I'm very brave generally, he went on in a low voice: Only today I happen to have a headache." -Lewis Carrol, "Through the Looking-Glass"
For weeks I have known that my eleven-year-old niece would be coming to visit, and the thing she wanted to do most was go into the mountains. I also have known that she suffered a broken arm about a month ago and has been in a cast since (the arm, nearly healed, was recast so she could hike in the mountains). Keeping all this in mind, I decided to plan a trip that would be scenic, adventurous, but not too difficult. After much research, and a little bit of selfishness on my part, I chose Mount Craig, Big Tom, and the other peaks on part of the Deep Gap trail in North Carolina. Big mistake. I knew that the trail after the Deep Gap campground became terribly rough, but I did not realize the whole thing was a bit of a struggle-come on, the trail was on RomanticAsheville.com, a stroll for lovers! Little did I know as we headed up 26 that this would be no stroll for the two of us.
I should have known the other day when my niece had to rest after a mile walk in the park. She is just bored, I thought-the mountains and trails will motivate her
. I had my doubts then; I thought about changing my plans, but I had told her about climbing Four mountains and she was pumped (and so was I). I shook it off. Saturday night we busily packed as our excitement began to build. Right before heading to bed I remembered the weather. I quickly checked the forecast-40 percent chance of rain. Again, I thought about changing the plans, but decided to check it in the morning again. Come Sunday morning it had dropped to only 30 percent, and being rather cavalier I took it as a go ahead. Quickly we loaded the car with our packs, extra clothes, and snack food. A quick stop at Dunkin Doughnuts and we were on our way. As the sweet sounds of The Big Wu filled the air, I couldn’t help wonder what would become of us during this hike. Looking over at my niece, who was fast asleep, I wondered if she knew what was in store for her.
After a missed exit, a stop at the visitors center, and 40 minutes on the Blue Ridge Parkway (where my niece nonchalantly said: “I hope I don’t get sick when we get to the top of the mountain”) we finally arrived at Mount Mitchell State Park. Quickly we changed our shoes, threw on our ballcaps, and used the restroom one more time before hitting the trail. My niece, in all her excitement (and probably a bit of fear), was finally ready to go. At the trailhead sign I showed her that our destination was only 4.3 miles and we would hit four summits. She said she could do it, and we were off. Down, down, down we went following the trail to Mount Craig. So far so good I thought looking back at her-and then we started up, which was quickly followed by a break. The words “almost there” pushed her the rest of the way up Craig. One down, three to go, and my pretty little niece was on top of the world. We had a quick lunch and I listened to her “ooh and ahh” over how “cool” it was, and how she can tell her friends that she climbed a mountain.
The momentum was now carrying her. In fact, it carried her all the way to Big Tom. Again, excitement filled the air, pictures were snapped, and she was proud of herself-I was beginning to feel better about this trip. The feeling didn’t last long. Shortly after leaving Big Tom a haze began to fill the air, the rocks began to get slippery, and her skinny little legs began to give out. We pushed on; I was determined to make at least three before turning around. I pulled away, just a little, to get a look at the trail further up when a "thud" followed by a groan came from behind me. “Morgan” I screamed and ran back to see her face down on the trail. “I’m okay,” she said pushing herself up with her one arm. I took a deep breath and told her to rest. As she snacked I wrestled with what to do next. She was dragging, her excitement was gone, and our adventure in Wonderland was quickly deteriorating. I wondered how far we were from Balsam Cone. I told her to relax for a minute as I quickly ran up the trail trying to get an idea of where we were. I came across a sign that indicated we had about .6 of a mile to Balsam Cone. I ran back to find my niece a bit rejuvenated and wanting to press on to the third. She assured me she was ready. We got maybe a tenth of a mile before she was resting again. I dropped my pack told her to wait and I ran up... and up... and up until the trail leveled out. I knew we were not going to make this one-but maybe I could. Not seeing any indication of the Summit, I gave up and ran back down. My niece was up and starting my way when I told her that we were turning around. “The trail only gets worse,” I told her. “You aren’t going to make it.” She didn’t get mad, nor did she think I was cutting her down. She simply nodded her head, and we turned around. Right as we made that pivot, we felt the first rain drop-followed by the second, then the third, until the sky was falling. At this point, I was trying to remain calm. Thoughts of slippery rocks, wind gusts, lightening, and the fact that we hadn’t seen any people in hours began to clutter my head. I thought about waiting it out, but I didn’t want it to start getting dark and us get stranded, nor did I want to be surrounded by trees if a storm did come. Amazingly, my niece pulled through and became alert again. Together, as a team, sopping wet and caked with mud, we guided each other back on the trail, each of us taking turns asking how the other was doing and lending balance when needed.
Through the Looking Glass (Deep Gap Trail heading south toward Big Tom)
My thoughts turned to the hardest part of the trail-the roped area. Initially we went down, which wasn’t bad, but now we had to pull ourselves back up the drenched rocks. I knew if one of us fell there then it would not be good, but I also knew that if we got past this part then we would be home free. Still, we were the only ones on the trail. I thought if someone came our way they could help get my niece back up the rocks, but no one did. Instead, I took her pack, positioned myself behind her, and we began to pull ourselves back up to the top. Slowly, but surely we survived the first pull-the second one was going to be much steeper. Again, we took it slowly and made our way back up the side-my niece quite happy with her accomplishment and I was silently thankful about remaining calm in a stressful, and potentially dangerous situation.
From there, the rest seemed like a stroll.
The sun never returned, but the people did and so did Morgan’s smile. And as our eyes landed back on the picnic benches from where we started, a sigh of relief came over two very dirty, sweaty, and wet girls. Needless to say, we drove to the beach the next day.
All smiles at the end of the trail. We may not have conquered the mountains, but I am pretty sure we conquered ourselves.