Thursday, January 22, 2015

To date, 2014 was my most successful year of hiking. I logged just shy of 400 miles, visited over 150 waterfalls, and spent my first  night camping in 20 years. I balanced that with being married and having a salaried position with my job. What I'm getting at is, I hate sitting still.
Ready for some hiking! John, Thomas, Lincoln, and Halley.
Appalachian Trail to Charlie's Bunion.
One of the few pictures of Amber from that day. Photo by John Forbes.
Looking into North Carolina you can see Highway 441 coming up the mountain.

Sitting still has been all I've done since Sunday. While hiking back from Buckeye Falls I sprained my ankle. A doctor's visit on Tuesday revealed torn ligaments and several weeks off the trails. As disappointing as it was to hear, I immediately started thinking about all the blogs I needed to catch up on and how this was the perfect opportunity to get them done.
Halley pouting at our Bromance. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
John and Thomas taking in the view.
Laughs aplenty!

All my accomplishments last year just left me even hungrier in 2015. Of course I've had plenty of folks that joined me on the trail last year to make it such a memorable experience and we decided to round up some of our troop for a new years day hike to start the year off right. After several ideas were tossed around we settled on hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains, America's most visited national park. We wanted a long hike but with a nice payoff for when we got there and there's few I could think of better than Charlie's Bunion.
Me and Old Man Winter (Jeff)
Helping keep Lincoln motivated. Photo by Halley Burleson.
The long and short of it. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

Charlie's Bunion is four miles from anything, so it helps eliminate some of the tourist and overlook hikers that we've come to despise so much in our travels. The morning of the hike it was hard for me to get motivated and out of bed. Amber and I had went out with friends the night before to ring in the new year and we didn't stop ringing it in until 2am. The two hour drive to the Smokies would do little to help me get woke up.

Amber was feeling the night before worse than me, being sick the majority of the night, but when the alarm went off at 6am she was quick to start getting packed although I could tell it was going to be a long day for her. We met Jeff Forrester at his house in Rock Springs and John Forbes was there ready to carpool as well. We all loaded into Jeff's CRV and were off to meet the others at the Newfound Gap parking area on top of the mountain straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border. The ride down was filled with laughter and stories from the night before, each one turning Amber a deeper shade of green. When we started getting close to the Pigeon Forge the party traffic from the previous night really started picking up. Even further slowing our progress was a light frost the night before had cars crawling up the mountain with every pull off filled to the brim with people shooting the snowy scene with their cell phones. Inevitably we got stuck behind a car from Florida who refused to pull over or drive above 20mph.
AT entering one of my favorite stretches of the hike. DOWNHILL!
Trail intersection closing in on Charlie!
Cause were the three best friends that anyone could have...

When we finally arrived at the parking area on top of the mountain it was completely packed as well. We were able to squeeze in a space near the trail head and I jumped out looking for the rest of our party. On the far end of the lot I found Thomas Mabry in his trademark orange shirt ready to hike. Across from him was Halley and Lincoln gathering their packs for the day ahead. After Halley gave me some slack about being late we were off to the races and a day with Charlie.

Amber was still feeling awful but the first uphill mile she hung tough and actually ahead of the majority of our group. When we stopped for a rest near an icy section of trail she decided it was going to be too much for her to continue and took Jeff's keys and retreated back to the parking lot. I was sad she was going to miss seeing the Bunion but I knew she was making the right decision with how bad she felt. Thomas being the life of the party helped everyone forget about the gradual three mile uphill march and we encountered many other hikers along the way. As each hiker approached, I was quick to ask them if they had been to the Bunion but none of the first few groups even spoke English! Apparently the Americans were still nursing their hangovers!
Poor Jeff. He just didn't realize what he was getting into!
Icewater Spring Shelter.
Inside the shelter. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Halley had to be in one. Shot with the Gopro.
Long views from the front of the Icewater Springs Shelter.

The trail itself is beautiful and I found that I was stopping at every chance to take pictures. There's several lookouts along the way and it rested our legs while we could see far into the North Carolina side of the park. For Jeff it was his third trip but he never passes an opportunity to hike in the Smokies, we've had some memorable times on the trails here so I was sure this day would be no different. John and Thomas stuck together and were laughing wildly. I couldn't help but laugh when we passed other hikers and Thomas would say something crazy just to get a reaction and it always seemed to work. Halley and Lincoln were always hot on our heels and I was impressed with how far his trail legs had came in a short time since he wasn't typically a big time hiker. As we hiked on my only worry was how Amber was doing and if we would face a crowd when we finally reached the Bunion. I noticed someone's phone beep meaning we had service so I text her and she let me know she had made it to the car and was safe. With that worry off my mind, I was ready to have a truly good time!

The three mile uphill pull finally ceased past a trail intersection and we entered a flat section through an old growth forest. I remembered it from my first trip and really savored being able to be back again. Soon we arrived at the spur to the Icewater Spring Shelter and took a break there. We posed for some pictures and had a snack or two but we're soon hiking again when Amber text me saying she had passed over 60 people hiking in.
Snow within a mile of Charlie's Bunion.
Mt. LeConte from Charlie's Bunion.

