On the way up Old Bridle Path, leading to Mt. Lafayette, New Hampshire’s sixth tallest mountain, there is a place on the trail where the trees part.
From there, you can look up and see a series of humps, a roller coaster of lesser crests which are the gateway to the 5,260′ rocky crown of Lafayette.
It’s a daunting view.
You know you have to haul yourself up there, over those hellish hills, if you ever want to stand on top and look down, across all of Franconia Notch and beyond.
Along the way, head down, you grasp and claw, finding what beauty you can between the sweat and heavy breathing.
Until at last.
As I write this, I think of how seven years ago on this day, I went about my life as if nothing were amiss. Not knowing what was to come, two days hence. It was uncommon grace, the not-knowing.
I look under the bed and see his backpack stored there, the one he had forgotten at his friend’s house from that day. He left so little behind.
All it contained was a sock ball and a pair of worn out Chuck Taylors. It’s how he lived his earth-bound life and after, he simply didn’t need it where he was going.
He had only new ahead, a glorious death, like the life of an autumn leaf. Burnished gold or orange or red, a fall, then the waiting. For us. For me.
But unlike the leaf, his eternal self (I don’t pretend to know when, or how) will not contain even a cell of decay.
Not. One. Cell.
On this side, things continue to happen, good things and hard, heedless to the one who is gone.
I have to admit, it is sometimes a daunting view, from this side.
I cannot do it alone as I wait, but I am grateful for the One who holds my hand and listens as I haul and breathe, crest after crest, on the way to until.
Grateful, for He listens as I pray – for a sweeter disposition, for living bread that satisfies, for redemption, for friends, for peace, for plans. For my kids and the littles, for this lonely ache, for temptations, boredom, and pain.
I think of the seed that was my son. Planted here, on this side, a brief blooming, but full of the all any mother would want. Sweetness and honor, devotion and warmth.
Each of us is also a seed, each a potential to reproduce – hope, love, help. Eternal friendships, eternal family, eternal joy.
Seven years ago, two days from now, I lost my son from this side.
March was a curious month in my hiking journey, bracketed, as it were, between twin extremes of brutal low temps and massive snowpack at the beginning of the month and blistering heat and sun at the end.
It is hard to say which I loved more.
Gridding in March always seems more like winter than spring, and this year was hardly an exception. The day before I was scheduled to head to Florida to chip away at another section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, I waited until late afternoon, when the ski lifts close, to hike the Wildcats.
A recent storm had covered the ridge in deep powder, which is why hiking up the groomed ski trails before heading across is such a treat. Pleasantly surprised that the ridge had been broken out by, of all things, some skiers, I followed their tracks across the Wildcat alphabet (peaks D, C, and B) until my mystery friends lost the narrative and turned around a mile short of A.
There was no way I was bailing so close to a March summit, so I broke the last mile through knee high drifts, tagged A, and backtracked the way I came. The snow was so high up there that branches typically out of reach above my head now lashed my face. It was all worth it, though, as the wide open view of stars and far-off lights of Gorham glistened on the way back down the ski trails.
It was a perfect contrast to what lay ahead in the Sunshine State.
This year, finding a safe place to stash my car for a few days and a ride to a distant starting point was never easier. Gold Head Branch State Park agreed to let me park in front of their entrance building, and my cousin, whom I hadn’t seen in decades, gave me a lift 85 miles south. Catching up on family and a hearty pre-hike lunch were sweet bonuses.
In years past, hiking the Florida Trail meant one unwelcome thing: wet feet.
It was a strange surprise, then, when day one took me through Juniper Prairie Wilderness Area on soft, sandy trail with nary a puddle in sight.
The massive trees draped in soft moss and open expanses of grass could not have been more different that the buffeted peaks of New Hampshire; the dry conditions would continue for the remainder of the hike, marking the first time in the five years I have been hiking the trail that I remained blister-free.
The dry trail made locating water more difficult, and I found myself doing heavy carries of multiple liters and relying on the trail angels who stashed gallons at road crossings. Not complaining, though, as I treasured the time with warmth on my skin.
Because I was only doing an 85 mile stretch and had five days to do it, I had pictured myself toodling along, exploring side trails, and sipping afternoon coffee prepped on my pocket rocket stove as I bathed in the beauty of the Florida forests.
There was some of that, to be sure, especially when dew-laden gear needed to to be draped dry in the lunchtime sun or a jaunty pine-cone parade route invited admiration as the last light leached from the day .
But old habits die hard, and once a thru-hiker, always a thru-hiker.
Wanting to escape the cold during the dark days of March, I started hiking the Florida Trail years ago because chasing blazes seemed more appealing than sitting on a beach.
There always seemed to be something up ahead, and my feet just wanted to get there. I just couldn’t make myself slow down.
I awoke three days in, 29 miles from my car, hungry as all get-out, with a few easy stretches of road-walking ahead.
Well, why not, I reasoned.
There were showers ahead at the park, a bag of chips in my car, and nothing but flat in between.
Just get close, see how you feel, and the rest will sort itself out.
And perhaps that is what I learned this year, on this stretch of the Florida Trail.
Walking that 29 miles, the longest I had ever done in a day, was possible because there was no pressure to do it.
I walked because I like to.
Linger if desired, or walk wildly if you want, but chase those blazes with everything you’ve got, because there’s always something pretty up ahead.
Earlier this week, after the storm, I headed north to hike Moriah.
