Monday, October 30, 2017

I've thought about this entry since the day I hiked the Black Mountain Crest Trail. I would have wrote it that night but I fell asleep with a piece of pizza in my hand only to be woke up by leg cramps before limping my way to bed.
The beginning of a long day. Hiking the access road to the Crest Trail.
The old bridge crossing Bolens Creek.
All smiles and 3000ft of climbing to Celo.

Nearly 24 hours earlier I was in Wise, Va celebrating a friend's birthday and hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. The lights never materialized but good times and storytelling did, and before I realized it the clock was past 11pm. With a two hour drive home and some last minute packing for my hike the next day, my eyes shut for good around 2:30am. In reality, I slept two and a half hours before my alarm went off which felt like thirty minutes. Surprisingly I felt good and shouldered my pack and tried to sneak out the door as quietly as I could for a date with the Crest Trail. 
The very first view of the rest of the crest trail from Celo Knob.
All those jagged peaks will be crossed.
Sallie on the spur trail of Celo.

With a quick stop at Bojangles in Erwin, I arrived at the Ingles in Burnsville right before Halley and I's meeting time of 7am. The hike itself was her brainchild and she had provided very few details other than our meeting time. Joining us on the hike would be her Uncle Kevin, who once spent an extended stay in a hospital bed following a car wreck thinking that walking again might not be possible. I found Halley in Ingles in the coffee line forming in front of the Starbucks kiosk and gathered me a few snacks for a long day on the mountain. In the parking lot Kevin had arrived and after some quick introductions we piled in Halley's car for a ride over to the trail head on Bolens Creek.
Near the summit of Celo Knob.
The cliff view from Celo.
Looking back at Celo Knob.

Parking is a serious issue off of Bolens Creek Road with no trespassing signs lining the roadway but there is a narrow gravel drive passing some houses that has room for two cars to squeeze far enough out of the way to park, luckily we were the first ones to arrive that morning. We took a few minutes to gather our gear and headed up the continuation of the forest road passing by a house before crossing over into the national forest. Bolens Creek was loud and flowing strong as we crossed a rotten moss covered bridge to find the trail marker for the Black Mountain Crest Trail simply labeled "Crest."
Somewhere on Wooly Ridge.
The view was spectacular.
We found a nice rest rock near Wooly Ridge.

The climbing from here is instant and strenuous. I was expecting a slower pace with Kevin but I was sadly mistaken as he took off up the old logging grade at what I would call a trot. I stayed on his heels as the trail hugged the creek up the valley lifting us in elevation, knowing that we would gain 3000ft in elevation over the first four miles I focused on keeping my eyes on the ground and not on the trail that continued to rise skyward. Halley lagged behind in the early going adjusting clothing and gear but caught us after a switchback that turned us away from the creek to take the lead. She stayed ahead until suddenly breaking into a dance of sorts screaming "bees!" My survival instinct kicked in and I blew past both Kevin and her running up the mountain until I felt I was safe. Halley should be thankful I think so much of her because her cries for help led me back to inspect her hair for more bees and I dug out my first aid kit to doctor her stings. Both her and Sallie (her dog) received multiple stings and I felt bad for them since we were so early in the hike. We continued on even though we were more leery of any holes we spotted in the trail.
On to the next peak.
Sallie leads the way.
Surreal scenery along our journey.

Through the trees I could tell we had gained some elevation as surrounding ridges were becoming visible and I seemed to fall into a zone of hiking that saw me stretch a lead out on both Halley and her uncle. I hiked alone agonizing over the leg shredding day ahead and already feeling the burn before reaching Celo Knob, our first 6000ft peak of the day.  I stepped out onto my first open view from the side of Celo to see the horizon stretching out before me. A quick scan out the ridge revealed a jagged wonderland of 6000ft peaks that would be my trail for the reminder of the day and I tossed my pack to the ground for some rest before settling into a snack. I laid back on the pack half sprawled in the trail to wait on Halley and Kevin. It was only a few minutes before a trio of red faced hikers joined me, when they finally caught their breath they noticed the jagged ridge line and trail leading in the same direction. One of them wheeled around to me, "we have to hike that?" I looked in that direction and said, "afraid so."
Looking back at Celo from a spur trail to yet another summit.
You could see all the way to the Linville Gorge.
Back to climbing...

