Friday, September 29, 2017

I'm struggling with putting into words my first ever total solar eclipse. I've typed an introduction to this entry several times now and deleted it, being unhappy with it's flow, so let's keep it basic and see how it goes.
All smiles as we set out for eclipse base camp.

Each year Amber and I celebrate our wedding anniversary by doing some sort of outdoor adventure. We didn't plan it that way but when it happened a few years in a row when we first got married we stuck with the tradition including hiking in Alabama a few years back and a wild canoe ride on the Edisto River in South Carolina last year. This year we would receive help from the cosmos as the day after our anniversary would be a total solar eclipse! The rarity of this occasion should be fully absorbed and I can't think of a better explanation than I didn't exist when the last one occurred. 
Day one of year six of marriage.

Amber and I both agreed we would watch it together but decided we would travel to be in the path of totality, which guaranteed darkness in the middle of the afternoon, then all was left was to decide what town to choose. Luckily, our friends Ben and Carrie wanted to see it too and they had the benefit of having a friend that lived in Highlands, NC in the middle of the line of totality, not only that, but he lived less than half a mile from the Yellow Mountain Trail which is home to an old fire tower perfect for viewing the eclipse from! So when Carrie extended an invitation, we happily accepted. Adding to the allure of the trip was our chance to meet the trail legend, Old Dirty Goldbond, a friend of Ben and Carrie's that was going to meet up with us at Big Ed's house in Highlands. 
Amber gathering gear as Cash looks on.
Yellow Mountain Trail 27 hours away from the eclipse.

I was eclipse obsessed. I studied the weather for over two months out stressing over what looked like would be a 50/50 chance of us even seeing it at all with heavy cloud cover and possible rain. I couldn't help but think how upset I would be if I missed the eclipse because of a cloud. Amber, meanwhile, fretted on how she would take what she needed up the mountain. Her trusty ETSU book bag wasn't gonna cut it so she stopped in at Mahoney's and picked up a nice Osprey pack... $250 nice. As weeks, then hours ticked away we made checklists and scratched off each item as both our packs swelled and excitement grew. Amber made arrangements for a friend to tend to our animals and at 6am August 20th, we were on the road to Highlands, North Carolina, our sixth wedding anniversary!
Old Hank leads us to camp.
Hank was loving our camp site.

In my mind, we would sit for hours in Eclipse traffic but before I knew it we were already passing Brevard, NC with clear roadways. Just outside of town, however, I noticed a mobile electronic sign set up by the highway department that read, "CAUTION: Eclipse traffic. Expect delays." I was so pumped! "Look Amber, I told you so!" even though we saw no traffic, it was good to know that at least it was expected.  When we passed by the trail head for yellow mountain I was concerned with parking as there were already eight cars at the lot but I knew we could hike from Big Ed's house if we absolutely had to so it wasn't a big deal plus I would have extra mileage toward my 1000 mile goal.
Passing the time telling some tales.
Ben and Hank are exhausted from laughter!

The Yellow Mountain Trail to the fire tower is rated as one of the more difficult hikes in North Carolina with some killer up and down elevation changes. I was happy Amber had chose to do such a challenging hike despite her hatred for long trail days....maybe she was planning on cashing in my insurance payout, but time would tell. We arrived at Ed's house and found the perfect mountain cottage tucked in behind a row of trees. Ben came out to meet us and took us inside where Ed, Carrie, and Old Dirty (real name Mike) was waiting on us. We spent the morning hanging out and looking at maps on Ed's television. Both Ed and Mike had hiked Yellow Mountain and both of them were scarred from the elevation gains saying they would watch the eclipse elsewhere. I didn't look at her, but I could feel the death stare coming from Amber's direction. We made a plan that Ed and Mike would shuttle us up to the trail head and we would hike in to make camp with Mike and he would hike out and hang out with Ed until deciding if her would camp with us later that evening. Old Dirty claimed to know of some pristine camping spots not even a mile in so he served as our guide and since we weren't hiking far, we took some extra gear including a 2 gallon water cooler. Ben and Carrie had brought there rescue dog, Hank so we brought Cash with us. Hank isn't much a hiker so the short trail distance was perfect for his old bones. As we approached the camp sites Old Dirty remembered, he seemed bewildered. He turned to me and said "it doesn't seem like I remember it, there's a lot more bushes." I half heartedly expected it and surveyed the sides of the trail. Nothing looked tent worthy but we crossed the tiniest of branches and we bushwhacked up a small rise before the forest opened up and leveled off with just enough room for a few tents, we had found our base camp.
Ben and Carrie massaging Hank's old bones back to life from a nap.
My tent that Amber would kick me out of.

