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Fright on Bald Mountain
¤
Where success is not measured by overcoming the tempest, but enduring it.

Hot Springs NC to Erwin TN

We haven't done a long section since October, and the prospect of February weather gives us plenty reason to fear. But, if we're ever to see Katahdin, now is the time to "take the bull by the tail and face the situation".

2/18 Home to Hot Springs NC to Rich Mt. campsite (8.4 miles)

"You'll be bothered from time to time by storms, fog, snow. When you are, think of those who went through it before you, and say to yourself, "What they could do, I can do."
Antoine de Saint Exupéry - Wind, Sand and Stars

Our drive down takes us to Elmer's in Hot Springs, where we've arranged to leave our car for its shuttle north. After a quick chat with Elmer (finding to our delight that Caveman and Spike passed through a week ago), we hit the trail at 3:30, walking through the quaint downtown area. After crossing the French Broad river the trail turns up the riverbank - the river's beautiful on the clear day, and mighty in its surging fury.

The trail climbs towards Lover's Leap (Cherokee legend holds their maiden, Mist on the Mountain, threw herself off after her lover Magwa was killed in battle). There are many beautiful overlooks, and as we stand on one, some weekenders emerge, having just spent a night at the campsite by the Rich Mt. Fire tower, which they highly recommend. It's forecast to be a cold night tonight (17F down in Asheville, and it's already 32F out here, crunching the familiar "ice pipes" underfoot as we walk.
A pond ahead holds what's termed "an excellent campsite", the only time I've ever seen these words in an AT guidebook. I expect a little slice of Eden, nestled in the pines, perhaps a valley overlook in one direction and the tranquil mountain lake in the other; but on reaching it, nothing could be further from the truth. The pond is stagnant, the campsite a small, marginally level space in the mud at its far end, and the area behind graded for future construction. A small pile of industrial lumber lies here for firewood, but other than this, I see no merits whatsoever. Coleen agrees, and we push on to Rich Mt, knowing we'll arrive well after dark. We're armed however, with our new Petzl headlamp, and with temps dropping, walking's warmer than sitting around camp, so we hike on. The sun sets behind us in brilliant red and orange hues, casting the Smokies in a beautiful blue silhouette, but the night cools quickly, so soon both jackets and lights are out. As night falls, a brilliant star emerges slightly to our left - it must be Venus, but I've never seen it shine so brightly - it looks like the star of Bethlehem that first Christmas.

We soon pass the Rich Mt. fire tower trail, with a spring and a "campsite - 50 yds" sign pointing into the woods immediately after. It takes a long search through the brambles before we finally locate the site, a good one indeed - there's a bench and a table built, and plenty of level space for our tent. Building a fire proves tough with wet wood, but soon we have soup started, and dine on ham and cheese sandwiches on bagels (new tradition - heavy food for our first meal). It's 9:00 before we eat, and in view of the hour we abandon a plan to visit the fire tower for a look at the stars (a good view right here from the campsite), getting to bed at 11:30.
Hot Springs overlook
The AT approaching Lover's Leap
Rich Mt Overlook

2/19 Rich Mt. - Jerry Cabin shelter (17.9 miles)

"I may not have always gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be."
Douglas Adams - A Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy

We wake feeling surprisingly warm, though it's still frosty out, the water bag we'd forgotten to empty now frozen around the edges. It's a great morning (always fun to discover what the site really looks like in the light), and with coffee made, we elect to take our breakfast atop the fire tower. It's a short walk, so we head over with camera and coffee, finding the view spectacular, though there's a howling wind from the south up here (odd, it's steady westerly in our campsite).
A view with our coffee
We're out by 8:54, the snow filling the northern exposures of the slopes, eventually covering most of the ground save the trail itself. After passing a memorial to Rex Pulford (died here of a heart attack during his 1983 thru-hike), we break at Spring Mt shelter, finding Spike's register entry here with a few others of interest. At Allen Gap we'd hoped for a last "town food" fix at the State Line Service Station, but on arrival we find the station's been closed for some time. The lawn out front's a good place to sit in the sun for lunch though, with a couple of weekenders emerging from the woods (bound for Hot Springs) as we do - after chatting and taking their pix at the state line sign, we all pack up and head on.

