Posted by: pjbarr | April 25, 2010

A Beautiful Spot

Start: Curley Maple Gap Shelter
Finish: Greasy Creek Gap; Greasy Creek Friendly Hostel
Distance: 20.1 mi.
Trip Distance: 364.2 mi.
Side Trips: Beauty Spot East Peak, RFG 154, Little Bald Knob, Greasy Creek Friendly
Side Trip Miles: 2.0 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Beauty Spot, Unaka Mountain

“To myself, mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery; in them, and in the forms of inferior landscape that lead to them, my affection are wholly bound up.”
-John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1850

Since it ended up raining sporadically yesterday afternoon and more steadily in the evening, it perhaps was a good decision to stop short yesterday. Today, to the contrary, was sunny and rain never once threatened. I spent much of the first several miles of hiking today on the cell phone.


Still in visible sight of Erwin, I was excited to have cell phone service and knew that I would lose it soon enough in the days to come. I talked to Allison for a good period and to my parents even longer. I found the section of trail between the shelter and the first road crossing to be generally uninteresting as it was, so the telephone proved to be a perfect distraction that allowed me to connect with my loved ones while making good time on the Trail. I find I am often able to put away miles while talking to someone, be it on the phone or in person, and never dwell on how many miles I have to go or try to guess – always inaccurately – how many miles I have come thus far. Finished with my conversations, I arrived at Indian Grave Gap in practically no time, having hiked about four miles without once thinking about my progress. This proved strategic since I was to attempt 20 miles today, even in spite of my now routine late morning departures from camp.

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Before the camera hit the ground…

John Sevier, Revolutionary War general and leader of the Overmountain Men that he marched from Tennessee to North Carolina and in the Battle of Kings Mountain, wrote that he buried the bodies of 145 native Americas in the gap now with the appropriate but grisly name Indian Grave Gap. I reached the gap at about noon. A paved highway crossed the mountain here and several highway signs marked the state border between North Carolina and Tennessee. I thought this a great photograph opportunity and I used my monopod trekking pole to set up a self photo. While I waited for the camera’s timer to count down and take my picture, the pole became loose and fell forward, slamming the camera into the hard gravel ground.

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This how all the pictures looked after that hard hit…

While I was alarmed, this had happened a few times already on my hike, so I was only mildly concerned. However, this was the camera’s hardest hit yet, and it proved a fatal one. The camera still operated, but soon I discovered that its photos would only appear as while stripped images. I spent nearly an hour in the gap trying to repair the camera though what was causing its dysfunction was clearly internal and beyond my ability to fix. Nevertheless, I attempted a hundred different combination of its settings and after much frustration, I ultimately was successful in finding one specific setting where images could still be made without error in their development. My emotions had been uplifted after they spent a considerable time proverbially on the ground, like the camera. The thought of trekking through the Highlands of Roan without the ability to take photographs was a disappointing one, so I was excited I would not have to miss documenting that beautiful upcoming section of trail.

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I climbed out of the gap through a recently burned section of the ridgeline. The trail was rocky and the lack of foliage on the trees made it very hot. I finally reached Beauty Spot, a small bald summit with tremendous southern views that look back into the direction of Erwin. And what a beautiful spot it was. This was my intended camping location last night, so I am fortunate that I waited until today so that I could enjoy its vistas. Unaka Mountain was visible to the east, and it loomed large and its spruce covered summit made it appear dark and ominous.

Shortly after Beauty Spot, I ran into Grapevine hiking in the other direction. He had arranged a slackpack at Uncle Johnnys and was hiking southbound back to the hostel without a pack. It was good to see him, and in spite of his lack of weight on his back, I had no interest in his hiking method. I am a stubborn traditionalist, and I personally will always hike northbound, I will pass every white blaze, and I will carry my pack every step of the way. That’s just my style, though it differs from the majority of those out here. I find slackpacking to be a break in what it means to thru-hike. Changing direction and forgoing your backpack suddenly turns the expedition into a series of section hikes and day hikes.

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I made a slight detour through open woods to an NC4k peak. It is nameless on the topo map but I refer to it as Beauty Spot East. Afterward I reached Deep Gap and found the climb out of it and up Unaka Mountain to be steep and strenuous in spite of the switchbacks that I am sure were not always in place for my convenience. I think the rocky treadway of the trail made the ascent especially difficult. The heat didn’t help either.

I reached the top of Unaka Mountain, a summit I have visited twice before. It has no views but it does not need these to make it a magical place. Rather it is a eerily dark spruce forest, one that makes the top of the mountain so lacking in light that it seems like dusk even in the middle of the afternoon. It is a mystical forest albeit a bit spooky; it is a welcome contrast to the other forests through which the Trail passes.

