[Here’s a guest post by my 25-year old son Kyle Buckham – a rich and detailed account of his 3-day backpacking adventure on the Art Loeb Trail in North Carolina with a group of friends.]
The idea to lead my own backpacking venture was born after returning from a quick trip home to Washington State in June. On that trip, I hiked Green Mountain with my mom, and it was a thrill to get up into the mountains. I loved being outside in the sun and fresh air, with great views and steep climbs, my muscles burning from exertion, sweat pouring off of me. That combination invigorates me like nothing else! My mom blogged about our Green Mountain hike, and the whole experience reminded me how much I love hiking.
After returning to Atlanta, where I attend graduate school at Emory in pursuit of my Doctorate in Physical Therapy, I fell into a bit of a post-trip funk. While I love PT, I found that I wasn’t enjoying and/or engaging as much in class, and that even my favorite out of class activities (spikeball, basketball, pool volleyball, beers with classmates) weren’t bringing me as much joy. I was experiencing a case of ‘summeritis’ and my mind and body felt the need to experience something new. The hours of indoor school activities combined with the surprisingly rainy Atlanta summer were hindering my usual summer joy! Like my mom, I am a big time doer. I am at my best and happiest when I have a full day of activities that are both challenging and enjoyable. Although I was busy (graduate school always makes sure of that) I lacked the something that gave me that “excited to wake up in the morning” feeling. That’s when I got serious about the idea of organizing a backpack trip on a break between semesters.
A few of my friends and I had casually kicked around the idea of doing a backpack trip for the past year. All similarly fit individuals, we had gone on several day hikes together, even covering up to 20 miles in a day. I knew my friends would be able to handle the physical rigors of a backpack trip, though none of them had backpacked before. Since I had, at least a half-dozen times since the first one (at the age of 5 — of which I remember nothing!), I was given full responsibility for planning our trip. My passion for backpacking had grown steadily over the past several years following multiple trips with family, and I was excited to plan and lead a trip of my own.
The first step was to decide on a place to go. Being from the west coast, I was of course skeptical that I could find anything sufficiently challenging in the good ol’ east coast rolling hills. Although Georgia is far more green and “outdoorsy” then it gets credit for, I honed in on North Carolina, which is more mountainous and boasts some of the most scenic hikes along the Appalachian trail. A simple google search of “backpacking trails in North Carolina” brought up multiple options. Eventually, I came across the Art Loeb Trail. The trail was 30.1 miles total and rated as difficult due to strenuous elevation gains and technical sections. It did not require a permit and was only 3 hours from Atlanta. To top it off, it was included as one of the top 30 North American Hikes by National Geographic. I had never heard of the Art Loeb Trail, but it looked like the perfect hike for what I wanted to do.
Art Loeb Trail Map
The next step was gear. As a group we had very little gear — one backpack, one 2 person tent, two sleeping pads, two sleeping bags, and some basic cooking supplies. Although Emory has a program where you can rent outdoor gear, I found it didn’t operate in the summer, and REI was too expensive for us. In a last ditch effort, I reached out via Facebook to my PT class. Within an hour, I had multiple offers and our gear issue was solved! Thanks to Meredith and Chelsea for helping out! It’s nice to know that when original plans don’t work out, other people will do what they can to help out. For the most part, our gear was now taken care of.
With the location chosen and gear accounted for, another problem presented itself. As the date got closer the weather was simply not cooperating! Atlanta’s unusually rainy summer was showing no signs of letting up. Literally every single day my Apple maps had a thunderbolt symbol next to it and Asheville, and forecasts specific to the trail had essentially the same weather. Rain, rain, and more rain. This frustrated me immensely. Not only was it less than ideal backpacking weather for anyone, I was going with three newbies. And I had already paid for a place to stay in Asheville upon conclusion of our trip, so we were locked into a specific time frame in which to take our trip (August 13 – 16). On top of that, one of my buddies was already hesitant about going and the last thing I wanted to do was make him live in the rain for 3 days! I wanted him to go, and I tried to figure out a way to make it work, even if it meant moving our hike after the Asheville trip. But I was starting to lose confidence that the trip would actually happen.
