Friday, September 16, 2016

Working in retail almost all holidays are consumed with long hours and stressed out shoppers for me, but there is one holiday each year that I vanish into the woods until I deem it safe to return. April Fool's Day is the national holiday of pranksters everywhere and being somewhat of a jokester myself, the only place I feel safe is in the middle of nowhere. The tradition began a few years back and now I plan for the day weeks in advance with this years destination settled in my mind maybe even before then.
The steps leading up to the Birch Knob Tower.
Views from the tower were fantastic with the changing skies. Looking back to Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.
Onto the rock and off the tower, we were able to take in some new perspectives.
A shot from my rocky recliner  along the cliff edge.

Straddling the Virginia Kentucky border is the Pine Mountain Trail, a rugged beauty connecting Elkhorn City, Kentucky to Clintwood, Virginia. Along the way are many historical markers and spur trails leading to rock outcrops and waterfalls. Perhaps the crown jewel of the trail is the highest point of Pine Mountain and the Birch Knob Observation Tower. Most of the time I would scoff at human interference on boulders the quality of those topping the ridge, but I make an exception with the BKT. For one, it cuts down on graffiti by lifting would be vandals far enough off the rock face to do any damage, and two, it's design keeps it from interfering with your experience with nature. My planned trip would begin at the Birch Knob Tower and take me toward Kentucky as far as my legs would carry me that day. The weather looked perfect and a solo day in the hills had me watching the seconds tick off the last few hours of March.
Amy enjoying the view on Pine Mountain.
Loving my seat.
The skies were threatening rain but we stayed dry.
Does anyone else see a giant bird in the shape of this rock?

I mentioned a solo day for a reason. Sometimes my best made plans don't always work out, and rarely, I even feel moments of compassion. My friend Amy was struggling and it was obvious. She had suffered a death in the family and the world had her down and out. I reached out with an invitation to join me and her response made me already feel better about her mood, "This better not be an elaborate April Fool's Day prank."
It was a long way down from my seat on the rock outcrop.
Amy found ways to get even higher.
Some moss along the cliffs.

I don't think she really believed me until I rolled into the Food City parking lot to pick her up that morning and we hit the road for our two hour trip into the coal fields of Virginia. The excitement of the hike kept us buzzing with conversation and I felt a sense of relief seeing the gates unlocked as we wound up the gravel road to the tower spur trail. Arriving at the trail head we found we had it to ourselves and we launched into gathering gear and stretching out our legs on the short spur up to the steps that lead to the summit of Pine Mountain. Amy and I took our time climbing and stopped at each level for photographs before continuing to wind up the walkways and stairs to the observation platform. Several benches surround the main deck and I shed my pack and took in the 360 degree views. I had read that on a clear day you can see six states, North Carolina, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. The views that day were far reaching with blue skies with white puffy clouds that would shade everything beneath them, ensuring no two pictures would be the same. After some time on the tower, both Amy and I felt our inner adventurer coming out and started looking for a way off the tower and onto the rock itself.
A straight line of weather kept us on guard.
The beginning of the PMT.
Amy looking back up to the rocks we just came from.
Erosion from water that once capped the mountain.

We settled on a spot on the walkway with a tree growing within arms reach to help balance ourselves for the hop over onto the rock. It wasn't pretty and even funny, but both of us successfully made it and were quick to spread out for more exploration. Amy worked her way back underneath the tower and toward the far reaches of the rock while I settled into a pothole on the edge of the cliff that worked like a natural recliner as i watched the changing skies pass by. I joined Amy after resting a few minutes and found the far side of the rock outcrops had some sheer cliff walls and some of the thickest undisturbed moss I'd seen anywhere. We played there for a while walking the cliffs like a tight rope before moving back to the main tower and the steps that led us back to the truck.
The Birch Knob Shelter is a nice one.
Amy is ready to move in.
Pole dancing with a pack on. I'm impressed.
Near the Jenny Falls trail head.

A nice kiosk with a detailed map is at the Pine Mountain Trail detailing points of interest and mileage estimates to each. My eyes were drawn to a spot some four miles away named Natural Bridge Ledge. Amy and I decided that would be our goal for the day with a stop at the 100ft high Jenny Falls for good measure. The PMT starts off on an easy downhill grade crossing a small creek for filtering water before lifting up the next ridge to the new and super cozy looking shelter. Amy and I took turns checking it out and decided a return trip for an overnight stay was in our future (see I didn't forget, Amy) and I couldn't resist climbing the ladder to peek in the loft. Thinking about it now, makes me wish I were there. Back on the trail, I was hoping that we would find wildflowers in bloom but spring was taking it's time creeping up the mountain and the lack of foliage made for some good views and exposed rock formations popping up on the ridge lines. The Jenny Falls Spur Trail is marked with a wooden sign about how the falls got its name and Amy and I began the long three tenths of a mile downhill hike into the mini gorge that is home to the falls. The downhill hiking is steep and I always dread coming back out but I knew Amy would want to see the waterfall and the large rock shelter across the valley from it, and after all, I was doing this for her. My kindness was rewarded about halfway down the trail when I found a large dagger stuck in a tree. We both looked at it curiously before I decided that if I pulled it from the tree it may mean that I'm some sort of royalty. Nothing happened when I did, so I'm assuming I'm just a royal a$$hole. The closer you get to the waterfall the more the plant life changes and mountain laurel closed the trail in from our open forest hiking. Soon I could hear the falls across the gorge and we stopped by the opening of the massive rock shelter. Amy was impressed and worked her way back to the furthered the corner and I made her my scale model to show the size of the impressive formation. Arriving at the waterfall, the nice white clouds vanished from the sky, and Amy got to sit in the shade and enjoy her homemade cheesecake muffins while I stood on a rock waiting for a cloud to photograph the waterfall. My patience was rewarded with a cloud just large enough to snap a few pictures and we started the climb back up to the main trail.
"Hey look, a dagger!"
By the power of Grayskull!
Amy at the entrance of the rock shelter.
Amy is smiling here too, you just can't see it.
Jenny Falls and the massive rock cliffs surrounding it.
It took a while to get a cloud at the base of the falls.

