Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Benton MacKaye Trail: The Long Way to Bob Bald and Whigg Meadow

Benton MacKaye Trail in NC – Wolf Laurel Hunt Camp to Whigg Meadow and beyond – 6/24/18 – 12 Miles

Scoreboard:  one tough day, one easy day. Next up?

A very rainy morning to start (no surprise) and a long tense drive in damp fog. I felt responsible for Carol’s car, the roads, the weather, but the only thing I could control was my attitude.  We signed on for another day, we’re here, so let’s do our best. Carol had her "git 'er done" on and Mike was confident, as always, of the way forward. I confess, it took a while to turn my frown upside down.

First, we dropped Mike’s van at yesterday’s starting point on Whigg Meadow Road. From there we drove Carol’s car up more rutted long forest roads to old Wolf Laurel Hunt Camp that Mike remembered from years past, hiking around Bob Bald. But…is Bob Bald on the BMT?

Do your homework:  Yes, Bob Bald is on the BMT.  Throw away your old National Geographic Map 781. The BMT has been rerouted to avoid a dangerous crossing of Slickrock Creek. The reroute is a major one.  If you’re thinking of hiking these sections, you really need to acquire the trail guide for the TN/NC section published by the Benton MacKaye Trail Association. They provide an in-depth explanation of the old and new routes.

Wolf Laurel Trail is not an easy access point – it adds some distance – but it’s what Mike worked out so we followed his plan.  See my disclaimer on the first day of this BMT trip.

We began on a connector trail (Wolf Laurel) to a second connector trail (Stratton Bald) to the Benton MacKaye Trail. I paid close attention and took photos of every trail sign. 

Mike’s memory of a 10- or 20-minute walk on a connector trail to the BMT intersection, in reality, was 1.3 miles and 45 minutes of steep climbing.  The first intersection we reached was Stratton Bald Trail, not the BMT.  Out in the woods, accuracy matters – so is it one intersection or two?  Mike said turn left and continue to the real BMT intersection, and he was right, and now I understood. Why is this so important?  Because tomorrow Carol and I will return to this same point - without Mike - and hike northbound. (Today is southbound to Whigg Meadow.)

Déjà vu: head-high foliage, all soaking wet from rain, wearing long pants and getting slapped with branches. I am not at all happy to be doing this again.

Longing for good old Beaverdam Bald

At Bob Bald there were multiple trails through the knee-high grass: which one is right?  Carol and I followed one bearing left, not the one, and Mike cut across without regard to trails. We followed him but felt unsure until we intersected another trail which turned out to be correct.  I admit it, I don’t have enough confidence to do this without blazes. At least there are good signs at major intersections – if you can find the intersections!

I call this one “Michael in the Mist”

At Cold Spring Gap the old and new BMT’s intersect, along with a couple of other trails. We took a break to get our bearings and enjoy the fact that the rain had stopped and the fog was thinning. 

Continuing southbound for about a mile-and-a-half the trail approaches the Cherohala Skyway, announced in advance by the roar of motorcycles. Earsplitting, heart-thumping, disruptive to the peace of the woods – but the riders were having the time of their lives and who could begrudge them that?  We must share the mountains.

The BMT closely follows the Skyway for the next three miles, sometimes crossing over, sometimes just touching the pavement at an overlook and bending back out into the woods again. We came to a full stop near Stratton Gap at a bridge built to span a huge gully wash, but the bridge had been broken and dislodged.  There was no other way to cross the gully, so we had to backtrack to a Skyway access and walk the road to the next crossing.  This was the only time we had to backtrack, but we did grumble a bit because there was no signage “the bridge is out”.  But sitting here writing this months later, I remind myself that the wild does not keep itself pristine so that humans can feel comfortable and convenient.  Things grow and things break.  Remember, the trail is maintained and problems are solved by the grace and freely given time of trail volunteers…

Manmade meadow near a quarry used for construction of the Skyway

From Mud Gap the BMT climbed up to Little Haw Knob. The elevation profile looked daunting but it really didn’t feel too bad. We had one eye on the sky, black clouds gathering, lots of rumbling and whistling wind, but no rain fell.  I kind of enjoyed the hour of drama.