The list left for my December Grid is long, a function of a busy school month, family obligations, and, of course, winter.
While chipping away at the peaks on The Grid can sometimes be a haphazard pursuit – when choosing hikes, I must weigh time I have left in the day, my energy level, weather, and countless other factors – there are always a few targeted mountains I strive to finish in that given year. I haven’t even begun to really tackle the Big Boys, so I know it’s still a while before I get to 576.
On the way, though, Moriah is one of my recently targeted peaks, and having taken nearly three weeks off since completing my last November climb, I was anxious to get up there and check ‘er off.
I had an early morning appointment at the dealership to fix a recall on the car, so a late start was inevitable. Still, I arrived at the trailhead earlier than most days, when I typically rush out after teaching my last class, resigned to finishing in the dark.
People had packed down the snow up to Mt. Surprise, about the halfway point, but the trail ended there.
So. Much. Snow.
Nothing to do but push on.
Hours passed as I tracked my “progress” on CalTopo. Drifts were so deep on the steeps that I found myself belly-crawling, military style, just to gain a few yards. It was brutal work, and I realized late in the afternoon, with maybe a mile still to go, that there was no way I was summiting.
Disappointed didn’t even come close to how I felt; I had spent hours in the car and on the slope, December was spilling away, and I was no closer to checking off Moriah than had I stayed home.
I had no choice but to turn back.
Cloud and tree and light danced on the way down, easing the sting, so by the time I got back to car and kicked off the shoes, the glum had lifted. I had turned back, but I was still alive, awash in beauty, and there was a McDonalds a mile up the road. Might as well celebrate the effort.
A different Moriah was the site of another turn-back, long years ago; God had commanded Abraham to “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2)
Isaac was the son of promise, the one through whom God was going to build his big beautiful family, the one born to Abraham and his wife Sarah well past child bearing age, their darling, their only, their love.
And yet, without even arguing (AreyousureGod?), Abraham got up early the next morning, saddled his donkey, and took along two of his servants and his son Isaac. He split the wood for a burnt offering and set out for the place God had designated.(Genesis 22:3)
That place was Moriah, and I wonder how many times, on the way, Abraham longed to turn back. To question whether he had heard God correctly, or whether, if he had, this God was someone he could trust. Or even wanted to.
As I enter my 60th year, I consider all the times I’ve trudged toward mountains I never wanted to climb, questioning, questioning, questioning, questioning:
God, are you sure?
How can I know?
Can I trust you?
We cannot fathom, King Solomon writes, what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
How can we?
We only see this small little piece of his big big plan.
Looking back across the decades, I no longer recognize the angry, selfish, willful, reckless girl I once was.
Those things still hide in my heart and rise, unbidden, if I do not set my feet, do not fix my eyes. It’s a battle to beat them down, beat them down, keep beating them down until there is nothing left but a filmy thinness.
This older self still waits and struggles, weeps and sighs, but I am more myself than I ever was. Like Abraham, I am tempted to turn back, but Moriah lies ahead. And you never know what happen next.
“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” God told Abraham as he aimed the knife. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.” (Genesis 22:12-14)
I imagine Abraham’s soul expanding as he turned back toward home, clean-bladed with breath-filled son. Forever to be known as the father of faith.
Abraham’s faith in God and God’s in him; I doubt he doubted ever again.
Later in the week, I checked two other peaks off the December list. I wasn’t ready, yet, to try for Moriah again. Didn’t want to face another turning back.
I’m coming to terms with the years I have left, however many they may be. I passed what could be the halfway point a decade ago, and I’m trusting the God who might have other plans for my Moriah.
My soul continues to expand as I walk toward home, full of breath and joy and hope.
Hot! Temps are high on the steep slog out of Hot Springs, but all during my time at Laughing Heart Lodge, I had been mentally preparing myself for this particular pain cave.
I love hiking. Truly, I do. Sometimes, however, like with a pack heavy with town, it can be rough, so I try to appreciate the dewy webs and the French Broad look-back at the crest of the climb.
The day before, I had been startled at how tired and worn down Hot Springs seemed since my son and I had walked through 12 years prior, though this vibe is tempered by the friendly optimism of everyone I meet.
I recreate a pic of the AT sidewalk logo wearing the same crocs as before and try not to miss the kid.
I’m starting to long for home, though I want to enjoy the journey left; it’s roughly 80 miles back to Burnsville, and I’m aiming to be there in 4 days.
A little less than four miles south of Little Laurel Shelter, I cross Log Cabin Drive and start to ascend. I’ve got one earbud in, half-listening to some podcast and dreaming of dinner, when I hear the unmistakable snuff-snarl of a bear.
I instantly freeze, tear out the earbud, and begin tentative negotiations.
Hey, bear. Just passing through, bear. Nothing to see here, bear.
To each calm pronouncement, the bear’s snorting grows more agitated, and I back up a few steps to think what to do.
The trail where I stood was cut into a steep slope; above and ahead of me, switchbacks were carved into the dirt, and below were the tops of trees, thick brush, and the bear. I couldn’t see him clearly – just a darkness through the leaves – but I estimated he was about 20 yards from where I stood.
Perhaps desperation and fatigue are not good metrics for decision making; looking back, I’m not sure I would do what I did again, but I was almost out of water, it was the end of the day, and I just wanted to get to the shelter.
Moving forward, I stop talking to the bear and began talking to God, loud, averting my eyes from the black blob and purposefully marching by where it sat snorting below.
