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View from Newfound Gap into North Carolina where we are heading on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail.

View from Newfound Gap into North Carolina where we’ll be on Sweat Heifer Creek Trail

At the 2015 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, my Sweat Heifer hike was cancelled due to the potential for strong storms including possible tornadoes. Twelve months later, the all-day trek looks good to go. A rain-soaked Friday gives way to a cloudy but clearing Saturday, and Paul Durr, Dee Montie, and I are ready to take interested pilgrims on a 7.4 mile hike up the A.T., down Sweat Heifer, and out Kephart Prong.

I’ve done this route twice, both times prior to my 900 Mile Club aspirations and thus without visual documentation. I am carrying my small backpacking FujiFilm camera to rectify this situation and check Sweat Heifer off my list. Since I have hiked it before, it shouldn’t be difficult to snap a few quick pics along the way. Yeah, right.

Sign at A.T. junction shows wear from the high elevation climate.

Sign at A.T. junction shows wear from the high elevation climate

You never know how many pilgrims will show for a hike. Registration may be full, but when the day and time arrive, only a handful of people may follow through. By Saturday, weariness must set in for some of them. I’ve co-led hikes where the leaders out-number the pilgrims. My first trek down Sweat Heifer years ago had two leaders and two pilgrims. We have 26 registered, but if the past is any indication, most won’t show, allowing me time to reacquaint myself with the trail and take photos for this blog post. Turns out the past isn’t a very good indication at all; twenty-one eager pilgrims arrive at Newfound Gap.

Zigzagging through the beech gap

Zigzagging through the beech gap

Once the car shuttle down Highway 441 to Kephart Prong trailhead is complete, we are ready to hit the trail with Paul in the lead, Dee playing sweep, and me bouncing around in the middle. It is quite cool and breezy at Newfound Gap, but a 1.7-mile rocky climb (800’ elevation gain) along the A.T. gets our blood pumping. Paul talks about threats to the high elevation Spruce-Fir forests — balsam woolly adelgid, acid rain, windthrow, wild hogs, climate change — and their devastating effects on this rare, fragile community.

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

Trailside cascade, tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek

At the junction with Sweat Heifer Creek Trail, we turn right and begin our descent through a beech gap on the North Carolina side of the Smokies. In pre-park days, settlers drove their cattle upslope 2300 feet for summer grazing at higher elevations. Man or beast tackling that kind of climb in 3.7 miles is definitely going to break a sweat. Those high meadow grasses must have tasted mighty sweet!  A downward trajectory is much more pleasant.

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

Cascade slide of Sweat Heifer Creek

The trail obliquely tackles concentrated contour lines delineating the Smokies crest on a topo map, then runs into creek draws and around finger ridges as it descends to Kephart Prong. Its surface is better than I remember, not hard on the feet or the knees. After two miles, the trail flattens to a very gentle grade and crosses a tributary of Sweat Heifer Creek. Yesterday’s rain is evident, and the cascading falls by the trail is photo worthy. I catch pilgrim Kelly snapping a picture. Colorfully dressed, she refers to herself as a “Crayola crayon box.” She is preparing for a trip to Yosemite.

Great Merrybells

Great Merrybells

Entering the narrow draw carved by Sweat Heifer Creek, an impressive cascading water slide carries exuberant rain-swollen waters downslope, and the crossing above that slide presents a rock-hop challenge for those who wish to avoid wet feet. It takes a while to get everyone across, yet most manage to stay relatively dry. The easy grade covers more than a half mile before resuming a steeper decline.

Beginning at 5850’ elevation and dropping to 4500 at the creek crossings then 3,500 at Kephart Shelter, Sweat Heifer meanders through several community types from beech gaps and northern hardwoods to rich coves and rhododendron thickets. The cove sites feature numerous spring wildflowers — the purpose of our hike.  Beginning with higher elevation plants such as Bluebead Lily and Carolina Spring Beauty, we find a few Trout Lilies hanging on, Toothworts, Thyme-leaved Bluets, Dwarf Ginseng, Great White Trillium, Fringed Phacelia, Creeping Phlox, Wood Anemone, Great Merrybells (Uvularia grandiflora), Crested Iris, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and several violet species. At the start, flowers are mostly closed or drooping from Friday’s rain, but as we descend, the day’s dryness spurs most flowers to perk up and open for business.

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

An unlikely shade of Fringed Phacelia

The phacelia here present a botanical conundrum. Many are white, as would be expected with Fringed Phacelia (Phacelia fimbriata), a showy annual restricted to the North Carolina border in Tennessee and found occasionally at mid to high elevations in the park. However, several of the flowers are blue, as would be expected with Miami Mist (Phacelia purshii), another showy fringed annual with a broader western distribution in Tennessee and noted as scarce in its occurrence at low elevations in the park. Botanical keys separate them by flower color and stem hairs, the former having spreading hairs, the latter closely appressed. I can see spreading hairs on the white flower in my photo, but haven’t got enough clear detail on the blue one to judge. It is rare, but sometimes Fringed Phacelia flowers can be “bluish-white.” Characteristics such as flower color may vary with individual genetics. The phacelia flowers we see on Sweat Heifer appear as definite blue to me, no wishy-washy “bluish.” Given the small number of blue flowers amid the white and the elevation, this is likely a rare genetic expression of color in some Fringed Phacelia plants making a bid to stand out from the crowd.

Running Strawberry-bush

Running Strawberry-bush

Herbaceous wildflowers rule in spring, yet they don’t have a monopoly. Distinctive foliage of Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) occurs near the major creek crossings. It will flower within a month. Clumps of Ramp leaves flow down the hillside. Ferns are emerging — Mountain Wood, Fancy, Southern Lady, Rattlesnake, and scattered populations of Flat-branch Ground Pine dot the trailsides. Eye-catching flower clusters of Witch Hobble recur periodically to the end of the trail. Subshrub Running Strawberry-bush (Euonymus obovatus) is in bud, as are thousands of little Canada Mayflowers liberally scattered along the lower quarter of the trail. One perfect Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum) greets us just before a final bridged stream crossing at Kephart Shelter and the trail’s end.

Painted Trillium

Painted Trillium

From the shelter, two-mile Kephart Prong Trail descends an additional 800 feet on a sometimes cobbly path. We’re pretty much heading for the barn at this point, but we do pause on occasion to appreciate a few flowering plants here too. At the highway, we pile into five cars and drive back to Newfound Gap, completing the hike program.

Combining trail documentation with hike leading is not a good strategy. It’s hard to juggle both hats as each suffers neglect while the other is being worn. I’ve been down this trail three times now, and though I got several photos today and have enough cumulative exposure to speak somewhat confidently about it, I still feel as though I haven’t really seen or experienced it. Fortunately, it’s a delightful mountain trail and a fourth trip down Sweat Heifer under quieter circumstances would be welcome any time. I might even attempt a sweaty jaunt up!

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

Yellow Birch, Appalachian Trail, TN-NC

Overall 2015 was another light year for trail miles, logging 145.6 on the Appalachian Trail and 64.3 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Of those Smokies miles, 37.4 were new miles representing 7 entire trails and the completion of two partials. I still have unfinished business on Lakeshore and Gregory Bald trails. To date I have completed 118 park trails (79%) with 941.1 total miles and 592.3 new trail miles (71%).

The cavernous no-man’s land between Highway 441 and Fontana has been thumbing its nose at me for years. I am determined to chip away at that formidable block of remote trails in 2016. Even though my weather-shortened attempt to close the Tennessee-Virginia gap on the A.T. left 123 miles untraveled, I think I’d rather take the 12 days necessary to finish that and reinvigorate my original Smokies quest. A concerted effort there could put me within striking distance of the 900 Mile Club for 2017.

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

American Strawberry, Kephart Prong Trail

I enjoy the A.T. The sense of community is tangible, special. You rarely feel alone. I’m committed to hiking at least the southern half — Springer Mountain to southern Pennsylvania. However, the understanding that I will not likely hike all 2,189 miles gives me permission to follow new interests rather than a slavish schedule of section miles.

These interests aren’t really new, just a determination to sharpen my naturalist focus on Tennessee’s ecological communities. Various courses and workshops I’ve attended the last two years have dramatically increased my knowledge and provided fresh insights to the varied landscapes around me. I am eager to put this into practice and solidify my understanding of plants, fungi, lichens, mosses, and the diverse fauna living among them.

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Dwarf Ginseng, Deep Creek Quiet Walkway

Right now, I probably know the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as I know my own backyard. That’s a great start, yet Tennessee hosts a rich assortment of natural communities, each with a distinct personality and look. I want to broaden my acquaintance beyond the Smokies (which will always remain my second home) and explore everything from the sandstone capped Cumberland Plateau to the bottomland forests of West Tennessee. I’m beginning with the harsh extremes of the Central Basin’s cedar glades and the organisms that thrive in those demanding conditions.

Tennessee has 56 state parks and 85 state natural areas not to mention Big South Fork and Land Between the Lakes with hundreds of trail miles and spectacular natural features. So this blog will now include another section, Tennessee Hikes, to share local adventures. These efforts to increase my “native intelligence” should provide regular opportunities for one or two days of hiking and theoretically shorten the down time between posts. That’s the goal anyway. We’ll see.

Bridge over Little River nicknamed "Goshen Gate Bridge"

Bridge over Little River nicknamed “Goshen Gate Bridge”

After a two-week summer course at Highlands Biological Station in NC on Forest Ecosystems of the Southern Appalachians, I stop in the Smokies for two nights to check off two trails, using the A.T. to create a 28.9-mile loop from the Little River trailhead to Fighting Creek Gap. I camp Saturday night in Elkmont for an early start Sunday.

To reach Goshen Prong trailhead requires a 3.7-mile walk on Little River Trail, an enjoyable 1 hour, 20 minutes of quiet solitude this fine morning. Goshen Prong Trail is 7.6 miles long, climbing 3,000 feet in elevation from Little River’s easy valley to the Appalachian Trail. It follows Little River tributary Fish Camp Prong southwest to Campsite #23 then curves southeast along its eponymous stream.

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

Storm damage on Goshen Prong

The first 3.3 miles rise a slight 600 feet through forests exhibiting recurring evidence of storm damage with toppled trees in several locations. These gaps on the left side of the trail have become light-filled riots of vegetation vying for unfiltered access to sunshine. On the trail’s right side, Fish Camp Prong provides endless entertainment as waters draining Miry Ridge, Bent Arm, Goshen Ridge, and Smokies crest commingle and dance their way through chutes, slides, cascades, and falls. It seems to defy logic that this lively, laughing stream joins the calm, collected Little River, especially given some of its tributaries’ names — War Branch, Battle Hollow, and Hostility Branch. The last stream tumbles down Bent Arm’s steep and deeply dissected southeastern slope.

Shale rock face

Shale rock face

Slate, part of the Anakeesta or perhaps Copperhill formation, runs through this area. The characteristic foliation, sheet-like layers that separate in flat planes, is visible in rocks along the stream’s edge and a seepy rock face next to the trail. Crevices and ledges on the rock face host a variety of plants, including many mosses and liverworts, ferns, and others adapted to the regularly moist conditions, such as Mountain Meadow-rue (Thalictrum clavatum).

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

Cave-like crevice in sandstone

At the sharp bend where Goshen Prong turns southeast and begins its 4.3-mile climb to the A.T. in earnest, a short spur trail on the left leads to Campsite #23. I pause here to rest and eat a snack. The site is roomy and pleasant. Leaving Fish Camp Prong behind, the trail now follows Goshen Prong. It becomes narrow and rocky in spots, yet remains physically undemanding for the most part. Doghobble and bramble stems spill into the path on occasion, and overall the plant communities don’t appear to be very rich. There are, however, noteworthy points of interest.

Several groups of young, healthy Eastern Hemlock trees, contain saplings ranging from one or two feet tall to a more robust five or six feet. I detect no sign of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid on these trees. I doubt the park service treated these individuals so far from public areas, which must mean they either have some natural immunity or have benefited from recent cold winters killing off vast numbers of the pest. Either way, it is thrilling to see these vibrant trees.

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

Bees love the nectar of Turtlehead

At the 5-mile mark is a cave of sorts, a large crevice in the jumble of tilted sandstone. The upper two miles of Goshen Prong Trail pass through a northern hardwoods forest community with some impressive Yellow Birch trees and Red Spruce. A small gap allows a quick view toward Miry Ridge to the west.

Not too far from the top a lovely stand of Pink Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) holds many terminal clusters of flowers in a wet seep along with White Wood Aster (Eurybia sp.) Bees are busy nosing their way into the two-lipped turtlehead corollas. One bee repeatedly visits a single flower seeming to find its nectar preferable to the others. A small bee disappears into a blossom. Its squirming gyrations and buzzing cause the flower’s lips to move up and down giving the appearance of a talking turtlehead!

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Skunk or Clustered Goldenrod

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have discovered that some of the secondary metabolites, often natural toxins produced by plants to deter herbivory, present in flower nectar may play an important role in helping pollinators reduce levels of internal parasites. [see article] Chelone contains iridoid glycosides (aucubin and catalpol) and was part of the study showing a marked decrease in parasitic infections in bumble bees within seven days of exposure to these floral compounds. Such hidden connections inspire awe and should come as no surprise.

Somewhere past the campsite, I find a new blue Nalgene bottle nearly full of water lying in the trail. With no idea when it was dropped or where its owner might be, I pick it up and carry it with me, eventually dumping the water to lighten its weight. I plan to eat lunch at the A.T. junction and am startled to find a large group of hikers eating there when I arrive. They had camped at #23 last night and are impressed that I have come 11.3 miles in the time they hiked 4.4. I take my junction sign photo and am about to continue to a more private lunch spot when one man asks if the Nalgene bottle is mine. He dropped it and is glad to retrieve it even without the liquid contents.

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

Clingmans Hedge Nettle

The next 5.7 miles follow the Appalachian Trail over Mt. Buckley, Clingmans Dome, and Mt. Collins, a section I hiked in May 2012. Sunshine and midsummer give the trail a whole new personality to enjoy. Today, I have a clear view into Tennessee, which had been hidden behind a dense curtain of clouds three years ago. In open sections of the trail, summer wildflowers specific to the Blue Ridge Mountains compete for the attention of pollinators — Bee Balm, Appalachian White Snakeroot, and Clingmans Hedge Nettle (Stachys clingmanii).

