A visit to Dry Sluice manway May 5, 2009Posted by Jenny in bushwhacking, hiking, Smoky Mountains.
Tags: Charlies Bunion, Dry Sluice manway, Porters Creek, Smoky Mountains
I lost my way going up. Strange—I’d been up and down the manway countless times. I could even see the spot where the trouble started. I retraced my steps to the last cairn, remembering that here the unmaintained path left the streambed and slabbed its way across the slope. But for some reason, on this particular day, I could not find the place. After stopping for a bite to eat, I continued up the watercourse. After all, there was just one thing to do—go up. The top couldn’t be that far away.
I even asked myself why the mysterious cairn-builders of the manway (prehistoric beings?) had chosen a route off to the left instead of straight. The answer came quickly, when I found myself peering up at a high bluff. Water trickled down through the hanging garden of rock and plush green moss. It resembled a thousand places in the Smokies, a thousand headwaters of high streams, places that always seem to get better somehow as you approach the source.
I believed I could find plenty of handholds and footholds to get up the bluff. Hitching my pants at the knees so they wouldn’t bind, I lifted my right foot up as high as I could, found something to step on, pulled myself up. My fingers sank deep into tufts of damp moss, touching the cold streamwater sliding down over the rock. Up another step, another reach. Over my shoulder the valley opened up below me, a vast green blanket of forest split by the stream. A hawk sliced the air overhead.
I reached the top of the bluff by the usual casting of arms and legs into odd positions. Pieces of dirt and moss attached themselves to me, wanting to claim me and overrun me, it seemed. A second bluff appeared above, then a third: like color plates in an illustrated book. The plot always seems to quicken at the end, and the stream always steepens (at least, the stream always does here, where the slope of the stateline ridge has a certain typical profile). Soon the streambed had dwindled to a slight indentation that barely took on the shape of a draw. Here was the magical place where gravity pulls the water right out of the ground. I looked up the slope at a mass of deep, snarled (maybe even snarling) vegetation interspersed with decorative boulders and rotting treetrunks. The mountain wasn’t going to yield without a fight.
This part at least felt safer, since the brush had such a tight grip on me that falling down the mountain was impossible. But even placing my foot on the ground was a bit of a challenge. I extended my toe toward a disorganized jumble, probing to make sure a bottomless hole wasn’t lurking. Working along, I pushed aside briers and scooted over a slimy log. But this was actually sort of fun. I could imagine a simulation of this obstacle course in a children’s amusement park—a tamer version, minus thorns—next to the rooms full of plastic balls for them to crawl through and hanging ropes to climb on.
At last, the jungle spat me out onto the A.T. No one was there to congratulate me or marvel at my disheveled appearance. I strolled along to the “real” Bunion for lunch, thinking about how sometimes it is best to adventure alone. You come more under the spell of things. But at the same time, at least on that particular day, it seemed a bit lonely, maybe because I had often been there with other people.
Eating my sandwich and my apple, I gazed over at the human ants swarming on the “tourist” Bunion and admired the Class 3 route that I had climbed with Chris, seen here in spiky profile. After a drowsy hour, the warm sun beaming down on my head, it was time to pick myself up and walk back down the A.T. to the jumping-off point for the east fork of Porters Creek. This was where by pure chance the hiking club had come down the day after a tremendous washout. It is always a bit hard even for a dedicated bushwhacker to take those first few steps off the comfort of the trail, a task somewhat harder to do on my own, but off I went.
Down through the steep open hardwoods, footfalls crashing between trees, boulders, vines. Down and down and down. After a bit I saw below me the brightness twinkling between the trees, the openness of the washout.
When I came to the edge of the scar, I was amazed to see how much the place had changed over the course of seven years or so. The vegetation had grown up dramatically. The marks of the flood could still be seen—the chiseled sides of the draw, the heaps of broken rock. But it no longer looked like a wasteland. The green genius of the plant world had been hard at work.
I began to pick my way down the rubble. And then, as I entered the new growth, something pricked my arm, and I realized it was solid blackberries. What the hell! Oh well, at least it was something living and growing.