It took a little selling to Amber but eventually as we set our tents and hung our hammocks our camp came to life and things didn't seem so bad. The afternoon heat was quelled by a nice breeze and we passed the evening hours by telling Amber and Carrie stories from the glory days of UNC-Asheville. Old Dirty left us to hike back down to Ed's house but said he would be back to watch sunset and possibly camp even though he had no tent. Ben and Carrie were jealous of our hammocks and we took turns showing them the comfort, convenience, and stunt ability a hammock provides. It's amazing how much fun you can have just sitting in the woods with friends. Amber was worried my snoring would keep her awake so I decided I would sleep in my hammock giving her and Cash the security and warmth of a tent for the night. It was only one night and it couldn't be that bad, or so I thought! As the evening wound down, Amber, Ben, and I did some trail scouting while Carrie stayed back with Hank. The trail was a roller coaster on the short stretch we explored rising and falling before we decided to turn and head back to camp. As promised, Old Dirty had returned and we broke into some tequila before setting off on a sunset hike to some  cliffs we had passed on the way in. I guess it was during this time I really got to thinking how Old Dirty was nothing as I had imagined him to be. I'm not sure if I could have even picked him out of a police line up if someone said "pick the person that looks most likely to be called Old Dirty Goldbond." He was just a normal dude with an epic trail name. He did come with some serious trail credentials however, having hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail on multiple occasions.
I have been kicked out of my hammock..but why?
Oh yeah that's why!
Yep. they're done for.

At the cliff we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and I stood and watched the sun drop behind the mountain knowing it would go dark in less than 24 hours...I was downright giddy. While our group made their way back to camp as darkness approached, Amber and I waited on Halley to hike in to join us. She had been kayaking all day and made contact when I realized I had service at camp. She came bounding up the trail joined by her dog, Sallie, and another dog, named Helix that belonged to her friend. Back at camp we settled into story telling and more hammock stacking stunts including a hilarious effort on mine and Ben's part. No one gathered any fire wood so we sat in the darkness until Halley broke out some solar lamps and we made our plans for the following morning. Carrie decided she would watch the eclipse from our sunset cliffs with Old Dirty and Hank while Amber, Ben, Halley, and I would hike to the fire tower.
Old Dirty returns to lead us on a sunset hike.
Cash leading the way to sunset.

I went to bed that night a good distance away from our main camp in weeds and solitude and strung my hammock between two trees. I settled in for the evening with shorts, a t-shirt, and a hoodie to use as a blanket. I laid there for a good while listening to the crickets and looking up at a clear star filled sky. As I closed my eyes to sleep, I said a little prayer for clear skies in the morning.
Sunset on the Western Cliffs.
Amber showing off for the sunset.
Hank admiring the sunset.
Tomorrow you'll be eclipsed.

As the night wore on I found myself growing colder and uncomfortable in the hammock. I tried to tuck the hoodie around my legs but it would only cover so much. I would have to leave some parts of my legs exposed and when I got too cold uncover my warm leg and cover the cold one. This process went on all night. At one point I woke up soaked after the dew had fell, the last few hours before daylight were tough, but I was getting some sleep for what I believed to be 30 minute intervals.
Eclipse morning. Halley has emerged from her tent.
College roomies showing how it's done.