Then several things happened to swing my attitude back around. First, I decided that I couldn’t cater our trip plans to somebody who wasn’t 100% committed. Backpacking can be a grind and in order to enjoy it, you have to fully commit to the experience — including the possibility of rain, dirt, and stank! I checked in with the least committed member, Eric, and we both decided it was better if he didn’t go. Second, I reflected that my one backpacking experiences in the rain had been so brutal because it had also been cold and windy. Our forecast called for lows of 63 and essentially no wind. Definitely tolerable conditions. Finally, I called my mom and she essentially said go for it, or you may have regrets that you did not. That was the last push I needed. The trip was back on as scheduled, and I was infused with excitement!
The last step was to get all the food and final pieces of gear for the trip. My remaining companions were James and Sam, who were both fully invested in the trip which made this part really easy. Several trips to the grocery store and REI later (one in which coincided with a REI garage sale!) we were fully stocked with food, cooking supplies, rain gear, and appropriate hiking shoes.
The next evening, we were loading up our packs to make sure we had everything and to ensure that everything fit in our packs. When I checked the stove, we couldn’t get it to work. I was a little flustered because we were scheduled to leave at 6 AM tomorrow, but thankfully REI was open for another 45 minutes. We scrambled down to REI, where one of the employees determined that our Pocket Rocket stove top was defective! This sucked because it was brand new and it was part of a set and thus not returnable, and another one cost 50 bucks. However, I was thankful that we had caught the mistake before it was too late to buy another and especially before we were trying to cook at our first camp! And in the end, James was able to fix the defect in the stove top and fix it when we got home. He noticed that the threading on the top was too fat to screw in to the fuel tank, and literally shaved it down with a knife! His resourcefulness made me confident that we would be able to solve any issues we might encounter during the trip, and was a great way to end the last night before we left.
In honor of my mom, I want to comment on a few things that stood out from the pre-trip:
- Always strive to find things that bring you pleasure and never be satisfied with the status quo. My first year of PT school was filled with great learning experiences and fun times outside the classroom. I made some good friends, played lots of games, hiked the North Georgia Mountains, and frequented Atlanta breweries. These things were cheap, easy, and accessible. However, after a year of doing all these great things, my mind and body were craving something different. My default has always been to stay close to home, to save money. However, I’m realizing more and more that time and money spent in the right place for the right experiences makes me feel alive like nothing else. There were a lot of reasons that this trip might not have not worked out, but I was determined to make it happen. When something doesn’t quite feel right in your life, find out what it is and figure out now to fix it. I knew I was craving a new challenge and planning for the backpack trip was just what I needed — both because of the experiences I knew we’d have, and because of the confidence it instilled in me that I could lead a trip on my own. I know that this has opened up the door for me to plan many more enriching trips in the future!
- You can’t always make everyone happy. It’s my nature to be a people pleaser. I desperately wanted everyone to go on the trip, such that, ironically enough, I was willing to sacrifice the whole backpack portion of the trip to try to make it happen. While it’s important to take everyone’s feelings into consideration, that can sometimes be very tricky. You can’t please all the people all the time! However, in this case it wasn’t a difficult choice. Eric was fine with not going on the trip, while Sam and James were completely committed. We all wanted Eric to participate, but once I realized that wasn’t going to happen, my mindset shifted, and I could get back to planning in earnest. Although the trip didn’t unfold exactly how we imagined, having a crew that was 100% dedicated to the success of the trip was all I could really ask for in the end.
- Dotting your I’s and crossing your T’s can come in handy sometimes! I am not the type of person to constantly worry about things. I typically live life confident that I did what I could, and that things will work out as they should. My girlfriend Lauren, on the other hand, is the type who is always asking “did we lock the door,” “did we turn the oven off,” “did you hear that noise” and sometimes this inserts worry in my head when it doesn’t need to be there, which can be REALLY annoying (especially when I’m trying to sleep). However, every once and awhile those worries are justified and addressing them immediately saves us a lot of trouble later on. In the case of the backpacking stove, I think Lauren would be proud. I had no reason to believe that the brand new stove would not work, but having not used it before I decided to try it out. Lo and behold, something was wrong! Spending one minute before leaving on our trip saved us inevitable panic and issues upon reaching our first campsite. As Lauren would say, sometimes a little worry can be good!