Skunk Goldenrod (Solidago glomerata), most often noted on trail by odiferous exhalations, demonstrates its other common name, Clustered Goldenrod, and its specific epithet with compressed racemes of large flower heads bulging from leaf axils. This species is found mainly in the park and on Roan Mountain. A male Tiger Swallowtail sips nectar from another high elevation resident, Filmy Angelica.

Beaked Dodder

Beaked Dodder

Confined mainly in the Blue Ridge, Beaked Dodder (Cuscuta rostrata) is also in full flower. Lacking chlorophyll, dodder species cannot manufacture their own food and live as parasites, taking their nutrition from other plants. Upon germination, dodder sends a stem upward to latch onto a suitable host, piercing its outer cortex and slipping special structures called haustoria into vascular tissues (the xylem and phloem) to steal water and carbohydrates. Its roots then wither. Dodder not only wraps its thin orange arms around the host but also flings them outward to reach adjacent plants. It’s beautiful in flower and a little creepy.

Witch Hobble fruits, beginning to mature, have yet to assume their bright red color, but the foliage is already previewing autumnal shades of maroon. Bluebead Lily fruits range from rich blue to midnight tones. Globular red fruits of Rosy Twisted-stalk dangle like shiny gum balls from leaf axils. The capsules of Minnie-bush (Menziesia pilosa) are still green and unassuming, but its leaves exhibit an unmistakeable characteristic — a hardened, light colored tip unique to this shrub.

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Rosy Twisted-stalk fruit

Approaching Mt. Buckley, the flanks of a ridge emanating from that peak appear sparsely treed. A slight dusting of dark green firs and spruce dot the light green ground. During pre-park logging days, a slash fire ravaged the steep slopes, burning deep into the soil to create an unwelcoming environment for seed germination and plant growth, a condition plainly evident nearly 100 years later.

It’s a gorgeous summer Sunday, and the trail is loaded with people — couples, families, large groups. A few carry packs with a destination in mind, but most are simply hiking short stretches around Clingmans Dome.

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

The distinctive leaf tips of Minnie-bush

I reach the Sugarland Mountain junction late in the afternoon. Mt. Collins Shelter, my evening destination, is 0.3 mile away. This section of Sugarland Mountain Trail off the A.T. is flat and smooth, a welcome relief, the light sandy surface in sharp contrast with the dark coniferous forest.

At the shelter’s side trail, a young man and woman collect firewood. They are part of a small group of students from Greenville College in Illinois hiking the Smokies for 10 days. Their itinerary calls for a two-day stay at Cabin Flats near Smokemont where they will fast in solitude and silence. Arriving in the park earlier today, they got off to a bad start by heading in the wrong direction on the A.T. from Clingmans Dome. Not realizing the error until they had reached Goshen Prong junction, this misdirection adds 4.5 miles to their intended first day’s journey.

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Mt. Buckley fire scar

Their leader, a man in his 30s, lies curled in his sleeping bag. He feels unwell, and the others quietly cook dinner. I unpack and start camp chores. Returning from a privy visit, I am surprised to see the leader bent over vomiting in front of the shelter. I don’t know the nature of his illness, but I become paranoid that its a stomach bug and spend the entire evening in fear of catching it.

The students have been working hard to build a fire with sporadic success in hopes its warmth might help the man. It doesn’t. He crawls back into his sleeping bag. My dinner is ready, and I join the rest of the group on the shelter’s left side. They are relaxing with hot chocolate and offer me an Oreo! We chat about their trip. They are curious about my A.T. adventures.

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

Witch Hobble, Bluebead Lily and Fraser Fir

All are quiet and respectful, but one young man is quite the braggart. Every topic produces some self-congratulatory feat. He boasts of breaking a kid’s ribs during a middle school football game when he deliberately hit the opposing quarterback hard. I cannot resist calling him out as a jerk for not apologizing to the player. His fellow students find humor my efforts to knock him down a peg or two.

This tall, athletic 20-year-old repeatedly references their day’s hike and the 900-ft elevation gain climbing back to Clingmans Dome as though it were a monumental accomplishment. I completed 17.3 miles with a total gain of 5,050 feet but do not wish to engage in a pissing contest with this turd. Next morning he’s at it again, and the sick leader puts him in his place, “She came from Elkmont. She hiked much further and climbed much higher.” Everyone will be grateful for two days of silence just to shut that guy up.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Mt. Collins Shelter is visible in the background.

Recently renovated, the shelter incorporates the latest design features and a new privy. Nestled into a small opening among spruce and fir, the setting is peaceful and comfortable. A waning gibbous moon lights the clear, cool summer night while Cassiopeia wheels overhead tied to her torturous chair. Next morning, the sick leader stirs, talks, and even laughs. Turns out he was suffering from an intense migraine, and for a while was not sure he’d be able to continue. I pack, wish them well, and continue my journey.

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

First 0.3 mile of Sugarland Mountain Trail

Sugarland Mountain Trail runs 11.9 miles from the A.T. to Little River Road, emerging at the Laurel Falls parking area. For more than half its length, it traces the spine of Sugarland Mountain, heading first north then northwest. An impressive ridge emanating from the Smokies crest, it sports a line of summits, each lower in elevation than the previous.

The angle of descent on the trail’s profile appears quite easy until the final half mile, and the idea of ridge walking invokes images of smooth paths reinforced by the first 0.3 mile. These two thoughts blur into an unshakeable belief that Sugarland Mountain Trail will be a breeze. Thus my astonishment when it instantly morphs into a snarl of boulders within yards of the shelter side trail.

Knight's Plume Moss

Knight’s Plume Moss

I had to negotiate part of this snarl last night since the shelter’s water source lies 0.1 mile down the trail. The rocky challenge continues another 0.1 mile then smooths, reflecting a reality closer to my imagined ideal. However, no trail nearly 12 miles long remains consistent, and Sugarland Mountain often displays conflicting personalities: wide then narrow, on the ridge or off to one side, rocky and smooth, overgrown to open understory.

Sugarland Mountain’s side slopes are quite steep in several places. On one such section, a canopy gap has allowed herbage to grow head high, crowding and masking the trail. Somehow I spot and avoid a large hole at least one foot deep spanning the trail’s width, a potentially nasty surprise for some unsuspecting hiker.

Impressive Red Spruce

Impressive Red Spruce

With a 3,700-foot elevation drop, Sugarland Mountain Trail begins at 6,000 feet and passes through several different community types on its way to Fighting Creek Gap at 2,300 feet. Spruce-fir occupies the first two miles. This coniferous forest is delightfully different from hardwood or pine forests. Dark, moist, and quiet, there’s a primeval quality. The understory is often spare or nonexistent, but usually there are scattered patches of other plants like Bluebead Lily, club mosses, and ferns. Dense mats of true mosses often cover the ground, boulders, and downed logs. Lush patches of Knight’s Plume Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis) soften Sugarland’s trail edge.

Fraser Fir disappears once the trail slips below 5,500 feet, but Red Spruce remains, grading into a northern hardwoods community. Many of these spruce trees are impressive specimens. Their small brown cones dot the forest floor. Rugel’s Ragwort is still in flower but past its prime…which looks a lot like Rugel’s Ragwort in its prime. Oh, snap, botany slam!

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Table Mountain Pine meets Red Spruce at 4500 feet.

Several bird species prefer high elevation spruce-fir and northern hardwoods communities. I hear the slow nasal honk of the Red-breasted Nuthatch. One Winter Wren belts out his long, twittery, and rather spastic song, sounding as if he’s had one too many cups of coffee this morning. There’s the high-pitched lisp of a Golden-crowned Kinglet and the two-note “fee-bee” of a Black-capped Chickadee. Another resident, the Red Squirrel, teases me by sitting stock still on a nearby branch and bolting the instant he hears my camera’s focus beep.

Community transitions often result in strange bedfellows. Standing in the shade of a robust Red Spruce, I photograph a Table Mountain Pine perched on a section of dry, exposed ridge line barely 10 yards ahead. The typical ranges for these two species meet at 4,500 feet. At this elevation, Rough Creek is the first trail junction 4.8 miles down Sugarland Mountain. I’ve been piddling my way through the upper third for 3.5 hours! Might be wise to pick up the pace.

Boletus bicolor

Boletus bicolor

Sugarland Mountain defines part of the watersheds for Little River to the west and West Prong of Little Pigeon River to the east, paralleling Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441) much of the way. Road noise, mainly after-market motorcycles, penetrates the serenity at times, a grating annoyance.

August is prime summer mushroom season. Over these two days I see several beautiful Yellow Patches (Amanita flavoconia) and a newly emerging Blusher. Fresh plump boletes are the stars, however. Red cushions of Boletus bicolor and a pinkish brown Tylopilus species I cannot ID for certain appear on Sugarland. A mighty Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus with its fat purplish stalk graces Goshen Prong.

Yellow Patches

Yellow Patches

Below the high elevation communities, Sugarland Mountain Trail traverses moist and drier forests. Red Oak, Silverbell, and Cucumber Magnolia prefer moist, sheltered environments, whereas Sourwood and Red Maple occur on drier sites. On either side of the Huskey Gap junction, dry sunny exposures with Mountain Laurel, Galax, and Teaberry are common.

Massive sandstone boulders, remnants of Sugarland Mountain’s geologic past, cling to the mountain’s steep side, looking solid and precarious at the same time. Courthouse Rock on the 441 side is an example. I perch on a less impressive, yet still huge group of boulders overhanging the valley of Little River and eat lunch staring into canopies barely out of my reach from trees far down slope. Thinking too much about this location can produce a tummy flutter incompatible with good digestion!

Old location of Campsite #21

Old location of Campsite #21

An abandoned campsite, the former location of #21, is about one mile before Huskey Gap. Sited within a shallow ravine, there are very large boulders here too, including one that resembles a whale. A fire ring exhibiting recent use lies under the snout of this leviathan. I cannot spot any decent tent sites among the overgrowth, but food cables still hang from the trees as possible encouragement for stealth campers.

By mid afternoon I am growing weary. My feet begin to hurt, and I’m more than ready to reach Fighting Creek Gap. Apart from brief uphill runs, Sugarland Mountain Trail is mostly downhill with one notable exception. A steady half-mile ascent of 500 feet from Mids Gap provides a short, blood-pumping interval before the final descent. The last mile drops steeply to Little River Road which can be heard most of the way and occasionally glimpsed through the trees.

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

Tylopilus plumbeoviolaceus

The trail ends at the expansive parking area for Laurel Falls, a spot always packed with visitors in summer. I intend to hitch a ride to Elkmont from here and have high hopes of doing so with ease. So many hikers on the A.T. and elsewhere seem to have little difficulty securing rides. Surely I’ll have good luck here. I stake out a location where people leaving the parking area or driving from Gatlinburg can safely stop for me.

After several minutes of thumbing without success. I take my notebook from my pack and write “ELKMONT” on a piece of paper, hoping my destination barely a mile away will make a difference. It doesn’t. I even ask a few folks walking to their cars from the falls if they might be going to Elkmont. Avoiding eye contact, they say no. I’m a 59-year-old woman wearing high-quality hiking clothes with gaiters, a backpack, and trekking poles. Do I look like an ax murderer? I’ve stood here over 20 minutes, receiving nothing but weird stares from passing motorists. Dejected, I begin the 3-mile walk to my car.

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Sugarland Mountain Trailhead at Fighting Creek Gap

Walking Little River Road is not the safest activity. There is little to no shoulder in many places with vehicles whizzing past. The only positive is its downhill course, but once I reach the Elkmont turnoff, I’m looking at nearly 2 miles uphill. Every now and then I glance back and hold up my sign for a passing car without much hope. Finally, a white Jeep slows and stops. I rush over. A family from Chicago — mother Alana, daughter Sophia, and son Will — is camping at Elkmont and willing to give me a ride. Yay!!  Alana loves the outdoors and is interested in hiking. Will has just completed the Junior Ranger program at Sugarlands Visitor Center. They drive me to my a car a half mile beyond the campground. I am very appreciative!

Since it has taken me so long to write and post this account, I may as well add that my son works for the Chicago Cubs. The team’s fantastic finish to the regular season and promising performance in the wild card and division playoff games gave hope that perhaps the curse of the goat would finally end. Alas, it was not to be. I don’t know if Alana and her family are Cubs fans, but if so I hope they take heart like all good Cubs fans…there is always next year.

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Non-native Ox-eye Daisy

Day Twelve, June 17, Upper Laurel Fork Camp, 13.2 miles: I rise early, eager to leave Mountain Harbor and return to the peace of the trail. Waving to ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy,’ we will meet at Mountaineer Shelter (9.3 miles) for the night, I head for the highway. The prospects for a lift are slim, so I trudge uphill without trying.

The first few trail miles negotiate strips of disturbed land snaking among small streets emanating from US 19E and state road 1302. Overgrown fields, power lines, and a cemetery are evidence of human habitation close at hand. Poison ivy, further proof of civilization’s intrusion to the natural order, is also prevalent. The fields are in sore need of that weed-whacking couple I saw near Beauty Spot. Grasses and other plants like Black-eyed Susan approach waist height or higher and carry a full load of dew this morning, soaking my pants within minutes. Stems and leaves catch on my trekking poles.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

Meadow plants are drenched in dew.

The drag of fighting through resistant herbage, an uphill trajectory, and my lack of energy due to poor rest and no dinner make a debilitating combination. I still manage a respectable 3.8 miles in about two hours, crossing Buck Mountain Road with its church visible on the right. My brain, however, is not in the game today. Two miles later, I walk right past the 0.1 mile side trail to Jones Falls, a lovely spot well worth the visit. Oops. Maybe some other day.

Path Rush, a small grass-like plant loves the disturbance and compaction found along the A.T. A different texture and darker color from other weedy, trail-side species, it stands out lining either side of and even intruding into the dirt track. The trail sidles along the Elk River for a short stretch with adjacent flat campsites. From the river, it is a very gradual rise to Mountaineer Shelter through the forest.

