Archive for October 2010

Ghosts in the Wind (Art Loeb Trail)

“DAVID!” Pause. “DA-VID!!” Pause. “DAAAAA-VIIIIIID!!!”

“Huh? Whuh-what’s wrong?! Whuzzzmatter?!”

I had been asleep. With earplugs in.

Now? I was not.

I fumbled with my earplugs and my sleeping bag zipper. Why don’t those things ever work right?

“THERE’S SOMEBODY IN MY HAMMOCK!”

“Did you say in your hammock?!”

“YES! THERE’S SOMEBODY IN MY !@#$ HAMMOCK!”

I struggled to wrap my mind around the situation while working clumsily and feverishly to extricate myself from my cocoon. It had been a cold night and I had used everything in my arsenal to create a cozy environment. That happened to include velcro-ing my tarp around my weather-shielded hammock.

“Aren’t you in your hammock?”

Pause.

“YES!”

Obviously we have a problem here…

It had all started with a late night decision (Why can’t we ever decide on a trail a week…or for that matter a day in advance?) to hike toward Black Balsam Knob via the Art Loeb (pronounced “Leeb”, I think.) Trail just off the Blue Ridge Parkway in NC. Since we had no idea how exactly to do this we stopped at an outfitter on the way, purchased a guidebook and a map for the area and then confirmed the practicality of our plans with a very helpful, albeit distracted ranger. While affirming our choice of route he suggested (as he pointed to his map) that we use the Mountains to Sea Trail to form a loop hike. It made perfect sense…until we got there and looked at our own map. So we decided to just take Art Loeb from where it crossed Farm Road 816 to the first patch of trees (3 miles away according to all we’d read) camp, then return by the same route the next day.

Of course, there were cars crowding the parkway and myriad “leaf-peekers” out for day-hikes. Don’t blame them a bit. Growing up, I was among those crowds. My family would join the rest of the Southeast in filling their tank with gas, packing a picnic lunch and pointing their station wagon toward those beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains to see the autumn leaves at their peak of 3-D techni-color. ‘Tis one thing to look at a beautiful work of art, ’tis another to step into said creation and walk around. We planned to do the latter.

Despite my awful map-reading skills we traversed multiple hills, knobs, balds and even a 6,040 foot high mountain (that Dana couldn’t seem to stop calling Tannenbaum. “Tennent. Tennent.” “Tannenbaum.” “Okay. Tannenbaum.”) From the summit of…Tannenbaum we spotted a grove of, what I believe were, Black Balsam Pines. Mostly dead and dying but trees nonetheless. While stumbling down through a washed-out, ankle-breaking, rhododendron-walled descent Dana’s love of hiking had, well…waxed cold. I walked in near silence as she shared her contempt for this narrow channel of doom, while dodging an ascending boy scout troop. The grove was perched about a hundred feet from the top of a knob and, I hoped, would provide a shelter from the wind. We entered the site on a winding path through scrub-brush, weeds and half-dead trees and a beautiful, almost hidden, campsite opened before us. A solo-hiker who was just packing up shared with us all the hidden amenities: a clear, pure mountain spring a mere ten minutes away, a source of firewood and most importantly a rock overlook with a view of the valley just through the rhododendron forest to the rear. We bid him thanks and good-travel, hung our hammocks, ate our potatoes and built a roaring fire. Interesting to note: The reason we ate potatoes? You know those ridiculously expensive dehydrated meals found in all outfitters? Yep, we bought one. Mac and cheese with bits of crunchy ham. We left it in the car…along with a Luna bar, a peanut-butter crunch Clif bar and the one thing I was most excited about…my Loksak, a tactical-grade, odor-proof zip-lock bag that would enable me to keep my grits and bacon in my hammock so I could have “breakfast-in-bed. All in the car. Potatoes…again.

So after dinner, we nearly ran to the top of the rock to watch the most spectacular sunset we’d ever, ever seen. We ooooo-ed, we ahhhhhh-ed; we held each other and let the beauty of that sunset wash away any residual from the “channel of doom.” We reluctantly picked our way back down to our little grove and hung the bear bag maybe 30 feet away from out hammocks. Not a good plan but this area suffers from a serious tree shortage. I stoked up the fire and we sat and talked until our exhaustion lulled us into a comfortable silence. We zipped ourselves into our hammocks, then our bags, then planned to drift off to sleep. That’s when the wind started picking up. Before sleep could come the wind became enraged and tore through the gap and into our little grove, whipping our tarps against our hammocks. It actually, all night long, would lift the tarp and by default our occupied hammocks into the air and drop us. The movement itself was unsettling but with the accompanying whipping tarp sounds…well, sleep seemed unlikely. I found and used a set of earplugs I had brought along and somehow entered dreamland. I’m not sure what time it was but I awoke to the sound of a man’s voice, “Hello? Hello,” and the beam of a flashlight shining through the fabric of my hammock. I managed to unzip my mosquito netting and weather-shield and poke my head out. As I was responding with, “What?! What the…?!” I pried my sleepy eyes open for a look at this invader…and there was no one there…but the wind…the accursed wind. Surprisingly enough, I fell back to sleep…until, “DAVID!”

