Mountains to Sea Trail Journal 2012

AUGUST 21, 2012
Day 1
mm 0.0 – 19.04

Clingman’s Dome to Ridge-top Campsite

 

Last night I stayed with my brother and his wife, Cate, at their home in Brevard, North Carolina. We had some good Thai food and Frank took me up to Brevard Brewing, a new brewery in Brevard. Good stuff. I slept on their porch in order to ween myself off of the comforts of home.

Today is my thirty first birthday! We awoke at 3:45, to make the 2.5 hour drive from Brevard to Clingman’s dome, so I could get a shot of the sun rise before I began my hike.

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First sunrise of the hike, from Clingman’s Dome

While there, I met another thru hiker named “So-Way”. He just happened to be starting on the same day as me, because when he attempted to start his trip 3 weeks prior, he was caught in torrential rain, almost flooded out. So-way is attempting to set the unassisted speed record, completing the MST in 22 days. He plans on hiking 18 hours a day and eating mostly McDonald’s double cheese burgers (he had about 10 in his bag; apparently they don’t go bad)!

The weather was perfect. There were a lot of new fallen trees in the trail, most of them easy to navigate. I hiked 19.04 miles to my campsite, which was on top of a ridge. I arrived before sunset, set up camp easily and slept soundly.

 


AUGUST 22, 2012
Day 2
mm 19.04 – 43.79

Ridge-top Campsite to Waterrock Knob Overlook

 

Today I started hiking around 9 am, a semi-late start. All was well until 3 miles in, when I took my first wrong turn; it took me about 3 miles down the wrong side of the mountain. I stumbled upon a mountain community with a few houses, a big garden, and what looked to be a fish hatchery. a man about my age directed me back up the hill, when I explained that I was lost. Unfortunately, I misinterpreted his directions and took another wrong turn! By the time I made it back to where I originally made the wrong turn, I had added about 6 miles onto my day.

Once I was back on track, it didn’t take long to get to Cherokee, NC. I stopped at the visitors center to have lunch and recharge my equipment for an hour or so, not realizing that the next 13 miles were all road walk, along the blue ridge parkway, and almost all uphill.

Walking on the shoulder of the highway at night was terrifying. Luckily, there is not a ton of traffic on the two lane parkway late at night. My tiny ultralight head lamp doesn’t provide too much more light than you would need for doing chores around camp in the dark; not the best option for lighting ambient space around you or for alerting motorists that you are there.

It was late enough and with few enough cars that I could walk down the middle of the yellow lines on the road to get out of the tall dark grasses on the shoulders. I turned my headlamp to the red light setting to preserve my night vision and hopefully do a better job of alerting traffic to my presence. The red light, however, began to attract flying insects, from little gnats to large and fluttery moths. I had to swipe my face every few seconds as the cloud of bugs increased. No biting insects, though, so just a little annoying.

Suddenly something REALLY big flew right in front of my face. It dove in super fast and really LOUD, like someone had beamed a baseball right past my head. Scared the crap out of me! I stopped short for a moment to catch my breath and then started walking again. Just a few steps up the road, something else swooped in, big and loud and just inches from my face. This time, I caught enough of a glimpse to realize these were freakin’ BATS! I had straight-up BATS flying at my face! Apparently, my personal cloud of insects, enjoying my red headlamp disco, was the perfect late night bat-snack, collected neatly around my head for their enjoyment! I immediately turned of my light.

As I continued down the middle of the road in the pitch blackness, I started to hear a dog or two barking off in the woods to my left. Not long after, more dogs joined in, this time from the right side of the highway. As I kept walking, more and more barks shot out from the woods on both sides of the road I was walking. The barking was more of a whiny yelp now, much closer too and from what sounded like several separate packs of dogs. They were coyotes, I realized! They followed me for miles, calling back and forth to each other across the parkway. The packs had to be within 50 yards of me on both sides. They were tracking me and discussing weather or not I was a good meal! Remember, I was in total darkness at this time…not cool!

I did approximately 34 miles today, and I didn’t reach a viable campsite until midnight. I was delirious when I arrived. I set up a stealth camp behind some public restrooms at the Water Rock Knob pull off. I skipped dinner even though I was famished.

 

 

 


AUGUST 23, 2012
Day 3
mm 43.79 – 64.46

Waterrock Knob Outlook to Paw Paw’s Hunting Stand

Even having gone to sleep so late and exhausted, I still woke up at sunrise; I climbed to the top of Water Rock Knob and got a great shot of the horizon.

When I descended back to the parking area, where I stealth camped the night before, I was asked by a park ranger if the tent he had found was mine. I explained the previous night’s circumstance and he explained that camping was not allowed anywhere on the BRP (Blue Ridge Parkway), but told me to just clean up my stuff, and didn’t radio me in, thank goodness. He was a really nice guy; said he had met Scot “TABA” ward stealth camping at the same spot when Scot was writing the guide I was using!

I packed up, had a quick breakfast, and hit the road around 10 am (too late!). The first four or so miles were again along the BRP, and in the daylight I discovered there were a lot of wild blue berry bushes all along the side of the road; talk about a sugar/calorie boost and a mental mood elevator!

Soon, it was back into the woods for more trail walk; less sketchy traffic, but tougher hiking. I didn’t know it yet but this and the next 3 sections are some of the toughest on the hike; tons of elevation change, endless uphill switchbacks, and very overgrown with stinging nettle.

Because of my late start, I ended up hiking in the dark again. I did pretty well until I slipped and fell face first into a pile of nettle. Nothing broken or hurt,  just bruised ego. When I stood up and collected myself, though, I realized that one of my water bottles and my Polarpure, a small brown glass bottle water purification system, had been slung out of the side pocket of my backpack during the fall! I looked and looked through the nettle but my tiny, not super bright head lamp wasn’t putting out enough light for me to locate them. I had to hike on to the campsite, as it was already nearing 11 pm.

The campsite was another two miles down the trail, in a large open field. I put my shelter up beside the only rock out crop in the middle of open area. just as I was about to bed down, I noticed a grave marker on the rock with some fake flowers. the grave stone plaque proclaimed the area, “Paw Paw’s hunting stand”. Great, now I had to go string up my bear bag, since it seemed there was wild game in the area.

Rip, Paw Paw.

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View from Paw Paw’s Patch


AUGUST 24, 2012

DAY 4

mm 64.46 – 84.34

Paw Paw’s Hunting Stand to the Balsams

 

Woke up to lots of dew. Two men passed by my campsite on Paw Paw’s grave early in the morning. I was on the trail not 10 minutes later, and the spiders had all managed to get their webs back up in time for me to catch them all on my face. The spider webs are an epidemic. I’ve lost count of how many I’ve taken out with my face. Thousands. Really.

Tough hiking today; another very challenging route with much elevation change and a few wrong turns. they really need to put more white blazes up on the trail through these sections. Can’t have enough. Following the guide alone can be a bit confusing. Without a GPS, it is almost too detailed and I ended up second guessing myself at a few intersections, and adding in even more miles on top of the extra miles it takes to film myself hiking, and then walk back to pick up my camera.

This and the next few sections are over grown with stinging nettle. unavoidable stuff that feels like white hot tiny laser incisions on your skin for about 4 to 5 minutes. Going through this stuff most of the day today and much of the next sections too. The terrain was beautiful for the second half of the hike, through the balsams; super humid stinky dank forest air, in a good way.

Because of the wrong turns and unexpectedly slow pace, I ended up night hiking again. came into a camp two miles ahead of my proposed campsite at around 10 pm. was drawn to this particular campsite by what I thought was a street light near the BRP. turned out it was another hiker named Walt; a thru hiker (of the PCT and AT) out for a one-nighter. No tent; just a pad and a sleeping bag under the stars. His truck was nearby and so were some PBR tall boys he had stashed in the river. I happily drank one, since I was too tired to cook dinner and needed the calories. We talked gear and hiking approaches and such. He works at a hike to (non car accessible) lodge in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains, and invited me to come stay for free for a night as his guest!


AUGUST 25, 2012

DAY 5

mm 84.34 – 101.52

Balsams to Ridge-top Campsite

 

Woke up before Walt. probably woke him up with my packing. He arose and we exchanged contact info.

Today was an awesome hike, passed graveyard fields (a mountain area, not literally grave yard), which was rich with wild blue berries and black berries. I don’t particularly care for them when at home, but man, out here they are like gold! Definitely getting a blueberry bush at my house when I return. One of my favorites now.

Passed through some awesome campsites of endless, endless pine trees. Reminded me of the set up for the music festival “Electric Forest”. You could fit 500 – 600 hammock campers in some of these stands.

This all led me to “skinny dip falls” where I met some new trail friends who were very heady, hailing from Black Mountain and Asheville. they gave me grapefruits and apple pie moonshine! What up Shane, Holly, Colin, and friends! Definitely took a swim and washed these armpits. then a little lunch and 10 more miles of hiking.

Ran into a lot of other hikers today. even a couple of hikers, “Stump Knocker” and “Mrs. GORP”, who were also thru hiking the MST. I am technically ahead of them at the moment, but I’m pretty sure they will finish before me, as they are planning to do from the Piedmont to the ocean sections on bicycles.

Camped at an awesome site (got in at night again) on the top of a ridge 3 miles from the Pisgah Inn.

Will meet my brother his family for dinner at the Inn tomorrow.

 

 


AUGUST 26, 2012

DAY 6

mm 101.52 – 104.28

Ridge-top Campsite to Pisgah Inn

 

Today, I woke up early and got a quick start; of course I would do this on a day when I’m only hiking 3 miles. Got those three done quickly and got to the Pisgah Inn in time for breakfast. Fresh fruit, bacon, hash browns, two eggs, and OJ! I’m spoiling myself, I know.

Sprung for a room at the Inn too, so that I could do some laundry in the bathtub. Finished that and explored the grounds; learning the history of the place, checking out the awesome views, and meeting other folks.

My brother came with his family, brought me much needed supplies, and treated me to dinner. I had the mountain trout, which was recommended to me by Colin, one of the trail friends that I met at skinny dip falls. He is a chef in Asheville. His friend cooks at the Pisgah Inn, and apparently it’s the best meal in the house. I thought so too. BONUS: they filet the trout table side!!!

My plan after dinner was to sleep very soundly and be up early to start my very downhill day, descending Mt. Pisgah.

 


AUGUST 27, 2012

DAY 7

mm 104.28 – 125.10

Descending Mt. Pisgah to Random Camp near Arden

At dinner the night before, my brother, who has hiked the mountain sections of the MST, warned me that this day would be almost all downhill, which was a welcome thought the last night, with so much recent elevation gain on my mind. I forgot that downhill can be the more physically stressful of the terrains, with uphills affecting the lungs and morale more. This day triggered flare ups and pain in my right leg and knee. enough about that, though.

Today I saw my first bears, face to face. About 5 miles down the mountain from the Inn, I heard a rustling on the trail ahead of me. I looked up and saw two adolescent bears together, each weighing at least 200 pounds. Instead of the videographer in me reacting by pulling out my camera for the shot, the human scaredy cat in me reacted, yelling loudly, scaring off one of them, but the other stood its ground. Then, when I reached for my camera, it also lumbered off and disappeared into the woods. No footage, but also not mauled. Fair trade, I’d say. If you have never faced a bear (or two) in the woods alone…it’s an intense experience even for 30 seconds.

Even more strange, a few miles down the trail at an over look where one car was parked, I heard someone faintly yelling at me as I set my camera up to film myself hiking past the vista. I ignored it, got the shot, and walked on. as I re-entered the woods, I again heard the voice and could now tell where it was coming from; a man about 30 feet off the trail, by the edge of the ridge line. I looked over…

“Hey, I ain’t got no clothes on.”

Sure enough, he was completely naked and standing with a small tree between himself and me, so that I could see everything but his hoo-ha.

“Um, that’s OK! Do you need help?” I asked.

“No, I’m fine.”

“Um, ok, I was just filming myself hiking.”

“Ok.”

“Alright then, have a great day.”

“Ok.”

So, that happened and I’m kicking myself for not being brave enough to get the full story out of him! I continue on down the trail, which was now running along side and zig-zagging across the BRP again.

It took me down near Skyland, where I would be picking up my first care package of food and supplies from the post office there. To get to the post office, I had to leave the trail, take the exit ramp from the parkway down into Skyland, and walk about 2 miles down Skyland’s main drag (4 miles extra total). The package was there waiting for me. I unpacked my backpack in the corner, near the p.o. boxes, my gear all strewn about, and reloaded my pack with the new food bags, blister bandages, lighters, and other miscellaneous gear.

I also sent back a bunch of stuff that over the coarse of one week, I had realized were not necessary in my pack; mainly food items, since I had started skipping breakfast because it took to much time in the morning and used up too much fuel just to heat water for oatmeal. The oatmeal is only around 300 calories, so getting the earlier start on the trail and munching on non-cookables while I’m moving was a plan better suited to my hiking style. It is still very nice and comforting to have a hot meal at night before bed, and at that point, I’m already stopped for the evening, so time is not an issue.

Skyland and its little urban walk was a nice change of pace; passing all sorts of fast food and gas stations, I decided to stop in at the local Earth Fare grocery store. I took over a nice large stall in their bathroom that had its own sink and mirror. I brushed my teeth, washed my face, etc. Ordered a veggie hummus wrap with fruit on the side at their deli, and it was excellent. Charged batteries while I was eating on their patio. Then made my way back down main street to the trail.

Tonight, it was necessary to set up stealth beside the trail again. At this point the MST was leading me near some gated communities near Arden, NC. Not through the gated communities, but very close. Between the trees, in the distance, I could see the roofs of large, newly constructed homes. The residents of these neighborhoods used the MST and the nearby network of trails for daily trail running and jogging exercise; there would be quite a bit foot traffic near my tent in the morning, though I was hidden well enough that I don’t think many of the people saw me.

According to the guide, at the end of these gated communities, was a “live and work” neighborhood development, with apartments and stores built together. One of the stores was an REI and I saw that there was a McDonald’s/gas station up the road a little further. I walked up to the REI to get a replacement for the rubber tip I had lost off of one of my hiking poles that same day; cheap easy quick fix for $4.95 and some good trail talk with one of the employees (he knew of nowhere in the immediate vicinity better to put up my camp than the neighborhood trails; said he may have to try it one night after work!). I then continued on to the gas station / McDonald’s combo store.

