Tuesday, August 25, 2015

As a child, my brother had severe allergies and every few weeks our family made the trip to Asheville, North Carolina for him to see a specialist. The trip was long and agonizing for two young children especially since my parents opted to ride in silence instead of listening to the radio. To his credit, my dad did his best to entertain and pointed out landmarks and sights along the way. A particularly vivid memory is when we would finally arrive at the mountains and the curvy road that at the time, was the only way into North Carolina across Sam's Gap. Our old Oldsmobile somehow always made it to the top of the mountain and I would pay close attention for a little brown sign and a foot path leading away from the road on either side. Of course, I'm talking about the Appalachian Trail.

Big Bald on the horizon.
The whole concept of the trail was so wildly entertaining to me. It seemed that we had rode forever in a car to get to that point but yet there were people who walked across these mountains from Georgia on their way to Maine? I couldn't believe it. Each trip, I tried to catch a glimpse up the trail and at times we even got to see hikers coming out of the woods with their packs stuffed full for their journey. I always imagined what it would be like to take off up the trail and what awaited out of sight before settling back in to the reality of the boring car ride. Twenty five years would pass before I stepped foot on the section of trail but it brought back the memories and imagination I had as a child.

As many of you know, there aren't a lot of trails in Northeast Tennessee or Southwest Virginia that I haven't visited. This past May I was reading a few blogs in search of a new hike and stumbled across a place called Big Bald. The hike to Big Bald starts at Sam's Gap and is a 6.5 mile one way hike to reach it's summit. The hike looked perfect on paper and as I continued pouring through information I found that you can drive to within half a mile of the mountain's summit through a gated community, but where's the fun in that? I wanted to be true to all those hikers I had seen as a child, I would hike in from Sam's Gap making a thirteen mile round trip.
The meadow along the ATV roads.

When the day of the hike arrived, I found that I had forgot about a meeting at work and wouldn't be able to start until around 1pm. Days had begun to get longer so I wasn't too concerned with a late start and a few clouds didn't keep my foot off the gas either as I roared up the mountain on Interstate 26. One of the biggest changes since my childhood was the completion of the interstate connecting Erwin, Tennessee and Mars Hill, North Carolina. What once over an hour drive at times now was less than thirty minutes. The addition of the road actually threw me off and I wasn't sure how to get to the old road and the parking area for the Appalachian Trail. I ended up riding into North Carolina and taking the Wolf Laurel exit and taking the old road back to the top of the mountain. When I pulled in, three hikers approached my truck. They were thru hiking and looking for a ride to Erwin to resupply. It really bothered me that I had arrived so late and couldn't help them out but they understood my need to get started and were gracious anyway.
Dwarf Larkspur. The only one's I've seen this year.

Across the road is a small white sign now that says "walking trail" and I opened a small gate and stepped onto the Appalachian Trail. Many thru hikers had already started the pilgrimage from Georgia to Maine and only a short distance into the hike I was caught and passed by several hikers with much heavier packs than I was wearing. I didn't let it discourage me and kept pressing as the trail wound uphill and into the woods completely out of sight of the parking area and interstate. The sounds of traffic followed me well into the first mile and so did the uphill grade.

Maybe an old homestead the trail passes through.
There were so many spots just to stop and admire the trail.

Entering the second mile, the trail climbs almost vertically up wooden stairs as it pushes to the first open vista and a glimpse of Big Bald, 4.5 miles away! I stepped into the clearing and stared at Big Bald thinking of how much pain was between me and the top. Adding to my dismay was an increasing cloudy sky with some threatening rain clouds beginning to obscure the views. I rested at a camp site chugging some water helping decrease some weight that I was carrying. I hadn't bought a filter yet so I had three more bottles in my pack with each of them being a liter. The cloud cover already had knocked the temperature down and I regretted not having anything besides shorts and t-shirt on. The chill in the air helped keep me moving and the next two miles seemed rather easy as the elevation didn't change too drastically. All the elevation I had worked to gain was soon lost and I dropped into a gap where several ATV roads merge and a nice meadow is nearby.
More strange plant life.
Trillium as I found approaching the summit.