As I said earlier, “Obviously we have a problem here.” When I finally wriggled free of my cocoon…for the second time that night, I stepped into what was very nearly daylight. The harvest moon was full and bright in the October sky and lit up our grove as if it were morning. I observed with panic a set of boots just visible beneath Dana’s hammock. I jerked completely awake, leaving behind the 9″ hunting knife I sleep with when hiking, and ran to Dana’s “rescue”. What was I going to do, half-asleep, scared out of my wits and no knife? Hug the attacker? I got to the other side of her hammock and realized what I had seen were actually Dana’s boots. She’d left them sitting right where she’d taken them off. “What’s out there?!!” she yelled in a panic. “The wind. It’s just the wind.” “But I heard scratching!” Her tarp had torn loose and was scraping against the fabric of her hammock. “It’s just the wind.” This lovely fiasco took place at 3:38 in the morning. We spent the rest of the “night” being wrestled, jostled and tossed by our invisible attacker…the Wind.

We both awoke, surprisingly refreshed, just in time to watch a gorgeous sunrise. We braved the freezing wind with tears in our eyes while scarfing down a quick breakfast of grits, oatmeal and Starbucks Via Caramel coffee. Mmmmmm. As we broke camp and packed up our gear, we gut-laughed while filling in details for each other of the night’s adventure. We had discovered from the guy who camped here before us that the trail the ranger had told us about actually existed, though it wasn’t the Mountains to Sea Trail…hence the confusion. We enjoyed a gentle, hour long, easy hike on a farm service road with breath-stealing vistas almost all the way back to the car. The last 1/2 mile on the Art Loeb Spur Trail went nearly straight up the side of a knob but brought us to a fantastic summit before plunging us back down into the shaded, balsam forest that smelled occasionally of cinnamon and hazelnut, where we’d begun our journey. We found the Montero. The Montero found Brevard. We three found the Sagebrush Steakhouse where we more than made up for leaving the mac and cheese in the car. With a final stop at the Leopard Forest Coffee Company we found our way home…or at least to our house, pleasantly exhausted, sated on beauty, and deliciously content.

I told Dana, through chuckles, “I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that our little grove had a reputation for being haunted.” It was nearly Halloween.

Wanna see more pictures from this trip? Find me on facebook.

david longley (alive adventure gear)

Foothills Trail (Oconee to Burrells Ford



With the exception of a really short day-hike, it’s been months since I’ve been in the woods. Work, sick parents, my own issues and a thousand other distractions all kept me from the thing that brings me life. That’s just wrong. Out of desperation, more than anything really, I made the decision to get in the woods somehow, someway. Dana’s mom was in the hospital so I ended up going this one alone. Though I miss Dana terribly when she can’t come along, I still really long for extended times of solitude. So by 4 pm Friday, I’d thrown my pack in my truck and pointed it south on 85. At 3:45 pm I’d decided to hike a section of the Foothills Trail I’d walked several times before. The biggest reason I chose this hike was so that Dana would have an excuse to meet me Sunday. She needed this as bad as I. At least she’d get a couple hours by the river.

So, at 6:30 pm I hoisted my overloaded pack onto my back and trucked off down the trail to make some miles before dark. Miles might be an exaggeration. I made it 1 3/4 miles before finding a nice clearing with 2 trees created for hammock hanging. It was a little cooler than I thought but still warm enough that my 15 degree bag did the trick. Sleep came in spurts due to the constant barrage of dropping acorns. Not sure if they were falling off naturally or if the squirrels were pelting me with them as some sort of vendetta because of my invasion of their territory. I must’ve drifted off eventually because I was awakened with a start at 2 am by the shrill, mournful wail of a coyote, not more than 20 feet away. With a semi-restless night behind me I finally woke to a rich red sunrise, broke camp, retrieved my bear bag and munched on a trail bar while blazing some trail.

By 8:30 I’d made it to Jumping Branch with a growling belly so I plopped down right in the middle of the trail, fried up some bacon and whipped up some cheese grits. Fuel for the journey! Back on my feet and to Nicholson Ford by 10:30 am. Just pass the parking lot, I met a family on the trail: Grandparents, parents, and their kids, Kate and Nick. I wish we had talked more. They seemed really cool. Nick is a Clemson student and rafting guide. They were all out for a day hike….3 generations. Made me think how incredible it would be to be able to share this with my own mom and dad.

Up to this point this trail had been gravy; it was either downhill or softly undulating terrain which made for a nice stroll. But Nicholson Ford signaled change. Knobs, hills and ascent were to come. “Bring it on!” I muttered in faith, and my wobbly, couch-weakened legs rose to the challenge.

