Posted by: pjbarr | April 21, 2010

Big Bald

Start: Flint Mountain Shelter
Finish: Whistling Gap
Distance: 0.0 mi.
Trip Distance: 271.8 mi.
Side Trips: Sam’s Gap Cemetery
Side Trip Miles: 0.1 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Morning Fog, Water Fall, Graves and Home sites, I-26 Crossing, Big Bald

It is a mistake to try to look too far ahead. The chain of destiny can only be grasped one link at a time. – Sir Winston Churchill

While I favor the clear days with blue sky’s to enjoy the views never is the forest more beautiful than a misty, foggy, spring morning. Today I hiked through the woods where the green of spring had exploded yet was shrouded in a mysterious fog. This persisted on the long climb up Lick Rock where I noticed remains of log cabins and several old grave sites. The history of the centuries of former habitation seem to be lingering as a secret floating in the fog. I wish to return to this area and discover its secrets in the future.

Near Devil’s Fork Gap, Kricket caught up with me and declared his desire to hike with me today. This was exciting; here was someone who wanted specifically to hike with me to get to know me and talk with me. I first met Kricket at the F-4 plane crash in the Smokies but spoke only briefly then. Kricket kind of reminds me of a young Matthew Mahconahey in both appearance and accent. He’s from Georgia and is a few years younger than I am. Apparently he took great interest in the topic of my book last night when it came up in the shelter. He asked me all about it with great interest and told me about his desire to get published. I shared with him the process and our conversation led to all topics. We discussed why each of us was out here hiking the trail, our educational background, and career interests. We discovered that we both have an interest of becoming college professors in the fields of interest that we have. We also discussed places we have traveled, gear we’ve used and now utilize on this hike, and our better halves in our life.

I spent the entire day hiking with Kricket and by the end of the day we had gotten to know each other well enough that it was as if we had been friends for years. Never had I hiked an entire day with someone on this trip until today, and it was a great experience. Kricket and I hike at the same pace – a fast one – and we got so lost in conversation that we were burning up the trail without realizing it. We hiked the nearly 9 miles to Hogback Ridge Shelter in only three hours, which included a brutally steep climb up Lick Rock in the drizzling rain.


It was this climb that included a neat water fall cascade as well as graves and old log cabin remnants. Lick Rock was on my peak bagging list as 4,000 footer. The trail went right over the top after climbing steeply following an old fence line. There were no rocks at the top despite the name. I side stepped from the trail to touch the top, explaining my hobby and obsessive – compulsive traits to Kricket and Tree, whom we reeled in on our hasty ascent. I’d later go over the summits with similar side steps of High Rocks, which again had no rocks whatsoever, an unnamed peak just prior to the grassy meadow before Street Gap, and Little Bald, a “fiver” which I had previously tagged on two occasions. I’m glad these peaks were all right on the trail as any side trips today would have separated Kricket and me.
We took an hour lunch break at Hogback Ridge Shelter marveling at our blazing pace. We made good time down to Sam’s Gap, where we took another 30 minutes to take advantage of the cell phone reception accompanying the interstate corridor. While on the phone with my Mom, I walked up hill and checked out a cemetery on the knoll that straddled the state line. I removed my coat and switched to shorts in anticipation of the drawn out ascent to Big Bald that we would tackle next.


We crossed under I-26, a route I had driven over handfuls of times and always mystically looked at the AT. It was finally time for me to pass through a moment I day-dreamed of every single drive over the mountain through this pass.


Immediately upon beginning the climb I encountered a familiar and friendly face. It was Jay Bretz and his wife, a Carolina Mountain Club member who has enthusiastically attended both of the hikes I have led for the club last year. I was hopeful to see a few CMC members on this section, and our coincidental encounter was quite fortunate timing. As it turns out, Jay had met Kricket several days prior near Max Patch while hiking, another unlikely coincidence. The brief run-in with Jay was exciting and lifted my spirits for the impending climb.


Again Kricket and I burned up the ascent by getting lost in conversation. We again maintained a 3 mph pace, even on this 6.5 mile, nearly 2,000 foot climb. We enjoyed the views from the meadow prior to Street Gap. Big Bald still looked very distant, and a big cloud was still hovering over its very upper summit. We hoped it would lift before we achieved its peak, and our timing was fortunate that it did that just in time, though not without extreme effort in climbing its final, rock pitch of considerable steepness just prior to the bald.

