For our big backpacking weekend we actually ended up extremely lucky. We were about a mile or two away from Mount Pisgah when the “check oil” light started flashing on the dash of my PT Cruiser. Since we didn’t have reliable GPS in the mountains and were relying on directions that pretty much said “get on the Blue Ridge Parkway and drive until you find the campground,” we had no idea if we would end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no cell reception and no way to get help. It seemed just a matter of minutes before the mountain men emerged and we would find ourselves in the middle of a B-list horror film, so it was a great relief when we made it to Mt. Pisgah campground, and there, sitting obligingly on a shelf in the country store were a few quarts of motor oil. Heaven help us, we were in luck!
Our luck held as we arrived at the Mt. Pisgah campground check-in kiosk. It was drizzling and as I approached the help window I could tell our choice in campsites would be slim based on the line of people and the harried demeanor of the rangers on duty. When I announced I needed a tent-only campsite and no, I didn’t have a reservation, the poor overwhelmed woman with the National Parks Service polo shirt looked at me in dismay.
“I’m not sure what we have left,” she said tentatively as she opened her ledger covered in pencil scribbles. “We’re running really low on sites,” she mumbled half to herself, but then she came across a blank line.
“It looks like there is exactly one left. D9.” She highlighted the site on a paper map of the campground. “Go and see if there is anyone there. If there isn’t anyone there, then leave some items there to claim it and you can come back and check in.”
We found the spot easily enough, and since the grey rain didn’t look like it would relent soon I left McCrae and Ryder to unpack the tent while I went back to the kiosk to pay and check in.
When I got there the campground ranger was in the middle of settling a dispute between two campers who had set up elsewhere and were trying to register for the same site.
“I have site B22 and I’m already set up,” the man said.
“No, I’m already set up there,” a woman with an accent insisted. While they settled their game of campground Bingo and then struggled to pay for their sites with credit cards (apparently credit card machines at the top of a mountain in a rainstorm don’t always work reliably, how shocking!) I made sure I had all my registration information available and exact change in cash. Finally everything was straightened out and the flustered woman at the kiosk with the reservations book beckoned. She eyed me apprehensively as though she half-expected me to deliver more bad news. Instead I smiled, said “D9 is fine,” gave my registration information and paid with cash. The poor woman looked as though she would hug me after the easy-going manner of our transaction, and especially after I gave her a wad of singles when I noticed they were struggling to make change for the previous registrants following the credit card machine failure.
“How many of you will be there?” she asked.
“Just two people and a dog,” I replied.
“Oh, perfect, perfect,” she said in a faraway voice, pleased to escape any more hassles and headaches, as she handed me a stapled packet of papers.
I stopped by the country store again to buy a bundle of firewood, and then regrouped with Ryder and McCrae at the campsite. The tent was up, and upon espying my bundle of wood McCrae set about on the mostly unsuccessful task of lighting a fire. With some paper towels we managed to get just enough flame started to lightly toast some hotdogs and buns, though even that meager flicker soon sputtered out in the damp.
It was then that I finally had time to survey the site. Square gravel pad for a tent, a grill for fire, one solid picnic table, and plenty of shade, though the evening was still a drizzly grey and so sun wasn’t an issue. A large, metal bear box was set off to the side of the campsite, and I remembered how a young man at the kiosk before me said he’d seen a small black bear cross the road and scramble down the mountainside while he was driving in from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“Oh yes!” the hassled woman at the kiosk had said. “We have bears!” and she nodded at a large, mangled cloth cooler marked with a handwritten sign that said, “YES! We have bears!” and a flyer pinned above it to remind everyone to use the provided bear canisters.
Our campsite was set off just a little bit from our car, so that you couldn’t actually see it through the foliage, but it was still surprisingly near. After all that shopping at REI and all that careful packing to bring just enough items to fit into our backpacks we ended up close and convenient to our car. I puzzled over this until I pulled out my book “The Best in Tent Camping: The Carolinas” with its pretty front cover of an isolated mountain vista and found at the bottom in small text, “A guide for car campers who hate RVs, concrete slabs, and loud portable stereos.” Ha! All that effort and planning for a weekend in the backcountry, and here we were car camping! I was a little miffed and a little embarrassed, but after mentioning it to McCrae (who promptly laughed at me) we jovially accepted our weekend fate.