Got a Gatorade and a protein drink at the gas station, then went next door to McDonald’s to charge things and wait for the opportune time to kill a big mac or two.

While I was sitting there blogging and Facebook updating, I noticed and older fellow, bald with white fringe, notice my dirty unlaced shoes, slumped sloppily on my feet (the McDonald’s people didn’t like me rocking just socks in there) as he walked by. A moment or two later, he returned with his tray of food, and asked me if I was a thru hiker. I replied that I was, and he asked if he could join me at my table. Of course, I told him yes; more trail talk with a man who I assumed was a veteran backpacker or at least an interested hiker, would be very welcome.

His name was Eric. A veteran hiker and a veteran police officer from Winston Salem. Recently retired, he and his wife had just moved to the Asheville area. He had lots of questions about the trial and some stories of his own. Great guy. Straight forward, genuine, and enthusiastic. I liked him. He made me feel more ready to tackle the next day.

I walked back to camp in the dark, full of my delicious #1 combo meal and slept very well.

 


AUGUST 28

2012 DAY 8

mm 125.10 – 141.68

Random Camp near Arden to Random Camp near Folk Art Center

 

Woke up this morning to trail runners in name-brand, color coordinated, moisture wicking, performance gear pounding down the trail across the creek from where I had hidden myself. I got on the trail quickly, again skipping cooking oatmeal or making a cup of instant coffee, opting instead to immediately go straight for the non-cookables (snack bars, fig newtons, sesame snaps, PB & J, stinger waffles etc.), eating a few hundred calories every hour or so, which I’ve continued to do ever since (one thing I’ll do differently on future trips is try to cut out cooking all together, especially on a hike with urban stops like this one; the time efficiency and weight savings would totally be worth it).

This was a cool walk. Through more woods, along the parkway, then through fields of cows, then some jungly trails beside country roads, until I passed by the Folk Art Center. I realized I was pretty close to Swannanoa and Black Mountain, brief past stomping grounds for me. I pushed past the Folk Art Center, after refilling water and immediately began some fairly intense inclines with steady elevation gain.

My goal that night was to camp near Ox Creek Rd., somewhere on the trail, and then hike to the nearest BRP parking area and view point to meet my friends, Mary and Jamie from Asheville, who planned to drive from town to meet me and hike back into my camp and hangout a bit.

The day before, when I picked up my care package from the post office in Skyland, I realized that for some reason I hadn’t included a fresh fuel canister for my stove. I wasn’t overly worried because the one I had in my pack still had some fuel in it. However, it was going to run out very soon, and I had 8 days until I picked up my next care package, which I hoped I had remembered to pack stove fuel into. Luckily Mary had contacted me the day before to facilitate meeting me, and asked if they could bring me anything. YES! An extra fuel canister! I talked her through finding me one over the phone, when she went to the local outdoors store. So, not only did I get to see great friends, but they saved my life, by bringing me my means of consuming a good percentage of my daily calories for the next 8 days.

When I met them at the parking area, it was almost dark. I knew my campsite was anything but glamorous and not really official, just a cleared space for my sleeping bag beside the trail; not really cozy for us all to sit around the campfire. I probably wouldn’t be lighting a fire because of my proximity to the trail and roads and such. I told them as much and blurted out that if they really wanted to help me, we could just go back to their house in West Asheville, to dry out my shoes and charge my batteries for a few hours.

They graciously agreed and we drove the 20 minutes back west to eat the awesome wraps that Mary had so kindly thought to bring us for dinner. I showed them some photos and videos and told them some stories. Then it was getting late, so after a quick tooth brushing, they dropped me off back at the parking area and I made the sort of spooky night walk about 1.75 miles back to my campsite, where I dozed off immediately, my stomach full of tuna salad wrap and fruit.

 


AUGUST 29, 2012

DAY 9

mm 141.68 – 150.31

Random Camp after Folk Art Center to CCC Pavilion Near Craggy Flatts

 

Got a good early start today, and started a part of the trail nick-named, “The Roller Coaster”. Lots of switch backs, and though not severe, the elevation changes are constant and rolling. A local man that I met on the trail, explained that this was one of the only sections with streams (not springs) that you can drink from directly, without worry of bacteria or viruses, since they are so high up and the originating headwaters of the river in the valley below. How convenient!

Very cool parts to this section as well; a few different ruins: the rock foundations of a spring house, a farmhouse, and a cabin as well as a chimney and an official info board about it all, smack dab in the middle of the woods. It’s called Rattle Snake Lodge, and the MST runs along what used to be a horse road to the property. It was a real, occupied residence until the early 20th century, when a lightning fire burned it to the ground.

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Just as I passed these interesting features, the sky opened up. It had drizzled a couple of times already during the trip, but I had yet to don a rain jacket. This time it was torrential. the trail became a river in spots and a mudslide in others. The camera gear had to be protected, so my rain jacket went over my pack, leaving my front to be soaked. Even being Gortex, and having gators over my ankles, my shoes couldn’t stand up to this type of monsoon.

I hiked about 4 more miles in this downpour before happily coming across the parking area for Craggy Gardens, a unique land feature called a “Bald”. At the summit of Craggy gardens there is a pavilion shelter (just a roof), under which the trail runs; you have to walk under this 30×20 foot, wood shingled structure to continue. It still had not stopped raining. I decided to sleep under the pavilion after waiting for the rain to subside for two more hours. I had only hiked ten miles (going from 2,915 ft elevation to 5,230) instead of twenty today.

When the rain finally cleared, I had a glorious sunset to end the day with.


AUGUST 30, 2012

DAY 10

mm 150.31 – 172.40

Ascending and Descending Mount Mitchell

Facts about Mt. Mitchell: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Mitchell

Mount Mitchell is the tallest Mountain east of the Mississippi river at 6,656 feet above sea level. Today was the day that I would summit this peak.

This was a long day of ups and downs on the trail, ranging from almost flat “railroad grade” horse paths to such steep inclines, I had to put my hiking poles away and  pull myself up rocks and and terrain by the trunks and limbs of trees growing higher up, almost every step of the way,  for miles at a time. I finally reached the peak of Mount Mitchell on what turned out to be an unfortunately overcast day, so the camera shots from the top weren’t great. The man that the mountain is named for, a professor from the University of Chapel Hill in the 1800’s named Rev. Elisha Mitchell, is buried on the peak, “Awaiting Blessed Resurrection”.

 

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The Descent was easier and faster, but caused my leg to flare up again. I ended up at the base of the mountain at Black Mountain Recreation Area Campground just after dark. It cost me $19 dollars for a campsite (leaving me with exactly $1 cash) which included all the hot showers I wanted. The couple running the check in and doing campsite check ups was a sweet and cute pair named Gary and Mary Lou. Gary was a direct descendant of the Mitchell family, for whom the mountain was named after. He is the last of his line.

They were nice enough to let me “rent” a bag of ice for my knee, since I only had $1 left, and the campsite charged $2 to buy a bag of ice. I returned my bag of ice unopened, and only slightly lighter because of mild melting, two hours later. The ice REALLY helped my leg. I slept well, other than a mouse that made its way into my shelter, scurried across my body, and couldn’t find it’s way back out, waking me up once.

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Gary and Mary Lou Mitchell!

 


AUGUST 31, 2012

DAY 11

mm 172.40 – 196.25

Black Mountain Camp Ground to Random Camp by Railroad Tracks

 

Another pretty challenging day; fairly long miles (24), much elevation change, hot humidity mixed with off and on rain and not many reliable water sources at all.

Today, as I turned back into the woods, I met “Chief” and “Christmas”, who turned out to be friends of “Stump Knocker” and “Mrs. GORP”, a couple I had met on day 6, who were also doing a thru hike of the MST. Chief had already hiked the MST, in sections, years before, and was helping his friends facilitate their trip, assisting them in planning and giving them rides when needed. They were planning on doing much of the road sections on bikes, so I’m sure that they’ll finish before I do.

Anyway, Chief was nice enough to reiterate what the guide had said; there were hardly any water sources at all over the next 20 miles and he was nice enough to offer to leave me a gallon of water on the trail, about 6 miles down, where it crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and car access was easy. Sure enough, when I got to the point he had described, there was that sweet gallon of golden nectar aka water. I drank half of it, filled my bottles, and drew a smiley face on the jug with dirt to let him know I had received and appreciated his gift. The water really helped me through the heat, stinging nettle, and pretty rigorous hike.

I set up camp in the dark again that night, in a lack luster site in a small clearing covered with thorny scrubby plants that I had to clear to protect my shelter. Lots of mosquitoes. The site was near some train tracks, though, and I love the sound of trains, especially at night as I’m dozing off.


September 1, 2012

Day 12

mm 196.25 – 218.20

Random Camp near Railroad Tracks to The Chimneys

 

Woke up early and got a good start. Unfortunately, the river running near the railroad tracks and my campsite, that I was planning on using for my next water source, looked a little nasty, so I did a good amount of miles of this next section without a great amount of water.

I passed over the railroad tracks that had provided the lullabys from last night and began my ascent of Ripshin Ridge. This was a very rocky and dry trail, with not much cover and many switch backs. Also, I completed a lot of elevation in the first 10 miles. The first 10 miles were rough, making me wish I was back in the Balsams, the most rigorous section I had done prior to this one.

This section did have some amazing views because of its lack of trees and many rock outcrops. About half way through my day, I reached the summit of Pinnacle Peak, it had a wooden overlook platform built. As I stood there taking in the view (I could see Lake James in the distance, fed by the Linville River), I realized that the Mountain I could see in the distance, Short Off Mountain, was the peak that I was going to climb by the end of the day. It looked very tall and very far away, and I realized how much more of a hike I was in for.

Just as I was coming to terms with the severity of the hike I had yet to do, it began to rain. I quickly packed up my camera, donned my rain jacket, and began the severe downhill descent into the south end of Linville Gorge.

I made it to the bottom of the gorge fairly quickly and relatively dry. Thankfully the rain was isolated and by this time it had stopped all together. I had to make it across the Linville river by fording it. The river came up to my waist and it was about 50 yards across. I had to hold my pack over my head, to keep it from getting wet, therefore I couldn’t use my hiking poles to stabilize myself. I came close to falling a few times, but made it across safe and dry from the belly button up, in the end. I had set up my camera to get footage of me fording the river, so now I had to go back and retrieve it. This meant two more fords at the same spot, but now without the pack. These two crossings were fun and much quicker.

The next few miles took me immediately out of the gorge and directly uphill again. Though there were many sections of the trail that were steeper and longer, this part, from the bottom of Linville Gorge to the top of Short Off Mountain still seems to me to be the most extreme bit.

Back in 2000, the Brush Mountain Ridge wildfire ravished the land here before it was contained, controlled, and extinguished. The result is a landscape that looks very similar to the hilly desert mesas of the American West; lots of sandy, rocky ground with scrubby, thorny plants and small shrubs and bushes. The only trees taller than me, were gnarled, black, and burned, with no green growth or leaves. If I ever plan on filming a movie about cowboys, this would be a great local location that would fool any John Wayne fan into thinking I had filmed on location near Mexico.

After the rain from earlier, the sun had come out with a vengeance; one of the hottest days I experienced on the trail. I had filled my water bottles from the Linville River, but those were soon empty. Sweat was pouring off of my nose, chin, and hat bill in small, steady streams. My clothes were all completely soaked with sweat. Half way up the burnt and exposed face of Short Off mountain, I almost passed out. This was the only time on the trip that I experienced heat exhaustion. I crawled to the nearest boulder and hid in its tiny shadow until my heart rate slowed and the dizziness had passed. When I felt well, I continued another two miles up to the top of Short Off.

The insane conditions of that day and that section ended up being well worth it; at the peak of Short Off Mountain is one of the most awesome campsites I have ever seen and just as you reach the peak, there is a good source of water right on top of the mountain. Needless to say, I dunked my face into the small pool and drank vigorously.

Just a couple hundred yards away is the campsite, a two spot site in a clearing. The edge of the sheer hundred foot cliffs are just a few yards away from where you would set your tent up. Like, if you sleep walk, you probably shouldn’t camp here. There is a fire pit, a small bush screen for mild privacy, the spring is right there, and you have almost 360 views all around you.

I planned on hiking further that day and that was good, because a man and his fiancee were already set up at this amazing spot. Having just been through such an intense hike, I tried to relate to this guy about the ridiculousness of the previous 5 miles’ hike. Turned out, he and his lady had parked somewhere nearby and only had to hike about 2 miles to get to this site, something I plan on doing when I revisit. After a nice chat and multiple water fill ups, I hiked on.

Only about 3 miles further down, I reached The Chimneys. The Chimneys are three rock towers, each about 30-60 feet wide and 50-100 feet tall, in a row with about 100 yards between them. I chose what turned out to be my most favorite campsite of the entire hike, under a rock overhang of the middle Chimney.
The rock jutted out about 10 feet and was not quite tall enough for me to stand up straight under. I did not set up my tent; the rock kept me and my gear dry through the light drizzle that evening. There were little knobs all over to hang stuff on to dry. Further under the rock, there was a little mini tunnel that connected to others in a network of natural chimneys. If I had lit a fire under there, the smoke would have vented out and up there the rock tower! I realized then that this spot had probably been used for centuries by indigenous people and I began to feel the sacredness of the spot.
I climbed up on top of “my” chimney and cooked and ate my dinner up there. The views of the sunset and the almost full moon were incredible. A young guy named Kendal passed by my chimney as the sun was setting. He had a broken arm and couldn’t join his friends who were free climbing the next chimney over. I invited him up to the top of the middle chimney, which I was able to climb with camera gear and a stove and food in my arms, so I figured he could manage. He made it up and we talked for a long time.
Turned out he was an amateur photographer and explained to me how to use the manual function on my video camera, adjusting the ISO, aperture, shutter speed, and exposure. All of a sudden I was able to take amazing photos in the dark. The videos and pictures I took from this point on during the trip, were of exponentially better quality that the ones from before, that had been shot in “auto mode”. Kendal’s lessons were invaluable to me and documenting my journey.

 

I felt more connected to the earth that night on top of my chimney, than I ever have in my life. I was brought to tears by the feeling of gravity and oneness up there. I was hit with a mantra that came out of nowhere and into my heart that night:

I am one of an infinite number of beautiful points of energy
I am the product of an infinite number of beautiful coincidences
I am ever grateful that I have been granted awareness of all of this
(Breath) to the North
(Breath) to the South
(Breath) to the East
(Breath) to the West
(Breath) to the In
(Breath) to the Out

or something like that…you get it.