Maybe Bruno was also tired, thirsty, and just longing for his cave, because as I pass above, I hear his rustling retreat. I keep walking and do not look back.
Me – 2. Bears – 0.
Something strange was up with the wildlife that day, as a huge black snake refuses to move off the trail a mile or so ahead and I am attacked by yellow jackets.
This is their home, I try to remember, even as we build ours among them and chip away at the margins of their habitat.
Still, shelter never looked so good.
Day 15: Hot Springs to Little Laurel Shelter – 19.9 miles
Closing in on 300 miles, the trail leads me gently in and out of the woods and up and over more beautiful balds.
Big Butt, Big Bald, Big Stamp: such pedestrian names for so beguiling a landscape.
Mountains over 4,000 feet in my native New Hampshire are spiny, severe; in contrast, the southern balds are subtle and soft, beckoning like lovers leaning in for a kiss.
So, I lean in.
Let wind and sky have their way.
And just like that, the longing to leave evaporates into cloudy mist.
Day 16: Little Laurel Shelter to Hogback Ridge Shelter – 23.3 miles
The Burnsville Connector and How It Nearly Broke My Heart
I chose to walk the Appalachian High Route in a clockwise direction, starting in Burnsville, North Carolina, which means my hike will end on the last 22 miles of the newly mapped Burnsville Connector.
If all goes to plan, some 17 or so miles ahead, the AT will pop out onto Flat Top Road and I will string together some forest service roads, some trail, and finally some pavement to return to town.
Back in Balsam, where I picked up a resupply package the week before, a fortuitous meeting with a kind gentleman has made finding these turns exponentially easier.
Having initially planned to use the fringes of the FarOut app, Runkeeper, and Google maps, I rejoice as this angel introduces me to CalTopo, a more precise mapping app. I’ve taken pictures of the sections I am about to encounter, but doesn’t everything always look so much simpler on a screen?
Let me emphasize that the AHR is new and Davis, Jake Blood, and others who were instrumental in creating it are volunteers, working out of sheer love for these cherished mountains.
It appears I was the first to thru-hike the route, so if there happened to be any kinks that might need to be worked out, I was probably going to be the one to find them. That being said, I also have a propensity to get lost, so the mistakes I made on the Burnsville Connector were also my own.
For days I had been anxious about finding the turns on the Connector, but I am expectant waking up on Day 17 that the research I have done will translate into finding my way.
Sunrise finds me at Sam’s Gap, where kind Steve from Unicoi has left water. Many of the road crossings boast Steve’s signature water, and it’s trail angels like him that make some of the onerous chores on a thru-hike – finding, gathering, and filtering water being one – less onerous.
It’s Sunday and the trail runners are out. It feels good to talk to someone, anyone, even if it’s just the exchange of quick hellos.
Of course, another storm rolls in late in the afternoon. I’m soaked in the short time it takes me to pull out my rain jacket, and worry gnaws again as I wonder if I can keep my phone and the paper directions I’ve printed from Davis’s website dry when I get to the first intersection, Devils Creek Gap.
I’m looking for “a gated/unmarked Forest Service Road from the intersection of the AT and Flat Top Road.” Hmm. There are two gated FS roads when I reach Flat Top Road, thankfully drying out after the storm has passed. One is marked “FS 5506.” That sounds marked to me.
So I take the other, as just as fair, noting how after a hairpin turn, it will join FS 5506 and take me (pleaseohplease) to the Devils Creek Trailhead.
Right from the start, this feels wrong.
Unmarked Gated is an overgrown, marsh-suckingly awful mess, although still fleetingly navigable.
At the hairpin turn, however, the route dead-ends into a massive, impenetrable blowdown. What to do?
CalTopo shows that the “road” parallels a river until meeting FS 5506. I see no river, only a dry bed of boulders littered with years of broken branches and fallen trees, but I follow it hack-and-slashing for a half mile until, gratefully, it plops me unceremoniously out onto 5506.
Good ol’ 5506 – so much better than Unmarked Gated.
Chest high thorn bushes, bear scat, snakes.
Just get to the Devils Creek Trailhead, I preach to my audience of one. Everything will be better at the Devils Creek Trailhead.
I watch my progress on CalTop, that peppy little blue arrow optimistically pointing to where I am, until I reach the “trailhead.” Below, you can see a black dot where 5506 takes a sharp right onto the red Devils Creek Trail.
I stand at that dot, pointing my phone toward the red-dashed line, but this is all I see:
No sign, no opening in the trees, no cairns, no nothing.
Just a solid wall of bracken that I try to part with my poles; if there is a trail in there, I cannot find it. I spend another half hour or so wandering along the perimeter on a game trail, pointing CalTopo hither and yon, but it’s fruitless. I’ll need to find another way.
You can do this, the inner voice chirrs. Remember that we glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4)
Calling an audible, I backtrack, taking 5506 the whole way. Legs and arms bloodied, I re-emerge onto Flat Top Road – really, just another overgrown FS road, #278 – and take it around Devils Creek Tail and contiguous Lost Cove Trail. It will have to do, but I leave part of myself, literally, figuratively, back in that overgrown meadow.
Just north of where the pavement will begin, I am surprised to find a piped spring right next to the sliver of flat where I balance my tent for the last night on trail.
