The Beautiful Smoky Mountains

What better time to go for a backpacking trip in the Smoky Mountains than on a random weekend in late February while the seasons are busy being confused about what time of year it is.

We left mid Friday to get in day’s worth of hiking on our first day out.  For me, a day’s worth of hiking is currently about 6-8 miles, given that I had hip surgery 4 months ago.  I’m constantly getting stronger and increasing my mileage, and this trip was no exception.

Somehow when Dirt Stew planned this trip, he failed to mention to me what the elevation gain would be on the first day.  I usually don’t care, but it turns out that from the parking lot at Big Creek Trail head to the top of Mt Sterling where we were going to camp that night is a 4000ft climb over 6 miles.  That must be one of the biggest climbs on the East Coast!

We got out of the car and I immediately had to take off my jacket.  It must have been almost 70 degrees out.  I was struck by how green the moss was next to the parking lot.  We snapped some pictures, checked our altimeters, and started climbing the Baxter Creek Trail.

Shorts and t-shirt weather in February!

We stripped down to shorts and t-shirts, and gawked at the many wildflowers that were just as confused about the weather as we were.  At low elevations, the Spring Beauties were out as well as Toadshade and Sharp Lobed Hepatica.  We hiked at a reasonably slow pace and took lots of pictures.

Toadshade

We saw two ladies maybe a mile from the trail head, and then not a single other person all day.  We climbed through entire ecosystems, from the wet stream valley covered in wild flowers to the drier rhododendron filled mountainsides all the way up to the magical land of spruces and huge rocks covered in moss.

Rocks covered in moss

Spruce trees growing on moss covered rocks

We took water at the last stream crossing, since we didn’t know about any other water sources.  It turned out though, that 0.4 miles from the top of Mt. Sterling, there was a sign pointing to a water source.  We didn’t bother checking to see if it was running.

My hip started to really ache once we got to about 5,000ft, and I started limping just a tad, and walking a bit slower, taking a break every so often to stretch out my hip flexors and adductor muscles.  The moss and fern covered rocks provided me with plenty of inspiration for photography.

By the time we hit the top at 5,842ft, the temperature had dropped maybe 10 or 15 degrees.  It was a pleasant temperature, but the wind was starting to pick up, and at the top of Mt Sterling, there is a very tall fire tower luring you to climb to a better view.

Scary-as-all-hell fire-tower on top of Mt Sterling

 

We took a few steps up the tower and instantly felt vertigo.  The stairs had small pathetic railings, and at the landings between stair cases, there was nothing to stop you from falling over.  Dirt Stew started cursing.  He was holding on to his camera in one hand, and gripping the railing with the other.

“Nope!”  He proclaimed.  “Not going any further!”

We got down from the scary-as-all-hell fire tower, and contented ourselves with taking pictures of the fire-tower instead of from it.

We set up camp, and ate dinner.  We knew that this night was going to be warm, and the next night was going to be very cold.  The forecast for Asheville showed 50’s at night for the first night, and 20’s for our second night.  We had decided the direction of our hike based on this information, since it made no sense to be on top of a nearly 6000ft mountain on the colder night.

I went off to water a tree, and when I got back, Dirt Stew was gone.  I called out for him, and heard a voice from up ahead.  He had climbed most of the way up the fire-tower on his own to get some more pictures.

“It’s not so bad when you can hold both railings,”  he said.  I wasn’t convinced.

“Please don’t die,”  I begged.

 

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Picture from up the fire-tower

 

He came down, and got ready for bed.  We hung our food on the handy bear lines provided, and crawled into our tent around sunset.  We dozed off, but were constantly awoken by the wind vigorously swaying the branches above our head and whipping at our tent.  Dirt Stew decided to use ear plugs.

I had another problem.  I usually bring an empty Gatorade bottle with me which I pee in at night so I don’t have to leave the tent.  I use my handy p-style, a magical device which allows women to pee like men.  This time I forgot my empty bottle, and I had to leave the tent each time I had to pee.  Bummer.

Hanging out in the tent

By 3AM I was woken up by flashes of lightning and crashing thunder.  It started to rain.  I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and tried to sleep.  I couldn’t.  I counted the seconds between lighting flashes and associated claps of thunder.  When they got to be 2 seconds or less, I decided to wake up Dirt Stew.  We were in a terrible location.  Why was the designated campsite on top of the tallest mountain around?  We never would have chosen to camp here had we been allowed to camp wherever we wanted.  I cursed the National Park and their rules.