September 2, 2012

Day 13

mm218.20 – 241.27

The Chimneys to the Bottom of Linville Gorge

 

Today I got up feeling so refreshed and happy and positive and appreciative of everything. I climbed back up “my Chimney” and took some footage using the newly acquired manual adjustments setting that I discovered on my video camera the night before.

Then, back on the trail, I hiked right past Table Rock which is just down the trail and across the parking lot from the Chimneys, and then started my next descent back down into Linville Gorge. Saw the first large snake of the trip, a black or rat snake, that had just eaten, apparently, but quickly came out of its lethargic state after I investigated to see if it was dead or not.

On down the trail, I ran into a group of Veterans who were out for a 5 day trek. There were at least fifteen men and women in the group, which was full of energy (they were just starting day two). I forgot to warn them about the four foot snake in the middle of the trail. Pretty sure they could handle it, though.

When I got down to level ground, I realized that I would be fording Harpers Creek quite a bit during this section; eighteen times according to the guide! The Harper Creek/Harper’s Falls area is very popular with day hikers, car campers, and families, because of the temperate conditions, endless swimming holes and rock slides, countless waterfalls, really nice free camping, and proximity to towns. This being the end of the  Labor day weekend, it was still fairly crowded with folks; I met quite a few on the trail as I was lead by the MST through their campsites. Of course, everyone was super friendly and happy to talk with me and my camera.

Because there were still a lot of folks around, the campsites I planned on staying in were pretty full. People of course invited me to try and find a spot, but because of terrain and the amount of people already in the sites, my set up didn’t work very well, so I walked further than planned. The campsite that I ended up choosing was legit, but I didn’t find it until dark. By now, though I am practiced enough at setting up my site, that doing it in the dark isn’t an issue. When I set up in the dark, I tend to slow down and take it easy, grounding and decompressing as I set up, so I also tend to sweat less and dry out more.

It started to rain an hour or two into the evening and continued through the morning. My shelter kept me perfectly dry.


Sept. 3, 2012

Day 14

mm 241.27 – 264.49

Linville Gorge to Christmas Tree Farm

 

A Soggy start to the day down in the bottom of Linville Gorge near Harpers Creek. The mid evening rain continued to come down in a pitter patter pattern until dawn when I woke up. I had about five more fords of the river to do through the end of this section.

Early on, I came to a small clearing where the river pooled up into a hole in the creek bed. The natural swimming hole was about 10 feet by 6 feet across and about 9 feet deep. The overflow from this hole then spilled over its edge, creating a shallow but long water slide water fall that tumbled down a 45 degree angled rock face, into an enormous collection pool at the bottom bigger than several swimming pools. Where the water slide/fall met this gigantic natural pool, there was a 25 foot tall rock face, facing towards the waterfall, jutting out. Of course, I stopped and took a swim.
Over the next few hours, I gained elevation coming up and out of the gorge. I passed Beacon Heights and knew that I was fairly close to Grandfather Mountain in Linville, NC, which meant I was nearing Boone and Blowing Rock; I wouldn’t make it to either one today, but would see them both the day after.
Once I reached the top of the ridge, I was hiking very close to the Blue Ridge Parkway again. After a few miles more of  trail walk, I cam upon one of North Carolina’a most unique architectural features, the Linn Cove Viaduct. Part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Viaduct is a 1,243 foot section of the parkway where building a highway into the ground area around Grandfather Mountain would have destroyed too much of the natural environment and natural area.. The solution was to build elevated sections that snake around the curves of the mountains, like a roller coaster for cars. Read more about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linn_Cove_Viaduct
I took the Tanawha Trail, which runs beneath the viaduct, and really gives you a feel for the enormity and beauty of the Linn Cove Viaduct project. Halfway down the trial, it began to rain really hard again, but luckily, I happened to be passing a very convenient rock over hang, mini cave thing when the down pour became torrential.
For this trip, I had planned on donning my rain jacket, draping it over my backpack as well as myself whenever it rained, but I realized early on that my rain jacket was too slim to cover both the pack and myself. Since the pack and gear were the priority for keeping dry, my body was the thing that normally remained exposed; I usually didn’t mind this, because my body heat and moisture wicking clothes helped to dry out my person pretty quickly, but in crazy ass thunder storm down pours, I may as well have been in a swimming pool I got so wet, so I scurried beneath the rock and pulled out my sheet of tyveck to lay on while I ate lunch and waited about a hour or so for the bulk of the storm to pass.
After awhile, I resumed hiking, the tree canopy doing a good enough job of keeping me relatively dry in the continuing drizzle. Because I stopped to wait out the storm, I ended up hiking at night again, which by this point I was getting pretty used to. I came out of the woods just after dusk and began traversing several large Christmas tree farms.
On this section of the MST the work that the organization has done to connect sections of the trail as one continuous entity was very apparent.  Here, the trail ran through private property for a good while, traversing private farms and pastures. My guess is that the owners have either donated a three-foot-wide-by-however-long portion of their land for use as the trail bed of the MST so it can cross their property on its way to the next state owned bit of land, or that they have worked out a property easement with the government or the trail organization, and are getting some kind of tax break. Either way the land was beautiful and it was heartening to realize that private citizens were helping to bring the trail to life.
I set up camp in a dark drizzle that night, on a glow worm covered patch of earth, within a rock outcrop in a pasture ringed by pine trees of various sizes, in the middle of a Christmas tree farm!

September 4, 2012

Day 15

mm 264.49 – 278.53

Christmas tree farms to Cone Manor

Today I awoke to still rainy conditions. Being in the middle of a field on a rock outcrop made me feel like I was in the middle of a British moor, almost in the middle of a cloud, with wind gusts spattering sheets and waves of drizzle side ways across the openness and against the sides of my shelter. Again, I stowed everything I could into my pack while still inside the shelter and waited for the precipitation to stop. After more than an hour of waiting, the rain had still not yielded, so I exited the shelter and quickly packed it up, still wet, and put it in my back pack.

Even with the constant moisture, today’s hike was gorgeous. Unfortunately, even when the actual rain let up, I was still in extremely foggy and humid conditions, so I wasn’t able to catch many of the fantastic scenes I witnessed as I hiked through farms and wild flower fields, horse trails and rivers rich with rapids, or historic residences and run down ruins.

Through the fields I walked, then onto horse trails through balsam filled rhododendron heavy woods with creeks running along side, and then onto Boone Fork Trail, which took me down into another gorge.

Down in the gorge by the river, I had a pleasant hike. The rain let up a bit and the trail led me easily up and down a rocky path. At one point, I got confused by my directions and mistook a non-landmark for one mentioned in the guide book just a few hundred feet further down the trail. So, I mistakenly did a rather difficult ford of the river a bit too early. Once across, I continued on down stream, following the guidebook’s directions which, because of the all to similar looking terrain  still made sense to me, even on the other side of the river. It took me about a mile to realize that I was not where I was supposed to be. My wrong turn trail took me by the river for only a little while longer, then it took me on a flat and muddy path straight away, at a ninety degree angle from the river, then began a steep climb up the ridge. The summit of this wrong way trail was on an old curvy turnpike road and as a neared the top, I heard a car engine coming around the bend.

“Great”, I thought, “Maybe I can ask a local, just exactly where I am and how to get to the next point of reference so I don’t have to back track and do that crazy river ford again.”

I was about 15 feet from the edge of the gravel road, but in plain site, as the car, an older model Chevy Blazer with mismatched panels of blue, red, primed, and rust hurtled past. The car flew past about another 20 feet, then skidded to a stop. The brake lights quickly flashed from red to the whites of reverse lights and gravel flew as the Chevy sped backwards toward where I was standing. I remember being briefly surprised at how eager this person was to help me, but as the car flew back by me, the passenger rolled his window down and threw a half empty beer can at me and yelled,

“Get back in the woods and put some clothes on! Faggot queer!”

I immediately did as the man said, scurrying back down the trail and out of sight. I had no idea how far out in the woods we were, relative to the rest of civilization, or if these guys had weapons other than beer cans in their car, so I slung my pack under some heavy cover and ducked behind it, hiding myself well. I was holding my breath, I realized, and continued to as I listened for anyone approaching. Silence. Except for the birds chirping and the distant roar of the river, there wasn’t a sound. Then, finally I heard the slow crunch of gravel as the driver slowly pulled away and then churned rock and dust in a wild fishtail, gunning it around the next turn.

I caught my breath and turned right around, now happy to backtrack and ford the river a second time. Once I made it back to the point where I had made my original wrong turn, it was easy to see which way I needed to go. I crossed the river at the intended point, came up an easy ridge, passing by old dams and foundations to farmhouses where campsites had been set up.

I came back out into pasture land and then onto a dirt road which led me to Trout Lake dam, then through a small tunnel under the Blue Ridge Parkway. I emerged in Cone Manor, a now historic site that used to be the mountain retreat of the Cone family. The Cone family made their fortune in textiles, on of North Carolina’s main businesses, and judging by the expanse of the property (the trout lake by the dam that I had passed earlier was their personal stocked fishing pond, and most of the farms and pastures in that area had at one time belonged to to them), they did quite well.

The first historical structure that I came upon was the carriage house, which now displayed several styles of carriage from the turn of the century, museum style, behind a glass window. More importantly, it now had very nice public restrooms.

Suddenly, I realized that I was able to get a signal on my cell phone, so I plugged it into the convenient outlet by the water fountains in the carriage house and attempted to text a friend who lived in nearby town of Boone, North Carolina, home to Appalachian State University. My friend, Katie, had graduated from Appalachian in the same class as my brother, and had offered to help me out should I need it. After a no-response text and a straight to voice mail phone call, I began to consider my options for where to spend the night, since there was no legal camping ahead of me for more than 20 miles and I had already covered around 12. The only choice was to back track a few miles to the river area near Boone Fork Trail where I had met the “friendly” locals in the Chevy Blazer. Scary.

Just as I had resigned myself to walking back to the river for the night, Katie called back and said she was free to meet me! She said it would be no problem to pick me up on a nearby highway and offered me her couch for the night. I graciously accepted, since it was still raining and I knew the effect back tracking would have on my psyche.

I hiked on several miles to the highway and waited under a bridge with a local man who had been walking to the store to get some beer, but changed his plan and began hitchhiking once it had started raining, which it still was. After a few minutes, Katie pulled up and swept me away down the mountain to Boone.

Knowing that I was nearing Boone all day had got me craving some Dan’l Boone Inn. The Dan’l Boone Inn is an iconic restaurant in Boone that serves an all you can eat, family style, set menu of salad, fried chicken, Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, coleslaw, stewed apples, biscuits, country ham, and strawberry shortcake. I had eaten there on many a lazy Saturday, back in 2000, when I was a college freshman at Appalachian State, and I knew it was just what I needed as far as carbohydrate loading and comfort. Katie let me do a load of laundry at her house and then delivered me to my food trough. Katie sat and witnessed my inhalation of the entire menu, three times over. I think she had one piece of fried chicken and some corn.

I was able to dump all of the  video I had recorded in two weeks onto Katie’s computer to free up space on my camera and to update my blog a bit before I went to bed, full and warm and dry and grateful.


*** THIS NEXT POST WAS SENT FROM KATIE AND MIKE’S HOUSE, FROM HER COMPUTER, THE NIGHT SHE PICKED ME UP ***

SEPT 4, 2012

QUICK UPDATE ABOUT UPDATES AND MY TENTATIVE ITINERARY!

Hey everyone, I finally have service again. Sorry if following my somewhat non-active blog has been boring, but between lack of cell service, and batteries dying, I really just haven’t been able to update as often as I like.

I am in Boone now, staying with my friends, Katie and Mike for the night – to get a shower (possibly the best shower I’ve ever taken), eat a real meal (Dan’l Boone Inn, an all you can eat southern comfort food restaurant), recharge my batteries (both electronic and human), and update this blog from an actual computer (no more caps lock!).

So, I am a somewhat compulsive guy, and I really got off on planning this trip down to the smallest detail. While that isn’t a bad thing, since I know I have all of my bases covered, I should have known that my “plans” would be thrown off someway or another. Between physical fatigue, weather, having a slower pace in the mountain terrain, or a campsite not being what I expected, I am not on the “schedule” I planned to be on.

After a week in the woods, I was ready to take my brother up on his offer to meet me at the Pisgah Inn with his wife and daughter, and buy me dinner. Since I got there around 8:30am that day, and we wouldn’t be able to have dinner until the evening, I decided to take the day off from hiking anymore (only 3 miles that morning) and hang around the Inn doing laundry in the bathtub and recharging batteries. Taking that “nero day” (nearly zero) put me a day behind. It was well worth it; the local mountain trout I had for dinner was delicious and they filleted it right at our table! Good gosh, I love fish eyeballs and cheeks!

I have had a “bum” right knee for years now, stemming from a fractured patella injury back in 2002. At the end of the first week of hiking there were some serious downhill sections that really aggravated my right leg. At first, one or two of my quadriceps on my inner thigh flared up with each downward step. They tell you in weight training, when doing lunges, never to let your knee pass in front of you toes. Essentially, that is excactly what I did, over and over and over again, with 20 -30 pounds on my back for two days straight, 10 -12 hours a day. By the end of those days, I could not bend my right leg past about 15 degrees of mobility (couldn’t make the back of my calve touch the back of my thigh). As this continued, I began compensating by stepping differently to relieve the pain. This then aggravated the bicep in my right leg (yes, your leg has a bicep, it is the muscle that bends your leg at the knee, just like the bicep in your arm bends your arm at the elbow). I hiked through the pain, but obviously, my pace was slowed way down.

For the first 9 days or so, I had perfect weather; I kept knocking on tree wood, hoping that it would continue, and North Carolina would not get rain for 43 days (selfish me, I know)! Finally, the sky opened up on me near Craggy Gardens, just past the Folk Art Center near Asheville. I only got 10 miles in that day, instead of 20, before I was soaked through and had to give up walking to find some shelter for the night. So, now I was one day and ten miles off “schedule”. Every day since, I have been adding two miles per day to my hikes, landing me at different campsites than I had planned, just so I could make up those missed ten miles.

