Friday, June 29, 2012

I survived Exit 451 (Part I)

This story has been one of the hardest things for me to recollect on and write about.  I want to include as much detail as I can so I can look back on it and continue to learn from the mistakes that happened.  It’s a bit of a hard story to tell right now, as I’m still a little rattled, but I want to get it out while its fresh.  I can definitely say that I have learned more than I ever imagined I would, and I have been very humbled from this whole experience.  Despite everything, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

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Front L-R: Lucy, Wag, Melinda, Missy, Christine; Back L-R: Vetice, Mark, Tom, Hov, Gini, Me (and Duke)

“I survived Exit 451 [baby!]” started as a drunken quote on week one of my Smoky Mountain experience.  By the time the pack trip rolled around, however, it became quite a reality.

The weekend prior to our trip most folks were elsewhere prepping in one way or another for a return to camp for a few days deep in the woods atop a mountain with our animals.  The ultimate goal was to get the lumber and pipes for the hitching racks packed 17 miles (up, up, up) into the Smoky Mountains hereafter GSMNP [Great Smoky Mountain Nat’l Park]) to the Appalachian Trail (AT) Tri Corner Knob shelter.  We would be traveling 17 miles the first day to reach Tri Corner Knob.  We would then stay two nights up there with the down day in between used to install the hitching rails and the third day to travel back.

View of Smokies from the AT crossing Max Patch

Only 35 miles of the AT is open to horseback riding.  These 35 miles are unconnected segments, but they all occur within GSMNP.  Local riders and packers very much enjoy and treasure the access they have to the trail. Due to strict Nat’l Park Service rules, however, they need a hitching rail to best avoid breaking any rules.  The former hitching rail had been broken up by AT hikers and burned (seriously?!).

Sunday evening our group re-convened at the campsite to begin prepping for our early morning departure on Monday.  We gathered personal gear and camping gear into piles to be mantied up in preparation for packing on the horses the next day.  In total we had 11 riders, 9 pack stock, and 4 other riders who were meeting at various points along the trek to take out pack horses we no longer needed to abide by the Park rules concerning # of people/stock in one place at a time.

Photo by Christine

Gear was packed and prepped Sunday night in time enough for us to settle into some campfire down time once more before bed and an early start.  Everyone’s spirits were pretty high with anticipation and excitement about the journey.  Half of us were new to it, and the majority of us were new to the Smokies.

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Both alarms I’d set for Monday morning failed, but fortunately, thanks to the other lady sleeping in the “bungalow” with me, I arose around 6a.  I ended up only being 15 minutes late for breakfast.  Once fed we all began to gather and prepare first riding horses then pack horses. 

My ride, Will Black
Mark on Odie pulling Sierra
Hov on Captain pulling Doc

Getting all stock saddled took awhile.  Our 9a departure time was creeping ever closer and packs weren’t even on the pack stock yet!  We needed to get out as early as possible because stock travels at ~3mph.   A 9a departure would mean that – with the inevitable breaks that would occur factored in – we wouldn’t arrive at our destination until around 5p or so.

Time ticked onward and we continued to prep each animal and person for the journey.  We ended up getting on the trail at 10:30a – not the most promising of starts, but we were off all the same. 

Tom in foreground riding Jazz pulling Pete and Bud, Missy next in line riding Breezy pulling Super Sport

Everyone was pretty jazzed and the horses cued in on that energy – much like the start of an endurance race! – and skittered around the road that we had to travel on for 0.6 miles before reaching the trail.  Nancy’s horse, borrowed from a friend, was particularly wired, and Christine had already stepped off her Arabian gelding to walk him for awhile because he was so cued up.  (The three of us + Lucy were the only ones not pulling pack stock at the time.) I was busy snapping pictures while I knew I had the time and worked on moving my way from the back to the front of the line, not paying heavy attention to anyone or any animal other than to make a safe pass to the front.

I reached the turnoff for the trail access to turn around to speak to Gini only to see Nancy’s horse go screaming by me riderless.  Well, shit.  With quick confirmation shouted up the line of pack horses and people that Nancy was standing and was “okay” I shot off after the horse.

My horse, Will Black, was a 10 year old TWH.  He’d been a pet for the first 8 years of his life and wasn’t put under saddle until he was 8.  He had a number of manners issues and really loved to walk the edge of roads and trails, but other than that he wasn’t a bad horse at all.  He had his moments, but overall was very forward moving and eager on the trail.  (Oh, and for the hoof nerds, we wore Renegades for the whole trip!)

I moved him forward and the loose horse kept going.  I never found out if she was familiar with the area, but she sure seemed to be.  She shot through the day-parking area, onto the trailhead, past the non-horse camping, and made it to the trailhead (0.3 mile or so) before slowing.  There was a Park employee weed-eating around the day-parking for non-horse folks – if it weren’t for him I truly believe the horse would have continued upward onto the trail.