It's a featureless trail, and as 3:00 arrives, I pick a handy log for our break. Coleen looks puzzled and asks why we didn't wait for the Little Laurel shelter, which I advise is quite a ways further yet. Of course, when we resume our hike, it appears right around the next bend, and we end up spending another :20 there chatting with Uncle Shoe, Chili Mac, and Doc Savage. They're northbounder's, and we've expected them since leaving Elmer's (along with Comer and Jean, now a day ahead). The trio here are slowed by Uncle Shoe (much younger and a little heftier than the name implies), who's suffering from knee & tibial pains. After a long chat and their update on Spike and Caveman (now traveling with last year's final cluster of southbounder's, including Tiny Tim and Heald), we finally push on for the last half of our climb up Camp Creek Bald, with 1100' of elevation yet to climb.

We'd thought of staying here tonight, but with our extra miles yesterday we can easily push over the Bald, and find a tent site after (making a Thur arrival in Erwin well within reach, with the sought-after hot tub and town food). It's surprisingly tough (pm climbs always are), and as we reach the high country the snow covers everything but the trail. We push on towards the White Rock Cliffs, hoping to find a good landmark from which to fix our location - it never comes, the trail very poorly marked in this area. We wind around in the snow, the path well-trodden, but clueless of our progress - the cliffs themselves are across the ravine, and though they're truly stunning in the setting sun, they're little help for navigation. In a dense rhododendron thicket the path winds through switchbacks, with several unmarked forks, each option having a valid claim, and both devoid of blazing of any shade. At each fork is a smattering of confused bootprints, so we're not the only victims of the poor marking. After some preemptive treks down our best guess at each, we eventually we run into white blazes and continue, the trail traversing over to the north side of the ridge.
Rich Mountain Fire Tower
Breakfast "al fresco" on the deck upstairs
'Green Tunnel' with snow
Looks cold in shorts, but at the top of a 2200' climb we're still sweating
The snow's deep on this face, and as we descend, the setting sun becomes a huge red ball against the cliff face behind us. Though the guidebook mentions no campsites ahead, we're guessing we can find something at Bearwallow Gap (with one more spring before it, and another .7 miles after, so we should have water without undue effort). It's a good plan, we never see the spring before and Bearwallow itself is a joke of a Gap - just a sign to identify it, still at high altitude and in the midst of a dense thicket. We trudge down the mountain as darkness sets, counting off the minutes to the next spring, but it too is either frozen over or invisible, unseen despite our best efforts. In addition, the snow's still deeper than we'd like to camp in, and our night-hike yesterday worked out well enough that we easily talk ourselves into continuing on to Jerry Cabin shelter, on which we've heard good reports. As night falls, our familiar Venus rises to the left, and in the valley below the city lights emerge along a ribbon of highway paralleling us.

It's 7:50 when we finally pull up to the shelter, a stone shelter with an internal fireplace, and though it's pretty dirty, we're happy to be here, and launch immediately into the evening chores. Soon dinner's being made, and I work on a fire, although it's impossible to find any dry wood close by in the dark - my first attempt fails miserably, and only after dinner do I finally get a small one going. The register says it's mousy here, so Coleen insists on tenting outside - no small chore, as the only sites are far from level, in briar patches, or on snow. I finally find a marginal one a ways from the shelter, and we pitch the tent in blackness, getting to bed at midnight.

2/20 Jerry Cabin - Hogback Ridge shelter (14.6 miles)

"The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure."
Richard Bach - Illusions

It's a slow morning getting out of camp with the tent remote and Coleen taking an extended break at the "Gazebo", not getting underway until 9:11. It's another clear day, though still cool, with snow all around the first several hours. We pass another monument to a departed thru-hiker (a beautiful overlook where his ashes were scattered) before traversing a short boulder field, and soon we're topping Big Butt Mt. (how many of these are there on the AT?), marked by the smallest of signs. After following a dirt road for a while there's another grave site for a pair of Confederate soldiers that would make an excellent campsite (how weird would that be?), after which the trail makes a long, steep descent into Flint Gap.