We agreed that there was basically nothing that made sense to do but stay put and hope for the best.

Eventually, the storm died down, and we fell back asleep.

The next morning the rain was subsiding as we got up.  By the time we ate breakfast and our packs were packed, the last drops of rain were lingering on branches, teasing us with showers when the wind picked up, encouraging us to keep our rain jackets on to start our hike.

 

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The sun making an appearance through the morning mist

 

The clouds lifted, but it never warmed up.  Our day was mostly downhill.  We hiked over to the Swallow Fork Trail to Campsite “37”, which was located in a stream valley.  We passed two sets of two hikers, and were surprised each time.  Water was reliable, and corresponded to where we thought it would be based on the map.  By the time we got to the campsite, there were some people milling around.  We were about 5 miles away from the trail head from the Big Creek Trail, where we were planning on hiking out and finishing our loop, so it made sense that some day hikers had made it in that far.

Stream Crossing

We decided to set up camp and continue to explore up the Camel Gap Trail.  We wanted to see what the ford looked like to get onto the Gunter Fork Trail, where there was a “high water caution” written on our map.

But first we took our time to select our campsite.  Again, this was not the ideal location to be camping tonight.  Tonight the prediction was cold, probably into the low 20’s, and all the available campsites were in a cold valley next to a creek.  Not ideal, but at least the elevation was nearly 3000 ft lower than the previous night.  We hoped that would make a big difference.  Given the forecast, we decided to take two sleeping bags each.  I guess you can say we’re wimps about the cold, or at least I wasn’t used to cold weather camping since last winter I was also recovering from surgery.

We picked the best spot we could, furthest from the stream, and then left our gear and took our empty packs containing just food and water and ventured up stream.  We saw a red salamander hanging out right in the middle of the trail.  I picked him up and moved him to the side.  The trail was easy despite some downed trees, and we hiked about a mile to the ford.  The ford was definitely a ford, not a rock hop.  We decided we didn’t want to get our shoes wet, so we just hung around taking pictures, and then wandered back to camp.

 

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Cute Red Salamander

 

The temperatures kept dropping, and we struggled to keep warm.  This is the point at which I realized why most people don’t like going backpacking in foul weather (rain, snow, cold, etc.).  Most people aren’t willing or able to hike all day, and therefore they’re stuck shivering at camp at the end of their hike, huddled around a camp fire trying to stay warm.  Now I was in that boat too.   I’m used to hiking all day, and when you’re hiking, you can stay warm.  Now I was cold, bored, and uninterested in “hanging around camp.”  I had hiked a grand total of maybe 9 miles.  An easy 9 miles.

We decided to climb into our tent before sunset.  We got out our two sleeping bags and climbed in.  It was plenty warm, and we lay there staring at the ceiling of our tent.  I see why some people bring books now.

Hanging out in the tent again

After many hours of sleep, we woke up with the sun.  We slept plenty warm, we probably didn’t need the extra sleeping bag each, but we were better safe than sorry.

The next morning we we only had 5 miles left to hike to make it back to the car.  These 5 miles were probably the easiest 5 miles I could imagine.  Flat; very slightly downhill; wide trail.  We stopped at Mouse Creek Falls and Midnight Hole Falls, and there was one more waterfall that wasn’t labeled on the map.  They were all beautiful and photogenic.

Pretty waterfall

Midnight Hole Falls (awesome swimming hole if it’s warm)

The streams in the Smokys are so beautiful

 

Keeping warm while checking out waterfalls

 

Dirt Stew poses for a picture

Once back at the car, I was sad to drive away from the beautiful smoky mountains, but happy to be headed in the direction of a warm shower and a hot cup of tea!

Canoeing Ten Thousand Islands, Florida

Ten Thousand Islands is part of Everglades National Park, and you can spend weeks canoeing the waters around these islands.  If you look at a map of Florida, Ten Thousand Island takes up the entire southwestern part of the Everglades National Park, all the way from near Naples to the Flamingo Bay Visitor’s Center.

We drove to Everglades City where there is a visitor’s center and a place to rent canoes and get camping permits.  We stood in line to reserve a camping spot on one of the islands, but by the time we were helped, the only camping spots were a far canoe trip away.  We had all day to get to a designated island to camp, and given that you can canoe at least as fast as you can walk, we didn’t think much about a 10-15 mile canoe trip.

