When I was a little girl my dad used to take my brother and I hiking. Often we climbed Tinker Mountain and other parts of the Appalachian Trial. I am pretty sure it was those hiking trips that fostered my love of the outdoors and my urge to walk every trail I see.
During those trips my dad often talked about how great it would be to hike the entire trail from Georgia to Maine. He acknowledged it was a pipe dream but said he would settle for hiking from 311 in Catawba to 220 in Daleville. It’s not a terribly long trip. Only slightly over 19 miles but not a casual day hike (though I know people who do the trip in a day). Well my dad hasn’t done it yet.; however, I put nothing past him. Last year at the age of 70 he hiked with me down into the Grand Canyon and kicked my butt on the way back up and out of the Canyon so who knows what that man will do! As for me, from the moment my father mentioned the hike when I was a little girl, the seed germinated in my mind and I promised I’d get around to it one day.
One day arrived last weekend. My usual hiking crew, consisting of “Father Time”, “The Marlboro Man”, and “Aqua Man”, decided it was time to do the Catawba Challenge. Initially we planned to strike out together but due to all sorts of schedule conflicts we all started our hike at varying times. We decided to rendezvous at McAfee’s Knob Friday evening. I was the last to hit the trail and when I arrived the other three were already there. We took a few photos before setting off to find a suitable camp for the night.
With our spirits high and our packs not yet feeling burdensome, we put some good distance between us and McAfee’s. Knowing the night promised a lot of wind we tried to find a camp site on the eastern side of the ridge. Unfortunately there were not a lot of flat areas; however, we did manage to find a semi flat place near a clearing. With the sun hanging low in the sky, we felt it was the best we were going to find that day so we dropped our packs and started setting up camp.
One of the great things about backpacking is that you don’t have all the crap one tends to drag along when car camping. A tent, a sleeping bag, and a pad and bam! You’re done! The Marlboro Man out did us all! He simply brought a hammock and a sleeping bag. Low drag, high speed!
After setting up camp, throwing our food in a bear bag, and getting a fire ring built, we decided it was dinner time. While the men folk prepared the food, I set my attentions on building a fire. Luckily most of the wood was rather dry so it didn’t take long to get a nice blaze going. It’s interesting how proud one feels of the fire they build while out in the woods. I’m sure it’s been happening ever since man first built a fire but I couldn’t help but look at it and think, “Yeah!!! I did that! I started that fire!”. Must be a primal thing.
After eating freeze dried chili mac (which Father Time wasted by dumping half of it on his pants), we sat around the fire and chit chatted. Around 9:30 we finally called it a night and headed to bed. I wished Marlboro Man luck and hoped that the bears would leave him alone. The joke all night long was that the bears would treat him as a tether ball or a pinata!
In the middle of the night I awoke the roaring sound of wind. It was odd because I could hear it in the trees at the top of the ridge but couldn’t feel it against the tent. It seems we made a wise choice when selecting our camp site because we were really buffered. Had we slept higher on the ridge or on the western slope, we would have ended up in Oz and surrounded by very short people.
Birds woke me up at first light and I realized just how warm and toasty I was in my bag. My North Face Hot Lum bag was a wonderful investment and I think it will serve me well on Kilimanjaro! Unfortunately, I think the others got a little chilly during the night.
After eating breakfast (for me, some granola and blueberries), we packed up and headed up the trail. The hike along the ridge between Tinker Cliffs and McAfee’s Knob was really beautiful. We saw some gorgeous views of Carvin’s Cove as well as the Catawba Valley. Our goal for lunch was Tinker Cliffs. We all agreed that once we arrived there we’d break for some food and a rest.
As I walked along in front, I took in the scenery and pondered many things. I must have been pretty deep in thought because I didn’t notice the HUGE anaconda black snake lying across the trail until I almost stepped on him. Now I won’t lie…I screamed! Not because I am afraid of snakes but there’s just something freaky about seeing one when you don’t expect it. This isn’t the first time this has happened. For some reason black snakes LOVE to lie in the middle of the trail and wait for me so they can giggle as I scream my head off. Last time it happened I was walking on Read Mountain. Anyway, once my brain processed that it was simply a harmless non-venemous snake, I was happy to check him out and marvel at his size. He didn’t budge an inch and I suspect it was because he was so cold. After admiring him, we gave him the right-of-way, walked around him and set off on the rest of our journey.
