Sometimes a wild ache falls upon me and I find myself compelled to go, just go. Such was the case in late September when McCrae and I packed up our gear and our dog into the little Mazda hatchback and headed west to the Balsam Mountains near Asheville. One weekend after another had become booked up so that we were afraid our October schedules would be impossibly full and we would miss the fall foliage entirely unless we went immediately. We didn’t hesitate, and it was suddenly that easy to leave for a few days.
The road trip to Sam Knob and Little Sam Knob was familiar, since it was just down the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mount Pisgah. It was comforting to enter a swath of wild land that I knew peripherally, eager to explore in greater detail: like new friends, we were just past the awkward acquaintance and ready to sit down intimately over coffee and probe for greater understanding. Traffic was not bad, and we only paused once while a line of cars sat along the parkway to gawk at a bear cub. It looked so small, snuffling through the greens in the ditch by the road, oblivious to my childish shrieks of "A bear! A bear! Oh look, a bear!" and the score of people snapping photos on their phones. Only as we passed did I realize it was bigger than Ryder, and I wondered if it was the same bear we saw on our trip to Mount Pisgah, but there wasn't enough time to consider it fully before we were driving past it and onward.
The road off the parkway towards the Shining Rock parking lot and trailhead was gutted and rough and made me wish for a heartier vehicle than a tame hatchback, but we made it despite the scrapes and bottom-outs. From the parking lot it was tempting to lemming along to Shining Rock itself, but just as the backpacking guidebook I carried suggested, we instead turned north, past the privy and toward the balds.
We initially followed a rutted track that cut through an open meadow with a wide spread of daisies, goldenrod, Joe-pye weed and other asters and greens. We had arrived fairly late in the day, but fortunately it was a short trip to the top of Sam Knob and the late afternoon sun accentuated the beauty of the open mountains. The vistas encouraged frequent breaks and photos, so it took longer than necessary to make it to the peak, but those views! Little Sam Knob with its two-toned profile was easily visible from the Sam Knob Summit Trail, while ridges farther in the distance were a picture-perfect Blue Ridge Mountains blue. Here and there shone bright quartz, the formations that made nearby Shining Rock Wilderness such a popular destination, and everywhere a profusion of wildflowers gave color to a landscape deepening into autumnal gold from a dark, tired summer green.
The summit of Sam Knob was breathtaking. We arrived shortly before sunset, with plenty of time to set up the tent, cook dinner, enjoy the view and get settled while day hikers lingered on the saddle-shaped peak. I hitched Ryder to an ash (as one of the few trees on the bald it was stunted and twisted) and let him worry over a rawhide while McCrae and I explored and set up camp.
No one quite knows what created the balds of the Southern Appalachians, though some have theorized the balds were purposefully cleared by native tribes, or have always been kept clear by grazing animals since the Pleistocene epoch (re: the peak of the last ice age circa 20,000 years ago), or were more recently cleared by European settlers. Regardless of their cause, balds have long been valued for their amazing views without the harshness of true alpine zones, although many such balds are at risk from encroaching flora and the exposed elevation guarantee some inherently harsher conditions than the surrounding peaks. For example, the summit of Sam Knob may have offered fabulous views, but I also rued not having a bear canister since there were no branches upon which to throw a bear bag. No matter. I would just have to keep the olfactory-stimulating stuffs well away from camp.
A flat area flush against some thick, low brush and ringed by goldenrod offered some shelter from potential wind gusting up the exposed bald, and it was relatively easy to get the tent set up. A level rock outcropping soon became our granite countertop for our backcountry kitchen as we set water to boil on the little Snowpeak stove. The rock lurched down to a steep drop and hid small patches of reindeer moss and sphagnum moss, as well as the rare Balsam Mountain Gentian. Trails snaked through the surrounding brambles and brush, and left me wondering what sort of creatures frequented the peak. I thought back to the bear we saw on the side of the parkway, and tried to convince myself that it would have no reason to come up the bald for the night. All the same I decided to bring Ryder into the tent that night.
After a warm dinner of beans and tortillas, I spent most of the evening gaping at the sunset and scrabbling from one rock ledge to another, hunting for bigger and better views, each success whetting my desire for more. We are greedy when it comes to Nature, never content when we find that next great thing. We somehow insist that since such great beauty exists, then something even better must be out there, and so we search insatiably and impatiently. Why? Because Nature delivers. Maybe not every time, but just as a gambling addict takes risk for that slim chance of reward, we seek out that greater view just beyond our current horizon. And with that small chance of the most profound rewards, I have become hopelessly addicted to the search.
Sunset seemed to go on for ages as the last light left fingers of liquid gold pointing up between the distant ridges, but finally the dark and the wind drove us off the rock ledges and into the warmth of our sleeping bags and tent. Ryder insisted on curling up on my feet rather than on his own camp bed, and I spent some significant time fretting that his claws would puncture yet another expensive air mattress. I buried my hands in the warm pits of the bag to try to keep the chill out of my fingertips, and wedged my feet under his warm little body, and waited for the long howl of night to set in.