We set out early in the morning for what we planned to be a full day of hiking, similar to the 17 mile hike to Springer Mountain. My arguments to John for stopping in North Carolina were: 1) if we are rushing to Maine for the mega-hike as planned, we need to train. I have barely hiked this season, and John even less so – I think the Springer Mountain hike was the first one. 2) I appreciate that he has been rushing the trip to fulfill what I want to do, but we should also take advantage of where we are now, and not keep rushing to the distant target. I was persuasive, and he agreed to the two days in NC. To fulfill the first goal, we needed a long hike.
I learned my lesson at Springer and we had picked up a topo map of the area at REI in Greenville. This map came in handy even the previous day, when we lost internet connection and I navigated the roads using the trail map. (John relies on Google maps to navigate, and completely trusts the algorithms to route us, a reliance I will say no more about) [John here… I know how and when to read a paper map if necessary, that said with the internet and Google 99% of the time I let a machine do the work and there’s nothing wrong with that. Heidi’s reply: Except that Google is not always right, and is no replacement for reading street signs]. The map shows Cold Mountain, a peak recommended to me by a friend living in NC, to be a long day’s hike away along the Art Loeb Trail. Maybe. The map doesn’t note distances, and my estimates of how long the squiggly trail lines are is always more optimistic than reality. But I thought that we might, just might, make it all the way to this peak, and pushing for it would make for a good training day. I planned to take the Art Loeb trail all the way out, then on the way back use another trail, off the ridge line with less elevation gradient, to make a loop.
The morning was shrouded in fog as we began the hike, hoping the fog would burn off for afternoon views. The route I choose started with a steep ascent to the top of the ridge. On the way up I encountered blackberries. I was surprised to see this berry, so prevalent and wide-spread in my rain-soaked Pacific Northwest homeland, growing in high and sandy soils. I excitedly sampled a berry, but was disappointed. The flavor was sour and dry, not like the delicately flavored, fat and juicy berries of Western Washington. These berries must need the long rains to fill their drupelets to bursting with amazing flavor. No matter, we continued on and an even better surprise was in store.
Higher up along the trail we came across blueberries. I was really surprised to find this treat. In New York, blueberry season is in June, petering out around the Fourth of July, so I had believed that blueberries were over for the year. I very happily munched away on this surprise treat. As we climbed higher, I continued to encounter more berry bushes, and I availed myself of the opportunity. At the top of the climb, we entered a dream. A plateau of blueberries surrounded us. With the dense fog limiting our line of sight, all we could see were blueberries. It was as if nothing existed, only me, John, and delicious blueberries. I have never seen so many berries in my life. To stumble on these wild berries was such a pleasant surprise. I would taste some, move a few steps, and taste some more. John grew so annoyed at the stopping that he insisted on passing me to walk in front. He didn’t even try any! I can’t even imagine refusing to eat berries. It doesn’t make any sense to me. As I enjoyed the berries, John grew more and more impatient with me. “Come on Heidi, stop eating the berries. We need to get moving and cover some miles before you can eat berries”. So I walked, and grabbed the berries on the way! 🙂
Our progress was slowed by the confusing maze of unmarked paths. We’d have to stop often at forks and try to determine which one was the trail, and which was a path formed by people walking off-trail on the fragile bald mountain eco-system. At one point, the illusion of isolation was shattered when a large group of mostly teenagers trouped passed us. One boy had a tampon hanging out of his nose – presumably to contain a nose bleed, a situation I am all to familiar with. I guess I gave him a strange look as I registered what I was seeing, because I heard him all the way down the path gleefully exclaiming “Did you see the look she gave me?!?” We later learned that this group was from Outward Bound, who also were responsible for the many large white passenger vans with Missouri plates in the parking lot. Just after this group marched by, we were reassured by a small sign that we were still on the correct trail, despite the many confusing side trails.
As it turned out, the reassuring sign was misleading; the sign was placed about 20 feet up from an intersection. At the cross-roads we did manage to determine which way to turn, and hiked onto a much wider and flatter portion of the trail. Eventually we came to a giant intersection where many trails converged. I found the sign for the Art Loeb trail, and we continued on our way. We passed a nice looking camp sight before coming back to another wide and flat portion of the trail. Along the way, we waved at several locals out with buckets to harvest the fruit – this treasure is no secret, but even with all of those locals filling their buckets, there were still more berries than I could ever collect. Along this wide path, John noticed some tire tracks. It is really sad that some people are so lacking in consideration of the ecosystem to not drive over it. After some time walking briskly along this easy path, a car appeared through the fog a hundred yards or so in front of us. John noted that it must have come a different path than us. I agreed and commenced looking at our surroundings, not at the car…until John just started laughing and pointing up ahead. Confused and curious, my gaze shifted to where he was pointing and disappointment set in. Three hours after we set out for what was to be an all-day, marathon training hike, we were back within sight of our camper van. Once I had accepted our predicament, we decided to turn back and try a different, shorter trail.
