Friday, August 15, 2014

Shining Rock Wilderness and Loving the Struggle

Some times you are sun burned and briar scraped, yellow jacket stung and starving, with two skinned knees and dirt caked calves, and still some how hiking feels so good. Good is vague. It feels relaxing, like suddenly turning and letting the tide take you down stream instead of futilely fighting the current. Head up, toes up, bobbing over smooth river stones, effortless. It feels like it is the one thing in the entire world you want to be doing. Above all other actions, hiking in this current moment is what keeps the world turning.

But not always…

I just spent three days backpacking in the Shining Rock Wilderness in North Carolina with Lucas, a fellow green vest at REI. Lucas and I both went to the same university for our BFA degrees. We first met years ago in a sculpture class, in which he excelled and I brown nosed my way to a passing grade. The end of summer, after so many trips and vacations have already passed, can be a slow time at REI. So when Lucas and I discovered that we both had the same three consecutive days off, we decided to make good use of them.

We met up Sunday after work and sorted out our gear and headed out early Monday morning, taking my favorite route up through the Nantahala Gorge.  Several times in my life I had been driving up US 19 just outside of Andrews, NC and I have gotten a migraine. I don’t know what it is about the valley that does that to me, but it happened again. Just before the valley narrows into the hairpin turns up through the gorge, I stopped and let Lucas drive. My blurry peripheral vision wasn’t up to the task. We stopped for a final pee break in Waynesville, NC and I barfed up all the berries I had eaten on the ride up. This is stage two of my migraines, stage one being the part where I think I’m going blind. Stage three is a wicked headache, but I know well enough by now how the cycle goes so I was able to stop it before it got too bad. Needless to say, by the time Lucas cut the engine in the gravel Big Fork parking lot I was ready to be on my feet among the fresh air.

In backpacking, all situations call for a snack break. Come across a beautiful view: snack break. Find a great campsite but it is too early to stop: snack break. Getting psyched for a big climb: snack. Just finished a big climb: snack break. In our case, got to the trail head: snack break. I had a ton of food in my pack. For all the times on the AT that I had to be careful to not eat all my food or tried to only bring the lightest foods, this trip was making up for it. I had massive protein shake mixes made up for each morning. I had an entire jar of Nutella (which I never once had on the AT even though it is very popular). And I had a bag of Campbell’s soup. Not even freeze dried! So daring! I would have never even considered such a weight wasteful dinner while thru hiking but the other day in Publix it seemed like the only edible option. (Plus, the weather called for rain and how great would a bag of Creamy Thai Style Chicken and Rice Soup be after hiking in the rain?!)

We filled our bellies. Me on my classic trashy backpacking goodies that I can only rationalize eating while in the woods and Lucas on his incredibly healthy and energy packed collection of nuts and dehydrated fruits. I never would have imagined that one could eat like a vegan king while backpacking, but I have seen it with thine own eyes, now!  We set out into the damp, grey day and went right at a fork and then went up, forever. As if my soft, fleshy body wasn’t already going to have a hard time from being out of practice, the weight of my pack and the steep climb right off made a really strong point about it all. This junk is rough! But I heard voices ahead of me and knew it must be the peak! Why else would so many people congregate?! I finally inch up to the source of jabbering and Lucas is standing at the edge. A young guy tells a bunch of rowdy boys to shape up because a lady is in their presence and I thoughtlessly spew out a curse word or two about this not being the top before my brain realizes that just beyond Lucas and a few guys our age is a gaggle of kids. The young guy who is apparently much more well mannered than me realizes that I am not actually a lady and hustles the kids forward. I feel bad about it for a while and then get over it when I realize that a bunch of twenty something year old white guys in the woods with a bunch of inner city sounding high school kids can only mean one thing: wilderness therapy.  Suddenly my sailor’s mouth doesn’t seem so bad.    

After a short break at the overlook that wasn’t the top, we push on and on up this mountain, over coming the group of kids and finally level out in Berry Land. Blueberries and black berries everywhere. We stopped every time we saw them and gorged ourselves. In less than an hour and a half I had to stop eating them from lack of space in my stomach. Never in my life have there ever been too many berries before this moment! We reach a spot that must be on the map so we stop and pull it out. This happens a million and over times over the days we are in the Shining Rock Wilderness and sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. The trails are narrow and wildly overgrown. Navigation is hard. We eventually start taking trails that look like they drop in elevation in hopes of finding a campsite worthy of Lucas hanging a hammock, something more substantial than the briars and blueberry bushes all around us. With the dark clouds above and the distant rolling thunder, I would prefer to not pitch my tent on a bald any how.