The final two miles to the summit of Big Bald were downright torturous. The only solace I took on that stretch is that the hikers that had overtook me on the first part of the hike were sprawled along the trail as I went marching by. In the shadow of the summit I found a female refilling her water bottles from a spring and she told me based on her guidebook it was about half a mile to the top. I really liked the forest here as many old trees twisted by wind lined the trail. I had arrived at the elevation at the perfect time too, some of the biggest Trilliums I had ever seen began to pop up with white, red, and pink blooms. The trail gets rocky as it winds around boulders covered in some of the thickest and strangest varieties of moss I had ever witnessed. Suddenly the entire landscape changes and the trail appears to wind through an orchard as it skirts the summit of the mountain. I walked through clouds and could see no further than a few feet in front of me. The trail was now lined in grass and I knew I was almost to the summit. The wind was violent and it was hard to keep my balance as I leveled off on the summit of Big Bald.
One of the only views I got before the weather swallowed me up.
Here comes the clouds.

It was so cold I couldn't enjoy my efforts and I continued on the trail a short distance off the summit and rested in the grass and had my lunch consisting of peanut butter crackers and a Nutella to Go. I even allowed myself one Mountain Dew knowing it would boost my energy, if only for a few minutes. Luckily, the clouds broke up enough for me to take a few pictures and I was impressed even with limited views. The cold became too much and after being soaked with sweat I decided I needed to get moving and head back.
Big Stamp across from the summit of Big Bald.
Lunch of champions.
Cloud bank as I hiked off Big Bald.

The hike back was easier for the most part and I knew I only had one or two climbs and the rest would be downhill. The climb back up to the meadow four and a half miles from the summit was some tough times. I was down to my final water bottle and I finished the last of it as I made the top of the mountain. I took time to snap one last picture looking back as the storm had completely swallowed Big Bald Mountain. The last two miles went by quickly and as the sound of traffic grew louder I knew my day was coming to a close. When I crossed the road over to the parking lot I rested on the tailgate of the truck staring back from where I had came. My imagination as a child had actually sold short the wonder of the stretch of trail to Big Bald, it was better in real life. Until next time, happy trails.

Monday, July 27, 2015

This year I've been focused on my goal of reaching 500 miles. I don't know if focused is even the right word, maybe obsessed with would be better but regardless, I'm not going to quit until I succeed. Not torn ligaments in my ankle in February or a broken toe in May slowed my progress. If anything, it made me more determined to keep pushing despite the pain. Through it all I'm now only five miles shy of 300 as the month of July comes to an end.

I've also found balance this year. Working as a salaried assistant manager and being married, I also have responsibilities away from the trail and my personal goals. It seems I've found a new love for life and although I stay busy, it's been worth it all. One of the highlights away from hiking this year was my first true country music concert. Amber and I traveled to Knoxville, TN to see Garth Brooks. For three glorious hours, he rocked Thompson Bowling Arena and I couldn't believe what a wonderful entertainer he was. We didn't leave the arena until almost midnight, finally made it home about 1:30am, and I calmed down enough to go to sleep around 2:30am.

As much as I wanted to sleep in the next day, I had a short hike planned with some Girl Scouts from my old elementary school in Hiltons. Growing up I made many friends at Hiltons Elementary that I've carried into adulthood. One of my friends, Eric Gardner, and I have shared a lot of adventures and bad decision making. The fact that we both are still alive is a true testament to God's grace. Eric has a family now and his wife is the Girl Scout Troop leader for the school. She had asked me a few weeks earlier if I would be interested in guiding a few of the girls on a hike so they could earn their merit badge. I've not done a lot of guided hikes but have helped out with a few fundraisers through work and was glad to give back to a school that I have such fond memories of, and to help out one of my best friend's daughters earn her merit badge!
Hiltons Elementary School Girl Scout Troop and I at the start of Little Stony National Recreation Trail.

When I arrived at the school shortly before 9am I expected five or six kids and a couple of parents. Imagine my surprise when 13 girls and six parents piled into the parking lot a few at a time. My plan was to hike from the upper parking lot at Little Stony Falls near Dungannon, Virginia and hike the girls down past the main waterfalls to a wooden bridge and back to the parking lot making a nice two mile trip with plenty to see. Eric's wife, Kate changed the plans upon my arrival saying we needed to burn more of their energy and wanted to hike them in from Hanging Rock and back making a 5.2 mile trip. I was somewhat surprised but relieved because it would make the convoy there easier as it follows paved roads the entire way. The girls seemed to have more than enough energy for the trip as they bounced from car to car trying to decide who they wanted to ride with. Once we were satisfied that everyone had shown up that was going we were off on the forty minute drive to the trail head.