The next morning I noticed Old Dirty rise from his cowboy camp pack away his belongings and hike away. During the night I had heard several groups of hikers making their way up the trail toward the fire tower including a really loud group around 3am. As everyone else began to wake up I told them Old Dirty had hiked out and went back toward Ed's house and asked if they had heard all the other hikers. Halley chimed in, "No but I heard you snoring. It helped scare away the bears so I liked it." As we ate our breakfast a nonstop stream of hikers marched up the trail, we figured at least 50 people had went by and knowing there was a trail head on the other side of the mountain that was shorter, our tower option didn't look so good. I tried to keep the faith and kept busy checking all my gear for the day....ECLIPSE DAY! We decided to leave camp set up and leave for the tower giving ourselves plenty of time for the strenuous hike. Amber, Ben, and Halley threw on their packs and we hit the trail with Sallie, Helix, and Cash. The trail was in good shape and every few minutes a new group of hikers would pass us while we waited on Ben to finish up with Carrie and Hank. Each passing group made me less excited about going to the tower. After climbing a near vertical mountain  I could tell we were on a plateau of sorts and I seen faint paths running out to what appeared to be cliffs. One such path led to an open view that was truthfully perfect with one exception, there was a man, woman, and their kid already set up in the spot. Knowing I would have to share my eclipse moment with even more people at the tower I decided I was fine with this vantage point and everyone else agreed, although I could tell the man and his family didn't like it, I didn't give a shit.
Waiting it out just a few feet from the cliffs.
Ben enjoying out quiet time.

Having our Eclipse location picked out. We hiked around for a bit before laying in the woods near the cliffs as a deterrent to others who might come over to "our" spot. During the three hours we waited there I'd say 50 more people passed us. With about thirty minutes before the eclipse we made our way over to the cliff and settled in. Remember me saying I prayed for clear skies? Well they were clear that morning, but afternoon clouds had moved in and I could see it raining on the ridge across from us. I laid back on my mat and felt a complete sense of hopelessness. I had waited so long, a lifetime, and a cloud was going to eclipse me. I looked at my watch about 2pm. I couldn't even see the sun or tell where it was in the sky. My mood was deteriorating. I closed my eyes and thought about how much fun I had just being on the trip and how many people couldn't even walk to these cliffs and how blessed I was and how selfish I was being for being upset over a cloud and then a miracle happened. The little girl from the family suddenly yelled, "LOOK!" It was the kind of urgency that made me realize the eclipse was visible and there right above me was a parted sea of clouds and an eclipsed sun! I don't nor will I ever have the words to accurately describe how amazing it was in person. The clouds were faint enough that you could see the Eclipse perfectly without the safety glasses. I looked at my watch, five minutes to totality. I studied the horizon and watched as the shaded sun cast different shadows on the ground and how the temperature began to drop and then right on schedule the sky went completely dark at 2:36pm. I cried. It was amazing, surreal, unbelievable, and unsettling all at once. Cheers erupted from distant ridges, the horizon burned with a gorgeous glow of sunset, and fireworks burst in the valleys. I hope I never forget that moment or how I felt.
And now we wait.
Our view.

Almost as quickly as it began, it ended. The skies brightened, the birds chirped, and my mind, despite being mush from the emotional moment of totality, switched gears to the hundreds of people that were about to be hiking off the mountain. I rolled up my mat, grabbed my pack, and we took off for camp. When we arrived Carrie was nowhere to be found but Amber and I broke out stuff down and we're packed in impressive time. We hiked down to the cliffs and found Carrie, Old Dirty, and Ed waiting on us. All of them were raving about their own experiences of the eclipse but I could hardly listen it was if the world had been muted, I was in shock. We said our farewells, and Amber and I hiked off the mountain and decided instead of shuttling down in the truck we would hike to Ed's house. At the trail head we were stunned with how many cars were parked along the road. For half a mile in both directions and both sides of the road were cars. People from New York, Delaware, Florida, and even Vermont had descended on North Carolina for a chance to see a total solar eclipse.
2:34pm. two minutes until totality.
Getting close. The dogs seemed to know.
At exactly 2:36pm the skies over Highlands, NC went dark. It was the craziest and most spectacular natural experience that I've ever been a part of.

