As I dropped down from the wintry ridge tops of North Carolina toward the Nantahala River, I was overwhelmed by the profusion of spring colors. Dogwood, trillium, violet, and columbine blossoms punctuated the vibrant green hues of the shimmering leaves. Light sparkled off cascading creeks; a cacophony of bird songs filled the air. The surrounding beauty, the anticipation of meeting my in-laws in Wesser, and the thought of seeing my wife soon after gave rise to unbridled joyfulness. As a result, I must admit, I frolicked.
Now, when one hears the word ‘frolic’ one may visualize some young animal, say a colt, bounding and prancing in the morning sunlight. However, when the word is applied to a late-middle-aged (old), somewhat over-weight, balding male hiker the result is somewhat less endearing. For me, frolicking is mostly a state of mind; however my frolic does manifest itself in a slight bounce in the step which, although hardly noticeable, does result in a distinct jiggle in the paunch. So . . . trudging merrily along, paunch ajiggle, I was unaware that the vibrations emanating from my midriff would be detected by the wicked one.
“Hmmm, I detect a disturbance in the force . . .” Gazing into her crystal ball, the wicked witch of the AT spies the loping imbecile. “Ah Ha! It’s that snob from the west, and he’s . . . FROLICKING! Disgusting! I’ll nix that frolic in the bud. Bring in the poison ivy! Ah, Ha, ha, ha, ha! . . . Look- he’s stopping to rest, the slacker. Let’s put some ivy on that tree he’s leaning his pack against – that’s right . . . hip belt, shoulder strap, water bottles . . .Ah, Ha, ha, ha, ha!”
Hours later, an itchy rash begins to appear on random parts of my body. “Oh Noooo!” I think. It looks and feels just like the poison oak I used to get in California. This is going to be a bad case.
I have come to the conclusion that, for several generations, my ancestors lived underground. During their prolonged stint of spelunking, their skin lost all resistance to sunlight, mosquitoes, bee stings, and any plant substance stronger than syrup. Anyway, I am extremely allergic to poison oak and won’t recover without the assistance of modern medicine. Assuming the same vulnerability to poison ivy, especially when the worst blisters developed under my pack straps, my hike toward Wesser became, let’s say, more purposeful.
My two days off trail passed with dizzying rapidity. I remember episodes of zipping about at light speed in metal cages with wheels, interspersed with the consumption of food that wasn’t in wrappers and tasted too good to get enough of. Somewhere in there my kind in-laws took me in for repairs. (“Snip, snip here, cut, cut there, put in some brand new hay …”) Before I knew it, I found myself back in the forest, trudging north, accompanied by itchy, oozing rashes, but hopeful that my prescription would eventually heal them. Hiking along, I wished I could identify at least some of the incredible variety of plants I saw – especially the evil one. As I ascended toward the Smoky Mountains, an apparition parted the fog. It was a lady. She wore a tattered outfit which, oddly, seemed to have sprouted several cat tails.
“I reckon you are the Unfortunate One,” she said with a southern drawl. “I’m Cat Tails, the guardian of the Smokies. You might think of me as the ‘good witch’. I aim to give you, the Unfortunate One, a little common sense as far as plants in these parts are concerned.”
For the next few days this woman pointed out poison ivy plants as we passed by. At lower elevations they lined the trailside in profusion. Their little triplets of droopy leaves seemed to reach out, straining to brush my legs as I passed.
“That looks like poison ivy, but it has five leaves, so it’s really Virgina Creeper,” she would say, or “Those leaves are too pointy, so that plant’s a maple.”
“If you brush against a plant, Unfortunate One, look back and see what it was. If it was poison ivy, then rub yourself with a Jewelweed and then rinse yourself off in the nearest spring.” “Can you show me a Jewelweed?” I whimpered. “Naw, they ain’t leafed out yet. And they only grow at lower elevation, near water.” The apparition continued to appear here and there as I walked through the Smokys, reiterating her earlier botany lessons.
As I slowly healed, I began to notice that she was quite attractive. Walking along, cat tails swinging gracefully, she must have read my mind. “Even if we was hitched, you wouldn’t get within spitting distance of me, sporting that rash!”
“I’m sorry,” I whined. “But say, isn’t there something you can give me that will prevent poison ivy in case I screw up again? . . . No, I’m not wearing those ruby hiking boots – they must weigh 20 pounds!” “Hmph! Suit yerself, you ungrateful trail leper,” she quipped, and vanished for good.
I concluded that the anti-poison ivy strategy most appropriate for a thru-hiker is to walk the straight and narrow – or avoid touching any greenery on the trail sides. Some wear protective gaiters, but I find they give me heat rash in warm weather. I know . . . I really need to find that cave system!