When we arrived at Hanging Rock I couldn't help but think about my last visit there and how different everything appeared. In the winter, I hiked in knee deep snow with some friends. To read the story of that day visit here:( http://hikinghorton.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2015-05-09T19:50:00-07:00&max-results=7&start=3&by-date=false) I parked in my usual spot along the creek as the rest of the caravan passed by heading toward the start of the recreation trail. Normally the gate is locked so I expected them to be back but as I hiked up the paved road I could see that I could have saved myself some steps since the gate was standing wide open. A couple of the parents and a few children had parked with me and we chatted as we hiked up to the join the others. I spotted a small salamander in the grass along the road and let the girls take turns either holding it or petting it. We all posed for a picture by the Little Stony Recreation Trail and I gave some final instructions before hitting the trail. I had already encountered poisonous snakes on hikes and cautioned the girls to stay on the trail at all times. Although I'm not a parent, I felt a little apprehension taking them up the trail since I knew what to expect.
The trail passes by this small waterfall and we the girls had to go inspect it up close.

I tried to stay in the lead but some of the older girls of the group out paced me by a few feet and I settled in to mixing with everyone as much as possible. There were still some nice wildflowers blooming and stinging nettle lined the trails causing some discomfort early on for a few scouts. The parents seemed to be happy being out as well and the principal, Tracy Stallard had came with her daughter. I went to school with Tracy and her mother was my my math teacher in fifth grade. I always liked Ms. Williams as she stood up for me and told me to be proud of being tall. If anything, the hike was a reminder that I was getting old.

Along the way, I pointed out bugs, flowers, and even some abandoned mine shafts to the girls and they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. We all stopped for an extended at stay at one of the nice small waterfalls and even with chilly water, a majority of the girls took a dip. It was a surreal change to my usual hiking in silence as giggles and song lit up the valley but it was wonderful seeing them all have so much fun. Not all of the parents shared in their joy and it was easy to pick out the few that were more comfortable in a shopping mall. I asked one of the girls if she liked hiking and she gave me one of the more candid and hilarious answers I've received, "I didn't want to be here but I'm a girl scout, and I really want that badge."
We made it to the falls!
The water was cold. These girls are tough!

I was really impressed with Kate's poise as she instructed the girls as we navigated through some narrow stretches of trail and around some downed trees. All of them looked up to her, and I could tell she cared for them all equally even with the presence of her own daughter. Soon we were approaching the first falls which is the highest on the creek. The trail to the base is a steep muddy affair with little to hold onto. One of the parents initially objected to her daughter going but I recruited some parents to make a line to help each child down safely. It was awesome to see everyone work as a team and as soon as everyone arrived at the base, the girls were back in the water. Screams and shrills echoed along the rock walls as they adjusted to the chilly water. I found a rock to relax on but watched them all closely while they splashed around. The cold water was no match for their enthusiasm and they lingered even as the parents started calling them that we needed to head back. I talked to Kate and told her the main falls was only a short hike up the trail and I wanted to show them all how you could walk behind it. She was worried with the girls not bringing a lunch they would get grouchy and be miserable hiking back. Luckily, the girls agreed with me and we all marched on toward the Upper Falls of Little Stony. If the girls energy was fading, I couldn't tell. They beat us all to the waterfall and some of them where already making their way behind the falls when I reached the base. I joined all of them behind the waterfall and we played along the shore for a few minutes before Kate called us all back.
Lower falls of Little Stony.
My favorite picture of the day. The girls and I behind the Upper Falls of Little Stony.

The hike back was much easier since it was mostly downhill and the girls stayed in a good mood as they discussed their plans for later and what was for lunch. I hiked in the back of the group and visited with a few parents and stayed with some of the smaller scouts with their tiny strides. When we all reached the parking lot I felt a huge sense of relief. Everyone was safe and no one had any injuries at all. Kate shared snacks from her vehicle with everyone and the girls each thanked me for taking them hiking. As I made my way back to the truck, they passed by yelling "bye" and "thank you" and the smile on my face was so wide that it hurt. It was refreshing to set my personal goals aside and do something for someone else. The girls added so much to my hike by being observant and attentive even pointing out things to me by the end of the day. Hopefully they continue to enjoy the outdoors many years from now and can look back on the day "that real tall man" took them to Little Stony. Until next time, happy trails.

