About six years ago I lived in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This is a small town just outside of the Great Smokey Mountain National Park. Gatlinburg was and probably still is a tourist trap, but I moved there shortly after graduating college because I loved the Smokey Mountains and loved being so close to the park. I spent every free moment I had in the park, hiking and camping. It was a place I went for peace. One sultry summer weekend I was hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the park. I find my camp site for the evening, and I start to settle in. I remember taking a few moments to find the best place to pitch my tent, no widow-maker branches above, even ground below, no roots, etc. While doing this, I noticed that, seemingly, I was the only one camping in this spot. Though summer is the busy season at the park, it isn’t that unusual to be alone at a camp site, even one off so popular a trail as the AT. Most people don’t like to get dirty, but instead prefer to camp someplace that has a working toilet and power hookups. To me, what’s the point of that? Might as well stay home.
It wasn’t until I had my tent set up, and had gotten a cooking fire going that I heard an unusual sound. Someone was singing. I couldn’t really catch the words, but I could tell that the words had a sing-song quality to them. The sun was setting, but it wasn’t dark yet, so I went out to see who my neighbor was. I tried to follow the voice, but every time I thought I was getting closer the sound seemed to drop off or move locations, and I’d have to start walking the way I came. Night falls like a hatchet in the woods. One moment it’s light and the next it’s dark, with hardly any in-between. So, too, did this night. I clicked on my headlamp, and followed the small glow from the glo-stick I had cracked and hung from my tent earlier.
Imagine my surprise, shock, and alarm when I got back to my tent to find a man hovering over my fire, singing to himself. Though he was hunched over my fire, I remember thinking how tall he was. He had snow white hair and must have been in his sixties. I stood still for a moment trying to judge this man, and calm my imagination. This pause gave me an opportunity to hear his song, and I wrote some of the words (and a lot of the details of the night) down later, and still have them. He sang,
"In the great book of John, you're warned of the day When you'll be laid beneath the cold clay The Angel of Death will come from the sky And claim your poor soul when the time comes to die."
When I decided to tell my story for you all, I found my old note pad that had the journal I kept during this time in my life. I found the lyrics and decided to Google them to see if it was a real song, and to my relief, better than the guy making up such lyrics, I found it was an actual song by Hank Williams.
Like, I think, most men who hike into the wild alone, and sleep among the bears and wolves in the woods, I am a man of strong nerves. I don’t scare easily. However, the sight of that old man, with his long white hair and big beard, crouched over my fire singing this foreboding tune was enough to turn my blood to ice.
With no other options, I walked out of the woods and into the clearing where I had made camp. The man looked up and stood, and he was very tall, and thin as a bone. We exchanged simple greetings of hello. I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was waiting to see who was camping near him. Made enough sense, I suppose, since it was the same thing that I was trying to do. I told him my name, and asked his, and he gave me his trail name (most thru-hikers of the AT take up a trail name, which is a nickname they employ on the trail.) The man said he was Cotton Joe. We spoke a little about his hike, and then he went back to his camp.
I cooked my food, and broke out my flask of spiced rum. It was definitely a night, where a little alcohol would help me get to sleep. I had my journal out and was writing down this odd occurrence, as I watched the fire die down, and I heard the man singing once more:
“When The Angel of Death comes down after you can you smile and say that you have been true can you truthfully say with your dying breatht hat you're ready to meet the Angel of death.When the lights all grow dim and the dark shadows creep and then your loved ones are gathered to weep Can you face them and say with your dying breath that you're ready to meet the Angel of Death.”
Not a tune to fall asleep to.