Jeremiah Johnson dispenses advice
When we returned from Ice Water Spring to the backpacker's shelter with full water bottles, a modern-day Jeremiah Johnson was there to dispense a little mountain-man wisdom.
"Turn those water bottles upside down tonight," he said. "It'll freeze from the top down."
We didn't know whether to trust the gray-bearded man, who was sipping dark rum, and wearing a teal and hot-pink ski cap with fully engaged earflaps.
I have met some memorable characters over the years in these backcountry shelters, from pot-smoking bohemians to haggard-looking through-hikers on their way from Georgia to Maine.
Mark Sutton of Hartselle and I ran into Jeremiah Johnson this month during a backpacking trip through the Great Smoky Mountains.
Jeremiah, whose real name is Malcolm Gordon, is a 62-year-old dentist from South Carolina. He, along with another dentist and an engineer, were the only other souls on the mountain that night.
Jeremiah and the engineer are experienced winter backpackers and had plenty of pointers on how to survive comfortably in the wild. They had gone to great extremes and expense to make sure their backpacks were feather light, but argued that the weight of bottled spirits is a necessary burden during cold weather.
It was their poor friend's first trip, and they showed him little respect.
"We call him the probie," Jeremiah said. "because he's still on probation."
They made the probie fetch their water and pour their drinks and do their cleanup work.
The probie recalled his misery on the trail earlier that day. He complained that his "friends" kept going off and leaving him behind. Then they stopped and rested until he caught up with them. As soon as he caught up with them, however, they started hiking again before he could rest.
The good-natured banter between the Carolinians continued and became more animated as the rum had its effect. It was like watching a M*A*S*H. television rerun when Hawkeye and Trapper John relaxed in their tents after a long day of surgery.
From our altitude of more than 5,000 feet, (I suspect the dentists were even higher), the temperature dipped to about 25 that night with a brisk north wind. I shivered in the sleeping bag for about 12 hours and wished for dawn.
The sun rose slowly in the east. It cast its light into the dark shelter. Eventually, from the small opening in my mummy sleeping bag, I could see that the rum-swigging Jeremiah Johnson was right.
The top half of my water bottle was solid ice. But because I had turned it upside down, the half at the lid was ready to pour.