There is no fresh water out on the islands, so you have to bring enough water for your entire trip out.  It’s recommended to bring at least one gallon per person per day.  You can actually canoe a waterway that is 100 miles long, and you can imagine how many gallons of water you would need to stash in your canoe to start that trip.

We got most of our stuff into a dry bag and what didn’t fit and could get wet, we put in a backpack separately.

It wasn’t obnoxiously hot, but the sun was beating down, and once we were in open water, there was no escaping it.  We were so glad that we had stopped to buy sunglasses when we realized that we forgot them, but we also stupidly forgot our floppy hats.  We were canoeing right into the sun, and could barely keep our eyes open even with the sunglasses on.  I could feel my forehead burning despite the sunscreen.  If only we had SOMETHING to put on our heads!  I scanned the contents of the canoe and my eyes rested on our life-jackets which were uselessly discarded in a pile in the middle of the canoe.  I reached back to grab one and put my head through the hole and tightened the straps.  It wasn’t comfortable, but it worked!


I kept a compass around my neck and often checked the map, but since there are no hills and all the islands are simply covered in mangroves, it was impossible to tell one thing from another.  We were just moving around in the water, and all around us there were bodies of land covered in mangroves.   It was hard to tell if a certain land mass was an island or a peninsula, or whether an inlet was actually a boating channel or just a dead end.  Without a GPS, trying to keep track of where we were was almost impossible.

We were lost, but at least we knew generally speaking which way to go, so we kept paddling.  We kept drinking a lot of water to stay hydrated since we could feel the sun sucking up the moisture from our bodies.  Once we saw the horizon we knew to paddle towards open ocean, and we knew we could then figure out where we were.  The water started to get a bit choppy, so we headed directly to the closest island, which had a cute little beach.  We paddled against the wind to hit shore.  Once there, I pulled out my iPhone and looked at the compass app, which was very helpful, because it shows GPS coordinates.  I figured out exactly where we were (Turtle Key) based on corresponding those coordinates to our map.

Once we both peed, drank some more water and agreed which land masses we should be headed for next, we got back into the canoe and headed out.  The waves got worse.  It was so choppy that waves were breaking into the canoe, and paddling against the wind and the waves was exhausting.  I knew we had a long ways to go to get to our island, but given the conditions, we decided to stop at the very next island.

We pulled up onto the beach, and there were two guys already there.  They told us that they were the only ones on the island so far, but that the rangers allowed 2 groups to camp on Rabbit Key.  Apparently, there was one more group yet to come.  The island was big though, and given the conditions, we thought it would be best to call it quits here.  The two guys headed to a different side of the island and told us they thought we’d be fine camping there even though our permit was for a different spot.  There was room for another group if they showed up.

In the end, no other groups showed up.  We set up camp, pulled the canoe onto the shore past the high tide line, and watched the birds.  As the tide came in, I sat on a sandy beach that separated two sections of the island and watched as the water rose and cut the island in two.  I sat there for at least an hour watching the birds on the beach move with the tide.

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I then tried to cook dinner.  I use the word “tried,” because in fact, I totally failed. I pulled a “Dirt Stew.”  As I was draining the pasta, my hand slipped and all the pasta fell onto the sandy beach.  This is exactly how Dirt Stew got his trail name, only he spilled the pasta in mud.  I carefully picked each piece of pasta up off the beach and put it in a ziplock bag in order to carry it out and throw it away.  Ironically it was the shell type of pasta.  Luckily we also had instant mashed potatoes with us too, so we ate that instead.  I looked over at Dirt Stew as we ate our meal and asked him, “without looking at your watch, what day of the week do you think it is?”  “Uhhh, Thursday?”  He replied.  “Nope!  It’s Saturday!” I told him.  This was obviously a good vacation.

We got into the tent and fell asleep as the sun set.  I was probably before 7 PM.

The sunrise woke us up again in the morning, and we broke down camp and dragged the canoe over the isthmus to the other side of the island in hopes of having more sheltered waters for our return trip.

We canoed directly into the wind, fighting the tide for the first couple of miles until we got into more sheltered waters.  This time I kept much better track of exactly where we were with respect to the map, and we managed not to get lost.  We pulled out of a passage that we never would have found on the way in, because it was basically invisible unless you were on top of it.