While McCrae fussed over the dying fire I leaned against the picnic table and settled into observing the social scene of a car campground. I had never been car camping before, so I was eager to watch and learn. There was a young dad with a silver hoop earring batting a ball back and forth on the asphalt with his two young daughters between our site and the next tent site. During their game several people wandered past like an intermittent parade of the campground – older couples with a dog or two, younger couples with little kids, and teens in pairs or threes, slightly pouting. When McCrae and I took Ryder on a walk around the campground loop we saw many of the “luxuries” that people bring for weekend trips to the mountains: bulky cars and spacious tents, pop-up sun shades, heavy stoves and coolers, roaring fires, lots of beer bottles, and a plethora of balls, cards and Frisbees.
As we came around the loop I noticed a few signs pointing the way to “Comfort Stations.” “Comfort station,” I discovered, is a euphemism for a bare bones bathroom, much like the kind you find at Little League ballparks with broken tile floors, sticky stall doors on lopsided hinges, and a very dingy white ceramic sink with a cloudy mirror and no soap. Flyers were plastered on the outside bulletin board warning visitors of bears and advising campers to immediately seek sturdy shelter in the event of lightning. I laughed to myself as I imagined alternative scenarios for “comfort stations:” my favorite was that of a small shanty with padded walls where someone driven stir-fry crazy by the wilderness, lightning and bears could escape to, curl up in a fetal position, and attempt to feel “comforted.” But then again, when you can throw a rock and hit someone else in their tent it’s not like you’re that far from civilization.
It was easy to laugh at the whole situation: my first time car camping, our first time trying out the tent with McCrae, me, and Ryder, and how utterly unprepared I actually was for the experience. Already our campsite looked small and cramped, even with our tiny backpacking tent, overly-large backpacks and the few creature comforts we brought. Already the noise of drunken laughter and a generator in the distance drowned out the natural noises – that of the lone cicada chirruping in the woods. Add to that the noise of a jumbo jet flying overhead and the incessant stench of weed lying heavy in the air and choking up my airways, and it felt like a college summer trip I’d never taken. It was just past dark when I huddled in the tent to write for a bit by the dim light of my headlamp, and I still didn’t feel far enough away from it all.
McCrae and I awoke with the dawn’s early light before any of the other campsites stirred (to be fair, we were probably the few adults who weren’t hung over that morning), but we didn’t waste any time getting started with our day. We spent the morning hiking up the slippery, muddy and rocky trail to the top of Mt. Pisgah. The climb up was hard just because it was nearly vertical in some places: over 700 feet elevation gain in just 1.5 miles, though I’m still trying to put that in context to other trails I’ve tackled.
“Nothing – makes you feel – more outta shape – than a mountain,” I panted to McCrae as we stopped for what felt like the hundredth time on a boulder to catch our breath.
“It’s the elevation that’s getting me,” McCrae said, doubled over and gasping. “I’m getting, like, three-fourths the air I normally would.”
I clutched at a gnarled and mottled trunk to steady myself on the slick rocks. It had continued to rain on and off the night before and there were pools of water scattered along the trail, making it a struggle to stay upright along the trek. I kept trying to identify the brush by the trail. They seemed so similar to the piedmont plants I knew, but just unfamiliar enough to make me feel out of place.
“We’ve got to be almost there,” I said to myself half a dozen times as we came across another switchback, so when we finally emerged at the top under the antenna tower propped up on a range of muddy-colored rocks I was actually surprised. There’s a wooden observation deck there (built in the 1970s by a youth corps of some sorts), and yes, the view is impressive. It was only 9:30am so the signature blue haze of the Blue Ridge Mountains was still rolling lazily off the peaks, peeled away by the strengthening sun. I wondered what it must look like in the afternoon with the peaks in full view and crowds milling around, but I decided I preferred the solace of the empty deck with McCrae and Ryder and a view that was at once hazy, mysterious, foreign, and all mine.