In addition to hiking extra miles to make up for lost time putting me at non-planned campsites, sometimes the campsites I had planned just weren’t what I thought they would be. Remember, I had never seen any of these sites, just read very brief descriptions of them in the MST guide book, and chose them mainly because they were roughly 20 miles apart from the site I used the night before and the one I planned on using the night after. Sometimes I would arrive at a site and it would already be full of campers; oh well, on to the next campsite…sometimes 3 more miles down the trail. At times, the campsite would just not live up to my expectations; the ground would be too rocky or not level enough or just plain ugly, so I would walk on.

All of this is OK, though! Much of this trip for me is about GETTING AWAY and LETTING GO. Letting go of things like compulsive planning and being stressed by deadlines and “must do’s” and “must be’s”. Worrying about when I will get to a certain mile post on the trail is contrary to the Zen-like hiking experience I envisioned.

So for me, from now on, I am just walking; walking until my body tells me to stop, even if it’s sooner than I thought it would be, walking until dark if I want to, even if that means 10 “extra” miles that day. Just walking for the trail and for myself!

This is not intended to be a bitch fest about what’s slowing me down, or “not going as planned”. I just want to inform you all that the itinerary I proposed is no longer accurate, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING. I apologize if this makes it harder for some of you to rendezvous with me, if that was your intention. I don’t know where or when I will be at any certain place anymore, and that’s freeing for me. If meeting up with me on the trail is important to you (and I still definitely encourage any and all to come out if you want), just email me directly; I should have almost constant service starting sometime this week, and we can figure out a convenient spot for both of us.

Thanks for understanding, friends, and thank you for your continued support.

love,

Sammer

 


September 5, 2012

Day 16

mm 278.53 – 301.53

Katie & Mike’s to Josh & Mayzie’s

 

I woke up early this morning, well rested from a great night of sleep on a very comfortable couch. Had a quick cup of coffee, put on my freshly laundered clothes, stowed my stuff in Katie’s car, and took a ride back to the point on the highway where she had picked me up the previous day.

The rain had let up briefly during the night, but had begun again by the time we left Katie’s house. She jokingly offered her couch  to me for another night, after seeing how wet it appeared it was going to stay for the rest of the day. We both knew I had to push on, though. It just so happened that Katie had an extra backpack rain cover sitting in her house that she was about to return to the manufacturer because it didn’t fit her pack. Well,  it fit my pack perfectly, so she said I could use it. Now I could protect my gear even better, while using my rain jacket to protect myself. The pack cover was a very much needed addition to my gear and I thank Katie again for letting me take it with me. The drizzle was light enough that, with my new rain setup, I wasn’t really affected by the precipitation and was able to keep a good pace going.

I put on all my gear standing beside Katie’s car under the bridge where we had met up. The Blue Ridge Parkway rumbled over head, with cars crossing over Highway 321. I got all of my stuff situated and Katie wished me luck as she pulled away. I began walking again, taking the exit ramp off of Highway 321 up onto the BRP once more.

After only a quarter mile or so, the MST took me off the road and into some beautiful cow pastures,  continuing to run parallel to the Parkway. I walked through small patches of woods, through wooden fence turnstiles, over many small creeks, and by some small family graveyards, never straying further than a couple hundred yards from the BRP. Over and over again, I came out of small stands of trees and into vast, glorious, picturesque fields of tall grasses bordered with vivid green forest, dotted with groups of cows or horses by small rock outcrops. All of these views were literally breathtaking; I would stop on the edge of the woods, stunned by the simple beauty before me and realize after a few moments that I wasn’t breathing, as if I were trying not to disturb some serene holy site. Sometimes, in the distance, there would be a farm house or stable, nestled in a far off valley, but other than that rare sight or the occasional car or motorcycle passing nearby on the parkway, there was not much distraction to remove me from the wild, lush, solitary moments and scenes I repeatedly encountered.

IMG_0347

All of a sudden, the trail turned and put me back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, just when I had really been enjoying my lush, off road surroundings. Then, as I rounded the next turn, I realized exactly where I was, and understood why I was walking on the road again; just a few hundred feet ahead the BRP crossed over Highway 421, the direct route into the Boone area from the east.

I have driven up and down Highway 421 numerous times, on my way to and from Appalachian State during my brief time there, seeking out new campsites in the Linville Gorge area, or just going for nice scenic drives. Now, here I stood, on the middle of a bridge that spanned across that highway, smack dab on the peak of the Eastern Continental Divide, taking in the breathtaking view of the eastern horizon that I had taken in so many times, so briefly from the rear view mirror of a too-fast-moving car. I stood there and soaked it in, and soaked it in, and soaked. it. in.

After walking down some long country roads and wandering back through more lush, post-rain forests, I came upon a historic landmark on the BRP, Jesse Brown’s Cabin and the Cool Springs Baptist church.

Both of these structures were simple four walled log houses with no windows or doors, just openings, skirting a small open field near an over look and parking area on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The buildings themselves mainly served as weather shelters for when it rained. The weekly gatherings of families from around the area to hear the revival circuit touring preachers during the summer, were usually held outdoors under a shade tree. The touring preachers would spend the night in Jesse’s Cabin, then move on to the next outdoor revival.

There was also an old spring house further off in the woods, but unfortunately the spring feeding it was almost dry. Luckily, though, there were public restrooms by the BRP overlook. I used the facilities and filled my bottles from the water fountain just outside.

IMG_0336

The spring house. Note small water trough in the ground feeding water to the inside of the hut from the spring just up the hill.

The MST was now paved with loose gravel for the heavier tourist foot traffic around the landmark, and I enjoyed a smooth easy stroll as I continued into the woods again. This didn’t last long though; the paved trail soon forked off in a loop back to the parking area, while I continued on a very heavily overgrown trail that plunged me back into a thick pine forest. The ground was covered in a knee-high carpet of stinging nettle so thick it was hard to make out where the trail was. After about a mile of this I finally emerged onto a very lightly traveled two lane highway that ran somewhere near the Blue Ridge Parkway. In another mile or so, I would be meeting complete strangers who would welcome me into their home.

IMG_0343

Can you see the trail through all of that stinging nettle?

One of the unique things about the Mountains to Sea Trail is how many urban areas it connects. Even in the mountains it was connecting small towns and areas, presenting the hiker with the true local scenes, authentic flavors, and warm colorful people of the less traveled roads in the rarely visited towns of North Carolina.

IMG_0344

The Mountains to Sea Trail Guide that Scot Ward authored has an amazing reference section which lists names, locations, and contact information for almost every business you pass along the way. Even more astoundingly, the guide lists a few churches and private residences that are on or close to the trail, and that have offered assistance of some kind; water from a spigot, a resupply, or in some cases, a corner of a yard to set up camp in for a night. When you come across unexpected assistance on the trail, it’s called “Trail Magic”, and the people who facilitate these acts are called “Trail Angels”, and they truly are.

There are many instances on the MST when there is a very long distance between “legal” campsites. Often, there are anywhere from 20-60 miles between legit areas to camp. The Trail Angels I mentioned help make thru-hiking the MST possible. Without the assistance of churches and private property owners, it would be almost impossible to complete the MST as a thru-hike without “illegally” camping (on the BRP, under a bridge, behind a McDonald’s, on private property, etc.).

While planning my trip I was lucky enough to have, as a reference, my friend Lora, who had thru-hiked the MST the previous fall. Initially I had planned to approach this trip as a solo, SOLO purist hiker, avoiding the help of and contact with other people as much as possible. I thought this would encourage the self discovery and adventure that I was seeking. So, when asking Lora’s advice, my questions where usually of the “how do I get from point A across these 50 miles where no camp sites are listed, to point B, while avoiding camping on this person’s yard that is listed as being perfectly positioned right in between the two points?”. However, Lora insisted that meeting all of the people along the way was important, that the people on the trail were beautiful vistas in themselves, that I needed to soak in along the way. Only slightly convinced and out of other options, I continued planning my trip, utilizing the generous strangers listed in the guide book.

After laying out on a calender where I thought I would be each day of the hike, according to my predicted pace, I called the churches and people listed for locations where I would be without a real campsite for the night. Everyone I spoke with was super friendly and excited about the prospect of hosting another MST thru-hiker for the night; some of the folks had hosted as many as 15 hikers before me! Josh and Mayzie were the first folks I called and the first ones I stayed with on the trip.

Soon after emerging onto the two lane highway, I took a right down a small, nearly hidden gravel driveway. The guidebook instructed me that Josh and Mayzie lived in a house “about a quarter mile down the road”. After about a 10 minute or so walk down into a gully I came to the end of the drive. I wasn’t sure if I had gone a quarter of a mile yet, but here I was, at a dead end and there were two houses next door to each other. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was on the right road, because it had been so small and hidden, without even a road sign. I had a momentary flashback to the two local gentlemen who had yelled and thrown a beer can at me deep in the woods…woods very much like these woods.

Determinedly, I walked up onto the porch of the first of two houses , a simple two story cabin, and knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again, louder. Still, no one came. I walked back out onto the road.  At the next and last house, I noticed some toys and small bicycles in the yard. Even if I’ve turned down the wrong road and this isn’t the right house, I thought, at least they’ve got kids, will be nice, and hopefully be able to direct me to the correct place.

This cabin was also two stories, made of darker wood, and slightly larger than the first. The front door was hanging open under the eave of the dark porch, crowded with knick knacks. From inside, I could hear a voice. As I got closer, I realized the voice was coming from a speaker, on a TV or radio.

“Hello?” I said. No response. A second time, louder. “Hello?”

Having talked on the phone with most of the people who’s assistance and generosity I would be relying on, I had created images in my mind of what I thought they would look like. On the phone, Joshua sounded like a laid back guy with long hair and beard, showing the first signs of graying. In this case, like most of the others along the way, I was way off. Joshua, a young man not much older than myself, with short dark hair and a a few days growth of dark stubble, leaned his head around and peered out of the door.

“Yes?”

Slightly startled at just how different he looked in person from what I imagined, I said, “I’m looking for Joshua and Mayzie.”

“I’m Joshua.” he said, “Mayzie’s at work but should be home soon.”

Relieved at having found the right place, I said, “Hi, I’m Sam, I’m thru-hiking the MST. I spoke with you on the phone a few months ago. I’m hoping it’s still cool if I set up camp in your yard for an evening.”

“It sure is.” he easily replied, “Come on in.”

I took my wet muddy shoes off and left them, along with my hiking poles, on the porch. As I entered the cabin, I was struck by the warm inviting smells of a home, well lived-in and loved. That smell of hugs and tears, of smoke from fires and steam from many meals, of tightly bundled winters and wide open breezy summers. The smell that turns a house or a cabin into a home.

I plopped down into a chair at the well worn round table in the kitchen and realized that some of the warm inviting ambiance was coming from the meal that Joshua was in the process of making. Immediately I was hit with a ferocious hunger, as was normal from time to time everyday, but quite severe when suddenly face to face with a meal being cooked. I appologized to Joshua, for appearing so ravenous, as I tore into my backpack for what was left of that day’s food. As I sat there, eating salami, resting my feet, chatting with Josh, suddenly a small head peered around the corner of the doorway leading into the next room, where the original voice I heard from outside was coming from.

The voice turned out to be coming from a Netflixed documentary on ballet. The small head belonged to Rory, the oldest of Josh and Mayzie’s two young girls. I stood up to introduce myself and as I did, Charley, about five or six years old, burst into the kitchen from behind her sister, then stopped short, twisting her wavy, dark blonde hair around her finger, as she realized there was a stranger in the kitchen.

“Hi, girls, I’m Sammertime, but you can call me Sam.”

“Hi!” they both said, almost in unison.

“Can you introduce yourselves to Mr. Sam?” Joshua piped in from near the sink where he was stirring a delicious curry-smelling sauce in cast iron skillet.

Rory, about nine years old with straight, dark brown hair hanging just above her shoulders in a bob, introduced herself first, with Charley yelling out her introduction too, right on the tail of her older sister’s.

After our brief introductions, the two girls seemed unfazed about having a dirty, sweaty, smelly stranger in their home. They ran in and out of the room playing show and tell with some of their toys but shortly disappeared back to the den, where I could still hear them playing their own imaginary games, most involving fairies.

Joshua and I began to ask each other a little about our respective lives, and as it turned out the fact that we hadn’t met before was pretty incredible. We had both gone to the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem for theater performance, Josh as a full-time student and I as a summer scholar. He and I both went to Appalachian State University in Boone as well. We had even lived in the same dorm and knew a lot of the same people, though he had moved out to a house by the time I moved into East Hall in 2000. Most coincidentally, I discovered that I had attended Cosmetology School in 2004 and a primitive wilderness camp, Turtle Island Preserve, in 1994 with his cousin!

As we sat there chuckling about how small the world was and how crazy it was that we had never met before, the door to the front porch opened and in walked Mayzie, whom I had done most of my trip planning communication with. She was just returning from her “eco-store” that she owns with some other folks in Boone, about a 20 minute drive away, or a day’s walk depending. It was great finally laying eyes on Mayzie; she looked a lot closer to how I had imagined her; wavy long brown hair, sparkly eyes, and a contagious smile.

Joshua had timed the meal just right and dinner was on the table not long after Mayzie made her entrance. The cast iron pan, full of quinoa and tofu in a massaman curry sauce, went down directly onto the lazy Suzanne in the middle of their round kitchen table. Some baked sweet potatoes were added to the spread as well as some bread. It smelled amazing. I let this wonderful welcoming family do most of the talking over dinner, as I stuffed my face.

Later, when Charlie and Rory had been tucked into bed, Joshua and Mayzie shared old pictures of them and the girls as well as some beautiful shots Mayzie had taken at music performances; turns out we like a lot of the same bands too!

Not only did these strangers, these new found friends, feed me dinner, but instead of offering their yard for me to sleep in, they offered me an extra bedroom and bathroom in the basement to use if I wanted! I graciously accepted and retired down stairs where I had a hot shower and a great nights rest. I went to bed with tears in my eyes, truly moved by the generosity, trust, and spirit displayed by these folks; it reminded me that humanity still has goodness running through and through.