I awoke at 5:00 AM on Sunday in good spirits. I love nothing more than waking up early when I have a full day of things I enjoy planned, with long hikes at the top of that list. Since we had double checked our gear and completely loaded up our packs the night before, I had very little to worry about in the morning except preparing myself a five egg sandwich and a tub of oats for the road!
We were on the road just after 6:00, as planned. The drive to the southern trailhead at Davidson River Campground was just over three hours, and we stopped into the Pisgah National Forest Visitor Center located close to the trailhead. The staff supplied us with a great map that detailed all of the elevation changes and every possible campsite, water source, nice view, etc. with a corresponding mile marker to go along with it. They assured us that while the weather wouldn’t be awesome, it would be serviceable and safe. They kept saying, “you guys are going to have such a good time!” I could tell that they were all enjoying having three ambitious young men in the station and did everything they could to set us up for success. A big shout out to the staff for helping us to start our trip out right!!
Obligatory Trailhead photo at Davidson River Campground. Left to Right — Kyle, Sam, James
Getting on the trail could not have been easier, as we literally drove ¼ of a mile from the ranger station and pulled into a parking lot right off the edge of the road, no permit or fees required. After taking a quick picture, we were on the trail by 10:20.
The trail started innocently enough, as we meandered through typical Georgia forests, shifting our packs around as we got acquainted with their substantial heft! In planning food for the trip, I did like my Dad, and brought “real food” (instead of dehydrated meals), both because of cost, and because it tastes great after a long day of hiking! Needless to say with three 20-something guys, a lot of food needed to be packed so we weren’t exactly adhering to the more common “ultralight” backpacking ways. After about a mile of mostly flat terrain, the trail started going up rather substantially. I loved it! I have done a lot of hiking in Georgia, and can never find anything that really challenges me in terms of hills. Obviously it helped wearing the heavy pack, but my heart was pounding and I was drenched in sweat in no time!
After our significant climb up, the trail reversed and went straight down. After pounding down this stretch, the trail went right back up, only to go straight back down. At first, the ups and downs were great because it was a killer workout, BUT IT JUST KEPT HAPPENING. After what felt like the tenth elevation reversal my clothes were completely saturated with sweat, my calves were dying, and I was starting to miss the nice flat Georgia terrain.
At the top of another substantial climb, we decided to take a break for lunch. James and I were comical looking with sweat dripping off the ends of our shorts and the brims of our hats, our clothes unable to hold any more liquid. Even Sam, who sweats about as much as a pre-pubescent girl, had a nice sweat ring around his crotch and butt, causing him to proudly proclaim, “it looks like I pissed myself!”
Lunch consisted of some of my backpacking favorites; crackers, summer sausage, and trail mix. I remember thinking when I was buying the food, this just doesn’t sound that good right now… but I knew from past experience backpacking that these were money when on the trail. Once again, they did not disappoint! The profoundly salty sausage tasted amazing after our morning trek and salt loss through sweat. Another one of my favorite things about backpacking is that your meals are always well deserved and taste delicious no matter how straightforward they are.
While eating lunch, we made a game plan for the rest of the day. Our original plan was to make it to a place called Gloucester Gap, which was 12 miles into the trail. After looking at our map more closely, I realized that Gloucester had no water sources, which is a backpacking no-no. We decided instead to set up camp at Butter Gap, an area the ranger had mentioned as having water and even a shelter and was only 8.6 miles in. Happy with our revised plan, we hit the trail again with only 3 miles to finish our day.