A jingling collar announced the arrival of Sallie and then a few minutes later Halley and Kevin. We shared some time taking in the views before shouldering our packs and heading to our next peak but just a few feet later we spotted a small spur trail doubling back and straight up a set of sheer cliffs, I guessed it to be the summit of Celo so Sallie and I set off to find out for sure. We climbed for a short but steep distance to the high point where there wasn't a view but a tree adorned with a ribbon of orange tape gave away the summit. Hiking down to meet Halley, I noticed a secondary spur trail and found some wide open views from the cliff. I yelled for Halley to come check it out with us.
Cliff areas along the trail.
Kevin on top of one of the cliffs.

Back on the main trail Kevin was rested and it showed as he took off and left Halley in the dust. Meanwhile, Halley and I lagged behind taking pictures and enjoying views from Wooly Ridge. Rocky crags and pine trees dotted an open ridge that had far sweeping views the serenity of it all was short lived as Halley found another bee, this time with her toe. She jumped, cursed, and seemed to think the world was going to end but another swipe from the insect bite stick in my first aid kit suddenly she was cured. We made good timing hiking along the ridge and with it all being new to me, I was constantly looking for what was around the corner. Up and down the ridges my legs were feeling the burn but my heart was so happy. Halley had invited me to be a part of her and her uncle's day and we were knocking a huge hike off my bucket list. I drank my water freely knowing I could refill it at Deep Gap but I would come to find that I was mistaken.
Finally some rest! Somewhere near Deep Gap.
Showoff!
Best friends took over my hammock.

Several times during the hike was I convinced we were hiking into Deep Gap as the trail would drop suddenly for a few hundred feet but it always would climb up around another peak or cliff...sometimes narrowly passing terrible consequences if your footing would fail. Of course all of the wild dangerous areas were ideal for photo ops so we took our time working out the rocky range. Eventually we found the real Deep Gap and as I looked across the gap at the towering peak that is Potato Hill I couldn't help but feel some dread. I stayed ahead of Halley and Kevin reaching the camp sites in search of a side trail to resupply my water. I found nothing of interest so I waited on them to catch me and asked them if they knew where the trail was. Halley led me down an old forest road at the gap and we found a tiny pool of water that barely was flowing. It didn't look pretty but we had to use it or we wouldn't be hiking off the mountain. I used my Sawyer mini to drink from the pool but the taste was terrible. Halley had a Lifestraw bottle that she shared the water she had gathered with me and it helped get me rehydrated enough for the final few miles.
Fern covered rocks approaching Deep Gap.
Just outside of the real Deep Gap.
Winterstar summit.
Looking back at Celo Knob from Winterstar.

Just because I had water didn't make the climb out of Deep Gap any less painful. I really slowed my pace stopping frequently for rest as my body was feeling the lack of sleep and the strenuous day that still had around five miles remaining. Halley stayed nearby encouraging me and somewhat enjoying my struggles saying several times, "I've never seen you like this." As soon as I would catch up with her, she would take off again giggling at my huffing and puffing. Eventually I found familiar territory at the cliffs of Potato Hill since I had hiked from Mt. Mitchell to that point last year with Amy. Although it was nice to know we were getting closer to the end it was the thoughts of big time climbs over Big Tom, Cattail Peak, Balsam Cone, Mt. Craig, and Mt. Mitchell now loomed in my mind. The struggle was real and I hobbled along trying to keep pace with Halley and conserve water and one by one mountains began to click away.
And now for a series of climbs featuring Halley waiting on me. Potato Hill is exhibit A.
Still climbing....that smile is getting on my nerves.
I was thinking I need new friends.

There's something about a difficult hike that I love and even with the pain and exhaustion that I was experiencing I was still having a wonderful time and having a friend like Halley to share the trail with made it even more special. When we reached the top of Big Tom we paused for a break with Kevin and I could look back out the ridge to Celo Knob and the start of our roller coaster day. Something about that view brought such a peaceful feeling over me as I watched approaching clouds sweep over Celo and making it vanish as if it was never there. The gathering clouds also pumped a little motivation into my legs knowing if I wanted any views at Mt. Mitchell I would have to pick up the pace.
Every tough climb led to a good view.

