Monday, December 30, 2013

Hemphill Bald

On top of Hemphill Bald
Amy and I both had a busy fall, with Amy transitioning into her new library position at Newberry College, and me grappling with the demands of classes and extracurriculars at USC. However, each of us continued to work on the book in the time we could find, striving to have almost everything complete by the end of the year. We reserved the weekend of October 12th to do our final, and perhaps most anticipated, hike: an 8.2-mile round trip to Hemphill Bald and back. This post is a couple of months overdue, but the collection of stories in this blog would not be done justice if this last experience was not included. As always, it was unique and beyond words.

Beyond Amy’s and my wildest expectations (and most USC students’ expectations), the government was still shutdown when the weekend of October 12th came around. Our anticipated hike to Hemphill Bald was a part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We decided to go anyways and just park the car outside of the gate. I still don’t know if this was legal or illegal, but I do know that nobody was there to enforce the “facility is closed” label. In fact, we ran into more fellow hikers on this hike than we did on any other hike of the entire project.

Amy and I arrived at the gate around 10:30 am. It was a crisp autumn morning on this 5000-foot mountain overlooking the local communities of Maggie Valley, NC. This was sweatshirt-beckoning weather, a welcoming contrast from the never-ending 80° Columbia summer.

Not far into the hike, we came upon the first major point of interest: a beautiful mountain house sitting upon a grassy knoll in the distance. Once the summer home of two generous mountain lovers, it is now the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, a national public research facility that was included in the 535-acre donation by its owners, Kathryn McNeil and Voit Gilmore, to the National Park in 2000. What a wonderful gift! The Learning Center was closed due to the shutdown, but normally it is open to the public.

Amy and I continued our hike on a relatively level trail, red and yellow leaves crunching beneath our feet. The trail, aptly named Cataloochee Divide Trail, traversed high along the Cataloochee ridgeline, which resembled a natural bridge connecting two grand mountains-there were great views off both sides.At one point along this stretch, we remarkably found a hidden piece of paradise, tucked away from the trail on a small nook in the mountain. I was overcome with imagination of what it would be like to wake up every morning and spend just 15 minutes in this spot drinking my coffee. There was something special about this place, and Amy and I could feel it.
We eventually had to pull our bodies away from the ever-relaxing paradise chairs and return our minds to the ultimate destination of the hike, Hemphill Bald. We continued along the forested Cataloochee ridgeline for about another mile before we started thinking about lunch. The timing of our hunger could not have been planned any better; we arrived at the Swag County Inn, a luxury mountain inn bordering the National Park and overlooking the valleys below. The Inn and its viewing grounds were private facilities, but fortunately for us, the gate was open for visiting hikers. Amy and I sat down and had lunch at this rare piece of civilization in the wilderness. We enjoyed the company of several of the Inn’s guests, including a Clemson fan who refrained from talking about his school and opted for expressing his admiration of the views.

View from the Swag Country Inn
Lunch left us with a renewed energy. We were in the homestretch. In less than a mile, Amy and I arrived at Double Gap, the base of the magnificent grassy façade, Hemphill Bald. From here it would be a short, steep trek to the top. Before beginning this last push, we ran into a pair of Gamecock fans (one of whom worked in USC’s admissions office), and we exchanged the great news of USC’s triumph over Arkansas in the day’s football game. With an extra pep in our step, we made it to the top of the 5,550-foot summit in a matter of minutes.
Double Gap
Once again, I am at a loss for words to describe the sensations I felt atop Hemphill Bald. I walked along the crest of the grassy façade, eager to take in every angle, every color, and every view that could be given. The autumn colors brilliantly enhanced the atmosphere. Pictures can only come so close to depicting the actual experience, but in this case, they are better than words.

Amy and I sat in the grass for a long time and, as usual, tried to take it all in while momentarily forgetting the trivial stresses of life, such as the thought of having to eventually leave this place. In the spirit of Bob Dylan and my Echoes in Blues class at USC, I had brought my harmonica along, and I played “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Amazing Grace” on top of the bald. Never will I do another hike without bringing the ol’ tin sandwich along.  