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As we entered into the larger bay close to the mainland, a dolphin sneaked up on us.  It swam beside us for a good 15 to 20 minutes as we paddled closer to shore.  I think it enjoyed our company.  Once it decided to take off, it was clear that it could swim much faster than we were paddling, and it had really slowed down to swim with us for a while.  I felt honored.

We pulled up onto shore and returned our canoes before heading out for more land-based exploring.  We felt the rocking of the boat lingering in our bodies as we drove off.

 

Florida Trail

There’s nothing like being on vacation…

Before Christmas, I found stupidly inexpensive flights to Florida for early February and knowing how much I long for warmth come late January, I jumped on them.  Winter was been disappointingly warm, but a nice warm vacation was welcome nonetheless.

I had brought some work with me on the trip, and because I got somewhat caught up with trying to close out some work issues followed by the fact that we had to stop and buy some food for our trip after we landed,  we wound up getting a fairly late start on the Florida Trail.

It’s been 3.5 months since I had my second hip surgery, this time correcting hip dysplasia on my left hip, and I only got off crutches just before the 3 month mark.  I was still using crutches occasionally for longer walks and hikes, and I hadn’t done anything over 4- 5 miles before heading out to Florida.  From the road crossing where we could park at the Southern Terminus, the nearest designated campsite on the Florida Trail was 7 miles away.  I had no idea if I was going to make it, but I was pretty nervous that I might not have a choice.

So we parked at the Southern Terminus, but because of our late start, we didn’t arrive at the parking lot until about 2:30pm.  So much for taking it easy, I thought to myself.

We packed up our gear.  Dirt Stew carried just about everything, and I packed my little Gossamer Gear day pack with just some water and a few snacks.  I have been grateful that Dirt Stew has been so willing to carry extra weight so that we can go backpacking together while I’ve been dealing with my hip issues.

It was warm out, but not as warm as it was last year when we visited in May.  Also there were fewer mosquitoes.  It was maybe in the high 70’s perhaps even 80 degrees.  The sun was strong though, and I was grateful that we picked up some sunglasses when we stopped to buy food (one of the several things we forgot to pack on this trip).  We registered for a back-country permit inside the ranger station, then walked past the canal full of alligators, fish and birds where all the tourists were leaning over the railing trying to get pictures, and signed the register at the beginning of the trail.  The last person to have signed in did so two days earlier.  We weren’t going to have company.

Southern Terminus – Dormouse

Southern Terminus- Dirt Stew

 

I started off using my hiking crutches (these are crutches called mobi-legs, but I took the top parts off so that I could use them more like hiking poles).  The trail was quite overgrown in some areas with saw grass growing waist high on either side of the trail and touching in the middle along with other plants, many of which looked suspiciously like poison ivy.  I tried to avoid touching them.  I knew that there was another poisonous plant called poisonwood, but I was not familiar enough with it to identify it while hiking along.  A lot of the plants there had oval shiny almost waxy leaves, and to me, they mostly looked a like.  This was obviously not my home turf.  I decided to switch to my hiking poles.  It was easier to navigate the narrow, overgrown trail with them, and since there wasn’t going to be any up or down, I figured I didn’t need the extra support.  Dirt Stew took my crutches and carried them in his hands the rest of the hike.

The ground was mostly quite dry, given that winter is the dry season in Florida.  I had been afraid that we would be walking through huge sections of swamp, but in fact it was easy to avoid the small sections that were wet.  For the most part the trail was covered in large rocks made of limestone or coral, and this wore me down because the stabilizer muscles in my hip weren’t quite there yet.

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Rocky but flat trail

 

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A short swampy section that was easy to walk around

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An ibis in the swamp

I let Dirt Stew walk ahead of me, and I took my time, occasionally calling to him to wait up for me.  At one point I came across a snake right in the middle of the trail, and it wasn’t moving.  For a moment I thought it was dead, and I shouted ahead “did you step on this snake?”  It wasn’t dead.  I guess it was just very afraid.  I don’t know how Dirt Stew didn’t step on it- I guess he probably somehow stepped right over it without seeing it, but this snake was really taking up a lot of space right in the middle of the narrow trail.  It didn’t want to move either, and so I wound up picking it up with my hiking pole and placing it into the grass next to the trail.

