Sorry for not getting a High on LeConte update together yesterday. The staff spent all afternoon doing a carryout rescue up Alum Cave Bluff Trail. Everything went perfectly, and I'm proud of the LeConte Lodge staff and the selfless guests who pitched in to help spell us carrying the litter up to the helipad. Our best wishes for a speedy recovery to the nice gentleman we helped up the mountain.
As far as trail conditions go, I remain comfortable recommending Alum Cave Bluff and Rainbow Falls Trails. The accident yesterday happened descending on a slick section of trail, but I wouldn't let that stop you from hiking Alum. I think Bullhead Trail may be doable this weekend, but I haven't talked to anyone else who's taken it since we had the guests who spent nine hours and saw waist-deep drifts on Bullhead about three or four days ago. Same thing for Boulevard Trail, I'm sure it's coming around, but we had guests on it about two or three days ago who said it was really tough. I'd put Trillium Gap Trail in the same mix, primarily because of a lack on traffic on it. The melting is refreezing most nights and causing icy spots on the trails. I'd be carrying ice traction devices with me on any trail for the next day or two. That being said, trail conditions are vastly improved in the last four days.
Llama wranglers Chrissy and Alan offered me a kindness, knowing this was my last year on the LeConte crew. They asked me to name the youngest llama of the whole string. This little fellow is only about nine months old and won't begin hiking LeConte for a few years. Alan and Chrissy told me he had spunk and could hang right in there with his older peers. I went out to the llama farm in August to meet the newest LeConte llama myself and decided to name him Crockett.
His namesake, David Crockett, is my favorite Tennessean and one of the most storied volunteers. He's one of the nation's greatest folk heroes, one of the first legends of the backcountry who came from common folk and not the powdered-wig set.
Unfortunately, much of what we think we know about him is fabricated. The "Ballad of Davy Crockett" is a toe-tapper but wrong about much of his nuanced life. For instance, he wasn't born on a mountaintop or even in Tennessee. David Crockett was born at the confluence of the Limestone Creek and Nolichucky River near present day Greeneville, Tenn. When Crockett was born in 1786, Tennessee wasn't even a state.
He hated being called "Davy," so the llama's proper name will be "David Crockett." Crockett, the man, was elected three times as a U.S. representative from Tennessee. The northern congressmen called him "Davy" as an epithet, a way of demeaning his common birth and limited financial resources. Crockett never would have worn buckskins and a coonskin cap to Congress. He wanted to be known as a gentleman, but he was a gentleman with tattered clothes because he couldn't afford more. He never found riches like his Congressional counterparts.
He was a heck of a stump speaker and storyteller, and he remained much like his constituents in rural Tennessee. While Crockett meant well, he wasn't a particularly effective legislator. He constantly fought for land rights for poor settlers, only to be voted down by his Congressional counterparts. He also would have hated to be called "King of the Wild Frontier." There were few Americans more suited for life in the wilds than Crockett, but he disliked the idea of a king in America. Late in his life, he carried on a bitter feud with fellow Tennessean Pres. Andrew Jackson. Crockett called him "King Andrew" and accused him of forgetting his raising.
That argument with Jackson reached a boiling point when Crockett became the only member of Tennessee's Congressional delegation to vote against the Indian Removal Act, which locally was designed to kick the Cherokee out of the Smokies. To be fair, Crockett had issues with Native Americans before. His grandparents had been killed by Native Americans. Crockett also took part in the Indian Wars in Alabama, where he witnessed acts that haunted him the rest of his 49 years. However, he knew in his heart the Indian Removal Act was wrong and stood up against Pres. Jackson and all the powers in the world to vote against it.
That was the last straw for Jackson, who made certain Crockett lost his next Congressional election. When Crockett was defeated by the candidate backed by the Jackson/Martin van Buren machine, he made the fateful decision to restart his political career in Texas. In a very real sense, the chain of events leading to David Crockett being martyred at the Alamo began because he refused to support the Indian Removal Act, which he knew was unjust.