We take the first site we find and it’s a good one. I get stung by a yellow jacket collecting wood and yip and yelp around for a second before swearing off the search altogether. A fire turns out to be impossible because all the wood is too damp, which makes the sting all for nothing. Darkness falls and we sit enjoying the blackness even if a fire would be a tad better. Coyotes cackle and howl in the distance and I am grateful that I used the last remaining light to pee and promise myself that I can make it until morning to do it again. I go to bed and sleep wonderfully in my old room. Hovering one inch above the ground on my Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad, drooling on my thankfully waterproof clothes bag, enclosed in my claustrophobically small Fly Creek tent. It’s so familiar and I revel in it. I still had a pair of earplugs in the pocket of my sleeping bag so I didn’t even have to listen to the coyotes howl at the full moon all night.

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In the morning we wake up and take off on beautiful trail that abruptly turns to overgrown briars again. It gets small and then wide again and then we loose it and find it and walk through head high brush some more. Eventually there is a river and a father and a daughter. He knows the way, or seems to at least, so we follow but they are slow. She is small and unable to ford the rushing waters alone and his pack is about 80 pounds and is a pure caricature of what a backpack is supposed to look like. They lead us over and down the river a time or two and he gives us directions and we set off on a trail that could be intended for man or may just be a rabbit path. There are many of them and we make a series of educated guesses until we are obviously lost. We begin walking down stream as best we can, sometimes on a trail and sometimes hoping over rocks in the water. An Aussie appears, who is a big fan of “hocking” and it takes me just a little extra time to figure out that he is saying “hiking”. He tells us to keep picking our way over the stones until we find a bridge downstream. We do and find the bridge that we somehow missed before. My feet had stayed dry the entire time until one last rock hop. It was technical and when one toe went in just a little too deep I gave up all hope and tromped across with splashy ease, ready to be on a discernible trail again.

The bridge led to a path that lead to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the overlook staring straight at Looking Glass Rock. Exhausted and miffed at the trail, we threw down our packs and dove into out food bags. I kicked my shoes off and answered a women’s questions about our trip as I wrung the brown, dirt water out of my socks. The sun had come out and we baked on the asphalt as cars came in and out of the pull off. I felt as hiker trashy as ever, both of us pack-sploding and stinking right in front of a great view of Looking Glass’s sheer, rock face. Grand moments like these make the difficult parts of backpacking grand as well.
We set out again and chose a trail that looked nice. It was nice, very nice. Very beautiful and everything you want a trail to be, but it led us right back to the Parkway. So we decided to road walk to where we thought we were supposed to be.  Thankfully, BRP road walking is not normal road walking. I felt like I was back in the Doahs. The grass was so green on the shoulders of the road and the sky was so deep blue above us. We walked past dripping cliff faces and up against breath taking views. We made a game out of walking on the railings that separated the road from the edge of the world.

Eventually we made it to the busy parking lot that marked the beginning of heavier trafficked (aka better maintained) trails. It was glorious. We beasted past all the day hikers with their cars sitting in the parking lot a quarter mile away and made it to a quieter place way up on a ridge. I love looking over the side of a mountain and seeing how far and high I’ve have made it. It makes the human body seem capable of so much more than we use it more on a day-to-day basis. That night we climbed up onto a ridge and camped under a grove of tall spruce trees that had spent decades of their lives making the softest, spongiest ground one could imagine. A sleeping pad was hardly needed. The dead, lower limbs of the trees also made for excellent firewood. Instead of having to go out and collect firewood, all we had to do was take a few steps and harvest it off it a nearby tree. It was the most ideal firewood situation I have ever seen. We quickly had mountains of wood, more than I thought we could use, but Lucas insisted. The sun was directly ahead of us and was pouring through the cracks in the needles of the trees as it fell lower in the sky. As it disappeared it became very chilly. The entire trip was like a journey back into spring. For a tent camper, that’s just perfect. A little bit of chill is the best you could ask for. But for hammock camping it is less than ideal. To make matters worse, Lucas left assuming that it would be August in the Mountains like it was back home so he didn’t have any warm layers. Come to find out, it’s still April up here. I brought mine thinking I wouldn’t need them but I know how much of a baby I am about the cold. Babies need base layers year round! If I had known it was going to be as cold as it was, I would have brought my down jacket. We sat and fueled the fire until the stones around it radiated heat and finished off the last of our whiskey. 