Church at Buck Mountain Road

Church at Buck Mountain Road

I startle a Ruffed Grouse who startles me with its thrumming wing beats. During lunch, a mouthy Pileated Woodpecker treats me to his extensive oratory. I scan the trees looking for him throughout my break, and finally set eyes on him right at the end. A Scarlet Tanager and Black-throated Green Warbler attempt to get a few words in edgewise. In the distance, an American Robin is less deterred by the loquacious woodpecker and sings enthusiastically.

Since Erwin,TN, the trail has remained above 4,000 feet. Descent from the Roan massif puts the A.T. below that mark where it will remain for the next several days of my hike. Mid June temperatures are running noticeably higher than normal with an increase in humidity. There has also been little precipitation in the mountains. Rain events have been short-lived and widely scattered.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Darker green Path Rush lines the trail.

Today I officially pass the halfway mark…my twelfth day on trail with 11 more to go. Psychologically, this countdown is important. I learned in 2013 that three weeks is likely to be my enjoyability limit. By that time, I’ll be ready to go home. I’ve already been thinking of my sweet little Siamese kitty all alone in Nashville and even begun plotting how I’ll clean my gear. Not the best signs with half the trip still ahead.

While I’m pleased to have reached this point, I am also very tired from last night. Due to the weather, I find myself sweating much more despite the far less physically demanding terrain. I’ve been guzzling water all day. After a long lunch communing with the birds, I reluctantly hoist my pack and head for the shelter.

Elk River

Elk River

Mountaineer Shelter is located in a very unlikely spot. Most shelters are near a spring or stream on a plot of land somewhat wide and level. Positioned near Mountaineer Falls, this shelter has the requisite water source, but the surrounding landscape is neither wide nor level. Tucked within steeply sloping hillsides, it can be tricky to simply walk around. A depression below the shelter could handle a few tents.

Despite the sloping terrain, Mountaineer is one of the newer and nicer shelters I’ve seen since Hot Springs. Reminiscent of Curly Maple Gap, it’s a double decker accommodating 14 with a covered sitting/cooking area. The shelter’s front is perched at the edge of the slope downhill toward the fire ring and tenting area. A lack of convenient bathroom options appears to be the main drawback.

Mountaineer Shelter

Mountaineer Shelter

I arrive around 1:30 and spend time simply resting. The trail profile for the next 8 miles undulates gently at 3500 feet. My plan tomorrow calls for a Herculean 17.5 miles including a difficult rocky section near Laurel Falls. I’ve certainly got time, if not much energy, to knock a few of tomorrow’s miles off today should there be suitable stop.

The next shelter is nearly 10 miles away, and its water source is noted as “a long way downhill.” That option is a non-starter. A few campsites are indicated in between. One is four miles away next to a ‘waterfall’ on Upper Laurel Fork. I could manage this.

Pipsissewa

Pipsissewa

While plotting my options, a man and his son from Bristol, TN, stop at the shelter. They are out for a few days to get in shape for further hikes later in the year. We chat a bit. They too are interested in taking advantage of the afternoon and like the idea of the waterfall campsite. I hate passing up a night at a decent shelter, especially considering my current state, but the chance to get a leg up on tomorrow is too enticing. I head for the spring to fill my water bladder and bottle.

At the spring, I hear a whistle and turn around. It’s ‘Roachy.’ She and ‘Storm’ have arrived and want to keep going as well but need a food break first. I’m ready to hit the trail and tell all four I’ll see them at the campsite later this afternoon.

Park bench on the A.T.

Park bench on the A.T.

It is easy hiking through this section. A half mile from the campsite, a vista to the south opens where a wood and metal park bench has been mounted trailside for quiet contemplation, allegedly the only such bench on the A.T. I sit for a long while enjoying the peaceful view. An American Holly is flowering overhead, dropping its small spent blossoms like bits of confetti.

One would think a campsite at a waterfall would be fairly easy to locate, but the trail crosses a stream conveniently identified as Upper Laurel Fork on a sign tacked to the bridge. There is no waterfall, but there are two very small cleared spots that could be campsites. There is also a flagged side trail that leads to a hostel, noted in Miller at the waterfall location. I pause a moment wondering if this might be the site and decide to continue. Surely there is something better. The trail follows Upper Laurel Fork and is often wet and miry. In about 0.1 to 0.2 mile, I see a wider opening ahead and hear the sound of fast water. The “waterfall” is a small cascade, the stream pouring past a progression of descending rocks maybe 15 to 20 feet. A fire ring cinches the site and there is room for all five of us. Miller’s guide apparently conflated the two spots.

View from the park bench

View from the park bench

I begin setting up my tent and search for that ever elusive food bag limb. A dead hemlock branch is within tossing distance on the slope across from the campsite. I toss my line and hook the branch. However, the end of the line tangles and hovers above my reach. I must pull it down and try again. The tangled end catches on a tiny branchlet and instantly knots. *&%#@! I tug, I pull, I bounce, I curse, I throw things. Some of the tangle releases, but the knot remains firm. AAARRRGGGHHH!!!

Cascading "waterfall"

Cascading “waterfall”

The others have not arrived, and I begin to suspect that they have been fooled by the small clearings. Carrying my food bag, I walk back to the bridge. There they are trying to figure out how to make those tiny sites work. When we are all at the right camp, ‘Storm’ helps me with that dang food line. I’m sure I’ll have to cut it and want to do so as near the end knot as possible. I even attempt to lash my knife to a stick in hopes of leaving as little rope as I can stuck in that tree. ‘Storm’ tries another path. Putting his entire 6-foot heft into it, he finally gets the limb to break. Once again, I’ve retrieved my rope unscathed from what appeared to be certain shortening. I move to the other side of camp, find an ideal limb, and hang my food without angst. Wish I’d looked there first.

Fern glade

Fern glade

Day Thirteen, June 18, Braemar Castle Hostel, 14.4 miles: I’m up at first light, wanting a head start on the day’s heat and the more difficult trail conditions ahead. The five of us are going to Laurel Fork Shelter (13.6 miles), and I’m on trail at 7:05. There isn’t a breath of wind this morning and the humidity is brutal. Sweat pours down my face. It is slow going.

Despite the lack of rain, this section has many wet, miry areas that would be ankle-deep, sloppy puddles with normal precipitation. There are frequent small stream crossings and footbridges. About 1.5 miles from Moreland Gap Shelter, the trail begins a 500 foot climb up White Rocks Mountain to crest slightly over the 4,000 mark before its short, sweet descent into the gap. I’ve gone 5.7 miles in 3 hrs, 40 mins, a very disappointing performance for easy terrain during morning hours. The humidity is killing me.

Old corn crib along the trail

Old corn crib along the trail

I break for lunch at the shelter and meet ‘K-2’ from Seattle. He started in Hampton, TN, 8 miles back and is lying prone on the shelter’s platform, his shirt drenched in sweat. He hiked the majority of the A.T. last year SoBo and only lacks Hampton to Springer, just over 400 miles, to complete the trail.

‘K-2’ tells me that Laurel Fork Shelter is in horrible shape, perched on a rocky ridge with little to recommend it, and points to excellent campsites along the Laurel Fork river. Miller’s guide notes a campsite at Waycaster Spring 0.3 mile beyond the shelter. I’ve read its spring emerges from the base of a pine tree. That’s where I set my sights. I will leave ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ a note on a rock at the final stream crossing before Laurel Falls, letting them know of my plan to stay at Waycaster.

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Bridge over Laurel Fork in the Pond Mountain Wilderness

Atmospheric conditions have not improved. Any exertion generates profuse sweating, and my water supply is getting low. Problem is, so are area streams. At the last spring noted in the guide for the next few miles, I stop to filter water, the first time I’ve had to do so on trail. I’ve pulled into camp with very little remaining in the pack bladder, but three liters have always been sufficient to get me through the day. Not today. I will drink five liters by day’s end. The spring is a mere trickle, it takes time to collect enough water to filter.

The trail bounces just over and just under 4,000 feet for the next three miles, then begins a 2,000-foot plunge to Laurel Fork. This descent isn’t difficult and proves far less sweat inducing. The slightest incline, though, immediately activates sweat glands.  At Dennis Cove Road, the terrain flattens as the trail enters Pond Mountain Wilderness.

Pond Mountain Wilderness, located south of Watauga Lake and east of Hampton, TN, is a small section of Cherokee National Forest encompassing Pond Mountain, Pond Flats, and the gorge of Laurel Fork with its waterfall. The A.T. zigzags through its western edge traversing the river’s gorge and summiting Pond Flats before leaving the wilderness to circumnavigate one end of the lake and ascend Iron Mountain, where the trail blazes an arrow-straight, 14-mile course toward Shady Valley.

Laurel Fork

Laurel Fork

The trail is flat and smooth as a baby’s butt at the start of Pond Wilderness, a very disarming contrast to what lies ahead. Narrow passage between massive rock walls with piles of boulders at the base on either side is the first hint of things to come.  Crossing a beautiful bridge over Laurel Fork, hikers enter the sheer rock gorge, and the fun begins. First is a climb (yes, a climb) winding up steep rocks along the sheer wall of the gorge. The trail flattens out again and runs a smooth gauntlet through more canyon-like alleys of rock walls and boulders. Then the trail plummets a few hundred feet straight down on nothing but rocks strewn in an uneven, haphazard, never-ending series of steps tumbling to the river.

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Hellish descent to the waterfall

Periodically some youthful summer visitor to the falls would breeze past leaping rock to rock like some graceful mountain goat as I’m literally sweating each foot placement. Even ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ catch up and pass me here. Well, more power to them. With uncanny accuracy, the A.T. always finds a way to hit its hardest at the end of tough day. I’m plain whipped.

Laurel Falls is impressive, and I enjoy watching ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ play in Laurel Fork. However, I still have a mile to go before I can get these boots off and relax.

At Laurel Falls, the A.T. slips along the river’s waterline following a partly natural rock, partly cemented trail that hugs a massive rock face bulging into the river’s course. During flooding events, the trail disappears under rushing water. A short distance up that rocky descent is a bypass trail for such conditions. Laurel Fork Shelter is located on the bypass trail. I stick with the “real” trail and have more fun with rocks.

'Storm' splashing 'Roachy' at Laurel Falls

‘Storm’ splashing ‘Roachy’ at Laurel Falls

The cemented path at the river’s edge is narrow, and bulky packs can bump against the rock face, yet it presents an interesting and fun variation to the typical trail. The rest of the trail in this area, though, is just maddening, full of ridiculously steep, precipitous, treacherous, rock-step climbing followed by ridiculously steep and slippery descents on loose shaley rock and dirt. Two years ago I’d have been blubbering like a baby negotiating this crap. Today, I’m cursing like a stevedore.

What’s amazing to me is that Laurel Falls, an understandably popular destination, has families and folks of all ages and abilities accessing the site the same way I just did. They don’t carry 30-pound packs, but still…you’d think some effort would go into decent trail building here for safety if nothing else. The high volume of foot traffic has seriously strained trail conditions in some places. Locals and other visitors run up and down this part of the A.T. like a freeway. I see no excuse for the obvious lack of any attempt to construct a trail surface that is safer, more durable, and less damaging to the natural surroundings. Pond Mountain Wilderness could take a few cues from Chimney Tops Trail in the Smokies.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

A.T. path by Laurel Fork disappears under water during flooding events.

There are large roomy campsites by the river, and none are occupied. I remain bound for Waycaster. At last, the trail settles down next to the river and becomes a smooth forest path. Nailed to a tree, a small sign announces my destination about twenty yards from a bridge spanning Laurel Fork. A narrow campsite sits between the trail and river with the spring hidden in a dense, nearly impenetrable grotto choked in overgrowth and downed woody debris. Not exactly the idyllic spot I’d hoped for.

People pass with regularity. One young man warns of two cubs he’s seen about 300 yards up trail. The mother has to be somewhere. A quick scan of the tall, smooth-trunked trees, predicts no easy task throwing a food line tonight. ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm’ finally arrive. He is not impressed with Waycaster and is nervous about the number of non-hikers on trail.

A half mile further is a one-mile side trail to Hampton, TN. ‘Storm’ wants to get to Hampton and stay at Braemer Castle hostel. He and ‘Roachy’ will be leaving the trail there. As game a hiker as she has been, the high mileage days and hot, humid weather are taking their toll. I don’t really want to leave the trail. I sense that if I get off here, I won’t return, yet staying in this spot alone is not an attractive alternative. I pack my gear and walk another 1.5 miles to US Hwy 321. We find a family at the parking area willing to give us a ride to the hostel.

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle hostel

Braemer Castle, an old two-story stone building (former offices) with wooden floors and an attic fan, is run by the Brown family who also own Brown’s Grocery in town. I take a lovely private room on the second floor for $25. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ grab bunk beds on the first floor. Each floor has a kitchen and bath. The second floor features an airy back sitting room with wall to wall windows and ceiling fans, the place to be on a hot, still summer night. It’s clean, comfortable, and quiet, the best accommodations I’ve experienced thus far on the A.T. Several hikers are in residence including ‘Snuzz’ and ‘Shamrock’ who I met earlier on trail.

‘Roachy’ comes to my room and asks if I’d like to join them for dinner at Subway. Weary doesn’t begin to describe my state. I thank her very much for the invitation but decline in favor of a shower and lying prone on my bed. I’ve got a decision to make.

The next shelter, Watauga Lake, is closed due to bear activity. Signs warn hikers not to even stop along the trail for a break through that entire 5-mile section from the base of Pond Flats to the start of Iron Mountain. Water sources are scarce through this area, and the elevation change from Hampton to the next shelter, Vanderventer (15.3 miles plus the one-mile side trail), totals 6,000 feet, two-thirds of that uphill. The lady at Braemer hostel said it was very unusual for June to be this hot in the mountains and forecasts were offering no relief. I call my son Sam and talk things over with him, but it’s an academic exercise. My instincts were right at Waycaster. I’m headed home.

My room at Braemer Castle

My room at Braemer Castle

Later that evening ‘Storm’ brings me his MSR gas canisters. He can’t take them on their flight home to Houston. I follow him downstairs to say goodbye to ‘Roachy.’ A cramp in her leg has her limping, but her spirits are as cheerful as ever, even as she begins to nod off while ‘Storm’ and I talk. I give her a hug and a kiss on top the head and thank her for being such a wonderful camp mate. This young woman will go far, shining brightly all the way. I’m proud to know her.