Note: The AHR is a spectacular route. Many hours of love and commitment went into its founding, and I highly – HIGHLY – recommend it to anyone looking for a slightly shorter thru-hike with some kicker peaks and inspirational terrain. As more people complete this trail – and volunteer to maintain this section – the turn-off to the Devils Creek Trail will become more pronounced, particularly at this time of year, when vegetation is high. I was disappointed in myself for not being able to complete the 3.7 miles of DCT and LCT, but not in any way with the AHR itself. Hike on, friends.
Other note: When I reached the clearly marked eastern terminus of the LCT, I thought about hiking back to that overgrown meadow, turning around, and hiking back, thus completing every single step of the official AHR.
But I’m not a lunatic.
Day 17: Hogback Ridge Shelter to west of White Oaks Flat Road – 25.9 miles (including the 1.7 backtrack)
I’m up early for my last day on the AHR, stirring my last remaining packet of coffee and looking forward to the road walk. No way was I getting lost on pavement.
I’m used to long road walks from section hiking the FloridaTrail the past four springbreaks. Staying attuned to one’s feet is critical, given the grind of asphalt on tender toes, so I walk the first half in crocs. It’s a muggy morning but there’s lots to see, a diversity not often found in forest.
Stopping to snack at an abandoned gas station, I look down and see a penny.
I think of how God always knows when I need a reminder that He’s thinking of me.
I find another just before crossing the street.
As the shade disappears, my pace slows. Finally, the turn into Burnsville and a quick stop for a smoothie before retrieving my car from the Carolina Country Inn.
As he hands me my keys, the owner and I chat amiably, when suddenly he asks Were you carrying?
Carrying? Like a gun?
Haha. I was carrying lots of things, but a gun wasn’t one of them.
Way too heavy.
I think about his parting words driving north: You’re braver than I am.
But I don’t think it’s bravery, necessarily. If we allow our fears to dictate what we will and will not do, I believe we would miss out on some of life’s sweetest moments, its most winsome triumphs. Suffering, perseverance, character, hope. All worth it, in the end.
The next day, I reach the Big Apple, where my older son needs help moving apartments. Honestly, I feel safer in the woods.
Waiting for him, I look down.
This one, sunk deep, cannot be gathered.
But like the Appalachian High Route, I’ll always know it’s there.
Day 18: West of White Oaks Flat Road to Hot Springs – 14.9 miles
While it might seem like there is an over desire for town on a thru-hike, the truth is there is a lot of unavoidable austerity in the woods and an abundance of relief in town. I’d walked in the same socks every day since the Pisgah Inn, for example, and could really use a long tub soak. Turning from the MST, I find the nearest hotel, a mere .8 away.
Apparently, there is a quarter shortage in the town of Cherokee. Casino? Who knows, but I can only cobble enough silver to wash my filthy clothes. Drying them will require full hikertrash mode: sitting in a hotel towel and rain jacket, flipping my sundries like burgers on a grill as they hang over the sunny railing outside my room.
I still need to resupply, so the next morning I call a cab to take me downtown to the nearest grocery store. Not walking those junk miles.
The woman who picks me up is a Cherokee tribal matriarch, and the ride quickly turns into a lovely tour. She beams as I admire a well appointed island park in the middle of the Oconaluftee River; she had spearheaded its development. The island’s dark past, however, saddens me, given my own native heritage: children looking to escape forced government “schools” hid in the brush on the island, desperate to be reunited with their culture and families.
Now, the tribe has a fully Cherokee language-immersive elementary school. Bravo!
I learn that the Casino is both a blessing and a curse. Tribal members are paid from its coffers, but for many, this money leads to purposelessness, addiction, and parentless children. As both of us have foster kids in our families, we lament their situations but celebrate that they are now being cared for with love and grandmotherly ferocity.
We take the long way back to the hotel and sit chatting in the parking lot. She undercharges and I overtip, both of us enriched by this serendipitous encounter. I wish I could stay another day in Cherokee, but those mountains aren’t going to hike themselves. I repack and head out on a shortish day which ends with a fresh tomato feast after finally entering the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Day 9: Great Smokies Inn to Backcountry campsite # 57 – 14.7 miles
O, how happy I am to be back on the Appalachian Trail the next day. Blazes, blazes, everywhere, some comically bossy. Even I would have trouble getting lost on the AT.
For 3.5 miles the MST and the AT merge on their way to Clingmans Dome. I must climb Clingmans and then unclimb it on the way back to my first shelter of the trip.
I make it to the Mt. Collins Shelter just before another storm hits; others join, and it’s a party atmosphere as we all chat, eat, and tuck in for the night. I feel bad packing up by headlamp the next morning at 4, but the park rules don’t allow stealth camping; I must make it 20.1 miles three shelters ahead with a much anticipated stop at Charlie’s Bunion, a stunning rocky outcropping some miles ahead. At 2 mph, I need all the time I can get.
I don’t mind hiking in the morning dark. I try to set myself up the day before so that the first few miles on any given day are not tricky or technical. Passing the 200-mile mark in the quiet dawn feels great, and I reach Charlie’s Bunion a few hours in.
I have mixed emotions negotiating the places the youngest and I hiked 12 years earlier. I loved having a partner on that epic trip; though only 10 at the time, my son was steady and strong, relentlessly optimistic, and generally just fantastic company, even when his constant chatter scared all the wildlife away. I laugh seeing the sign at the turn to Charlie’s Bunion, remembering how he sulked when I pretended I wasn’t going to let him out on the precipice. In a funny turn of events, his photo from that day pops up on my Facebook memories as I write this section.