September 6, 2012

Day 17

mm 301.53 – 315.28

Josh & Mayzie’s to Tom and Teresa’s

I woke up in the bed in the basement. The same bed that many other MST thru hikers had slept in. Most recently, So-way. Where was he now? How far had he traveled in 16 days? I got up and checked my socks and shoes on the table by the window. Joshua already had a set up for drying his own muddy shoes after long days at his job as an arborist; a slightly angled stand just inches from a box fan by a window, which he had invited me to use. They were completely dry. Dry shoes and socks made the start of the day that much better. Waking up in a bed to discover them dry meant this day would be great! I donned my clothes, shut off the box fan and the light, walked outside, shutting the door to the basement gently behind me, up the sloped dirt driveway and made my way up onto the front porch. Mayzie was just climbing into her car, about to go to work but paused when she saw me and waved goodbye.

It was nice having you stay; we hope we’ll see you again. Have some coffee with Josh, and we’ll be in touch,” she said easily as she got into her vehicle.

The front door was hanging open and Joshua was in the same spot he was when I first met him, standing at the sink preparing to cook a meal. I announced my presence by making heavy steps on the porch floor before entering the kitchen. As soon as I entered the room, I was hit with the aroma of fresh coffee coming from a French press on the stove top.

How’d you sleep?” Joshua asked over his shoulder as I entered the kitchen.

Best I’ve slept in sixteen days,” I replied with a big smile and still sleepy eyes.

He poured me some coffee, then took a small glass jar full of milk and shook it vigorously, while continuing cooking breakfast for the girls. After about a minute the milk was frothed up almost to coffee shop cappuccino foam consistency. He offered me the jar, and I poured some into my coffee, creating a do it yourself gourmet coffee drink. I was blown away at how much it elevated the brew. I smiled as I drank it and reveled in how easily I was moved by such simple things since starting the trail. Just then, Rory ran into the kitchen with a shiny red apple.

We picked this for you!” she said. Stray hairs stuck to a just barely sweaty forehead, as she exaggeratedly bent over, holding her knees to catch her breath as Charlie burst into the kitchen holding three more green apples.

We picked this for you!” she panted, dropping the apple balanced on the top of her little pile onto the rough wood floors of the kitchen. “Whoops.” It rolled across the floor and bumped into the toe of my shoe.

That’s all right”, I said as I bent over to pick up the cue ball sized apple. “Wow, they look amazing! These will make an awesome breakfast. Thank you, girls!” I stuffed the three apples into the front pocket of my pack. I finished my coffee, stepped out onto the dusty porch, laced my shoes, and slid my pack on.

I thanked Joshua for everything. He turned around from the sink and gave me a nice big hug. “It was nice having you here, Sam. We really enjoyed your energy. If you ever are up here again and you need a place to stay, or park you vehicle while you’re off camping or hiking or, just whatever, you are welcome.”

Wow. Something inside me felt different. Less than 12 hours before, this family had been almost complete strangers; we had spoken to one another on the phone to facilitate my estimated arrival, but aside from salutations, knew next to nothing about each other. Now, here I was feeling emotional about leaving people I had just met. I was taken aback by my own emotions coming on, stirred by the love and trust I was receiving from these amazing folks.

Filled with a gust of life, out the door I went, stepping off the porch filled with knick knacks and memories, and onto the dirt road. As I began to ascend the hill leading back up to the highway and the trail, I stopped to turn around and take in the scene; apple trees, compost heap, yard full of flowers, lush woods surrounding, flowing spring. Paradise. I snapped a quick picture, and began a video diary as I hiked back up the road.

I found myself again on the two lane highway, before the trail jumped just barely back into the woods and ran parallel to the road like a path on a river bank, following the flow of the river. Though the strip of woods next to the asphalt wasn’t very wide, it was very dense, Full of lush, bright green pines with emerald-lit light refracting through the tight network of branches. The floor of the forest was crowded with ferns and countless stinging nettle plants, to the point that it was hard to make out the trail at times. I passed the somewhat fresh corpse of a deer, its gray and red guts spilling out of its stomach, but not yet showing signs of decomposition. Coyotes maybe?

I soon came back out of the cover of trees and walked along the road once more. I walked right behind some sort of touristy general store; you know, the type that sells assorted fudge? Needless to say, I went in for a quick resupply of fudge.

After using the facilities, filling up water, and resting for a bit, I continued down the road, meandering every now and then, back into the slender tract of woods beside me, and back onto the road again. I was looking for a “pig mailbox”, a landmark given to me by Teresa, the trail angel at the property I was planning to camp at for the night. I never saw that mailbox; I must’ve walked right by it. Or maybe I wasn’t keen on leaving the woods just yet, and just kept walking. It didn’t take me long to realize I had been walking too far, so I made a quick left and came up Tom and Teresa’s street the back way, which was just as well. The house was just a short distance from the intersection of the road and the trail.

As I approached the green metal-roofed log cabin-style home, I was greeted by a large barking dog. Before I had a fight or flight reaction, the front door opened and woman with long dark hair opened the door. She uttered a short command to the dog and it ceased barking immediately, turning that energy into a focused, inquisitive stare directed at me.

Hi Sam” said the woman, with a smile.

Oh Hi! Teresa?”, I asked.

That’s me! Let me go grab Tom!” She shut the door and seconds later reappeared with her husband in tow.

They invited me to take a load off on their big porch and chat. Turns out Tom had worked at a factory in my home town as a young man, same place my father had worked, but they weren’t there at the same time. Teresa suggested a quick tour so she could show me where to put up my shelter for the night.

Some how it came up that I had started the hike on my birthday, and she exclaimed that she and I have the same zodiac sign! We also share a theater background and we compared personality traits and past performances as we walked the property. Turns out Teresa and Tom had quite the little homestead going on! There was a stocked pond, bee boxes, a medium-sized garden, and a storage cellar for grains that Teresa baked her own bread from. There was even a devoted spot for campers, with its own outhouse, on the other side of the pond. Teresa left me to unpack and set up, which didn’t take long.

As I started to walk back towards the house, Tom met me half way with a platter full of burger patties, buns, and fixin’s and told me to follow him to the grill by the picnic table beside the garden. Teresa soon joined us with drinks from the house and we talked and ate for most of the evening out by the garden.

Tom and  Teresa allowed me into their house to use the bathroom and brush my teeth, and offered me one of Tom’s old computers to use for email and blogging if I needed to. Before I retired to my sleeping bag, my gracious hosts told me to wake up a little early so that I had time to come into the house and enjoy a home cooked breakfast! I was stunned, and as I fell asleep I fantasized about what this unexpected meal would be comprised of.

 

 


September 7, 2012

Day 18

mm 315.28 – 337.48

Tom & Teresa’s to Abandoned Cable Car Slab

I woke up early, in anticipation of breakfast at Tom and Teresa’s! After packing up quickly, I knocked gently on the front door of the house. Upon opening, I was greeted by Tom and the smell of fresh coffee and waffles. I followed Tom around the corner to the kitchen, where I found Teresa wearing a cute mountain-y kitchen apron finishing cooking several dishes.

We were all treated to coffee and fresh squeezed orange juice, homemade waffles, homemade bread and sweet rolls, fresh fruit, farm fresh eggs, and honey from the bee boxes outside. Incredible. Before I hit the road, Teresa offered me a hiker box to put any extra supplies I needed to offload into or to take anything I felt would help me, from other hiker’s donations. I signed Tom and Teresa’s trail journal and read past hiker’s entries. Teresa then wrapped up more sweet roles, these filled with ham, and put them in my backpack.

We all said our goodbyes on their porch and they waved from their rocking chairs as I began down the country lane.

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Tom & Teresa wave so-long!

I continued on down the road which quickly popped me back on the trail, which ran in a thin stretch of woods between the two lane road and the BRP. Like the past few days, the trail crisscrossed the parkway every few miles. Walking sometimes on the shoulder, but never more than a hundred yards away. The further I walked, the farther away from the  busy on ramps of the BRP I was, which meant clear, near silent vistas as I summited each hill on the road.

There was a visitors center type place with a gift shop and restaurant that I had read about in my guidebook and I was looking forward to the possibility of ice cream, but my guide was the 2010 edition, so I found The Doughton Park Bluff’s Restaurant and Gift Shop closed down, indefinitely it seemed. People had written sweet things about their old memories there, traveling with family year after year and how sad they were to find it closed, all over the large paper closed sign pinned to the front door. All of the dusty furniture was still inside, stacked in the corner.

The trail took me back in the woods and out again at several RV campgrounds and pull-offs. I passed another set of historic buildings in the woods near the road, with a parking area and informational signs explaining the turn of the century, Brinegar family’s way of life. Farmhouse, garden and springhouse were preserved and restored, with historical rein-actors imitating life long ago, on the weekends maybe.

After reading all the signs and filling up my water bottles at the vintage water fountain, I continued on as the sun began to ease down into the horizon. Suddenly, an SUV pulled off the road and stopped beside me, as I paused to take a picture. I man got out and asked if I was a thru hiker. When I confirmed his suspicion, he turned back to the car and gave the passengers a thumbs up. He motioned me back to the car, asking if I needed anything. His wife and two kids introduced themselves from their perspective windows.

The whole family not only knew about the MST, but had TABA’s MST Guide book that I had! The man asked if I was camping nearby, and I confessed that I did not yet have a site picked out, and was just hoping to find flat spot near the trail by dark. Night time was coming fast. He regarded the small mountain in front of us, and the MST leading back into the woods and up the side of it.

He told me how when he was a boy growing up at his grandparents’, he would stare out off of their porch and watch a cable car travel slowly back and forth between the peak we were staring at and the next peak over. The cable car was a tourist attraction, allowing folks a 360 degree view from a gondola.

The cable car and turnstiles had long since shut down and been removed, but the concrete slab and the pilings were still there, on the very top of the mountain. It seemed there was an overgrown side trail leading to this forgotten spot and it was a pretty good option for a campsite, if I was in need! I thanked the family for this bit of much needed  information and hurried on while some light remained in the air.

By the time I neared the peak, it was completely dark. My small headlamp, with its weak battery was barely enough to follow the main trail with, but I began to think I had passed the small side trail to the secret camping spot without seeing it. Just as I was about to retrace my steps, I heard someone talking in a scratchy voice over a radio. I thought I was about to run into a park ranger, who was going to steer me away from the old cable car site.

Around the corner came a very bright light from the headlamp of an older gentleman who was listening to a baseball game on a handheld radio! I let out a sigh of relief, alerting him to my presence. We introduced ourselves and I told him about the site I was seeking. I guess it wasn’t so secret after all; he had just come from there! Seeing how dim my light was, he offered to guide me with his, since the side trail was just a few hundred yards up the mountain.

The man started back down hill after a quick goodbye at the fork. The side trail lasted only about 50 feet before spitting me on to the cement. My shelter wouldn’t work here, since I couldn’t use stakes but it wasn’t going to rain, so I slept under the super bright stars in the middle of an unobstructed clear cut on the top of a mountain that night. After heating up water for a quick meal and I fell asleep wondering what the remains of the cable car attraction would look like once the sun came out.

 

 


September 8, 2012

Day 19

mm 337.48 – 368.83

Abandoned Cable Car Slab to Surry Inn

I awoke to thick fog rolling over the tops of the trees and down into the depression made by the concrete slab. Striking camp is getting faster and faster, especially when I cowboy camp and have no tent to pack up. This allowed me some extra time to explore in the daylight.

The slab I slept on was about as big as a basketball court. One edge had a strip the size of a sidewalk that was about 8 inches taller than the rest of the foundation. I’m guessing this is where the tourists waited for and then boarded the cable car. Right in the middle of the area is a huge cube of concrete with a large metal girder bolted to the top of it. This had to be where the actual cable line attached to. The whole place felt spooky even in the bright sun. I hurried on my way.

I passed by the Devil’s Garden Overlook and took a side trail away from the BRP once again. Just a few miles later I was entering Stone Mountain State Park. I have visited this great park, surrounding the massive, round, mostly treeless, face of Stone Mountain many times, with family and on Scout trips. It was a comforting place to revisit and it surprised me when I reached it; I wasn’t expecting to be here so soon!

I slowly meandered the old trails and passed waterfalls I hadn’t seen in years. By some old remnants of cabins, I took pictures for groups of day hikers and they returned the favor. When I came to the massive face of Stone Mountain, I sat down and watched the rock climbers, hundreds of feet up.

The restrooms at the parking lot by the exit to Stone Mountain were clean and the water in the fountains didn’t smell bad. I left down a long low-speed two lane road and began passing homes and churches. Listed in the guide book were several churches through this stretch that were generous enough to share the water from their spigot or even a corner of their property to camp on for a night. I came upon the third of these after about five miles. I had planned to camp here but had a good pace going, so only the spigot got used.

Five more miles and there were supposed to be several shops at a four way intersection, the nano-downtown of the Mountain Park Community; Stoplights: Zero. The shops were there but closed. The candy bars and cold drinks teased me from the inside of the Mountain Park Family Store windows.

I passed small creeks and town parks with old forgotten playing fields over run by brown grass, fences all rusted and a few patches of gravel where home plate and the pitcher’s mounds used to be. Small farms gave way to new construction; homes built to look like farm houses, large wooden-fenced yards with no horses, tractor wheel mailboxes in front of fields yielding no crops.

A light drizzle began. Still following the country roads, there was next to no tree cover. It began to come down harder. A nice woman pulled over and offered me a ride. She offered prayers instead after I explained what I was doing and why I couldn’t accept. After a few more miles the rain lessened and signs for Interstate 77 began to appear beside the road.

I could hear the traffic from the highway and soon signs of civilization appeared. Ahead there were several motels, a diner, two gas stations, and a Dairy Queen! Before I closed the distance to this oasis the sky cleared as the sun began to set. I hadn’t realized how late it had gotten through the overcast sky. The sun caught the wet air as it slowly disappeared, creating a double rainbow. My bottom half was drenched and I had designs to have several meals at the DQ.

I took it all as a sign to treat myself to a night at the Surry Inn Motel. After a 40 minute shower, I decided on dinner at the greasy spoon diner next door and dessert at Dairy Queen. The DQ was inside one of those massive truck stop gas stations with the snow globes, made-in-China cowboy hats, and expensive phone chargers for sale. Extensive candy selection at these places though. I stocked up before retreating to my room across the highway.

 

 


September 9, 2012

Day 20

mm 368.83 – 393.52

Surry Inn to McDonald’s in Pilot Mountain

Waking up so well rested feels so good, it was so hard not to stay in bed for a few more hours or days. After prying myself from the covers and packing up the gear explosion all over the room, I checked out and took advantage of the free breakfast in the motel’s makeshift lobby (essentially a motel room cleared of beds, filled with a few small tables, a buffet, television, and a check-in desk with receptionist).

