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!

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