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.
March break was a little longer this year due to – what else – Covid, and I was looking forward to walking another section of the Florida Trail.
Starting back in 2019, I had been chipping away at the 1,000-mile plus national scenic trail 100 or so miles at a time, and this year I had hoped to do a beautiful stretch along the Suwannee River.
The logistics of planning my walk every year is tricky.
I need somewhere safe to leave my car, someone safe to drive me 100 miles away, and sometime safe to arrive when the waters along the trail are at suitable levels so I won’t drown.
I had been checking the Snoflo app every day in the weeks leading up to my hike to determine the height of the Suwannee.
Because the trail runs along its banks for miles, the Suwannee must be respected; when its height reaches 60 feet or more, water will cover the trail, making it not only hard to follow but also crazy-dangerous. You don’t want to mess with the Suwannee, especially when you hike alone, as I do, and are already feeling vulnerable to the vagaries of the Florida backcountry.
I’m happy in the days leading up to my departure, as the Suwannee hovers below 60, at one point bottoming out at 53. I had arranged to leave my car at a canoe outfitters in White Springs and had scheduled a shuttle with its owner, who agrees to drive me to my stopping point the year before.
I’m relaxed driving down knowing that the hardest part – those difficult logistics – have been taken care of, and all I will need to do when I arrive is walk.
I’m incredulous when my phone rings somewhere in the Carolinas and it’s Trish from American Canoe. After three days of punishing rain, the Suwannee has risen seven feet overnight, making it all but impassable.
Do you still need a ride she asks, and I realize that all those well-researched plans will have to go out the window.
I pull over at a rest stop and check my maps. If I could get dropped 100 miles south instead of north as I had hoped, there is only a small stretch at the end along the Suwannee I’d have to traverse. Perhaps the river will cooperate and recede as I walk back toward White Springs; if not, it looks like there’s a high water bypass I could take to avoid the surge.
I call Trish back and confirm the new plan.
I’d like to report that skipping the Suwannee section meant that my feet stayed dry. Optimistic on day one when the trail wound through gently rolling hills in Gold Head State Park and Camp Blanding Army Base, I hummed along, covering 23 miles and passing not one, but two Sunoco (official fuel of NASCAR!) convenience stores along the way, where I sipped cold drinks and ate salty snacks.
At the second one, in a deflated little town called Hampton, a small shirtless boy approaches me, trailed by two younger companions. None of them has on any shoes.
Want to buy some eggs? he asks hopefully, holding up a wicker basket. Clearly he is the leader of this entrepreneurial enterprise.
I answer him seriously I don’t have any way of cooking them.
He seems to puzzle this a moment, then responds O, so you’re one of those walkers!
I wonder how many hikers this Sunoco has seen this season.
I am I tell him. He thinks some more.
Do they pay you to walk? he asks.
Now it’s my turn to think. Who are “they”? And would “they” pay me…?
I come up with the best answer I can: No, we do it for fun.
Unconvinced, he nods and disappears with his cadre in search of more willing customers. Wait, I want to call out, I’ll buy the whole lot. But they’re gone.
That night, I camp right on the trail as every spot suggested on the FarOut trail app is flooded.
It was the last time my feet would be dry.
The next day ends in a long road walk out of the town of Lake Butler; after gorging on Mexican food and a Shamrock Shake, I hug the shoulder of busy Route 100 when it starts to rain.
18-wheelers whiz by at 60 mph, baptizing me in wash and grit. It’s a miserable seven miles, and when I reach the next turn, I am soaked to the core.
What’s that over there?
Standing nobly in a grassy, flooded field outside the Union County Fire Station is a huge roofed pavilion with a cement pad underneath. They won’t mind if I just duck under there for a moment until the worst of this passes.
I take out my phone and check the weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. Then, thunderstorms. All night and into the next day. Yikes.
I call the station – it appears to be a volunteer operation, as there is no one around – and leave a message asking permission to spend the night. I don’t want to officially unpack until I hear back from someone, but I’m starting to shiver. I put on dry clothes, eat a soggy leftover taco, and gradually make myself more at home. Eventually, kind Fireman Mark calls me back and it’s a go! I burrito myself in my down quilt and tent footprint as the wind whips rainy pellets under the pavilion for hours.
I awake to calm, fog. Guess the weather app was wrong – no water falling from the sky, but there are miles of squishy dirt tracks ahead to traverse.
I hustle off in the dark, thankful that I didn’t have to pack up a wet tent.
Critters have been there before me, and I make good time until hitting a section of trail that crosses the Olustee River and two smaller branches. There’s a sketchy old railroad bridge over the Olustee, which has flooded the Jeep track. It’s been there so long that things are growing out of it – I gingerly tiptoe across holding my breath.
I ford the next branch in shin deep water, but the second one is horrifying. For about 10 yards, the creek has spilled over its banks and is rushing across the trail. There is no way of telling how deep the dark water is, so I stand there whimpering for a scooch, staring into the froth and trying to garner courage.
Finally, I secure my phone in my shoulder pouch, undo my hip belt, and set out with poles in front, trying to find the shallowest channel. Midway, the water is up to my chest and I try not to panic while praying it doesn’t get any deeper. It’s one of the few times I wonder if being out here alone is the smartest choice.
The rest of the day is no drier. It’s tiring to slosh through standing water, and I’m pretty excited to reach the turn off to Ocean Pond Campground late in the day, though the sign and I are standing in hip-deep swamp.