We hit the road frantically trying to escape Highlands but didn't make but a few miles until we were in bumper to bumper traffic moving about 2 miles per hour. Normally traffic would make me lose my mind but I was so pleased with my day I just went with it and a three hour trip home became a pic hours. During the drive I called to see if my parents had watched it all too. They had drove me crazy wanting a pair of eclipse glasses and I was able to round them up a few. My mom answered and said she didn't fool with watching since she has cataracts and was rather hateful about it all. When I finally got my dad to answer his phone a few hours later the truth emerged. He couldn't stop laughing and told me why mom was so upset. When the eclipse started my brother called them and told them to go outside and look. Dad went onto the deck and looked up with his glasses on. He told mom to come look as well but she was worried she would damage her eyes. He told her to put her glasses on and come out and look up. Mom did as he said but when she put the glasses on INSIDE they worked just like a blindfold and as she came out the door she ran face first into the doorway falling backwards! My dad did what any loving husband would do and laughed himself nearly to death before mom threatened to divorce him if he didn't stop. As dad got off the phone with me, he once again warned, "don't tell anyone."
Unfortunately Ben was a victim of counterfeit eclipse glasses.

I guess you're wondering why I included that story if I wasn't supposed to tell anyone but I have doubts my parents even read these blogs that I work so hard on, so now the trap is set. Who will tell them first, my money is on my Aunt Sue but time will tell. Until next time, happy trails!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A while back I was at my brother's house for a visit when my oldest niece made a rare appearance from the confines of her bedroom to ask me a question. She had overheard me telling a story of one of my hikes and barged into the room asking, "Uncle Jason, how come you never ask me to hike with you?" I was shocked she had interest in going and disappointed that I had failed as an uncle and had to have her call me out to get my attention. When I composed myself I asked her what she would like to see, a mountain or a waterfall and she responded without hesitation, "I want to see tall trees."
Abby takes the lead as we head toward Ramsey Cascades.
Abby and the deer hiking together.

My mind is programed all things hiking and I instantly had a destination in mind, Ramsey Cascades Trail in the Smokies. Around two miles into the hike are several large Tulip Poplars, the largest trees I've ever seen in MY life. I mentioned the hike to Jimmy and Shannon and told them it was rated as difficult but since I had only planned on showing her the trees it would remove the most dangerous and strenuous parts of the hike, I didn't know it at the time, Abby would have different plans.
Healthy snackers!

The logistics of travel and timing also created another challenge which was talking Abby into spending the night at my house so we could get an early start. Surprisingly she agreed without hesitation and I told her I would pick her up after work and we would grab dinner before settling in at the house. We stopped at Fazoli's and loaded up on carbs and soda in preparation for a long day in the Smokies followed by a quick pit stop at Food City for snacks and Gatorade for our packs. The evening was spent playing with my dogs and watching television with Amber, she seemed genuinely excited for out hike!
Abby crossing Ramsey Prong on the new foot bridge.

The next morning we hit the road early to avoid traffic and get a head start on trail head parking. On the drive down, Abby started quizzing me more about the hike and I explained to her that the trees were only a couple of miles in so we wouldn't have far to walk. She asked if the trail kept going and I said, "yes, it leads to a 100ft waterfall called Ramsey Cascades, but you can leave the trail and keep hiking all the way to Mt. Guyot!" Abby thought for a minute before saying she was fine with hiking all the way to the waterfall! We stopped at Cracker Barrel for breakfast in Morristown before finally arriving at the trail head in the Greenbrier section of the park around 10:30am. Abby had listened to me and wore good shoes and brought her a small backpack for her snacks and water. There were a few other people at the trail head but it wasn't as crowded as I anticipated. I asked Abby if she was ready, and with an eager nod, we were off.
It's shocking at how many trees have fell since my last visit.
Large Tulip Poplars and Abby soaking it in!