Up we go again.
Kevin shows how it's done.

Back on the trail we moved along rather quickly since the major elevation changes were behind us. The trail still rolled up and down but none of it was extreme. Winding around the top of Mt. Craig clouds started to hang heavy and the view of Mt. Mitchell was fogged in at least for the moment. The final mile from Mt. Craig was agony. I was dehydrated and my legs wanted to keep locking up but every time I wanted to stop Halley was there to motivate me forward.
Fog starting to roll in on Big Tom.
The trees were wild looking and still alive.
In the pines where the sun don't ever shine.

Perhaps cruelest of all was as we popped out into the road just shy of the summit of Mt. Mitchell there was a large group of people grilling hamburgers and chugging ice cold Gatorade and I was hungry and thirsty. We climbed the stairs to level up with the visitor center and hit the ramp that curls around to the highest point East of the Mississippi. About halfway up the ramp Halley's brother greeted us on his way back down the mountain but turned to rejoin us on the final push up top. He was kind enough to drive up to shuttle us back to our cars in Burnsville. It was if the mountain itself was rewarding us for our efforts and the clouds began to break up revealing some nice afternoon color through the haze. Kevin was waiting as I stomped the marker at the top like a baseball player touching home plate. The four of us chatted and snapped some photos celebrating the completion of the crest trail.
On Mt. Craig.
Smile for a mile to go.
Mt. Mitchell with thick fog...would we have a view?

The ride down the mountain was over an hour and I could barely keep my eyes open I was so sleepy. We stopped at a gas station and I was able to get some caffeine and feel a little better. I got to ride up front with Halley's brother since my legs are so long and I enjoyed the conversation as we wound down the curvy highway 80 back to Burnsville. They decided to drop me off at my truck before retrieving Halley's car and we said our goodbyes in the Ingles parking lot before I turned my wheels toward home.
Near the final summit of our day the heavens opened up for fantastic views.
Halley is rewarded with the view of a lifetime.
The final picture on a fantastic day of conquering the Crest Trail.

Looking back on the hike it still ranks as the most strenuous trail day I've had. It could have had something to do with the sleep deprivation from the night before but the Crest Trail is not to be taken lightly. Calculating my GPS information from our day revealed why it was so difficult, over 5900ft in elevation gain and 13.2 miles which best my previous elevation gain record by nearly a thousand feet. As I mentioned earlier, the difficulty is only bad while you're on the hike but the feeling of pride and accomplishment afterwards lasts for much longer. Combine that with great people to share the moment with, it makes for a perfect day. Until next time, happy trails!

Friday, September 29, 2017

I'm struggling with putting into words my first ever total solar eclipse. I've typed an introduction to this entry several times now and deleted it, being unhappy with it's flow, so let's keep it basic and see how it goes.
All smiles as we set out for eclipse base camp.

Each year Amber and I celebrate our wedding anniversary by doing some sort of outdoor adventure. We didn't plan it that way but when it happened a few years in a row when we first got married we stuck with the tradition including hiking in Alabama a few years back and a wild canoe ride on the Edisto River in South Carolina last year. This year we would receive help from the cosmos as the day after our anniversary would be a total solar eclipse! The rarity of this occasion should be fully absorbed and I can't think of a better explanation than I didn't exist when the last one occurred. 
Day one of year six of marriage.

Amber and I both agreed we would watch it together but decided we would travel to be in the path of totality, which guaranteed darkness in the middle of the afternoon, then all was left was to decide what town to choose. Luckily, our friends Ben and Carrie wanted to see it too and they had the benefit of having a friend that lived in Highlands, NC in the middle of the line of totality, not only that, but he lived less than half a mile from the Yellow Mountain Trail which is home to an old fire tower perfect for viewing the eclipse from! So when Carrie extended an invitation, we happily accepted. Adding to the allure of the trip was our chance to meet the trail legend, Old Dirty Goldbond, a friend of Ben and Carrie's that was going to meet up with us at Big Ed's house in Highlands. 
Amber gathering gear as Cash looks on.
Yellow Mountain Trail 27 hours away from the eclipse.

