The Grouse Grind

We drove to Tennessee last week Thursday. Our daughter and husband had invited us to meet them there for a long weekend with their boys. We rented a rustic cabin near Townsend, TN, with a lovely view of the Smokey Mountains. As self-appointed travel director, Rachel had planned a detailed itinerary which commenced Friday morning with a trail hike to a nearby tourist stop called Spruce Flat Falls.

We set off on the single-track trail rutted with gnarly tree roots and jagged boulders. Jude, their 3-year-old, likes to do things by himself, so I took his hand and we walked together. After several steep inclines and descents, the thought crossed my mind that we had bitten off more than we could chew. I was inwardly concerned that, with one false step, any member of our small party could accidentally tumble down the steep hillside and leave us one table setting short for dinner that night. We finally made it to the falls, at which point I broke the news to the boys that we had to hike all the way back. Jude decided that he’d had enough, so we took turns lugging the 45-lb. barnacle back to the car.

The whole scenario triggered a funny memory, and by funny, I mean it’s funny now, but it wasn’t funny when it happened.


Lisa and I had traveled on one of her company trips to Vancouver, Canada, a couple days ahead of a cruise to Alaska. With us were our best friends, Kevin and Nancy. We had a day to kill before embarking on our cruise, so Kevin and I looked into finding something the four of us could do together. We thought it would be fun to go on a hike with the girls. We asked around and one of the local travel directors told us there was a beautiful hiking trail at a place called Grouse Mountain. We told the girls about it, and to our surprise, they agreed to go.


Kevin and I put our workout clothes on, laced up our running shoes and waited for the girls to get ready. I had suggested that they wear comfortable shoes. I’m not sure what sort of hike the girls envisioned, but I think they took my suggestion to mean no 4-inch heels. When they came down to the lobby of the hotel, they were dressed to kill. I’m not making this up. Their hair was perfect, their makeup flawless. They were dressed in light-colored, tight-fitting pants and dry-clean only tops. They were wearing cute sandals and both had small purses slung over their shoulders. Designer sunglasses rounded out what they must have thought portrayed a rugged, outdoorsy, hiking sorta look.


We took a taxi to the base of Grouse Mountain and walked into the park. Kevin and I both noticed a bunch of lean athletes milling around with race numbers pinned to their shirts. I asked one of the guys if there was an event going on. He said, “Yeah, it’s called the Grouse Grind. It’s a race up to the top of Grouse Mountain.” Kevin and I looked at each other for what would not be the last time that afternoon. Clearly, our intel on the hike was incomplete.

We started up the trail. At first it seemed like it would not be terribly difficult. After 15 minutes or so, the steps got steeper and higher. We could hear the girls huffing and puffing as they struggled up the trail while trying to keep their clothes clean. At one point Lisa said, “How long is this stupid trail?” Kevin and I looked at each other again and we both shrugged. “We’re not sure,” I said trying to divide the blame, “but we don’t think it’s all that long.” (We had no idea.) To make matters worse, we had brought one bottle of water for the four of us to share, so rationing had begun.


We continued climbing and the ascent got steeper and more difficult. By this time, competitors in the race were flying past us on both sides. We had to stop and rest every 10 minutes or so to let the girls catch up. After half an hour, the mood on the trail turned decidedly chilly. At this point Lisa said, “Well, we have to be close to the top by now!” As we rounded the next corner, there was a sign that said, “Congratulations! You are one-quarter of the way there!”

Kevin and I looked at each other again. We both swallowed hard. The girls were sweating, their non-wicking apparel stuck to their bodies. Their shoes were filthy and both had slipped and nearly fallen on several occasions. After 45 minutes, Kevin and I knew we had made a terrible mistake. At this point in the climb, however, we were committed to continuing upward as it would have been harder and even more dangerous to reverse course and descend back down the mountain. There was no turning back, and the bitter comments started flying:


“Why didn’t you tell us we were going on a mountain climbing expedition?” said Lisa.


“I’ve ruined my favorite pair of flats!” said Nancy.


“We’re going to KILL you two!” said Lisa.


“I can’t believe we listened to you two idiots!” said Nancy.


Here’s what we didn’t know. Grouse Mountain is 2,800 feet from bottom to top. The Grouse Grind is a steep trail nearly two miles in length with a total of 2,830 steps at an average grade of 17°. It’s nicknamed ‘Mother Nature’s Stairmaster.’


Two hours and fifteen minutes later, we approached the summit of the mountain. All four of us were sweaty and tired. The girls were furious. As we topped the last rise and stepped up onto the top of Grouse Mountain, there were tourists everywhere relaxing and sunbathing. Some were drinking cold beers. Lisa looked around and yelled to no one in particular, “Is anybody here a divorce lawyer?!?” Kevin and I looked at each other for the final time and both started laughing. It was nervous laughter at best.


“Hey,” said Kevin, “who wants a cold beer?” We headed over to the beverage kiosk and got four cold beers. The frosty mugs mirrored the icy chill still emanating from our wives. Fortunately for the two of us, there was a cable car that ran from the top of the mountain back to the bottom. We bought four tickets and rode back down to the base of the mountain.


It wasn’t the first time Kevin and I had planned a dubious outing for the four of us and it wouldn’t be the last. (See upcoming blog on the famous Alaskan salmon bake.)


Next time we go on a trail hike, I’m going to make sure we have all the details!


*Note: The winner of the Grouse Grind that year made it to the top in 27 minutes.

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