We passed one or two ATV trail junctions and then passed an actual trail junction that indicated that we had hiked about 3 miles.  Just past this intersection, Dirt Stew jumped backward and then laughed.  There was a statue of an alligator right next to the trail.   I don’t know who thought this would be a funny joke, but it definitely scared the bejesus out of Dirt Stew.

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Who puts a statue of  a gator on a trail??

After maybe 5 or 5.5 miles, we found a somewhat flat spot in the grass where the grass was compressed in roughly an area the size of a tent.  Someone had obviously used this site before, and since the sun was setting, and there was certainly no way we were going to make it to the designated camping spot before sundown, we decided to call it home for the night.  The sunset was beautiful.  I took out my sleeping pad and rested next to the trail while Dirt Stew set up the tent.  We had somehow forgotten to pack the tent stakes, so I was happy that we weren’t setting up past sunset so that we could find some sticks to use instead.

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Beautiful sunset from our camp spot

That night it got quite cold.  I thought it was only going to drop into the low 60’s, but in fact when we checked the weather for the area later, we saw that it had dropped into the mid 40’s.  Dirt Stew had only a sleeping bag liner and a thin down blanket, and half way through the night we tried to share the one sleeping bag we brought.  I had based my research on towns that were closer to the coast where the variation in day and night-time temperatures were much smaller.  Luckily this was the only night we were going to spend so far inland.

Neither one of us slept well.  I found it hard to sleep on the hard ground with my sore hips, and trying to share a sleeping bag in the middle of the night was less than ideal.  When the morning sun hit the tent we were glad to get the warmth of dawn.  We got going around 8AM, and it was warm by 9AM, and by 10AM it was already uncomfortably hot.  Luckily by 11AM we were already back at the car.  By then I was sore and cranky and wanted nothing more than to buy a soda from the vending machine in the visitor’s center and sit in the car relaxing in the air-conditioning.  I was happy to have successfully hiked 10-11 miles on the Florida Trail only three and a half months after serious hip surgery.

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Slightly forced smile… ready to sit down and drink a soda!

If you want to read more about my hip surgery and recovery, visit my PAO blog (PAO is what my hip surgery is called) at http://www.screweduphips.wordpress.com.

 

 

Starting the New Year hiking!

It’s good to start the New Year by doing what you love, so just like last year, we decided to go for a hike on New Year’s Day.

If you’ve been following me, you’ll know that this hike, like last year’s was probably on crutches.  I’m now 10 weeks post-op since getting my other hip reconstructed, and I’d say I’m doing pretty well at this point.  It’s been rough having to go through two such surgeries one year apart, but now I know that I’m finally on the mend for good and it’s only going to get better from here.

I hiked less than 2 miles on New Year’s day, but it felt good.  The very next day I went out and hiked about 2 miles again but this time occasionally switched out my crutches for hiking poles.  That felt even better.

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One of many crutch walks

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New Year’s Crutch-Hike

Hiking with poles!

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Happy!

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Moore Cove Falls.

I plan on increasing my hiking distance slowly, adding maybe half a mile or so a week, and by March or April I should be able to start guiding hikes again.

This experience has been humbling and I think I’ve grown in ways I don’t even know yet.  I’ve learned to be dependent on other people, to be patient with healing, and to appreciate the little moments of independence and improvement.

I hope that 2017 will be an exciting year.  We have applied to Leave No Trace for a Traveling Trainer’s position which we think we are the perfect fit for, and if we don’t get that position, we will try to finish the 100 mile section of the PCT that we haven’t hiked due to wildfires back in 2014.

I’m sure there will be many other hiking adventures this year regardless of where we end up.  In just a few weeks we have a short trip to Florida planned where we’ll be able to enjoy some warmth while canoeing and hiking in the Everglades.  I can’t wait to put my backpack on again and crawl into our tent for the night.  There’s no place like home.

Art Loeb Trail in a Day

About a month ago I got it into my head that I wanted to push myself on a long-ish day hike right before my next hip surgery.  I was at a low point.  I was dreading being handicapped again for a long period of time followed by months and months of rehabilitation.  I was finally at a stage where I could hike again, and I wanted to do as much of it as possible while I still could.