The up and down continued and the trail was, to be honest, getting a little monotonous. We were in complete tree cover, with very little to look at except the trail in front of us. Then, 7.5 miles in, we came to a nice, open campsite right next to a huge rock/cliff. At first we were just chilling, catching our breath, when we decided to give the rock a closer look. Standing at the base of the rock, looking up, we were unsure if it was safe to try and scramble up. After a couple of minutes, I decided we would regret it if we didn’t try and threw my pack down and started running up.
View from top of large rock we conquered!
The weather had been great up to this point so the rock face was completely dry and gripping well. It was quite fun powering up the mountain on all fours, and after each steep stretch there would be a small flat area, followed by another steep section that would keep us going up. Several of the steep sections were right at the edge of doability, with a seriously steep grade, but everyone made it up unscathed. We were rewarded at the top with our first views of the trip and a great sense of accomplishment and freedom. In opposition to one of my earlier statements, sometimes it is better to think less and just do! If we had not attempted scaling the rock face, we would have missed out on what was by far the most fun experience of the first day. I was nervous about the descent because my legs were tired from a day full of hiking and my left knee hates eccentric loading (controlled downhill descent). James came up with a great way of getting down the rock face though, essentially crab walking our way down. It made the descent reasonable and safe. I would have never thought of going down that way, so I was very thankful for James’ creativity!
Enjoying the top of our scramble
Crab walking down — far safer and easier than it looks!
Once down, we grudgingly threw our packs back on and hit the trail for the last mile. We arrived at a dingy looking shelter and an open area that was clearly Butter Gap. We were the first ones there and thus had our pick of campsites. Although taking the shelter would have been easiest, it was dark and dirty looking with some trash dispersed in it. Not exactly the kind of spot I wanted to post up in. For being such a large campsite, there were very few areas that were ideal for placing a tent, as the ground was uneven and littered with tree roots. Eventually we settled on an area that was a bit tucked away and had ample tree cover. After setting up camp, James and I went to fill up on water.
Butter Gap, on paper, was supposed to have ample water near it. There was a water marking right at the campsite, .1 miles away and .2 miles away. The “streams” at the campsite and the .1 mile point were nothing but a muddy puddles, and it appeared to be the same at .2 miles. We kept walking for what felt like forever (especially for me who was sockless and wearing boat shoes) before hitting water about ½ mile further along. Even this was just a small trickle of running water, but it was good enough to fill up our water supplies. On our way back we looked more closely at the .2 mile water source, and saw that it too had one serviceable flow that we could utilize. In all of my backpacking experiences, I had always had very obvious rivers and streams literally seconds to minutes from my campsite, and I realized that I would have to rethink my expectation of a good water source for this trip.
The rest of the evening and night went well as we made a delicious dinner of pasta, with canned chicken, and a creamy red sauce. The campsite filled up and got somewhat loud, which made for a less than serene environment. I was thankful for our campsite as it rained on and off throughout the evening, and yet we hardly felt a drop due to the thick tree covering. Sam, James, and I worked well together to get all the basic backpacking chores done like filling water, doing dishes, and hanging food. I was pleased to have companions who didn’t complain and would do whatever needed to be done. We concluded the night by playing some cards, and turned into bed nice and early. Despite the length of the day, I found that I wasn’t particularly tired when I settled into my tent. I don’t know if I was just antsy and anxious to get started with the next day, or if the combination of my rock hard clothes pillow, slanted sleeping surface, and blaring noise of the local bugs made it impossible for me to get comfortable. Either way, I didn’t sleep much and tossed and turned all night, eagerly awaiting the sun to rise to start the next day.
I awoke the next morning as light overtook my tent at 6:45. We got up and had a nice breakfast with some coffee. Mornings are my absolute favorite on backpacking trips, just like my mom. I like to take my time to sit and enjoy myself as opposed to rushing through the morning routine to hit the trail immediately. We were all packed up and ready to go by 9 AM, feeling refreshed and energized for what we knew was going to be a challenging day 2.
