Tightrope Walking Above the Clouds

OK, so I know this shoot was quite a few months ago.  But my ‘agent’ that is helping me develop an online portfolio for magazines and newspapers wanted it included.  Just thought I’d share it here also.  Enjoy!

One step at a time. Fifteen miles. Some of the steepest mountains in the east. One misstep to the left and I fall 500 feet – straight down – into Tennessee and one misstep to the right and I fall 600 feet – straight down – into North Carolina. I’m carrying about 70 pounds on my back. The trail is only 18 inches wide in many places.

I asked myself a million times, “What had I gotten myself into? Why had I agreed to do this?”

‘This’ being a week embedded with the Smokies Wilderness Elite Appalachian Trail Crew – better known in the long distance hiking world as The SWEAT Crew. I had noticed a small ad in a weekly, independent newspaper in Asheville, NC and contacted them. “I’d like to go along and do a story about the SWEAT Crew,” I told the feminine voice on the other end of the phone. She told me there was a little paperwork that I’d need to complete and return and wanted to know which of several dates I could make the trip.

I got the paperwork, completed and returned it. Within 10 days I was on the section of where we tight-rope walked above the clouds.

The group I was with worked the roughest and steepest section of The Appalachian Trail (AT) in the Smokey Mountains. Knowledgeable hikers consider this 15 mile piece-of-hell as rough as any of the Continental Divide Trail — the 3100 mile trail that follows the Rockies from Canada to Mexico.

Volunteers maintain 80% of the 2181 mile long trail. Stretching from Georgia to Maine hiking clubs have primary responsibility for trail maintenance as the trail passes through their region. Portions of the trail, that are five miles or more from the nearest paved surface are considered in the “back country” and are not covered by volunteers.

This is where the SWEAT Crew comes in. Often considered as the “Delta Force” of trail maintenance, the SWEAT Crew consists of volunteers that come from all parts of the world for the privilege of helping to maintain the “grandfather” of trails.

Painting blazes, weeding, lopping, blow down removal, installing steps made of stone, installing and maintaining water bars are just some of the tasks performed regularly by the SWEAT Crew. There’s also a hundred other jobs they perform that a person wouldn’t notice unless they weren’t done.

Without motorized vehicles to help, everything had to be carried in on our backs. Hatchets, axes, whip saws and lopers were just a few of the tools we carried along with our tents, clothes, sleeping bags and enough food to last us a week in the wilderness. Besides carrying my share of the tools, I also humped in about 20 pounds of camera gear. The back was not light. The weight was only an inconvenience until a possible misstep that would shift all 70+ pounds towards the cliffs on either side of me.

Breaking into the final clearing before nightfall, we sat on the ground. Too exhausted to remove our backpacks we used them as back supports while we dug out cold cereal, energy bars and fruit that had been stashed in convenient pockets.

Most people can walk an average of four miles per hour. We had just completed 15 miles in nine hours. Having neither the energy or desire to move very far, we set up our tents where we sat and crawled in for the night. As the trail boss raised each backpack forty feet into the air to protect our food – and us – from scavenging bears, I fell asleep looking at the stars through the open rain fly of the tent and asking myself, “Why had I agreed to this”.

A veteran volunteer with the SWEAT Crew told me that “…the time we spend doing trail work is not deducted from our lives.” Maybe he’s on to something.

Jerry Nelson is a nationally recognized photojournalist and adventure photographer. His work has appeared in many national, regional and local publications including CNN, USAToday, Upsurge, Earthwalkers and Associated Content and he is a regular contributor to Huffington Post as well as OpEdNews. Nelson travels the country seeking out the people, places and things that make America unique and great. Nelson currently is in Washington D.C. pointing his camera at OccupyDC and freelancing for The Washington Times the second largest paper in the nation’s capital.

CLICK HERE to see more of Nelson’s work or to hire him for a shoot.

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