I love to go hiking and backpacking. My wife hates for me to leave her side. She goes into fits of worry when I propose one of my trips into the wilderness. I always go alone, since I have no friends who share my love of the outdoors and wilderness, and Carole has no desire to join me. So she worries. So her worrying makes me worry.
The night before I was to leave, I got to bed very early, since I wanted to be on the road to the area around Shining Rock/Middle Prong Wilderness Areas at a decent hour. At about one in the morning, I awoke, not knowing what had stirred me from sleep. I lay there for a second or two until I realized I had a truly horrible pain in my torso, about the area of the right side of my rib cage. I mean this really hurt! I lay there for a bit, and the pain returned. A kind of burning, shooting, stabbing pain that seemed to go spearing through my organs.
Carole was awake.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“No. I’m in pain,” I told her. “It really hurts.” It came again, like teeth gnashing on my liver. Or something.
We discussed my pain. I sat up. I told her it was so bad that she might have to drive me to the emergency room.
“I think I know what it is,” she told me. And she recounted similar pains she’d had some months before (I recalled them), and how I’d had to drive her to the emergency room. They didn’t find anything, but suggested a cause and gave her two medications for the problem. She still had the medicine. One for pain, and one to sleep. She gave me two pills to take. I swallowed them.
“If this doesn’t work,” I told her, “you’ll have to drive me to the hospital.” It was that bad.
However, within about fifteen minutes the pain began to subside. A warm, welcome sensation of wellness spread throughout my body. I suddenly felt drowsy. “I think it worked,” I slurred, falling back to sleep.
I awoke about five in the morning and quickly rose, feeling rested and quite robust. We both went downstairs and prepared breakfast. I arranged my backpack and loaded the truck. Carole gave me more of the pills to take, just in case I was stricken in the night while I was sleeping in my tent in the middle of nowhere. But I figured by that time that the pain had been caused by the shared stress that my trips cause the both of us.
Kissing my wife (who was still angry at me for running off alone to the wilderness) I was on the road before eight in the morning.
In short order I was cruising down I-85 to I-26 and then to 64 and the intersection with 276, which took me to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The weather was perfect. Sunny and mild, with only hints of clouds floating in the sky. I reached the Parkway and turned south and soon came to the first overlook that gave me a view of the high country around Shining Rock Ledge and the now-famous Cold Mountain featured so prominently in Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel of the same name.
After taking a few photos I got back on the Parkway and continued southward, passing the high elevation valley called Graveyard Fields, full of waterfalls and streams and meadows and stunning scenery. Generally, I always stop at Graveyard Fields when I’m on the Parkway, but I was anxious to get started on my backpacking trip.
Soon, I came to Forest Service Road 816, leading off to the right, and which dead ends at the highest trailheads on the east coast. At the parking lot at the terminus there are a couple of permanent latrines and three trails heading off into wild, open, high country, the likes of which are unmatched on this side of the continent.
Parking lot at Shining Rock Wilderness.
The parking area, as I turned around and looked back. This photo is misleading, not showing the right side of the parking lot, which was packed with autos. Makes it appear as if it was somewhat lonely, which is certainly not the case. The trail which leads off to the left in this photo, looking somewhat like a road, is the Ivestor Gap Trail, heading up into the Shining Rock Wilderness, the most popular wilderness area in North Carolina.
Getting out, the wind was blowing a bit and the temperatures seemed chilly to me, so I put on the fleece jacket I’d brought along. This would prove to be a mistake, as I soon realized the weather was much warmer as I began my hike and the jacket became something of a dead weight. I ended up strapping it to the outside of my pack and it was a pain in the neck. At that moment, though, I was hiking down the Sam Knob Trail toward (of course) a mountain named Sam Knob. It is my intent to climb all of the 6,000-foot peaks in North Carolina, and Sam Knob was right in my line of sight.
I enjoy hiking in high elevation, open country. And the area in and around Shining Rock Wilderness is the highest open country in eastern America. One is rarely below 5,500 feet above sea level, and often hiking in enormous, unbroken meadows of grass and sedges. The gap between Shining Rock and Sam Knob is one gigantic meadow. I was off to a great start to my hike.
As I got close to Sam Knob, the double peaks of its summit became obvious. Most hikers aren’t sure which of the two peaks are higher, so it’s safe to climb them both when on the top to make sure you’ve actually climbed the highest point. I followed the Sam Knob Trail until it joined the actual Summit Trail and took that up the steep slope, passing through beech trees, rhododendron, and stunted spruces. In one place the trail is rugged enough so that the Forest Service has added a stairway.
Fairly soon, I came out of the forest onto great overlooks affording me views back toward the high gap through which I’d hiked. From the steep slopes of Sam Knob I could look across at Black Balsam Mountain and down on the meadows with tents and campsites all along the reaches of Flat Laurel Creek.