Unaka is a P1k peak and NC 5k summit. It is a matter of debate whether it is the high point of the Unaka Range; this depends on one’s opinion as to the inclusion of the Roans in the range. I haven’t yet decided myself, to be honest. Nevertheless, it is a big mountain and I was pleased that the Trail actually passes over a summit for once. When Earl Shaffer crossed the peak in 1948, it was completely treeless following the devastation from a recent fire. These spruce were planted by the Forest Service shortly thereafter and in the sixty years since, the mountaintop has been reforested with a dark crown of evergreens.

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The remainder of the day was uneventful, as I put my nose to the grindstone to churn out the rest of the miles to Greasy Creek Gap. I took a side trip to an unnamed peak but one identified on the topo quad with a benchmark listed as RFG 154. This peak is just east of Low Gap and the AT was supposed to come within a quarter of a mile of the summit. Unfortunately, the Trail appeared to have been rerouted, without purpose of course, so that the closest I got within the summit by trail was about 0.4 mi. I bushwhacked through open woods to reach its top, en route crossing the old route of the AT.

I stopped for an extended lunch at Cherry Gap Shelter before heading onward. Once again, the AT was supposed to head directly over the summit of another peak on my list, Little Bald Knob, another NC 4k peak. Yet once again, I found the trail to not reach its summit and instead contour around its north side. For me, this was the final straw with the TEHCC maintainers. I bushwhacked to the summit and found the old trail which did not suffer in the least from erosion. I swear that club sits around twiddling their thumbs thinking about where they can reroute the trail.

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This particular reroute infuriated me. It wasn’t because I had to make a side trip, but rather at the lack of regard for the historical route of the Trail itself. The AT has gone over the summit of Little Bald Knob for seventy years. And without reason, this club has eagerly destroyed the history of its path. Rerouting for whatever reason as opposed to fixing whatever problem exists with the current trail is absolutely unacceptable to me. The eastern Smokies haven’t been rerouted in eight decades, and some of it even faces the damages inflicted by horses. That’s an example that shows that if built correctly in the first place, such drastic action isn’t necessary in spite of its high usage.

I’m suspicious that a reroute is more appealing to this trail club because of the enticement of a large scale project and the lure of building a new section of trail, rather than the less appealing effort of fixing an established trail. If the TEHCC could put half the effort that they put into reroutes into building and maintaining privies, then their entire mountainsides near shelters wouldn’t be the desiccated fields of human waste that they are now. And their trail shelters themselves are without question the worst on the AT thus far. I’m sorry for the soapbox, but their enthusiasm for reroutes simply burns me up.

Such effort is put forth to an unnecessary solution, and in the process results the destruction of history. Aurora told me that the ATC intends to begin a project to list the entire Appalachian Trail in the National Register of Historic Places. This is a sham. This is no preservation of history on the AT in regards to its route. It shouldn’t even be close to eligible considering the thoughtless abandonment of its historical course. I hope the listing succeeds, as per its regulations, any reroute wouldn’t be allowed considering it jeopardizes the history of its route, much like you cannot make drastic modifications to a historical structure without loss of its historic designation.

It took until Iron Mountain Gap to cool down about the TEHCC reroutes, but I know for certain my irritation will be resurrected over the next hundred miles or more. Iron Mountain Gap is today crossed by a paved highway but it is one of the high mountain passes that Daniel Boone crossed the Appalachian divide to reach Tennessee. Shortly beyond the gap, I passed through a pleasant grassy meadow that I read was an orchard many years in the past. Many hikers chose to camp here, including my friends Thunder & Day Tripper and Brooklyn & Stretcher, each whom I had been leap frogging on several occasions throughout today. I continued on in the early evening hours toward Greasy Creek Gap, climbing over an unnamed summit on the Iron Mountain range that counted as a NC 4k peak.

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When I reached Greasy Creek Gap, I took a surprisingly distant side trip to the Greasy Creek Friendly hostel which was down slope on the North Carolina side. And my goodness it was down slope. I just kept thinking how arduous the start of tomorrow’s hike would be with the necessity of reclimbing all of this elevation that I had lost. I had planned to stay at this hostel based on the recommendation of my friend Allgood, who stayed here two years prior on his thru-hike. I must be honest and admit that my expectations were not met and I was disappointed with the hostel. No offense to Allgood, and no hard feelings for sure. Everyone has a different experience at certain places (note: Elmers). But I can’t emphasize enough the oddness of this place. It proved to be a decent place to spend the evening and at only $10 to stay in the bunkhouse, I don’t regret staying here. It was just really odd. The hospitality was quite present but mixed with some weird quirks and rules. Within only a few minutes time, I felt both welcome and unwanted at the same time. There is a strange, obsessive hand washing thing here. But that’s just one of the quirks. I really can’t say anything bad about Greasy Creek Friendly, but I can’t say I’d recommend it to future hikers. I’m sure I will pay the real price when I must reclimb the hill tomorrow morning in spite of the low rate. I’ll find out in the morning.

