Friday, May 22, 2015

AT in NC: Downhill To Hot Springs

Appalachian Trail in NC – Max Patch to Hot Springs Backpack – Day 2 – 4/12/15 – 9.5 Miles

After a quieter night than we typically experience in our suburban home where barred owls rule, Jim and I packed up our gear and set out for our morning hike into Hot Springs.  Within a quarter mile we passed an excellent campsite.  Ah well…

On our descent we also passed carpets of wildflowers spread up and down the side of Bluff Mountain and my progress was slowed significantly.  Each specimen was more captivatingly perfect than the last. 

Dutchman’s breeches

Not to be confused with its cousin, squirrel corn

Rue anemone

Some type of anemone, judging from foliage

Trilliums are ready to pop

Gaywings:  the first time I’ve seen these flowers, and they were so tiny and close to the ground that I almost missed them.  In fact, I couldn’t see them distinctly until I looked at the photo and searched online.  [By the way, if you Google this, be sure to add “wildflower”.]  

I kept an eye over my shoulder as Bluff Mountain got smaller yet still dominated the line of mountains.  I wondered what it would feel like to hike southbound and see that peak looming. 

Where are we?  At Garenflo Gap.  If our car was here we’d be done.  But 6.6 miles to go.

Jim always seems to be patiently waiting for me.  His pace is naturally faster than mine, but I don’t feel the push to keep up.

Deer Park Mountain Shelter, built on a former homesite near Gragg Gap, is .2 miles to the right of the trail but the campsite area is about 10 steps to the left.  We took a real rest break there and put our feet up.  A few dozen yards past it we noticed two headstones (former residents of the homesite?) for whom Gragg Gap are presumably named. 

George W. Gragg “departed but not forgotten”

Eva Gragg “absent, not dead."  Her headstone's death date is 17 years earlier, 1949, hand carved, perhaps by George?

The 1,200-foot descent to the town of Hot Springs was switch- backed but relentless, not Jim’s favorite kind of hiking, unkind to the knees and feet.  Seeing the buildings through the trees was incentive to keep pounding.

The trail follows Bridge Street though the heart of Hot Springs and to our parked car.  Although we didn’t see our young’un friends, the town was bustling with thru-hikers eating, resting and gearing up to get back on the trail.  At Spring Creek Tavern I enjoyed possibly the best cheesesteak sandwich of my hiking career.  As we ate, we overheard a table of thru-hikers ordering a round of mimosas to celebrate their progress and we quietly told our server to put them on our tab. 

Remember, trail angels are everywhere. 

“There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”  ~Henri Matisse

Monday, May 18, 2015

AT in NC: Birthday Backpack at Max Patch

Appalachian Trail in NC – Max Patch to Hot Springs Backpack – Day 1 – 4/11/15 – 10.5 Miles

Is it just me or are the birthdays speeding up?  Since I started this blog I have celebrated quite a few.  At least I know what I’m going to do on every birthday – go hiking.  This year was extra special because of my backpacking buddy – hubby Jim. 

I ordered up a simple overnight trip beginning at an iconic spot on the AT in North Carolina, not too many miles, an easy shuttle ride, crossed fingers for good weather, and I got all of my birthday wishes.  Jim and I started out from Max Patch on a flawless April morning, where we saw backpackers, day hikers and trail angels giving out Mountain Dews.

Max Patch

Too soon the trail descended into the trees, but then the experience changed to spring wildflower sightings.  Between Roaring Fork Shelter and Lemon Gap we saw:

Wood anemone

Large-flowered trillium

Squirrel corn (bushels of it)

Wake robin

Trout Lily (just a few of these)

False hellebore with its striking foliage

Spring beauty

More spring beauties

At Lemon Gap we passed a group of youthful thru-hikers who appeared to be having a slow day.  Jim powered ahead of me just because he could. 

A brisk climb up Walnut Mountain through a grassy clearing

At Walnut Mountain Shelter I found Jim sitting at the picnic table chatting with a bushy-bearded southbound thru-hiker named Max Heap.  (His trail blog is here.The young’uns straggled in and various conversations about mileage, gear and food ensued.  Jim and I were planning to camp in between shelters and Max told us there were several good places, but be sure to get water soon because it was scarce on the north side of Bluff Mountain.  One of the young women hikers said that they would probably do the same thing, since it was already mid-afternoon and the town of Hot Springs was 13 miles away.  I was a bit reluctant to leave the congenial group - this is part of the unique AT experience - but we went on our way.

The climb up Bluff Mountain was a big one, about 1,000 feet in less than 2 miles.  Luckily it was covered with spring beauties. 

