Thursday, September 17, 2015

Last Saturday I actually went on a peaceful relaxing hike. I hate to disappoint my readers who always anticipate some crazy twist or near death experience; but believe me, it was exactly what I needed. My original plan was to go solo on a short hike and recover some from the beating I took in the Linville Gorge the previous Wednesday but when Shane called letting me know he was available to do some hiking, everything changed.

The day begins.

Shane leading the way toward Damascus.
For several months we had been looking at a hike from Low Gap near Shady Valley, Tennessee into Damascus, Virginia. Our research showed that the hike had very little elevation change and stretched for nearly 15 miles. Shane has been out of town on work assignment and our hiking time has been very limited since it began so the thoughts of knocking out a long hike had me ready to roll although my body was still a little wore down from Wednesday's trip. The only decision we really had to make was on which end of the hike to start. Shane hinted at starting the hike in Damascus and ending at Low Gap but I read that the brewery in Damascus was opening early that day and I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate a long hike than by having a nice craft beer. Shane mercifully agreed, and I met him in Damascus early Saturday morning for the ride over to Low Gap.

For whatever reason, I've never traveled from Damascus toward Low Gap by foot or by car and as we passed through Backbone Rock and the scenic countryside I was kicking myself for not doing it sooner. At the intersection in Shady Valley, it's a short winding road to the top of the mountain and we found we had the gravel parking area to ourselves. As I stepped out of the truck I was stuck by a very cool mountain air, a stark contrast of the temperatures that had almost melted me a few days earlier. Shane was a ball of energy and took the lead as the first section of trail gradually climbed along the spine of the ridge. I've always found the first mile the hardest especially after riding for a while. Both Shane and I broke a sweat a short distance in and were breathing hard when the trail finally leveled out for a stretch. The level walking eased the burn and our conversation flowed after barely seeing one another for a few months. The constant breeze was a wonderful bonus and we started finding our normal pace as the miles began to fall in our wake.
Shane wading through the wildflowers.
One of the large old growth trees along the trail.
Shane scales the size of this fallen giant.

The cool air was a benefit to our hike but a sad reminder the summer was fading and several leaves were beginning to turn as we continued on. Occasionally, I found a nice mushroom or large old tree to stop for pictures and Shane waited patiently while I worked to get just the right angle. The trail stayed level and easy and we had limited views of the valleys below through the leaves. We found another small climb ahead of us and when it leveled we noticed the remains of an old fire tower. The open canopy around it was a dead giveaway and we both paused remarking of what a great view it once was.

On a slight downhill grade from the tower I noticed a tiny wooden shelter off to the side of the trail. I mistook it for an Appalachian Trail shelter but Shane corrected me saying it was the old emergency shelter. There was a tiny sleep mat inside and I sized it up by crawling in. I quickly decided that I would have no trouble sleeping there. We continued hiking and I noticed someone coming in our direction. It was an elderly man but he was moving at a strong pace. When we met, he was quick to greet us and we shared a few minutes talking, telling us that he was from Mississippi and every year he hikes for a few weeks while he pays for his wife to go on a cruise. The man clearly had life figured out. He told us we hardly had any uphill hiking left at all and that the trail was "like a damn interstate" into Damascus. The good news had me excited about settling into a brew once we reached town and Shane revealed that he had brought his custom mug he had purchased there a few weeks earlier. I recounted the story of Linville and Shane cautioned me to avoid the long solo hikes in the future since it leaves so much room for something to go wrong. He did however find it quite amusing that I was forced to drink sweaty hat water to keep moving and commended me on having the presence of mind to do whatever it took to get out of the dangerous situation.
Shane at the emergency shelter near the old fire tower site.
Only the second time I've seen this fungus.

