Saturday, January 12, 2019

AT in NC: Big Firescald Knob

Appalachian Trail in NC – Devil Fork Gap to No-Name Campsite – 4/10/18 – 13.4 miles

 So dang close to completing my AT-in-NC goal on my birthday – but between work obligations and weather limitations, I fell a day short.  Still, any time on the trail is memory-making.  I packed up for a solo overnight, called my shuttle driver, and headed for the border – the NC/TN border - to hike from Devil Fork Gap to Allen Gap.

It was a fine day for walking, but don’t get turned around: hiking the state line atop the mountain ridges from Devil Fork Gap to Coldspring Mountain, southbound on the AT is compass north.  Pisgah National Forest takes up the NC side of the ridge (left/west) but the right/eastern side slides down to a valley of TN farmland. There are more than a couple of side trails that fade in and out along the way, reminding me that there’s been life in the hollows and coves long before the Appalachian Trail was a thing. 
Around every bend the trail’s personality changed:

There are three shelters on this section of the AT between Devil Fork Gap and Allen Gap. I carried my tent, undecided about where I would sleep tonight, maybe a shelter, maybe not.  Flint Mountain Shelter was the first one I passed, some late risers still hanging around.

Almost from the get-go I was hustling because it felt good to move fast, immersed in the trail sensations, but soon I was making mileage calculations in my head to see how far I could get. Shorten tomorrow’s hike? Finish all in one day?  Hike an hour (surely more) in the dark? I must have pulled my little map out of my pocket and looked at it a thousand times.  Some things noted on it I saw, but a few things I missed.

One thing I didn’t miss was the Shelton gravesite. The short version of the story is that David Shelton and his nephew, William, of Madison County, North Carolina, joined the Union army during the Civil War (not uncommon for the hill country of western NC, loyalties divided every which way).  Sources differ on why the two returned to the area when they did.  Were they coming home for a family gathering? Were they deserting the war? Were they part of a Union recruiting detail? What is sure is that they were with a 13-year-old nephew, Millard Haire, acting as a guide, when they were ambushed and killed by Confederate soldiers. The Shelton headstones were erected around 1915; Haire’s memorial was erected in 2013.  Read some stories here and here and here.

 You won’t find me camping at the grave site

Much confusion in my mind as to whether the AT crosses the high point of Greene County, TN.  If it’s Gravel Knob, I missed it. My peakbagger friends who carry GPS’s would know.

No way am I going to bypass Big Butt!  There’s a short side trail to its summit called Big Rocks. A couple of thru-hikers were taking a break there.

Camp Creek Bald is the pointy peak on the horizon

At Big Butt (aka Cold Spring Mountain) the AT southbound takes a 90-degree left turn, still tracing the state border high up on the ridge line, and now TN’s vistas are part of protected Cherokee National Forest.  The side trails are numerous, well maintained, and great hiking all on their own.

A pause in the action for some craggy old trees on the trail today:

I missed the Howard C. Bassett memorial. I passed Jerry Cabin Shelter with just a glance.  Ten miles so far and I was feeling confident. Five more miles and I could pitch my tent at Little Laurel Shelter, then cruise the remaining five miles to Allen Gap tomorrow morning.

I did not read the editorial comments on the sign, but the weather was fine so I took the white blaze, of course.  Thus I was introduced to Big Firescald Knob, a 4,500-foot-high narrow exposed ridge of white quartzite, 1.5 miles of slow going boulders. Some consider it the most spectacular and scenic part of the AT between the Smokies and the Roan highlands. No argument from me.

Looking at North Carolina

Looking at Tennessee

Howard’s Rock, the high point of Big Firescald Knob

Camp Creek Bald and towers

It was late afternoon and there was no hurrying over this terrain.  I’d been aiming to get past Camp Creek Bald, that mountain with looming communication towers that was still far, far away, but I admitted to myself that I wasn’t going to make it today.  I sat down to rest on a front row seat, a tiny speck on a rock on a mountain on a planet in a universe beyond my comprehension. 

Past Big Firescald Knob there was no respite as the trail continued to climb, passing short side trails to Little Firescald Knob, Whiterock and Blackstack Cliffs, all of which I passed with a “not-now-but-next-time” note to self.  I practiced my hiking buddy Carol’s method of counting by 100’s to 1,000 as a distraction. I met a couple of backpackers hiking trail north and asked about Little Laurel Shelter (still nearly 3 miles away). One guy said it was filling up and he didn’t see any open tent spaces left, that’s why he was pushing on. 

I bypassed the side trail to Jones Meadow as well; I didn’t want to detour even a little bit (and a quarter of a mile feels like a giant detour).  Surely there is a flat spot somewhere close to pitch a tent?  At the second bypass for Jones Meadow, I paused to wonder, what is my stubbornness getting me except frustrated and tired?  And there, before my eyes in the lengthening shadows, was a beautiful campsite right beside the trail, two fire rings, a bubbling creek running alongside, several tent-sized flat spots in the open and more behind a screen of rhododendrons. 

No one else is at this first-rate, everything-you-could-ever-need campsite.  Pondering, why not stay here? Why hasn’t anyone else stopped here?  I am alone, is that good or bad? 

I pitched my pink tent and set about camp chores, heating water, drinking tea.  As I began to eat, a guy came along.  We chatted and he decided to stay, too, and put up his tent behind the rhodies where he was hidden from view. 

Peaceful night interrupted only by owls calling back and forth overhead.  

“The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself; the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning”, they are meaning; the mountains are." ~Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

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