I was eclipse obsessed. I studied the weather for over two months out stressing over what looked like would be a 50/50 chance of us even seeing it at all with heavy cloud cover and possible rain. I couldn't help but think how upset I would be if I missed the eclipse because of a cloud. Amber, meanwhile, fretted on how she would take what she needed up the mountain. Her trusty ETSU book bag wasn't gonna cut it so she stopped in at Mahoney's and picked up a nice Osprey pack... $250 nice. As weeks, then hours ticked away we made checklists and scratched off each item as both our packs swelled and excitement grew. Amber made arrangements for a friend to tend to our animals and at 6am August 20th, we were on the road to Highlands, North Carolina, our sixth wedding anniversary!
Old Hank leads us to camp.
Hank was loving our camp site.

In my mind, we would sit for hours in Eclipse traffic but before I knew it we were already passing Brevard, NC with clear roadways. Just outside of town, however, I noticed a mobile electronic sign set up by the highway department that read, "CAUTION: Eclipse traffic. Expect delays." I was so pumped! "Look Amber, I told you so!" even though we saw no traffic, it was good to know that at least it was expected.  When we passed by the trail head for yellow mountain I was concerned with parking as there were already eight cars at the lot but I knew we could hike from Big Ed's house if we absolutely had to so it wasn't a big deal plus I would have extra mileage toward my 1000 mile goal.
Passing the time telling some tales.
Ben and Hank are exhausted from laughter!

The Yellow Mountain Trail to the fire tower is rated as one of the more difficult hikes in North Carolina with some killer up and down elevation changes. I was happy Amber had chose to do such a challenging hike despite her hatred for long trail days....maybe she was planning on cashing in my insurance payout, but time would tell. We arrived at Ed's house and found the perfect mountain cottage tucked in behind a row of trees. Ben came out to meet us and took us inside where Ed, Carrie, and Old Dirty (real name Mike) was waiting on us. We spent the morning hanging out and looking at maps on Ed's television. Both Ed and Mike had hiked Yellow Mountain and both of them were scarred from the elevation gains saying they would watch the eclipse elsewhere. I didn't look at her, but I could feel the death stare coming from Amber's direction. We made a plan that Ed and Mike would shuttle us up to the trail head and we would hike in to make camp with Mike and he would hike out and hang out with Ed until deciding if her would camp with us later that evening. Old Dirty claimed to know of some pristine camping spots not even a mile in so he served as our guide and since we weren't hiking far, we took some extra gear including a 2 gallon water cooler. Ben and Carrie had brought there rescue dog, Hank so we brought Cash with us. Hank isn't much a hiker so the short trail distance was perfect for his old bones. As we approached the camp sites Old Dirty remembered, he seemed bewildered. He turned to me and said "it doesn't seem like I remember it, there's a lot more bushes." I half heartedly expected it and surveyed the sides of the trail. Nothing looked tent worthy but we crossed the tiniest of branches and we bushwhacked up a small rise before the forest opened up and leveled off with just enough room for a few tents, we had found our base camp.
Ben and Carrie massaging Hank's old bones back to life from a nap.
My tent that Amber would kick me out of.