Truthfully, the first stretch of Ramsey Cascades is boring for me. The trail is a continuation of an old gravel road and there just isn't a whole lot to keep you occupied as you grind uphill on a slight grade. The Smokies must have known I was thinking that way because a small deer came walking through the woods toward Abby and walked with us up the trail! I have never in all my hiking seen anything like it! Eventually the deer darted off trail as another group approached us heading back to the lot but it had helped keep Abby occupied and off the thoughts of the climbing. Apparently my worries were all for nothing as any rock formation Abby would spot she would go climb on it and jump off. She pointed out flowers and trees, and was a pleasure to be with. We didn't rush our day and rested at benches along the trail and Abby would talk to me about anything from school, her friends, or things she likes to write about. She is a much better writer than me so I hope she never reads this.
Abby giving love to the giant Tulip Poplar.
Step one of our hike is complete!
Abby took this picture of me next to the tree. She has talent.

It didn't take as long as I thought and we were at the old turn around and the Ramsey Prong spur trail before I knew it. I looked at Abby and told her, "this is where the real hike begins!" The trail narrows considerably and is littered with exposed tree roots and rocky steps. It is a continuous climb from that point until reaching Ramsey Cascades. I led us up the Prong but Abby stayed a short distance behind and if I got to far ahead for her liking she would call out to remind me that I had promised not to run off and leave her. I purposely took breaks after some strenuous climbs and would tell her stories about the hike or the Smokies just to keep her mind off her tired legs and heavy breathing. I don't think I can really express how impressed I was with her ability to keep up, she isn't a hiker but she was determined and during one break she looked up after catching her breath and said, "I promised myself I was going to see that waterfall and I'm gonna do it!" And then she was to her feet and back to hiking!
Narrow bridges!
Abby named these the stairs of sketch.

The trails first real point of interest is a large logging bridge over Ramsey Prong. The old bridge had been destroyed when a tree fell but the park had replaced it with a more sturdy but much lower bridge. Of course Abby didn't know this or seem to care, she fished her phone out for the first time to take a picture of the new bridge and I noticed she lined it up and put thought into how she took the picture, I was impressed. We sat down along the creek on some extra wood they had cut when they rebuilt the bridge. We enjoyed some snacks and she asked me if I remembered our hike to Devil's Bathtub more than six years earlier. She remembered details I had forgot... the hike had made an impact on her. I was so overwhelmed by it I felt tears swell in my eyes before she jolted me back to her story by saying, "and I just thought that was an adventure." I packed away our snacks and told her that we were only about a mile from the trees and she asked me to convert that to minutes, I told her in fifteen minutes you'll stand beside the biggest trees you've ever seen.
Sometimes you had to use four wheel drive.
Or steal your Uncle's hiking stick.

Our short break and story time refreshed us both, she caught her breath and I realized she had enjoyed hiking with me all those years ago. It made me sad that I had neglected her but I was making up for lost time and taking her on a hike that many consider one of the best and most difficult in the Smokies. Abby took the lead and climbed dutifully up each rock staircase and would wait for me to join her at the top. Around a small level area I could smaller the large Tulip Poplars looming ahead. As we hiked between two of them she held her hands out and said she could feel their energy! Just a few feet up the trail we passed by the largest of the trees and we paused for pictures and another break. I told Abby if she was satisfied with her day we could hike down and go to to Gatlinburg for lunch and go look in some shops but she was having none of it, she jumped up and said, "I'm going to the waterfall!" I have never been more proud in my entire life.
What do we have here?

The trail is hardest in the last mile and a half to the falls and I told Abby we would have to be careful and make sure we didn't fall on slick rock and hurt ourselves. Occasionally she would borrow my hiking stick or ask for a hand but for the most part she held her own nicely. Sometimes she would tell me to stop just so I could watch her make a big leap from rock to rock. Surprisingly we caught a few groups of hikers and passed them up, and all of them would remark at how well Abby was doing. We reached the stretch of trail where it leaves the creek and begins a large curve around a ridge. Abby geared down a lot on this stretch and rightfully so as its some of the steepest climbing. I told her I saw a grown man laying in the middle of the trail here once saying he thought he was gonna die he was so tired. It made her laugh and again she pushed on. When the trail dropped back towards the creek I knew we weren't far from the waterfall and although there's still some climbing, it's up spiral rock stairs and between boulders. Abby said it looked like another planet.
Silent awe.
Abby just after her unscheduled dip. She was a good sport about it and was back to her feet quick.