Amy and I took the adventurous route back to Double Gap. We went straight down the side of the grassy bald rather than taking the trail that wound through the forest. Strewn across the bald were reckless markings that, without a doubt, were caused by the infamous wild boar perpetrators, known to roam the area.

Amy and I made it back to the car at the fringes of dusk, exhausted. Neither of us had ever been to Papas and Beer Mexican Restaurant in Hendersonville, NC, but we had heard raving reviews and knew that we had to keep the excellent-food-streak alive; it was a given.

We pulled into the restaurant at 8 pm and were immediately caught off guard by the 20-person crowd waiting outside. Our stomachs were teeming-was it worth the wait? We gave it a go, and miraculously, got seated at a 2-person table without having to wait.

The bean-based dip was unlike any dip I had ever had, and it was absolutely amazing. My main dish, which was some sort of burrito, was undoubtedly the best Mexican food I have ever had. Amy’s looked even better. After our meal, we stayed and watched the quadruple-overtime Penn State-Michigan game on t.v., one of the most thrilling games, I think, in the history of college football. Somehow the day’s experiences exceeded anything I could have dreamed about and cultivated the same surreal sense of wonder and awe that I felt during every other hike. The grassy balds will keep bringing me back for new adventures.

I will definitely post again with a summary of this project, information on the book, and prospects for the future!

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Little Hump/Big Hump

Little Hump
On Monday, July 29th Amy and I woke up with the familiar pre-hike anticipation feeling. Although we were very excited to do the Little Hump/Big Hump hike, we each had a couple cups of coffee on the outside deck, taking our time to see if the morning weariness and soreness from yesterday’s hike would wear off.

We finally got all of our stuff packed up and headed off for the next adventure, sometime around 10 am. It was about a 2 hour drive to the far western part of North Carolina, in the same vicinity as Roan Mountain where we did the Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge hike. Once again, the drive took us on numerous windy mountain roads past tons of Christmas tree farms, small mountain communities, and many, many churches. The last segment of the drive took us 5 miles up Roaring Creek Road, a seemingly isolated mountain community-I was amazed and relieved when we finally came to the trailhead at the end of the road. Part of me had been almost sure that we were lost in the middle of the Apps without any connections.

It was 12:45 pm when we began the hike-a later start than we would’ve liked, but we couldn’t complain. It was a sunny day and there was not a single cloud in the sky, which was especially amazing considering that this month of July had already blown away Boone’s all-time-history record for inches of rainfall.

Equipped with two backpacks worth of hiking supplies, we started up the trail in earnest. In less than half of a mile we came upon two open fields glimmering in the sunlight. I was already really liking this hike.

We followed the trail (which was really an old roadbed) through the second meadow and then up the side of a mountain. After we had climbed about half a mile, we came to an even bigger meadow. This meadow was even more spectacular than the last. It was thriving with wildflowers, butterflies, and grasshoppers. Its most defining feature, however, was the view. There was an incredible view of a bald up to the left (which we later found out was Big Yellow Mountain) and a beautiful, picturesque landscape of blue mountain peaks straight ahead.
What we would've missed if we had gone the right way

We continued through the meadow and up the mountain on the other side. It felt like we were heading towards the bald on top of Big Yellow. We hadn’t stopped climbing since the first meadow and something didn’t seem right. Amy and I looked back at the hiking descriptions we had brought with us and confirmed our fears: we were going the wrong way. According to the directions we were supposed to have made a 180-degrees turn into the first meadow. As we headed back down the mountain, I did the math and found that by the time we would get back onto the right trail, our legs will have added 1.4 miles to the trip. This wasn’t too bad, I thought, but now time was going to be a factor. On the bright side, though, we were able to experience a beautiful meadow that we would have otherwise never seen.

Yellow Gap junction
Soon after getting back on track, our trail led us to Yellow Gap, the junction where we would get onto the Appalachian Trail. We sat down for a quick lunch before beginning the climb up to Little Hump.
Despite being one of the most steep and difficult sections of the hike, the first mile on the A.T. was absolutely stunning. On the right, there was a lush grassy meadow blanketing the entire mountainside, and beyond, there were unperturbed views of endless ranges and peaks.  We could look down and see an old red barn that had been converted into A.T. shelter. Also, behind us to the west we could see the grassy caps of Round, Jane, and Grassy Ridge.