Since we had stopped short of Gloucester Gap the previous day, we had a bit more ground to cover today to make it to our second desired campsite at Ivestor Gap. Additionally, today was going to be our most significant day of elevation gain. We had 12.8 miles planned with about 3000 feet net increase in elevation, which we knew would be even harder than it sounded because of the roller coaster nature of the trail. Nevertheless, everybody felt good strength-wise, the sun was out, and we anticipated that the hard work today was going to pay off with some great views.
The trail started off relatively flat and easy, and we made good time for the first three miles of the the day. Then the climb began, and it was a doozy. In two miles we gained 2000 feet. I was working hard trying to keep James in my sight, no easy task considering he is a very high level runner! This motivated me to push hard and almost made a game out of the ascension, which helped make the time pass. At one point we finally broke through the endless forest and were treated to a nice place to take a break and some pictures. The trek continued and we stumbled upon the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469 mile long road that runs from North Carolina to Virginia that is famous for its scenic beauty. Unfortunately, thick clouds were rolling in, so we didn’t have much to gaze at. After crossing the parkway, we hit the most brutal stretch of the day consisting of steep, rocky, technical switchbacks to polish off our major climbing for the day. At the top, we were treated to a mercifully flat section, but also disappointing because the fog had come in so thickly that we literally could not see an ounce of what I knew was a great view.
The terrain around us had changed substantially upon getting close to 6,000 feet, and we were now hiking among the pine trees, which made me feel like I was back in the Pacific Northwest! After a mile or so of flat trail in the woods, we emerged around 2 PM to an area of road that was bustling with cars and people. After literally seeing nobody since we had left that morning, it was strange to be amongst so many people again! We were now at an area called Black Balsam Knob, one of the main highlights of our hike. Unlike the PNW where hikes are usually highlighted by views of rugged, snow topped mountains, the east coast scenery is known for countless “bald” mountains – mountains whose summits are covered in thick vegetation. We took our time enjoying the panoramic views and taking photos. Although it was still cloudy and our views were restricted, it was rewarding to be completely out of the trees and to have the opportunity to enjoy the result of our hard work. We made a quick pack-free climb up a rocky outcropping to soak in the area one last time before continuing on our trek.
View after finally breaking through the trees on our brutal ascent
Group pic at Black Balsam Knob
At this point we had been on the trail for over 6 hours and had covered 10.5 tough miles, so we were tired. We had reached peak elevation for the trip at 6,100 feet though, so we knew that the remaining 2 plus miles would not be as challenging. Additionally, the trail was spectacularly open and a pleasure to hike on. After plodding along for a little bit, the gray sky finally opened up and it started to rain. Here it comes, I thought. The rain started to pick up and I was on the verge of stopping to throw on my rain jacket, but within 5 minutes it died down and then stopped. That was the last rain we had to deal with while hiking on the entire trip, which was pretty incredible given the forecast.
As we got nearer to Investor Gap (where we were going to camp) I noticed that we weren’t seeing any water signs, and that there was only one marked stream that we were supposed to cross before making it to camp. Although I had never set camp while backpacking without a water source nearby, there really wasn’t a better option so we would just have to make it work by completely filling up ahead of time. Nervously we continued hiking, hopeful that the map was accurate. About a mile out from our camp, we finally hit a small trickle of water coming down the hillside that would have to do. All of us had depleted our water supplies for the day, an impressive 300 ounces! With James squatting deep in the bushes to access the water flow, we efficiently filled up all of our water bladders and bottles, and were on our way.
We were so close but still had one more climb to do to the top of Tennent Mountain. With my recently refreshed 130 ounces of water, my pack all of sudden became much heavier! At the top I took a few more pictures and admired the endless bald mountains, which were more visible now that the sky had cleared. One cool thing I noticed was a collection of about 20 trees that stood out all by themselves about a mile away. It was different how they stood alone among the otherwise treeless environment. It seemed like an area that would be great to camp in, but I didn’t know if it was even accessible.
