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.