AT Thru-Hike #46 – The Sad Tale of Ottie Cline Powell

“We don’t even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward. In times of tragedy, of war, of necessity, people do amazing things. The human capacity for survival and renewal is awesome.” – Isabel Allende

Kyrie eleison – the Greek, Κύριε, ἐλέησον, is translated Lord, Have Mercy

“The wind blows hard against this mountain side, across the sea into my soul.  It reaches into where I cannot hide, setting my feet upon the road.”     – Kyrie, by Mr. Mister, 1985

Day 76

For 4-year-old Ottie Cline Powell, November 9, 1890, began as a typical day. The 5th of Edwin and Emma Belle Powell’s eight children, little Ottie awoke, got dressed, and headed out with his siblings to the one room schoolhouse near his family’s farm. It was a chilly, overcast day in Amherst County, Virginia. A few inches of snow had fallen the week prior.

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Upon his arrival at the Tower Hill schoolhouse, his teacher, Miss Nancy Gilbert, probably welcomed little Ottie, an intelligent young man with blue eyes and a fair complexion. She also noticed that she had used up her supply of firewood during the recent snow. During recess, she instructed her students to return with some sticks to fuel the school’s wood-burning stove. Little Ottie, barefoot at the time, went looking for wood, wandered off, and didn’t return. Miss Gilbert couldn’t find him and became increasingly concerned. She sent her students home with instructions to tell their parents that little Ottie was missing. More than 1500 locals and several dogs began searching for him, in the rain and then ice, in ever-widening circles. “Ottie! Ottie Powell! Where are you? Come here, Ottie!” There was no sign of him. The entire community was baffled by his disappearance and his parents were heartbroken.

When I was young I thought of growing old, of what my life would mean to me.  Would I have followed down my chosen road?  Or only wished that I could be? 

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On April 5, 1891, nearly five months later, a hunting dog picked up a scent and led a hunter up an old hunting and Indian trail to the top of Bluff Mountain. It was there, seven miles from the schoolhouse, at 3372 feet, that little Ottie’s remains were found. Experts believe he got lost, panicked, and started to run. After climbing the mountain, he collapsed and succumbed to the freezing temperatures. An autopsy showed he had undigested chestnuts from school in his stomach, an indication that, thankfully, he didn’t suffer for long.

James River Footbridge
James River Footbridge

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On Day 76, I made the long descent from Highcock Knob and crossed the James River footbridge, the longest foot-use only bridge on the AT. I then began the exhausting, very difficult, 2700-foot climb up Bluff Mountain. It would turn out to be the toughest climb for me in Virginia, partly due to the humidity and partly because there were no water sources and I carried a woefully inadequate two liters of water. I eventually arrived at the summit, completely drained and soaked to the bone with sweat.

My heart is old, it holds my memories.  My body burns a gemlike flame.  Somewhere between the soul and soft machine, is where I find myself again.

At the summit I looked over and saw the memorial to Ottie Cline Powell, placed on the spot where his body was found over 125 years ago. A lot of emotions ran through my mind. First, I felt sad for little Ottie, and imagined the despair and panic he likely felt as he ran and ran and yet couldn’t find his schoolhouse. I so wished there wasn’t a 125 year gap between our Bluff Mountain summits, so that I could have rescued that little boy. Second, I was amazed that such a young boy, just one month shy of his 5th birthday, in his bare feet, in those conditions, could have traveled seven miles, much of it uphill in rugged wilderness. That is simply remarkable. Finally, I felt thankful that it was likely he didn’t suffer for long up on that mountain. I’m also thankful that he’s in heaven now. Perhaps someday I will meet little Ottie and give him a fist pump, the standard greeting between long distance hikers.

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel, Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night, Kyrie eleison where I’m going will you follow?  Kyrie eleison on a highway in the light.

I descended Bluff Mountain and arrived at Punchbowl Shelter after a physically grueling 18.2 mile day. The first priority at camp was to filter and consume nearly 2 liters of water. I was clearly dehydrated. The second priority was to retrieve my fishing gear and try to catch a fish at the nearby mountain pond. I got some nibbles but ultimately struck out, bringing my record versus AT fish to 2-2. I then ate dinner at the shelter picnic table, along with Training Wheels, Shoe Leather, Big Stick, and Uno. One of them, reading from the shelter journal, informed us that the shelter was reportedly haunted by the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell. Someone else said the ghost was probably carrying firewood. Too soon.

Fob at Punchbowl Shelter
Fob at Punchbowl Shelter
Shoe Leather at Punchbowl Shelter
Shoe Leather at Punchbowl Shelter

Since a light rain started to fall toward the tail end of supper, and I hadn’t yet set up my tent, I decided to sleep in the shelter. I was joined in the shelter by Shoe Leather (a south bounder) and Uno. This would turn out to be one of the worst decisions I’ve made so far on the trail. As I settled into my sleeping bag about 9:00 p.m., the bugs descended on Punchbowl Shelter. First came the mosquitos. I could hear them loudly buzzing my ears. Each time they came close, I slapped myself in an attempt to kill them. I probably slapped myself upside the head 25 times between 9:00 and 9:30. I didn’t kill any mosquitos but gave myself a slight concussion. Next came the black flies. I hate black flies with a passion. They targeted my arms, already in bad shape from poison ivy. I was miserable and fighting a losing battle. My only option was to pull my sleeping bag liner up and over my head. This technique kept the bugs at bay, but also meant sleeping in a 100 degree, sweat-filled cocoon. It was easily my worst night on the AT. I might have slept an hour. I told myself to never again sleep in a shelter, especially one near a bug-producing pond. If I could live that night over again, I would have summoned the ghost of Ottie Cline Powell and had him club me over the head with a piece of firewood to put an end to my misery.

Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel, Kyrie eleison through the darkness of the night, Kyrie eleison where I’m going will you follow? Kyrie eleison on a highway in the light.

Rest well, sweet Ottie.

Fob

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11 thoughts on “AT Thru-Hike #46 – The Sad Tale of Ottie Cline Powell”

    1. I listened to that song shortly after summiting and seeing Ottie’s memorial. The words seemed to fit my thoughts. The whole song is basically a prayer. Love my 80s music!

  1. Seeing as I’m not a hiker (I hike, but I wouldn’t label myself as a hiker), I’ll be coming up with a special greeting (I’ll fill you in after I invent it) for when I meet you in heaven. It may be the only time I will ever get to meet you face to face. I’ll sit and just listen, you are amazing with words. 🙂

    Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
    -Benjamin Franklin

    You, Steve, obviously do both!

    1. Love that BF quote! When we get to heaven, I suspect we’ll both be singing and serving and praising God! Maybe there will be some hiking…easy terrain with no bugs or rocks. Maybe we’ll meet sooner. Lil Jan and I are planning a big southwest then northwest trip this Winter through Summer.

      1. Yay! We have a lot of cool nature stuff (how’s that for technical jargon?) in South and Southeastern Arizona! ?

  2. On April 5, 1980, I was hiking with my college roommate on that very trail. we had been hiking for about a week and that particular day was very windy and cold. We decided to pitch our tent early in the afternoon and rest. After setting our tents we discovered the Memorial to young Ottie Kline Powell. We could not believe we were standing on that spot on the same day he was found. That night the wind blew hard and played tricks with our imagination. I never forgot that day or the story on the Plaque. When I saw your picture of the Memorial, I was amazed that I had remembered it word for word all these years.

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