A few uneventful miles went by before we arrived at the nicest Appalachian Trail shelter I've ever seen. The Abingdon Gap Shelter lies in a beautiful saddle in the ridge and is surrounded by campsites that scream to me to return with a tent. We stopped in the shelter to have a snack and read over the trail journals when I noticed a separate bag in the back corner of the structure. Inside the bag, I found a dri-fit shirt, batteries, and an energy drink. Someone had left trail magic for a fellow hiker! The shelters walls are littered with various quotes and hiker trail names. We noticed one that we had found on the Iron Mountain Shelter a few months back that I found particularly poetic, it read: "Go everywhere, question everything, fear nothing." I literally had to force myself to get up and hike again the area was so peaceful. The trail had stayed on the ridge the majority of the hike but as it leaves Abingdon Gap it swings to the right side of the mountain and travels through tunnels of laurel and a much different landscape from what we had been traveling. Fresh off encountering two bears after dark in Linville, our mindless hiking was brought back to reality when we found fresh bear scat in the middle of the trail. When I say fresh, it couldn't have been more than a few minutes old with steam still rising off of it. It's scary to think how large the bear could have been and how easily it had vanished. Despite the danger, we spent several minutes scouring the area looking for the animal in hopes for at least a picture. Shane had to remind me that the brewery would be open in an hour and a half to regain my focus and keep hiking. We crossed an old forest road and seen another hiker approaching the trail from down the mountain as we kept moving. Shane told me of how he used to hunt the area and after finding the trail to be so close to where he was stalking animals with a loaded gun decided to find somewhere else to do his hunting.
Abingdon Gap Shelter.
The trail seemingly splits but the left fork heads to more campsites near the shelter.
Another strange mushroom.

Our friend from Mississippi had told us the majority of the climbing was over but after about the third stretch of uphill hiking since we encountered him, I began to question his memory. Shane said we would soon be arriving in Virginia and there was a sign for a photo op when you cross into the state. Another group of hikers came trudging up the mountain in our direction and the man in the front had the strangest expression on his face when he saw Shane walking toward him. He exclaimed, "How did you get on the other side of me?!" I was unsure what was going on as well, and Shane explained he had met the hikers in Damascus while waiting on me. They had been having trouble finding the trail up from town and Shane had pointed them in the right direction. They told us they had walked over to some apartments where two women were smoking on a porch step. When they asked the ladies where the trail was one of them paused from her smoking long enough to tell them, "The trail is everywhere." Either she was extremely enlightened, or those weren't cigarettes.

The trail has miles of flat stretches like this.

A purple mushroom that Shane spotted.
Just as Shane had predicted, I spotted a wooden sign on the left of the trail ahead of us. The Tennessee/Virginia State Line sign was a welcome rest spot and I took the time to use the Gopro for our group shot of the day. The sign indicated we only had 3.5 to Damascus and one hour until the brewery opened. The challenge was laid out and we pushed ourselves as the trail began a long downhill grade toward Damascus. After the first mile of stiff downhill hiking, I told Shane how thankful I was we weren't heading in the opposite direction and he agreed, we would have ran out of time with as much climbing as we would have faced. We passed several groups of hikers and even caught others as we continued downhill. Shane made a point that I have never noticed before he mentioned it, we catch many groups of hikers on our trips but have yet to be caught by anyone else. Soon we heard the familiar sounds of civilization, lawnmowers and chainsaws far below and a distant motorcycle heading toward the highlands. Within the hour we had went to high on the mountain to being able to identify people standing in their yards as we hit the finial switchbacks leading into town.
Bear scat. FRESH bear scat.
The state line welcome sign.

After popping out of the woods just over an hour after we left the state line sign, the trail led us through someone's front yard and down a road circling back to the park and where my truck was parked. A large wooden sign hangs over the trail welcoming hikers to the town of Damascus and I paused to let Shane take my picture. We found the comfortable temperatures we enjoyed during the hike were gone as we had left them high on the mountain. It was a short humid hike back to the truck. A five minute drive across town had us pulling into Damascus Brewery. It's built in what looks like a metal garage building but the inside is very inviting. We found a spot at the bar and wasted little time picking out our brews. We thumbed through the Thru Hiker Yearbook and visited with the brew master. I was jealous of Shane's nice cup and ended up buying one of my own and before I realized it another hour had passed and it was time for us to head our separate ways.
Arrival in Damascus.
Inside the brewery.