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Posted by: pjbarr | April 24, 2010

Sleep Walking

Start: Irwin, TN; Uncle Johnny’s Hostel at Nolichucky River
Finish: Curley Maple Gap Shelter
Distance: 4.2 mi.
Trip Distance: 344.1 mi.
Side Trips: none
Side Trip Miles: 0.0 mi.
State: TN
Highlights: Southern Smothered Breakfast Platter, Seeing Friends

“A person needs at intervals to separate himself from family and companions and go to new places. He must go without his familiars, in order to be open to influences, to change.”
— Katherine Butler Hathaway

I stayed awake last night working on the computer. I made great progress in my work on my journal website and in catching up on coorespondence. This was a change from the typical frustration that has resulted from brief access to technology with too much to do with too little time to do it. I actually went to bed satisfied with my accomplishments rather than irritated at my short comings.

The consequence of this was that I only got about 3 or 4 hours of sleep last night. This was certainly a trade off, though I do feel I wished I would have taken longer advantage of a soft bed in which to sleep. But I didn’t think the sleep deprivation would have affected my hike today as much as it did.
My parents and I returned from Johnson City to Irwin and they treated me to my favorite breakfast, the Southern Smothered Breakfast Platter at Huddle House.

This dish involves taking most common breakfast food components and throwing them into a tall heap. This includes biscuits and gravy, bacon, sausage, hash browns, eggs, and cheese. I cut and mix it up into a massive, messy conglomerate of breakfast bliss. It takes a champion appetite to finish it, but I needed to use discretion seeing how I would have to deal with the digestive repercussions of over eating while out in the woods, so I stopped just short of finishing it off.

I bid farewell to my folks who dropped me off at Uncle Johnny’s. At the hostel, I had a prearranged meeting with Steve Schoof, a writer for Blue Ridge Country Magazine that was doing an article about the CMC’s South Bound 6,000 challenge program. Steve had completed SB6k last year and we had corresponded sporadically since then. I was excited to meet him and discuss a program that I chair for the club as well as remain so passionate about. Our interview was fun and relaxed and I am appreciative he drove from Asheville to Erwin just to speak with me.

After the interview, I saw two people I like dearly but hadn’t seen in a long time: Chef and So Far. It was great seeing them again. Like at Hot Springs, Chef claims to be headed out of town tomorrow, so hopefully he will catch me soon especially with my short day today. But he ended up staying a day in Hot Springs last week which explained why he had not caught me previously. So Far, on the other hand, plans to take several days in Erwin and it may be sometime again before I see him, though I suspect I will again soon at some point.

I really dragged my feet getting back on the trail today. It is hard to leave a town after pleasant encounters with friends and family, especially when today’s forecast called for severe thunderstorms. When I did get back on the trail just before noon, I was going at especially lackadaisical pace and hiking without drive. It was the combination of being sleepy and the reluctance to leave town. I experienced this when I left the NOC after crossing the Nantahala River. Today I crossed the Nolichucky before reentering the forest.

The trail was initially easy in grade and terrain so I was frustrated with my slow pace and missing motivation. I was just ambling along. Somehow I managed to catch Brooklyn and Stretcher, friends I had gotten to know over the past week since Hot Springs. After brief conversation, we all hiked together in silence, even when the steep, inevitable climb finally reared its head. I think they had a similar feeling to mine today as our pace wasn’t fast and our conversation limited. It was all reflected in us when we decided to stop at the first shelter at Conley Maple Gap at just 2 pm. We simply didn’t feel like hiking today.

I caught up on my sleep – a nearly 4 hour nap this afternoon, even without an inflated sleeping pad or comfort of a sleeping bag. I just plain slept. Now dark, the rain that the forecast promised is finally falling though without the severe storms that were suppose to develop. We have finally reached the point in spring and summer where it will be 40% chance of storms from here on out every day, so no need in taking stock in the weather forecast.

Tomorrow I hope to make 20 miles to Greasy Creek Gap, regardless of weather. I look forward to the return of my motivation and I am excited to get back on the trail in the morning.

