Day 10: The Bear Hunter
Betty Creek Gap - Winding Stair Gap
Today I hike 12 miles into Franklin, and it rains off and on throughout the day. The views from the Albert Mountain fire tower are the blank white insides of a cloud, like someone has hung a projector screen at the overlook and forgotten to turn on the image of the mountains.
But I like hiking in the rain. I like how different it is from rain in "real life" when you only hurry through the rain from a building to your car, head down, like you're escaping from it. When you hike in the rain, there's rain gear, but also acceptance that you will get wet. The impulse to hurry is still there at first, and then you realize: hurry to what? There's no escaping from it out here. You will be in the rain. And that's okay.
It rains and rains. The best part of the day is meeting a local man at one of the gaps. He is a self-proclaimed bear hunter who has killed 276 bears over the past 40 years, and he talks with the thickest Southern Appalachian acccent that I've ever heard, and coming from southwest Virginia that's saying a lot. He emerges from the woods, where he was collecting ramps, and I am a bit intimidated at first by his gruff appearance and his digging spade and the mud up to his elbows. Then I am quickly drawn in by the accent and his eccentricity, and he tells us that we flushed a bear from its den and it ran right in front of him, and he would have killed it if he'd had his dogs with him. "I got 32 dogs," he tells us. "Go through $14,000 worth of dog food a year." But it's just as well he didn't have the dogs with him, he says, because it isn't bear season anyway. He's well-known for hunting bears in these parts, and if the ATC has a problem bear near the trail, they'll hire him to bring his dogs out to chase it off. "They send a man with me," he says, "so I don't kill the bear." Eventually he has to leave, but I walk away grinning because it was such an unusual encounter. Later, I doodle a picture of him in my journal.
We stay at another Budget Inn (classy folks that we are) and it's good to be indoors, but strange already. Already the woods, the hike, this weird life... it seems all-encompassing. Are there really humans without dirt under their fingernails? There's water and electricity and washers and dryers, and people just have these, and use these? There's a world where 8 miles is not that far, not a few hours of distance?
Of course I know it's all true, that the world outside of a ribbon of dirt between Georgia and Maine still exists. But out there on the trail, knowing it doesn't always make it easier to believe.