The barn is visible down below
Due to time constraints, we weren’t going to be able to make it all the way to Big Hump. It was already 4 pm and it would take us a couple hours to get back to the car. Amy and I had to come up with a plan. We ended up deciding that I would continue on to Little Hump (which wasn’t far from here), spend some time there, and meet Amy back at this meadow by 6 pm. Our priority was to get off the trail before dark, so we knew for sure we couldn’t make it to Big Hump. Furthermore, Amy had already been to Little Hump before, so she reasoned that she could sit in this meadow and work on some writings for the book while I went to Little Hump.

I continued on the same trail out of the open field and into a shaded forest. There were two species of flowers in this section that dominated my attention: the Turks Cap Lily and the Bee Balm, both of which resemble different types of headwear- the former of a turban, and the latter of a jest’s hat.
Turks Cap Lily
Bee Balm

When I finally came out onto the bald of Little Hump, all of my previous emotions from the day subsided and made way for an all-powerful sense of joy. In less than 10 feet, I had stepped out of a forest canopy and onto the top of the world. I couldn’t help but do a couple of heel-clicks and let out some shouts of joy, keeping in mind that I had this place to myself.
Walking out onto Little Hump
I ran up to the summit on adrenaline, my body willing me to get to the best spot on the entire mountain. Up top, I was awestruck at the views. This had to be my favorite bald yet, I thought. I could literally see everywhere for miles. I took tons pictures and videos, but they didn’t even come close to capturing the actual majesty.

I sat down on a boulder and thought philosophically about life for a little bit before heading back. It was hard to leave this place, but I had already decided that I was coming back next weekend. I already had a good excuse too-to visit Big Hump.

Amy and I made it back to the car before 7 pm without a problem. It was a day full of many ups and a few downs, but overall it was very satisfying for both of us. On the way back to the mountain house, we stopped for dinner at the Five Guys in Boone. Amy had told me she had never been to a Five Guys, so I knew it was my responsibility to introduce her. It was much better than the two-story Wendy’s in Boone that all the resort-goers talk about, I thought.

While this was our last planned summer hiking trip, Amy and I still have a couple more balds that we are trying to do around the Asheville area. We will probably take a weekend in September or October to do these, and I’ll post about the experiences on here when the time comes!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mount Rogers

Panorama shot during the hike
On Sunday, July 28th Amy, my mom, my dad, my sister Marissa, our dog Baci, and I did the hike up to the summit of Mount Rogers, located in southwest Virginia. Once again, it proved to be a unique and extraordinary experience.

Planning out the hike
This was one of the several balds on Amy’s list to do around the Boone area. For these hikes, we had planned on staying in my family’s mountain house on Powder Horn Mountain for a couple of days. For this trip in particular, we planned to do Mount Rogers on Sunday and Little Hump/Big Hump on Monday. Both of these hikes had round-trip distances of over 9 miles, so we knew from the beginning that this would be an exhaustive, but hopefully satisfying couple days.

We woke up early Sunday morning, hoping to get most of the hike in before the likely afternoon showers. The trailhead for the hike was located at Massie Gap, part of the Grayson Highlands State Park, which was an hour and fifty minutes drive from our house. At 5,729 feet, the summit of Mount Rogers is the highest point in the state of Virginia. Our hike to the top would consist of about 4.5 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

We arrived at the trailhead around 11 am and quickly got our boots on, eager to get our legs moving. From the very start of the hike, we were enveloped in open grassy meadows. The grassy bald area on Mount Rogers is all situated below the summit, which is unique from many of the other balds we had visited. In fact, the summit of Mount Rogers is covered in an incredible spruce-fir forest. So, from the very beginning of our hike, we were able to gaze across acres of open meadow and grass rolling in the wind.

Our hike soon led us onto the Appalachian Trail and we continued for a couple of miles through the thriving grassy meadows. Baci was having the time of his life. It was during this section of the hike that we came upon one of the park’s favorite features, a wild pony.