 “Mike Under Stormy Skies”

Carol and I reached Whigg Meadow ahead of Mike.  The BMT doesn’t go across it, but rather passes along the left edge on the gravel road for 1.25 miles down to where we parked the van.  We walked out into the enormous grassy expanse but, seeing lightning flashes on the horizon, we were cautious not to get too far out into the open. A lovely place – will I ever return?

Walking the last mile on a gravel road is boring

Our day was not yet over; we still had to reckon with our vehicle shuttling saga.  We retrieved Mike’s van from the land of the hunt camp, then dropped Carol’s car at Tapoco Lodge for end of day tomorrow. All the while I was running scenarios through my head.  Today’s hike was half-and-half, a shaky start and an okay finish.  Do we want to hike 12+ miles of unknown again and then drive back to Charlotte?  In any scenario, it’s best to have Carol’s car at the Lodge.  Bumping along the forest roads in Mike’s van back to the cabin, he put out the idea of meeting us at Big Fat Gap (a midpoint) and then we decide if we want to continue. A good bailout option…once again, Mike’s plan is a good one.

Approaching dark-thirty when we arrived at the cabin, very tired from all the logistics, we ate something or other, changed out of wet clothes (grateful once again that we weren't doing this in a tent) and climbed into our bunks. Carol and I mulled over our tasks for the morning, packing up, cleaning up and leaving the cabin.  We decided that we would definitely stop tomorrow at Big Fat Gap. So a short day and now we think we know what we’re doing – what could possibly go wrong?

Dreams of hot showers, hot food and sodas danced in our heads…

“And remember, no matter where you go, there you are.” ~Earl Mac Rauch

Friday, April 26, 2019

Benton MacKaye Trail: The Easy Way To Pheasant Fields

Benton MacKaye Trail in NC – Whigg Meadow Road to Pheasant Fields Picnic Area  – 6/23/18 – 6 Miles

Today’s original plan to hike southbound from Whigg Meadow to Beaverdam Bald was overwhelming.  Major concern in my mind was retrieving Carol’s car, which I regretted leaving at the bald.  But what if we hiked all the way up to it and then the forest road out was blocked by a fallen tree?  After hiking 16 miles to the bald, we would have to walk another 3 miles out to Tellico River Road.  And if the trail was in the same shape as yesterday’s section, it would be slow going – again.  Mike intended to start out with us and stop at Pheasant Fields Picnic Area, then walk to the general store and wait for us to pick him up (because we would park his van at Whigg Meadow).  A complicated scenario no matter how you slice it.

Mike walked up to the cabin to eat breakfast with us

A good-sized tree had fallen across the path during the windy, stormy night.  Hmm…

In Mike’s van we headed to Whigg Meadow. About a mile-and-a-half from our destination, in a switchback curve of Whigg Meadow Road (FR 61), we encountered a woman sitting in a camp chair surrounded by a piles of camping supplies.  She was part of the Georgia contingent of BMT volunteer trail maintainers.  The group had camped the previous night at Whigg Meadow and were now shuttling folks between points to perform trail maintenance today.  Once everyone was in place, a driver would return for her and the gear and they would set up for a big cookout at Pheasant Fields Picnic Area where the BMT crosses Tellico River Road (Mike’s end point today). The trail entered the woods at this curve, so we decided to start our hike here to cut off a mile or so. 

Hikers ready?

Carol and I started out ahead of Mike down the gentle descent on an old road bed.  Flagging tape was hung at intervals, but we didn’t really see the need for much maintenance along this section of the trail, especially not compared to what we’d been through the previous day. 