The last water source before the summit, the flow improved with a simple leaf

For those of you who want to walk this route, the top of Bluff Mountain is a terrific camping spot if your timing suits you.  A good breeze was blowing, though, and we wanted to get to a more sheltered spot maybe a mile further along the trail to shorten our day tomorrow.  I kept a sharp eye out for a flat spot to pitch our tent.  We passed up a couple of places in anticipation of a better one, until we exceeded the “this is fun” and “I’m a little tired” stages and entered the “I want to stop right now” zone.  Jim’s feet were hurting and I was very hungry. 

At the next level-looking spot we began clearing out leaves and fallen branches and uncovered a rock fire circle.  We didn’t plan to build a fire, but it was nice to know that someone else had the same idea that this was a good campsite.  We popped up our little two-man tent, heated water for a cup of tea and a simple dehydrated backpacker meal.  As we were eating, the young’uns came around the bend, laughing, now motivated to make it to Hot Springs on this Saturday night “before the bars close.” 

The temperature began to drop and we retired to our tent while it was still light.  Neither of us had brought a book.  Imagine our excitement when we discovered that we had a cell signal!  I am ashamed to confess, but we gleefully spent a half hour checking emails and Facebook before giving in to sleep.  A very cozy night in our little tent in the middle of nowhere.

“Spring work is going on with joyful enthusiasm.”  ~ John Muir

Monday, May 11, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Out With A Whimper At Table Rock State Park

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 5 - 3/27/15 – Cantrell Homesite to Table Rock State Park –8.6 Miles

No matter what the weather or the experiences of the rest of the adventure, the backpacker’s mind on the last day of a hike is mainly focused on a change of clothes, a big meal and setting that backpack down.  A bathroom and running water is even sweeter.  With 8.6 miles between me and the car, I admit I wasn’t thinking much about the trail. 

In the wee hours the rain began and gained intensity, until I faced reality and admitted that my tent wasn’t going to be dry no matter time I hit the trail.  So at 6:30 a.m. I decided to suck it up and walk wet.  Cathy and I had agreed to leave about 8:00, but I was ready by 7:30 and told her I wanted to go ahead while she was still packing.  I knew she would catch me soon – and she did – and she passed me again. 

My pack weight felt negligible today – less food? less water? less worry?  The air was noticeably colder, though, a cold front arriving with the rain.  We wore shorts but kept rain jackets on for the entire hike. 

Don’t be fooled, even the last 8 miles of downhill had some uphill thrown in, a short climb up Hickorynut Mountain, followed by a longer, steeper climb up the side of Pinnacle Mountain.  Squinting and holding my mouth the right way, through the still-bare trees I saw wispy clouds swirling around the lower peaks below.  At the intersection with the Pinnacle Trail, I passed up the opportunity to go the extra .2 miles to the summit (after all, that would be .4 miles round trip) and continued on the downhill home stretch.  I’m sure I’ll be back to hike the Pinnacle on another (sunnier) day.

From that point the downhill got more serious and the wet rocks slowed me down.

Views from a rock face

Views from a rock face – watch out for the edge

At the next rock face I pondered the white blazes painted along the granite slope.  Hmmm, is it too slanted?  Poor judgment – I tried to walk it.  I slipped and slid several yards down, poles skating along beside me.  I wasn’t terrified because there was a line of mountain laurel shrubs at the bottom to catch me, but I sustained a palm-sized scrape on my left outer thigh and my shorts were soaking wet.   I gathered myself and my poles, stood up – and slid again, same scenario, making the scrape twice as large.  The second ride took me to the woods’ edge, where I again picked up my poles, dusted off my dignity and moved on.  When I told Cathy about this later and showed her my wounds, she casually noted, “Yeah, you know, I just sat down and slid on my butt.” 

I am doing Table Rock State Park a serious disservice by not telling more about its attributes, but the most I remember besides the lovely water near the trailhead are a couple of badly eroded trail places with exposed tree roots. 

My favorite sign of our Foothills Trail thru-hike

Clean dry clothes, Bojangles chicken biscuits, and Cathy and I headed for home.  Along the way we analyzed our experience (remember, the longest thru-hike for either of us so far?) and while we were happy with the accomplishment and would highly recommend the Foothills Trail, we agreed that we didn’t love carrying so much weight.  However, if we had added a day or two, shortened the daily mileage and rested more, perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so rigorous.  When will we test that theory? 

See I've conquered hills but I still have mountains to climb....
Right now, right now, I'm doing the best I can." ~Tracy Chapman

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike - Sassafrass Mountain & Stone Thrones

Foothills Trail Thru-Hike – Day 4 - 3/26/15 – Rock Creek to Cantrell Homesite –17.9 Miles

A long stretch without water, uncertainty about where to end the day, and an unexpected section of ups and downs made Day 4 our toughest one on the Foothills Trail.