He comes to mind again, later, when I encounter a nettle gauntlet and think back on how comforting it was to have someone alongside to share the torture. I am sore over always being alone.
Rain, rain, and more rain to end the day with another full, feisty shelter and the last time I’d have company camping the rest of the trip.
Day 10: Backcountry campsite #57 to Mt. Collins Shelter (+3.5 mile backtrack on AT) – 17.1 miles
Day 11: Mt. Collins Shelter to Tri-Corner Knob Shelter – 20.1 miles
So far the only bears I had seen on this journey were the fake ones in Cherokee, but that was soon to change.
I head out of the Smokies after only 3 nights. Another memory surfaces, the climb up from Davenport Gap. 12 years ago, the son and I were SOBO’s – hiking the AT in a southbound direction – and climbing up into the Smokies. The steps along the trail were awkwardly spaced and nearly ruined my hamstrings. We later referred to that awful climb as “The 7 Mile Up.”
Now I was headed north, and the 7 mile down into Davenport Gap was infinitely more pleasant. Sights were set on Standing Bear Farm, where I would grab enough tuna and bars to make it to my last resupply, Hot Springs, about 35 miles ahead.
Unfortunately, the hop between Davenport Gap and the turn-off to Standing Bear was a spidey hellscape. This section of trail had clearly not been hiked in a while, and the spiders had been busily spanning the trail with their dead-bug- infested webs, all at face level. I was covered with filament and creepy-crawlies by the time I emerged on the other side.
Quickly grabbing my supplies from the farm store, I sit on the porch talking to the owner and devouring a pint of pistachio ice cream. She told me the previous day she had seen a huge mama bear standing in the middle of the road waiting for her two cubs to cross.
Glad for the warning, I am on high alert back on trail, and, sure enough, I hear the tell-tale crashing of a fleeing animal on the first switchback. Baby bear had heard me coming and was skedaddling downhill. No sign of mom or sib.
In every encounter I have had with bears over the years, this has been the prototype: they are typically as uninspired to interact with you as you are with them. Still, I make up silly bear-songs to maintain my presence as I continue to climb.
Mama bear, mama bear, I have kids just like you, Won’t you relent and let me on though?
The next bear, however, was not as accommodating. More on that in the next post.
Day 12: Tri-Corner Knob Shelter to stealth camp north of Snowbird Mountain – 23.2 miles
I’d been keeping to my original plan of averaging 20 mile days so that I could be finished in time to meet home obligations, but the miles were beginning to break my body down.
I starting taking shelter naps at lunch and making a second cup of coffee in the afternoon.
My feet felt more hoof than flesh, and I took to walking in my crocs whenever the terrain allowed. I needed to get to Hot Springs and rest for a good portion of the day, not just blow in for the night.
Luckily, there was lots to see on the way, like Max Patch, an iconic bald peak with waving grasses and a berry-lined thoroughfare.
Wind and clouds set the mood and keep my mind off my dwindling food supply. I simply can’t get enough calories, and every afternoon there is no walk left in me. Too tired to cook upon making camp, I usually down a cold tuna packet and crawl under my quilt, praying sleep will come soon. At one point I think I hear an animal outside the tent, but realize it’s the rumbling of my empty stomach.
I awake to lightning and rain the morning of my short hop to Hot Springs. The strikes are only a mile or two away, and I stop to take off my pack and ditch my poles a few times before the storm passes.
Only 7.3 measly miles to Laughing Heart Lodge, and I use every bar of phone battery singing my way down to the French Broad River.
Though the woods are lovely, dark, and deep, I’m excited to check into the Cardinal Room – and eat a civilized second breakfast – at Laughing Heart, my last resupply on the AHR.
Day 13: Stealth camp north of Snowbird to stealth camp north of Bluff Mountain – 20.6 miles
Day 14: Stealth camp north of Bluff Mountain to Laughing Heart Lodge – 7.3 miles
I was looking for something longer to hike this summer when I read about Jennifer Pharr Davis’s newly minted Appalachian High Route. Davis has long been a hero of mine since setting the FKT on the Appalachian Trail in 2011. She has since used her platform to encourage others to pursue lofty goals and even, in a recent trip, to help Indigenous Fijians access clean drinking water, so I was curious to discover what sort of challenge she had envisioned.
The 350-ish mile loop was the perfect length for the time I had between some summer school duties and helping a son move apartments, so I started researching the particulars, as a specific map, guidebook, or online GPS data were not yet available.
Not that there weren’t resources out there. The AHR traverses the Black Mountain Crest Trail, the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, and my dear old friend the Appalachian Trail; linking these trails is a road-and-trail stretch called the “Burnsville Connector,” which nearly broke my heart (more on that later).
I simply had to order a few maps, download some directions, and dust off some resources from my 2010 AT thru-hike with the youngest lad. I also planned my resupplies, including sending a box to Balsam, NC, making sure I knew its hours of operation and days it was open.
For the Burnsville Connector, I printed Davis’s directions and used some mapping apps to get an overall sense of what it entailed.
Because one of the sections on the MTS required a bear canister, I borrowed one from The Princess, ruthlessly cutting down the rest of my pack weight knowing how heavy that sucker was. I even added a loop secured with duct tape knowing there would be bear cables in the Smokies and beyond. If Yogi wanted my food, he was going to have to battle me for it.
Turns out the mice were also looking for an easy meal, but all of their nasty nibbles were for naught.
