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 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.

No comments:

Post a Comment