Posted by: pjbarr | April 23, 2010

The Valley Beautiful

Start: Irwin, TN; Uncle Johnny’s Hostel
Finish: Johnson City, TN
Distance: 0.0 mi.
Trip Distance: 339.9 mi.
Side Trips: Irwin, TN
Side Trip Miles: 0.0 mi.
State: TN
Highlights: Pizza Buffet, Seeing my Parents, Luxurious Accommodations

When you look at your life, the greatest happinesses are family happinesses. – Joyce Brothers

I awoke to the sound of rain on my tent. It was like a lullaby to wake me up. My spacious, double wall tent allows me to rest easy in the rain, as I have no issues with condensation or water seeping in. With its large size, I can move around freely without worrying about hitting the mess against the rain ply and getting wet. Yes, my new tent is a hiker palace.

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Since my parents were coming this morning, I was able to sleep in and lazily emerge from my tent. About half of the 20+ tents from last night were already gone. I reveled in not having to hastily pack up, and I enjoyed an hour of hanging out around the hostel.

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My folks arrived and I was so excited to see them. It had been three weeks since their last visit and I had hiked about 200 miles since then. They were impressed with my fuller beard. I had not really gotten the chance to examine it myself at length until this evening in the mirror.

We spent the day taking care of chores like laundry, a run to Wal-Mart, the post office, etc. We ate a fantastic, extremely satisfying lunch at the all you can eat pizza buffet at Pizza Plus. We also milled around downtown for a while and visited the Chamber of Commerce before driving to Johnson City.
Erwin sits in a valley once referred to as “The Valley Beautiful”. I learned of this pleasing name from Sam Brocato, the head of the Partners of the Cherokee National Forest who is leading a project to restore the Pinnacle Mountain lookout tower on the north side of the valley. Allison and I travelled to The Valley Beautiful last fall to help with the fund raiser for the project.

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We also travelled here over a year ago to meet with Charles Maynard, founder of the Friends of the Smokies and ring leader of the Mt. Camarerer restoration project in the Smokies during the mid-1990’s. We met to discuss the restoration of Shuckstack, and I hope to get Charles more involved in the initiative in the future. He is very influential in regards to the park and has the ability to aid significantly with such a project.

Irwin is famous, rather infamous, for once hanging an elephant to death in the early 20th century. A circus elephant in near Kingsport, TN, had trampled and killed its keeper. Irwin, having both the necessary equipment and the desire, organized to execute the elephant by hanging from a crane at their train depot. Thousands turned out to watch, though the first chain broke and another chain had to be used, ultimately taking the elephants’ life after an hour. I’m not sure if Irwin is proud of this, but it is an interesting story.

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Tonight we are staying at the Doubletree Hotel, overwhelmingly luxurious accommodations that my tired body has been most enjoying. It has been a great day off spent with family I love.

Posted by: pjbarr | April 22, 2010

Down to the Nolichucky

Start: Whistling Gap
Finish: Erwin, TN Uncle Johnny’s Hostel
Distance: 13.5 mi.
Trip Distance: 339.9 mi.
Side Trips: High Rocks
Side Trip Miles: 0.1 mi.
State: TN
Highlights: High Rocks, View down to Nolichucky River

“That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.” – Henry David Thoreau

This morning I tested out packing up all of my gear entirely inside my tent. The spacious room inside the tent allowed me to do this with rather ease and even in a quick, organized fashion. This will be superb when it finally comes time to actually do this in a downpour. Disassembling the tent, however, is not as quick of a process and the opportunity for the tent to get its interior wet will be present. Nevertheless, I love the new tent and the switch from the Big Agnes Seedhouse SL1 to the SL2 was a good one. The luxury and functionality are definitely worth the extra ounces.

 

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I knew a beau coup of hikers would be descending from Bald Mountain Shelter today in route to the hostel in town and I wanted to beat them to ensure I got a spot. As it turns out, it didn’t matter because the hostel bunkhouse was full but at least I got a decent tent spot at half the price.


Nevertheless, I awoke early for my standards and left before 8:00 am, a victory for a morning that was extremely cold and one that required tent disassembly, two morning obstacles that usually slow my departure unreasonably. I would have even left earlier but I enjoyed hanging out briefly with Tree, Kricket, and Mr. Fusion while we ate breakfast.