Monday, July 20, 2015

This summer I was given the opportunity to fill in for store managers while they took their vacations. With the new job assignment came more responsibility and a lot more window time as Ive been commuting from my home in Gray, Tennessee. The first two weeks of my substitute store manager gig took me to the town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia which is about an hour and a half drive from my house. Luckily, I still knew a few people at the store from previous trips filling in for remodels and date sweeps and it served as a reunion with one of my good friends, Josh Lawson.

Josh lived a tormented life under my guidance as his lead assistant at the St. Paul store a few years ago and I'm sure more than once, he's thought about punching me in the face. The winter months were harsh that year and he was kind enough to let me stay with him instead of risk driving the slick roads. It seems a lot of funny stories were generated from that night as well as the nearly year long stint I served in the hills of Virginia. When I left the store to be closer to home, the associates got me a card filled with various well wishes. Josh's passage still makes me smile and is true in a lot of ways, it reads, "It's hard being friends with you."
Can never be too safe.

I arrived in Big Stone Gap a week ahead of schedule and I got to work with the store manager, Paxton. There aren't many people left that don't know about my obsession with hiking and one day on lunch he offered to show me a trail that was nearby that I wasn't aware of. We jumped in my truck and drove not even a mile from the store before crossing a bridge with a large waterfall upstream. Paxton told me he had hiked there before but that it had been years ago and wasn't sure how far the trail went or what all was up the mountain. I got back to the store and started asking around and several of the employees had been hiking there with some calling the trail Laurel Branch and others calling it Roaring Branch. I found an AllTrails description that called it Roaring Branch Trail and it listed it as a seven mile round trip hike that would end near a set of rocks overlooking the valley called the High Butte Rocks. Surprisingly, it was the only info online I found of the area, making me even more interested in the hike.

I asked Josh if he wanted to join me on the trip one evening while I was working there and he agreed to go, although he looked very hesitant when I started telling him about the seven mile trip. The day of our hike was one hilarious moment after another. All day he asked me about the hike and what I thought it was going to be like, and each time I reminded him that I had never been there either. Our plan was to leave around 5pm and hit the trail but business was booming and we found ourselves still there after 6pm. I eventually snuck out to the parking lot to change and when Josh finally came out I drove over to pick him up. I asked him if he needed to change and he said no as he chucked his tie in the car and climbed in the truck. He slid on some boots and was ready to hike...in his dress pants and dress shirt. He started fumbling around on the ride over to the trail head and realized he had forgot his water. I told him not to worry that I brought extra and had brought my filter as well. The problem with the hike up Roaring Branch that you're immediately greeted with is the parking. We chose to park about two tenths of a mile back down the road at a small gravel pullout along the Powell River. Business 23 curves along the river and was surprisingly busy that afternoon. As I swung the door open to get out a car blew it's horn causing me to jump back in the truck. I decided we needed to park as close to the guardrail as possible and backed up with Josh hanging half out of the truck. When I got out I noticed a set of keys where we were parked. Josh started laughing saying he must have dropped them when we moved and that he would grab them before we left. Finally satisfied with my parking spot, I grabbed my camera, hiking stick, and cell phone. As we started down the road, I picked up Josh's keys and gave them to him to put back in the truck. He had forgot them AGAIN! I had read an article earlier in the week about the most dangerous towns in Virginia and Appalachia made the #4 spot so I left a note in my truck window that any valuables were with the seven foot tall man just up the trail. Josh called his wife telling her we were starting the hike and I glanced at my phone noting the time was 6:32pm.
The start of the steps.
Hey look, more steps!

Cars zipped by and we waited patiently for a moment to cross. We finally arrived at the actual trail and were greeted with some steep stone stairs that paralleled Roaring Branch. The stairs were steep even for me so I felt bad for Josh right away. To his credit, he stayed on my heels and carried on a good conversation as the stairs seemed to stretch on forever. My legs started burning after the hundred step mark and I was about ready to surrender after the 200th step but another ten more leveled us high above the creek and a nice waterfall. I paused for a rest and noticed Josh's face was already bright red. It's always nice to hike with new people and Josh was taking it all in. Being a father of two young boys with a little girl on the way, his free time is at an absolute premium and with him being a father, I ensured him that if he died on the hike, I would die with him. I think he believed me.
Large waterfall on Roaring Branch.
and more steps! #$@*!