Friend Allen Sweetser arrives the next morning in my car and graciously agrees to chauffeur me to Knoxville where I buy him a thank you lunch before returning to Nashville and little Tucker who can’t give me enough welcome home head butts and nose licks.

I covered 145.6 miles in 13 days. My plan now is to return to Hampton at some point, leave my car there, and hire a shuttle to the Groseclose exit on I-81 in Virginia. I can hike southbound through Damascus back to Hampton to finish the remaining 123 miles. It’s high time I experience trail life as a SoBo!

Beautiful Ash Gap

Beautiful Ash Gap

Day Ten, June 15, Roan High Knob Shelter, 7.6 miles: This is it; today I climb Roan Mountain over 2,100 feet in elevation gain to arrive near the summit. First, however, is a short but steep trek up Little Rock Knob and long descent to Hughes Gap, comprising the day’s initial 3.1 miles. It is a gorgeous morning, ideal for the task ahead.

Little Rock Knob personifies the middle word in its name. Given my extreme distaste for Virginia rocks two years ago, I’m surprised to find that the trail rocks in Tennessee and North Carolina do not evoke the same venomous passion and suspect that the rocks themselves have little to do with it. Perception is important, and my perceptions are thankfully very different in 2015. Yet I also believe the trail surface here is in superior condition overall. I tip my sun hat to the hiking clubs maintaining this stretch.

Fern covered stump

Fern covered stump

From the knob, great views of the surrounding mountainous landscape to the north and west reveal an important economic driver here — Christmas tree farms. The Fraser Fir, a co-dominant in the Spruce-Fir forest ecosystem, grows well enough under cultivation at lower elevations for holiday harvesting. These plots of short dark trees organized in rows contrast the bumpy, lighter green canopy of closed forests around them. Some farms cultivate Eastern Hemlock too.

To get from Little Rock Knob through Hughes Gap to the summit of Roan Mountain, the northbound Appalachian Trail runs due south. Such compass anomalies occur with regularity as the A.T. snakes its way from one mountain to another through the Southern Appalachians. In general, we NoBos are headed north but may have to walk east, west, and even south to get there. The A.T. is anything but direct.

In 105 minutes, I am resting and snacking at Hughes Gap in preparation for the big climb. The land here has been in the Hughes family since 1878 beginning with patriarch Charles Hughes (1818-1907). A granite monument at the gap honors five members of that family, including James Frank Hughes who, if still alive as the stone suggests, is now 90.

Ash Gap Campsite

Ash Gap Campsite

The northbound ascent of Roan’s north flank comes in two stages. Beginning at 4,000 feet, the trail works its way gradually upslope over about 2.5 miles and becomes steeper near the end of the first stage, cresting at 5,500 feet. There’s no need to rush, and I take the better part of two hours to reach this point, traveling at an easy pace. The trail itself is in fine shape, alternating from the left side of the ridge (east) to the right side (west) which is breezy. Puffy white clouds race across the clear blue sky. Just shy of the crest, I pause for another snack and revel in the serenade of a Hermit Thrush. His languid phrases are intoxicating, and I linger longer than I need, hesitant to disturb the quiet. Walking again, I edge closer to his territory, taking slow steps and pausing each time I hear him sing. Such beauty is rare for me; I cannot let this opportunity pass unappreciated.

Sideways Yellow Birch

Sideways Yellow Birch

At 5,500 feet the trail descends into one of the most beautiful gaps in the mountains, Ash Gap. The forest here has two main layers, a tree canopy of beech, maple, birch, and buckeye with a lush, sensuous ground cover of sedges, most likely Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica). The wide level gap extends maybe 0.3 mile amid this northern hardwoods community and ends at the base of the final ascent. Great camps (at least two large sites) are here with a water source 0.1 mile to the right. I would climb this again in a heartbeat just to camp in Ash Gap.

The second stage of the climb is 1.1 miles and was redirected a few years ago from a straight up path along the ridge line to a much more hiker friendly route with excellent examples of trail work designed to make the journey easier and protect the Spruce-Fir community found throughout this section. There is a marvelous, monstrous Yellow Birch (Betula allegheniensis) that must be many decades old. As is the predilection of this species, it started life perched on a boulder and somehow wound up sideways, jutting one large, gravity-defying bole straight out and sending another in a more gravitationally appropriate upright manner. It has survived and apparently thrived in the cool, moist atmosphere of Roan Mountain despite the very awkward position of its rooted base.

Fabulous trail work

Fabulous trail work

Spruce-Fir forests have been fighting for their survival too. Mature Fraser Firs (Abies fraseri) lost the battle with Balsam Woolly Adelgid, leaving a forest of large Red Spruce (Picea rubens) that resembles a war zone of coarse woody debris as the white snags of dead firs come down. Fraser Fir seedlings are readily found on the forest floor, and saplings not yet old enough to fall victim to BWA fill the understory in places.

Around 1:00 p.m., I emerge from the forested shoulders of Roan and walk among the open patchwork of exposed rock, spaced trees, and grassy expanses. A side trail to the right leads to the parking area and restrooms associated with one of four main attractions on the Roan massif. Now an open meadow, this site was once home to the ugly, three-story Cloudland Hotel built around 1884. In service for 20 years, it was dismantled in 1914.

Top of Roan Mountain

Top of Roan Mountain

Two other attractions are Roan High Bluff, a high elevation rock outcropping with rare plants, and Roan Gardens, a path through the Spruce-Fir forest that highlights many of the plant species found on Roan including endemics. The fourth attraction is Carvers Gap and the balds, which I’ll experience tomorrow. If the Cloudland Hotel site is all one had to go one, Roan Mountain would not be worth the time or trouble to visit. Fortunately, the other three sites more than make up for it.

Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser may be visiting Roan today, and I look for them around Cloudland. If we can find each other, we can botanize up here. They know a lot about Roan thanks to their plant mentor, Ed Schell. Since I have never set foot on Roan before, they are to be my mentors. I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to travel 7.1 miles to the top, so we kept things loose. They weren’t certain they would be here today.   I see no sign of them but wander the area for at least 30 minutes before continuing to the shelter.

Horribly rutted approach trail to Roan High Knob Shelter

Horribly rutted approach trail to Roan High Knob Shelter

Roan High Knob Shelter is a half mile down a very rocky jeep road, in the middle of which sits a stone chimney. I can find no information on its origin. Situated near the mountain’s true summit (6,286 feet), the shelter is off trail a tenth mile, and neither the skinny brown post marking the trail nor the trail itself are easy to spot. In fact, the side trail is a steep rutted mess of roots that looks more like a drainage ditch. Without the blue blazes, I would not have believed the sign.

This shelter, the highest on the A.T., must have been the caretaker’s cabin associated with a fire tower now gone, only concrete footings remain. There is a spacious fire ring in front of the shelter, and the water source is down another rutted path behind it. The cabin has a narrow covered porch, door, and wooden floor but no sleeping platforms. Hikers must stake out a rectangle on the floor. Given the shelter’s elevation (6,194), I’m sure there are times when the door and too cozy sleeping arrangements are welcome.

Roan High Knob Shelter

Roan High Knob Shelter

An open understory Spruce-Fir forest beyond the cabin contains many potential tent sites. Most have some degree of slant to them. I find a reasonably level location to stake my tent and begin a few camp chores. It’s still early in the afternoon, and there isn’t that much to do. I’m looking for ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ to show. They plan to camp here too. A couple stops by briefly and makes the decision to keep going on this warm sunny day. As they prepare to leave, the man asks if I was the one who left a note on the A.T. post near Cloudland. I tell him no, and he says, “Well, some lady named Margie taped a note with ‘Hi’ and some numbers…215 I think.” “Could the note have been FOR Margie?” I ask. “Maybe.” The Sweetsers did make it, and left a note for me about an hour after I passed through. I ask if they saw a dad with a little red-haired girl. “Yeah, we passed them near the top.”

Roan High Knob Shelter interior

Roan High Knob Shelter interior

It’s now 5:00 p.m., and ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ still haven’t arrived at the shelter. Did they decide to leave the A.T. and hitch a ride at Cloudland? Did they miss the shelter side trail? No one else is here, and I’m not sure I want to stay by myself. I’ve either got to pack up and get going (the next shelter is 5.2 miles away) or commit and start dinner. Just as I’ve struck my tent and am about the take down my food bag, they arrive, having lounged at length around the parking area bathrooms and picnic tables.

Spruce Fir at Roan High Knob

Spruce Fir at Roan High Knob

While cooking dinner, others show. It’s the church group from Cherry Gap. One of the young men looks at me and asks, “Are you the lady that left us a note about the fireflies?” I nod yes. “Thank you so much, it was an incredible experience.” Two of the young women come up to thank me as well. “We’d like to give you a trail name…‘Firefly.’” I’m touched. Having a second trail name gives me options. There will be days when ‘G-Sprout’ just doesn’t fit, then I can be ‘Firefly’ and float through the air glowing!

Catawba Rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron

Day Eleven, June 16, Mountain Harbor Hostel, 15.8 miles: For the first and only time this trip, I need the long johns and jacket I packed. Cool temperatures and breezes overnight are followed by misty clouds enveloping Roan in the morning. I remain bundled through breakfast and the first minutes of today’s journey.

Descent from Roan High Knob follows that rocky jeep road nearly a mile through walls of Catawba Rhododendron and young Fraser Fir, then turns left into the forest winding along the well built trail that mirrors and even exceeds the excellent work seen yesterday. These efforts produce a surface to withstand the harsh mountain elements and heavy foot traffic, keeping hikers on trail and out of the delicate forest community wreathing Roan.

Capturing an image of an artist capturing an image

Capturing an image of an artist capturing an image

It’s just 1.5 miles from the shelter’s side trail to Carvers Gap. The A.T. emerges from dark Spruce-Fir forest to cross TN 143 within sight of the gap’s large sign. From here the trail passes through long stretches of open sky in a series of grassy balds extending to Hump Mountain 9.5 miles east.

Spruce-Fir forests are deep and primeval, grassy balds offer spectacular views, but Roan Mountain’s two biggest draws are shrubs, Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) and Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum). Masses of these shrubs in flower, the former around High Knob and the latter on the balds, attract a crush of visitors in mid June and are the featured stars of an annual Rhododendron Festival weekend.

Flame Azalea on Round Bald

Flame Azalea on Round Bald

The timing of my trip puts me at Roan a few days before the festival, but I’m already late to the party. The Catawba Rhodos, slave to no calendar, have peaked and many are finished. A few shrubs still hold their baseball-sized clusters of purple flowers, but the main show is over for the year. Flame Azaleas are more cooperative, aggregated in scattered groupings sporting brilliant bundles of yellow to red-orange flowers.

The real botanical interest on Roan would never register on the public’s radar. Sprinkled among the Flame Azaleas are drab Green Alder shrubs (Alnus viridis ssp. crispa), their ovoid female catkins the opposite of showy. Dazzled by orange, I almost fail to notice the alders myself, but when one right under my nose at last pierces my consciousness, the excitement is palpable!

Green Alder

Green Alder

This population is special. Green Alder’s native range is circumpolar. It covers most of Canada and Greenland, dipping into the U.S. through the Great Lakes states and New England, petering out in two Pennsylvania counties with one notable exception. Approximately 450 miles south of the southernmost PA population, Green Alder resides happy as the proverbial pig upon the grassy balds of Roan Mountain. Widely separated species populations are called disjuncts, and they are the subject of biogeography, more specifically in the case of plants, phytogeography. Disjunct northern species like Green Alder and the showier Schweinitz’s Ragwort (Packera schweinitziana) plus species such as Red Spruce and Three-toothed Cinquefoil (Sibbaldiopsis tridentata) that dip south only through the Appalachians provide compelling evidence of plant migration during periods of glaciation. Moving south ahead of ice sheets, these plants settled further downslope while tundra covered the summits. Later, as the climate warmed again, they found suitable local habitats in the mountains’ higher elevations.

Roachy on Round Bald

Roachy on Round Bald

Beating Green Alder in the ‘easily overlooked’ category are several grasses and sedges — Hair-grass (Deschampsia flexuosa), Flattened Oat-grass (Danthonia compressa), and White Beaksedge (Rhynchospora alba). These are best explored on a day trip to Roan, when time and miles are not breathing down my neck.

Round Bald is the first grassy expanse past Carvers Gap. ‘Roachy’ gives me her best smile from its summit 30 yards off trail. Jane Bald with its rock slabs is 0.7 mile away, and 0.6 mile further is a side trail (0.5 mi) to Grassy Ridge Bald, something to save for one of those day trips.

Tassel Rue

Tassel Rue

Past Roan’s balds, the A.T. reenters the green tunnel and begins a steady descent to Yellow Mountain Gap, passing the Stan Murray Shelter about halfway. Tassel Rue (Trautvettaria caroliniensis) flowers are beginning to open. Numerous thick white stamens prove an eye-catching substitute for petals. What appear to be Cinnamon Ferns crowd one section of the trail. Later, I walk past an Interrupted Fern as tall as me, so they all may be Osmunda claytoniana.

Yellow Mountain Gap (Bright’s Trace) was the route of the ‘Overmountain Men’ who helped rout the British at Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War. A blue-blazed trail to the right leads 0.3 mile to Overmountain Shelter, a converted barn that accommodates 20 people plus tent sites. A popular stop along the trail, it is also known for its scenic views.

Overmountain Shelter

Overmountain Shelter

Climbing Little Hump Mountain, I can look back and easily spot the red barn perched mid-slope at the head of a clearing, the valley of Yellow Mountain Gap spreading below. The trail up Little Hump moves in and out of small openings and forests before reaching the open summit. I pause in the shade to eat a snack and apply sunscreen. The morning’s heavier cloud cover has broken into a swift flotilla of sailing cumulus puffs. The sun is bright and strong, yet breezes prevent the exertion of backpacking from becoming too burdensome.

Little Hump Mountain

Little Hump Mountain

Hump Mountain is visible from Little Hump. The trail makes an abrupt right turn into a thick tunnel of birch and hawthorn trees, but quickly pops out again. From here, the trail bisects a wide grassy boulevard connecting the slopes of Little Hump and Hump through Bradley Gap. Large rock outcrops of gneiss dot the middle slope of Hump. I choose one of these for my lunch spot. Blustery and cool even in mid-afternoon, I don a long-sleeve shirt to avoid becoming both chilled and sunburned.