Suddenly through the trees I could see falling water and feel a cool breeze, I stepped aside to let Abby lead and after climbing up on a rock together we stood side by side at the base of Ramsey Cascades. Abby loved it! She looked at me and said, "I'm so glad I didn't quit!" We were lucky in the fact there was only one other group of hikers there and they were leaving. I told Abby she could take her shoes off and wade over in front of the falls for a picture. She didn't hesitate and was in the water instantly. Almost as quickly as she got in the water, her feet suddenly flew out from under her and she landed flat on her butt getting soaked up to her waist! I jumped up afraid she might fall over the lower drop for the falls but she got to her feet and crossed over to dry rock in front of the falls. I took my shoes off and joined her and we sat together letting the mist cool us off. Several other groups of hikers arrived and I told her we would cross back to the other side so they could have turns of taking pictures without us in the way. We ate our snacks and enjoyed some Gatorade before packing up for our return hike.
Heading out!
Abby still had enough leg in her to climb this rock outcrop.

The hike back was uneventful other than Abby suffering some chaffing from wet shorts but I told her she could change in my truck when we got back and she would feel a lot better. On the return hike she still found the energy to climb rocks and bounce along telling stories. Once we reached the trail head I waited by the creek while she changed into dry clothes. She emerged from the truck and motioned me to join her. A quick stop at Wendy's for dinner and we were on the road home. Abby didn't make it out of Newport before she was asleep, she didn't flinch for the next two hours as I barreled up the interstate toward home the silence of the drive gave me time to think about what a great day it was and how I had been mistaken all along. You see, I thought I had done Abby a favor by taking her hiking but instead she had helped me more than I ever could have thought. Her true appreciation of the small things we saw along the trail, her amazement at the monster trees, and her determination to see the waterfall, all left such a positive impact on me. We may have went six years between hikes but one thing was certain after this trip, we would never go that far between hikes again. Until next time, happy trails!
Mission complete! Copilot is out!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Have I ever told you the one about me getting electrocuted in a thunderstorm on a fire tower? It started out bad, persistently stayed bad, and only relented when my day ended at a Newport KFC buffet wearing what most would describe as boxers and a sweatshirt. Everything between is described in this harrowing account of one of the most miserable days in the Smokies...ever.
The start of our day, Rain and more rain, Big Creek was already pretty rowdy.
Baxter Creek Trail.
Rock formations early on the hike.

With the hike to 1000 miles in full swing and my legs feeling tough and rested from a peaceful week at work, I zeroed in on my Sunday hike in search for a challenge and some big miles. The problem was the weather forecast. 100% rain. Basically a complete guarantee but I have no faith in weather forecasters and my thoughts about what I would miss out on always outweighed my concern with the weather. Besides, I had rain gear and a hot mug of coffee, what else could I possibly need?
She marched on even though she hates being wet.
Trillium along the stream.
Yellow Trillium.

I found a list of toughest hikes in the Smokies and realized I had knocked out several and after conquering the famed off trail summits of Guyot and Old Black, my confidence was at an all time high. On the list however was one notable piece missing from my resume, the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling. In six miles the trail rises over 4200ft to the fire tower at the summit of Mt. Sterling where wide sweeping views await those brave enough to climb the rickety old tower. I grabbed my map and looked over the trails around the summit and saw that I could complete a loop hike using Baxter Creek, Swallow Fork, and Big Creek returning to the truck after a 17 mile day of Smokies glory.
Everything was green!
Looking back into Big Creek.