Cathy and I packed up very wet tents and started the morning off with an uninspiring few miles to Laurel Fork Falls, the trail doing the now-familiar weave on and off old logging roads in drizzly misty fog.  As usual, Cathy quickly outpaced me but waited for me to catch up at a Lake Jocassee boat access spur trail.  Half a mile later we reached the overlook to Laurel Fork Falls.

Laurel Fork Falls from a distance – after a brief look, Cathy kept going but I sat down for 10 minutes to eat and reflect. 

I skipped the side trail to the top of the waterfall (a great campsite location, BTW, for those who plan better than we did).  For a couple of miles past Laurel Fork Falls the trail was in rough shape, dozens of blowdowns alongside and occasionally across the trail.  Perhaps there was a recent weather event, a microburst that toppled trees?  The FT crossed Laurel Fork Creek multiple times, always bridged, but this was not a picturesque walk in the woods.

A Hobbit-like bridge across Laurel Fork Creek


I met up with Cathy again at Virginia Hawkins Falls (named for an executive secretary of the FTC) and we enjoyed a nice rest.  The waterfall was lovely but hard to photograph in the dappled sunshine that had finally appeared. 

Past this point we knew the trail would begin to climb and that water sources would be scarce.  Campsites were also limited – we might end up on the summit of Sassafrass Mountain or just at some flat spot beside the trail.  Since Cathy’s filter had failed, our only treatment source was my Aqua Mira drops, so we had to be together to treat water.  Sitting at the waterfall, we assessed how much water we still had and then prepared another liter for Cathy to carry on ahead. 

Then began an unexpectedly rigorous series of ups and downs that took all my energy (plus one intriguing encounter – see footnote). Unlike Heartbreak Ridge, where its reality was less than its hype, the five miles from Virginia Hawkins Falls to the Laurel Valley access parking was a shock to the system.  Quick switchbacks up, then a reprieve of switchbacks down, followed by an abruptly steep uphill…maybe the guidebook doesn’t note it because the difficulty is less severe from the other direction.  All I know is by the time I connected with Cathy again we were both toasted.  She said carrying that extra liter of water did her in.

At the gravel parking area we hung our tents over the sign board to dry.  A dayhiker there told us we could scramble down under the upcoming Highway 178 bridge to get water (I think this is Estatoe Creek).  No mention of this in the guidebook; would have been nice to know.  Cathy felt that she still had enough water in her own Camelback so I took the extra liter she had hauled for the last five miles, then retrieved another liter from Estatoe Creek to be sure we had enough for cooking at camp.

Back on the trail.  The next section to Chimneytop Gap was a little kinder and gentler.  As I crossed F. Van Clayton Highway, I noticed a tractor-trailer that was obviously too long to make the hairpin turn there and was stuck. A couple of cars were forced to stop and their drivers were out in the road trying to advise the truck driver, but it looked like it was going to be a long night. 

The climb up Sassafrass Mountain seemed interminable – well, it is the high point of South Carolina (3,560 feet) so it should require some effort, I suppose.   What used to be a tree-covered summit with no views has now been clear-cut in anticipation of “improvement” with an observation platform.  Not too pretty right now, but hopefully it will get better. 

As for camping there, forget it.  The wind was fierce and you can tell by Cathy’s body language that we will keep moving.

Back in the woods, we began scouting for a campsite, any campsite, any reasonable flat spot.  We saw a place where two tents could fit in, but pushed on and found the old Cantrell homesite mentioned in the guidebook – hurray!  The original stone chimney and a more recently constructed 3-foot-tall stone fire ring with eight stone “thrones” encircling it, plus a stick shelter.  Surely the Boy Scouts had been here more than once.

There was plenty of room for tents and a young couple had already claimed their territory.  There also was a spring somewhere nearby but since we had hauled our water we didn’t bother to look for it. We popped up our tents, put on an extra layer against the chill as the sun set, and prepared to cook our last supper on the trail.  And…my stove igniter wouldn’t work.  And…my matches wouldn’t stay lit in the breeze.  Thanks to Cathy’s Jetboil, I didn’t miss dinner. 

Maybe not our longest day in miles, but this was our biggest day in elevation gain, problem-solving and decision-making.  Whatever tomorrow brings, we’re going home. 

“When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.”  ~Thornton Wilder

*Footnote:  Often when hiking I repetitively count my steps in my head, 1 to 10, or hum a song.  During the tough part of today’s hike I softly sang the refrain of a song I’d heard in worship the previous Sunday that goes like this:  “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me.”  The cadence was perfect for my pace and I walked for some time in a “zone-out”.  Suddenly I felt a tingling sensation, a slight blurring of vision and diminished hearing.  I distinctly felt that something, a presence, was walking with me.  Not scary at all, rather exhilarating.  I don’t recall exactly where I was or how long it lasted (more than a flash but surely less than a minute).  In thinking about this a lot, I believe that I entered a walking meditative state and encountered God/Holy Spirit.  Hmm.