Leaning against the mountain, I watched the dark clouds gathering. Precipitation had always been a force in shaping these old mountains, and after a lifetime of outdoor adventure, I realized that these mountains had also shaped me.

I didn’t always follow the outdoor path. While at the University of Tennessee, I didn’t exercise, drank heavily, and ate badly. The natural fitness of youth melted away in a merry-go-round of beer and pizza.

Then a newfound friend and experienced backpacker, Calvin Milam, suggested I go to the Smokies with him. I was the epitome of ignorance: a suburban Memphis punk who had never camped out a day in my life. Everything was new – the weight of the pack on my shoulders, the pounding on my feet, the slow travel, the seemingly ceaseless climbs.

But I was up for the challenge. For most of us the competition stops after high school—but not for those who explore the outdoors. I was still seeking to compete against myself and push my boundaries. In fact, I had chosen our hike, the unmaintained Porter’s Flat Manway, after consulting a hiking guide to the Smokies which stated, “This is the most difficult trail in this entire guidebook. Don’t do it!”

Away we went, up to the crest of the Smokies, the sweat of a late summer afternoon pouring down my temples, the searing sensation in my calves following each step, the wondering when it would be over. It was just like running wind sprints in basketball practice. I hated it. And I loved it.

Then the rain came. We donned our ponchos and continued, a combination of sweat and shower soaking my entire body. At the Porter’s Flat campsite, the maintained trail ended. We forged on. The manway was marked with rock cairns, little piles of rock left by previous hikers to show the way.

It was starting to get really hard. Did I have it in me?

The trailbed steepened, but the rock cairns were still there to guide the way. Then we came to an open jumbled rock field rising up several watery ravines. No cairns were visible. The two of us vainly searched the sloping mountainside for a marker. I hadn’t thought to bring a compass. So we headed straight up the steepest ragged gulch.