I sent Amy a message about the hike fully expecting not just a no but a hell no. All those years of living on the mountain alone with cats she has developed a lot of their traits, particularly a hatred for water. She's rejected several hikes on the premise of having to get her feet wet so with a forecast like we faced that day her response of, "as long as we can get coffee" was shocking to say the least. I can't remember where we met that day other than it was raining. It wasn't that hard rain that makes you stare out the window and be thankful to be indoors but a rain that just does enough to screw things up. We hit the road with thoughts of the hot cup of coffee that awaited us at the Dandridge Dunkin Donuts. The trip down was uneventful with the exception of an incredible waded up trash throw from my drivers seat, out the passenger door, over Amy's shoulder, and landing perfectly in the bottom of the trash can on the sidewalk. You just kinda had to be there for it.
Another perfect trillium.
squirrel corn.

At the trail head in Big Creek, we pulled in next to a van where a boy and girl stood outside in the drizzle making out like they were never going to see each other again. He only paused long enough to see my shirt with the Autobots logo from Transformers and said, "Dude! Awesome shirt! That's gonna get you to the summit for sure!" He really believed in me. Along with my awesome shirt, I had on quick dry shorts, wool socks, and my trusty Yuengling hat. I put on my pack cover and rain jacket and adjusted all straps before setting my sights on the bridge over Big Creek. There on the bridge was our friends from the parking lot once again checking each other's tonsils. Big Creek was already raging and the sound of the creek led us through what would be the only easy part of the hike. The rain alternated between a drizzle and a light steady pour and it was only about a mile or so into the hike before both our rain jackets had been thoroughly breached by the onslaught. The hike however was beautiful with the forest coming alive and vibrant with everything being a bright green with a single track hiking path meandering through what was once a large logging camp.
Stone crop.
Dog hobble in bloom.

Shortly thereafter, the trail stopped meandering and started punishing. The rain made sections of it a small stream and the climbing began in earnest. Amy was in remarkably good spirits and led us up the hill on a good pace and we found plenty of plant life to photograph to sneak in an extra break here and there. In classic Smokies fashion, the trail switchbacked and dipped in and out of valleys. At one of the first views back down into Big Creek fog lifted from the valley floor while storm clouds loomed on the horizon, it was beautiful really. The elevation gain was significant already and temperatures went from comfortable to slightly chilly with the breeze and rain but as long as we were moving we stayed warm. Several miles into our day we ran into the only people we would see the rest of the day. It was two backpackers that eyeballed us up and down curious of our intent. I suppose it's not often a giant approaches wearing shorts in a downpour. We told them we were loop hiking using several trails but they told us Swallow Fork was impassable with flooding and they had to use the trail we were coming up to get back to their vehicle. I was bummed out losing four miles and new Smokies trail but 13 miles of up and back in a downpour on Mt. Sterling is still respectable.
Some downfall.
More downfall.

Amy found a tree that was hollowed out and took refuge for a few minutes of rest and we decided to break into her stash of homemade cookies for a quick break. We had already climbed over some big downfall but up ahead there was even more on the trail. We both seemed at peace as we crunched on cookies and the rain would ease every so often to give us hope of maybe seeing the sun. I even held out through slightest of hopes we would climb above the rain and see a sea of clouds from Mt. Sterling, it was going to be incredible! When we set back to hiking Amy must have been supercharged by the cookies because she tackled the biggest downfall and did some sort of gymnastic manuever resembling flipping from one log to the next and somehow sticking the landing. She claimed she meant to do it but her facial expression was one that suggested otherwise. Again, you just had to be there for it. The upper stretches of Mt. Sterling we entered an old growth forest and with it snarled giants of wind beaten trees and thick moss coated every limb and boulder, the section of trail was one or the most photogenic I had ever hiked through. I glanced at my GPS noticing we were over the 4100ft mark in elevation gain so I was fully expecting a level ridge walk at any moment and soon a break from rain inside the tower...I would be sorely disappointed.
Please stop raining!
the downfall was pretty bad on the upper stretches of  Baxter Creek.
You can do it!