Gray's Lily

Gray’s Lily

In this patch of outcrops, a lone stem of Gray’s Lily (Lilium grayi) screams red-orange in the sea of green grass. The wind has this darn thing bouncing and jigging around like a little kid overdue for a potty break, but I keep shooting images until I get a reasonably sharp one. Gray’s Lily is a rare plant, endemic to the Southern Appalachians’ high peaks, and found mainly in association with the Roan massif in Tennessee.

NoBos must push past a couple of false summits to crest Hump Mountain. The true top isn’t visible from lower vantage points on trail. Livestock sometimes graze here though I see no animals or evidence, and fences crisscross the mountain with zigzag stiles for us two-footed beasts to maneuver.

View southbound from the upper flank of Hump Mountain

View southbound from the upper flank of Hump Mountain

The trail slips back in the woods less than two miles from my intended destination, Doll Flats campsite, but what a 1.6 miles it is. Shades of Virginia’s rockiest terrain hover around me as I negotiate a tough descent that is all the worse for coming at the end of a long day. It doesn’t look bad on Miller’s profile, but holy cow, it’s rough. Once again, heroic maintenance efforts are obvious and appreciated, yet not quite enough to blunt the late afternoon toll. Small Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera psycodes) provides a bit of botanical relief.

Christmas Tree Farm

Christmas Tree Farm

At last the trail smooths and levels. Another Christmas tree farm is visible through a break in the foliage. On the backside of a small meadow opening a sign on trail announces “Leaving NC.” I step into back into Tennessee at Doll Flats, a lovely campsite right on the trail, its water source on the opposite side. I set up my tent and wait for ‘Roachy’ and ‘Storm.’

Small Purple Fringed Orchid

Small Purple Fringed Orchid

They arrive within 45 minutes and are energized, wanting to continue another 2.5 miles to US Highway 19E and the hostel 0.3 mile west. I would be quite content to spend the night in peaceful Doll Flats, but after consulting my plans for the next two days, I determine that getting these extra miles done might be a positive move. My only concern is the condition of the trail down to the highway. The profile looks steeper, and if it’s as rocky as what came before Doll Flats, I’ll be in misery. ‘Storm’s enthusiasm persuades me to pull up my tent and keep going.

The trail is mostly smooth and in good shape. Within 90 minutes we are at 19E thumbing for a ride. Many people pass us despite having an adorable kid in tow. A young man finally stops, and we cram into his compact car. Speeding down the road, we drive well past the hostel’s location and have to double back. Turns out we were less than a tenth mile away when he stopped for us; we hiked 16 miles today.

Sunbeams on Round Bald

Sunbeams on Round Bald

Mountain Harbor hosts a bed and breakfast in the main house and hiker hostel in a barn with tent sites out back. I’d originally planned to stop here tomorrow morning, pick up my second resupply, shower, wash clothes, and resume the trail to the next shelter. When I arranged to send my second food pack here, the lady I spoke with was very nice. I’ve heard others talk favorably of their experiences with Mountain Harbor, but ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I aren’t so fortunate tonight. It’s 7:00 p.m., and I’m dead on my feet when we ring the doorbell. The man that answers stares as if we were alien life forms. He merely shakes his head “no” when ‘Storm’ asks if there are rooms available in the house. We ask about the hostel, and he shuffles off in search of an answer. The barn is crowded, but there may be one spot in the loft. I ask if there are fans…we post-menopausal women cannot get enough cool moving air at night. He shrugs. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ give him 15 dollars for a tent site and laundry soap/quarters. I do the same.

Winter Wren serenades my snack break

Winter Wren serenades my snack break

The tenting area is very rough and located below the highway where cars and trucks grind uphill. By the time I shower, set up camp, sort my resupply, and finish laundry, it is well after 10:00 p.m. I’m too exhausted to eat dinner. It’s another Vitamin I chugging, ear-plugging night that never quite blocks the sound of traffic groaning on US 19E.

Chicory flower

Chicory flower

The Appalachian Trail begins its flirtation with Tennessee at Doe Knob, the Gregory Bald Trail junction 6.8 miles north of Fontana Dam in the Smokies, and tap dances along the Tennessee-North Carolina border, rarely straying far into either state or staying for very long. There are three significant deviations. The first occurs a few miles past Max Patch through Hot Springs to Rich Mountain where it veers from the border as much as 4.5 miles into North Carolina.

Rejoining the state line at Rich Mountain, the trail’s next major deviation comes after Little Bald, looping into North Carolina through Spivey Gap before crossing back into Tennessee for a pit stop in Erwin. Eight miles later, just before Indian Grave Gap, border and trail overlap again until Hump Mountain, where the A.T. makes its final, brief foray into North Carolina then commits to Tennessee at Doll Flats. The northeastern corner of the state carries the trail to Virginia’s border and passes the baton.

The A.T. crosses an active railroad in Erwin, TN.

The A.T. crosses an active railroad in Erwin, TN.

Day Seven, June 12, Curly Maple Gap Shelter, 4.7 miles: With something of a near-o (low mileage day) planned, I indulge and sleep in. At most I’ll do 7.3 miles to a campsite not far from Indian Grave Gap. I’d like to go further than the first shelter to shave a couple of miles from tomorrow’s hike which includes Unaka Mountain. The late morning is cloudy and looks like rain. ‘Trouble,’ a hiker helping out at the hostel for a while, leaves some trail magic at my door — a banana, OJ, a bag of dark chocolates, and pastries. Wow! A pleasant surprise. I eat the first two, take some of the chocolates, leave the rest for another deserving hiker, and thank ‘Trouble’ for his kindness before I go.

Catty-cornered from Uncle Johnny’s, the trail immediately crosses the Nolichucky River, ducks into the woods for a moment, and pops out on an active railroad, complete with cautions to look carefully before climbing over the tracks. Trains sometimes stop briefly in Erwin. A sign warns hikers to resist the temptation to crawl underneath and wait for the train to move instead. No trains in sight as I cross.

Bridge over Jones Branch

Bridge over Jones Branch

Following the Nolichucky upstream for a mile, the trail turns up Jones Branch, crossing multiple times on bridges at least one of which was built by Daniel Sprinkle, Eagle Scout Troop 4 of Piney Flats, TN. The forest is dense, and thick stands of Rosebay Rhododendron clog the stream’s course. A few short sections are very steep and virtually carved from bedrock. I’m in no particular hurry and, given my replenished load, set an easy pace and rest often.

This is the weekend before Father’s Day, and during the coming week, I’ll meet several fathers with their children on trail. First up are two young men in their 20s and their 50-something dads out for a few days. We play tag over the next couple of miles to the shelter.

Curley Maple Gap Shelter is spacious, with double sleeping platforms and an extended roof covering most of the picnic table. When I arrive, ‘Giggles’ is there sweeping out the place. She’s bagged trash left by previous occupants with the intent to carry it out. I decide to rest a while and eat lunch. The sons and dads rest too and consult my Miller trail guide for their evening destination.

Trail in and out of Erwin is fairly rocky.

Trail in and out of Erwin is fairly rocky.

Not too long after the guys leave NoBo, a father and daughter (in her 20s) arrive SoBo. They rest as well and eat a snack before heading to Erwin with ‘Giggles’ load of trash. While they are here, the clouds finally shed some of their moist burden. Movement from the fire ring calls attention to a five-foot Black (Gray) Rat Snake making a beeline for the shelter.

The area below the lower sleeping platform has been blocked with hardware cloth, but on one side rocky ground prevents a clean tackable edge. This snake knows its neighborhood. Sliding up to the wire, it looks left at first, then quickly moves right, heading straight for the sliver of space allowing entry. Within minutes two mice bolt from the shelter! I cordially invite the snake to stay as long as it likes, but soon after the shower ends, it comes back out and heads toward the trail. Later, a Fowler’s Toad hops up and scoots under the wire. Must be a well-known hangout for area wildlife.

In a bit, father number three arrives with his daughter, an eleven-year-old sporting gorgeous dark red hair, a winning smile, and the not-so-flattering trail name ‘Roachy,’ a corruption of her real name, Rachel. They have just begun their journey and hope to make it all the way to Damascus. They too continue to a campsite further up the trail.

Curley Maple Gap Shelter

Curley Maple Gap Shelter

I’ve become fairly comfortable here and enjoy ‘Giggles’ company. A Texas native, she started at Springer but is only going to Hampton, TN. She exits there for her summer job as a camp counselor in North Carolina. I take a peek at her Miller guide, the new 2015 version, which no longer shows the campsite I’d planned to occupy, so I decide to settle in. The extra rest should more than prepare me for tomorrow’s miles.

Two other Maine-bound hikers join us for the evening, ‘Jukebox’ (always whistling) making his second attempt at a thru-hike before beginning his third year at Princeton and ‘Shamrock’ (green backpack) whose family name graces an A.T. shelter in VT. ‘Jukebox’ is whistling an unusual tune for wilderness hikers. “That’s ‘Jupiter’ from Gustav Holst’s The Planets.” He looks up with a surprised and appreciative smile. Being a 50-something classical music aficionado among 20-year-old hip-hop fans can have its rewards!

In the shelter is a book of verse by Bill Alexander, “The Appalachian Hippie Poet.” On the whole, it’s drivel — painfully predictable rhymes about drinking, loneliness, ‘my-woman’s-gone’ stuff. I read a few aloud in a southern/country twang that has ‘Giggles’ living up to her trail name.

Black (Gray) Rat Snake looking to get out of the rain.

Black (Gray) Rat Snake looking to get out of the rain.

For some inexplicable reason, shelters north of Erwin do not have food cables. Even with these high-mounted, steel systems of pulleys and hooks, bears are difficult to deter. Two nights ago, a bag was damaged at No Business Shelter (my toad’s home).

Bears have become the talk of the trail. Word has spread of the attack in the Smokies, and sightings are a regular occurrence. Without the convenience of cables, everyone is on her own to confound determined bears each night. No avoiding the low-tech, rock-and-rope approach now.

The main problem with hanging a bag is locating an appropriate limb. Is it high enough? The bottom of the bag needs to be a minimum of 12 feet above the ground. Is the limb far enough away from the main trunk and other trees? Bears are smart and will climb neighboring trees if they offer a way to snag the bag. Is the limb strong enough to hold the bag’s weight but not big enough to hold a bear? Everything has to be just right. It is possible to spend an hour or more trying to find something that will pass muster and rig the rope. Complicating things further, trees’ tendency toward self-pruning of lower limbs in a shady forest results in a dearth of decent choices that aren’t 30 feet high or pointing straight up. Understory trees are usually too short or too weak to support the weight. It can be very frustrating.

Gray Ratsnake 02, AT TN NC, June 12, 2015At Curley Maple, all the choices are 20 feet high or more. ‘Giggles’ claims the lowest branch, but it doesn’t look strong enough for two bags. The only choice left towers overhead. As noted earlier, my little rope system is a decent option under reasonable conditions, though I fear the rope may be too short for this height — just one of many food bag problems.

After several attempts to hurl a rock over a limb, one’s shoulder begins to feel a bit like that of a major leaguer late in the sixth inning. It’s also important to watch out for the rock coming down. Duck and cover is good advice. Finally, my biggest nemesis — rope tangles — has the potential to make this necessary chore a nightmare!

Gray Ratsnake 03, AT TN NC, June 12, 2015Weight and height are the issues tonight. To attach my food bag to the carabiner, the rock sack dangles well above my reach. With fingertips, I push the food bag as far overhead as I can but still am unable to grab the rock sack and hoist my food. ‘Giggles’ is quite a bit taller than me and comes to the rescue. The freshly stocked food bag is as heavy as it can be, a worthy opponent in this tug of war. One vigorous pull leaves me staggering backwards with the detached rock sack in my hand, the food bag on the ground, and the rope’s end with its toggle clip wrapped four times around the limb 20 feet above my head.

I’m dumbfounded.

Repeated tugs — soft ones, hard ones, bouncy ones — accomplish nothing. I put my whole weight into it and nothing. ‘Jukebox’ comes over. He points to a skinny broken snag behind me. “Run the rope around this, maybe it will give you enough leverage to break the limb.” I do and pull as hard as I can, the slender rope cutting into my hands. Nothing happens, and I let go in disgust knowing I’ll have to cut off a significant portion of my rope. I turn around in time to see the toggle clip and rope drop gently to the ground.

I’m dumbfounded.

Fishing Spider

Fishing Spider

Apparently, the angle of the pull set in motion reverse winding of the rope’s toggle clip when the tension was suddenly released. Neither ‘Jukebox’ nor I can believe my good fortune! I rethread the rope through the sack and tie a much bigger knot behind the toggle clip. Back in business, I finally get my food hung and retire to the shelter exhausted.

There is one more wildlife story at Curley Maple. While cleaning the shelter, ‘Giggles’ spotted this huge arachnid hunkered by a wall stud, a massive fishing spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus, I believe. It did not move all day, but in the gathering dusk, it ventures forth. ‘Shamrock’ is enamored. He and I take several photos. By morning, this fierce looking beauty has disappeared.

The back half of a Timber Rattlesnake with 12 rattles.

The back half of a Timber Rattlesnake with 12 rattles.

Day Eight, June 13, Cherry Gap Shelter, 12.8 miles: ‘Jukebox’ and I are the first ones up and out. ‘Giggles’ sleeps late and hikes fast. She gets her kicks later in the day blowing past all who left well before her.

The trail cruises north of the state line remaining nearly level, then climbs to the crest about a mile from Indian Grave Gap (3,550 ft) and levels again. The ridge is dry and dense with Mountain Laurel and Teaberry lining either side. Energized on this beautiful morning, I’m hiking strong on the ridge, hoping to give ‘Giggles’ a run for her money until a sound I’ve never heard in person pierces my consciousness and activates a response as instinctive as it is immediate.