Crockett strode across the Tennessee mountains, learning the secrets of a life in the wild. We don't have any historical evidence one way or the other, but knowing that Crockett grew up in Limestone and around Morristown and Jefferson City it's hard to imagine he wasn't familiar with the towering mountain that would come to be named LeConte. On a clear day from the LeConte Lodge porch, one can look out and see all Crockett's boyhood stomping grounds in the Tennessee mountains. Unfortunately, Walt Disney and Fess Parker conjured up an interesting "Davy Crockett," while the truly fascinating "David Crockett" was left in the dust of the Alamo, the ashes of his bones mingling with the blood-soaked San Antonio sand. The newest LeConte llama's name shall be Crockett, in hopes that he too will conquer the mountains in the Smokies and be able to whip his weight in wildcats.
It's a hard thing to summarize four years of such a rich experience living and working at LeConte Lodge. If you want to read more about my back story (everything from Antarctica to serving as publicist for Olympic champions to being chased on horseback by bison while wrangling in Yellowstone to teaching space science at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center), that's all available in the High on LeConte archives from Nov. 14, 2013. My stories from Uganda I wrote about here just a while back.
I've had a great many more wonderful days on LeConte than bad ones. I want to thank all of our LeConte Lodge guests, unquestionably the best in the Smokies, who sweated and gritted their way into an appreciation of this fine mountain. Your effort keeps LeConte Lodge in business, and your stories and kindness have enriched my tenure on the mountain. I'm grateful to have met so many of you.
I want to thank all of the LeConte Lodge office staff down below and my fellow crew members from my four years here (2010, 2012, 2013 and 2014). I want to thank Chrissy, Alan and all the LeConte llamas who've battled the mountain to allow us to take care of our guests. I also want to thank the fine people of the National Park Service I've met in my time striding the top of the Smokies.
I am humbled by the fact that I can ask so many of the crew members I've worked with to head out into the darkness, leaning into the snarl of some of the worst winter weather LeConte can muster, putting their lives on the line to give someone they've never met a chance to live another day. As long as my brain works, I'll not forget those crew members who stood by my side, even taller than mighty LeConte, on some of those hardest days up here.
I'll leave LeConte with a sore back for a lot of reasons, not least of all from hauling a backpack full of memories crafted during my four seasons at the top of Tennessee. I well remember the rescues, even though that's not really part of our job description but we seek to be good citizens atop the Smokies. I remember two instances of carrying stricken guests up on my back when park and lodge staffing wasn't sufficient for assembling a stretcher team. I only carried the guests parts of about 1.5 miles to the lodge up Trillium and Alum Cave Bluff Trails; I'm no Jack Huff who can carry his mom up the whole trail in a chair strapped to his back. I remember feeling 10-feet tall, bulletproof and invisible when one of those guests recovered enough to hike down on her own. I remember feeling incredibly humbled when the other guest did not.
Working at LeConte Lodge reinforced other life lessons. I'm constantly reminded there is a difference between hard and impossible. They're not twins--not even cousins. I've been the beneficiary of one of the most beautiful skies in all of creation--new moon, full moon, sunsets and sunrises. I'll remember cooking pancakes in the tiny LeConte kitchen and listening to Basil Poledouris' "Main Themes from Lonesome Dove" while the sun announced its arrival in a most spectacular fashion, knowing whether I won or lost that day it's been some kind of a ride.
I'm planning on working again as a winter guide in Yellowstone beginning in early December. In 2015, I hope to take a four-continent around-the-world trip for which I've been saving eight years. I hope to take a hike, ride a horse and volunteer on the four continents I have left to visit--Europe, Asia, Australia and South America. If you'd like to contact me, I can receive letters at the LeConte Lodge office until the end of November, and I'll leave my e-mail address available if you call the office. Thanks for all your kind words.
"You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are."
-- Fred Rogers
Happy trails to you until we meet again.