Posted by: pjbarr | April 14, 2010

To the Max

Start: Mt. Cammerer Lookout Tower
Finish: Max Patch
Distance: 21.2 mi.
Trip Distance: 252.0 mi.
Side Trips: Return from Cammerer, Snowbird Mountain
Side Trip Miles: 0.8 mi.
State: North Carolina
Highlights: Mt. Cammerer Sunrise, Snowbird Mountain, Max Patch Sunset

“Nowhere else on the Appalachian Trail do I feel so strong an urge to return.” Earl Shaffer, on the Smokies during his 1948 thru-hike.

I had a big day. Perhaps my longest hiking day yet. With side trips, I put up a deuce deuce. My feet are suffering for it, though my body remained strong throughout the day. Today was like a southern Appalachian highlight reel. I had great views from a fire tower, and two 4 thousand foot grassy balds.
I awoke to discover that I had bested the resident lookout tower mouse. He had not gotten to my food which I hung from one of the metal rafters in the tower. I had observed where he entered the tower cab and plugged the mouse hole as well. I slept quite well. What a great spot to spend the night. It was like my own personal clubhouse that a kid dreams about. Perhaps this is a root for my fascination with the jobs of tower watchman.

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The sun rise from Mt. Cammerer was a dramatic way to begin the day. A fitting end to my time in the Smokies as the sun illuminated its high peaks for me one last time. Last night I enjoyed the dazzling spectacle of city lights lining the valley as I looked down upon Newport and distantly Pigeon Forge. This morning I watched a helicopter swoop between peaks as it entered the Pigeon River Gorge. It was probably a thousand feet above ground yet I was looking down on it at least two thousand feet below.
I got a somewhat late start for the big day I had planned. It was hard to leave White Rock, hard to leave the tower, and especially hard to leave the Smokies. Harvey was right.

My first 0.6 miles didn’t even count, rather just took me back to the AT. Shortly into the decent is one of my favorite trail construction features on the whole AT – a CCC built S-curving stone wall lining the outside of the trail as it winds its way through the rocky outcrops on a ridge descending from Mt. Cammerer. Earl Shaffer took a photo of this trail and rock wall when he passed through in 1948. Apparently we both found it aesthetically pleasing and appreciated the workmanship. And yet another piece of the AT that has remained unchanged in its route since its beginning in the 1930’s which I like very much since I get to literally walk in the footsteps of my heroes and all those to make the journey. There are too few original sections like this remaining. The CCC sure did a good job in the eastern Smokies has if is largely, if not entirely, remained unchanged. At the wall I took a cell photo on the rock outcropping overlooking the Big Creek Valley. It was here Allison took my picture years ago that would become my author photo used in my book and press releases.

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As I descended the Smokies main crest, I for the first time entered into spring. While I had been reveling in spring temperatures for awhile now, I for the first time entered into a forest where its floor was entirely covered in green and much of its trees had newly budded leaves. It was very exciting to see this life returning to the mountains.

I remember descending this section with Brad in 2004. It wasn’t funny then, but it is now: Brad was claiming he surely had suffered permanent damage to his knees, which were at the time aching so badly he could barely walk. Luckily, he walks limp free today, yet ironically he makes fun of me for my five percent disabled classification in my left shoulder that the insurance company bestowed upon me following its initial injury.

I stopped at Davenport Gap Shelter for water. I knew with the monster climb ahead I better start forcing hydration or (water loading) in advance of the climb. I collected four liters and I drank at least two and a half before the climb up Snowbird.
Soon I reached Davenport Gap, where Brad and I ended our 2004 inaugural hike. We were dismayed to learn we had another two miles to walk to our parked car. Brad’s nearly permanently damaged knees didn’t like that……

It was also where William Davenport concluded his 1821 survey of the Smokies crest – the first person to ever make such a journey, especially pre-trail era and probably the last to do so until Harvey Broome, Carlos Campbell, and company did it in 1931. A traverse of the Smokies range, especially the eastern Smokies, during the wild, untrailed days has always been most fascinating to me. Now that I think of it, Arnold Guyot surely completed a Smokies traverse himself in the 1950’s; though I am uncertain if it was all in a single trip.