After enjoying several bowls of cereal and a couple of bagels, I stowed away some fresh fruit for later and made my way back out onto the two lane road walk. I crossed the highway and as soon as I rounded the bend, I caught my first glimpse of Pilot Mountain, another popular outdoor destination in NC that I’ve visited many times. Seeing its unique peak gave me my bearings and let me kind of triangulate where I was in the state.

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This stretch of road walk is another section on the MST of long distances and no official campsites. Even stealth camping is difficult, because you are following a country road bordered by private homes and farms. Thankfully, as with the sections before, trail angels have offered their yards and their assistance through this area as well.

I had planned to spend tonight camped in Bill’s yard. Bill was listed in Scot Ward’s MST Thru Hiker’s Manual, in the trail angel section. I came upon his house just an hour or so after beginning that day, so it wasn’t going to work out for me to stay there, as I had the rest of the day to keep walking. But I had talked on the phone with Bill a couple of times and still wanted to meet him, so I walked up the driveway and knocked on his door. I wanted to thank him for his generous offer of a place to sleep, even though I wouldn’t be able to take him up on it. I also wanted to see if he looked anything like the image I had conjured up for him during our phone conversations.

This time the person on the phone looked exactly like I had imagined. A large man with a big belly came around the side of the house from underneath a carport as I stood waiting after knocking at the front door. Probably in his fifties, he had thick mutton chops poking out from underneath a trendy Ivy Cap. His goatee was grey and his long hair was almost white. Bill reminded me of Santa Claus if he was a blues singer in the off season. From behind him, a black dog charged around the corner, barking loudly but wagging its tail.

“Hush! Shut your mouth, Tar Baby!” yelled Bill. “How can I help you?”

I explained who I was, but he already knew. We shook hands and I immediately felt at ease. Bill introduced me to his dog, “Tar Baby”, who was now licking my hand and smelling my crotch. I explained how I was a little off schedule, and wouldn’t need his assistance that night; he just shrugged and smiled, unfazed, and invited me under the carport to take a load off in the shade. It was around ten in the morning, yet as soon as I sat down on a dusty wicker chair, Bill produced a large mason jar of clear liquid and handed it to me.

“Apple brandy?” he offered, “Made it myself from those apple trees back there,” he motioned to the vast stretch of land behind the modest brick home.

It looked like moonshine and definitely smelled as strong. It was early to be pounding liquor, but I politely took a sip. It was really good, sweet and smooth. I took another.

“Mom was going to cook you dinner tonight, but you’re welcome to help yourself to the breakfast she got laid out in there. She just left out for church.”

I wasn’t sure if “Mom” was his wife or his mother, but as soon as I entered their home I had a good guess. The house was filled with framed needlepoints and small porcelain figurines on carved wooden shelves. Multiple quilts were neatly hung on the backs of the couches and rocking chairs. The walls were decorated with patterned wallpaper or painted in tones of mauve. In the corner, a vintage television was tuned to a Christian channel that showed a white-haired man in a double-breasted suit yelling and sweating. “Mom” was definitely Bill’s mother.

The spread on the kitchen counter put the free buffet at the Surry Inn to shame. There was a platter of assorted southern breakfast proteins: ham, sausage, and bacon and beside that was a cast iron skillet full of fry bread with just a couple of pieces missing. A pot of collards, which Bill said was “always on the stove”, sat covered next to it. I helped myself and packed away some bread for later.

I ate as we sat under the carport and shot the shit. Bill lit up a small half-smoked joint and passed it to me as he took another pull from the jar of “apple brandy”. Between the moonshine, the cute little figurines inside, the rocking soul patch, the joint in my hand, and the evangelical TV pastor, I was finding it a little hard to read Bill, but I was having a wonderful time!

A friend of Bill’s strolled up after a while, fishing pole in hand. Nancy had tan skin and dark glasses and spoke with an accent I couldn’t place. Apparently Bill had a stocked pond in his backyard, and she often swung by to catch her dinner. Another joint was lit to celebrate Nancy’s arrival.

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Bill, Nancy, and Tar Baby

I knew I had to keep moving or I would stay there all day. I said goodbye and made Bill promise to tell his Mom thanks for her hospitality. Before I left, he insisted I take some small green apples from his trees, a pack of rolling papers, the roach of the Nancy joint and enough pot to roll one joint of my own. I laughed and gave him a hug before taking a couple of photos as I retreated down his driveway to the road.

I definitely had a buzz. Not enough to affect my walking, but I was feeling all warm and fuzzy inside for sure. It was a beautiful day. Colors were bright and vibrant. The sky was clear except for a few perfectly puffy clouds. It was bright out, but cool.

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I passed a young couple, both maybe 15-years-old, up in the branches of cherry tree beside the road. He had the beginnings of a mustache, and her cheeks were flushed. They were both grinning, looking both excited and bashful at the same time. Young love.

“Beautiful day!”, I smiled up at them.

“Yes it IS!” they both replied, seeming to look at me and each other, and the beauty around us, all at the same time.  We laughed together as I walked on.

The day passed by quickly. I enjoyed fry bread and apples with lunch I scarfed down in the shade of an old train car, seemingly forgotten on a side rail, waiting to one day be hitched up again.

 

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Lunch spot.

All day I hiked the shoulder of the road passing homes, farms, and trailers. As I was strolling along already missing Bill and Nancy, I heard someone yelling at me from across the road. I looked and saw a little old white-haired lady seated at a small table on the porch of a trailer. Beside her, a younger man was waving his arms at me.

“Aye! Aaaaye! Ain’t you that guy?! Guy that wrote the guide?!”

I couldn’t really understand him from where I was, so I crossed the two lanes between us and approached the porch. As soon as I began walking towards them, the old lady got up quickly and went inside, slamming the door shut.

“Don’t mind her, dude. That’s my Granny and she don’t like nobody.” The man smiled and held out his hand.”You that guy that wrote the guide, aintcha?” I realized he must have met Scot Ward, the author of my guidebook, during one of his multiple thru hikes of the MST. “Oh, wait, you taller than him. He’s just a little feller.”

“No, I’m Sam.” I said, “Sammertime.”

The man introduced himself as Shawn. He was also a “little feller”, obviously older than I, but at least a foot shorter. His baggy jeans were tucked into boots that were way too big for him. A thin short-sleeve flannel shirt hung loosely on him, and he wore a mesh trucker-style hat perched high on his head and at an angle. Close-shaved hair blended into the rough stubble on his face. He had several severe scars across one side of his forehead and his temple, one crossing his eye and cheek bone.

“Want a bump?” he asked as he lifted an old catalog up off the table he had been sharing with his grandmother. Beneath the magazine were several half-crushed pills and a small pile of powder. “Let me finish breaking this shit up. Here.” he picked up a pint of Old Crow whiskey off the table and thrust it at me.

I quickly assessed my situation, which had progressed very quickly: a man that I had met mere minutes ago and had exchanged just a couple of words with was now offering me liquor and pills, pills that he had been crushing and snorting in front of his grandmother. I said no thank you to the drugs on the table but took a small nip from the whiskey bottle as a sign of good will, and explained that he had probably me mistaken with Scot.

“Yeah! Scot! Where’s that mother fucker? Man, one time I got that mother fucker so drunk he passed out up under the porch of my trailer!”

“Ha! Really?” I said, “Right here?”

“Oh, naw. This is Granny’s trailer. Mine’s down-a-ways.” He paused, cigarette lighter in hand, about to crush a pill under the catalog. “You know what? Fuck it. Let’s go down t’my place.” He produced a short piece of a drinking straw and snorted the last of the powder off the table, then took the remaining pills and stuffed them into his pocket, and grabbed the pint of Old Crow out of my hand. “Come on.”

This was crazy, but I didn’t feel scared or in danger. Shawn seemed really nice and funny, and after my morning with Bill, I was curious to see where this was going to lead. As we walked, Shawn pointed to various trailers we passed, telling me which of his family members lived in which ones. Apparently, what I thought was a small trailer park was actually one family’s homestead, each member adding their own home to the land as they outgrew their parents’.

We arrived at the last building in the row and Shawn told me to wait on the porch while he went around to get in from the back. Ok…I wondered why, since most trailers don’t have back doors, but patiently waited in the shade. A few minutes later, Shawn opened the front door.

“Hey man, sorry but my chicken head roommate left town and took my fucking key with her, so I had to bust in through the back window.”

Hmm. I began to weigh the possibility that this might not even be Shawn’s home and that I had unwittingly become an accomplice to breaking and entering, but he wasn’t acting uneasy or jumpy; he seemed very at home in this trailer, so I followed him inside.

The trailer was done in wall to wall brown and tan shag carpeting and the walls were a deep brown faux wood paneling, making the interior very dark. Shawn raised a couple of blinds on the windows so we could see better. Fly paper hung from the ceiling in all of the rooms that I could see. I took off my pack and we sat down on a brown and tan tweed couch. There was a vacant spot on the counter across the room, where a TV had been not long before, judging from the dustless square spot there now. My host noticed me taking it all in.

“Yeah, fucking little punks down the hill’er breakin’ in everybody’s shit, dude. Busted through that same window I came in through and took my fucking TV. Old ass shit, can’t have got ten bucks for it…”, he trailed off, staring at the vacant spot. Suddenly the Old Crow caught his attention. “Hey man, I’m really sorry, but all I got for a chaser is caffeine free diet Coke, man. It ain’t cold either, but man, I’m really sorry about it, it’s all I got”, he explained as he passed me the whiskey bottle again.

“I’m good, no chaser, thanks,” I said, showing how tough I was. He laid out the rest of the pills on the coffee table and started looking for something to crush them with.

“Here, you want some? Take a couple with you, you ain’t gotta snort ’em. They’re just Vicodin.” He pushed a couple of the large white oval pills towards me, without looking up from what he was doing.

“Oh, man, OK, maybe…”. I knew Vicodin were pain killers. My right knee screamed at me to pick them up, but I left them where they were for the time being. How could I be sure that’s what they really were?

Shawn covered his pills with a large piece of paper, then pressed down on top of it with his lighter, pulverizing the pills beneath. With the long edge of the lighter, he rubbed vigorously back and forth over the length of the paper, further crushing the bits and pieces into a fine powder. He gently removed the sheet of paper, gingerly shaking it, revealing a mess of white powder. This, he scraped together into one long line. Out from his pocket came the piece of straw and he crouched down on the ground to get his face closer to the low coffee table. He looked up at me.

“You sure?” he said offering me the straw.

“No man, I’m good. I have to keep walking today and you already got me feeling good on this whiskey.”

“Fuck it, you can just sleep under the porch like your boy did…”, his voice trailed off into a muffled mumble as he buried his face down near the table. He sniffed loudly and jerked his head back up, squinting up at the ceiling and pinching his nostrils shut. “Whooooo! Fuck!” He laughed, blinking his bloodshot eyes and focusing on me. “Damn! Hold up.” He sort of stood/hopped up from where he was kneeling on the carpet, like he was jerked up on an invisible string. Teetering back and forth as he reached into his pocket for his cigarettes, he fumbled one out of the pack and into his mouth, eyes half closed.

He patted himself down, in search of his lighter which was still on the table. Undeterred, he made a wild 180 degree pivot, one arm swinging out wide away from his body, like it was asleep, and took two big exaggerated steps into the brown kitchen, which was in the corner of the same room. After lighting his cigarette on the stove, he grabbed a caffeine free diet Coke off the counter and plopped back down on the couch.

Even though every single moment of what I was witnessing was absolutely crazy and surreal, I didn’t feel insecure or unsafe. Maybe it was the moonshine from Bill earlier in the morning or the Old Crow from my new friend right now, but I felt pretty comfortable around Shawn, who was considerably jolly and friendly throughout our interaction. I reminded myself of the adventure I had been seeking through hiking this trail ‘solo’, and that I was certainly experiencing some crazy shit, way out of my comfort zone, so…enjoy!

It hit me that this was Shawn’s form of ‘trail magic’. He had been nothing but open and inviting; bringing me into his home and offering to me what he had to share. Then, I remembered Bill’s trail magic to me from earlier! I dug into my pack and found the  roach from the Nancy arrival joint, which I proudly presented to Shawn.

“Oh hell yeah, mother fucker! I knew you was holdin’!” he laughed, handing me his lighter from the table. I pinched the tiny roach and tried to get it lit. “Yeah man, my fucking roommate, man, she’s a fucking bitch, dude. That cunt left town with all her lil’ chicken head friends to goddamn where the fuck ever…some party or some shit. You know what a chicken head is?” I shook my head, pulling hard on the end of the joint. “It’s a lesbian, dude! Cause that’s how they eat pussies!” He bobbed his head forward and back, while moving his tongue up and down. He laughed at himself and took the roach from my outstretched hand.

“Yeah man,” he continued between puffs, “all them bitches come over here ’bout every week and I get ’em all fucked up, man.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Hell yeah, dude. I get ’em all fucked up on Xany’s and Percocets and all drunk and shit, and they start going at it, dude. Fuckin’ suckin’ titties and kissin’ and taking off their panties and eatin’ each other’s pussies and shit, dude. It’s like live porn, dude. In my fuckin’ livin’ room.”

“Wait…what?” I paused reaching out to grab the joint.

“Yeah man, for real. Like pretty much every Sunday they’d be right on this couch, doing all kinds of freaky shit, bro.” I realized that today was a Sunday. “You missed it, dude, cause they’re all out of town, bro!” Shawn broke into laughter. “Awww, shit.”

“Wow. Yeah, too bad I had to miss that…” I laid on the sarcasm as thick as possible, but he wasn’t being too receptive.

“Yeah, sorry dude. Usually they’d be here, but fuck them bitches, anyway. They fuckin’ suck…” He trailed off staring into the distance. “You know what I really like to do?” I shook my head, almost burning my fingers on the very end of the roach. “Well listen, man; I’m unemployed.”

“Oh?” I motioned that I needed an ashtray. Shawn grabbed what was left of the joint and snuffed it out on the table.

“Yeah, man. I can’t hold no job and I’m on disability and shit and welfare. You see these scars?” He removed his hat and pointed at the scar on his face that I had noticed earlier. With his hat removed, I could see that what I had thought were several separate blemishes, were actually all part of a massive injury, resulting in one huge scar, spider-webbing from the top down across one whole quarter of his head. “Flipped my car. Had to close my head with staples!”