I left Shane at the gravel lot at Low Gap and chose a different route home traveling down highway 421 and across South Holston Lake. The drive was relaxing and beautiful and I couldn't help but think of my wilder days and some crazy times in Bristol as the road refreshed my memory. In only five hours, we had hiked almost fifteen miles and had one of the most enjoyable hikes of the year. I had a new cup, a camera full of pictures, and a blog to write; but first there was some football to watch! Until next time, happy trails.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The night before a hike is always so hectic for me. From charging equipment and cleaning memory cards to reading trail reports or even making a last minute destination decision, it seems I always have something going on. The beautiful thing about Yesterday's hike was the destination was decided very easily. After a ten day absence from the trail I knew I wanted a hike to have a good distance with a rewarding payoff and I couldn't think of anywhere more fitting than the Linville Gorge.

The Linville Gorge is a designated wilderness area and signs are few and far between. I've made several trips to Hawksbill, Table Rock, and of course, Linville Falls, but have never really trudged too far into its vast expanse. While researching the trip, I found a picture of a sign near the Table Rock parking area that read: "Shortoff Mountain 5.6 miles." Since I had never been to Shortoff I thought I would do an out-and-back hike making for a nice 11.2 mile day.

I don't know if it's stubbornness or the expense of it but I haven't upgraded my camera bag since I bought it a few years back. The problem with my bag is it can barely hold my camera and the three lenses I like to take with me. I'm lucky to cram a Clif Bar or a Nutella to Go in the small pouch at the top, and there's no room for extra water at all. I carry my water in an over-the-shoulder sling 1.5 liter insulated bottle. I knew that I would need more water so I would carry a liter in my hand and take my filter to refill the bottles at the two sources on Shortoff Mountain that I had read about. Shortoff has a high elevation pond and a spring tree with a small spring bubbling to life beneath it's roots, so my water problem was solved. Amber knew she could do little to change my mind about the solo hike but did offer that she had heard that the weather would be close to 90 degrees, so I made sure to pack sun screen and my wide brimmed hat. I was prepared for the gorge, or so I thought...
The start of the hike.

The drive to North Carolina is an enjoyable one and I always admire the views of the mountain along the way. I drove through Roan Mountain and couldn't help but glance up and think about Amy and I's march through the highlands a few weeks earlier. That hike was 15 miles and we did it with relative ease, so I wasn't overly concerned with my gorge hike being four miles shorter. The road to reach Table Rock is gravel and just before you reach it's summit it narrows to a paved, one lane, curvy goat trail. I white knuckle the steering wheel hoping I won't have to try to pass someone before reaching the parking lot. The fact that a road exists at all is impressive and the level lot is almost hidden from any view other than while standing in it. The parking lot wasn't too crowded and had a few other cars and some passenger vans from guide groups.
Leaving Table Rock parking lot.

My body being rested from a week and a half off, I decided to add two miles to my itinerary and summit Table Rock. The first thing I noticed when I got out of my truck was the heat. It wasn't the normal "man, it's hot out here" heat but similar to the feeling when you open the oven door to check a casserole. Even the wind was warm, which was unsettling but still didn't stop me from heading up the trail. I encountered some hikers returning from the top who agreed with my assessment of the temperature telling me how hot it had been on top of the rocks at the summit. A short distance in I was thirsty but I clutched to my water knowing how valuable it would be with the heat and I wasn't sure what to expect on the Shortoff side of the hike. I made it to the summit and found the views to be as spectacular as I remembered and noticed that the sky grew increasingly darker with gathering clouds. I knew there would most likely be a pop up storm so I hurriedly hiked back down to head to Shortoff.  Have I mentioned it was really hot?

Across the parking lot, I found the wooden sign that had sparked my idea and hit the trail up some steps just past some public restrooms. A large campsite full of people was just ahead of me and they waved as I passed by continuing to climb. I glanced at my watch noting the time at 12:38pm. I was a little upset with myself for such a late start and the afternoon temps were reminding me of my mistake with each step.  The first half mile is wooded but soon the trail arrives at the Chimneys and it seems you've arrived on another planet altogether. The shade I had enjoyed was now gone, the fire at Table Rock a few years back had left nothing but small shrubs and a punishing sun beating down on me as I negotiated some rock stairs. Towering rock cliffs and wind worn rocks dominate the area and the Mountains to Sea Trail hugs the rim of the gorge in some of the more hair raising stretches of hiking that I've done. It was here I met a group of rock climbers and they asked me of my plans for the day. A female in the group seemed concerned and warned me the pond on Shortoff could be dry since it hadn't rained a lot in the last few weeks, but reassured me the spring tree had never been dry to her knowledge. As I walked away she said, "Good luck, they've carried people out of here before."
The trail through the Chimneys.
The trail splits these boulders.