So when I visited my PT, I asked him if he thought it would be a bad idea if I hiked the Art Loeb Trail within the week before surgery.  He told me he didn’t think I would do any permanent damage, and gave me the green light.  I left his office giddy with anticipation and immediately marked my calendar for Art Loeb Trail, October 22nd, 6 days before surgery.

The Art Loeb Trail is a 30.1 mile trail that starts near Brevard at the Davidson River Campground and climbs all the way up to the Blue Ridge Parkway then follows the crest of a series of stunning 6,000+ ft mountains and then slowly descends into the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp, which is basically in the middle of nowhere.  The total elevation gain is about 10,000 ft.  It’s not an easy 30 miles, and most people hike it over the course of 2 to 4 days.

For me, conquering the Art Loeb Trail held a lot of significance.  It was about 3 months after my first hip surgery, in February of this year, that Dirt Stew thought that getting me out to the mountains would cheer me up, and we drove all the way to the Davidson River Campground to go for a short walk on the Art Loeb along the river.  We walked less than half a mile before my hip wouldn’t let me go any further and I was in terrible pain.  I hobbled back to the car and cried.

Then, in late May, we tried again.  I was now six months post-surgery, and still feeling pain on a regular basis, but I was much stronger.  This time we were going to do it as a backpacking trip, and I was excited, but definitely over-eager.  We were back at the Davidson River Campground, and I was ready to conquer the trail.  On the first day I pushed myself much too hard.  The trail was hard and unforgiving.  There seemed to be only steep ups and steep downs.  I slept poorly the first night due to hip pain, and by the second day I was in so much pain, I decided to call it quits.  We hitch-hiked back to our car and drove home in defeat.

This time, October 22nd, 11months post-surgery, and I wanted to hike the whole thing in a day.  Was I crazy?  Probably.

In the days before the hike I got really nervous.  I started having dreams of hiking alone in the dark in terrible pain, losing the trail and slowly losing my mind.  I decided early on that I was going to do the hike alone.  As much as I love hiking with Dirt Stew, this time I had to do it alone.  I had to be uncomfortable alone.  I had to know I could get through it alone.   In 5 days, I will have to go through surgery alone.  Not that Dirt Stew won’t be there to support me.  He will be there in the hospital with me the whole time, and he’ll be following me with the car on my Art Loeb hike the whole time too, but physically, I’ll be the one going through it, alone.  Plus, let’s be honest here, it would be better if I had nobody to complain to.

The week before the hike Dirt Stew and I both came down with a cold.  We wound up cancelling a backpacking trip we were meant to go on together the weekend before, and by the day before my Art Loeb hike, I was still completely congested and coughing uncontrollably.  We tried to go to bed early the night before, but I couldn’t sleep.  The mucus in my sinuses was driving me nuts, so I decided to take a decongestant.  Then, my sinuses felt completely dry, and every time I breathed I felt like I had to cough.  I didn’t sleep at all.  By midnight I gave up and started reading the news, the weather, and whatever else I could find on my iphone.  When it got to be around 3AM, I thought about waking Dirt Stew up, but he was snoring lightly, so felt bad waking him.  Our alarms were set for 4AM, but I decided to finally wake Dirt Stew up at 3:30AM to get an even earlier start.  He didn’t look happy about it.  We packed up quickly and drove off.  By 4:30AM we were at the Davidson River Campground.

Dirt Stew pulled the car into the parking lot and parked.  The memories of sitting in the car crying after hiking less than half a mile came flooding back as I sat there in the car staring at the dark trail head in front of me.

“Are you going to get out?” Dirt Stew asked.

“Yeah” I said.

I got out and Dirt Stew took a picture of me.

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“See ya up the trail” he said and gave me a quick hug before turning around and getting back in the car

That was it.  No words of encouragement, no pep talk, no fussing around.  It was pitch black.  I took a few steps into the woods and looked back.  The car was gone.   I looked at my watch.  4:32AM

I shivered.  It was probably in the low 40’s and I was wearing shorts and a tank top with long underwear over top and a wind jacket and a hat.  The wind was making the trees sway around me.  As the trail started climbing, I quickly warmed up.  I soon took off the wind jacket and also the long underwear top.

I was still completely congested, but the cold air was causing my nose to run even more, and after I blew amazing amounts of mucus out of my nose a few times, I actually felt as if I could breathe.

