Anyone reading the brown guidebook’s description of this trail would think long and hard before hiking it. Phrases like “requires some nimble hopping from boulder to boulder,” “take special care,” and “loose rocks that could easily twist an ankle” do not bode well. Then there is the story behind Mellinger Death Ridge, a tale of brothers, murder, and deceit worthy of Dostoevsky. The guide actually cautions against backpacking our route to Derrick Knob: “It is quite a challenge to climb to the shelter with a pack in one day.” After reading the description, Mary and I both wonder if we are up for it. I only half-jokingly laugh that I need to read these things more carefully before making plans. Despite the gloom and doom, we figure we can manage 4.2 miles of rough trail, especially considering the relative ease of Middle Prong.
After lunch at the trail junction, Mary and I have all but forgotten the ill tidings and strike out with renewed vigor. The day is still cloudy, and the temperatures are mild as we perambulate Davis Ridge up to the Appalachian Trail. It is a steady climb of 1300 feet for the first 2.7 miles, but nothing particularly taxing. The last 1.5 miles adds another 300 feet. We do put on water shoes for the crossing of Indian Flats Prong, but this is our only concession to difficulty. Far from daunting and dangerous, this trail is delightful. So much so, I carry my boots for the better part of four miles without noticing. Hiking in water shoes is no problem.
Greenbrier Ridge Trail is narrow, but much of the area is lush and lovely. Within the first mile we leave the tumbling waters of Indian Flats Prong behind and enjoy a quiet stroll in the forest. Smooth Hydrangea and Broadleaf Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum canadense) are in flower along with Bee Balm, Woodland Bluets, and even Mountain Laurel near the top. True to its name, there are huge patches of Common Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia).
On a rock outcrop we see the fern Mountain Spleenwort (Asplenium montanum). There are patches of the parasitic vine, Dodder (at this elevation, probably Beaked Dodder, Cuscuta rostrata) twining its thin, pale orange stems around various herbaceous plants including Wood Nettle and Bee Balm. A perfect Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar sits motionless on a Wood Nettle leaf. Perhaps it is ready to pupate. We hear the haunting song of the Veery. Occasionally, I see a bright flash of red-orange from a branch of Yellow Buckeye sporting fall color at the beginning of summer.
In several places along the trail, there are leafless stalks under a foot in height bearing a round cluster of small white flowers. It must be an onion, and my guess is Allium burdickii, Narrowleaf Wild Leek. This species differs from Ramps in the number of flowers in the umble. I do not find an individual that exceeds the low 20s, a characteristic that favors A. burdickii. We find a bulb lying in disturbed soil from a rooting Wild Hog. Those durn hogs uproot and eat many spring wildflower tubers, such as spring beauty, but this particular hog wasn’t interested in onion breath.
Views of Thunderhead Mountain, songs of the Junco and Red-breasted Nuthatch, and the appearance of Witch Hobble let us know we are closing in on Sam’s Gap. At this elevation, cool breezes offset the heat of the climb and keep us comfortable. We pass through areas consisting predominantly of Beech along with some Sugar Maples, though I don’t know if any of these sections would qualify as a legitimate Beech Gap. Not all the necessary conditions seem to be in place.
We hit the AT about 3:40 p.m. and cruise into Derrick Knob a half hour later following a short but very steep climb. The entire 8.6 mile hike up Middle Prong, Greenbrier Ridge, and the AT with fully loaded packs takes us just six and a half hours. When Mary and I arrive, we find a couple from Florida drying out their gear from last night’s rain and still trying to acclimate to the cooler atmosphere in the mountains. They are hiking the AT as far as they can this summer and fall with plans to eventually finish the trail. We are joined by a couple of guys on a three-day trip from Clingman’s Dome to Fontana Lake. Two more men, a father and son-in-law, are making the same journey. This is their quid pro quo to the wife and daughter’s 10-day trip to New Zealand. Mary opines that the men got a raw deal. A woman from Germany arrives from Mollies Ridge shelter. Hiking the AT is one of her “bucket list” items. She is in week three of an eight-week effort to go as far as she can.
I get ice cold water from the spring, and we cook dinner. The cool breezes soon become downright chilly. The men try to light a fire in the fireplace, but the available fuel is too wet to burn. Once all have eaten and the still cloudy skies darken, we settle in to sleep. Mary and I are on the top deck, and it is possible to just make out tree silhouettes swaying in the wind through the skylight. In the night, I awaken to the distant sound of thunder and faint flashes of lightening, but the threat remains afar.