Driving with my windows down the windy roads outside of Burns, TN the first thing I smelled was smoke. Not the sweet smell of tobacco drying that I’m used to, having grown up in the South, but the smell of a burn pile, bitter and pungent. Normally I would roll my windows up to block the odor, but a rare rain-free 60 degree Saturday in January deserves to be fully embraced, smell or otherwise.
I was on my way to Montgomery Bell State Park for my first hike of the year, and also my first hike in the 52 Hike Challenge. I decided to take on a trail I had never done before to start the new year off on a new, fun note. I belong to a Meetup group, which I’ve talked about before, and when searching for different hiking opportunities, I came across something intriguing – “Railroad History Hike with State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath at Montgomery Bell”. I’m not a huge railroad buff by any means, but I’m always eager to experience new things, so I signed up.
Not exactly sure what I was expecting in terms of participants for this group hike, but I definitely didn’t anticipate the age gap – me, a family of 5 who dropped out early because the children (3 under the age of 8) were hungry/tired, a few single men in their 40s, and the rest were groups and/or couples 65+ years old. The only person near my age was the self-described “baby ranger” – a young man in his early 20s who had recently graduated from a university in Colombia who wants to become a naturalist. He had only been on the job for a week and this was his very first hike at Montgomery Bell.
In retrospect, the age and inexperience of the younger ranger is probably how we got away with so much. Everything I’ve ever been taught in terms of hiking has been centers around conservation, with the main lesson, aside from “If you pack it in, then pack it out,” being stay on the trail. The purpose, of course, being to protect the flora and fauna surrounding the trail, in addition to keeping people from getting lost and/or rubbing up against things to which they’re allergic. It turns out that Randy’s whole plan, however, was to get us off the trail. Specifically, to hop from trail to trail by wading through the thorn-covered brush in order to take us to see things no-one else gets to see in the park. Randy is a professional ranger/naturalist within the parks system for the State of Tennessee, so we followed him without question. I do not, however, recommend anyone else follow our exact route without someone like Randy accompanying them.
We all met up in front of the Inn (located within the park) and then caravaned to a maintenance shed, which Randy unlocked especially for us. While walking to the trailhead, I quickly learned that Randy has a unique leadership style for group hikes. Walk a few yards, stop to point out to a branch that is home to insect eggs. Walk a few yards, stop to quiz us about different types of oak trees. Walk a few more yards, find a branch or log covered in fungus and have us come over to feel it and take pictures. We didn’t make good time, by any means, but it was still very entertaining.
The proper hike started at Bakers Cemetery Trail, which Randy described as a lollipop – an out-and-back with a little loop at the end. The trail itself was incredibly easy, with practically no elevation gain or obstacles, but I’m still glad I was in a group because in some parts I couldn’t see the trail at all due to the ground being covered in piles of leaves and mud. There were some markers on the trees, but those were too few and far between for me to not have gotten lost if by myself. In terms of the railroad theme, which Randy more or less abandoned after this sections, we saw the current railroad (along with a few trains passing by), the bed where the railroad used to lie, and then the cemetery, although tiny and overgrown, is the resting place of an African-American civil war soldier who helped build the railroad and then wanted to be buried next to it.
After the cemetery, we went off trail with Randy leading the way, crossing the railroad tracks and carefully avoiding thorny knee-high plants until we reached a dirt trail, which led us to Creech Hollow Lake. This trail was even easier to navigate than the previous one, with nothing obscuring the path, minus a recently fallen tree we had to climb over. As someone who is vertically challenged, getting over wasn’t the prettiest thing I’ve ever done, but it wasn’t too demanding either. Upon reaching the lake, Randy took us off trail again, through more thorny plants and small trees, to a small clearing where we took a short snack/water break while Randy lectured about when beavers were re-introduced to the State of Tennessee in the mid 1900s.
Even though the hike hadn’t been taxing, we had somehow managed to pass two hours in the woods at this point, courtesy of Randy’s engaging and entertaining stops and mini-lectures, so a food break was greatly appreciated. Following the short recess, we returned towards the direction from whence we came until we were able to connect with the Montgomery Bell Overnight Trail (“MBOT”). Now this is an exciting trail that I plan on doing later this year – over 10 miles long with 3 shelters along the way. We didn’t follow the MBOT for very long, however; Randy had other plans in store for us instead.
Leaving the MBOT and following a short side trail, we ended up at the Woodland Shelter, on the three aforementioned shelters maintained by the parks system. For some reason I was expecting a completely enclosed structure, whereas the reality turned out to be three walls, but no fourth. Montgomery Bell is very strict about their particular shelter policy – if you want to backcountry camp on the MBOT you must stay in one of the shelters and not in a tent or hammock. Randy apparently likes to go hang out at the shelters sometimes and eat lunch or spend a rainy afternoon. He did state, though, that one time he came across a cottonmouth at the shelter – one of the few poisonous snakes located in Tennessee, and illegal to kill. Thankfully he stayed still and the cottonmouth went along its way after awhile.
The final leg of our hike was a quick jaunt down a service trail to the back of the maintenance shed where our cars were parked. According to my activity tracker, we hiked a little over 4 miles. Overall, a great and unique experience (Randy is quite the gem), but I’m not a huge fan of the slow pace and stopping/starting normally associated with large group hikes, so they will continue to make a pleasant, but infrequent percentage of my overall hikes during the year.