McCrae and Ryder scrambled across the rock to explore the base of the antenna tower while I took stock of the panoramic view. On a clear day Mt. Pisgah can be seen from Asheville over 20 miles away, but on a hazy morning from the peak of the summit, the surrounding ridges and valleys spread out in a sylvan shroud. My eye ran along the ridgeline, following the ribbon of the Blue Ridge Parkway, picking out the clearings of campsites, and finding other radio towers atop distant peaks. The ridgeline here was a well-worn ripple of crests and troughs, broken by tall conifers that protruded like their own sharp peaks along the horizon. I knew they were there from the books I had read that talked about the balsam knobs left after the last ice age, but they were still disconcerting to behold. I had no idea they would be so BIG. They were nothing like the ornamental cedars planted too closely and pruned too regularly back in the piedmont suburbs, nor were they anything like the Christmas trees you buy in outparcel lots beginning in November. These were giants: black, dense giants. And while their silhouettes were striking, their great size reminded me that they had been here for ages, and that I was really the visitor along the rising ridge.
The hike down was harder than up. McCrae jumped easily from rock to rock, balancing his weight well while Ryder pulled ahead. I slowly tried to pick my way along the path, planting one foot and then the other, dodging flat bits of slippery moss and tripping over roots and loose stones. It wasn’t long before I was well behind Ryder and McCrae, and even with all my cautiousness I still slipped and fell flat on my tail – TWICE.
My unsteady footing paired with a desire to photograph everything along the trail meant I finally met up with McCrae at the trailhead with bruised dignity and derriere, and a half-dead cellphone (so much for having it just for emergencies). We lingered a bit at the trailhead and overlook, watching the parking lot fill up with SUVs and families gearing up to hike the trail we’d just conquered and contemplating plans for the rest of the day.
McCrae and I decided to try a marked trail at the campground for our afternoon hike instead of trying to locate a trail farther off. I’d read somewhere that Fryingpan Trail led to a fire tower at the crest of the ridgeline below Mt. Pisgah. Supposedly you could climb the fire tower and get a decent view of looming and taller Mt. Pisgah, so we set off in search of the tower after lunch. We discovered a path that was completely overgrown and unblazed, and for the next several hours we attempted to bushwhack up the mountains. With the impending sunset a concern and a dead-end at a glistening mountain stream, McCrae and I turned back without ever finding the fire tower. Rather than struggle through the mangled underbrush of blackberries and wildflowers (pretty as they were, McCrae’s legs were scratched up and bleeding), we turned onto a gravel path and were dumped at the edge of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a clear afternoon with few cars and the highway afforded much better views of the mountains, so we walked along the edge of the parkway back to the campground. With plaid shirt, hiking pants, bandana, day packs and a dog we trudged along the road: a perfect vision of unkempt, sweaty and smelly mountain hikers for strangers in air-conditioned cars to gawk at with the rest of the scenery.
Once back at the campground we showered and devised a plan for dinner. Between not yet purchasing a backpacking stove and McCrae’s general lack of enthusiasm for dehydrated noodles we were recklessly derelict in packing hot food for the trip, so we decided to pack up Ryder and drive to Brevard for dinner.
The road to Brevard was highway 276, a twisting, gut-wrenching path down the mountains and through Pisgah National Forest. It wound along the edge of a river for some time and occasionally we heard the splash of small falls behind the dense foliage along the banks. Suddenly the road took a sharp turn and we saw a sign for “Looking Glass Waterfall” just before we caught a glimpse of a sheer rock face and rising mist.
“Do you want to stop?” McCrae asked me as we just passed it.
“Do I want to stop? Oh my God, what sort of question is that? OF COURSE I WANT TO STOP!” I exclaimed.
McCrae laughed and swung the car around to a parking spot along the road. We unloaded Ryder and wandered up the path to the overlook platform with stairs leading to the foot of the falls. Here we paused for a bit: the waterfall was picture perfect. White water plummeted over large rocks; thick, lush greenery encroached along the river’s edge; scores of tourists squinted in the mist and clicked pictures with their camera phones.