All that remained was grabbing a room in Burnsville for the night-before, packing the car, and heading out.
As an aside, the Carolina Country Inn is an awesome place. Clean, comfy and convenient, with wonderful hosts, this Inn is a no-brainer for anyone wanting to attempt the AHR. They even watched my car while I was gone.
The streets of Burnsville were lovely and luminous as I set out toward the Black Mountain Crest trailhead on the morning of July 8th. I’m always optimistic in the early miles of any endeavor; it’s almost as if my brain doesn’t remember past pains, only the wonder. It’s just as well. Not knowing what is ahead keeps one from discouragement and refuses even the idea of a quit.
Of course the climb up to the ridge leading to Mt. Mitchell was relentlessly steep, but I took my time enjoying the switchbacks when they appeared. I stopped to fill up on water about a mile before breaking out of the woods onto a grassy meadow of fluff.
It was strange not to see the mountains’ rocky bones sticking out, as they are back home in the Whites, not covered, as these were, in verdant green. Somewhere in all that charming distraction, I drop my brand new Garmin inReach Mini in the weeds. It was an expensive purchase, and I feel sick that I’ve lost it on the first day. Also, the irony of not being to find the thing that is supposed to find you does not escape me.
When I realize it’s gone, I have a short pity party before trying to figure out what to do. Had I dropped it back at the water source? I’d have to go look, so, whimpering, I trudged one steep mile back downhill, only to discover the place clear.
I hack and slash my way back uphill, looking for the tiny device on both sides of the overgrown trail, when I remember its purpose: I had bought the Mini to let my kids know where I was, so I call the youngest, who happily picks up on the first ring.
What a good boy.
He texts me photos of its last data transmission, and I see it’s near a prominent rock called Horse’s Head.
Just the place when I realized it was gone.
Why hadn’t I looked around there first, before backtracking? Ugh. Yet, there it was, sitting in plain sight. The joy of finding it softens the frustration of those extra two useless miles.
Attaching the Mini more securely to my pack, I hike on, worried that I might not reach the Mt. Mitchell concession stand before it closed. I was hoping to fill up my water and buy a treat-y reward, but there was nothing I could do but shoulder on. The going is rugged, with lots of gain and loss, and even some ropes to help on a few of the steeps.
I reach the Mt. Mitchell parking lot 15 minutes before closing and desperately ask an older couple packing up their picnic where the concession stand is. I sprint up some stone steps and arrive, breathless and ready to eat.
The nice young lady behind the counter charges my phone while I sit and enjoy a club sandwich. The older couple pulls up and trail magics me some ginger ales and chips, so it’s a full-on feast as I watch the first storm of the trip skip over the pavement. Soon, torrents of water are splashing in under the overhang where I’m sitting on the bear canister; nothing to do but wait for a potential opening. Concession stand lady gifts me an ice cream.
Soon, the rain subsides and I tag Mitchell, then head a few miles downhill to spend my first night on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, which has replaced the BMCT at the park. Over the next week, I’ll follow the MST for 155 miles to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the AT; until then, I tuck into my tent just in time, as the skies open again and lightning cracks the night.
Day 1: Carolina Country Inn to stealth camp, Commissary Trail – 18 miles
Only One Pisgah
A rhythm develops over the next few days. Climb, descend, climb, descend. Storm, clear, storm, clear. Look for a potential creature comfort up ahead and set sights to reach it.
The MST parallels the Blue Ridge Parkway for much of this section, so there is a frequent popping out of the woods onto busy “overlook” parking lots with stellar views one cannot find when one is wrapped in the trees.
Also, snacks and water, though the latter is from containers that the workers must themselves bring up to their overlooks, since there seems to be no running water on the Parkway. The generosity of these folks warms my heart as they happily fill my bottles from their private stashes, freeing me from having to filter later on.
On day 4, I realize if I hustle I might make it to the Mt. Pisgah Inn in time to snag a room. Situated right on the trail, the Mt. Pisgah Inn is one of my resupply stops; why not also stay a while?
The day is hot and my mind is melty as I scan maps and data pages. Looks like two major Pisgah mountains to climb before the descent to the Inn. I bury my head and plod up the first, “Little” Pisgah, topping off at 5,283 feet with seemingly thousands of feet of elevation gain.
Shower I tell myself when the feet start to slow. Dry your wet gear. Hot supper.
It’s 4:30 and almost 20 miles into my day when I reach the summit of Little Pisgah, tearing off my hot pack and collapsing onto a rock. Must I do that again? I whine to myself, pulling out the maps. Can’t.
Let it be said that when wearing my contacts, as I do on most hot trail days, the fine print of things, like elevation profiles and data points, is oftentimes hard to discern. So I am surprised and delighted when, squinting, I see only one Pisgah that must be climbed before reaching the Inn.
Only. One. Pisgah. And I’m sitting on top of it.
Game on. I roll the last 1.9 down Little Pisgah and check into the Inn with plenty of time to rest my feet, explode my gear all over the room, and reserve a spot for dinner.
Later that night, for only the third time since he died, I dream of my son.
Sunrise the next morning is glorious.
Day 2: Stealth camp to Tanbark Ridge Tunnel Trail – 22 miles
Day 3: Tanbark Ridge Trail to stealth camp north of I-26 bridge – 21.5 miles
Day 4: Stealth camp to Mt. Pisgah Inn – 21.4 miles
Second, Third, and Fourth Lost
The next stretch out of Pisgah passes through some remote wilderness where camping is prohibited due to aggressive bear activity.
