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.
“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.
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.
Top of Pilot Mt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.