“It’s the biggest waterfall I’ve ever seen!” I shouted over the roar. McCrae smiled, jokingly mumbled something about Niagara Falls, and sauntered off with Ryder down the staircase while I snapped pictures of the falls with the rest of the tourists.
We lingered there for a bit, wiping the spray from our faces and camera phones and wowing passersby with our well-behaved (aka too-tuckered-out-to-act-out) dog, before we continued on our way to Brevard.
Brevard, as we discovered, is a weird place. For some reason I had it in my head that Brevard is like a Carrboro of the mountains with a more classically-inclined music scene, but we got there and discovered a cramped downtown with few restaurant choices and absolutely no place that offered patio seating so we could eat outside with Ryder. I didn’t want to leave him unattended in the car during the summer in a strange town, so dining inside was not an option. McCrae and I made an honest effort to find someplace that could feed us and keep us close to the dog, but after we got turned around a few times and were on the verge of being “hangry,” we just decided to return to the fast food boulevard we passed coming into town and eat at Zaxby’s. While it wasn’t the localvore, dog-friendly hotspot we were hoping for at least we got a lot of food for cheap and sated the appetite we’d worked up while hiking the mountains.
Before we left we picked up a growler of beer from Brevard Brewing so that we could blend in a little with all the beer-drinking folks at the campground, and maybe get a sense of the town center. I was put off by the clearly bored kids loitering on the street and the horribly run-down old motel near the avenue lined with fast food, but on the plus side the mountains fringing the valley in every direction were very impressive. However, even with the beautiful backdrop, Brevard seemed to just be a tired, uninspired mountain town. In summary, Brevard is a weird place.
We finished Saturday evening with a fire (the drier weather and the “guaranteed fire starter” we picked up at a Kmart in Brevard helped a lot with our attempts to coax our sputtering flicker into a roaring flame), s’mores and beer, before crawling back into our tiny tent well before the rest of the campground settled down.
On Sunday morning we went back to the Mt. Pisgah trailhead and hiked a few miles of Shut-In Trail. According to the sign at the trailhead Shut-In Trail was built by George Washington Vanderbilt around 1890 to connect the Biltmore house to his hunting lodge at Buck Springs Gap near Mt. Pisgah. Based on my map of the region, Shut-in Trail is part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, of which I have grown increasingly curious. Eventually the Mountains-to-Sea Trail will connect the mountainous tip of North Carolina near Clingmans Dome to Jockey’s Ridge State Park on the Outer Banks, and the construction of the trail should be completed in the next few years. In my hiking adventures in the Raleigh-Durham area I’ve come across sporadic pieces of the trail along the Eno River and Falls Lake, so I’ve been contemplating an epic backpacking trip across my home state once it’s completed. Anyone want to join me?
In any case, we tackled a few miles out and back of Shut-In Trail on Sunday morning. It was difficult, but very enjoyable. There was a quick uphill section at first, and then it picked its way along the ridge (sometimes affording lovely views of other peaks), and then a steep downhill grade for a mile. It was thankfully void of other hikers, but at the same time it was well maintained so that we didn’t have to slice our way through underbrush.
“We could just hike all the way to Asheville,” McCrae suggested.
“We could,” I answered.
“Though not today,” he said resignedly.
“No, not today.” Not today, but eventually I may go back and explore that bit of inviting trail. 17 miles: I can do that, no problem.
In the afternoon we set out to Asheville (in earnest this time) for a late lunch, but this excursion proved just as disastrous as our trip to Brevard the night before. We got to the city after a series of creaks and groans from the PT Cruiser, only to find a festival was going on and the entire downtown was closed off. Fuck. There we were with smoking brakes, rumbling stomachs, a whining dog and absolutely nowhere to go.