This time we set out, map and compass in hand rather than tucked away in my pack. Even so, we completely missed the alternate trail we were aiming for, and ended up sitting down for lunch next to one of those small signs designating the Art Loeb trail, not exactly helpfully located at the intersection. By this time, the fog had burned off and we decided to try the Art Loeb trail again, three hours behind schedule. Along the walk, we passed the same campsite we had noted earlier, only this time it was on our left, while it had been on the right the first time. Both times we had intended to be walking north, so this was our first clue about what we had done wrong earlier in the day. Once we returned to the giant trail intersection, I understood. The wide flat trail was the Ivester Gap trail, the easier trail we had intended for the return trip. After passing the Outward Bound group, the Art Loeb trail merged with the Ivester Gap trail for a short time, then veered off again. In the fog, with the trail marker set back from the interaction, we missed the trail. When we came to the large intersection, since we weren’t on the Art Loeb trail, the segment we continued on was the trail we should have come from, not the one we wanted to take forward. And when it merged again with the Ivester Gap trail, we walked it right back to the trailhead. Oops. Lesson learned, and for the rest of the day I looked at my compass every time we came to a side path, and anytime I wanted confirmation that we were heading the right way.
After walking a few miles, we came again to a bounty of berries. By this time, I had an pint container we had emptied at lunch. We took a break to fill the container, gathering a special treat to share with John’s uncle Rich at our next stop. While we were busily filling the container and sampling the goods (even John joining in the munching by now), a hiker who we had seen set out when we did came by on his return trip. Kenny, as he introduced himself, stopped to chat for some time. “These blueberries are crap this year! I mean, you may think they are the best blueberries that you’ve ever had, but you should have been here seven years ago. I picked enough to make 13 gallons of blueberry wine, and I ate so many that I shat blue…” At this point, I wanted to make our exit, but it was hard to break away. Kenny was full of advice about where the better berries are, where the great swim holes are and other local hikes to try. Which would all be wonderful information had we been sticking around any longer. Kenny and John both fessed up to each other about sleeping in the parking lot the previous night – Kenny had actually pulled in right next to us after we settled in. John also revealed that the van is our home, and Kenny shared that he had lived 12 years on the road in a van. By this point, I had packed the blueberries away and was trying to break away from this conversation so we could keep hiking. But now this strange man, sporting a knife on one hip and a pistol on the other, knew our home was the van in the parking lot, and that we would be continuing our hike deeper into the mountains. Despite the slight nervousness about leaving our home vulnerable, and the new information that Kenny had previously lived and traveled in a van (a conversation John would love to dive into), we broke away and continued hiking.
We traveled through new ecosystems, including the magical looking forest shown below, and along a hillside with more bees than I have ever seen before. The air buzzed with their sound, busily collecting nectar from the surrounding flowers. Eventually we arrived at “Shining Rock” . This mountain gets its name from the pile of quartz boulders comprising it’s summit. Climbing around on the quartz boulders admiring the view made for a satisfying terminus to our hike. We headed back the way we came, even hitting a couple more summits nearer the parking lot that we had missed the first time through. Along the way, we once again became confused at a tangle of trails but this time help was at hand. We asked a berry picker “is this the Art Loeb trail?” and she replied “oh, no! This is just a berry picking trail”. All those confusing trails are for berry picking! Oh, sweet contradiction – the blueberries that I so loved were also to blame for us becoming lost.
Back at the parking lot a little before sunset, we prepared a simple dinner and ate it watching the sunset from the ridge line. John felt bad for the tired and hungry hikers passing by on their way to their cars. We were at our home, showered and enjoying our dinner, and they still had to drive before resting.
The next morning, after sleeping again at the trailhead, I wandered around the parking lot and carefully read the information on the trailhead kiosk. I generally look at these boards, but I just scan them because they contain basic information for less experienced hikers. I had noticed the day before that there were an awful lot of signs about what to do if one gets lost, but hadn’t taken any special notice. This time, reading carefully after our experience the day before, the third line on the sign below had a whole new significance for me. The trail certainly did provide a mental challenge and an opportunity to “practice primitive skills”. Wow.