Thanks to the distraction of the weed-eater, I was able to grab her and pony her back.  I found Gini, Tom, and Hov awaiting me, but the rest of the group had disappeared (Wag and Melinda were far, far ahead of the group with their two pack horses as they were originally going to travel 30 miles the first day to help our group abide by Park rules).

I gave a quizzical look to the three of them as I rode up, and could hear and see movement through the trees around the bend of the road indicating that the rest of the group was there.  I was told by Hov, “Nancy’s okay, but she’s got a huge hematoma on her upper arm.”  Well, I thought, not too bad.  But I still pondered that such a bruise had come about so quickly and wondered to myself if she hadn’t broken the arm and was too hyped up to tell.

The group slowly reconvened at the same place.  Christine and Nancy were already walking back to basecamp and Lucy came to pony back Nancy’s horse.  They would meet us later after they checked Nancy out.

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The seven of us with seven pack stock continued.

Its important to note that of all the pack stock on the trip, only three were mules (known for their sure-footedness).  The others were all horses.  Wag’s two horses (way ahead of the rest of the gang) and the three mules were experienced packers, but the rest of the stock were green.

The first 5 or so miles of the trail went fairly smoothly.  There were a few stops due to loose EasyBoots and a rock in a shoe, but other than that, no problem.  Then Hov and Gini, leading us, stop and call me forward.  “We forgot the valve for the stove.  We won’t be able to cook without it.  Do you think you can ride back and get it?” they ask me.  I ponder a second and respond with, “If I had a different horse, yes, but I don’t trust Will to go and come in a safe manner.”  His two pasture mates would remain while he would have to leave, he was already being a bit of a handful because of his manners issues, and frankly, I didn’t know the trails well enough to trust myself to guide said-green/cranky horse back to the group.  Oh, and Will can be pretty damn lazy (I rode with blunt spurs to try to conquer this).

Gini and Hov pausing to check the balance of the mules' loads

So, instead, Gini volunteered to go back.  Her borrowed horse, a 17hh TWH, wasn’t with any horses he knew and could move out really well.  She turned and headed back, and I took over pulling her mule.

A short time after she’d left, we reached the drop point for some of our gear.  The logistics behind what needed dropped where and who needed to double and triple back and around on the trails in order to abide by Park standards was outrageous.  I’m pretty sure I never again want to do a ride of this caliber in a Nat’l Park setting.  Eee gads!

We grabbed lunch after we dropped a couple loads and then headed onward – I was now in the lead.  Will Black was a happier lead horse for his two pasture mates (ridden and pulled by Hov) and they were happier following him. 

Not long after we left the drop point, we encountered a downed log (which I later came to find out that Wag and Melinda had to wrangle to get to the point that it could be stepped over).  It was at a 45⁰ angle with the lowest part slightly off the trail.  By this point the trail had become a single track.  The whole time to this point we’d been following alongside Big Creek and the trail would alternate from being right beside the creek to being many feet above it with steep, steep drop offs to one side down to the creek.

Due to the drop off factor, crossing the log was a little harder than it could have been.  The drop off wasn’t more than 3 feet here, but still not ideal.  Will Black and my mule got over it just fine.  Hov’s horse and mule, too.  Missy, following behind on her 3 year old Friesian/TWH had difficulty.  Hov and I stopped.  He secured his animals and went back to help get the horses over the log.  It took some doing, but eventually they got over.

I was sitting in my lead position, trying to get Will Black and my mule to stand politely while watching all of this.  Once she was over I quit watching quite as interested, but still observed while the others crossed.  Tom and the mule he was pulling got over fine, but when his 4 year old horse he was pulling went to go over, he fell over the bank onto his side.


The horse floundered about like a turtle on its back due to the heavy packs.  I lost sight of it while I tried to wrangle my animals into polite submission, but by the time I’d turned around the animal was standing, pack attached, and all was well.  The other two riders and stock crossed without incident.

We hadn’t gotten far down the trail before Tom’s horse’s load tipped and needed to be fixed and adjusted.  We got ‘er done and continued on, though we were very much behind schedule by this point.

We continued for probably another mile.  The trail had become very narrow.  The hill sloped steeply up on the right and steeply down on the left.  There wasn’t much room for error if a foot was ill-placed. 

I was plodding along in the front, doing my best to keep Will Black’s edge walking tendencies to a minimum as there was the tiniest of edge on the 2 foot-wide trail and I didn’t really have any kind of death wish.  I remember noticing how thick the rhododendron was through the area here, and how steeply down that drop off was, and how there weren’t really many trees to stop a tumble, and how I really didn’t want to go down there, and how I really hoped the trail would widen soon.  I didn’t realize at the time that my worries could come to fruition. 

To be continued…


  1. Damn, it sounds like there was never a dull moment. I'm glad you got out of everything ok!

  2. Liz!!! Yikes!!! Here, you unload your horses, pack and camp pretty much where you want. Many of the "trails" are wildlife - you can go deep into the wilderness if you wanted.