It took a little selling to Amber but eventually as we set our tents and hung our hammocks our camp came to life and things didn't seem so bad. The afternoon heat was quelled by a nice breeze and we passed the evening hours by telling Amber and Carrie stories from the glory days of UNC-Asheville. Old Dirty left us to hike back down to Ed's house but said he would be back to watch sunset and possibly camp even though he had no tent. Ben and Carrie were jealous of our hammocks and we took turns showing them the comfort, convenience, and stunt ability a hammock provides. It's amazing how much fun you can have just sitting in the woods with friends. Amber was worried my snoring would keep her awake so I decided I would sleep in my hammock giving her and Cash the security and warmth of a tent for the night. It was only one night and it couldn't be that bad, or so I thought! As the evening wound down, Amber, Ben, and I did some trail scouting while Carrie stayed back with Hank. The trail was a roller coaster on the short stretch we explored rising and falling before we decided to turn and head back to camp. As promised, Old Dirty had returned and we broke into some tequila before setting off on a sunset hike to some  cliffs we had passed on the way in. I guess it was during this time I really got to thinking how Old Dirty was nothing as I had imagined him to be. I'm not sure if I could have even picked him out of a police line up if someone said "pick the person that looks most likely to be called Old Dirty Goldbond." He was just a normal dude with an epic trail name. He did come with some serious trail credentials however, having hiked the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Coast Trail on multiple occasions.
I have been kicked out of my hammock..but why?
Oh yeah that's why!
Yep. they're done for.

At the cliff we enjoyed a beautiful sunset and I stood and watched the sun drop behind the mountain knowing it would go dark in less than 24 hours...I was downright giddy. While our group made their way back to camp as darkness approached, Amber and I waited on Halley to hike in to join us. She had been kayaking all day and made contact when I realized I had service at camp. She came bounding up the trail joined by her dog, Sallie, and another dog, named Helix that belonged to her friend. Back at camp we settled into story telling and more hammock stacking stunts including a hilarious effort on mine and Ben's part. No one gathered any fire wood so we sat in the darkness until Halley broke out some solar lamps and we made our plans for the following morning. Carrie decided she would watch the eclipse from our sunset cliffs with Old Dirty and Hank while Amber, Ben, Halley, and I would hike to the fire tower.
Old Dirty returns to lead us on a sunset hike.
Cash leading the way to sunset.

I went to bed that night a good distance away from our main camp in weeds and solitude and strung my hammock between two trees. I settled in for the evening with shorts, a t-shirt, and a hoodie to use as a blanket. I laid there for a good while listening to the crickets and looking up at a clear star filled sky. As I closed my eyes to sleep, I said a little prayer for clear skies in the morning.
Sunset on the Western Cliffs.
Amber showing off for the sunset.
Hank admiring the sunset.
Tomorrow you'll be eclipsed.

As the night wore on I found myself growing colder and uncomfortable in the hammock. I tried to tuck the hoodie around my legs but it would only cover so much. I would have to leave some parts of my legs exposed and when I got too cold uncover my warm leg and cover the cold one. This process went on all night. At one point I woke up soaked after the dew had fell, the last few hours before daylight were tough, but I was getting some sleep for what I believed to be 30 minute intervals.
Eclipse morning. Halley has emerged from her tent.
College roomies showing how it's done.

The next morning I noticed Old Dirty rise from his cowboy camp pack away his belongings and hike away. During the night I had heard several groups of hikers making their way up the trail toward the fire tower including a really loud group around 3am. As everyone else began to wake up I told them Old Dirty had hiked out and went back toward Ed's house and asked if they had heard all the other hikers. Halley chimed in, "No but I heard you snoring. It helped scare away the bears so I liked it." As we ate our breakfast a nonstop stream of hikers marched up the trail, we figured at least 50 people had went by and knowing there was a trail head on the other side of the mountain that was shorter, our tower option didn't look so good. I tried to keep the faith and kept busy checking all my gear for the day....ECLIPSE DAY! We decided to leave camp set up and leave for the tower giving ourselves plenty of time for the strenuous hike. Amber, Ben, and Halley threw on their packs and we hit the trail with Sallie, Helix, and Cash. The trail was in good shape and every few minutes a new group of hikers would pass us while we waited on Ben to finish up with Carrie and Hank. Each passing group made me less excited about going to the tower. After climbing a near vertical mountain  I could tell we were on a plateau of sorts and I seen faint paths running out to what appeared to be cliffs. One such path led to an open view that was truthfully perfect with one exception, there was a man, woman, and their kid already set up in the spot. Knowing I would have to share my eclipse moment with even more people at the tower I decided I was fine with this vantage point and everyone else agreed, although I could tell the man and his family didn't like it, I didn't give a shit.
Waiting it out just a few feet from the cliffs.
Ben enjoying out quiet time.