Right before emerging on to the bald, we passed a side trail that leads down slope to the cave and former living quarters of the “Hermit of Big Bald”, David Greer. Known as “Hog Greer”, this man became a reclusive and lived years in solitude on this majestic mountain. The story is extensive and I will skip its bulk though if interested both George Ellison and J. R. Tate are authors whom have published excellent narratives on this man and his peculiar story and life style.

We soon reached the summit of Big Bald, at 5,516 feet, the highest peak in the Bald Mountains Range and highest between the Smokies and the Roans. This is a 2,000 foot prominence peak and the high point of Unicoi County, TN. But most of all, its views were out of this world. The clouds had lifted and individual rays of sun were protruding through them all over as if being beamed down by space ships. These rays were illuminating both valleys and distant peaks, and the light show was as fascinating as any sunrise or sunset. We could see Camp Creek Bald looming large in the distance were I had laboriously climbed to the summit just two days before. The Smokies were distantly visible to the southwest, and Mt. Mitchell and the Blacks seem tangibly close to the east. The Roans were hidden behind clouds to the northeast, obscuring our intimidating destination of the next week.


It was great to share the exhilaration of reaching this summit with someone else like Kricket, as well as Mr. Fusion whom we caught upon reaching the summit. I shared this feeling with Allison last spring on a crystal clear day on this very mountain top.

The wind was howling and temperatures in the low 40’s, so we all were freezing are asses off, but so excited that we spent at least 10 minutes taking photos of both the views and each other standing on the bald. This was another summit that was difficult to leave, though the frigid conditions made our parting somewhat less difficult.


Our hike for the next mile took us down the peak, though the gap of Big Stamp, and across a ridge that all remained bald and with captivating non-stop views in all directions. The Smokies will always be my favorite, but the southern Appalachian balds will always exhilarate me to the utmost degree every time I walk across their beautiful summits. These dramatic transitions from deep forests to overwhelming vistas that persists across ridges are a highlight of the trail in the south. I look very forward to the grandest of southern Appalachian balds in the Highlands of Roan as the ultimate finale before leaving my home state for the final time on this adventure.

Kricket and I reached Bald Mountain Shelter at 5 pm and discovered a large crowd of thru-hikers that we had caught. We were both feeling good despite a challenging 19 miles thus far, so after getting water, chose to push on to a camp site further along the trail. The strategy of getting a head start on this conglomerate of hikers, all surely hostel-bound for town tomorrow, also appealed to us. Yul the Mule, whom I met at Albert Mountain weeks back and drank with at the Laundromat in Hot Springs, recently, joined us.


Having led all day, I let Kricket lead for this final 3-plus mile leg. I learned it is infinitely more difficult to follow a high pace then to set one. The short climb up Little Bald nearly did me in and it took all my energy to stay on the heels of Kricket. I side stepped to the summit at the top of the climb, but this act was as much to steal a break to catch my breath as it was to touch the top. I had been here before, after all.

We reached Whistling Gap in under an hour from the shelter finishing a long day of amazing pace at its highest speed right at its end. Tonight I am camped with Kricket, Mr. Fusion, and Tree, whom also had a big day and pushed the distance here. This was my longest day yet and involved several killer climbs, yet my body feels great. Perhaps I am finally coming into my endurance hiking form. I have no blisters, foot wounds or hot spots, and no muscle aches or even foot soreness. My feet must have finally acclimated to the Superfeet insoles, which finally seem to be worth their high price tag. And I attribute my lack of blisters and soreness in my Achilles and ankle to the thinner liner socks that Southern so graciously bestowed to me in Hot Springs last week-end. Thanks, Southern – they did the trick and have me hiking in top form.

We have a fire going and are enjoying the evening just shooting the breeze. Mr. Fusion mentioned that our day was a “one percent day”, or a hike in excess of 21.7 miles. We’re proud of our accomplishment today. It was Tree’s first 20+ miler, and it sure made me feel better about my sub 6 mile layup yesterday, especially feeling as good as I do after that distance and pace. “Only” 13.6 miles to Erwin tomorrow and we are all drooling over the array of food options that will greet us upon arrival.
I’m using my new Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent tonight for the first time. I’m already excited about the looks of its spacious interior. I hope for an early start in the morning to head off the crowd coming down from Bald Mountain Shelter. Town tomorrow!

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