The AT once turned off the ridge and dropped into Tennessee in Earl Shafer’s day, then climbing directly to Devil’s Creek Gap. Now it ascends to High Rocks, which I took the short side trail to its rocky Summit. The view here was limited. I could see Little Bald to the west and Flat Top Mountain to the north. Flat Top looked quite visually impressive as it is quite prominent. The lengthy side trip to its 4,710 foot summit was one I decided against today in favor of making it to town early. But I will return for it in the future. The view from High Rocks is increasingly becoming obscured by trees. Three years ago when I visited here it was more expansive. On that hike from Spivey Gap I found a lost and nearly starved beagle and then climbed to the summit to get cell phone reception to call the owner. I would hike back down to the gap to coax the stumbling dog back to its owner, and then re-climb this peak. Thus I was overly familiar with the next few miles of trail after having hiked it repeatedly.

I stopped for water just prior to the road crossing at Spivey Gap. The climb on the other side was steep and its difficulty caught me off guard. When the trail turned and began a gradual decent to Devil’s Creek Gap, I was thankful. The trail that connects the gap to No Business Knob Shelter went in and out of every single ravine and rivulet and around countless finger ridges, though it generally kept the same elevation, so the walking was pleasant and fast.

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I decided that No Business Knob Shelter was named this because of its lack of privy, of which I greatly desired. The shelter itself was an unattractive cinder block structure. Kricket, Brooklyn, Stretcher, and Mr. Fusion showed up and we ate lunch there. We all headed out together and hiked in a train as far as the eastern shoulder of Temple Hill. One day I’d like to take the old road up to the summit where there use to be a fire tower. Today wouldn’t be that day, though I was pleased to discover a trail leading into Temple Hill Gap that will make a future visit easier.

I must have set the pace too high for the guys as they stopped to recuperate and hydrate at the top of the climb. I was easily hiking uphill in excess of three mph though I found it endlessly more challenging to follow a high pace yesterday chasing Kricket up Little Bald than it was to set a high pace in the lead. It’s a strange phenomenon.

Mr. Fusion must not have stopped long as he soon caught up to me. We both then essentially ran the handfuls of switchbacks down the ridge into the valley. The descending grade actually made it easier to jog then walk and brace your body weight each step. Mr. Fusion and I discussed how there exists a perfect speed where you are jogging downhill fast enough to make good time and ease the impact on your knees but yet not have your pack bounce up and down or be out of control. We both achieved that speed most of the way down. Several overlooks allowed us to see Erwin in the valley below, making us more eager. We stopped once at one exceptional overlook at a bluff that gave a view down into the Nolichucky River Gorge and a railroad bridge spanning the water. It is a view I had seen in many photographs and one I was excited to finally see in person.

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We reached the road and banks of the Nolichucky River at 1:15pm, having left the shelter after lunch at 11:30am. I don’t know the exact mileage but this was a fast pace and reflected our eagerness to reach The Valley Beautiful.

As mentioned, Uncle Johnny’s bunkhouse was full, so I’m tenting out on the lawn for $8 dollars which includes a shower and bathroom privileges. Uncle Johnny, a cowboy hat wearing white bearded fellow resembling Kenny Rogers, told me he has the nicest bathhouse on the trail. I don’t know about that, but it is pretty good.

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My new friends Kricket, Mr. Fusion, and Tree are also tenting here with me as well as a mid-50’s guy named Fog. I’ve really gotten to like Fog, who I met the night at Flint Mountain Shelter. He is a super-ultra light guy who thru-hiked in 2008. He has his system refined and he swears by it, though we just love busting his chops about hoe he must be cold at night, uncomfortable while sleeping, and hungry and thirsty during the day. He swears he suffers none of these problems, but we don’t believe him. Best of all, he takes our ribbing with a good attitude.

Following a shower, some relaxing, and some writing at Uncle Johnny’s, we caught the van shuttle into Erwin for dinner. One of the highlights of the day was having dinner at KFC where they had a “burger” where the middle was bacon, cheese, and sauce and the bun on top and bottom was replaced by 2 pieces of fried chicken. You’ve got to be kidding me……. And it was glorious. I ate it all without a struggle, and downed a large side of Mac among other things off of Mr. Fusion’s buffet plate. Fog took the revolutionary burger challenge with me too and also succeeded easily.

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Tonight Uncle Johnny’s is packed. I counted 24 tents, and there are a least 10 people in the bunkhouse. Old Uncle Johnny is making a killing considering his overhead is practically zero. I do appreciate the free shuttle to and from town in return for my $8 dollar business. The social scene here is fun with lots of familiar faces and some new ones; though there are so many people one night will be plenty. Fog, Tree, and Kricket are leaving tomorrow as is Mr. Fusion so they will get ahead but maybe old friends will catch-up. Chef should be close, but still waiting on him and hope to see him soon.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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