We walked up to it cautiously at first, but soon realized that it was not bothered by our presence. Marissa was the first one to go up and pet it, and everyone else followed suit. Surprisingly, Baci was content watching from a distance with my dad. The wild ponies were introduced to the park in 1975 in effort to keep the bald area open via grazing. They are now managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association. Apparently, they are very comfortable around humans.
Eventually we got back on the trail and proceeded towards the summit. At a couple spots along the way we found blueberry bushes, each sprinkled with only about a dozen or so berries that had already had the chance to ripen. We ate the ripe ones that we could find, rejoicing every time that we found a sweet one.

Just under halfway to the summit, we came across the huge rocky outcroppings of Wilburn Ridge. The trail traversed up and down and over and under the huge boulders. Each of us took time to stand on top of one and peer down over the valleys as if we were Mufasa from Lion King.

We could hear the naying of ponies in the distance and quickened our pace a little bit, hoping to find them. It wasn’t long, however, before we came up to an Appalachian Trail Shelter, and we all agreed that it was a good spot to eat lunch.  It not only offered a picnic table and shade, but it also had expansive views of endless mountain ranges.
Lunch gave us the boost of energy we needed for the last mile up to the summit. This final mile was unique and beautiful in a different way from the rest of hike. We ascended through a wet, shaded Red Spruce and Fraser Fir forest, the only one of its kind in Virginia. The evergreens gave the air a fresh Christmas aroma. Green mosses and ferns carpeted the forest floor.

We made it to the summit at 2:30 pm and sat down a rock to rest before heading back. The shade and the cool temperature made it very comfortable, especially on this July day-we knew it was probably 95 degrees and muggy back in Greensboro or Columbia.
5,729 foot summit

The hike back presented a completely different perspective; most of the clouds had cleared to reveal valleys and mountain ranges that we had been unable to see before. Still, we had not had a single drop of rain. Nobody wanted to jinx it, though, so we avoided the topic.


When we had come about halfway down the mountain, Amy and I were behind the rest of the gang. We caught up to them to find them standing still and signaling for us to be silent. Turning the corner, we saw the reason why. There was a mother pony with her young foal, rummaging through some campers’ food.

We slowly walked towards them and eventually were able to gain enough trust for them to allow us to pet. The young foal slowly warmed up to us, but her attention was soon diverted. She had seen Baci and wanted to play. She put her head down and playfully started trotting towards Baci. I think it took Baci a little while to realize that this was actually happening because it wasn't until the foal was a foot away from him that he jumped up and scooted out of the way. The foal followed him in a couple of circles around my dad before finally giving up, probably disappointed that Baci wasn’t willing to be her friend.

After this last memorable encounter we continued on down the mountain and made it back to the car around 5:30 pm. My family had to go back to Greensboro so they took one car, while Amy and I took the other car back to the mountain house. We stopped at Boondocks Brewing Tap Room & Restaurant in West Jefferson for dinner, and we both ordered specialty burgers. With our incredible streak of great quality, charismatic, and local meals we’ve had on all of our trips so far, Amy and I felt compelled to keep the streak alive. While this meal didn’t really live up to the character of the fried cheesecake from Lynn’s Place or the chicken dumplings from Black Bear Café, it was a still really good burger. Simply enough, I think that a good burger was all we really needed.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Huckleberry Bald and Hooper Bald

On Saturday, June 13th, I met Amy in Asheville and we drove over to Robbinsville to do the Huckleberry Bald and Hooper Bald hikes. Both hikes branched off of the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway that stretches through the Unicoi Mountains from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. The drive itself was very scenic, but by the time we had arrived at the trailhead for Huckleberry Bald, Amy and I were both ready to get on our feet.

It was 12:30 pm when we started the hike. Both hikes today would be short-about 2 miles roundtrip for Huckleberry and 1 mile for Hooper. Considering this, and the fact that the sky showed no signs of rain, we began the hike in high spirits, free of any time or weather constraints.

The trail started through a forest strewn with bright summer wildflowers. It wasn’t long before we came out onto a vast grassy opening speckled with blueberry bushes and contained in a sea of yellow buttercups. We weren’t at Huckleberry yet though-this was Oak Knob according to the trail map. Like Huckleberry, Oak Knob is a grassy bald, but we had never really heard much about it. It definitely doesn’t get enough credit for all it’s worth.  It was just as beautiful as any other of the balds we had visited, and Amy captured this in her comment that it would make the perfect painting.