The stray trees…
With only a mile of downhill trail left, we powered through the remainder of the trail and came to a wide opening around 5 PM. Numerous campsites lined the trailside, but we pushed on a little further. Before we knew it, we were right outside of the collection of trees! It still wasn’t clear if it was an accessible area, until I noticed a small trail that headed into the thick brush. I told the guys we should check it out. The little trail was quite overgrown and difficult to work through, which made me think that it wouldn’t lead to much, but then it burst out into a huge, awesome campsite! There was a nice common area with lots of room for cooking and seating, along with the quaint collection of trees. To top it all off, we were the only people in the area, wild blueberry and blackberry bushes were everywhere, and the sun was shining! Needless to say, I was extremely pleased with the site.
A perfect place to set up camp!
After setting up camp, I wandered along a side trail I had noticed at the outskirt of our camp. Like the trail to get into our camp, it was overgrown and difficult to get through at parts but the other end of it did not disappoint! Breaking through the shrubs I realized that the trail went up to a small cliff ledge with an incredible view. I was blown away with the beauty of our campsite and our good fortune in finding it. This awesome campsite alone made the entire trip worth it!
We made dinner, basked in the sun, and explored the area around us to fill the rest of the evening. To cap it all off, we were treated to a partial sunset on the rock ledge I had found earlier. The environment was perfectly serene and was an ideal conclusion to what had been a phenomenal day two. We’d experienced it all: physical exertion, long hours, views, sunshine, peace and quiet. I headed to bed utterly content with what the day had brought, and excited for what the next one would bring.
Sun going down from our rock ledge.
After another restless night of sleep, my alarm finally went off at 6 AM. Although I always love mornings, I was especially excited for this one. While exploring the area around our campsite the previous evening, James had found a clear spot that faced directly east over the mountains. An ideal spot to watch the sunrise! I knew that the sun would start to peek out around 6:45-6:50, so I hurriedly made breakfast and coffee.
We were ready in plenty of time and strolled over to the viewpoint. Considering the clouds and fog we had been dealing with the past couple days, I wasn’t sure what kind of views we would get, if any. At first the sky was pretty, with little bits of orange poking through the grayish blue sky. As progressively more of the bright orange sun poked its way over the mountains, I could tell we were in for a treat! Our unimpeded view of the sun rising put an exclamation point on the end of our time at Investor Gap. It is a spot I will always remember and hope to return to again.
Sun’s up, ready for another day
Our planned 3rd day of hiking consisted of 8.6 miles, with about 2,500 feet of elevation loss. A rather easy day, so we decided to climb Cold Mountain as a side trip. That would add on an extra 2.8 miles and 1000+ extra feet of elevation. We had to consider that Eric was planning to pick us up at 2:00 at Camp Daniel Boone (the northern terminus of the trail). I had arbitrarily chosen that pick-up time several days before we left and before we knew what our route would be, so I hoped that it would work! We did some hasty calculations based on our predicted speed, elevation profile and side trip without packs, and decided we could fit in Cold Mountain as long as we broke camp by 9:00. With our early morning rise to watch the sunset, we left camp ahead of schedule at 8:15. Always nice to be ahead of schedule!
The day started with a climb up another grassy hillside. I was feeling great, as now I was carrying an essentially empty bear canister, having eaten all the contents. My pack felt like a feather as I charged up the hill! The trail continued over the back of the hill and soon we were hiking through an area of dense trees. The trees had been beaten back just far enough to form a tunnel through the wilderness, and it made for some enjoyable easy miles on our sore legs. Eventually we broke through to a thinner trail that was only moderately covered in trees. After walking along this trail for a few minutes, we realized that we were essentially just walking along a cliff ledge, with enormous drop offs on either side of us! The hiking was rather technical, with numerous steep, rocky descents and ascents on the narrow trail. At one point I was looking around at the spectacular scenery surrounding me and briefly lost my balance, only to quickly regain it. I realized this wasn’t the place to take my eyes of the trail if I wanted to avoid rolling down the mountain!