Roaring Branch was impressive already. We had passed at least four waterfalls and thick bright green moss lined the trail as we continued the gradual climb. I had read the trail was home to one of the last remaining old growth forests with the giant hemlocks that remained in the state but storms and damage from the Wolly Algedid had leveled the giants and Josh and I were slowed to a crawl. When I say crawl, I mean literal crawl. I laid on my stomach sliding under some of the fallen trees thinking how terrible it would be to meet a rattlesnake. Each time we had to work through the downfall I would wait for Josh and I noticed his dress clothes got progressively dirtier. The trail didn't let up with the challenges along the way as I had to hike bent over for long stretches working through tunnels of laurel. Sometimes it would get so thick that I had to really stop and look to see where we could continue. As we climbed higher and over some tricky creek crossings. Roaring Branch began to grow smaller. We crossed some ridges and entered into some swamps with logs strung across them as makeshift bridges. I was in love with the hike, the challenge of always having to be sure of each step is intense and rewarding. Josh started fading but his spirits stayed high. I would get out of sight but would wait for him to make sight of me before entering any downfall or laurel tangles.
This was tough and there were several stretches like this.
Swamp area along the trail.

Suddenly the trail vanished. Gone as if it were never there at all. As I looked for blazes or boot prints Josh caught up and seemed to agree that the trail had ended. A large dead tree spanned a murky tributary of Roaring Branch. I balanced myself and walked it's length noticing a pocket knife stuck in it's trunk. All the rain had the small stream swollen hiding the trail on the opposite side but we were lucky enough to sniff it out. As a reward for my efforts, I stuck the pocket knife in my pocket. (I'll gladly give it back if you read this and lost it here!) I noticed Josh struggling to find his balance on the other side and tossed him my hiking stick. It was the last time I would use it for the rest of the hike. I had foolishly thought they might have been wrong with the mileage of seven miles early in the hike but as we continued to push on and under more brush I looked to see that it was 7:30pm. I knew we would have to turn around by 8pm to save daylight so I hiked as hard as I could, jogging at times to try to see anything that would give me hope. The trail had swung away from Roaring Branch but had now came back into the valley near the head waters and I noticed a finger sized hole with water gushing out giving birth to the mighty stream we had hiked beside of. It takes a lot to impress me any more but hiking the entire length of a creek was a pretty cool moment and I waited to show it to Josh when he closed in on me. He told me his legs were on fire and asked what I thought. I told him my plan to turn back by 8pm and I jogged on arriving at the top of the mountain. I ran reaching level ground and followed the ridge but it turned and started heading downhill into more laurel hells and I decided not to push our luck. I'm not used to not reaching my goal while hiking but the experience and challenge of our small time window made me appreciate how far we had come. I estimated it at over six miles falling around half a mile short of the overlook. I looked at my screenshot of the trail overlayed on Google earth and could verify we were shortly over six miles by the time we hiked back. I continued to run finding Josh bent over holding his knees on the steep grade coming to the top of the mountain and told him what I had seen. I've hiked with a lot of people this year but I haven't been more proud of anyone's efforts than Josh. He had gave everything he had in the tank and actually helped me by staying positive the entire hike. I told him we were in a race against nightfall now and we would have to stay swift to get out before dark. We found a  new gear with the downhill grade and left the upper portions of the trail in our wake. A few times we got off course in the laurel tangle before retracing our steps and finding a blaze again but for the most part we made the hike in the dark look pretty easy.
Some stayed and some sunk. One of the most fun guessing games I've been a part of.
small mushroom busting through.
Beside a downed Hemlock.
Tree branch fossil.
The look of exhaustion and elation all rolled into one.