I was worried my legs would be a little sluggish with my time away but they seemed the opposite, refreshed from the rest. Heck, I even had all my toenails for the first time in almost three years! I breezed along and arrived at a sharp turn and the beginning of a steady downhill section of trail. I wasn't surprised by it since Shortoff is more than a 1000ft lower than Table Rock. I came to a sheer cliff and another impressive view of Table Rock. It was now several hundred feet above me and when I looked over my shoulder at Shortoff Mountain miles and miles away, a little bit of doubt crept into my mind.
A missed step in this section would be the end.
There's a beautiful view everywhere you turn.
Table Rock from the Chimneys.

The trail continues a long downhill march and the loose rock shifted beneath my feet keeping me alert for the next mile. I came to a deep saddle in the trail and found a large campsite. On the opposite side I was surprised to find a sharp climb. In fact, the whole trail now seemed foreign to me, by simply looking at Shortoff from Table Rock you would think you could walk in a straight line on a long downhill trip and return the same way. I was foolish to think this with my experience and I was forced to tap into my water as I began the climb up the ridge. The trail mercifully leveled and I could see sky indicating I was closing in on the top but then saw a double blaze marking a change in direction. The trail took a hard left and stayed level seemingly going away from the edge of the gorge completely. It's overgrown and at times I thought I had somehow missed the correct route. Suddenly there's more climbing, steep rutted trail climbing.. My legs started burning on the push and I drank more water to offset what was now gushing from every pore on my body. I couldn't believe how freaking hot it was in September on a mountain top, everything I thought I knew about weather was wrong. As I drained the last of the bottle I was carrying in my hand, I looked ahead to see nothing but the trail rising higher to meet the horizon. I was now at the mercy of the gorge. I didn't have enough water to get back and barely enough to get to where I was going.
The Chimneys and Table Rock as I head further down the MST.
The insane terrain of the Linville Gorge.
Table Rock as I begin the climb to Shortoff.

Thankfully, I had brought my hiking stick that Uncle Jim had made for me. It's lightweight and I leaned heavily on it to save my legs. After about fifteen minutes, I emerged in a tangle of dead trees and small boulders. To my right I could see that I was once again close to the rim of the gorge. Having some flat trail beneath my feet restored my confidence and I easily strolled along the shrubs taking the small side trails out to the edge of the gorge for views and picture opportunities. Table Rock was now a tiny speck and I carefully scooted to the edge of the cliffs to see several hundred foot drops beneath me. It was on one of these detours I witnessed a rare sight. A rain shower was sweeping down the gorge in my direction. I could see the top of the clouds and the defined streams of water causing steam to rise from the humid forest floor below. I unpacked my camera and fired away and snapped a few with my cell phone for good measure, I'm still kicking myself for not using the Gopro. I really didn't want to get soaked but I hoped that if it did reach me it would at least cool me off a little. It was here that I also was stuck with an idea that possibly saved my life. I noticed potholes worn in the rock from years of weather and some of them were deep and even had water standing in them already. I cleaned some of the deepest ones out hoping for some fresh rain and maybe a way to filter water on my return hike. Now, the weather just had to help me out.
The devastation from fire as the trail winds toward Shortoff.
The size of this boulder can not be scaled. It's a monster.