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The trail was covered in leaves.  The leaves covered up rocks and roots and kept slipping under my feet.  I liked the crunching sound of my steps, especially in the silence of the darkness, but every so often I’d nearly roll my ankle on a root or a loose rock.  I let my mind wander.  This was probably the first time I had ever night-hiked alone.  I imagined the animals in the woods watching me hike.  I imagined people in their tents listening to my footsteps as I hiked past them.  For some strange reason, I even imagined coming across a dead body in the night.  I tried to keep a fast pace, and for the most part that wasn’t hard.

Then, I fell flat on my face.  I tripped over a root or something and landed on my hands and knees and my headlamp, which I had been carrying in my hand went flying and hit something which caused it to turn off.  It was suddenly completely dark and the leaves under my hands were cold and wet.  I couldn’t see anything.  I felt around for my headlamp and couldn’t find it.  I remembered that I packed a spare headlamp in my backpack, and fumbled around for it.  I found it and turned it on.  It took me another 3 or 4 minutes to find the other headlamp, which was black.  I found it further up the trail than I was expecting, hidden among the leaves.  I must have really thrown it when I landed.  I brushed myself off and kept going.

At around 6AM I saw a light up ahead.  It was Dirt Stew!  He had hiked in from Cat Gap.  I was surprised to see him so early, but happy to have some company in the dark.  He asked me if I needed anything, and I said no.  I told him my hip already hurt, and he told me he wasn’t surprised.  We walked another mile or so together before he said “I see Cat Gap up ahead”

“Oh this is where you leave me?”  I asked.  “Yup” he replied.

There were some tents, and a camp fire with someone sitting next to it in the dark, probably someone who couldn’t sleep because of the cold.  I looked behind me, and Dirt Stew was gone again.  No “good bye”, no “good luck”.  Had I dreamt that he was even there?

I continued in the dark for about another hour before it got light.  I saw bright orange clouds appearing on the horizon before my view of the sunrise was obscured by the mountains.  By 7:30AM I was able to put away my headlamp.

Once I could see, I decided I should go pee, eat something, and look at my map (in that order).   I ate a tortilla covered in Nutella, and by 8:00AM I had made it to Butter Gap, already 8.6 miles into the hike.  There’s a shelter there, and there had to have been around 40 or 50 men milling around the shelter packing up camp, cooking breakfast, shivering while holding cups of steaming liquid.  I hiked through the camp like a ghost.  One guy looked at me in a daze over his cup of steaming coffee.  I don’t think he was awake enough to say “good morning”.

At 9:30AM I came to Gloucester Gap, and saw our car parked on the side of the road.  I went up to the car and inside I saw the top of Dirt Stew’s hat poking out of a sleeping bag.  I knocked on the window and he bolted up and opened the door.  His eyes were a bit swollen and pink from lack of sleep, but he was happy to see me.  “Good morning, Sweetie!” he said.

I sat down next to the trail and ate a snack.  Dirt Stew handed me a soda and I drank as much as I could quickly before giving him a hug and heading off.

From Gloucester Gap you have to climb Pilot Mountain, which is nearly a 2,000ft climb, but the climb doesn’t end there.  After a couple of ups and downs, you have to climb all the way up to the parkway and then all the way up to Black Balsam from there.   This was the most demanding section of the trail.

I slowly made my way up Pilot Mountain, catching my breath every once in a while, while looking at the views appearing around me.  I was thankful to have my altimeter watch, which told me how far up the mountain I was.  Otherwise there were about 2 false summits.  At the top I treated myself to a delicious German energy bar (which was mostly just marzipan covered in chocolate), and put on a few more layers for the down-hill.

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Top of Pilot Mt.

 

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Beautiful views

The climb up to the parkway felt never-ending.  Some mountain bikers nearly ran me over, and I wondered if they were even allowed on the Art Loeb Trail.  A half mile or a mile before the parkway, I ran into Dirt Stew again, who had parked at Black Balsam and hiked down to meet me.  He told me there was ice up on Black Balsam.

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So many leaves on the trail!

Once we made it past the Blue Ridge Parkway, the trail climbs steeply up to meet the Mountains to Sea Trail.  The climb goes up about 500 ft in less than half a mile with some scrambling, and by the time I hit the well graded Mountains to Sea Trail, I said “Thank God!”  I knew this was going to be the prettiest section of the trail.