Soon, I reached the actual summit of Sam Knob, put down my pack and began to take as many pictures as I could. From the top I could see the entire area, even the Middle Prong Wilderness on the other side of Highway 215, where I was intending to hike to reach Green Knob where I would set up camp that night. For the next half hour I spent my time just looking at the stunning scenery and scooping out the trails I’d soon be hiking to reach my destination for the evening.
In a while, I had my pack back on my back and was trudging again down the summit to the Little Sam Trail which would take me to the Flat Laurel Creek Trail and then to the Mountains to the Sea Trail and over to Middle Prong Wilderness where I would catch the Green Mountain Trail to the summit of Green Knob. Having looked at the maps and made out my route at home, I was sobered to realize that the trails were much longer than I’d figured by examining the map and that what I took to be about a seven mile hike was going to end up being closer to fifteen. Not a major problem for a guy who has to walk ten+ miles per day at work, but a much tougher trip when one factors in the rugged terrain and the forty pounds of equipment on my back.
Soon, I was passing wonderful new vistas, plunging into dark forests of red spruce, and crossing many clear streams of tumbling water.
Hiking along through several miles of trails, I passed many intersections and paused many times to take in the views. I only passed a few other hikers, mainly college-aged folk and young couples hiking together. One trio seemed rather horrified that I was hiking out there all alone. “I can’t find anyone to hike with,” I told them. “So I go it alone.” The story of my life.
I was soon on the Mountains to the Sea Trail. It’s a NC state trail which is proposed to one day run from Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks all the way to Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Quite a few miles of it have been completed in the mountains, but only bits and pieces on the coast and in the Piedmont. When completed, it’s to be almost 800 miles long. The trail passes through some older growths of red spruce forest, and these spots are rather disturbing. One reason is that the spruce forests are very dark and cool (supernaturally so, to the roving mind of a lone hiker), and they are also confusing—one seventy-year-old red spruce tree looks pretty much the same as another. It’s very easy to get lost in these plots of spruce trees, as the needles cover the trail. Only the odd white blaze painted on some of the tree trunks kept me from losing my way hopelessly in these woods.
I checked my watch and found that it was closing in on two in the afternoon. I realized that I was far behind where I wished to be at that point. I’d hoped to already be on the ridge of Green Mountain, and I hadn’t even entered the Middle Prong Wilderness Area. I pushed on, passing a great overlook where I could see The Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which the Mountains to the Sea Trail often parallels.
Finally, after I had dropped from 6,050 feet at Sam Knob down to about 5,000 feet at Highway 215, I crossed the road and continued on the trail until I entered the Middle Prong Wilderness.
Hiking along, I was completely alone. The silence was wonderful. No cars. No machines. No engines. No voices. Just my breathing and the sound of the wind and the occasional chirp of a junco. I could see the little slate gray critters flitting through the branches around me—I always know I’m on a high peak when I see these little highland birds. Walking along, I kept looking for a waterfall that I’d heard was visible from this trail. After a while I could hear a roaring off in the distance. Looking in that direction as I came to a break in the woods, I saw the biggest unnamed waterfall I have ever seen. To my knowledge, this waterfall has never been named and is not on any topographic map I own. It originates on a high plateau between Mount Hardy (6,110 feet) and Green Knob (5,900 feet) and has to be the highest elevation waterfall in eastern North America. There seems to be no trail leading to the falls, and any bushwhack over to them would be a risky undertaking. I was suitably impressed.
In a while I passed Mount Hardy on my left. I wanted to summit that peak and add it to my list of conquered 6,000 footers. But I could not seem to find a good route up and kept encountering rock walls and thick growths of rhododendron. As it was getting close to 5:00 pm, I decided not to try to summit that peak since I was alone. So I turned back and hit the Green Mountain Trail to search for a good campsite near the top of Green Knob.
Moving across the ridgeline of Green Mountain, I began to search for a good place to set up camp. Passing through the spruce woods, I came out of the shadows onto a high elevation meadow with stupendous views in almost every direction. Taking one look at it, I decided immediately that this would be my campsite for the evening.
After setting up camp, breaking out my stove and cooking supper, I packed up all of my food in a couple of bags and strung that from a tree well away from camp. You don’t want the smell of food anywhere near your tent when you’re sleeping in bear country. After I did that I decided to scout around the area a bit. The trail I’d followed to the meadow continued on down the slope so I followed it through grass and beech trees and balsams until it met up with another trail. Beyond that I could hear the roar of a cascade far down in the gorge. I could hear what sounded like a waterfall, but I couldn’t see anything through the trees. It was too far to hike all the way down, so I returned to the ridge top and to my tent.
