My two favorite hikers today were "Goldilocks" and her husband, "Silverback."
Goldilocks was taking a break about 8:15 AM near Little Laurel Shelter. The
retired couple is hiking for two weeks from Erwin, TN to Davenport Gap, at the
NE end of the Smokies.
Silverback was slower coming down the long hill Goldilocks had just finished. I was
just leaving Goldilocks when her very tall, silver-haired husband appeared. The
above greeting was exchanged. I laughed at Silverback's response, remembering where
his name came from (alpha male gorillas). I could tell this was a couple with a
sense of humor. My kind of people.
I got an early start (for me) at 6:30 AM and started the three-mile ascent up
to Camp Creek Bald. In about ten minutes I passed three hikers asleep in their
tents, food bags hung about 25 feet up in a tree. When I got to the first
shelter a little after 8, more tenters were still asleep. I waved to a hiker at
the shelter, but didn't go over in case others were sleeping.
Ha! I'm not the only one who likes to "sleep in" in the morning!
It was foggy at Allen Gap when I started but the sun soon shone through the
mist. The Trail was very slick from rain the last two days. I was glad I had on
my grippy-soled Montrail Hardrocks, but still slid a few times during the day on
mossy rocks and mud.
The AT guide book doesn't do justice to this interesting section of Trail. I
went from typical Southern Appalachian hardwood forests to grassy balds to
rhododendron jungles to rocky ridges and back. Some of the Trail was smooth and
runnable, some was rocky, and one mile had the worst footing of any mile on any
trail anywhere I've ever "run." I was glad I was running it after two days'
rest, and not Thursday before we went home.
It's next to impossible for me to give Jim a good estimate of when I'll be
done each day. I figured on 10-11 hours today, looking at the elevation profile
and reading the guide book. I ended up doing it in 10:32, which was more luck
My fastest mile today was probably about 12 minutes. My slowest was more like
60 minutes! Not knowing what the trail surface is like makes intelligent
At the beginning of the run, I thought maybe I'd finish before my
estimate. It would be nice to beat Jim to the rendezvous point, especially after
making him wait (and worry) for about two hours on my last run. Kinda reminded me
of the early euphoria in an ultra race, when my fantasy race time goal seems
Then reality set in. At the top of the first mountain, someone had written
"Speed limit: 10 MPH" on an AT sign right before a rocky section of
trail. (Trail humor!) It was the first of several places I had to be really
careful not to slip, twist an ankle, or fall.
The Trail started to look like a jungle. I imagined I was in Borneo or
somewhere else that is "exotic." Laurels and rhododendrons were dense and taking over the
Trail. The forest floor was covered in moss and ferns. The air was thick with
Shortly I came to a fork in the road. A blue blaze pointed to the trail on
the left, identified as a bad-weather trail. The white-blazed "official" Trail
went right and indicated it was an exposed ridgeline.
Guess which one I took??
This was the Blackstack Cliffs area, which Goldilocks warned me about. She
didn't mention the huge boulders I had to use all fours to climb up and down,
only that the Trail went "very near the edge."
Wrong. The AT goes "very near the edge" (of very long drops) on the
ridgelines north of Charlie's Bunion in the Smokies, at Dragon's Tooth, and at
Tinker's Cliffs. But you couldn't throw yourself off the cliffs at Blackstack if
you tried! There are too many dense rhododendrons and laurels to go more than a
foot off the Trail.
But there are grave risks up there on that rocky ridge. This is where
I took about an hour to go a mile before the lower, safer blue-blazed trail
merged back with the "real" AT. You see, if someone seriously injured a muscle,
tendon, or ligament - or broke an arm or leg - it would be almost impossible to
get off that ridge. You couldn't use a horse or a stretcher. There's no place
for a helicopter to land.
The only way off would be a 'copter that could lower a basket to rescue the
Being the cheapskate I am, and not wanting to inconvenience anyone, I picked
my way very carefully through those awful rocks on Blackstack Cliffs!
The views were worth all the work to get up and down from there. Once again,
I was on the NC/TN state line most of today's run. I could see the mountains on
my right clearly (NC side), but on the left was fog so thick I couldn't see the
valleys or mountains. The mist crept over the ridge but didn't obscure the NC
mountains. It was really interesting and I was glad I was there that moment in
I saw my first rhododendrons in bloom on this ridge. They should be gorgeous
in a couple weeks.
I also saw two new flowers today: the odd-looking Lousewort (below)
and yellow Bluebead Lilies. There were also more pink Lady's Slippers (en
masse!) and other flowers I've seen since Georgia.
This section of Trail had some of the best-kept, well-marked areas I've seen
in the last 300 miles, and two places that were the worst so far. Early in the run,
someone had lopped off numerous laurel and rhododendron branches to clear the
Trail (thank you!) - but had just left them in the middle of the Trail (not very
respectful of the hikers or the Trail). In another area, there were many old
blow-downs, the Trail was covered in weeds, and the markers were so faded I
could barely see them. Not sure what's going on here; it's all the same club.
Fortunately, I didn't get lost today despite all the relocations in this
28-mile section. As I crossed one road, I could see a trail maintainer putting
paint back into his car. He revved up his chain saw as I climbed the next hill.
I was happy to see brand new blazes the last 8.2 miles.
I hope tomorrow's section is as interesting as this one was!