Mountain Laurel flowering in a powerline clearing

Mountain Laurel flowering in a powerline clearing

From a brisk walk to stock still, I am frozen by rapid rattling and direct my attention downward. A Timber Rattlesnake lies stretched across the trail less than five feet in front of me. Irritated by my aggressive approach, it sends a stern warning, “Slow down, Sister!” It isn’t a very long snake, maybe four feet, but its circumference appears close to three inches, and I count 12 rattles.

Not at all pleased to move on my account, it gradually works its way into the thick cover of teaberry and laurel. After that tail disappears, I listen for further movement in the underbrush before continuing and a moment later assume the coast is clear. One step and the snake directs another harsh rattle at me. “Aw, come on…I don’t want to upset you, I just want to get by.” I wait another few moments then hug the opposite edge of the trail in a slow side step without triggering any more angry retorts.

View toward Erwin from Beauty Spot

View toward Erwin from Beauty Spot

Evidence of civilization isn’t restricted to roads and towns. The A.T. often crosses beneath transmission power lines through wide, sunny openings barren of most woody plants. Many are full of various herbaceous species, including grasses and maybe some brambles, but an opening today is tinted pink down the hillside from a profusion of Mountain Laurel blossoms.

Rising in stages toward Unaka Mountain, the trail bisects a grassy hilltop called Beauty Spot at 4300 ft. Visitor’s can drive to the top and spend a day enjoying the views, picnicking, or walking a bit of the A.T. Erwin is visible to the west, with another good view of mountainous terrain to the south.

Gasoline powered trail work

Gasoline powered trail work

I read somewhere that trail work on the A.T. is done by hand, no machines to ease the labor. Past Beauty Spot, I can hear the whine of a small gas engine and assume it comes from nearby private land. In a few minutes though, I see two people running weed eaters up either side of the trail, their truck parked on a forest service road. They pause to let me pass and resume their work. I’ve always thought the purity of spirit behind the injunction against mechanical aid was admirable but archaic given the sheer volume and intensive nature of trail clearing and maintenance required annually.

Shady maple, great lunch location

Shady maple, great lunch location

Other meadow openings dot the trail on either side of Beauty Spot. One features a lone maple tree shading a log and small campsite. I take a long break to eat lunch. Spruce-topped Unaka Mountain, the last big stretch of the day, is visible. I’ve been on the lookout for ‘Giggles,’ rather surprised she hasn’t passed me yet.

Deep Gap is on the southern end of Unaka Mountain with Low Gap on the northern end. This reminds me of a conversation ‘Giggles’ and ‘Jukebox’ had last night. She was complaining about all the gaps called either “Low” or “Deep.” “Why don’t they give them a different name? They could name one after me!”  ‘Jukebox’ suggests that a knob might be a better choice but finally argues against attaching a personal name to both saying, “Hikers would hate you either way. Gaps kill the knees, and knobs kill the quads.”

American Chestnut

American Chestnut

The trail up Unaka is steeper and a bit rocky but not too hard, covering 1.5 miles and rising over 1,000 feet to an elevation of 5,180. There are American Chestnut sprouts along the way and Flame Azaleas in flower near the top. I meet ‘Roachy’ and her dad ‘Storm.’ The three of us cross Unaka together.

Unaka’s summit is very broad making it essentially flat. The highest ground is solid Red Spruce (Picea rubens). Few other plant species are present. The spruce canopy is high overhead, and from eye level it’s like walking through a shady plot of telephone poles. There is no understory. Apart from a fern sprig here or there and occasional patches of bright green moss, this forest is a brown monochrome — dark tree boles contrasting a carpet of pale dead needles. The trail surface is indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor, and though the path runs straight, it’s wise to keep an eye peeled for white blazes. Disorientation at dusk or in fog could present quite a challenge to find the trail again.

Unaka Mountain

Unaka Mountain

The back side of Unaka is a gentle descent among lush waves of sedges and ferns. My feet are beginning to ache as the day winds down and I pull into Deep Gap. Cherry Gap Shelter is 1.1 miles away, involving two short climbs, one short descent, and 35 minutes.

The shelter, a lousy dump, is located on a ridge, with decent tents sites spread widely along the trail just past it. I find a perfect spot, locate a great food limb, set up my tent and get water from a very good spring a short walk behind the shelter. ‘Storm’ and ‘Roachy’ stop here too. It is a lovely, calm evening. I settle down to dinner.

‘Giggles’ shows up and stops by my site. She took long breaks at Beauty Spot and Unaka’s summit, both captured her imagination. As she talks, a loud racket behind us prompts me to turn around. “Oh, that’s just the church group,” says ‘Giggles.’

Hallway of Red Spruce on Unaka Mountain's summit

Hallway of Red Spruce on Unaka Mountain’s summit

At least 15 teenagers, late high school or college age, and two adults (a man and woman) swarm the campsites. Their din of nonstop chatter and laughter annihilates any hope of peace. In something of a cat herding exercise, the adults direct the students in camp preparations their first night in the mountains.

They drove in from Nashville (my city) this morning. As with the boy scouts last week, they have arrived at camp so late in the day, they are still engaged in important chores (in this instance cooking food) as night falls. Amid the roar of their gas stoves, they are shouting at each other while I’m trying to go to sleep. One girl’s voice in particular pierces the night air, rising well above the others.

Drifts of sedges descending Unaka Mountain

Drifts of sedges descending Unaka Mountain

At 9:00 p.m. (Hiker Midnight), I walk over to politely ask if they could please keep it down. The woman says, “This is their first night.”  “I understand, but I’ve had a long day and would really like to get to sleep.” She tries again, “They’re just excited.”  “I understand, but I really don’t think yelling is necessary.” With a slight look of frustration, she turns to the kids, “We’ve had a request to keep the noise down.”

To my delight, they comply. Back in the tent, I pop two Ibuprofen to ease my aching feet. Ear plugs firmly in place and “Vitamin I” coursing through my system, I fall into a blissful sleep, unaware of the drama unfolding around me.

Roachy and her dad, Storm

Roachy and her dad, Storm

Day Nine, June 14, Clyde Smith Shelter, 9.2 miles: Proper hydration on trail usually leads to a middle of the night bathroom run. This night there are people in the church group’s camp milling around with headlamps. I still have my ear plugs in place and have no idea what they are doing, nor do I care. More sleep is my focus.

Each morning, I dress and assemble all gear in my tent before emerging, ready to eat breakfast and pack. Each evening I filter all water needed for the next day and usually have at least a liter left in the “dirty” bag for breakfast and to top off water bottles before leaving. I leave this unfiltered water bag hanging from a limb at my campsite overnight, threading the tube and filter cartridge through the bag handle to keep them from dangling. No wildlife have ever bothered it in three years of hiking.

Hayscented Fern Glen

Hayscented Fern Glen

At this site, the bag hangs from a small bump on a young tree where a little limb used to be. It is just enough to hold the bag without slipping. This morning I notice the bag is tilted to one side. I also notice it is empty. There is a clean puncture at the base of the tube port about the size of a BB. Stunned, I try to figure how on earth something could puncture the bag from below without knocking it off the tree. The tube and cartridge are not damaged or even disturbed. Just one perfect, devastating hole.

My first suspicion is not charitable. Could one of the church kids have done this as retaliation for my noise complaint?  They were up in the middle of the night. I can prove nothing and have to find some way to make this bag operable for at least four more days. I pull out my repair kit and make a temporary fix with Tenacious Tape then head for the spring. It still leaks, but holds enough for breakfast.

Rock pillars on NC's Iron Mountain

Rock pillars on NC’s Iron Mountain

When I’m packed, I walk back to the church camp to thank them for being quiet last night and apologize if it put a damper on their fun. Just in case they did punch a hole in my bag, I want them to feel really bad about it. The man’s Platypus bladder is hanging from a tree and I warn him, “Be careful, something punched a perfect hole in mine last night. It’s ruined.” He gives me a funny look. I ask where they plan to camp tonight. Greasy Creek Gap. Good. I’ll be going two miles past.

It’s a shorter mileage day with no big mountains but several smaller ups and downs hovering near 4,000 feet. The trail is easy, skirting the summit of Little Bald Knob and crossing TN 107/NC 226 at Iron Mountain Gap. From the gap, it follows the ridge line onto Iron Mountain. This is North Carolina’s Iron Mountain, a short ridge southeast of the long, straight, and impressive ridge line of Tennessee’s Iron Mountain still ahead beyond the town of Hampton.

Round-leaved Orchid

Round-leaved Orchid

I meet ‘Zippy,’ a SoBo section hiker striking camp. He’s very pleasant and true to SoBo nature, quite chatty. It’s another beautiful day, a mix of sun and clouds with refreshing breezes along the ridge, and the trail passes through several sedge-filled woodlands and lush fern glades, New York and Hayscented ferns mainly. On top of NC’s Iron Mountain are slanted rock formations that make a great rest stop. I break for lunch here.

Walking along, I begin to regret my suggested suspicion to the church group for my water bag woes and wonder what I could do to make amends. Nothing says, “I’m sorry,” like a magical night of Blue Ghost Fireflies, so I determine to leave them a note at their intended destination. Fortunately for me there is a sign attached to a tree that announces “Greasy Creek Gap” removing any doubt, and I sit down to write about the fireflies and provide important instructions for good viewing — full nightfall, no lights — and express hope that this will make up for putting a damper on their first night in the mountains. I sign it, “Your cranky Nashville neighbor at Cherry Gap,” and leave it on a stump at the fire ring anchored by a small rock. Greasy Creek Gap is also the location of a 0.6 mile spur trail to a hostel that receives good word-of-mouth reviews from hikers.

Round-leaved Orchid flowers

Round-leaved Orchid flowers

Two couples with four dogs are resting at the Greasy Creek campsite when I arrive and leave the same time I do. The women and dogs move ahead, but the two men talk about the rich spring wildflowers along the trail past the camp. They point out an orchid, Platanthera orbiculata, Large Round-leaved or Padleaf Rein Orchid, a northern species that dips south to NC and TN through the Southern Appalachians but is considered rare within most of its range, preferring damp, rich forests. Two broadly oval leaves lie flat on the ground beneath a 10-20 inch stalk holding numerous greenish white flowers aloft in a raceme. I’ve seen one or two other individuals along the trail, but this is the first in flower. [I wish I’d given it the sniff test; botanical descriptions say it is fragrant.]

The shelter is a 0.1 mile off the trail, and the water source is another 0.1 mile from the shelter. Larger than most, Clyde Smith is still dark and dingy. Tent sites behind it are preferable. I plunge into evening chores, including the all-important food bag limb, and spread out sweaty clothes, socks and shoes to air in shafts of sunlight. Next up is the water bag. Tenacious Tape isn’t working, so I remove it and try again with duct tape. A close inspection reveals two small scrapes on the side of the port and another dent on top. Something really did try to bite it.

Sedge woodland with gnarled maples

Sedge woodland with gnarled maples

I will discover later that bears terrorized the church group last night, grabbing one girl’s backpack and dragging it into the woods. Considering these troubles, I can only assume my culprit was a bear. Now it might have been a squirrel with very big teeth, but a bear, probably a cub, is most likely and makes a much better story. It is still amazing, because  that cub had to take the gentlest bite possible to avoid knocking the whole thing to the ground! I am very thankful it wasn’t ripped to pieces.

My awesome repair!

My awesome repair!

The tube port projects from the base of the bag with rounded contours. I clean and dry the area, cut precise sections of duct tape, and carefully apply each piece to make solid contact and minimize potential leakage. It looks good and works great. Not a single drip. ‘Storm’ admires my handiwork, “You could be on Survivor.”

Beginning this evening, ‘Storm,’ ‘Roachy,’ and I become official camp buddies. We set our tents in the same area and enjoy each other’s company. ‘Roachy’ is an adorable doll — cute, funny, smart, and as good a hiker as anyone on trail. I like her so much, I invite her to share my Oreos!

Starting in Hot Springs

Starting in Hot Springs

Day One, June 6, Spring Mountain Shelter, 11.3 miles: Friends Susan and Allen Sweetser drop me at the A.T. trailhead in Hot Springs off Serpentine Road. At 9:00 a.m. I hoist a full pack and follow the trail on Hot Springs streets for several tenths of a mile, crossing the French Broad River before turning into the “green tunnel,” a term used to describe the A.T. for its lengthy runs through shady forests.

The trail parallels the river a short distance then ascends Lovers Leap Ridge 1200 feet, followed by a 500-foot ascent of Mill Ridge, a 1300-foot ascent of Rich Mountain, and a 600-foot ascent of Spring Mountain. It’s going to be a long and brutal first day! Despite dry, rocky terrain on the first ridges, the trail surface is surprisingly smooth and easy to walk.

Pond

Pond

Ninety minutes into the hike, I take a break at one of the many campsites along the trail. Resting on a log for a snack, I attempt to stand up and hear a ripping sound like Velcro. Pine sap oozing from the log is now on my pants. Anything with which I make contact immediately binds to my rear: leaves, dirt, sticks, small pebbles. I feel like one of those insects that cover themselves with detritus as camouflage.

Goat's Rue

Goat’s Rue

Later, I adhere to a bench next to a dammed pond with small black fish. It marks the halfway point and a good spot for lunch. My pace has improved somewhat, but up to now, I’ve seen no one else on trail. At the pond, a young man scouts early mushrooms and shows me a lovely specimen of Suillus pictus. Back on trail, I meet a local woman exercising her dogs and a day-hiking couple. Thus begins a long and interesting list of personal encounters on the A.T.

Next up are two women, one from Chattanooga ‘Wallagirl,’ the other from Lynchburg, VA, ‘Heartsong.’ They are section hiking southbound (SoBo). ‘Wallagirl’ sees my bear Humphrey riding on my shoulder and shows me a tiny stuffed wallaby called “Wallaboy” given to her by her son.

Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

Rich Mountain Lookout Tower

A young girl, ‘Hummingbird,’ with gorgeous blond hair in a French braid is northbound (NoBo) to Katahdin. She began at Springer Mountain May 18 and is making incredible time. I catch up with her again at the Rich Mountain Lookout Tower, where we both meet ‘Many Nights.’ Now in his mid 80s, ‘Many Nights’ thru-hiked the A.T. SoBo in 1998 at age 67. We share a delightful chat and enjoy views of the Smokies and Mt. Mitchell. By the way, the alleged “0.1 mile” side trail to the tower is at least twice if not three times that length.