Climbing out of Jenny Falls was easier than I anticipated and we really made great timing on the level grade of the PMT as we passed through old home sites and historical markers, even stopping to let Amy try out an old bed that had reduced to nothing but a frame. Some impressive rock retaining walls were the only other clues of the once thriving community. The level grade was short lived and we began some steep down and up climbing from ridge to ridge or as Amy proudly called it, "Appalachian flat." I kept my eyes on the ground and the thought of the natural bridge kept me moving over each tough climb. On the way into one of the gaps Amy spotted a small garter snake I had nearly stepped on and we stopped for a minimum photo session while he patiently obliged. It was the first snake sighting of the year and it rejuvenated me as I hit a stretch of switchbacks that lifted us up to put first open view in quite a while looking far into Kentucky. Amy and I both agreed that it was the perfect spot for lunch and we sat along the cliff in the trail enjoying cheese, boiled eggs, and even those homemade cheesecake muffins she likes to spoil me with. You never would have guessed we spent hours as children thinking of ways to kill each other the way we get along now and the fact we can thrive as a hiking team is downright miraculous.
Finally, the clouds came and I was able to get my picture.
Rock retaining wall from an old home site.
Amy found a bed to kick back and relax for a while.
More rock walls surrounding another property along the way.

After our lunch we spent the next good bit of hiking wondering exactly how far we were from the natural bridge. We found ourselves parallel to a nice cliff line and the trail followed a safe distance from the edge until it started working it's way closer arriving at a large rounded rock that protruded from the main cliff. Initials carved in the sandstone dated back into the early 70's and Amy and I carefully climbed out for a better view. The drop off the rock was staggering. I would say it was at least a few hundred feet and it didn't take me long to make my way back over to the main trail. Amy got a good laugh out of my nervousness and leaned far over the edge taking pictures with her pocket camera. The trail stayed with the cliff for the most part before turning away but not before giving us a glimpse at another rock wall about half a mile further away. I predicted it would have our bridge on it.
The garter snake stole the show.
Heading out the cliffs with Kentucky on our mind.
What's this?
It makes me dizzy looking at this picture.
Gopro shot from the cliffs. You can see the large round rock back down the trail along the edge.

The trail lost some elevation but quickly started making a turn back toward the new set of cliffs we had seen making me feel even better about my prediction. We both hiked with a purpose and as we got close to the cliffs we found a small rock band separated from the main formation with enough room to crawl under if you were to lay almost flat. Was this our ledge? The precious bridge that we were promised? To be fair to the naming authority the rock was technically a bridge and right behind it was a ledge but hardly what we had anticipated. Amy's cynical humor came out as she mocked my bridge but after a fee minutes of disappointment myself I found it to be impressive from the right perspective. The bridge portion was speckled with white quartz and someone had made a small fire ring for what I'm sure is an interesting nights sleep at the edge of the cliff, and she won't admit it now, but I even saw Amy smiling.
More cliffs on the Pine Mountain Trail.
The Natural Bridge Ledge was a little smaller than we were hoping for but....
A little effort and we were under the bridge and at a small campsite on the edge of the cliff. We will be back and look, Amy is smiling!

Conquering the bridge we were satisfied with our day. The hike back was relatively uneventful and we shared stories and plans for future adventures. The trail had cured Amy and having a hiking partner was exactly what I needed that day as well. Our stomachs decided that we needed some real food by the time we reached civilization and I stopped at Robo's Drive-In near Pound, Virginia. The long wait made our burgers taste even better and we sat in the dark along highway 23 capping a perfect day.
Colorful rocks on the hike back.
It's hard not to be happy on hikes like this.

A few weeks later I stopped by my brothers house to visit my nieces. My eldest niece Abby is a student at Hiltons Elementary and Amy is her teacher. When the subject came up of my recent hikes, and the day spent on the Pine Mountain Trail with Amy, Abby spoke up and said, "We like when you take Ms. Hall hiking." I didn't need to but I asked why anyway. Abby responded with a giggle, "because she is in a lot better mood." Until next time, happy trails.

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