One of the areas is ominously called Graveyard Fields. It does have a spooky feel about it, and I’m eager to hike through and put it behind me. Other than some trail runners a few days back and the crowd at Skinny Dip Falls, I have seen no one else out hiking. It’s not what I had expected, and I really would have liked some company through this section.
At the end of a long climb out of Dark Prong Gap (who names these places??), I reach a rocky outcropping and follow what looks like the trail off to the right. After a few minutes, the “trail” becomes a maze of herd paths, each dead-ending into something marshy and decidedly not-trail.
What to do?
Go back, always go back, to the last place you know you were right, so after wasting a precious 45 minutes, I return to the rocky outcropping and see what I missed the first time around: a faint white blaze on the rocks below to the left. Sigh.
.8 miles more leads me to a cushy pine needle site to tent with pretty views in the morning, small concessions for the frustration of getting lost again.
The next day, the MST enters the Middle Prong Wilderness where (according to the data pages) “due to US Forest Service regulations, the trail is not blazed…and can be difficult to follow.” Great.
Having done my homework and studied the map and turns the night before, I march somewhat confidently into this 4.5 mile stretch hoping to come out the other side.
Surprisingly, I meet a group of young campers who are headed in the opposite direction, and we compare notes on terrain and intersections. Somewhere along the way I hit 100 miles, which feels pretty good.
Everything is going well. The descriptions on the data pages are accurate and obvious and I’m starting to think happyfuzzy thoughts when the inevitable happens: I reach a three way intersection with no description of which way to go in the data. You can see it below – it’s that big black dot just above the Mt. Hardy Trail.
Who puts a dot right over the very details one needs to figure out which way to go? I explore each branch, trying to think like the white MST line squiggling across the page. I call the son again, but I’ve set the Mini to log every 4 hours, so there’s no relevant recent data to mine. He talks me off the ledge, however, and I take an educated guess and start downhill.
When I finally reach some logs over a boggy area, accurately described on my pages, I relax a little. But it’s not until I see that sign signaling the end of the wilderness area and that first white marker that I finally feel like I’ve made it.
Of course this latest lost prompts the mocking of the fam. I must admit the youngest is right, however; it was me who always got us lost when we hiked the AT all those years ago.
The last lost of this section happened under cover of dark, so I feel a little slack is in order. After one of the most beautiful mornings of the trip and another night spent stealthing right on the trail, I set my sights on my next resupply in the town of Cherokee.
To get there, I’d have to follow the trail in and out of the woods as it danced with the BRP up to Waterrock Knob Overlook, the highest on the Parkway at 5,820 feet. The day would end with a series of gravel and dirt roads, culminating in a 7.7 heat-rash of a descent on the BRP itself: 23.4 miles to the turn into Cherokee plus some bonus miles to get into town.
I get up real early.
The moon was out as I emerged from the forest to the first foray onto the BRP.
A short hop on the pavement and I’m back in the woods for a 2+ mile parallel of the BRP. I walk for a while, answering age old questions, filling my water bottle, and taking off my pack to tuck my coffee mug into an exterior pocket.
I’m puzzled when when the trail emerges out onto the road again, way too soon. I look right and left, recognizing the very landscape I had left not a half hour before. How could this be?
And yet, it was. Somehow, in grabbing water and putting away my mug, I had turned back the way I had come and retraced the very steps I had just hiked. I am surprisingly calm accepting this turn of events. Extra miles on an already long-mile day. For a moment I am tempted – so veryvery tempted – to just hike on the road up to Waterrrock Knob, but this is cheating and I am not a cheat. Instead, I gird my loins and head back the way I came, again, on-trail, and try to find the light in this self-inflicted darkness.
Views appear, and a penny where no penny should be. Pennies always remind me that God is watching with his sense of mercy and humor, even when I don’t always get him. Find the light.
Waterrock Knob is fabulous, completely deserted at this hour. I can see all the way down to the pink Cherokee Casino and off into the yesterdays I’ve already hiked.
A bunny wishes me luck as I start the day-long descent into Cherokee.
I’m scorched and beaten by the end of the day when I face the 7.7 BRP road walk, but at least there’s never a dull moment. Cars stop to warn me of a bear frolicking up ahead. I pass a rattlesnake smushed in the opposite lane, looking, if uncoiled, easily as long as the lane is wide.
Snakes. I had forgotten about snakes. An Eden-istic desire in me wants it smashed, and I become much more choosey about where I put my feet when stepping off the shoulder.
Two tunnels require two climbs into the woods and up and over, as walking through tunnels on the BRP is illegal.
Traffic is stopped when I finally arrive at the turn toward Cherokee. Elk graze along the side of the road, wandering wherever they please, as rangers direct cars around them.
I think I’m going to like this place, I think, as I head toward town.
Day 5: Mt. Pisgah Inn to Black Balsam Knob Road – 17 miles
Day 6: Black Balsam Knob Road to campsite – 23.8 miles
Day 7: Campsite to stealth camp south of Fork Ridge Overlook – 18.2 miles
Day 8: Stealth camp to Cherokee turn-off – 23.4 miles
Memorial Day weekend and the senior boys at my school climb Mt. Cardigan to watch the sun set.
It’s a tradition I love, as the lads marvel at the view, looking down at their school miles away, and remember. They hug and thank and laugh and cry, though they are apt to blame the last on wind in the eye.
