Doesn't matter. I went backpacking this week. I left Tuesday morning and drove two and a half hours east to hike a section of the Appalachian Trail. I hate that I drove that far just to go for a walk when there are perfectly good trails (including a whole national park's worth and nearer portions of the AT) that are much closer. Given my rather outspoken ideas about unnecessary consumption, which certainly includes needless burning of fossil fuels, believe me when I say that I don't take such a trip lightly. I only drive about three miles a week on average these days, though, and sometimes you just gotta live your life. But I don't really need to explain myself to you.
It was a nice drive. As much as we should all try to reduce the miles we drive, getting in a car and hitting the road really can be fun, especially when you've been stuck in the same rut for months. And when that car trip involves cruising twisty mountain roads on a bluebird autumn day leaving a rooster-tail of fallen leaves in the wake of your tailgate, it's almost worth the price even if you're not going anywhere.
But I was going somewhere. A place called Big Bald to be exact. I scarfed down my leftover slice of pizza where Interstate 26 crests Sam's Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line before hefting my pack (and hefty it was since I was carrying three and a half liters of water; it's dry up on the ridges this time of year) and heading up into the trees. The first mile was easy; the second was a bitch. The steep grades were rewarded soon enough, however, with a grassy ridge and views of Big Bald several more roller coaster miles in the distance.
The resort development surrounding Wolf Laurel ski area could be seen poking up through the trees on the ridges to the right (south) of Big Bald and in the valleys below. A few miles later, as I began the final ascent toward the bald, I followed a short side trail out of curiosity and found myself standing across from somebody's front yard. So much for wilderness.
Soon after my close encounter of the second-home kind, I found my trail swag. Have I mentioned that I find stuff when I go hiking? I think I have, but here's a refresher of my haul from over the years: a shirt (too small), a headlamp (still in use), a Nalgene bottle (currently saving a liter of water every time we flush the toilet), various carabiners and other climbing equipment and now (drumroll, please)... a pair of adjustable, shock-absorbing Coleman trekking poles. No shit! Just leaning up against a tree! How does a person forget their trekking poles mid hike? Wouldn't you notice, after carrying them all those miles, that suddenly your hands were empty?!
At first I thought that someone must have just leaned them there to go off into the trees and take a crap or something. I looked around but could discern no signs of animal life save the prodigious chipmunk population and some birds. Two lonely trekking poles with no one for company except each other.
And now they are my trekking poles.
And with that, an innocent and unexpected find in the woods, I was now trekking. I became a trekker. What before had been mere walking, or at best hiking, became full-on trekking.
Below: Me, walking, shortly before the discovery of the poles of trek.
And (sometime) after...
became so much more...
than just walking:
The differences are subtle, but believe me, they're there. You just have to look closely.
So now trekking, I trekked up the increasingly rocky trail through the falling yellow leaves until at last I trekked through treeline and into the blazing sun. Feeling the summit fever and trekking even harder, ignoring the sweat poring down my face, I topped out on the bald, grassy summit to take in the breathtaking 360-degree views of forested, multi-colored mountains under brilliant blue skies.
At which time I also confronted a 16-passenger van and a pickup truck surrounded by about 20 people in folding chairs. Let me tell you, there isn't much that's more disappointing than hiking six miles in search of solitude and community with nature at the top of a mountain than finding that you could have driven there, and that other people actually have.
Above: Looking southeast from Big Bald at the Black Mountains, tallest range in eastern North America.
Below: The van.
It would actually turn out that the road to the top is gated and that the group I saw was some sort of ornithological continuing education class, so it could have been worse. If the road were public access, the whole area would have no doubt been trashed. As it was, once they finally packed up and left some time later, the place was perfectly peaceful and I had it all to myself.
I camped a few hundred feet down the mountain where I utilized my new trekking poles to pitch my tarp over. Good thing, too, because finding sticks for the purpose can be really tough in the woods.
After cooking and consuming 2.5 servings of Kroger-brand broccoli cheddar flavored rice, which included well over my daily allowance of sodium, I immediately regretted it and began experiencing a nausea that hasn't entirely let up since. I never did puke, but without going into details about my symptoms I'll just say I will be thinking in a new dietary direction next time I am making my trail food selections.
Ignoring the impending bomb in my gut, I hiked back up the peak in the full-moon light (no trekking this time since my poles were otherwise occupied) and wore out the battery in my camera playing around with time exposures. It was a beautiful clear night, perfect but for the the heavy dew that left some of my gear soaking wet in the morning.
I made sure I was up early enough to get back up to the summit for sunrise where I waited for the show in the predawn chill. I guess the last time I saw the sun rise from a mountain peak was just over two years ago atop the Grand Teton. Same sun, though, and same silence surrounded by the same explosion of nuclear colors. Always worth it.
Breakfast was instant oatmeal chased with a cup of tea and it brought back the same unsteady feeling of the night before, this time accompanied by a pounding headache. The original plan was to stay out for two nights, but given the way I was feeling there was no way I was sticking around to eat more shitty trail food (though no food was sounding good at the time) and spend another night sleeping on the ground.
What followed was the longest six mile hike, I mean trek, I've ever taken. Six miles is nothing for me, but this was a battle. The hardest part was getting up and continuing whenever I stopped to rest. I just felt like 100% ass.
It was still a good trip, though. Big Bald, at least once the trucks and vans pull away, has the best view I've seen anywhere in the east. I don't know exactly why I felt, and still feel, a little off. Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was some bad water. Maybe I just suck.
Well, that was my overnight trip. If that recounting wasn't long enough, here are some more pictures for you.
Four-second exposure and a flashlight.
Just before sunrise.
You can see Table Rock on the horizon to the right of the sun.