When we reached one of the last creek crossings we both were out of water. I got out my filter and let Josh use it first. He filled his bottle and chugged it marveling at how wonderful the filter worked! I took my turn and as I bent over to use the filter, I went blind! The blood rushing to my head I got so dizzy I staggered around until I could see again. I had almost blacked out! Josh and I laughed at my crazy dance moves but it would have been hard for him to get me out if I had went down for good. My legs started wearing down with about a mile left and the sun faded completely from the sky. Darkness closed in around us and we relied on each other as spotters to negotiate the 200 stairs that lowered us to the trail head. When I stepped onto the pavement along the highway I waited on Josh to join me giving him a bear hug in celebration. Both of us were filthy and soaked with sweat but we laughed and joked as we staggered back to the truck. We decided to stop back at the store for a snack before calling it a night and we received some crazy looks when we waked in. I had blood dripping from both legs and my torso was covered in mud. Josh couldn't have been any dirtier if you had threw him in a pigpen. The next morning Josh told his version of the hike on his facebook page and I beamed with pride as I read the story. One of the things that stood out the most was his final sentence, "it's a memory I will never forget." Until next time, happy trails.
Went back the following evening to shoot the waterfall with my good camera and use the tripod.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

At 11:30pm Wednesday night I sat along Interstate 81 in my truck reading a news article on my phone so unbelievable I had to read it twice. The man I had met earlier was the real deal.

When I started vacation last Saturday I planned on hiking to the summit of Mt. Rogers. The mountain has the distinction of being Virginia's highest peak and even though there are no views from the top, I had been itching to hike there for quite some time. I usually hike with my buddy Shane on the weekends but was able to talk him into finding an evening during the week to go with me since he had been a few times before.
Blooming bush along the trail leaving the parking lot at Massie Gap.
The Appalachian Trail leaving the Rhododendron Trail.

Our original plan was to go on Tuesday but threatening storms and Shane's schedule conflicted so we settled on Wednesday. The forecast wasn't looking the best with more storms in the forecast but I was determined to hike and packed my rain gear just in case. I had several errands to run that morning and a host of problems seem to greet me at every turn. Somehow I managed to get to the parking lot in Abingdon by 3:30pm, our agreed meeting time. When I didn't see Shane sitting there waiting on me I became a little concerned as he is usually the early one. When he finally came roaring into the lot at a little before four, the look on his face told me his day had been stressful as well. I tossed my gear in his truck and we were back on the road heading toward Damascus. I usually drive on our trips so getting to be the passenger was good for me to enjoy the scenery and settle into story telling unwinding from the days stress. Shane told me at one point he thought he may not get to come and was going to tell me to just go on without him, but as the drive went on we both got in better moods anticipating a fun hike.

The road to Grayson Highlands from Damascus is narrow and curvy and only a short distance in we found ourselves stuck behind a slow driver. The skies overhead grew increasingly threatening with several distinct thunderheads hovering over the mountains. I told Shane not to worry that with our pace we could easily knock out the four miles between the showers. Shane had  a puzzled look on his face saying, "Four miles? Jason, it's EIGHT miles!" My mind started racing as I glanced at the clock on the dash seeing that it was now a few minutes until 5pm, and we still were a long way away.
One of the pony foals near Wilburn Ridge.
Another foal near Wilburn Ridge.

We finally got rid of the slow driver on our turn toward Whitetop Mountain but we still had to stop and get some snacks and change to have some cash to pay to get in at the park. By the time we reached the park entrance it was going on 6pm and we were the third car in line. The driver of a truck at the pay window didn't seem to be in any hurry either having a map unfurled pointing at it as he questioned the attendant. My patience was wearing thin and it took everything in me not to reach over and blow the horn. It's a short drive up to Massie Gap and both Shane and I were excited to see there only a few cars at the parking area. We were in such a hurry that Shane had decided to change out of his work clothes when we arrived and I worked on getting all my gear rounded up for the eight mile race against sunset.
Looking back over the rocky path that makes up the Wilburn Ridge Spur Trail.
Shane reaching the top of one of the rock outcrops of Wilburn Ridge.
Gopro shot from Wilburn Ridge.
One of the few times I got to use my real camera. Wilburn Ridge from the Canon Rebel.