The trail stays level and I continued a nice pace. With all the hiking I've done, I've become good at measuring distance and knew I was closing in on the pond of Shortoff Mountain. The water I was now drinking from my shoulder pack was nice and cold from the insulated bottle and I couldn't help but take an extra sip here and there. Soon I could feel that I had about half of it remaining and forced myself to hold onto it until I refilled at the pond. Just ahead, I spotted a large brown circle with tall grass growing around it. My heart sunk as the realization hit me, this was the pond on Shortoff. As I leveled alongside the pond I found the spot where every picture I had seen of it was took from and as I stood there myself, I stared blankly at the bone dry hole where it belonged. I walked onto the dirt and found it firm beneath my feet, it had obviously been dry for a long time. I snapped a few cell phone pictures, brushed away more sweat, and headed down the trail looking for the spring tree. The rock climbers had gave me directions and I found the side trail leading downhill at a sharp clip. In a few minutes, I noticed a worn spot surrounding a tree and as fate and a dry summer would have it, the spring tree was dry as well. I was now almost six miles away from my truck with half a liter of water and temperatures near 90 degrees, I was truly in deep trouble.
The dried pond on Shortoff Mountain.
A view of the gorge from Shortoff.

The climb back up to meet the main trail was misery. The physical aspect of dehydration was starting to manifest in the form of a headache and my legs were wobbly and I stumbled over rocks I felt I had cleared. I was worried but I had cell service and a way out if necessary as long as I stayed on top of the ridge. I alerted Amber of my troubles and told her I would stay in contact. When I reached the main trail the rain finally caught me. It wasn't the light rain that had shown up in my photographs earlier but an absolute cloudburst. I quickly found a pine tree to stash my camera bag at an angle I would hope keep it dry and I stepped out onto a large flat rock and my first good view of Lake James. I laid back on the rock letting the rain drench me and another idea popped into my head. I took off my hat and let it catch water. I then rang the water into my empty bottle. I continued to do it until the shower passed giving me half a bottle of disgustingly murky water. I examined it and vowed only to use it as a last resort. I looked down at my watch, it was now 3:45pm. I had almost four hours until dark, I could do this.
A gift from God.
Picking up speed in my direction.
The potholes saved me.

The problem with a good view from Lake James is the downhill stretch it took to get there. I was now climbing back uphill and the rain shower that had cooled me had left sunny skies and humidity that was downright unbearable. I was so sluggish I decided to sit down and eat my Nutella to Go and use the remaining water I had to wash it down in the hopes of getting some energy. As I squeezed the last drop from the bottle, I stood knowing it was all grit from here on out. The trail now was a small stream and it was agony watching the muddy water wash away while I was so thirsty. I noticed some potholes had gathered some water and stuck my filter in them draining three different ones in rapid succession. The water was hot and filled with sediment but I was grateful for it. I continued hiking on staying alert looking for any pothole I could find and more water. I actually was making great time and finding water easier than I had imagined. When I got back to the two large potholes I had prepped I found them to be filled just as I had hoped. Even though I wasn't overly thirsty at this point I drank all the water I could from the both of them. I rested along the rim of the gorge and watched the tiny knob of Table Rock rising in the distance. Back on my feet my head was swimming and if I turned too quickly I would feel like my vision would continue on without me. I used the bathroom and my urine was dark orange showing how much water I was missing from my system. I stopped a short distance later and drained more potholes of their water including some with dead insects, I HAD to have water.
Storms from Shortoff Mountain and a view of Lake James.
Cell phone shot of the dueling rain storms framing Lake James.
Heading back. Still a long way to go.

Clouds would occasionally shield me from the sun and I used the time to push as far as I could but my legs were shot. Even on level ground, I was a shell of what I normally was. I started the downhill grade back toward the saddle leaving my precious potholes and when the thirst came more than I could stand. I screwed my filter onto the bottle of water I had gathered with my hat. It was a disgusting thought to have to do it but it went down better than I thought it would. I hiked downhill for what felt like forever and suddenly and almost appearing out of nowhere I saw a person lying in the trail on a mat and beside them, a big full bottle of water. Had I lost my mind? As I got closer I could see other people down the trail along the sides and all of them had water bottles. I took the hiker by surprise laying in the trail since he was wearing headphones and I asked him for extra water. He stared at me and I had already decided I was going to kill him and take his water if he asked how tall I was. Again, I asked for water but he said nothing. I hiked down to the next group of hikers and asked them for water and they refused to speak as well. WHAT WAS HAPPENING? Finally, a person called out to me from the campsite in the saddle to come on down he had some water. From his accent I could tell he was foreign which explained why the other hikers hadn't spoke to me. Instead of giving me water, he pointed out a source trail which led to a creek downhill from their campsite. I was exhausted but I started off down the overgrown trail. It was only about a ten minute walk before I arrived at a small pool and a trickling  stream aided by a laurel leaf fashioned as a spout. When I squatted down to fill the first bottle, the world went dark. I felt a breeze and then nothing. I had passed out alone and off trail.
So many ways to die.
Drenched exhausted and the small peak in the distance is where my truck is parked.
The tiny stream of water that saved me.

