Art Loeb Trail
This was a while ago — February, 1994. Spanky and I took a Friday off work, left about six in the morning, drove to the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp at the western edge of the Shining Rock Wilderness area, and were on the trail a little after nine. We took a picture of us intrepid explorers, and up we went. I think we went a quarter of a mile, maybe more, and the trail just petered out. It had looked like a good, clear trail, and it was heading NE toward Deep Gap, but it just dwindled — not there. Barely out of the car, and we're lost! So, we backtracked and looked for alternatives and probed this ridge and that wash. Nothing. Last resort: look at the map. Oh-oh. The trail makes a big loop to the SE before it swings north and then east to Deep Gap. Back to the beginning and sure enough the trail does turn right. Thirty-one miles to go.Spanky had done some backpacking with me maybe 15 years before, and now found himself in the mood to get away again. A friend told me that, late one night recently, Spanky's wife got out of bed to find him out on the back porch with his new pack on and just hefting it and looking at the stars, breathing the night air.
There was a deep blue sky. It was about 50 degrees. Frost had lifted the soil off the trail, and we crunched along. We crossed lots of little streams and passed one nice waterfall. I munched pistachio nuts. We'd hoped to lunch at Deep Gap, but we finally stopped at 1:30, still short. I just couldn't seem to be able to do more than a mile per hour.
We did arrive at the gap soon thereafter. It would have been nice to take a side trail up Cold Mt., a mile or two, but I really didn't think we'd have any extra time: 31 miles in three days. Our goal was to "do" the Art Loeb Trail, so we turned south.
We walked along a narrow, sharp ridge with laurel on each side and up to Stairs Mt., very steep and bald on top. It gave us wide views of wooded valleys and Mt. Pisgah on the Blue Ridge Parkway off to the east.
Then we walked and walked, on and on. The trail was fairly level, along a ridge, then along an old fire road. The temperature dropped, the ground felt harder under foot, the puddles on the trail were surfaced with ice, and icicles hung from rocks and overhangs. We emerged onto cleared slopes that stretched all the way to the parkway. There were no stumps or heaps of slash. I don't know if the area had been logged, burned, or if it was a natural bald. But the wind howled, and it was cold. I was too preoccupied to dig out my thermometer. We reached a small grove of trees in Ivestor Gap and burrowed into its center. The wind howled some more.
I gathered sticks for a fire, but we decided we'd never get it going in that gale, and if we did, never control it. We just jumped into the tent and fired up my little Primus stove. It made me nervous to have a flame inside the tent and I watched it like a hawk. But we heated beef stew, and I ate a couple of cold hot dogs. We climbed back out to brush teeth and admire the lights of Ashville way below. A full moon was bright; we could have hiked on.
Did I mention that the wind howled? It shook the tent and roared through the vents. I did not sleep well. Until morning, apparently, because I awoke startled at 7:00 a.m. with sun in my eyes. It was 15 degrees. Still windy. We broke camp as fast as we could and got moving — get the blood flowing. Never mind breakfast. I had my hood drawn tight and my hands in my pockets. I couldn't use my hiking stick. It was too cold (I hadn't thought to bring gloves). Spanky's mustache iced up. My coat came down to mid-thigh, and my lower thighs tingled with the cold. We calculated the wind-chill factor to be about 1 or 2 degrees Kelvin :-)
We crossed Tennent Mt. and Black Balsam Knob and then dropped down toward the Parkway and into some trees. At the first sunny glade, we stopped and spread ourselves out for brunch. It was 20 degrees in the shade and 38 in the sun. It was hard to get the Primus lit at that temperature. I had to warm the fuel tank between my thighs for a while before it would vaporize properly. But I had hot grits and cocoa, and it tasted much better than it really was.
At noon, we crossed the Parkway and it was sunny and warm. I finally took off my coat. We cruised down Shuck Ridge to Farlow Gap and into territory that I had hiked before. Pilot Mt. rises just over 5000 ft. and is bald on top. There used to be a fire tower on top, but it is gone now, except for a few bolts embedded in the rock and traces of water pipe on the way up. Of course, we got wide and beautiful views, crisp and clear — valleys and ridges, Looking Glass Rock, huge and round, and the Parkway at the horizon. I so enjoy being able to look way out there and think that we started even beyond that, way up north and beyond.
Down we went to Gloucester Gap. It was about five and growing cool. We were low on water and hadn't encountered any for a long time, I guess all day. Yesterday had been a lot wetter. Anyway, I trotted down the forest road and soon found a little falls and filled up.
We climbed Chestnut Mt. and camped somewhere on its flank, built a fire this time, although it was a little cold to enjoy it. I cooked hot dogs. I really had good variety, with granola bars in 3 or 4 flavors, raisons, prunes, peanuts, Tang, homemade bread, poptarts, instant oatmeal, and grits, and a can of sardines. At each meal, I browsed. At 7:30, it was 35 degrees and we went to bed.
Sunday. Last day. We had 12 miles to go, no time for fooling around. Up at 6:30. 17 degrees. It hadn't been windy that night, so the air in the tent didn't get flushed, and all night, I'd roll over, bump the side of the tent, and a shower of ice crystals would sprinkle down on my face. But the sun rose pretty and pink and the full moon set, a big silver disk. Not a cloud in the sky. Again we left quickly and without breakfast.
Even inside the tent, the water bottles had frozen, a thick layer of ice with a liquid core. One bottle had been partly empty, and I could pour out the water, but the other was full and the neck frozen solid. I had to attack that with my pocket knife. I carried the bottle inside my shirt, gradually melting drink after drink throughout the day.
About 1:00 we stopped for lunch. The sky was unbroken blue. I took off my boots and socks and wiggled my toes in the warm sunshine. Heaven.
I know — it's like the guy who likes to hit himself on the head with a hammer because it feels so good when he stops.
Mountain and gap, knob and gap, down the long Shut-in Ridge to the Davidson River and the car.
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