Suddenly, a stranger's voice said, "Can you guys do an old hiker a favor?" My first thought was 'how annoying' we were already pressed for time and now someone was asking for a favor we didn't know. I listened on and off as I continued stuffing my pack making sure I had enough water for the trip. The hiker told Shane he had originally planned to hike to Fox Creek where his wife was to pick him up but found the trail to be too difficult and couldn't make it before dark. He couldn't get service to contact her and asked Shane if he could try to use his phone to reach her. Shane happily agreed and was able to send a text and leave a voice mail. The hiker introduced himself as Enoch with Shane asking, "from the Bible?" Enoch said, "yes, that's my trail name!" Shane asked how far he had hiked that day and when he answered. "23 miles" he had my full attention. They continued talking with Enoch telling him what a spiritual journey the trail had been so far and asked him how far he had planned on hiking, and when Enoch answered, "all the way" I now stood in awe. Enoch wasn't a very tall man and looked to be in sixties but here he was hiking the Appalachian Trail. I finally butted into the conversation introducing myself as Dozer, which is my trail name. Enoch said he could see why they would call me that and I asked him more about his hike. He told me that his brother had fell ill with  Parkinson's Disease five years earlier and the medical burden and heartache on his family led him to trying this hike to raise awareness and money for Parkinson's Research! It was if someone had took a hot iron poker through my heart since my family is going through the exact same thing with my Uncle John. I grabbed my wallet and handed him a ten dollar bill with Enoch waving it in the air exclaiming, "THIS matters!" He told me that he had been sponsored for a hundred dollars a mile and so far had raised $35,000 dollars. I almost fell over....35 THOUSAND dollars! Shane felt better about Enoch being reunited with his wife if he went to the ranger station at the bottom of the mountain. He flagged down another hiker and told him that Enoch needed some help and asked him to give him a ride. He seemed a little reluctant but Shane told him, "this man has a great story and is doing big things" and the hiker agreed to take him telling him to grab his stuff. Enoch ran over grabbing his pack and hollered to Shane as we set off down the trail, "Thanks, you guys are my trail angels."
Enoch aka Don Havener. Please see the link later in the blog to read his whole story.

Despite the lost time with Enoch I didn't care. Our visit with him had moved me in a way that I can't fully express and made it clear that all the delays and frustrations of my day where meant to be, I was meant to meet Enoch. Both Shane and I were on an emotional high and our legs showed it. easily obliterating the first mile toward Wilburn Ridge. We passed a hiker who told us about a group of ponies and foals up ahead across the ridge.  I ran on ahead of Shane who had called home to tell his wife the story of Enoch and when I popped across the ridge I found a group of around fifteen ponies. I quickly snapped some pictures with Shane catching up and taking a few of his own. I probably could have stayed there the rest of the evening but he reminded me we needed to keep moving since we were about thirty minutes behind.
Shane's panoramic shot of me on Wilburn Ridge.
Coming off Wilburn Ridge to more fantastic views.

From the Rhododendron Trail the beginnings of Wilburn Ridge were as far as I had ever hiked. It only took  a few minutes on the Wilburn Ridge Spur Trail for me to realize my mistake. The rocky pass lifted us high above the surrounding mountains giving us some of the best 360 views I had ever seen. Shane kept our pace fast and each time I stopped for a picture he would vanish across another set of boulders. When I would catch up he would remind me of our time constraints and take off again, increasing the pace each time.

It was a role reversal for him that I'm sure took some getting used to. Normally I'm the guide taking him to some of my favorite places and my reactions to all the new scenery had him grinning from ear to ear. The blue blazed trail was a challenge with lots of scrambling across uneven boulders. I took pictures as fast as I could while trying to keep sight of Shane. Being behind we avoided the second section of Wilburn Ridge and rejoined the Appalachian Trail passing through an area known as Fat Man's Squeeze, a narrow pass through some rock formations that popped us out to more stunning scenery. We were only two miles in, and I had proclaimed it as the best part of the Appalachian Trail with all the variety so far.
Shane at the entrance of Fat Man's Squeeze.
Inside of Fat Man's Squeeze.

When we finally left the rocky outcrops the views were no less spectacular. I could see deep into Virginia and North Carolina and recognized several peaks on the horizon. Both the Roan Highlands and Grandfather Mountain were visible and I cringed thinking about how crowded they probably where as Shane and I were alone the majority of our hike so far. We encountered another group of ponies and the distant views behind them made for some more wonderful pictures. Soon we entered into the Lewis Fork Wilderness and the trail winds through some pine forests and large dead trees haunt both sides of the trail. The AT passes between two huge boulders that perfectly frame Mt. Rogers and Shane looked back at me saying, 'THIS is your sunset spot." I agreed but looked nervously over to Mt. Rogers thinking we still had a long way to go!
More long views.
Grandfather Mountain and Roan Highlands from the Appalachian Trail.