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By the first light of day Lucas is up and rebuilding the fire because he barely slept due to the cold. I sleep in as he burns up the entire spruce forest and when I awake I feel guilty about being a ground dweller for once. On the AT, I was the one in a puddle, as Gonzo swung soundly above the sopping ground. We ate and packed up between shifts of hunching by the fire and headed back down the ridge for sunshine. The trail dumped into an intersection and we chose a wide, open trail with great sun light. It led us into the heart of blueberry country. And not, stand in the trail and pick the berries off the tall bushes among briars and weeds. I mean, a bald covered in short blueberry bushes where you can lay down among the rows of them and be sheltered from the wind, soaking up the sun as you pluck the millions of fat, succulent berries one by one. True blueberry country! We stopped and filled an entire tin with berries and sat and filled ourselves as well.

We continue up the trail and several times come to a place we have been before and simply choose a different direction to take. Lucas knows of a good campsite but when we make it there it is still early in the afternoon to stop. We bust out the food bags, as it customary, and we eat in the beautiful, open spot. This always makes a solid campsite feel like it was put to good use if you are unable to stay there. We hit the trail again and are approximately parallel to the trail that brought us from the car up into the mountains. That’s means this time we are going down and it felt so nice. Until I got my foot caught in a root. One of the ones that are so perfectly arching out of two spots in the ground that you can only assume it’s a cruel joke. Getting one foot caught would have been okay if the other foot wouldn’t have also gotten caught while trying to make the saving step. I would pay a large sum of money to have the footage from the GoPro that SHOULD have been strapped to Lucas’ head at that moment as he watched me dive down the steep trail.

It was a good fall. The best I have ever had despite having backpacked well over two thousand miles. I soared and eventually land on my knees, hands and elbows. The trail is so steep that I am still on an incline, just a lesser one, and I am crunched up in a strange rendition of Child’s Pose that no yoga teacher would let fly in class. The weight of my pack is holding my head down and making it seem impossible to right myself and once I realize that I am okay, I am laughing so hard that I couldn’t sit up anyway. Lucas more and less rolls me over and asks if I’m alright and some how he isn’t laughing. Maybe he feels bad or maybe it looked really serious but I can only expect that I would have barely been able to hold it in if I had just seen some one attempted to jump and fly off of poorly chosen part of a mountain side.

I stand up, brush myself off and wipe off the dribbles of blood with my bandana. We keep on at a brisk pace but this time I am being more careful of where I step. Our plan was to find a campsite fair closer to the car so we could make an easy exit in the morning. We located one right on the creek. The whole time we had been making jokes about how we wanted the perfect campsite: good trees, good flat spots, a creek or river beside it, easy firewood, a cooler of beer. This was good enough. It was only mid afternoon though. I laid out my sleeping pad and stared up into the trees a while. Lucas sat on a rock in the creek with his sketchbook until the mosquitoes drove him away. By that time I had finished off the jar of Nutella so we sat on my pad and made a game of throwing things into the empty jar. We did this for ten minutes and then we were out of ideas.

When backpacking, there are only three things that make sense. Eating, Sleeping, Hiking.  If you’re not doing one of those, it can be difficult not to become antsy. Only an hour and a half until it’s a reasonable time to cook dinner, I told myself. We had already been there and hour and even by then the sun had began to shift. We had come down a good ways from the 5,500ft elevation of the night before but still there was a chill in the air. I could tell Lucas was already worried about it. We knew the car must be close and when he asked me how I felt about hiking on, the part of me that was counting the seconds until dinnertime was already packed and ready to go. Another part of me wanted a last night in the woods. We threw everything back into our packs and were car bound. As soon as we started walking I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted to be doing. Not going to the car, really, but moving. I just wanted to hike. I don’t know why, after being so beat up, it felt so good to just be hiking. I relished it immensely. 


We reached the car and entertained the idea of driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway until we found a nice place to camp but little else seemed to be lower in elevation and thus warmer than where we were already. It was only six o’clock so we eventually decided to head home instead of stay out another night. It is only a four hour drive back and we busted it out in record time, which is lucky for us because my pit smell alone could have killed us if it had taken much longer.
The next day at work Lucas brings me a still warm loaf of blueberry walnut bread. Mountain fresh berries, picked the day before. It’s perfectly sweet and perfectly tart.

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This trip reminded me how much I love the ups and downs of backpacking. It can suck so much and so quickly turn into everything you want it to be. Backpacking is like life but in a compressed amount of time. You always end up looking back on the difficulties and can take them for what they’re worth, great experiences that shape you and make the good times good. Can I string together 2,663 miles for a thru hike of the PCT? I’m still not sure if I can or not, but a very least I should start thinking about hiking shorter trails like the Benton MacKaye Trail, Long Trail, or John Muir Trail. Just to feel sun burned and briar scraped, yellow jacket stung and starving, with two skinned knees and dirt caked calves. 

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