Climbing out of the gap into a dense rhododendron thicket we come on the beautiful Flint Mt. shelter, one of the best we've seen - a shame we're not yet ready to stop for the night. The register shows the caretaker's just been up to clean up the place - unfortunately he just replaced the register as well, so we can't catch up on our friends (except Jean and Comer, still a day ahead; and Arthur, still suffering from stomach trouble and unable to consume his beloved tea). After lunch here, we descend slightly to Devil Fork Gap on good trail as the sky begins to cloud up. Climbing out steeply on the other side, a pair of cute beagles come running out of the woods to join us - one male, one female; and they prove unshakable (probably fed by hikers before). At a small cemetery, we stop for a minute to check our navigation, and the dogs eagerly sniff our packs for food. We shoo them, but they don't go far, and as we resume our climb they're at our heels again. All through the long, hard climb they're rooting around nearby, never out of sight for long. We make a couple more attempts to shoo them, but it's not long and they're back at our heels.
Snowy trail
Atop the first slope (Sugarloaf Gap), we take a break, and as we break out the snacks the dogs quickly dive for it. I give one of them a light slap, and (s)he retreats with a slight yelp, cowering nearby as we eat. When we take to the trail again, we think we've lost them - we're a solid 20 minutes away and over the next ridge before they finally run back up, again our best friends. We avoid feeding them in hopes of handing them off to the southbounder we're expecting soon; or to leave them with a compassionate person at Sam's Gap tomorrow (they've collars with a phone number). After a descent to Rice Gap comes our final (short, but steep) climb to the Hogback Ridge shelter for the night. At 6:10 the trail appears, though we find the shelter occupied by a couple and a dog.

The dogs have a slight tiff on approaching, but we calm them down, finding the shelter occupied by Dave, Teri, and the beautiful Norwegian Elkhound Ollie. They started from Hot Springs 6 days ago - Teri's 1st experience hiking, although Dave's an experienced hiker and outdoors instructor (he recognizes my antique stove the second I pull it out). He has a small guitar at which he's pretty good (plays many of my favorites), but he hates the beagles, chasing them into the woods mercilessly every time they peek around the shelter's corner. Also, when we get a quiet moment he asks what the hanging tuna cans are about - anyone who's been on the AT for more than a night knows this. They've just finished their meal and are sitting by a huge fire when we pull in, and Coleen heads down for water as I start up the stove and lay out our bedrolls. It's nice to have someone to chat with, but they settle in early, as we're still finishing our cocoa, finally turning in ourselves at 8:50.

2/21 Hogback Ridge - Little Bald campsite (12.9 miles)

"Until he extends his circle of compassion to include all living things, man will not himself find peace."
Albert Schweitzer

It's a tough night for sleeping, with sounds of snoring, the beagles whining as they try to break into the food, the occasional tiffs between them and Ollie, and the commencement of the rain - it's a relief when first light faintly appears. Dave continues his campaign to browbeat the beagles into running off, successful to the female, who soon ends up shivering in the rain under a nearby log. As we make our breakfast, we each make a trip to the privy, reputed to have a spectacular view (it would in good weather, though in the rain and mist, all we can see is a dim shape of the next ridgeline), and soon we're ready to go, hoping to drop the beagles at nearby Sam's Gap. Only the male beagle follows, and not wanting his partner to remain here helpless, we head back to find her. She's cowering under a nearby log, and even as Coleen drags her out, she just runs back under for protection. I finally go and pet her, rubbing her neck and doing all those things to endear a beagle's affections, and soon she decides we're worthy of her trust.

By 8:40 we're out for good into the soggy morning, though the rain soon diminishes, leaving the trail a muddy mess in places. It's quite featureless, though the dogs find much to examine and soon we're approaching Sam's Gap. The male is out rooting around in the woods out of sight when suddenly we hear him yelping loudly in the ravine below. The female dives into the brush heading downhill, and soon they're both yelping and barking far below. The noises migrate up the slope behind us, eventually ending up on the slope above and behind, out of sight. Eventually the noises disappear, and we wait and yell a few times for them, but alas, we'll never see them again. Since they'd found us so easily before, we continue on (besides, Sam's Gap is just ahead, well within earshot, and almost in sight). We descend the muddy relo around a huge construction site, and as we trudge down to cross the busy highway, we ask the workers to call the beagles' owners if they come running down. Our burden lifted, we head across, entering the woods again on the opposite side through a gated fence, a little sorry to have lost our companions without so much as a pix.