The walking was easy and my mind was preoccupied with what lay ahead.  We stopped to do foot maintenance (both having hot spots from yesterday’s perpetually wet feet) and discussed our options.  Carol is an agreeable hiker and was in it for the long haul, but she was glad to hear my second thoughts.  If we cut today short, there would be a 9-mile gap in my section and I would have to revisit Beaverdam Bald someday…but we decided it was the safer option.  We would hike to Tellico River Road at Pheasant Fields with Mike and look for a ride to retrieve her car from the bald.  Surely some dude with a pickup truck would be willing…

Once that decision was set, the rest of the hike was pleasant and quick. The air had the same hazy green quality as the previous day and the forest was lush with vegetation but the trail was easy to discern. We wondered again (not for the last time on this trip) about the directing of volunteer maintenance hours to this section rather than the Heart of Darkness...but different skills for different sections and for different folks.


What looks to you like green nothing is really a huge canopy of Dutchman’s pipe vine

At Pheasant Fields we waited for Mike, who was only a few minutes behind.  When he heard that we were cutting it short, he raised his eyebrows with a look that I knew well (“don’t quit now”) but I’ve learned to listen to myself and trust my own instincts. The trails will be there another day.  While we could have hiked another 5 miles without complaint, another 10 was too much, and foremost in my mind was my feeling of responsibility for Carol’s car.

In Mike’s opinion, we wouldn’t find anyone willing to drive up the rough road to Beaverdam Bald and we should instead look for a ride to his van near Whigg Meadow.  Carol and I approached the Georgia trail maintainers group (2 women were setting up for their picnic) but they couldn’t help.  Whigg Meadow was a 45-minute drive away.  As we stood at the road intersection scratching our heads, a pickup truck pulled up and hesitated.  Impulsively I walked up to it and the driver rolled down the window.  I asked where he was headed and he said, “Well, I don’t really know.  Where are we now?” He was trying to find his way back to the Cherahala Skyway.  I said we were looking for a ride to Whigg Meadow, and Mike determined that it was on the way to where the pickup owner wanted to go.  Some good karma!!  Mike climbed into the truck and off they went. 

It was just past noon. Carol and I had a couple of hours to kill, so we started walking to the store.  Mike’s estimate of one mile was less than reality (not for the first time).  How much farther?  Again, a pickup truck slowed down to pass us and I waved them down.  How much further to the store?  A mile-and-a-half.  Would you give us a ride in the back of your truck?  Sure, hop in.  Two old ladies didn’t exactly hop, but we had a nice ride to the store.

Green Cove, not on the map, not on GPS, no cell service, no wifi, a pay phone hanging on the wall outside the store.  The Lodge at Green Cove boasts 17 tiny rooms that faced the two-lane blacktop and had rear balconies hanging over the Tellico River.  A few cabins with tiny yards populated the opposite side of the road.  River Road is a favorite of motorcyclists and the store seemed to be a must-stop. Carol and I got sodas and Drumstick ice cream cones and sat at a picnic table outside under the covered porch.  Two fellows sitting at the next table, one saw Carol’s cap “Falkland Islands” and struck up a conversation.  He was originally from Denmark, worked in the merchant marine, and they used to deliver something-or-other to the Falklands.  How did he end up in this part of Tennessee?  He shrugged. “Just lucky.”

Mike picked us up around 2:00 p.m. and we drove back up to Beaverdam Bald.  There was debris strewn along the road from yesterday’s storm.  At the top, we all pulled out phones to take advantage of the wifi signal, but a wind suddenly whipped up and the sky darkened for the daily thunderstorm.  Carol wanted to get off the bald before the rain.  The drive down lasted 30 nail-biting minutes as the storm blew through.  At the bottom, we parked to wait for Mike (he waited out the storm at the bald). When he reached Carol’s car he had to tap on the window to wake us up.  What, us asleep?

Mike needed to gas up, so while he drove to the next town (40 minutes one way), Carol and I returned to our little cabin in the woods.  The storm had abated but the rain continued in fits and starts.  We hung up wet clothes (again) and pulled out the coolers.  On the porch, Carol spread out a feast of hummus, crackers, carrots and ginger beer and we rocked our cares away.  Her car was safe, we were safe, good food and time to enjoy it.  

“Wherever you go, no matter what the weather, always bring your own sunshine.”  ~Anthony J. D'Angelo