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For whatever reason, Davenport decided that the Smokies ended at this gap and not about two miles further at the more logical Pigeon River. So adamant was he that the Smokies concluded here, he carved a stone and dated it to mark the end of his survey. The stone is still there today, though up the hill and in the woods, missed or ignored by most. The date 1821 is still very legible, though I have a suspicion its etching was enhanced in the 1930’s when the NPS reset the stone in concrete. It is a fabulous historical marker denoting the successful end to an amazing, wild journey by a brave man. And it was here my own journey in the Smokies came to an end. How greatly I enjoyed my time here, and how dearly I will miss them. But I will be back, for they are my home.

The Carolina Mountain Club maintains the next section of the trail north of the Smokies. I thoroughly enjoyed the section between Davenport Gap and the Pigeon River, much of which travels parallel to State Line Branch with several scenic cascades.

I cross the Pigeon River on a highway bridge. This section of the trail is most unfortunate, especially the first quarter mile that ascends the concrete pavement of the I-40 exit ramp before crossing under the interstate. I wish there were a long, pedestrian-only suspension bridge over the river just for hikers, as there was slightly up river near Waterville when Earl and Gene came through. The astounding continuality of the trail is severely broken here, for the first time since the start. I dearly hope this will be fixed in the future, but know that its priority will never be sufficient to do so.

Nevertheless, crossing under I-40 was significant for me. Countless times I had driven the highway into Tennessee en route to a Smokies hike. Never once on my way did fail to look down and see the white blazes crossing under the bridge and reentering the forest and never once did have I failed to imagine myself someday passing through on a thru-hike. Today was that day.

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While a better choice than over the Smokies, it is most unfortunate that I-40 had to be cut through the gorge. My hiking friends and I often discuss what a wild and dramatic place the Pigeon River Gorge would be without an interstate and if it was part of the National Park. The Nantahala Gorge would look puny in comparison. Today and in the future we still suffer the consequences of building this highway through such rugged terrain. A landslide in October has had the interstate through the gorge closed for months, including still today. It was odd passing under it with no rushing traffic overhead. It should have been like this all along, though even I can’t come up with a more reasonable western passage for American travel and commerce. After all, better than Indian Gap, where everyone crossed into Tennessee prior to the 20th century.

I opted not to visit Standing Bear Hostel. This was a sacrifice I had to make based on my desire to reach Hot Springs by Thursday night. But I have stayed there before and have enjoyed speaking with Curtis in the past. Last time in 2008, I gave him a copy of my book.

I snacked and got more water before the dreaded climb up Snowbird Mountain. On Green Corner Road, Southern caught-up with me, slightly irritated I did not arrive at Davenport Gap Shelter the previous night as I declared my intentions the previous morning. This deceit was necessary to secure my solo perch in the lookout tower. While I would have enjoyed Sothern’s company, I could not risk telling even one person which could ultimately have a result as if I told twenty people. I did feel somewhat bad, as I really like Southern. He is about my age and as mentioned, so significantly reminds me of my college roommate, Mark, that I feel we have been friend for years already.

The climb up Snowbird Mountain was long, hot, and hellacious. As if a 2,500 foot climb out of the Pigeon River Gorge wasn’t already difficult enough in the intense heat, the trail was absolutely decimated with blow downs. It was a nightmare obstacle course. And every fallen tree across the trail was always too high to go over yet too low to go under and usually too thick to even straddle. While I didn’t enjoy the climb, I still made good time and needed not to stop the entire ascent. My body can now readily handle long, arduous climbs quite well, even if my mind still struggles in advance and in duration of them.

