Broken Hearts and Travelin’ Shoes

“Sometimes broken hearts need traveling shoes” – Jerry Nelson

I have no clue what happened. One evening, she and I are stretched out in the grass of Pack Square in Asheville. Chatting, watching the kids play in “Splashville” and just staring at the sky as the stars flew by.

The next day she disappeared. Wouldn’t answer her phone, wouldn’t respond to text messages and wouldn’t acknowledge my emails. Just disappeared. The only reason I know she’s still alive is she unfriended me on Facebook. Guess being unfriended makes it official…it’s over.

I’ve learned the best way to get over someone is to get busy doing something. For me that means finding a good story to shoot and write about and getting immersed in it. That’s what I did.

Doing a little research online, I came across something called the S.W.E.A.T. (Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail) Crew in a brief article in the Asheville Citizen-Times. Andrew Downs, the S.W.E.A.T. coordinator for Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina answered my email and we sat down at my favorite table in Firestorm Café and Books.

What Andy had to say about S.W.E.A.T. told me quick I had found the balm for a broken heart that I was looking for.

They’re the heavy lifters of Appalachian Trail (AT) maintenance. As I like to put it, they’re the “Delta Force” of the AT.

The AT is maintained strictly by volunteers. Just as sections of highways are cleaned by volunteer groups who get a sign with “Adopted by….” on their mile or two of road, volunteers from hiking clubs along the distance of the trail maintain sections. But sometimes those sections are beyond the reach of the clubs.

That’s where S.W.E.A.T. comes in. They work strictly in the “back country”. For them, the back country is any section of the trail, or part of the Smokies, which is over five miles from the nearest paved surface. Most of the work they do is even further removed from civilization.

Each S.W.E.A.T. Crew operates under the leadership of a Trail Crew Leader and a Trail Crew Assistant. These are the only two paid members of a crew which typically involves from 5 to 9 volunteers.

Volunteers donate their time for anywhere from six days to all season. In exchange for giving up their time, S.W.E.A.T. provides transportation and food as well as any camping gear that might be needed by someone such as tents, backpacks and even water bottles.

As I got a refill on the coffee, I started to think about everything Andy had said. The more I thought, the more I liked the idea. The chance to get out of town for a short season, exercise these old bones, shake off the hurt from the mysterious loss of a relationship and have the chance to get some great photos and a good story.

I signed up.

Despite Andy doing a thorough job of letting me know what I was in for, I still underestimated how rigorous a trip it would be. Andy mentioned a couple of times, “It’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done in your life”.

Well, yeah. This was his standard pitch for the average person who is a couch potato. He couldn’t be talking about me. In my life I’ve climbed to the top of the pyramids, swam the Amazon, and climbed the hills along the French Riviera and many other things. This could NOT be the hardest thing I’ve done in my life.

Was I wrong.

After spending a night with the other volunteers at the S.W.E.A.T. headquarters where we got to know each other as well as check and double check our gear, we were driven to Clingman’s Dome. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee,

We climbed out of the van and put our gear on. Carrying packs weighing anywhere from 40 – 80 pounds, we had twelve miles of trail to walk before we got to the spot near Derek’s Knob Shelter. Home – at last. Getting the tents set up, most of us were way too tired to even think about eating – including me. So chewing on a cracker from the backpack, I fell asleep – and dreamed of civilization.

The next morning as the fog was burning off; we fixed a light meal of rehydrated eggs, rehydrated bacon and coffee that should’ve been dehydrated. Picking up the tools, we set out. Retracing five miles of our hike from yesterday, we got to the first “blowdown”. Grabbing my camera as the rest of the crew grabbed axes and saws, I dialed in the lens and got some great action shots of volunteers who only 24 hours before had never handled a cross-cut saw or a Pulaski.

Six hours later and we hiked back down the trail to the campsite. Another night in the Smokies with the bear, the deer, wild boar and 9 new friends.

And the rest of the story? Well, I met a lady up there on the top of the Smokies. While we spent a lot of time talking and hanging out together, at the moment we’re just friends…good friends. And I’m really grateful that our paths have crossed. After all, sometimes a broken heart needs traveling shoes.

See some of the photos from my time with the S.W.E.A.T. Crew, at JourneyAmerica.org

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