Saturday, February 06, 2010


“If the Stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Inhabiting Greater Suburbia as we do, She Who Must Be Obeyed and I rarely get a really good look at the stars. Light pollution from a myriad of sources, coupled with the smog that accumulates around any urban area, will always manage to blot out all but the brightest denizens of the nighttime firmament. It’s one of those subtle costs of living amongst large hordes of our fellow humans.

Stars over North Georgia
A sky full of stars over North Georgia - February 2007.

The human eye can discern about 3,000 stars, but it’s only in remote places, far away from city lights and air, that one has a hope of seeing a fraction of that number. They say that the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, yet it was in a semi-remote part of Québec in the late fall, where the air is cold, crisp, and clean, that I saw the Milky Way with its billions of stars, stretched like a hazy band across the sky. These days I get to see the stars when I make my annual foray into the North Georgia mountains... provided we get a clear night.

And I saw them again on Wednesday night, camped out atop Starr Mountain in Tennessee with Eric, the Jeremiah Johnson of McMinn County.

Now, the last time I went camping in the woods was some forty-five years ago. That was in the summertime, in the wilderness surrounding Camp Wel-Met in Barryville, New York, sleeping under the stars with a small army of fellow Pubescent Snotnoses and a counselor or two. But a few weeks ago, when Eric called me up and asked whether I’d like to accompany him on a cold-weather camping expedition, I was signing on for a different sort of adventure.

We met Wednesday at Eric’s place, the fabled Straight White Compound, and crammed our rucks with the necessary supplies. Sleeping bags and Thermarests. A two-man tent. A portable butane/propane stove and accompanying cooking vessels. Five liters of water, along with a couple of aluminum bottles filled with the Water of Life. Miscellaneous gear. Two mysterious quart-sized Mason jars, wrapped up carefully in a scarf.

“Whatever you do, don’t break that,” Eric admonished. “That’s our dinner.”

Supplies packed, we piled into the Elissonmobile and drove about ten miles to the trailhead at the base of Starr Mountain. Rather than hike the entire way up, we wisely elected to drive about a third of the way and leave the car parked in a turnout. This is trickier than it sounds: The road, an old gravel-and-dirt logging trail built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, was narrow and covered in spots by ice and tree branches knocked down by last week’s storm. But we parked the car without incident, shouldered our packs - each one weighing some 45-50 pounds - and began trudging up the road towards the top of the mountain, stopping every so often to rest our legs and take in the magnificent views to the east.

After a hike of roughly three miles, we were within a few hundred feet of the ridgeline. A reasonable expanse of flat ground was visible to the left side of the trail - Eric later speculated that there may even have been a house there in the distant past - and we decided to make camp.

Home Away From Home

Aside from setting up our tent, the first order of business was making a fire. We foraged around for some dry wood and a few rocks with which to border the firepit, and Eric set to work. Within minutes, we had a crackling campfire, thanks in no small measure to Eric’s firebuilding expertise... and the chunk of military-issue trioxane he used as an accelerant.

Eric, Master Fire-Builder

Fire built, we set about heating our dinner... the contents of those two Mason jars. For this we used a portable LPG stove especially suited to the task. What was for dinner? you may ask, and I will answer: Nothing less than a fine pot roast. Beef chuck, carrots, potatoes, and onions, all long-simmered in a rich broth. All we had to do was heat it and eat it, which we did with gusto.

As the dusk settled and the temperature began to drop, we hunkered down by the campfire and enjoyed a few wee drams of Macallan single malt and Jameson’s fine Irish, all the while admiring the sparkling, starry sky through the trees. Only twice did vehicles pass by on the logging road, and in no event did we have to deal with bugs, bears, or boars.

Later, as we folded ourselves into our sleeping bags and read Robert W. Service’s “The Law of the Yukon” - perfectly apropos on a frosty night - I felt a strange sort of contentment, the kind that comes with a challenge overcome. No, it wasn’t as though we were camped out with no tent in an Alaskan whiteout... but we were somewhere other than our soft, comfortable, civilized beds, and it made sense at an unexplainable, cellular level. For, somewhere buried in that reptilian hindbrain we male humans possess, there is a desire to kindle a fire and sleep in the woods out of doors that dates from when our earliest forebears crouched in hollowed-out shelters in the savannas of Africa.

When dawn broke and a hazy sun rose in the east, we cooked up some breakfast and coffee and rekindled our campfire from the embers of the night before. Then we packed up, cleaned up the campsite, and marched back down the mountain to the waiting mud-bespattered Elissonmobile.

[Hiking down a mountain, it should be noted, is way easier than hiking up a mountain.]

A hazy dawn.

Mark Frickin’ Trail
Elisson, AKA Mark Frickin’ Trail.

Less than half an hour later, we were back at the Straight White Compound, enjoying hot showers, indoor plumbing, and the glories of Whomp Biscuits and MRE’s. Cushy? Hell, yeah. But it’s a lot harder to see the stars when you’re indoors...

More pics below the fold.


Elisson - a little light-headed.

Reading Service
Reading “The Law of the Yukon” by candlelight.

Morning by the Campfire
Morning by the campfire.

Eric surveys the valley
Eric surveys the valley to the east.

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