The news of the crowds approaching hiking pace ablaze. The final mile to the Bunion is surprisingly downhill. I was so focused on getting there I left the rest of my group in the dust. I didn't notice it until I stopped to talk to two hikers leaving asking them how many people were at the bunion. When they told me nine people my heart sunk a little, it's such a small rock and I couldn't imagine having room on it with that many people. As I drew closer I passed a group of three people leaving then two more so I knew there were only four people left. When the bunion came into view I could see a person in a white jacket sitting on top but no one else. I still was a twenty minute walk away so I hoped they would be gone when I got there, but when I reached the narrow path that swings over to the bunion there was old white coat still sitting there. At the base of the rock were three other hikers who had passed us earlier on the trail.
Before the crew arrived I got the shot I had been thinking about since my wife got me the Gopro.
The crew on the Bunion AND the last known picture of Thomas' hiking stick!
Jeff leaning out taking pictures from Charlie's Bunion.

The wind was pretty rough so it was keeping people from climbing on the furthest rock out on the bunion. The problem was the guy in the white coat had sprawled out a blanket and was eating lunch keeping anyone from getting to that spot. I fooled around for a few minutes taking pictures of the distant views and when I realized he wasn't going to budge I simply climbed over his picnic, well through it really, out onto the rock I had been thinking about the whole hike. I wasn't alone at the bunion but I was at least going to have some pictures with no one else in them! It was here I realized the true value of my Gopro as I was able to capture the entire area around me with its super wide angle lens. I also noticed how far I had come with my fear of heights, on either side of the rock were several hundred foot drops, the wind gusts were sudden, and small ice patches were everywhere but it didn't bother me, I was cured.
Lincoln and I laughing when we spotted Thomas' hiking stick. Photo by Thomas Mabry.
Obviously Thomas was upset. Photo by Halley Burleson.
High above the noise.
Thomas Mabry's shot of Mt. LeConte from the Bunion.

When I snapped out of my bliss, I noticed the rest of my hiking clan arriving at the rock. Picnic boy still stayed perched and not speaking but Thomas, John, Jeff, and Lincoln all climbed out to join me. Halley took some pictures of us on the rock from the main trail (which we still haven't seen!) and then climbed over to join us. We all huddled on the rock for a Gopro group picture and when we finished I told them we should get out of the way of other hikers that might want to take some pictures. As I was climbing back across I heard a hiking stick bouncing from the cliff sides. I was almost afraid to look but turned to see Thomas staring off the ledge in the direction of the noise. He looked at the rest of the group and said, "Badger error!" I lost it I laughed so hard. A hiking stick he had used for five years was now sacrificed to the trail gods.  Lincoln spotted it standing upright leaned against the cliff about 50 yards below us tempting to retrieve, but Thomas put it best, "it's like dropping your keys in lava man, they're gone."
John looking up at Halley from WAY down on the Bunion. Photo by John Forbes.
John at the point of no return on the Bunion. That is a LONG way down. Photo by John Forbes.

After Thomas' stick blunder we retreated back to the main trail. Hoards of new hikers were arriving making it tight for everyone around the rock. John had vanished as he had climbed far down onto the bunion out of sight of everyone there for some solitude and killer views. During this time I noticed a sketchy path climbing higher onto some rocks above us. I pointed it out to Thomas and Halley and they both were quick to take off up the cliff. I was right behind them and when I made it to the top I was so thankful we went up. We were now fifty feet above the crowds of people and could shoot pictures with no one in our way. We could see John way down the bunion below and when he spotted us he made his way over to join us. Being on this ledge with my friends was one of the best parts of the day for me! It was getting late and Amber was waiting on us four miles away, Halley and I climbed down as John and Thomas took a higher route and vanished out of sight. We started hiking out and passed a group of hikers coming from another side trail when Halley asked them if they'd seen a guy with a crazy beard all they said was "yeah, he's coming."
The way up. Photo by John Forbes.
Here I come to the top! Photo by Thomas Mabry.
John thinking about jumping. Photo by Halley Burleson.
The trio at Charlie's Bunion. Photo by Thomas Mabry.

John and Thomas caught up and that nice downhill mile from earlier  was now staring us in the face on the climb out. We took our time and rested occasionally and before we knew it we were back on level ground. We caught group after group of hikers and Thomas was quick to share a "badgerism" or two with each one. Seeing how uncomfortable it made some of their faces brought such joy to my heart. As we neared the final mile of hiking the frozen ground from early that morning had thawed and was now soupy mud. Hiking came to a stand still as groups of hikers had slowed to a snails pace trying to avoid the mess. I was quickly reminded of how bad I hated the smokies just for this reason. John pointed out a comedy of errors in footwear choices during our delay. From loafers to Ugg boots, from flats to cowboy boots, it was obvious some people weren't meant to be here and they would most likely get to eat some dirt before they could escape.
Great picture of Jeff on the Bunion by Thomas Mabry.
Thomas scaling the cliff. Photo by John Forbes.
The Usual Suspects. Photo by Halley Burleson.
Beware of gnome!

When we reached the car I found Amber to be alert and much better shape than when we parted ways. She told us of seeing people hike up the trail and come back a few minutes later coated in mud from a fall. She had been entertained for hours watching all of it go down. Everyone was starving so we agreed to head over to the Apple Barn for dinner except for Thomas who kept saying something about a hot tub but we'll save that for another entry. Until next time, happy trails!

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