McCrae and I were both in horrible moods by that point, but we made it to the Biltmore Villages district and found a grill with outdoor patio seating where we could sit with Ryder. I felt out of place in my rugged hiking attire next to quaint, commercial shops advertising J. Crew, Lilly Pulitzer and the like, but it was better than starving. Though even of that I’m not quite sure, because McCrae and I both started to feel very sick, and after the first bite of my hot, grease-streaming burger I felt faint. I’m not sure if it was the heat (it’s typically 10 degrees cooler at Mt. Pisgah than in the valleys) or the elevation change, but as soon as we finished eating McCrae and I both packed up and retreated to the mountains.
McCrae slept the rest of the afternoon while I wrote. I was too restless to sleep – I still wanted to see things and I still wanted to get away. I fantasized about taking Ryder on a solo hike or planning another weekend trip (this time actually backpacking, not car camping), but I still felt sluggish and slightly nauseous. I considered going to this one overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway and watching the sun set over the mountains. We came across it the evening before: it had a perfect westerly view and I would have asked McCrae to stay a bit so we could watch the sun sink in a flood of pinks and blood orange except for the group of five obnoxious, self-satisfied kids that were being purposefully loud and taking up all the best viewing spots and prepping bottles of cider ale from the back hatch of their old Subaru.
I hated them for what they had – carefree youth, a decent car and the nonchalance that said, “Fuck you, I’m staying right here.” I hated them for that, because I never felt like I had that freedom when I was younger and now it seems even more out of reach. Money and obligations steal away our young lives, with bloated expectations following hot on their heels. I wished I could stay at the mountains. Sure, my muscles ached and I had been constipated for days, but at the same time I didn’t feel like I found what I’d been looking for: total separation from “it all.”
And what exactly is “it all”? “It all” is credit card payments and rent and the necessary evil of buying a new car and being saddled with monthly car payments. “It all” is the kitschy billboard of squirrels in harnesses advertising a zip line canopy tour, or fast food stores, or exuberantly neon signs for “RV World,” “Kayak Rentals,” “Inner-Tubing,” or any number of temporary tourist pleasures. “It all” is society, my damned, consumer-driven, economically-stagnant, size-0-obsessed society, divorced from nature, away from this heavenly mountain breeze. The pot smokers had finally left the campground and the air was finally fresh and clear and I could even hear the occasional songbird in the trees above me. The trees. God, the trees and their innumerable mass of lush greenery! Except I worry about the trees. In the maple above me I couldn’t point out a single leaf that was not riddled with black spots. I am insanely curious about what a hemlock looks like. The state park websites warn against bringing firewood from out-of-state because they are trying to control a blight affecting mountain ash. I hear the dogwoods are even disappearing.
So what of the trees? Why do they need to bother me?
Our last night at the campground was COLD, and the chill lingered in the morning, though it was mostly clear of fog and in every direction it was blue, blue, blue. Blue misty mountains with fog rising up in patches like downy blankets for angels. Blue sky melting into hazy blue clouds. Everything was translucent and blue as we drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway towards town.
We’d just driven through a series of tunnels along the parkway when, “Bear! Bear! I saw a bear!” McCrae and I both pointed at it excitedly. It was a small, young-looking black bear munching on some wildflowers along the side of the road. I didn’t get any pictures, but then aren’t you glad we weren’t THOSE PEOPLE who loiter and heckle the bears just for a few pictures? (Okay, okay, you’re right – the only reason we didn’t do that was because we drove past it too fast and there was no overlook or place to turn around and go back for more than a mile). But I did take sick pleasure when we passed cyclists laboring up the mountain and realized they would be in for a nasty surprise that morning.
When we got back to Durham I was tired early in the evening even though I only sat in a car instead of hiked that day, but that’s what happens when you start to adjust to a schedule based on the rising and setting of the sun. It’s amazing how easily our bodies adjust to the sun’s cycle when we are removed from electric lights, cellphones and online toys. I was unwilling to end the weekend adventure, but I reassured myself with dreaming about my next trip – no, for my next ANYTHING. Because those are the adventures and the moments that make us come alive, and whatever I did that weekend - all the good mixed in with the bad - I need to replicate that as often as possible, and just maybe I’ll find my moment away from “it all.”
That’s really all I want.