Once we reached Tinker Cliffs we took our packs off and snapped off pics like paparazzi. We also enjoyed our lunches. It’s amazing how even the most simple snack can taste delicious when you’re in the woods. It was pretty windy so as much as I enjoyed the view, I was a little uncomfortable out on the cliffs despite the abundant sunshine. After taking a 30 minute break we loaded up and headed out. We passed a few day hikers who asked if we were “thru-hikers”. Ha! I guess we had a lot of gear on our backs.
We continued on to Lambert’s Shelter where we took another break and collected water from the creek. As we rested Aqua Man ran into some friends of his! Ha! Small world. We enjoyed some nice conversation with them, realized we had more common friends, then wished them well as they continued on. Before we set off, we reviewed the map and decided to camp at Angels’ Gap.
An hour or so passed and we arrived at Angel’s Gap. It wasn’t the best place in the world to camp AND it was also only 3:00PM. At that time we made a group decision to continue on. HUGE MISTAKE. In that moment, we all still felt fresh and talk of BBQ at Three Lil’ Pigs clouded our judgement. So…we kept hiking.
The next part of the story seems to drag on forever. At least, forever is how long it felt as we climbed up and down the sawtooth ridge. The uphills I didn’t mind. I never mind uphill. In fact, I have a gift for being able to plow non stop up the steepest grade. Unfortunately, I’m a wimp on the downhills. I hate them. They make my knees ache so badly. A vicious cycle of up/down continued on for miles and miles. Once we reached Hay Rock we realized we should have just camped at Angel’s Gap but it was too late to stop at that point. We had to press on despite protests from our joints. Here’s the thing: 25 pound packs don’t feel that bad for the first 8 miles…but once you pass 10 miles, it starts to suck. In fact, Father Time and Marlboro Man later admitted that in their lowest moments along the trail they toyed with the idea of hiding their gear behind a tree and coming back for it later! HAHAHA.
Things started to get pretty rough for some of the crew. I gotta say, I think running has really paid off because I felt really good until the last downhill section off the mountain. Unfortunately, I don’t think everyone else felt so good. In order to help Marlborn Man, who at one point was on his knees in the middle of the trail with his face down to the ground (I wasn’t sure if he was stretching, praying, or plotting my death for being one of the crew members who pushed to continue on), I offered to carry some of his gear to lighten his load. He gave me his sleeping bag which was quite heavy. I kept trying to motivate and encourage. Sometimes I even ran ahead to scout out the trail for the turn off (hoping that if I could encourage them to push on just a bit more, they’d be rewarded with downhill). I felt like Papa Smurf with my exclamations of “Not much further now!”. At one point, sensing I might end up like one of the unluckier members of the Donner party, I decided to just shut up. I could sense my motivational speeches of “Every step makes you stronger” and “That which doesn’t kill you…” were wearing thin and it wouldn’t be long before I ended up with a camp trowel in the back of my skull.
Finally! Just as the sun started getting low in the horizon, we reached the part of the trail when it turns and heads off the ridgeline and down to our parked vehicle. Father Time ditched everyone and disappeard. I think the call of BBQ was too great. As for me, the minute we hit the downhill my legs started to curse me. With every step I felt the 25 pounds I was carrying on my back and the 5 pounds of gear in my hand that belonged to Marlboro Man. I tried to stay within sight and ear shot of Marlboro Man and Aqua Man. With light fading and everyone feeling fatigued, I worried that someone might stumble and break a leg.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the mountain and we all seemed to walk a little faster once we were within 1/4 mile of the vehicle. When we finally reached the truck, few words were exchanged. We needed calories! We made a bee line to Three Lil’ Pigs for some dinner.
We walked in looking like younger, less bearded versions of the Unabomber. I’m sure we smelled awesome! We didn’t care though. All Marlboro Man and I wanted were glasses of Dr. Pepper. Immediately upon sitting down spirits soared! We were chatty, friendly, and full of life. We tallied up our miles and realized that we hiked over 13 miles since breakfast! Not too bad with full packs! We congratulated ourselves and agreed that thru hikers are complete badasses!
It was a fun trip! It was a promise fulfilled and I think this was great practice and training for Kilimanjaro too! I think we’re going to talk about this one for a long time to come!