“Holy shit!” I said, stunned. The scar looked like it belonged on Frankenstein’s monster.

“Third car I flipped. Been in like five accidents, where I totaled the cars. Just lucky, I guess.” He picked up the pint of whiskey, and took a long pull. “Anyway, I can’t keep a job ’cause of the pain, so what I really like to do is I buy and steal people’s welfare and social security cards; EBT, SNAP, whatever, and I sell ’em…or sell shit I get from ’em.”

“Oh, OK, right on, yeah…” I said, trying to sound cool, like this is some normal shit I hear everyday and not the sketchiest thing I’ve ever been told. Shawn stared at me for a few seconds.

“Here, check this shit out,” he said, getting up off the couch and walking to the middle of the room, where he got down on all fours. He began to scratch and feel around on the carpet, finally finding the edge of a concealed cut. He pulled on it and a flap of carpet, about the size of a shoe box flipped up and out of the way. The notch in the sub floor was less difficult to locate and the top of a secret compartment popped out easily.

Shawn reached down into the opening in the floor with both hands. He scooped together several items and emerged with a small pile of what appeared to be women’s accessories in his arms. He carefully laid them all out on the small table; purses and clutches mainly, with a couple of wallets, cheap pieces of jewelry, and a couple of cell phones. He turned, still on all fours and reached back into the hole, this time retrieving a paper photo lab packet full of printed pictures.

He joined me on the couch and began to fish through each wallet or purse to find the ID card of the respective owner, followed by a back story for each victim, most of which consisted of “that time she came over here and I got her so fucked up”.

“Wait, so you know these people?” I asked in disbelief, still just beginning to process what Shannon was showing me.

“Well, yeah. These are them chicken heads that come over here and I get ’em all fucked up. They get straight blackout fucked up and I take their shit!”

“Wait, but what about when they wake up the next morning?” I wondered aloud.

“Shit, dude. These bitches are so cracked out, dude. I tell ’em whatever; they didn’t bring it over or I tell ’em one of their friends musta took it or they left it at the bar or something. It’s just EBT and shit. They can get new cards.” He picked up the packet of photos. I was scared of what I thought I might be shown.

He began to flip through the pictures, explaining each one. There was nothing x-rated or gruesome or offensive in any of the shots; just pictures of people hanging out and drinking, a couple of random wallet sized yearbook photos, some professional shots of people posing with horses by a wooden fence, and a few rushed and blurry images that looked like somebody had tried to use up the last few pictures on their disposable camera so they could get the roll developed. The descriptions were far more salacious.

“Her and her fuck.” Next picture. “I fucked all of them.” Next picture. “They all smoke crack.” Next picture. “This is that fuckin’ bitch. This is my fucking roommate right here!” As he continued to flip through the photos of the people who were just smoking cigarettes, eyes half shut and smiling, obviously drunk and on pills, I realized that most of these scenes in the pictures were happening in the very room I was in, on the very couch I was sitting on! These were pictures of the Sunday get-togethers, fueled by pills and booze, and these were the same (mostly) women whose belongings Shawn was stealing and hiding in that hole!

He got to the professional shot of the people with the horses by the fence. “Oh shit, see her? That’s her daughter! And that other one is her Momma! And duuuuude….THEY FUCK!” I seen it dude, goin’ down on each other while the other one gets fucked, dude, they’re fucking freaks, yo!”

By this point I was pretty high and even though the pictures weren’t graphic, Shawn’s descriptions were pretty disturbing. The extreme wrongness of what was being confessed to me and the paranoia from the weed all came rushing at me in a wave. If today was Sunday, what if the roommate and all of her friends come back today and discovered Shawn displaying his secret stash of their stolen stuff, and I’m sitting there with him in their trailer? What if those punks from down the hill come back to steal more than the TV this time? Why did “Granny” get up and leave as soon as I approached them? Was she in on it too?!

“Damn, dude, that is crazy! This is all really crazy, dude. You’re nuts, man!” I needed to take a minute to breathe. “Do you mind if I use your restroom real quick?”

“Don’t work. You can piss outside though, and you’re welcome to put your tent out there if you need to stay the night. If you want to…” He was assembling his pill crushing station again. I made my way outside and around the back of the trailer. Sure enough, there was no back door, only a broken window leading into the bathroom. I really did have to pee though and, as I relieved myself, I repeated in my head that this was all part of the crazy adventure I had been seeking! Though I didn’t agree with, respect, or condone what Shawn said that he was doing, he wasn’t physically assaulting anyone, as far as I knew. I didn’t feel unsafe around him, though being in the trailer, the scene of the crime, as it were, was definitely making me feel uncomfortable.

I walked back inside where I found Shawn digging through the kitchen cabinets. All of the contraband was gone off of the coffee table, the hole in the floor sealed up, and the carpet back to normal. “Drank all the Crow. Goddamn, I thought I had a handle of something around here somewhere. Fucking bitch must have taken with her. Anyway I got more over at Granny’s,” he yelled at me from the corner.

“Oh, word.” I tried to appear at ease, “Well look, man, I gotta be heading on; I got like ten or fifteen more miles to walk today. It’s 2:30 already and if I don’t leave now, I’m going to stay here all night, I think.”

“Like I said, you’re welcome to it. Y’all are crazy with all that walking, yo, I don’t even like walking across the parking lot! He slammed a cabinet shut. “Boom, found a little left in this other pint! I knew I had something in here!” He shook the almost empty bottle he had found, grabbed a green plastic cup from another shelf, opened another “goddamn caffeine free diet Coke”, and mixed a drink.

I picked my backpack up and put it on as I walked back to the front door, the only door. Shawn met me there. “That Old Crow was good! I really appreciate all this man, it was great to meet you!” He sensed my urgency.

“Well I guess if you gotta go, you gotta go, but stop on through on your way back!” he joked.

I wasn’t sure how Shawn would react if I took his picture, since he had just confessed to several crimes. But he was thrilled by the idea, honored to be documented as part of my journey. I got a great shot of him standing on what I still believe to be his porch, holding his cocktail in the green cup. Shawn, by far, wins the prize for the most interesting person I’ve encountered on this trek so far.

We said our goodbyes and I continued east. Towards Pilot Mountain, which revealed itself on the horizon every few miles. I was still plenty high and had a good buzz on from the whiskey as I walked down the road. This made the road walk much less boring than usual but I spent most of the time processing what had just gone down.

I felt bad for the people who had had their stuff stolen, but it seemed like they were continuing to hang out in an environment where they lost not only their stuff but also their self control, imbibing beyond consciousness. Wasn’t it on them realize it and stop the destructive behavior?

What about the bigger picture? The fraud being committed was blatant, and I had to believe that if I was privy to just this one man doing this amount of damage, that there had to be thousands of people across the country doing this same shit. The scale of these types of crimes had never hit me before. The drag put on the economy just by fraud alone was probably enough of a hit to the system that it was tainting all entitlements, fueling rhetoric about people taking advantage of the system. It seemed to me that fraud like this, not actual citizens in need, was more likely the main cause of the “drag” on our economy that opponents of federal aid like to point to.

I was lost deep in these thoughts for the rest of the day. The entire hike today was along two-lane highway road walks. I passed lots of folks enjoying the beautiful weather, kids playing in yards and parents relaxing on porches. Several packs of country dogs running loose, charged and startled me but shied away when I yelled and waved my hiking pole.

I passed a teenager wearing all camouflage walking on the other side of the road. He had a bow and arrow on his back and explained it was the first day of bow hunting season. No luck today though.

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Tobacco fields on a perfect day

One nice dog followed me for miles. It walked right beside me in a perfect heel unless it sensed danger. A couple of times, my furry guardian noticed an unfriendly dog in an upcoming yard and ran ahead to scare away the threat before I had to deal with it.

What I had told Shawn during my departure wasn’t a lie; it really was getting late. The sun was starting to set earlier. Once dusk settled in, my canine companion called it quits and trotted off back down the road we had just walked up. Too bad, I had been playing out fantasies of it following me all the way to Jockey’s Ridge!

I walked three more miles in total darkness, save for my small headlamp in flash mode to alert traffic to my presence on the small shoulder. As I crested one last hill, I saw street lights and knew that I had arrived in the town of Pilot Mountain. Passing the first stoplight brought me to a McDonald’s, where I stopped to assess my situation.

I cleaned myself up a bit and used the bathroom. Back in the dining room I ordered several sandwiches and a milkshake from the kid at the counter. I found a corner of the restaurant with no one else in it and unloaded some of my backpack in order to charge my phone.

According to the guide, I still had five miles to go on this stretch with no “official” camping allowed. Five miles further and I would reach the Sauratown Trail network through thick woods, where stealth camping would be easy. However, it was already 8:30 pm and five miles would put me in the woods at 10:30 at night. I didn’t like that plan.

I finished all my grub and packed up. I decided to scope out a small patch of trees behind the McDonald’s dumpster that I had noticed when walking up. The plants were some what well maintained; part of the landscaping on the Micky D’s property. The dumpster backed up to a low retaining wall, on top of which was a small “forest” about the size of half a basketball court. Just through the trees I could see another building that backed up to the other side of the woods. The fence around the dumpster corral was enough to shield me from view of cars in the drive thru and to block their headlights from waking me up all night. Having the parking lot just twenty five feet or so from my head was a little noisy, but I was exhausted and had a full belly, and since this wasn’t a 24 hour McDonald’s so I went for it and slept surprisingly well.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

September 10, 2012

Day 21

mm 393.52 – 418.17

Pilot Mountain McDonald’s to Hanging Rock State Park

The drive thru line begins to accumulate early for breakfast at McDonald’s. I emerged from my tiny patch of woods close to six in the morning, awoken up by the first cars at five. I took advantage of the restaurant’s bathroom once again for morning maintenance and was on my way.

The trail was now following the main street of Pilot Mountain directly down the sidewalk, which was convenient, but you could tell the cars entering and exiting the businesses on the road weren’t used to yielding to pedestrians.

I stopped at a CVS along the way to resupply on blister bandages, but passed on the food options along the road since it was early and last night’s McDonald’s binge was still sitting heavy.

The “down town” of Pilot Mountain seemed somewhat frozen in time, with old hardware and appliance stores still displaying antique models of ancient machines in their front windows, followed by tiny local government buildings complete with geriatric security guards dozing at their posts. After making its way out of town, the trail again followed the wide freshly mowed shoulder of  a small two-lane road that cut through country pastures.

It was still mid morning when I entered the woods on the Sauratown Trails Network, a shared equestrian and pedestrian trail. It was such a relief to have some tree cover and to not have to remain alert to traffic. It wasn’t all cupcakes and candy canes, though. The next 18 miles were some of the more strenuous of my hike. I don’t even know if strenuous is the right word. Just frustrating and slow.

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Though I was in the Piedmont of North Carolina by now, the hills I tackled from here to the end of Hanging Rock State Park were nothing to scoff at. This section would be the last with any real technical elevation, and it certainly let me know it. Not only were the inclines steep, but the footing was rather treacherous. I assume because horses also use this trail, the material underfoot is a little different. I can’t say whether it is ballast that has been laid for the benefit of the horses’ footing or if these rocks have been exposed out of the dirt on the trail from the heavy horse hoof traffic, but the ground underfoot on this section consists of thousands of flat fist sized rocks, that slide on each other, making it easy to slip or twist an ankle and also creates an uneven surface to walk on. Just a mile or two in and my feet were screaming.

Other than the awkward footing, the area was beautiful. I passed through rich emerald green forests, traversed through small gorges zigzagging switchbacks up each side and forded creeks with small waterfalls and large boulders, where I happily stopped to snack. Every now and then I would pop out of the woods and follow dirt roads strewn with garbage and illegal mattress dumps until I saw a white MST circle directing me back into another section of forests.

Just before dusk, I entered Hanging Rock State Park. I didn’t see signage on the MST declaring that I was now in the boundary of the park, but the trail became much better maintained, with hard packed dirt or well-laid gravel, buttressed with store-bought logs, creating gradual steps and inclines.

After sunset I was still walking, almost in total darkness now, since the battery on my tiny headlamp was essentially dead. The dim bulb wasn’t even attracting the bugs fluttering around in the dark. I would’ve been searching for a campsite by now, but tonight I was excited to be meeting up with Lauren, a former ‘AT’ and ‘MST’ completer that I met through my uncle, “Mr. Lucky”, who is also a hiker. Through email, she had helped me with some of the planning for my hike, most notably the advice to meet as many people on the trail as possible; that the relationships built with the trail angels listed in the guide book would likely be the most precious gifts the trail would present to me.

When she isn’t hiking, Lauren is a Park Ranger and happened to be stationed at Hanging Rock while I was going through. Before I left she insisted that I contact her when I got to the park, and she would help me find a good spot to sleep.

I came out of the woods to a little intersection of paved park roads. An RV was parked on one of the corners. A cute older couple was seated by a small fire ring under the awning. They were the campground hosts for this particular set of sites within the park. I had no cash on me to rent a site myself and my phone was dead, so I had no way to contact Lauren. However, after introducing myself and telling a few stories, they were nice enough to use their hand held to radio the rangers and alert Lauren to my arrival.

Fifteen minutes or so later, my savior arrived and whisked me away in her vehicle to the ranger station. As we parked, she informed me that I would be staying here tonight! The station consisted of a large room with a kitchen, dining table, and a couple of couches and chairs.  Attached to this main room were several dorm-style rooms, like a motel, one after another in a row to the other end of the building. Each room had a bed and small dresser and table and they all shared a communal bathroom.

After Lauren saw that I was comfortable and situated, she left for her own cabin, elsewhere in the park. It was really nice. I lounged on one of the couches as I cooked my dinner on the stove top. I was the only one in the entire building and after I ate my meal, I spent some time blogging and contacting other trail angels and churches ahead of me to confirm if their offers of assistance still stood, since my ETA’s had changed.

I took a long shower and sank into a bed that was even more comfortable than it looked. Lauren was going to pick me up early in the morning and take me back to where she picked me up, and there I am going to rendezvous with my friends Mark and Lindsay. Mark is a buddy of mine from high school and I met Lindsay through the beer/service industry. They both took me up on the open invitation I extended to all of my friends to come out and do some miles with me on the trail. They were the only two that followed through and I love them for it!