Having our Eclipse location picked out. We hiked around for a bit before laying in the woods near the cliffs as a deterrent to others who might come over to "our" spot. During the three hours we waited there I'd say 50 more people passed us. With about thirty minutes before the eclipse we made our way over to the cliff and settled in. Remember me saying I prayed for clear skies? Well they were clear that morning, but afternoon clouds had moved in and I could see it raining on the ridge across from us. I laid back on my mat and felt a complete sense of hopelessness. I had waited so long, a lifetime, and a cloud was going to eclipse me. I looked at my watch about 2pm. I couldn't even see the sun or tell where it was in the sky. My mood was deteriorating. I closed my eyes and thought about how much fun I had just being on the trip and how many people couldn't even walk to these cliffs and how blessed I was and how selfish I was being for being upset over a cloud and then a miracle happened. The little girl from the family suddenly yelled, "LOOK!" It was the kind of urgency that made me realize the eclipse was visible and there right above me was a parted sea of clouds and an eclipsed sun! I don't nor will I ever have the words to accurately describe how amazing it was in person. The clouds were faint enough that you could see the Eclipse perfectly without the safety glasses. I looked at my watch, five minutes to totality. I studied the horizon and watched as the shaded sun cast different shadows on the ground and how the temperature began to drop and then right on schedule the sky went completely dark at 2:36pm. I cried. It was amazing, surreal, unbelievable, and unsettling all at once. Cheers erupted from distant ridges, the horizon burned with a gorgeous glow of sunset, and fireworks burst in the valleys. I hope I never forget that moment or how I felt.
And now we wait.
Our view.

Almost as quickly as it began, it ended. The skies brightened, the birds chirped, and my mind, despite being mush from the emotional moment of totality, switched gears to the hundreds of people that were about to be hiking off the mountain. I rolled up my mat, grabbed my pack, and we took off for camp. When we arrived Carrie was nowhere to be found but Amber and I broke out stuff down and we're packed in impressive time. We hiked down to the cliffs and found Carrie, Old Dirty, and Ed waiting on us. All of them were raving about their own experiences of the eclipse but I could hardly listen it was if the world had been muted, I was in shock. We said our farewells, and Amber and I hiked off the mountain and decided instead of shuttling down in the truck we would hike to Ed's house. At the trail head we were stunned with how many cars were parked along the road. For half a mile in both directions and both sides of the road were cars. People from New York, Delaware, Florida, and even Vermont had descended on North Carolina for a chance to see a total solar eclipse.
ECLIPSE!
2:34pm. two minutes until totality.
Getting close. The dogs seemed to know.
At exactly 2:36pm the skies over Highlands, NC went dark. It was the craziest and most spectacular natural experience that I've ever been a part of.

We hit the road frantically trying to escape Highlands but didn't make but a few miles until we were in bumper to bumper traffic moving about 2 miles per hour. Normally traffic would make me lose my mind but I was so pleased with my day I just went with it and a three hour trip home became a pic hours. During the drive I called to see if my parents had watched it all too. They had drove me crazy wanting a pair of eclipse glasses and I was able to round them up a few. My mom answered and said she didn't fool with watching since she has cataracts and was rather hateful about it all. When I finally got my dad to answer his phone a few hours later the truth emerged. He couldn't stop laughing and told me why mom was so upset. When the eclipse started my brother called them and told them to go outside and look. Dad went onto the deck and looked up with his glasses on. He told mom to come look as well but she was worried she would damage her eyes. He told her to put her glasses on and come out and look up. Mom did as he said but when she put the glasses on INSIDE they worked just like a blindfold and as she came out the door she ran face first into the doorway falling backwards! My dad did what any loving husband would do and laughed himself nearly to death before mom threatened to divorce him if he didn't stop. As dad got off the phone with me, he once again warned, "don't tell anyone."
Unfortunately Ben was a victim of counterfeit eclipse glasses.

I guess you're wondering why I included that story if I wasn't supposed to tell anyone but I have doubts my parents even read these blogs that I work so hard on, so now the trap is set. Who will tell them first, my money is on my Aunt Sue but time will tell. Until next time, happy trails!