As we were leaving Oak Knob, I set the GPS and notebook down to take a picture. My heart literally skipped a couple of beats when I saw a snake inches from my hand, peering out of the grass. I have a deep-rooted, built-up paranoia against snakes, but I was relieved to find out that it was only a garter snake.

On top of Huckleberry
We took the trail another half a mile up through the forest to Huckleberry Bald. Perched at 5,578 feet, we were able to see for miles from the top of Huckleberry. We could see the grassy cap of Oak Knob to the south, not too far below us, and the grassy crest of Hooper Bald a little farther beyond. There was a pretty cool sensation about being on top of Huckleberry, I thought, that was different than any of the balds we had been to; the presence of Oak Knob, which was connected just below us, added to the on top of the world feeling. We were so much higher than any other mountain entity around us, and now I found myself contently looking down upon Oak Knob, as if I had somehow achieved a feat of exceeding its glory by elevation. I laughed off that crazy feeling, though, because I knew that I had done nothing to earn this spot on the mountain-I was just a visitor lucky enough to witness the natural beauty intrinsic to both Oak Knob and Huckleberry.  
Oak Knob and Hooper in the background

Before we left Huckleberry, I came across a family of wild grouse near the edge of the bald. Amy found another snake curled up on a rock in the sun. Birds soared overhead. We tried to take it all in, but we finally had to force ourselves to leave, with Hooper on our minds.

Hooper Bald was just a mile up the road. In 1908, a man named George Moore, an agent for Whiting Manufacturing Company (who owned the land), decided to create a hunting preserve on Hooper Bald for wealthy clients. Wild boars, buffalo, elk, mule deer, black bear, and Russian brown bear were imported for the preserve. Most of the exotic animals eventually disappeared, but the wild boars dug under the fences, reproduced, and have survived to this day.1

Lush Fraser Fir Ecotone on Hooper
The hike to Hooper Bald was very easy. A gravel trail took us half a mile up to the bald. We initially saw the remnants of what was probably a spectacular flame azalea display a couple of weeks prior to our arrival. Some of the plants still had dying blooms on them. 

We followed the grass for another half a mile down the ridgeline. It was a huge bald; its length-to-width proportion seemed larger than any of the other balds we had been to. Amy and I sat down near the edge where we had a good view of Huckleberry to the north. We were so happy to not have had any rain, especially when it had been raining nonstop for two weeks throughout the whole southeast.
After sufficiently exploring Hooper, we started back towards the car, and then began the drive back to Robbinsville around 5 pm. Our directions back to the town took us a different route than the way we had come out, so almost by chance, we were taken to the downtown’s quaint main street, which included the town hall, a sheriff’s office, and a local restaurant called Lynn’s Place. Lynn’s Place seemed to be just what Amy and I were looking for. It was bustling with locals, motorcycle tourists, and family visitors, and it wafted a delicious aroma. I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and Amy got a turkey reuben sandwich. Dinner was good, but it didn’t even come close to what we had for desert. We both ordered the first thing on the desert menu: fried cheesecake. It came hot, topped with vanilla ice-cream and whipped cream. It was probably one of the best deserts I’ve ever had, ranking behind only my mom’s homemade raspberry cheesecake and blueberry pie.

After dinner, we followed a sign up to the corner of town hall, where there was supposed to be a music festival going on. Sure enough, there was a festival. The entire town of Robbinsville had formed a semi-circle around a dancing square marked with chalk in front of the town hall. A blue-grass band stood on a make-shift stage and prepared to play.

What followed was one of the most authentic, amazing things I’ve ever experienced. As the music started, locals got up and routinely started walking up to the dance square. Amy and I heard the clunk of their feet as they walked, and we looked around to confirm that almost everyone around us had clogging shoes on. This was no joke. The locals started dancing so joyfully and so habitually that I think it must have been part of their culture-something that the town had been doing for generations.

We stayed for a couple hours, knowing that there are probably few places in the United States where we would find such a genuine, talented, and American performance as this.

1U.S. Forest Service