I’m glad the timing and location worked out for us all; tomorrow we will summit Moore’s Knob together and then Mark and I will continue on to tackle the road walk to Walnut Cove, the next small town, where we will meet up with my aunt and uncle for a ride to The Hillbilly Hideaway, an all you can eat restaurant just down the road.

 

 


 

September 11, 2012

Day 22

mm 418.17 – 432.6

Hanging rock (+Moore’s Wall loop) to Walnut Cove

I was all packed up, ready and waiting when Lauren arrived to chauffeur me back to the intersection with the cute couple and the RV. I arrived to find their fire still smoldering in the golden light of an early fall morning. The curtains in the windows were all drawn, but I could hear faint clatter of someone getting breakfast started in the tiny kitchen.

I thanked Lauren for everything. I think she was more excited for me than I was! She was really touched by her MST thru hike experience and does presentations about the trail and her hike at the amphitheater in the park. Her energy and enthusiasm for the trail are palpable. She asked the best questions about my journey so far and had the best advice for upcoming sections.

I strolled down to the park’s main visitor center, less than a mile from where I had stopped the night before. Mark and Lindsay arrived in separate cars, and Lindsay brought breakfast and other snacks for us all!

The Moore’s Knob loop is a steep but well maintained trail. More wide, gravel-topped steps built into the ground and plenty of resting spots. The trail is not very long, You can easily bypass this small section, continuing on road out of the park, but you wouldn’t want to do that. The view is the last, and one of the best, views from high elevation on the trail.

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Moore’s Knob

As the trail crests the final ascent, you emerge out of the woods into a natural clearing on the rock face of the peak. There is an old lookout tower there; the inside is accessible through an open stone doorway and it seems permanently damp and strewn with litter and smells of piss. On the outside of the square building, an old worn metal staircase takes you around and up, to the small observation deck where you can enjoy 360 degree views. It was spectacularly clear that day and we guessed at which town in the distance was which. Pilot mountain was easy to spot, with its unique profile standing out across the valley.

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Pilot Mountain is easy to spot

 

The descent was quick. We all raced down the back half of the loop, leap-frogging down the stairs. Before we knew it, we were back at the visitor center parking lot, where we said our goodbyes to Lindsay.

One more small but beautiful trail led Mark and I out of the park onto yet another two lane highway. I had warned my friend that if he wanted to continue with me after Moore’s Knob, he would be committing to an almost 20 mile road walk to the next small town. He had no reservations, woods or roads he wanted to put in a whole day.

Poor Mark. I will take the blame here. I should have better prepared him for how unglamorous a road walk is. Especially this one. I personally don’t mind the roads, but this particular one was a very well traveled thoroughfare, with a very small shoulder. Traffic was constant enough and the shoulder so tiny, that Mark and I were forced to walk in single file. Any conversations we attempted consisted of yelling over our shoulders at one another between the passing of vehicles. Not a lot of fun.

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We trudged on into the afternoon, switching leaders and stopping for the occasional picture. With a majority of the day’s miles under our belts, we stopped and took a break at “Whicker’s Grocery”, listed as a “must-stop, very cool people” in my guide book.

Whicker’s is a gas station/convenience store with more grocery items than your typical Quik-E-Mart. Mark found Ni-hi soda, which he hadn’t seen in years, and I got some candy bars. When we got to the register, the young lady called us out as hikers! She explained she was the owner’s daughter and told us several funny stories about meeting Scot Ward / ‘TABA’ on several of his thru hikes, while he was compiling the guidebook I am using.

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On one of TABA’s hike’s, her father offered him the area behind the store to set up his tent and camp. The next morning, when Mr. Whicker decided it was time for Scot to wake up, he provided him with a complementary wake-up call. He quietly walked up beside the tent with his shotgun in hand, cocked it, aimed it at the sky, and BOOM! He let her rip right there. Hilarious, though probably not too funny it you are the man in tent!

After sharing more stories back and forth, someone else finally got in line behind us. I fished out my credit card to pay, but our new friend behind the register refused to ring anything up or charge us. We thanked her profusely and hit the road again to finish the last few miles before we reached Walnut Cove, where we planned on getting a motel room for the night.

Mark’s tender virgin thighs weren’t used to 20 miles of rubbing against each other. Mark’s a jolly guy, and hid his discomfort well. Most of the day he joked and beamed with good energy, but as we started away form Whicker’s, he confided that he had some pretty bad chaffing going on.

“Why didn’t you say so?” I laughed. “I have a stick of skin lube in my pack!” I gave it to him and he rushed back to the store to apply it in their bathroom.

“I think I was too late,” he said softly, when he returned. “I have blisters on my fucking thighs, dude. Like fucking second degree burn blisters!”

And that is why you do not wear loose fitting cotton boxers on a 20 mile hike. Again, I take the blame. I should’ve have done a mini shake down with him before we hit the road. But good old Mark, that was the last and only complaining I heard from him all day.

We finally reached Walnut Cove about an hour later. We came to the intersection in the small down town area that was supposed to have the motel. It did not. “There is supposed to be a motel here!” I swore. “‘The Duke’s Rest’ or something…” I took out the guidebook for closer inspection. “Yup, right here, mile 432.06, ‘Duke’s Rest.'”, I proclaimed.

“Well, there’s a “Duke’s Restaurant.” Mark pointed to a large red and white sign across the parking lot of the shopping center we were standing in the middle of. I looked back at the guide and noticed the period after the word “Rest”. I felt like a total idiot. “Duke’s Rest.” was short for “Duke’s Restaurant”. Over months of planning and countless references to the guide, I had never noticed the period and had planned all along to get accommodations with Mark at the non-existent “Duke’s Rest” motel! Now what were we going to do? Neither of us wanted to walk anymore that day, but we were now in the center of town with no official camping near by, plus Mark hadn’t brought a tent, since I had promised him a night in a motel.

I contacted my Uncle, who was coming to meet us for dinner, and explained the situation. He immediately offered me a bed in his house in Winston Salem, NC, about 30 minutes away. Mark called his wife and arranged for her to meet him at our current location after dinner, and take him back to his car at Hanging Rock, where he would just drive on home. “Probably better for my thigh blisters anyway.” He said.

Despite our thighs, Mark and I had made good time. My aunt and uncle weren’t set to leave to meet us for another hour, but they got in their car as soon as we hung up the phone. Not long after, they arrived to find us sitting in the far end of the strip mall parking lot.

We were going to The Hillbilly Hideaway, a country cooking restaurant that serves an all you can eat set menu similar to the Dan’l Boone Inn, which I destroyed with my hiker hunger, in Boone. I had never been but when My uncle suggested an all you can eat place for dinner, I was more than agreeable.

The drive followed the path of the MST down highway 68 towards Stokesdale, NC. The Hillbilly Hideaway is actually listed in my guidebook too, though it is a couple of miles off of hwy 68, away from the trail. The restaurant is unique, with a gift shop and an outdoor stage for country western and gospel music shows on the weekend.

The inside of the restaurant is set up like an old southern dining room; large and small wooden tables with table cloths and single flame lanterns on the walls. Yet the walls are still dark. Dark and wooden and old and the staff allows patrons to sign the walls with markers giving them an even older and more worn texture and appearance.

We sat at a six top so as to have more room for our feast. After drink orders were put in, the food started coming. I made it through three heaping plates of green beans, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, ho-cake bread, and a bunch of other southern favorites. The rest of my party finished about a plate each. Before we left, I signed the wall, “Sammertime MST 2012”. If you ever visit The Hillbilly Hideaway, see if you can find it!

After supper, we dropped Mark back of in Walnut Cove to wait for his wife, Joy. Then Steven and his wife Calista took me back to their home in Winston Salem, where I showered and slept soundly in their guest bedroom.

Before sleeping, I contacted my mom, who had volunteered to slack pack me tomorrow. She had agreed to meet me at “Duke’s Rest” and take all of my gear, except for a water bottle in her car all the way to Greensboro, over thirty miles away. This way, I could move lighter and faster on what would be the most miles I would attempt in a single day on this hike: 36 miles from Walnut Cove through Stokesdale to Greensboro.

I informed her that I was staying at her brother’s for the night, since the Duke’s Rest motel was actually a restaurant. She laughed and agreed to meet me in Winston the next morning, and take me back, yet again to Walnut Cove, to pick up where I left off.

 

 


 

 

 

September 12, 2012

Day 23

mm 432.6 – 454.38

Walnut Cove to Greensboro

My mom arrived bright and early but we didn’t leave right away. Everyone took a moment to hang out and catch up a little before we hit the road. I had some coffee and yogurt while we chatted.

Mom and I made it to Walnut Cove in no time and I explained where in Greensboro I thought I would make it to that afternoon and where she could park to meet me. Then, after some obligatory photos for my mother, I was on my way.

I was only carrying a small day pack now, with snacks and water and I was back on a two lane highway. This time there wasn’t much traffic, which allowed me to walk on the flat top itself. I began to jog along the smooth pavement. It felt amazing to just be bouncing along down the road, without a pack on. It was like flying.

I came upon Belew’s Lake and crossed right over the bridge my friends and I would park near when we came to goof off in the summers. Soon, I passed through the tiny one street downtown of Stokesdale, used the bathroom in a pizza joint and filled my water bottle at the gas station.

More side of road walking, though it is too busy now to walk on the pavement or jog, for that matter. I passed an elementary school with a long line of cars qued to pick up their respective little miracles.

Somewhere between Summerfield and Greensboro, a vehicle in the oncoming lane of traffic slowed to a halt right beside me in the middle of the road. There were lots of cars behind this one, and they began to pile up quickly. The driver, seemingly oblivious to the traffic jam accumulating behind him, rolled down the window to reveal he was a young Latino man, maybe in his late teens or early twenties. I immediately assumed this kid was going say something about the trail, like “My brother hiked that trail!” or “How far do you have left” or something similar. Instead, the guy looked me up and down and said, “Hey man…suck your dick?”

I did a double take. “Excuse me?”

“You want me to suck your dick, man?” he said, as if he were just offering me some gum.

Stunned, I looked at the cars, some of which were now honking, and back at the Gigolo in the drivers seat, who was just chilling, not a care in the world, waiting to see if his blowjob skills were going to be needed or not, stopping traffic on a highway. Just another day, you know?

“Um, no, I’m good right now, thanks…” I kind of shook my head and laughed, incredulous.

“Oh, ok.” He shrugged and drove off, to the relief of the drivers behind him.

Wow. If he only knew how mossy and sweaty my junk was right then, he’d have been singing a different tune. I laughed again and trotted on down the road, catching mean looks from the drivers, who thought I had something to do with their delay. Well, I guess I did. Or my short shorts did.

As the sun began to set, I finally reached Greensboro’s city limits. Just a few feet past the sign is a public parking where my mom and I planned to meet. The MST continues through that lot and back into the woods, utilizing the network of Lake Brandt Trails, including Owl’s Roost Trail, rated best urban mountain bike trail by Bicycling magazine years ago. This section is where I did most of my training hikes before hitting the trail.

There was my mom, waiting by her minivan, with her camera. I posed for some snapshots before she would let me in the car. Then we were on our way to my house, after all, Greensboro is my home town! I was definitely looking forward to sleeping in my bed not one but two nights, as I planned on taking a zero in town the next day.

 

 


 

 

September 13, 2012

Day 24

mm 454.38

Zero Day in Greensboro

This zero day was a me day. I went to the gym and used the jet tub to soak and massage my sore leg muscles. Then, two of my massage therapist friends each agreed to donate a session to me.

At one time in my life, I was a licensed massage therapist, so I have my own table, and these to gifted and generous beings were able to just swing by the house and further work and an relieve my aching body.

That night, I went out with my dad for pizza and went to my favorite bar, Jake’s Billiards for trivia night, where I ate a ton of pub food and got to see old friends.

Got to bed around 10pm which was pretty late for me.

 

 


 

 

September 14, 2012

Day 25

mm 454.38 – 491.12

Greensboro to Lion’s Club shelter

My mom picked me up from my house this morning and drove us back to where she had picked me up. We walked the first few miles together, before she had to take a side trail back to the car and return to civilization.

 

 

 

September 15, 2012

Day 26

mm 491.12 – 539.62

Lion’s Club to Penny’s Bend Parking Area (Picked up by Ben)

 

September 16, 2012

Day 27

mm 539.62 – 563.21

Penny’s Bend Parking to Falls Lake campground with dad

 

 

September 17, 2012

Day 28

mm 563.21 – 579.33

Fall Lake campground to side of road (Avery picked up)

 

 

September 18, 2012

Day 29

mm 579.33 – 603.44

Side of road to Army corps to New Hope Church (Nice youth minister and family)

 

 

September 19, 2012

Day 30

mm 603.44 – ???

New Hope Church to ???

 

 

September 20, 2012

Day 31

mm ??? – 654.87

??? to Eureka United Methodist Church (no one home, walked to BJ’s)

 

 

September 21, 2012

Day 32

mm 654.87 – 688.66

Eureka to Sandy Bottom (Webb Chapel United Methodist Church playground)

 

 

September 22, 2012

Day 33

mm 688.66 – 715.22

Webb United Methodist to Whaley’s Food Mart

 

 

 

September 23, 2012

Day 33

mm 715.22 – 735.56

Whaley’s to New Bern (Uncle Tommy Slack Packed)

 

 

 

September 24, 2012

Day 34

mm 735.56 – 766.57

Lisa’s apt. to Minnesott Ferry (slack packed) to Copperhead Landing Shelter

 

 

 

September 25, 2012

Day 35

mm 766.57 – 782.22

Copperhead Landing Shelter to Black Jack Lodge Shelter

 

 

 

September 26, 2012

Day 36

mm 782.22 – 801.19

Black Jack Lodge Shelter to Woodville Baptist church (old couple brought food)

 

 

 

September 27, 2012

Day 37

mm 801.19 – 818.33 – 832.30

Woodville Baptist Church to Diane’s to Cedar Island Ferry

 

 

 

September 28, 2012

Day 38

mm 832.30 – 854.69

Cedar Island Ferry to National Parks Frisco Campsite

 

 

 

September 29, 2012

Day 39

mm 854.69 – 883.65

Frisco Campsite to Ocean Waves Campground

 

 

 

September 30, 2012

Day 40

mm 883.65 – 910.10

Ocean Waves Campground to Comfort Inn, Nag’s Head

 

 

 

October 1, 2012

Day 41

mm 910.10 – 915.63

Comfort Inn to Jockey’s Ridge