Thankfully though, I immediately realized my error and quickly turned the right (or rather left) way around, continuing toward the visitor center. Running in just in time, I found my seat next to an older couple from Fort Wayne, Ind., Cathy and Tom Jones (Insert Tom Jones joke here).
What amazed me most about the couple is that they had traveled eight hours to learn orienteering that weekend. In fact, in my thus far brief foray into the wilderness, I have noticed that people are willing to travel long distances to enjoy the outdoors. Most people in the class had driven at least an hour, if not more. The Appalachian Trail thru-hiking course I had attended a couple weeks ago in Swain County had been the same; attendees had driven three hours that morning to make a 9 a.m. class.
I can’t say I’m surprised. I mean, look around. The Smoky Mountains can be breathtaking. When I returned to my college town in Ohio last year, I obviously told my fellow journalism graduates about my jobs and the stories I was writing, but I also tried to convey the amazing feeling you get when you wake up each morning and see the sun rising over the mountains — mountains that sit right in your backyard.
I said words like “It is the most beautiful view from the grocery store parking lot,” and was answered with strange looks. But I just shrugged and said, “If you saw it, you would understand.” So who wouldn’t drive hours just to spend the day in the mountains?
But back to my ineptitude. Walking into the class, I knew that orienteering involved maps and compasses, but I failed to realize that it would also include my lifelong enemy — numbers. I have tried to make friends with numbers. One minute I think we are getting along and understand each other; the next thing I know the teacher is handing me a ‘D,’ and I am never quite sure where things went wrong.
The instructor, Neal Buckingham, promised he would move slowly from step to step, explaining how to read topographical maps and the difference between grid north and magnetic north. “There is no rocket science to it,” he said.
Thankfully, Tom was on much better terms with numbers than myself and was there to help. We made a good team. He brought wisdom to the group, and I brought charisma. While my contribution doesn’t really help when calculating how many degrees west we should walk to make it from point A to point B, Tom’s knowledge did. And I must say if I ever need to use my newly learned orienteering knowledge, I hope the Joneses are nearby to help.
The only disappointment of the day was that a personal commitment kept me from taking off on a short trail or visiting Cades Cove after class concluded that afternoon. But I remedied that the next day with a trip to Max Patch, which I only bring up to say that if you haven’t been, you should on the next warm day.
Max Patch is like “Introduction to the Outdoors 101.” All you do is turn right off the Harmon Den exit (Exit 7) on Interstate 40 and drive for about 20 minutes or so up a dirt road. There will be a parking lot eventually and then you just have to walk three-fourths a mile uphill to a “patch” on top the mountain.
Max Patch has a 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains and is a fantastic place to picnic or fly a kite. You can hear the peace in the air.