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The sun was bright

Hiking past Chestnut Bald and then up to Black Balsam was spectacular.  My legs were tired, but the views were fantastic.  The ice on the trees made it all the more beautiful.  It was a crowded day on top of Black Balsam and Tennant Mountain, and we kept getting stuck behind slow moving people.

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Ice

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Tennent Mountain

Dirt Stew hiked all the way to the first intersection of the Investor Gap Trail where he offered me another soda, but I declined.  He also had Gatorade with him, so I drank some of that and took my first Advil of the day.  With about 10 miles left to the hike, I needed my hip to stop hurting so badly.  I got to Investor Gap, where the Shinning Rock Wilderness boundary is at 2:30PM.  I was making good time.

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Once Dirt Stew left again, the trail got easier.  It was actually flat in some sections, and followed the ridge line.  I passed many day hikers and then many backpackers.  When I passed the trail junction with Old Butt Trail, the number of hikers decreased dramatically.  I was alone again.

The trail went from flat and easy to rocky and narrow.  I was in a section called “The Narrows”.  The trail almost seemed to peter out in some spots, and at one point I really thought I had completely lost the trail.  I bush-wacked along the ridge for 100 ft or so and took out my map.  The trail definitely followed the ridge, so I was going in the right direction.  I heard voices, and followed them.  I suddenly hit something that looked more like a trail, and was a bit confused as to which direction to take it.  I looked at my map again and heard the voices again, and decided to keep going upwards, following the ridge.  I never found the people, but I did feel like I was probably on the trail.

I eventually caught up with a group of women backpacking from Atlanta.  I asked them where they were headed, and they said “Deep Gap”.  Good, I was probably going in the right direction.  The trail was hard here, and going down into Deep Gap, the trail was often very steep and with my legs tired, I was afraid of falling.  It took longer than I had expected.

When I got to Deep Gap I wasn’t sure if I was actually at Deep Gap, and I didn’t see the Art Loeb heading down the hill, so I decided to keep going straight for a while to see if the trail would continue to go up or down.  It went up.  I looked at my altimeter and checked the map.  To be sure, I hiked up a bit further.  Yup, still uphill.  I was climbing Cold Mountain.  Oops.  I turned around, and went back to Deep Gap, and there was a man there staring at a map.

“Is this Deep Gap?”  I asked?

“I don’t know, I’m a bit lost myself” He said.

We traded notes, and he was looking for the trail that I had been on, and I was looking for the trail that he had been on.  How convenient.  It’s hard to find the trail down from Deep Gap to continue on the Art Loeb.  It’s not marked at all, and where the trail turns, it is a bit overgrown.  I was glad to have made my final turn.  Now there were no mistakes left to be made.  I left Deep Gap around 4:45PM.

About 15 minutes later, I ran into Dirt Stew.  “YAY!”  He said.  “You’re here!”  He had hiked up from the terminus of the trail, hoping to meet me at Deep Gap to keep me from making the wrong turn.  He was happy to see me, and told me I was a badass.  I was still about 3 miles from the end, and I knew the last few miles downhill would be rough on my hip, my knees and my feet.

A few minutes later we ran into a man who asked us if we had an extra headlamp and if he could buy if off of us.  I asked him what was going on.  He had made a wrong turn from Cold Mountain and hiked down the Art Loeb to the Boy Scout Camp instead of hiking in the opposite direction on the Art Loeb back to where he had set up camp at the Old Butt Trail junction.  He had a long hike back to his camp, and no headlamp.  It was definitely going to get dark before he made it back.  So we fished through our gear for an extra headlamp.

“How much do you want?” he asked, pulling out money, “60 bucks?”

“Oh, no, headlamps are only like $20.”  I said, and handed him a functioning headlamp.  He handed us the money and thanked us profusely.

“You guys are life savers,” he said.

Then the trail wore on.  One foot in front of the other.  I kept having shooting pain in my hip and I bit my tongue so as not to complain.  My legs were tired and my feet sore, but I was so close.

The last mile felt like five, but when I finally saw the car my pace quickened.  I could feel myself grinning.  “Oh my god, I made it!” I proclaimed.  “And it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought!”

Dirt Stew took a few pictures, and I limped over to the car and got in.

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That was it.  I conquered the Art Loeb.

And I’ll conquer hip surgery on Friday.

And Dirt Stew will be there for me to support me again.  I can’t thank him enough.