Trail tunneling through thick woods. Sun’s trying hard to poke it’s way through…
Sun trying hard to poke it’s way through…
While the hiking was challenging and fun, it was slow work and I worried that we were falling behind schedule. At the ranger station they had told us that the descent to the end of the trail was rather technical, and we still had 3.8 miles to go once we got to the Cold Mountain Trailhead. The last mile plus of terrain had taken it out of me and I wasn’t sure how much more pounding my body could endure! After finally getting through “The Narrows” the trail eased up and we arrived at the Cold Mountain Junction at 10:15.
After hiding our packs and loading up a lunch, we started up the trail pack-free, which felt absolutely amazing! But our feelings of freedom were soon dampened by a very steep section of trail, which had us all huffing and puffing. The trail was nice though, as each steep section was followed by a relatively flat section, and we even ran a few sections to take some time off our trip. We reached the top right around 11 and enjoyed a well-earned lunch. Once again the viewpoint was shrouded in clouds, but it was still a nice way to cap off our elevation gains for the trip. The top was wonderfully quiet and peaceful, and I marveled at how lucky we had been to have perfectly fine weather and absolutely zero crowds on our trip. Upon finishing lunch at 11:30, James prepared to “haul” down the mountain, with his goal being under 12 minutes. We held onto his stuff and wished him well as he borderline sprinted down the first section, quickly out of our sight. I decided to run down as well and began a very modest trot. Although I felt slightly loopy and unsteady on my feet, it felt good to do something besides walk for awhile!
Looking over the ledge of the “narrows”, a technical but scenic stretch of trail.
View from Cold Mountain
After reaching the bottom, James informed me that he had made it down in 11:45, just under his goal. It’s cool how experienced trail runners, just from studying the terrain and knowing themselves, can set a goal right at the perfect challenge point! Not too much later, Sam joined us and we hit the trail again at 12:10. At this point, my legs were wiped and my knees were sore, especially after my run down the mountain. Needless to say, I was dreading these last 3.8 miles of “technical” terrain. However, James (the designated map holder) informed me that the elevation drop in that distance was a very manageable 1,500 feet, not the 3,000+ feet I originally thought! With that information, my attitude improved tremendously.
For the rest of the trip the trail was simple and we made good time. Unlike the monotonous start of the hike, this trail was beautifully diverse, with numerous streams and rock fields scattered amongst the woods. We even saw a family of wild turkeys! Despite the overall difficulty of the Art Loeb Trail, I was pleasantly surprised how good my body felt. I have struggled with back, knee, and blister issues while hiking and backpacking in the past, and thankfully none of those were an issue on this trip. I was definitely tired and sore, but overall I felt like I could have continued hiking for another several days!
It was clear that we were getting close to the end, as the terrain changed and the temperature got warmer. Finally, we saw the top of a building, and we knew we were close. Of course, the trail continued wrapping around endlessly as we anxiously awaited the final descent. Finally, the trail turned and headed straight down and we triumphantly stomped down onto the road. I checked my clock and it said 1:57! Perfect timing. I was proud because we had held up our end, but I figured Eric would be a little late due to the obscurity of the area of the trail’s end. Just as we were trying to figure out a good place to drop our packs so we could take a dip in the river, Eric rolled up at 1:58! The timing of it all couldn’t have been better, and I was proud that my intuitive 2 o’clock prediction made a week before held up perfectly.
James, always ready to run
We took a celebratory dip in the cool, crisp river and loaded up all of our stinky selves and gear into Eric’s car. Although the drive back to James’ car was much longer than anticipated, it was absolutely stunning as we got to enjoy many amazing views that were previously clouded over off the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the weather now sunny and clear. Lounging in the car during the drive, a feeling of relaxation, pride, and utter joy settled over me: the combination of better than expected weather, surprisingly challenging yet beautiful terrain, and exceptionally motivated companions allowed the trip to go better than I could have ever hoped.
I have been hooked on backpacking ever since my venture along the Wonderland trail following college graduation, however, I now feel like I have an entirely new sense of power and independence after planning, organizing, and completing this successful trip. I don’t know when or what my next trip will be, but I do know that my experiences from this trip have ensured that backpacking and the great outdoors have a life-long customer, and I cannot wait until the next challenge comes calling my name.