The trail quickly ascends into the clouds, giving that familiar eerie feeling of walking immersed in our little cocoon of gray. The west wind rises, with the poor signage leaving us in constant doubt of our exact location as we begin the gradual, but constant ascent of Big Bald. We're comfortable so long as we keep walking, but on stopping for a break, we both chill quickly. By the time we start back up, I'm shivering uncontrollably. The sun occasionally tries to peek through cloud, but despite all our cheering for it, it doesn't quite make it through. For all the lack of signs and blazes in this section, we see the oddest thing - a huge bulletin board, completely empty save one blue blaze, and the word "water" and an arrow scrawled in with a knife.
Foggy fencerow Suddenly the denser hardwoods give way to concentrations of thorn trees and small shrubs, and we approach the top of the bald. Approaching from the lee side, the wind diminishes, but as we start over the top it hits us with full gale force. We lean mightily into it, our pack covers whipping behind us in the blast. The bald is incredible - hundreds of acres of meadow atop this mountain, and its beauty and vistas would be spectacular on a sunny day. Even today, with only a few yards visibility, the simplicity and austerity of it all has a beauty all its own, recalling the Flint Hills of Kansas. The maps and guidebooks are replete with warnings about navigating the balds in low visibility, and I can attest to this caution. The blazes are on posts only about 70 yards apart, and they must be followed blaze to blaze in this swirling sea of cloud, with some confusion for us even when one such post is blown over. The bald is immense, and it takes quite a while to traverse, but in spite of the gale and the cold; it's so fascinating that it passes quickly.

It's a relief to descend back off the summit (I'm gripping my hat with one hand, and my pack cover with the other, both having almost blown off into the abyss once), and its beauty and our desire to see one in clear weather is the topic of conversation as we descend. We cross one dirt road which is an unbelievable sea of mud (luckily it's partially frozen, else we'd be buried to our knees), and re-enter the woods for the long-sought-after Bald Mt Shelter (recalling that a thru-hiker died of a heart attack in this shelter in April 1999 after crossing the bald in a similarly freak storm). We take a long break here, planning our overnight at Whistling Gap (hope the namesake isn't true), although we chill quickly and need to get moving. It's an easy section, with a short popup over Little Bald before starting the descent in earnest. The sky starts to clear (surprising, as the forecast had rain continuing through midnight). We come across a gap with a small sign, the legend of which had long since worn off. On looking around, we find a small campsite that's been used before, and there is water down a path to the left, so this must be Whistling Gap, and we drop our packs to find the best campsite at an early 4:38.

As Coleen's getting water I assemble a small fire ring and a bench to sit upon from various logs around the site. By the time the tent's up and the supper begun, the clouds have completely cleared for a beautiful sunset behind us; and the wind dies, the smoke from our fire rising straight up as a chorus of coyotes howl their mournful wails. It's a beautiful night, and the stars are out in full splendor, without a clue of the weather we'd endured crossing Bald Mt. It's amazing these two diametrically opposed worlds we've traversed today, and a vivid example of how the changeable mountain weather often brings the unprepared to grief here. We reflect on this as we sit by the fire looking at the myriad stars; and out of curiosity I get a quick weather check on the radio, finding a possibility of rain continuing after midnight at a Knoxville station. It seems unlikely, but I put on both pack covers just in case, and we turn in at 9:15, with no forethought of the hand we're about to be dealt.
The trail ascends eerily into the fog.
Flight on Bald Mountain
It's not as bad as it looks. It's worse!

2/22 Little Bald campsite to Erwin TN (14 miles)

"I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night 'tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast."
Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cloud

We're surprised at 03:00 by the patter of rain on the roof, and before falling back asleep it turns to what sounds like ice pellets. When I wake to find some light at 6:43, the tent walls are dry, but the roof bulges inward under a heavy load - I believe my exact words were, "Hon, you ain't gonna believe this". On unzipping the door we're both shocked - a full 5" of snow cover the ground, still falling at a good clip, whipped by an east wind that portends a major storm. We both lay back for a good laugh - so much for our flawed expectations.
Waking up to the snow
Not at all what we'd expected after a beautiful clear sunset
Packing in snow But now it's down to the drudgery of deciding which of our meager clothing stock will best get us down to civilization and how to get breakfast without getting soaked. I begin outside, dropping the bear bag, bringing the stove in, and digging the packs from underneath mounds of snow (good thing we put on the pack covers). Coleen gingerly starts the stove in the tent (a huge taboo in camping circles), and soon we have breakfast, coffee and enough melted snow for drinking water.