After Rich Mountain, I’m dragging and not even Snickers can revive me. The final 2.7 miles are slow going. There’s no one at Spring Mountain Shelter when I arrive, and what a disappointment. It’s dingy and dirty with gaping holes in the sleeping platform. Rampant rodent references in the shelter’s journal sends me scouting a tent location. The only obvious place is a slanting patch of bare dirt to the right of the shelter. Unknown to me, more sites are located just over a small rise further up trail.

Large Yellow Wood Sorrell

Large Yellow Wood Sorrell

Two men who have set up camp there come to the shelter to cook dinner. They are friends from childhood. It’s Glen’s first backpacking trip, and he’s just out for the weekend. ‘Stick’ has more experience and plans to continue hiking, though his struggles with a stove and water collection have me worried for both men. They tell me the higher sites are flatter and better. While debating a possible move uphill, a handsome young man from CT, ‘Bear Bell,’ arrives. He’s section hiking Damascus to Fontana before his brother’s wedding. There is another young couple upslope, one of them plays the recorder (not very well). I only see them when they come to filter water and hang their food bag.

Glen, ‘Stick,’ ‘Bear Bell,’ and I cook dinner and eat. As daylight fades, a troop of boy scouts from Tampa, FL, arrive. An undetermined number of boys head uphill to find tent/hammock sites, and five or six adults flatten foliage all around the shelter. Stowing my gear away from their mayhem, I hang my food bag on the cables and decide to stay put. Big mistake.

Tall Milkweed

Tall Milkweed

Turns out the middle-school-aged boys have more sense than the doofus adults. Reminiscent of a Three Stooges short, these men spend the next two hours shouting and tromping through the woods trying to hang their food bags. One idiot ties a rope to his knife and throws it over the food cables where it tangles with ‘Bear Bell’s food bag. The knife is stuck. It never dawns on the guy to simply lower the bag and retrieve it. They are oblivious to the rest of us trying to sleep. One lone female in the group walks around wringing her hands, “This is terrible…they can’t get the bags hung…this is terrible.” Yeah, terrible that these fools are trying to teach young boys how to survive in the wilderness!

Discovering this major drawback to summer A.T. hiking — big clueless groups, I determine to rise at dawn and put as much distance between them and me as possible.

Day Two, June 7, Campsite, 10.7 miles: Up at 5:40 and leaving before 7:00, my original destination Little Laurel Shelter 8.6 miles away is abandoned when I hear the scouts are headed there. My focus shifts two miles further to a campsite at Jones Meadow. It’s a lovely day, and I make good time passing through Allen Gap and crossing Log Cabin Drive, where a private home is visible mere yards from the trail. I plan to lunch at the shelter.

Goatsbeard

Goatsbeard

In June, two plant species found on trail appear so similar it is difficult to tell them apart. Goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus, Rosaceae) and Astilbe (Astilbe biternata, Saxifragaceae, also called False Goatsbeard) are producing tall feathery panicles of fleecy flowers in rich, moist woodlands. There are several distinctions between them, but these differences are subtle and require close examination. In the field, I find it hard to remember which characteristics belong to which species.

The most significant difference requires a hand lens to confirm. Goatsbeard is dioecious — male flowers, each with 15-20 stamens, on one plant and female flowers on another. Two other traits may be used. Astilbe’s upper stems have glandular hairs, Goatsbeard is smooth. Astilbe’s foliage is twice or three-times ternate (divided into three leaflets) and the terminal leaflet is often lobed. Goatsbeard’s compound foliage is not restricted to divisions of three leaflets, the leaflets are double toothed, and the terminal leaflet is not lobed. Yet the challenge remains to recall which is which when both are flowering along the trail.

Astilbe

Astilbe

Cow Parsnip (Heracleum maximum) can be found in dense stands on the A.T. Tall, coarse, and poisonous, it does not have the charm of other wildflowers. However, butterflies like Great Spangled Fritillary appreciate the nectar and wide landing pads its broad, flat heads of small white flowers provide.

The trail is busy in both directions. NoBos still carry dreams of Katahdin and hike with purpose. SoBos are usually fairly chatty, maybe because at this time of year they are certain to be section hikers less pushed by time constraints to finish the entire trail. They will stop for many minutes to exchange pleasantries, share destination goals, and provide valuable information on trail and shelter conditions north.

One unusual SoBo is actually a NoBo. Along with his regular vehicle, Gerard bought a cheap used car. He leaves one at a road crossing south and drives the other to a road crossing north. From there, he hikes south to the first car, spends the night in a hotel, and drives to another trail crossing the following morning, leapfrogging north after hiking each daily section south. He’s proud of this arrangement — no heavy pack, no shelters or tents, carrying only the immediate food and water he needs. He really tries to sell me on the idea, “You can buy a used car for under $1,000.”  Ummm, no thanks. I wish him well and off he goes.

The next SoBo is an older woman. She began at Damascus and has decided to continue to Springer Mountain, estimating her arrival by mid-July. As we chat, something about her is naggingly familiar. When she references a broken ankle, it hits me. “Were you hiking southbound in Virginia two years ago?” I ask. She looks surprised.  “Tip Toe?” I venture. “It’s G-Sprout.” Her face breaks into a big smile. We met on Day 19 of my hike through Central Virginia in 2013. She’s the one who thought Bloodroot leaves look like Batman.

Cow Parsnip with Great Spangled Fritillary

Cow Parsnip with Great Spangled Fritillary

‘TipToe’ is taking her time, enjoying both the trail and its friendly hiker community. No hardship seems too great for her. On my agenda tomorrow is Firescald Bald, a strenuous stretch of rocky terrain that others have warned me against, advocating the bypass trail instead. Not ‘Tip Toe.’ She has her sights on New Hampshire one day, and Firescald was a test for her ankle. She made it easily and encourages me to tackle it, downplaying the A.T.C. caution regarding an eight-foot vertical scramble. “I could reach the top of it,” she says, “and there are good footholds.” ‘Tip Toe’ is 70 and my hero.

I lunch at Little Laurel and rest before climbing Camp Creek Bald, the crest of a 2500-foot climb from Allen Gap. The final 1100 feet in 1.3 miles are steep and require a slow and methodical approach. Near the top, thunder prompts me to cover my pack and sit down on trail, uncertain about crossing the peak in bad weather. The storm never comes my way, and I find that the trail remains under tree cover across the top. A short side trail leads to a lookout tower, but I’m ready to reach camp, and it’s still nearly a mile away.

‘Tip Toe’ advised me against Jones Meadow — too far off trail, no good sites, and barking dogs. However, 100 yards south of the side trail to Jones is a piped spring with a campsite next to the A.T. She stayed there last night. “It’s great,” she says. Arriving at 3:30, I concur with ‘Tip Toe.’ It’s a wonderful site at 4500 feet elevation with a local Veery patrolling the neighborhood.

Campsite

Campsite

My feet have been burning most of the day, and camp shoes are the first order of business. I’m shocked to find itchy red welts covering the tops of my feet and ankles. At Spring Mountain last night, these small black flies bit my feet leaving bright red spots of dried blood. Those bites are now swollen, causing significant discomfort. The pesky flies (I think related to the ones that drove me crazy in Virginia) are at this campsite too. To foil further bites, I wear my liner socks and start swatting them.

A few people walk by, mostly SoBos, but no one else stays for the night. There are no cables to hang food at A.T. campsites, and thinking back to my routine in Virginia, I elect to keep my food bag in my tent. In retrospect, a poor decision, and though I will not pay a price for it tonight, this will be the last time I risk it. Within a few hundred yards of the campsite heading north in the morning, several large bear tracks in the mud convince me it’s time to stop tempting fate and hang my food.

Preparing for sleep, I find those damn flies have flown up my pants legs and bitten my shins above the socks! Lying in the tent with nothing to distract me, my feet begin to itch like crazy. Scratching only makes them worse. Finally I remember Benadryl tablets in my first aid kit, unzip the tent to access my backpack, and discover hundreds of Blue Ghost Fireflies pursuing romance all around me. With an antihistamine dissolving in my tummy to calm the fire in my feet, I sit zipped in the tent with just my face exposed and watch tiny blue lanterns float through the darkness.

Firescald Bald Bypass

Firescald Bald Bypass

Day Three, June 8, Flint Mountain Shelter, 10.6 miles: From the campsite through Firescald Bald, the trail profile reads as nearly level. Thanks to the travails of Garden Mountain in Virginia, I’ve learned not to equate flat with easy. This caution more than applies to Firescald Bald.

Several side trails to the right and left can be confusing as you approach the actual bypass trail. Two go to cliffs, and one, the Jerry Miller Trail, is apparently an even more difficult passage than Firescald itself. The bypass trail, an old A.T. route, is recommended in bad weather. The weather this morning is good, and I plunge ahead ready for the challenge. The trail’s condition to this point has been excellent, and foreknowledge of rough terrain allows mental preparation for these rocky aberrations.

Howard's Rock

Howard’s Rock

Following a forested ridge, the trail traces its way over boulders, often arranged in manageable steps seeming to climb a bit more than the nearly level profile would suggest. The forest ends, and the trail arches over a broad heath bald. The path remains rough and bouldery with walls of Mountain Laurel, Rhododendron, and brambles clipping the lower half of views. Occasional Mountain Ash and Serviceberry trees overtop the heath shrubs. The best view comes at Howard’s Rock, a recently named boulder honoring trail builder Howard McDonald, overlooking Dry Creek with Greeneville and Tusculum, TN, in the distance.

The northern end of Firescald is a very rocky descent of 350 feet including that eight-foot vertical “scramble.” ‘Tip Toe’ was right, it’s probably not much over six feet, and the footholds are so well-positioned I am able to descend without having to turn around. If only the A.T.C. was as conscientious about alerting hikers to that perilous 20-foot drop at Dragon’s Tooth in Virginia. I sure needed a heads-up there! [Hint for anyone hiking NoBo over Cove Mountain at Dragon’s Tooth: Tie rope to your pack’s hand loop and lower it first, making it easier, safer and far less scary to descend. Wish I’d thought of that.]

Rocky descent of Firescald Bald

Rocky descent of Firescald Bald

On the way down, I run into Gerard again. He’s sweating profusely during his climb of Firescald, terrain that has taken him by surprise. He planned an extra long day of hiking based on the trail profile alone and did not consider trail conditions. This strenuous section is taking far more time, energy, and water than he’d bargained. I tell him a good piped spring is about two miles and many boulders away. He questions if he’ll be able to reach his car by dark. Given his unique hiking plan, I figured I’d see him several times throughout my trip. I won’t see Gerard again. Don’t know if Firescald did him in or not, but I do hope he’s OK.

Shortly after leaving Gerard, I run into my own difficulties. A slight slip on a rock sends me tumbling into Mountain Laurel downslope. I’m not really off the trail, just wedged pack down in a shrub with all four limbs flailing like an overturned turtle trying to find some leverage to right myself. Amid bursts of laughter and a profanity or two, I manage to shift enough of the weight to resume an upright position.

Mountain Ash

Mountain Ash

Past Jerry Cabin Shelter, the trail ascends Bald Ridge and eventually Big Butt Mountain.  While this just begs for a bad joke, I’ll simply say Big Butt is a rocky beast. I’m carrying David ‘AWOL’ Miller’s A.T. guide from 2013. I noticed a few errors and inconsistencies when it was new. Two years later, I know to take this old info with a grain of salt. On top of Big Butt, the A.T.’s path is very confusing. I can’t tell if I should turn left and climb tilting slabs of rock (which should lead to the summit, noted as “west of the trail” by Miller) or continue straight ahead (noted as a separate Squibb Creek Trail by Miller). The rock slabs are at angles greater than 45 degrees, and the trail ahead seems to have been recently renovated. Shunning the rocks, I go straight and soon find a reassuring white blaze.

This section of the trail is in superb condition — reasonable width, level surface, excellent grade. Again Miller’s profile shows a steep 1,000-foot descent in 1.3 miles, but the grade and time required to hike this part are not consistent with that data. I’m betting the recent work also rerouted the trail adding a bit more mileage but greatly improving the grade and surface condition. Only the tail end of the descent to Flint Gap through walls of rhododendron is steep and hard on knees.

Big Butt Mountain

Big Butt Mountain

For all the excellent trail work, one tiny area of fresh dirt is wet from recent precipitation and appears steeper with a tendency to tilt downslope. Gotta be carefu…”yaaaaaaah!” I land hard on my left side, right leg bent behind me, sliding down the trail at least four feet. If my baseball-loving husband could have seen this, he’d fling both arms out to the side and yell, “Safe!” I’m bruised and muddy but still functional, a slight twinge in my right ankle.

My fourth fall in three days, two simple mud slips to my butt, the Mountain Laurel tangle, and this big slide, has me doubting the wisdom of wearing boots with over 800 miles on them. These Lowas have carried me three years, and I plan to retire them at the end of this trek. Now I realize the sole tread might be well past its “sell by” date, enough to put me in jeopardy.

Distant thunder, scattered showers, and cloudy skies mark the afternoon, but things are looking a bit better when I arrive at Flint Mountain Shelter. I set up my tent in a fantastic spot that has only one drawback. It’s in a slight depression and water could collect there if it rains. I place my bet on a dry night. A note in the shelter says there is a toe-biting mouse in residence.

Excellent trail work!

Excellent trail work!

I meet an older gentleman, ‘Boomerang,’ who got it in his head to go backpacking and put himself in the capable hands of REI staffers to outfit him appropriately. What he didn’t do was learn how to use his gear. Hikers have been giving him advice and aid. This evening, I help him with his Big Agnes tent and demonstrate the proper way to put a rain cover on his pack. Three other hikers stay at Flint Mountain. Methodist minister ‘Krispy Kreme,’ undeterred by the nibbling mouse, opts for the shelter, and a couple from Cleveland, TN, John and Susan, string their hammocks nearby.

During dinner we glimpse animals that look as big as groundhogs sneaking through the rhododendron. They’re rabbits, Appalachian Cottontails (Sylvilagus obscurus).  Also during dinner, the wind picks up and the sky turns dark, bringing a light shower. I consider a last minute switch to the shelter but stick with my tent. Turning in for the night, another shower begins, then intensifies. It rains most of the night. Periodically, I place my hands to either side of my sleeping pad and push on the tent floor, displacing at least an inch of water underneath. I’m virtually floating in a pool. Thank heavens for bathtub floors. My Tarptent holds up beautifully and keeps me dry.

