We've already seen a healthy influx of dayhikers in addition to our full house of overnight guests Saturday. I expect this October weekend will be busier than the previous two this month.
Yesterday I tried to answer a few questions from guests about the length of our season and offseason. Today, I'll fill you in about what I'm planning for this winter, and what I got into last offseason.
In early December, I'm planning on heading back to Yellowstone National Park for my third season (two winters as a guide and snowcoach driver and one summer as a horse wrangler). Like the Smokies, Yellowstone is a world-class treasure any time of year, but the winters are tough on a bald man. My favorite animal of all, the bison, is still in residence during the winter. As a snowcoach guide/driver you have to be careful to avoid piles of frozen bison manure hidden on the snow road. On a frigid Yellowstone morning, those piles freeze hard enough to bend the axles on your snow treads if you're not being wary. I'm looking forward to it, but also recall my last offseason fondly when the temperature was decidedly warmer.
Last winter I traveled to Uganda to do some volunteer work and visit with local folks in a part of Africa most tourists never see. I purposefully wanted to avoid prepackaged tours, so I independently set up a volunteer stay with a local man in Mbale, Uganda who is a radio DJ (a pretty good gig in Uganda). He's a funny character who knows everyone in the city and can set you up to help out where your interest leads you.
I split my weeks volunteering with three different efforts. My favorite was working with a farmer who is branching out into raising Arabica coffee as a cash crop. This farmer has three kids and struggles mightily to afford sending them to primary school. He taught me most of the ins and outs of picking and processing his coffee without machinery. I'd volunteer my time, and the money he made from selling the coffee helped pay school fees for his kids.
I loved working at the farm. The coffee work was quite labor intensive, but not brutally difficult. I could pick the ripe beans, smash the hulls and prepare them for drying on an old feed sack under the East African sun. When dry, I would wrap up the beans in a feed sack and repeatedly pummel them with a wood stick until I separated the papery husks from the bean. We would sit outside under the mango tree sorting out the good "green" beans suitable for roasting. The others we'd flick off the table for the chickens to eat. I'd collect kindling on the farm and start a fire in the mud cooking hut to roast the beans in a steel pot, stirring with a wooden spoon to determine medium or dark roast.
For lunch break we'd eat bananas, or even better yet, the farmer would climb 25 feet up in his avocado tree and pluck one big as your head--best I've ever eaten. We'd eat the avocado with a little salt and mix our coffee I'd just roasted and ground with homegrown ginger root and lemongrass.
I also visited HIV patients who were struggling to regain their health, lives and jobs after tough battles. I'd go to the market and buy them fruit for nutrition (you could buy a pineapple, two or three mangoes and some oranges for about $2 U.S.). The visits weren't medical in nature, though the fruits offered valuable nutrition. I'd visit the patients in their mud-brick homes, and we'd sit around and swap stories. Two of my patients loved playing a Ugandan card game. They had met in the HIV clinic, had four kids (none of them HIV positive) and taken on their struggling neighbor's child to raise, too. On the day of my last visit before I returned home, they found a different neighbor stabbed to death, and they, just like my American parents would have, didn't sleep well the night before and held their kids a little tighter.
A different patient was the equivalent of a moonshiner, though her "local alcohol" was legal. She'd make it out of millet in a multistage process which included burying it in the ground for eight days. She was a delightful lady who'd lived a hard life. She had seven children, the youngest of which was also HIV positive and taken from her when she was bedridden for a time. She was feeling better, back to work even, but her youngest child still lived out in a different village and that absence ate at her.
I'd help her carry the heavy mash buckets from the brewhouse to the shed where she served her customers. I'd always buy a little bit at the local rate to drink, too, while we played cards and covered the news of the neighborhood. I was quite the curiosity, as no one in that neighborhood had ever seen a white man working for an African woman. That local alcohol was served boiling hot, which was tough when the thermometer was pushing 95 degrees.
I also visited a mud-walled school and would play with the kids one day a week. The kids were nice and would constantly touch my arms as they glistened with sunscreen because they'd never seen such a thing before. They never asked me to help teach English, though an Italian and Romanian I knew did help with that. When they heard me talk, they all assumed I was from Texas (which boils the blood of any true Tennessean).
I tried to get out of town and see other things in the country during my weekends. I was able to see Sipi Falls after hitching a ride for $1 in the back of a flatbed dirt truck with 11 other Ugandans and a pleasant goat. I also whitewater rafted the headwaters of the mighty Nile River, getting dumped into the fiercest torrent I've ever seen (some of the class VI rapids we had to portage around). Our boat flipped, and I got sucked underwater about three times (figuring at least twice that LeConte Lodge would be hiring a new assistant manager while my body floated down to South Sudan). The rapids were such that I didn't get back to the boat for about 2/3 of a mile, and I kept looking pretty close for the eyes of the Nile crocodile welcoming me to the country. I was also able to take a poor man's safari trip during which I saw magnificent animals, including a hippopotamus standing on my porch eating grass which delayed my shower.
The people all wanted to know about life in the U.S. Imagine how hard it is to explain LeConte Lodge to folks in Uganda with a completely different idea of America. "You walk five miles to work with no road. You don't have electricity or a bathroom in your house. In America?" They were interested to know that Mt. LeConte overlooked Dolly Parton's hometown. I heard Dolly's music several times booming out of hair salons and bars while walking around the streets of Mbale, which was quite a surprise.
One last story, my last night in country was spent in a hostel in Kampala, the bustling capital city which I didn't like nearly as much as Mbale, where I worked. It was March 6, the anniversary of the fall of the Alamo, and I stopped by the bar to buy a Tennessee product to toast my fellow volunteers who paid such a dear price for Texas' independence in 1836.
The bartender was a friendly fellow, and we visited about different things. Finally, he got comfortable enough to ask me about my t-shirt--a black shirt with an image of Johnny Cash backlit on the front. Pointing to Cash on my shirt, he asked "Is that Muammar Gaddafi?" Very quickly I said "No, that's Johnny Cash. He's passed away, but he was a great American country singer from my part of the country." The bartender replied, "Sure looks like Gaddafi." I reassured him, "No, certainly not Gaddafi. I'm no fan of Gaddafi. That's Johnny Cash, and he stood up for a lot of people down on their luck back home. Not Gaddafi."
It's not a great idea to be walking around many parts of Africa with a hated dictator on your shirt. Thinking I had the situation cleared up I continued, "Cash is not Gaddafi, but, who knows, maybe Gaddafi had a good singing voice, too" and kind of laughed it off. The bartender replied, "No, he's just a dead dictator."
It was a wonderfully rewarding, complicated and difficult trip. I saw things I can't forget--good and bad. Although I didn't exactly blend in with the populace physically, I was always well treated and think about the nice Ugandans I lived, shopped, worked, ate and visited with all the time. I think about them even more now, as I know they're scared about the Ebola epidemic even though it's far on the other side of the continent (Uganda is in East Africa). The world gets smaller all the time with unpredictable results.
That's how my last offseason shaped up. I hope you can come up and visit LeConte Lodge before the crew begins the next offseason. Happy trails.