I reached the summit of Snowbird Mountain and to my surprise and utter delight discovered the peak was a grassy bald with fantastic views of surrounding mountains, especially the Smokies to the west. I had expected the funky white FAA tower at the summit, but not these exciting, expansive views. The climb was utterly miserable and I was drenched in sweat and my clothing and pack straps had all turned almost completely white from salt. Yet the view made it worth it, especially under the circumstance of surprise. Mt. Cammerer looked strikingly pointed from this perspective, perhaps having more face prominence from this angle than any other. It looked like a tall spire, and it was particularly satisfying to know that I camped on top of it last night and that I had walked all the way here from it in only hours. This sentiment was partially shared when I viewed Mt. Guyot, its tall triangular peak looming large in the background. I had hiked off trail to climb it just two days ago and a view of it from this point made me pleased that I did.

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I could see the bald summit of Max Patch to the east. It would be my destination tonight, still 10 miles distant. I had hoped to make it there for sunset, but knew I would need to maintain high pace to achieve that goal.

I did achieve that goal thanks to hand hiking. Much of those 10 miles were without views so I remained focused on walking, though I took a snack and water break at Deep Gap and another short stop at Brown Gap to address a blister problem. I had discovered the culprit to my newest blister- an old band-aid that had remained in my sock had been stuck under a toe and rubbing it with great irritation.

The final few miles to Max Patch were literally like trying to reach the end of a rainbow. If you have ever sought out that pot of gold, you know that the rainbow just keeps getting further away. Max Patch was my pot of gold. Though the final climbs were not severe, I was convinced that I would reach Max Patch upon cresting a series of consecutive knobs. After about 5, I decided it absolutely had to be behind the next knob. To my dismay, another knob presented itself, and Max Patch curiously now seemed further away than two peaks prior. It was endlessly frustrating, though this phenomenon seems to have a way of presenting itself at day’s end, especially long hikes like today.

I finally reached the western NC gem that is Max Patch, and yes, it’s entirely in the Tar Heel state. We may share the Smokies, but the claim to Max Patch is ours alone. And what a claim it is. An expansive broad, entirely grassy bald mountain. It truly is a spectacle after emerging from hours, rather days, entirely in the wooded forest.

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I once camped on its summit with Allison, and visited it again on a short hike with my Groomsmen prior to my wedding in 2008. Walking to it, rather than driving, made it significantly more rewarding. This is the first true grassy bald on the AT. Its rolling green slopes extended down to gaps on all sides, unlike just a clear patch at only the summit as on Snowbird Mountain and several balds in the Nantahala’s.
It was exhilarating climbing to the summit. A half mile of hiking with constant views in all directions. It was difficult to focus on walking rather than looking.

I finally reached the top and with at least a half hour to spare before sunset which allowed me to set up camp. I spoke at length with a charming couple honeymooning in Hot Springs. They had hiked up to enjoy the sunset. They were my age and reminded me greatly of Allison and I. I was also very proud that they chose Western North Carolina as their destination for their honeymoon. It certainly is worthy of such an occasion, and tonight’s display on Max Patch was excellent. I gave them my card and I hope that they leave me a note on my web-site in the future. Seeing them enjoy the mountains together made me especially eager to see Allison.

I use a great amount of adjectives and hyperboles to describe the sunrises and sunsets which I have been so grossly spoiled with during my adventure thus far. I must say, that while all have been stunning, tonight’s display on Max Patch may have been the best of all. It is certainly my favorite sunset thus far. The shades of blue that each successive distant mountain ridge turned were innumerable as the sun declined above them. Both the setting and scene were surreal.

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Now the stars are out in all their glory. What a special place is Max Patch. I intend to return here with great frequency for as long as I am able. From sunrise to sunset, today has been a particularly memorable day on the Appalachian Trail.


Responses

  1. Excellent photos and writing Peter. I’m amazed that you are able to squeeze so much into your days.

  2. the ‘bald’ on snowbird used to be considerably smaller, with no real view other than that adjacent to the tower. after 911, the bald was expanded in the name of security, so the result is what we have today. they just pushed a lot of the trees to the northern edge of the forest, which remains a tangled mess which is pretty much unpassable. they did the same kind of thing on top of walnut mtn when they cleared it as part of the wasp project. long rows of downed trees and brush which formed great natural barricades.


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