The trail mercifully levels and I was able to close up on Shane's heels. A short distance later we came into a clearing at a shelter and found some hikers preparing dinner at a picnic table. We visited with them briefly before tearing off again knowing we were closing on the summit spur trail. Sure enough, within five minutes we found the small sign and spur trail with Shane taking the lead pushing me to keep up. We passed  through blooming blackberry bushes and started seeing the old growth forests ahead.
Mt. Rogers Spur Trail.
Entering the old growth forest.

Nothing could really prepare for me the scenery in the forest. Thick green carpets of moss covered everything and knee high ferns lined the trail. The occasionally peeks through but only in bright rays and I started to really hate myself for not carrying a tripod. When I caught Shane he was stopped on some rock stairs and let me take the lead cluing me in that we must be close to the summit. I wound up the steps almost circling back on myself arriving at a rock jutting into the air and the survey marker indicating the highest point in the state of Virginia. I had worked so hard to be here I almost knelt unknowingly and kissed the marker in celebration. Shane and I both posed for a few pictures and I made sure to get one of our hiking sticks next to the marker since Uncle Jim had made them for me and I wanted him to be part of our celebration, if only in spirit.
Shane leading the way toward the summit.
A woodbooger finally captured on film.
The celebration of the summit.
Shane on Virginia's highest point.
The tallest man in Virginia on it's tallest peak.

Having succeeded on one half of our mission, I found new energy and both Shane and I continued the fast pace as we raced the sun back to the rocks near Wilburn Ridge. I looked at my watch as we passed the spur trail sign noting that it was ten minutes til eight. I pushed myself as hard as I could realizing the sunset would be within the hour and when I made it back to our rock it was only 8:15! The sun was already beginning to streak some color in the sky. Unfortunately some other sunset hikers had arrived but I was able to get several good shots before deciding to climb higher along the cliffs to a rock with  Shane to watch the sun fade from the Heavens. I celebrated with a granola bar and some water before deciding the sun had ran it's course and packed to head out as darkness started surrounding us.
Mt. Rogers framed at Sunset.
Mt. Rogers from a rock outcrop near Wilburn Ridge
Shane was an excellent guide and picked a great spot for sunset.
Mt. Rogers shot with the Canon Rebel.
Appalachian Trail toward Mt. Rogers. Shot with the Canon Rebel.

Hiking back was no less of an adventure. We passed another group of ponies and a small foal approached Shane for some scratches. I took a few pictures before deciding I wanted one of me petting it as well. When I attempted to scratch it's head it latched onto my finger causing Shane to erupt with laughter. I shook free only to have another foal approach and steal the button off of my cargo shorts pocket. My turn to laugh came only a few minutes later after Shane said he had never seen a snake although it looked like a prime habitat for one. Just as he finished saying it, he stepped on one unleashing a hilarious dance as the snake retreated into some tall grass out of sight. The snake served as a blessing to me as it slowed Shane's pace as he watched the ground the rest of the way back.
Shane's friend.
My enemy.
My finger!

The park closed at 10pm and we made it back to the truck with 10 minutes to spare. The drive home was no less entertaining with wildlife popping out of the woods everywhere. Some of the highlights were two foxes and a doe with a very small fawn. Shane was so pumped about our day that he blazed by where my truck was parked before realizing the mistake a few miles down the road. He dropped me off at 11pm and we said our goodbyes agreeing it had been our finest overall hike. I lingered in the parking lot after he left for a few minutes to look through my pictures being too excited to wait for when I got home. Once I got on the interstate my phone buzzed with a text from Shane. It was a link to a news article about a 76 year old Ohio man who was attempting the Appalachian Trail to raise money for Parkinson's Research.  Our friend Enoch aka Don Havener, was indeed, the real deal. To read the entire article please visit here: http://weeklyvillager.com/garrettsville-man-takes-epic-journey-along-appalachian-trail-for-parkinson-research/

There are several records being attempted this year on the Appalachian Trail with Scott Jurek's speed attempt and a double amputee to name a few. Both of them have gained national media attention while Enoch marches on through the highlands a virtual unknown with a purpose. When news crews finally catch up to him somewhere along the way he may tell them the story of the day he was reunited with his wife only hours before their 55th wedding anniversary by two trail angels. Until next time, happy trails.