Still having some daylight left after my walk down the meadows I decided to take a short walk in the forest of red spruce through which I’d hiked to where my campsite was located. I unloaded my pockets of everything and went into the woods with just the clothes on my back: shorts, shirt (no t-shirt), nylon windbreaker, boots and socks. I wandered around, and just took in the forest. Keep in mind what I mentioned before: the trails in wilderness areas are not marked in any way. There are no signs. You just have to know where you are going. I intended to walk not more than 100 yards from my tent into the forest. After looking around for a little while, I realized the sun had almost set and headed back to camp. I walked down the trail and came to a point I had hiked on the way in, and realized I was walking in the wrong direction. I stopped and looked around. This made no sense. OK. If I was walking in the wrong direction, all I had to do was turn around and go back. I did so. The shadows were darker and the woods less defined and the sun was now gone below the horizon so I couldn’t use it as a compass. I continued to walk. And walk. And walk. I was nowhere near my campsite.
I stopped and looked around. It was the same thing everywhere I looked. Red spruce tree trunks. Shadows. Nothing else. The trails were indistinct. It was getting dark. I had the clothes on my back.
I was lost.
I panicked. Once more I turned around and moved swiftly down the trail, realizing that in a few minutes it would be too dark to see. I had a headlamp that I could use to walk through the forest at night, but it was in the tent. I had matches that I could use to start a fire, but they were in the tent. Even my knife and compass were in the tent. I’d only intended to go for a short walk no more than 100 yards from that tent. And now I was lost and running through the woods in the growing shadows like a stupid, hysterical child.
Just when I figured I was going to spend the night huddled in the forest with no tent or sleeping bag, I peered through a very small break in the trees and saw Mount Hardy, the peak at which I’d been staring for most of the late afternoon. Okay. That was a point of reference. I knew that the peak lay to the left of my tent, so all I had to do was keep the peak to my left and go upslope. I blazed straight through the brush and trees until, finally, I came back out in the meadow. Looking up the slope I could see the tree in which I’d strung my food bag. But between the ridgeline and me was a huge field of flesh-snaring brambles. I had two options as the light faded: I could go back into the forest and try to find a trail to the ridge; or I could walk through those brambles.
I didn’t even think about it, and plunged right into the brambles and plowed through them to the ridgeline. By the time I came out on the meadow again, and saw my tent, my legs were a torn, bloody mess. I was never so happy to see a tent in all my life. The sun was gone, and there was not much light remaining in the sky.
Quickly, I found my bottle of waterless soap and rubbed my legs down with that. Then I cleaned them with water from a bottle and a small towel I’d brought with me. And I cleaned the wounds again with the alcohol-based waterless soap. It stung, but I didn’t care. I was safe again at my campsite with all of my equipment. After drinking about one and a half liters of water, I snuggled down into my sleeping bag and made myself comfortable. The adrenaline rush of the panic soon faded and, bone-tired, I fell to sleep.
Some hours later, in the dark, I woke up to the call of my bladder and climbed out of my tent into the meadow. Looking up, all I could see were stars so bright that the light from them was enough to illuminate the grassy field. Looking all around me, at every peak and ridge and down into every valley and gorge, I could see no sign of Man. No artificial lights. No fires. Nothing but wilderness in every direction as far as I could see. After a little while I went back to my tent, snuggled down into my sleeping bag again, and slept until 7:00 am.
After lazing around for a while, I went to the tree where my food bag was hanging and got it down. I boiled up some water and had a cup of cappuccino and some fruit pop-ups for breakfast. Despite having slept for more than eight hours, I was still tired a bit sore. The panic from being briefly lost had taken a lot of energy and, frankly, some of the wind out of my sails. My original intention had been to hike back across 215 and into the Shining Rock Wilderness and bag a few more 6,000-foot peaks. But the way I was feeling I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I told myself that I’d hike back to the Mountains to the Sea Trail and see how I felt. I got my camp broken down, hefted my pack on my back, and headed up to the summit of Green Knob and then back down toward 215.
Heading back down the trail, I soon realized that I was far more tired that I wanted to admit. I dropped back to 5,000 feet, then climbed up the heights toward Sam Knob to 5,800 feet again. It was a rough several hours, and I ran out of water and had to stop to refill my water bottles from a cool spring. I was even too exhausted to boil the water and just filled my bottles straight from the spring. And of course I was so thirsty that I drank it all down along the way.
Over the course of the next several hours I retraced the route I’d taken the day before. But what a difference a day made. As I entered the area around Shining Rock, the many tents that had been set up were gone. The hikers I’d seen were all missing, and I seemed to be the only person in that wilderness on a weekday. The silence was wonderful and the solitude was great; but I knew that I was too tired to scale any more 6,000-foot peaks.
And, at last, very tired, I made my way back across the meadow and up toward Shining Rock Ledge and parking area on Forest Service Road 816.
As I got back to my truck, my vehicle was now the only one in the parking lot. I dropped my pack, drank some more water, and loaded my backpack into the cab. In a few minutes I was riding down the road and headed for home. It was after 5:00 pm, and I knew that I’d never have made it to those other peaks before nightfall. I’d tried to cram too many miles into too short a time. Disappointed that I’d not bagged any more of the North Carolina sixers, I was still happy to be headed home to my wife and son.