Day Four, June 9, Hogback Ridge Shelter, 8.8 miles: ‘Boomerang’ is eager for an early start to resupply at a nearby store on NC 212. In his rush, he leaves his tent rainfly on the shelter picnic table. He and I have the same destination today, so I put the fly in a discarded stuff sack and take it with me.

Cascade in Rocky Fork

Cascade in Rocky Fork

The morning is foggy and cool, perfect hiking weather. As usual, the first miles pass easily and swiftly. Sunshine burns through the fog, yet wonderful breezes keep the day cool. So cool I become chilled during my lunch break.

Coming off Locust Ridge, the A.T. crosses Devil Fork Road (NC 212) and Rector Laurel Road to rise through a 10,000 acre tract called Rocky Fork or “the little Smokies,” preserved for its biological diversity and beauty, featuring a cascade and rich understory of herbaceous plants. The 1600-foot climb to Lick Rock is interrupted by Sugarloaf Gap. Somewhere north of the gap and south of the peak, I stop for lunch having passed a SoBo. Twenty minutes later, near the end of my meal, a second SoBo shows inquiring about the first, his hiking partner. He tells me there’s a great meadow clearing about a half mile away where they had spent an hour drying gear in the sun.

Gnome

Gnome

Say no more. The thought of warm sun and a chance to dry both my tent and ‘Boomerang’s rainfly is ample motivation. This meadow-like opening occurs in a sag between two high points, the second being Lick Rock. There is a good campsite here, and another hiker, ‘Gnome,’ is preparing to continue his journey SoBo. We chat a bit as I lay out wet items. He doesn’t have far to go, finishing at NC 212, and is reluctant to leave the trail. On a day like today, I can certainly understand why.

No matter how wet or cold or rough the conditions on trail, there will always be a gorgeous day to warm up or dry out and a beautiful place to rest and recuperate. This opening offers both, plus a view of distant ridges. A snippet of I-26 is visible with its massive rock cliffs carved into the mountains.

While I’m relaxing at the campsite, ‘Boomerang’ arrives grinning from ear to ear. He’s heard through the hiker grapevine (‘Gnome’) that I have his rainfly. Stretching his tent and footprint in the sun, he pops open a fresh can of Vienna sausages, but not before giving me a big bear hug as thanks. Unsure if the afternoon’s clouds portend more rain, we soon pack up and head for the shelter about three miles away.

Sag view

Sag view

After summiting Lick Rock, the trail descends 750 feet to Rice Gap and climbs Hogback Ridge to its shelter. Sitting off trail about 0.1 mile, the shelter faces southwest with good campsites behind it and several more a short distance away. There isn’t a view as such, but the environs are open and airy, and the shelter is decent. The water source, a good spring, is 0.2 mile from the shelter yet a relatively easy and pleasant walk. Unfortunately the privy is disgusting, but most of them thus far have been close to or well past the need for switching pits.

Four young NoBos join us at Hogback, all bound for Maine. One recently finished a stint in the Navy working aboard nuclear submarines. They talk until dark and turn in. It’s a lovely night. I sleep well.

A "Nature Trail" off the A.T.??

A “Nature Trail” off the A.T.??


Day Five, June 10, Whistling Gap camp, 13.6 miles: Bidding ‘Boomerang’ adieu this morning, I start early for a campsite that will put me within striking distance of Erwin, TN, and my first resupply the following day. Upon reaching Sam’s Gap at I-26, I power up my phone and pray for an AT&T signal to call Uncle Johnny’s hostel and reserve a room. Business done, I take the opportunity in Sam’s Gap to call my son Sam. He lives in Arizona where it is 5:30 a.m. I leave him a message.

The trail climbs a small rise to an irregular patchwork of meadows and woods then descends to Street Gap. From there, it is mostly uphill (and thankfully mostly gradual) to Big Bald, a wide, grassy summit with 360-degree views. The northbound approach is not a piece of cake, however. The trail is narrow and twisty, squeezing by trees and rocks in a forest of thick vegetation. My pack often bumps against tree trunks as I snake my way along. Trail rocks and roots add to the fun.

Big Bald

Big Bald

As the forest relaxes a bit, I come across a side path leading to a ridge and a sign that stops me cold, “Nature Trail” with an arrow pointing upslope. The irony is just too much. It isn’t noted on Miller’s profile, but the A.T. map and Google Earth show a large-scaled housing development with equally massive homes just over the ridge. Might it be part of that? Who in their right mind would leave the Appalachian Trail to hike a faux “nature trail” on developed property?

There is a bypass trail for Big Bald, advisable in stormy weather or dense fog. It’s possible to lose the trail on these open summits in low visibility, particularly when additional side trails crisscross the summit. If you need the bypass, look carefully for a thin brown post with tiny lettering “AT ALT” and a blue circle a few yards off the trail on the right. It isn’t easy to spot.

Yellow fields of Big Bald

Yellow fields of Big Bald

On a good day, though, the bald’s lush sward inspires a Julie Andrews moment, twirling to “The Sound of Music” across the rich green grasses with blue mountains lining the horizon. One of the ragworts (Packera sp.) and a non-native hawkweed called King Devil (Hieracium caespitosum) paint some of the meads yellow.

Grassy balds look deceptively smooth, but the footing here can be as tricky as any root-filled forest. Eroded ruts, clumpy grasses, and occasional rocks often make the ground very uneven and require vigilance. In wet weather, hikers will avoid the muddy puddles in ruts and strike a parallel path through the grass inflicting greater damage to the community. The challenge for trail crews is shunting water flow to minimize erosion and the need for hikers to step off-trail. There is fresh evidence of this type of volunteer work on Big Bald.

Big Bald Hi, AT TN NC, June 10, 2015The A.T. in general and landscapes such as Big Bald in particular often bring out the playful side in hikers. It’s such a pleasure to come upon evidence of someone else’s joy.  Examples of hiker humor may be bizarre, sweet, funny, or profane. Those that manifest a light spirit are my favorites. Within a rectangular plot of bare dirt on top of Big Bald offering breathtaking views, someone arranged rocks to convey the simple message, “Hi.” Reentering woods past the bald, a white-blazed post has been modified into a smiling, mustachioed face complete with a pushpin nose. Gotta love it.

The lighter side of hiking

The lighter side of hiking

The descent from Big Bald is easy and smooth, passing Bald Mountain Shelter and a campsite 0.3 mile beyond. I pause here to get off my feet and eat, going so far as to spread my ground cloth and lie down. I have 3.2 miles left including the short but steep rocky summit of now-forested Little Bald and a long descent to Whistling Gap. I’m amazed at how revitalizing the prone position can be! Longer rests totally off my feet and a more relaxed attitude toward the day’s final miles are proving a successful combination for me.

Whistling Gap’s camp is excellent with many level tent sites. The spring, a short distance away, has a low flow this evening. It trickles across the ground to a tree limb, pools about a half inch deep, and overtops the limb in a flat sheet with no clear fall for collection. I find a large sturdy leaf, push one end into the shallow pool and balance the other over the log, creating a little waterfall under which I can place my cup. It takes a while to collect enough water, but I’m pleased. There is something very satisfying in self-sufficient problem solving!

King Devil

King Devil

To my knowledge, no hikers pass by and no one stops for the night. When I’m ready for bed, the last chore is to hang the food bag. I have a long, thin rope with one end threaded through a small drawstring sack made by Anti-Gravity Gear. I tied a carabiner at the rope’s midpoint with a trucker’s hitch. Placing a small rock in the sack, I toss it over a limb of suitable height, hook my food bag to the carabiner, hoist it in the air, and tie the ends around a nearby tree. Take that, Florida boy scout dads!!

When it’s fully dark, I peer out of the tent and see Blue Ghost Fireflies drifting through the campsite. Flashes of lightning and thunder to the west bring my second meditation among the fireflies to a close, and I zip the fly shut. That’s when I notice little globes of light swimming past my tent. Lying in the midst of their world feels like a warm embrace. The storm moves north; the forest sleeps.

The Green Tunnel

The Green Tunnel

Day Six, June 11, Uncle Johnny’s hostel, 12.9 miles: The forest sleeps well, but I don’t. Despite my success hanging the food bag, I worry that something might still get it. The bag is untouched, and I wasted a good night for nothing. I do think there was a mouse scuffling around my tent though. At any rate, poor rest will haunt me today.

A steep uphill to High Rocks and climb along one end of Flattop Mountain prove slow and torturous. These high points occur on either side of Spivey Gap, and trail conditions here are as rocky and rooty as I’ve seen. To be weary in mid-morning is unusual, so I sit on a large log for a bit. It supports my pack lifting its weight from my shoulders and hips, yet allows the pack to serve as a tilted chair. It is surprisingly comfortable leaning back, and I let my gaze lift to the mosaic of sunny and shady leaves overhead.

My Zen Fowler's Toad

My Zen Fowler’s Toad

Though a little warmer and more humid, it is a lovely day. The stillness of the forest reminds me why I come out here and lifts my spirits. In a while, I am refreshed and ready to continue.

The trail crosses Devil’s Creek Gap and runs a zig-zag course down one flank of No Business Ridge and No Business Knob. I’m looking for a good lunch site and wind up walking all the way to No Business Shelter. It occupies a large, flat area facing east, and no one is here. Since the picnic table is in full sun, I choose another great log in the shade and drop my trekking poles against it. At that moment, I notice a very large Fowler’s Toad sitting placidly at one end near a rotted crevice that must be its home. My rudeness does not faze it, neither do my curious stares, pack removal, and incessant photographs. I quietly sit on the other end, leaning comfortably against a cross log, and eat lunch. The toad does not shift, flinch, twitch, or even blink that I can detect. Only the skin below its chin undulates. I tell it about my day.

Fowlers Toad 03, AT TN NC,June 11, 2015A bee joins us. It shifts a lot, waggling in front of me, waggling in front of the toad, investigating the toad’s log crevice, warming in a sunlit patch of leaf litter, cooling on a shady leaf, and chasing off another bee (different species, different pitch to the buzz) that also wants to check out the toad and me. So there we are, the three of us, enjoying one fine afternoon. The earth rotates enough to put the toad’s end of the log in the sun. With the patience of Job, that unflappable toad simply waited for what it knew would come. Its Zen demeanor is an inspiration to me. It has shared things without a sound, without flicking a toe, just the silent flutter of its breathing and calm certainty of its presence.

Glimpse of Erwin, TN

Glimpse of Erwin, TN

Before leaving, I take a quick restroom break a short distance away. Pulling up my pants, I see a man standing by the shelter. There’s nothing in the understory here, and any casual glance from him would have spotted me in a compromised state quite easily. Deciding the direct approach is best, I walk toward my pack and him and call, “Hello.” He looks up, “Oh, I didn’t know anyone was here.” (A true gentleman!) He is ‘Posey Picker,’ a PhD botanist who loves his teaching job and visits the A.T. each summer to relax and renew.

After a little botanical talk, I continue the trail. The next 2.4 miles don’t vary much in elevation before dropping into Temple Hill Gap. The sun now hides behind thick clouds, and thunder lets me know that the remaining 3.4 miles could be wet ones. I eat a snack, put on my pack cover, and climb Temple Hill. It’s a short climb, just a few tenths of a mile. Near the top the trail hits a ridge line, following it over the crest and all the way down to the Nolichucky River and Uncle Johnny’s hostel.

Pirate-Bush

Pirate-Bush

As far as trails go, this ridge line isn’t a problem, fairly smooth going. However, there is a persistent storm with very dark clouds and thunder hovering to my left (north) in no particular hurry to move or dissipate. The ridge is thinly forested, and save for the occasional rhododendron thicket, I can’t help feeling a bit exposed. I dash from thicket to thicket constantly bracing for a torrent. Thunder fades, and just as I think I’ll make it, the rain comes in sheets.

I pull out my umbrella and sit down. It gets breezy, the temperature drops, the rain shows no signs of letting up. Soon my butt is getting wet, so I start hiking again. The descent takes longer than I like, but at least the rain finally stops.

Carolina Hemlock

Carolina Hemlock

The trail follows a ridge line with the apropos name Cliff Ridge perched high above the Nolichucky with a precipitous drop. From there, views of the river and Erwin, TN, pop through at switchbacks. Coming upon one sharp turn, I notice a strange looking shrub straight ahead. It’s Pirate Bush (Buckleya distichophylla), a rare plant in Tennessee, and it is in flower! Snapping photos, I remember it is often associated in a hemi-parasitic relationship with hemlock and look around. Sure enough there are hemlocks here, but they too look a bit strange…it’s another rare plant, Carolina Hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana). I’m in heaven! Pirate Bush isn’t very plentiful, but Carolina Hemlock continues down the ridge for quite some distance.

At last, I reach the road and the river. Uncle Johnny’s is at an intersection a few yards left of the trail. Checking in at 4:50, they tell me the van ride for dinner and shopping leaves at 5:30 and won’t return until 7:30. I have to unpack, shower, and get my laundry started in a half hour. I make it thanks to ‘Giggles.’ Running to the hostel’s one clothes washer, I find someone else’s laundry and detergent in the basket. A tall blonde girl walks in. She offers to share the load. I’m game and add my clothes and detergent to hers. ‘Giggles’ ate in town earlier and isn’t going anywhere. “I’ll do your laundry.” ‘Giggles’ is my new friend.

Uncle Johnny's

Uncle Johnny’s

The dinner choices in town are mediocre Mexican or iffy Italian — clean out the insides or belch garlic all night…decisions, decisions. Joining me for Mexican is the young ex-Navy hiker, who plans to study physics after the A.T. His dream job: working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Last stop of the night is Wal-Mart. I’m not a fan of this chain, but I do buy a bag of Mini Oreos which should get me most of the way to Damascus.

Upon return, ‘Giggles’ is folding our clothes. I help her with what’s left and turn in to sort my resupply and call my children, the cat-sitter, and the Sweetsers. Under the soothing whir of a window fan, I sleep like a baby.

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