When I make the turn, I spot a snake just off to the right. Come on. Really?
Not wanting to touch it, I agitate the water in hopes it will slither into the underbrush. Instead, it streaks ahead – right into the water I’m about to walk through. Idiot.
What’s done is done so, near tears, I crash my poles into the slop and try to sprint though the gauntlet. I’m never more relieved to reach the dry pavement of the campground.
Osceola National Forest is much of the same the next day, though thankfully the water never gets more than thigh deep. I take the high water bypass around the Suwannee section, as the river is still too high, and plan on staying at a shelter on private land.
Finding this Shangri-la is the last challenge of the trip, as it involves ducking under barbed wire, crossing a muddy slough, and hacking through a stand of saw palmettos to circumnavigate a sketchy lagoon.
The bloody legs are totally worth it. The place has a table and chair, screens, a privy!
All I have left in my food bag that is dinner-ish is some tuna, hot sauce, and a packet of mayo, so I make soup and sleep tentless on a dry floor listening to the comforting burble of Robinson Branch.
Walking into White Springs that final morning, I cross over the Suwannee on a bridge along the road bypass. Looking down at shoreline trees engulfed in its waters, I am relieved to have made it back safely.
There have been so many times in my life when the plans I have made have not turned out as I had hoped. For a while it seemed that everything I held dear – spouse, child, health – had turned to dust, and years passed overhung by a patina of grief.
Without his steady presence, walking alongside in threat of flood or snake, I would have certainly drowned.
He was with me all those long years, and he was with me these last long miles when adapting was the only way forward.
You might remember Job, described in the Old Testament as a man in the land of Uz who was blameless and upright, one who feared God and shunned evil. Job 1:1
And while I certainly don’t consider myself blameless nor in any way upright, tryasImight, what happens to Job – the complete collapse of everything he holds dear – feels a little too personal.
It started, I think, back in September when I broke my thumb and foot on a slow jog back to the car after a hike.
Recovery brought me to the end of myself; I managed to score a knee scooter from our athletic trainer to buzz around campus, but I was steeped in the grief of all-the-things-I-could-not-do.
Everything took longer. I had to drive to campus every morning, less than a quarter mile away, and I missed the bright walk up the hill to school when I would invite God into my day and complement Him on all the beautiful things around me that He had made.
Confused, I even questioned what He thought He was doing; did He not want to spend time with me? Was He too busy talking to His other children? I became petulant, self-pitying.
But, like Job – who lost his possessions, his servants, his health, and his children, whose wife tells him to “Curse God and die,” (Job 2:9) whose three “friends” try to “help” him figure out what he has done wrong to deserve his fate – like him, things continued to implode on me.
Half the electricity in my non-campus house went off after a storm, and it cost me dearly to get it fixed.
My car stopped working intermittently, which is the worst kind of not-working. I was supposed to chaperone some of our boys at the airport before break, and the car refused to start at 5 AM when I was to leave for Logan. Luckily, my trusted Administrator on Duty found some cables and gave me the needed jump, but the stress of that morning ruined what was usually a joyful experience of getting our students safely on their way home for Thanksgiving.
On the way out, the parking meter refused to print me the receipt I needed to submit for reimbursement.
I started hiking again after the injuries, but a trekking pole broke. Next, I awoke one morning in unbelievable pain. My back had apparently rebelled at the months of being off balance with crutches and boot; my newly salvaged freedom was once again curtailed, forcing me to count the hours before I could take the meds that would bring relief. Compelled to stand all day because it hurt too much to sit, I was exhausted by day’s end; unable to lie down comfortably, I lost precious sleep and became grumpy, unkind to others.
What had Idone wrong, God?
In the meantime, one son faced multiple health adversities and the other one setbacks in his new job. My computer crashed. Weight I had lost during the scooter days crept back on as solace was sought in unhealthy choices.
What had Idone wrong, God?
Turning to The Book for insight, I light on Psalm 102: “A prayer of an afflicted person who has grown weak and pours out a lament before the Lord.”
I am like a desert owl, like an owl among the ruins. I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears. Psalm 102: 6
Okay. Progress. To lament is to truth-tell. To remind God of where you’re at.
Why not invite Him in?
Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. Psalm 102:2
Who IS He, exactly, that I should?
You, Lord, sit enthroned forever; your renown endures through all generations. In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. Psalm 102: 12, 25
I’ve been up high. Seen those heavens, looked down on those foundations. If my petty problems and pains seem small to me, up there, imagine how they appear to HIM.
Like Job, I needed to be reminded of God’s power, majesty, and compassion, His utter trustworthy nature and divine ability to know and direct and allow. I needed to remember all the ways He had led me in the past, in dark days devoid of light, through the valley and out the other side.
Could you give me another chance, God? I cautiously prayed. Something low stakes, perhaps, where I can try again to look at YOU and not the complaint?
It was not a prayer I wanted answered.
And yet – to be teachable is to believe that there was a lesson in it all. One I should want to learn.
Like Job, I don’t understand, but I’ve tried to shut my mouth and open my ears, to listen to what He might have to say.
Someday, the ruins will be restored. There will be an exchange:
Beauty for ashes.
Joy for mourning.
Praise, not despair. Isaiah 61:3
So we wait for the second adventus, when He will come as promised, just as He did, as promised before.