By Chris Robey
One privy ditch dug, one bear bag hung and after a long first day my crewmates and I rest now on the cobble-strewn bank of Citico Creek. Fallen mountain laurel blooms litter the bank on both sides of the creek--small, delicate, curiously geometric. Like little white and pink mandalas. Small pale butterflies have settled in droves on Eric’s dirty wet Carhartts, gathering sweat salts. When he goes to pick them up and hang them on his clothesline, they scatter like petals in the wind.
First hitch. We are here, camped at the confluence of Citico’s North and South Forks, about a mile in from the trailhead and just a few hundred yards within the official wilderness boundary. Our tents are set up beneath the plank and girder footbridge that spans the creek’s rushing waters.These are source waters, headwaters; a good place for Brook trout.
“In Utah we’d call that a river,” Kajler jokes. “Except there’d also be a dam about fifty feet across.”
Turns out that just a hundred paces or so up the trail there’s an old low water dam--one of many scattered remnants of past logging days. Others--a crumbling concrete outbuilding, traces of old roadbeds--are back in the woods just a few yards off trail. You needn’t look far to find traces of human presence here; something that is true of any wilderness, especially in the Southeast. But the material remnants are just a small part--look closely, and certain meanings, certain stories begin to reveal themselves. They too are remnants--things placed for us to find, like stones.
I watch as Jenny, Anna, Andi and Kajler take turns skipping stones across the creek. Plenty of good skipping stones here, and a nice swimming hole at the base of the rapids where we can jump in after work each day. Cold, clear water. Small hollows. Still pools. A vast, colorful array of cobbles; all different shapes, all different stories. Here is one, jet black and smooth—it’s been tumbling for quite a while. Here another that’s rougher and red with oxides. It had only just entered the stream before being deposited here. And another, silver in one light and slate grey, almost black, in another. Held directly in the sunlight, threads of pyrite shimmer like gold. Fool’s gold.
When placed together, the stones I’ve gathered take the shape of a paw print. I pocket the stones, thinking they’d make a good keepsake for Tori, back in Boone.
Kajler takes aim at a pile of dogwood petals by a small hollow and lets fly his stone--it ricochets. A burst of petals and plunk--the stone disappears down the hollow with a clatter like applause. Eric walks over to join the others and the bank and picks up a stone of his own, about palm width. He flings it, and I count six, maybe seven skips before it clatters down the same hole.
Earlier, at dinner, he’d told me about nursery logs. I’d pointed one out near our cooking area, a knee-high stump with a young rhododendron growing into it, its spindly roots shooting down, sustained by the soft rot of the trunk. I was fascinated.
“Yeah dude, we’ll be seeing plenty of those while we’re here,” Eric said. There’d be plenty of chances to use the crosscut on this hitch, we were told--more than a hundred trees fallen all along the North Fork trail.
I fixated on the rhododendron and the rotted trunk-- is it that the death of one sustains the other?
While the others talk and continue skipping stones, I lie back and rest my head on a patch of moss. Looking up, I see fast-moving clouds, the sky gradually clearing. There’d been distant rumbles of thunder but they’re gone now--no rain tonight. Above me, between the branches of two trees, a spider spins its web in a patch of open sky. I watch it work delicately along the strands--in toward the center, then out. Leap to the next strand. In then out. Slowly, steadily the web takes shape. I watch for almost an hour, looking up between passages in my book, a collection of essays by Gary Snyder. But soon I am reading the same lines over and over again; my eyes drift shut. Within minutes, I am carried away by the sound of rushing water.