or at my computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Pick up a copy of my new photo book of wild pony portraits, Faces of Grayson.