I've passed out three times in my life. Once was after having blood drawn and the other was when I had pneumonia as a child. I remember both earlier times because the breeze sensation was in reality my body tearing through the air to impact with the ground. When I rejoined the world from my third and most recent loss of consciousness, I was face down with a shoulder in the edge of the creek. I splashed water on myself and rolled over to lay back and gather myself. I barely had the sense to get my bottle filled and struggled getting my filter on top of it. The first few sips may be the best water that I've ever had in my life. The creek water was cold and it caused such a shock to my system that my head hurt instantly. My stomach was queasy and I ripped open a pack of crackers eating and drinking while resting my head on my pack. After drinking a full liter I closed my eyes and gave my body time to recover for a few minutes hoping the crackers and water would be enough to get me out of my predicament.
Sunset from the Chimneys.
Daylight fades over the Linville Gorge.

When I got to my feet, I didn't feel good but I was up and moving. I now was mad at the trail and I would have my revenge. I climbed up meeting the main trail and thanking the man who had undoubtedly saved my life. I still had about a mile and a half climb to the Chimneys and I struggled badly taking almost two hours to make it to the top of the mountain. When I reached level ground I laid in the middle of the trail; ecstatic that it was over. In reality, the hike wasn't over but I knew I could make it back to my truck. The sun was starting to set over the gorge and I found a perfect ledge to watch the sky light up as it dropped behind the ridges. I continued to drink water and found I had more strength. I looked through my camera and could hear people talking a few rocks over as they also watched the sunset. Usually I'm annoyed by other people but on this day I found their presence to be pleasant. Walking back in the dark I was so thankful that I was getting to go home. Amber had buzzed my phone all evening and I had reassured her even though I was scared. When I passed a campsite full of people surrounding a nice fire I waved and moved on. A few minutes later I could hear people talking in Table Rock's parking lot and I knew I had truly made it! My smile was wide as I entered the last empty campsite and my phone buzzed again from Amber, at the moment I reached for it my mind was blown.........
A full grown black bear jumped into the trail in front of me freezing me in my tracks. The bear stood still watching me before walking casually off the trail and out of sight behind some trees. I walked slowly and slightly wide of the trees hoping it had went under the bank. Aside from the bugs singing in perfect harmony the night was silent. As I stepped around the opposite side of the tree, the bear was there--standing holding onto the tree almost peeking around to see me---I almost shit my pants. I was too scared to make noise, I don't think I even took a breath. I now was walking backwards as the bear stepped down onto all fours when behind me I heard a second bear. I stood between two black bears with nothing but a walking stick to protect myself, I was dead. My mind took control of my legs and I continued to back peddle. The first bear walked back across the trail and joined the bear hidden by the dark by foraging through the campsite's fire pit. I stepped into the parking lot and told the people of the bears up the trail and tossed my pack and stick into the bed of the truck. When I settled into the seat I wanted to just go to sleep for the night but I still had the long drive home ahead of me.
Table Rock parking lot as I arrived from my encounter with the bears.

Once I made it off the mountain and back to civilization,  I was starving and craving something besides water to drink. I stopped into a Dollar General as they were preparing to close and grabbed three Gatorades and a couple of candy bars. When I laid them on the counter I caught the cashier just staring back at me. She started to speak and I cut her off, "I'm 7'4". She smiled and said, "Well, I was wondering that too, but did you know you're bleeding from your forehead down to your chin?" Thanks for the memories, Linville. Until next time, happy trails.