I topped the ridge and was startled by a brownish blur that darted onto the trail about 20 yards ahead of me. I seriously wondered if I had just seen a sheep. It quickly occurred to me that it was highly unlikely that I’d encounter a sheep in the woods. (Cut me a break! I said “quickly.”) Then I questioned my interpretation of what I’d seen. Had I just seen a bear cub? If so, where’s Moma? (the bears, not mine) Moments later I heard a voice call out, “Luca!” Around the bend came two exceptionally cool ladies, Ashlie and Wendy (I think. Sorry if I’m wrong. I stink at names.) We talked for about half an hour while Luca displayed his remarkable speed and agility, darting in and out of the woods and occasionally signaling the approach of other hikers with a bark or two. Ashlie and Wendy are from Tampa, Florida and come up every year to hike along the Chattooga. I think they and Dana would’ve hit it off due to their mutual love of the river. They struck me as seasoned, passionate hikers and the conversation never lulled as we talked about other places we’d walked. Here’s where I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: I’m working on starting an audio pod-cast. I brought my digital recorder along on this trip and recorded sections of my hike. What I really wanted to do was to record some of my conversations with people I meet along the trail. Some of the most genuine people I know, I met in the woods. I want to be able to share that with potential listeners. I couldn’t do it. I guess one reason is that I’m usually so caught up in meeting them that I forget and the other is that it’s well…awkward. How do I broach the subject? I couldn’t do it. Next time, huh? Well, we realized we were “burning daylight” and Luca was obviously ready to continue his adventure so we resolved to continue our conversation on facebook.

Lunch came late (3:30) and was barely edible (my soup didn’t fully hydrate)…but the view was gorgeous. I stopped at this little beach on a bend in the river, just past Simms Field. Several years back, on our first visit, we camped here and pulled trophy rainbows from the deep pool just past the little falls. After choking down my “less-than-hydrated” vegetable beef soup, I left my haven to a fly-fisherman and started the switch-back ascent of Round Knob.

Our first encounter with Round Knob was not a pleasant one. It was our very first overnight hike, Halloween weekend, and we’d been told by a “local” that we had an easy one hour stroll to Burrell’s Ford. (The same guy told us he’d just discovered an exhausted hunter, recovering from open-heart surgery, who had outrun a bear. I’m guessing that should’ve been a clue.) Nearly 2 miles of switchbacks later we reached the top and began our descent through the gorge as night began to fall and into Burrell’s Ford…around 5 miles total…not an hour. . Dana melted down several times, swore she’d smelled a bear and ended up panicked, moving at a snail’s pace and nearly hypothermic as we completed our hike in the dark. This time Round Knob was much less daunting. Having said that, by the time I had gotten within 3 miles of my destination I was exhausted, aching and sick of walking. It happens.

Dana wouldn’t meet me until 10am Sunday morning so I could’ve very easily hung my hammock right there by the river and finished off the 3 miles in the morning without any problem. My motivation in arriving tonight was two-fold: First, Dana had shown, shall we say, concern that due to my recent inactivity maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew. I wanted to put any concern to rest and prove to myself, as well, that I could (even in my atrophied state) pull off a 15 or 16 mile day. That’s motivation #1. Motivation #2? Have you ever had a smell, or a taste for a food pop up in your imagination completely unprovoked? It happens to me regularly and it happened at just that moment. There’s a little steakhouse about 10 miles down the mountain that has a really tasty flame-seared marinated sirloin and an eclectic salad bar with a delicious in-house-made buttermilk ranch dressing. I figured if I made it to Burrell’s Ford I could beg a ride to my truck at Oconee State Park, drive to the restaurant, put my craving to rest and then make it back to my hammock by nightfall. So with steak dangling before me, I shrugged on my pack and put one foot in front of the other until I made it to the parking lot. Unfortunately, no amount of looking pitiful, dropping hints or outright asking got me a ride to my truck so the steak was out, Idahoans were in and 7pm found me nestled in my hammock by the river in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. What had been a mild night before was followed by one of the more frigid nights I’d spent outdoors. I donned every item of clothing I had brought with me, zipped shut my weather shield and still spent the night chilled. Seemed like winter had arrived early.

I woke early, packed up and sat on the edge of the woods till Dana arrived, thankfully, early. Using the excuse of retrieving my fly-rod from my truck I quickly hopped into the Montero, cut the heat on wide-open and thawed my aching bones as I drove down the mountain. I made it back and never even took my rod out of it’s case. We hung out by the river for a while before heading back down the mountain once more, to Mellow Mushroom for my traditional celebratory meal: The Brutus Caesar salad with jerk chicken and meatball appetizer. Ahhhhhh. What’s next weekend hold in store?

Wanna see more pics? Find me on facebook!