It is a bittersweet time for all of us as we wait for the final gold to soften and run from the sky. To say good-bye.
I feel my own eyes fill with wind.
I read this morning that the Hebrew word for “wait” is almost identical to the word “mourn.” This makes sense, as our lads are stuck between readying to push off from the safe shore of our control, while, at the same time, lamenting all that they are about to lose.
I am stuck there myself.
This weekend will mark the sixth year since my son went home, and I feel a bit untethered. I disappear into the woods for a while, pick some ferns for his bench, think of his siblings.
Do they miss him as I do?
I dare not ask at times, lest they think I somehow love them less. In many ways, he was our glue, and we have had to find new ways of being ourselves.
To mourn is to wait.
Mary and Martha were siblings who lost their brother. They waited for Jesus to come, sending word, reminding him that his friend Lazarus lay sick.
But Jesus didn’t come, not until Lazarus was four days dead. And when Martha tells him that she believes there will be a one-day resurrection for her brother, Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes,” Martha replies, because she knows who he is.
We all know what happens next. Jesus tells Lazarus’s friends to roll away the stone of his tomb, and out he shuffles, feet wrapped in tangled linen.
I often wonder how Lazarus lived the rest of his life. Did his gratitude free him to serve and share with reckless abandon?
Why wouldn’t he?
And why shouldn’t we – add our yes to Martha’s yes and rest in what Oswald Chambers calls the glorious now? To “begin to know him now and never finish.”
It’s okay, I think, to mourn while we wait.
But I also want to live like Lazarus, recklessly grateful that we have someone to wait for.
Easter Sunday and I wake up to snow on the ground and a song in my head.
It’s a joyful song for a joyful day, one that swells my heart to Easter Sundays long ago, hearing my father’s tone-deaf voice, full volume, belting out the notes:
Christ the Lord is risen to-day
He always said that God had given him that voice and he was just giving it back to him.
How I miss the man.
But – Jesus is alive! I am alive and will forever be alive! Why shouldn’t we sing?
After the resurrection, when the disciples had yet to understand, Jesus caught up to a few of them as they left Jerusalem. Cleopas and his companion didn’t know it at the time, but they were talking about Jesus to Jesus. Close to despair, they told Jesus, We had hoped that he was the One.
But your thinking was too small, Cleopas. You thought Jesus came to rescue Israel from Rome, like some Moses-Groundhog-Day moment when their brutal bonds of physical oppression would be loosed.
Think BIGGER, Cleopas.
Any governmental victory could only be temporary; the empty tomb is a permanent mend.
Jesus asks the two men gently, Why are you so thick-headed? Why do you find it so hard to believe every word the prophets have spoken?
We. Had. Hoped.
Slowly, Jesus opens their fragile, traumatized hearts to the truth. And when he tells them that he’s going to walk on, they plead with him.
Stay with us.
So he does. And so he has.
At dinner, he reveals himself at last, and in a flash, is gone again from their eyes. Gone but not-gone.
Once you see him you cannot un-see him.
Stunned, they ask themselves, Did not our hearts burn with flames of holy passion while we walked beside him on the road?
They are compelled to tell – run, not walk, back to Jerusalem, back the way they came, only it’s not the same dusty Jerusalem road.
Their feet are light, their hearts afire. Running back, running ahead.
And when they get to the Eleven, they find Jesus has also appeared to Peter – poor Peter, still stinging from his betrayal at the court.
I wonder where Jesus had gone first?
He must have been having so much fun.
Then, when finally I’m sure he couldn’t contain himself any longer, he manifests right in the midst of them all with the most perfect of words.
Be at peace.
I am the living God.
It’s all true.
Don’t you remember – I told you that everything written about me would be fulfilled – in ME.
I think of my dad and the son who are gone.
Gone but not-gone, while I continue to age as I walk the dusty Jerusalem road toward wheretheyare.
Though no amount of lotion or make-up can smooth the wrinkles of my long and curving life, it has almost ceased to bother me.
On Palm Sunday some 2,000 years ago, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, as people lined the street and cheered.
At the risk of heresy, I was wondering this morning if he enjoyed the adulation. After all, as man, he experienced all the emotions we as people feel, and, as God, well, didn’t he deserve it?
I was in Luke 19 reading about the crowd tossing their coats on the road as Jesus rode by. Curious about what he was doing before that moment, I turned back a few chapters to Luke 13 to discover: He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem.
Always, always, always was Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He knew what was going to happen there, yet he wasn’t deterred. And in his wake, the blind saw, children were blessed, lepers cleansed, and the greedy converted.
Are we not also traveling toward Jerusalem? Toward Zion, that city which will one day descend from the sky and be our eternal home?
John tells us in Revelation 21 that he saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth – our earth, the death-riddled, disease-burdened, war-bloodied lonelybrokenmournful earth – had passed away. He hears a loud voice from heaven saying,
Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.
No more sorrow, tears, pain, death.
Jesus left behind restoration, transformation, and confirmation on his donkey ride of death-to-life.
What are we leaving in our wake as we journey toward Jerusalem?
I think back on my last week – aid not extended, harsh words unbridled, succor withheld – and am ashamed.
Best instead to throw my cloak on the road, raise up a palm, and shout Hosanna!
As man, he understands.
And as God, he deserves it all.
This Palm Sunday, may you find peace as you journey toward Jerusalem.