The rain transitioned once again from drizzle to downpour and with it came a howling wind. I was cold but I knew we had to be close. I kept my head down and Amy had not said a word in quite some time so I knew the fuse was short. When we crossed over another false summit to see the trail continuing uphill she turned on a dime and said, "if that damn tower isn't up at that next point, I'm turning around and going down and I don't care what you do." When we topped the point of no return we were greeted with more climbing but I saw a couple of tents off the trail to the left and a wooden trail sign up ahead. Amy just shook her head and trudged on, she's a lot of things but she's not a quitter. My dreams of a sea of clouds was granted as we exited the woods in the clearing at the Mt. Sterling fire tower, the only problem was that we were inside of them! Wind gusts blasted through the clearing and the rain actually hurt as I pulled my hood tighter approaching the tower. There's a tangle of wires that ran from a small substation adjacent to the main tower and the wind shook them violently as I took hold of the first rail to climb. Amy was just ahead of me and made it to the second set of steps before looking puzzled saying the tower was shocking her. I was shaking from cold and exhaustion but hadn't noticed it, I clenched the railing harder and felt small jolts of electricity in my forearm shaking the muscle. We decided to climb down and I'm sure we looked hilarious with our arms in the air as if held at gunpoint by an unseen assailant. We determined there had to be some sort of short in one of the wires and the rain was causing it to juice the tower and any unsuspecting hiker that came along.
Starting to look interesting entering the old growth forest.
Amy up above me on a switch back.
Moss was everywhere!

*author's note: I mentioned this incident to both an online forum of 22,000 Smokies addicts as well as the park service. One idiot in particular questioned my story saying it didn't happen to him a few weeks earlier. He's lucky he did this from the comfort of a keyboard in Ohio and not to my face.
More trail from near the top.
When you reach here, it isn't much further..
At last! Mt. Sterling!

After retreating down the trail we stopped for lunch under some rocks trying our best to stay out of the rain and shield ourselves from wind. At some point, Amy had gotten in pretty rough shape. She was now so cold she couldn't get her jacket zipped or gloves on from shivering. I helped her get situated and we opened up some hot hands and our stash of coffee in hopes of warming up. We ate quickly because she was in pain from the cold and I was frozen from the waist down. Amy meanwhile had bundled up with two coats, gloves, and even a toboggan. She set off on a blistering pace down the mountain trying to warm up. Once I started moving again I was cold but it was manageable. I lingered in the moss covered old growth forest for more photos before jogging to catch up with Amy.
Just to prove I was on this hike.
At the tower. Look at that elevation gain!
Finally some warmth!

As fate would have it the sun popped out as we were about three miles down the mountain. It was short lived but we embraced the beams while they lasted. It was the only time we would see it that day. Coming down the mountain made me think how impressive the climb up had been. The trail was so steep it hurt my knees. Soon we were back within earshot of Big Creek and my attention shifted to finding the side trail to the remains of the logging camp lodge including a massive stone chimney. We found the path we missed earlier and made one final stop for pictures with Amy taking a hilarious tumble from trying to jump off the chimney ledge. Crossing the bridge over Big Creek we could see a significant increase in water level and I knew we had made the right choice by back tracking.
Amy ready to escape.
I still couldn't get over the beauty up here!

I practically ran to my truck excited to grab my dry clothes and change but there was one small problem, they were still at home in Gray. I had forgot them! I rummaged through the mess behind the seat and found some old basketball shorts and a sweatshirt, it wasn't stylish but I was going to be dry. I really regretted not having dry shoes so I drove us barefoot back to Newport where instead of the steak I had promised Amy earlier in the hike turned into chicken livers at KFC and we dined as we listened to a local couple fight loudly in the booth behind us. At first, it was entertaining but as it went on I missed being on that silent mountain in the pouring rain.
The remains of a monster tree. Perhaps an American Chestnut?
On the old Logging Lodge Chimney.

Amy was floored by the chimney.

Looking back on the day it was miserable but there's a certain satisfaction of knowing we persevered when most people wouldn't walk out the door. In perfect conditions, Mt. Sterling is a difficult hike, on the day we did it, it was downright electrifying and despite it all, I will return one day for that view I was denied.  Until next time, happy trails!
Big Creek as we crossed the bridge.