It's a laborious process, but eventually we drop the tent and get underway, finding it a winter wonderland out, spectacular in appearance, but tougher hiking than normal (for me, that is; Coleen just steps in my compressed footsteps). It's exhilarating hiking, though we're disappointed in a bit to find another gap and campsite exactly meeting the description of Whistling Gap - obviously we stopped too soon last night. After passing High Rocks, a massive rock formation, we begin the continuous descent to Spivey Gap, passing through beautiful snow-laced hemlock and white pine stands. The beauty of the trail is magnified by this rare enhancement, and we entertain ourselves with the animal tracks (only one deer, but many tracks of walking birds). Some attention is required to stay on the trail, but this is more than compensated for by the fun of laying down the first footprints on this field of virgin snow.
Good thing we didn't decide to sleep out under the stars
At Spivey Gap, we find the road plowed, but devoid of traffic, and we begin the climb along the beautiful Oglesby Branch, pausing at the first bridge for a break by some striking cascades. We continue upstream, finally reaching the top, followed by a gradual descent as we bore on towards our lunchtime goal - No Business Knob shelter. We're slowed as the snow underfoot becomes slush, along with the path's slabbing of steep slopes, made more treacherous by the wet layer of dead leaves underneath. Finally our descent ends with a moderate climb to the shelter - dirty, dark, and occupied by a solitary hiker crouching in his sleeping bag working crosswords. Attempts at communication with him yield few results (he's southbound, having started in Mass, and is taking a day off here to "dry" his soaked gear), so we quickly eat our lunch and move on.

He's a little creepy, and we're glad to be closing the final 5.7 miles to our goal. The slush and snow rapidly diminish (we follow a set of raccoon tracks in the path's center that last a solid quarter mile), and shortly after Temple Hill Gap the ground is almost clear. Here the massive downhill into Erwin begins - those who have gone before us all comment on how elevator-like the descent is. I wouldn't know. Ours is shrouded entirely in cloud - we hear the roar of traffic for miles, but all we see is gray in every quadrant.

Suddenly we descend beneath the cloud deck, and though it's still drizzly out, the view is nothing short of awe-inspiring. From our lofty perch, it is absolutely straight down to the Nolichucky river far beneath - none of the hillside below can be seen; just a cliff, then oblivion. It's incredible, and the excitement of this wondrous vista inspires us for the final descent. Soon we're making our final switchback and Uncle Johnny's comes into view, though our red Eclipse is nowhere to be seen. We find the hostel closed, but a phone call to Johnny produces it momentarily. Although we'd planned on staying here, opening the hostel for us two seems a bit much to ask, so we seek the comfort of the nearby Holiday Inn Express, which also has a hot tub.

The big surprise comes as we're checking in, seeing on the lobby tv the story of this major winter storm we've just endured, having closed the schools from here all the way up the eastern seaboard, and resulting in a 114-car pileup just south of our home. After showers, an email check, and some town food at the suggested Erwin Burrito, a small Mexican café, we do a quick search for information on the infamous elephant hanging, the gist being as follows:
Virgin snow
It's so much fun putting the first footprints down the trail!
Oglesby branch
In 1916 a mistreated elephant killed its trainer in the circus in Kingsport, TN. The elephant was shot "half a dozen" times with small caliber rifles with little effect. The citizens of nearby Erwin, on the circus's intended route, took up the challenge at the railroad yard. First to the power plant to electrocute the beast, an abysmal failure, followed by an attempt at hanging. A crane and chain hoist was erected but as the rogue elephant was lifted, the chain broke, resulting in a broken hip, and a more incensed elephant. The chain was reapplied, and the subsequent hanging brought about the beast's demise. It was a major community event and many of the townfolks' grandparents were there in there "Sunday best" as everyone brought their kids out to witness the event (many feel the electrocution account may be contrived, though).

After a relaxing and comfortable evening, we find yet one more bit of quintessential trail lore before leaving town. On checkout we meet the well-known Miss Janet, a trail angel of whom we've read in numerous journals. We chat of barefoot hikers, of "The Family" (a family with kids aged 2-12 just finishing the trail), of our friends Caveman & Spike, of the incoming Uncle Shoe & Chili Mac, and countless others. She knows virtually everyone that's hiking or have hiked the trail, and fills in quite a few gaps in our curiosity about hikers we've read in the registers. Although we've now completed the trail both ways out of Erwin, we're glad to have made her acquaintance, and will look forward to hearing of her aid to our fellow pilgrims.

Take me home          
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